Posts

My girlfriend and I were at a subterranean restaurant in the industrial port-city of Catania, Sicily. Cargo ships filled the harbor, shops sold horse-meat kebabs out of their doorways, and salt water flowed from the faucets. Ever since we’d landed in Sicily, the atmosphere had been one of fine suits, cigarettes, and Alfa Romeos. And this little restaurant, with its proud display of freshly caught fish, eels, prawns, and calamari sitting on ice chips beside the entrance, felt straight out of The Godfather.

The host seated two men at the table beside us, and a flurry of glasses, plates, and wine bottles followed. They were definitely getting better service than we were. The waiters brought course after course, some brimming with squid ink, others lightly fried like tempura. As far as we could tell, the two men hadn’t said one word to the wait staff.

Our tables were close together, and I overheard bits and pieces of their conversation. It involved buying properties across the globe and shipments between Sicily and Brooklyn, but I couldn’t catch the details. They kept switching from Italian to English as though they were trying to hide something. My ears perked up when I heard something about tax evasion in Buenos Aires. “Big Tony’s been doin’ it for years,” one of the men said. When they mentioned Big Tony again, Kristin kicked me under the table. A shiver ran down my spine: Could we be sitting beside two members of Cosa Nostra, the local version of the Mafia? I was horrified and enthralled. Don’t tick these boys off, I thought, or you’ll be sleepin’ with the next night’s dinner.

A street band began playing Italian classics. They played very loud and very fast. After a particularly intense version of “Mambo Italiano,” the little band asked for tips. I only had a five, and I wasn’t going to give it to them. A sharp glance from one of the Mafiosi got the musicians to leave us in peace. I looked over at the guy, and my eyes accidently made contact. After tipping the musician, he turned toward me.

“Hello,” he said in his Brooklyn accent. “We’re chiropractuhs.”

I pictured bones breaking; it had to be a cover. Their names were Freddie and Alfonso. The conversation rattled on, but they didn’t seem too interested. Then, to my surprise, they invited us for an after-dinner drink. At first, it seemed like a bad idea. But curiosity got the better of me.

Freddie and Alfonso went out to smoke, and I tried to get the waiter’s attention. The waiter took forever, and by the time we paid, Freddie and Alfonso had finished their cigarettes and were standing a ways down the street. As we headed toward them, a car squealed into view. It headed straight for us going at a ridiculous speed. The guys grew tense. The car screeched to a stop, and a massive man with a shaved head emerged from the driver’s seat.

He spoke heatedly with Freddie, who spoke just as heatedly back. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I saw Freddie and Alfonso reach for the car’s door handles.

“We’ve got to go take care of something real quick,” said Freddie over his shoulder, and just before he ducked into the passenger seat, “Meet us at the Woxy. It’s straight up the street.”

The car departed as it quickly as it had arrived, wheels squealing.

The Woxy? The Italians don’t even use the letter w, and they hardly use the x. “I think they have some business to attend to, if you know what I mean,” I said. We laughed, partly out of nervousness, partly out of relief.

“They were clearly trying to get rid of us,” said Kristin. “The Roxy’s famous. Maybe that’s the first club that came to mind.”

We made a perfunctory search for “the Woxy” without success, then bought a couple beers and wandered the cobblestone streets of the old town. We tried to guess where they had rushed off to, coming up with a handful of unreasonable explanations. Then, on our way back to the hotel, we saw Freddie leaning out of a parked car.

“Yo guys, you find the bar?”

“No,” I said, stunned. “Are you heading that way?”

“Yeah, it’s straight up the street,” said Freddie. “Alfonso had to go home, but my cousin and I were just on our way there.”

The Woxy really does exist. It’s an Irish Pub in Piazza Spirito Santo. When Freddie arrived, something about his demeanor had changed. He was way more relaxed. His cousin was not the big guy from the getaway car. His name was Marco, and he was a laid-back guy with long hair and torn jeans. He was friendly but didn’t speak English. Freddie started to talk about the woman he was going to marry, who lived in Ft. Lauderdale. That’s when I realized that we’d been totally wrong: Freddie actually was a chiropractor.

“Have you ever heard of Ideal Spine? It’s this genius new way of mapping out the geometric structure of each individual vertebra. You should check it out. W-W-W dot ideal spine dot com. He’s the new way of chiropractory. Nothing this big has happened in the field since the seventies.”

As I listened to Freddie go on about being a chiropractor and about the girl he loves and how nervous he was about asking her to be his wife, I realized that this—what I’d been viewing as my Adventure with the Mafia—was all in my head. I’d taken my preconceived notions of Sicily and slapped them straight onto Freddie and Alfonso. How could I have thought that this chiropractor from Brooklyn could be a Mafioso? I have no idea. But I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t.

After the drinks, we left the bar and Freddie and his cousin took us to a long set of steps packed with people drinking and smoking. There, we learned why Freddie’s demeanor had seemed to relax.

“You want to smoke some weed?” he asked.

On the steps, surrounded by the nightlife of Catania, we told Freddie that our next stop would be Taormina. He called the city “paralyzingly beautiful,” and his cousin nodded in agreement. Freddie recommended a restaurant.

“If you go,” he said, “tell Nino Freddie sends his respect.”

For more writing and photos by Mattie Bamman, the Ravenous Traveler, check out www.europeupclose.com

Arrival at the Discovery Coast (photo: Mark Malby)

It was on the eleventh day of our journey that I found the lagoon. South of Bella Bella, on a rugged coast midway-way between Vancouver and the Alaskan border, and so far off the beaten sea-track that we hadn’t seen a fishing boat or a seaplane in a week. Even the radio stations had faded until only a lone weather beacon remained, compliments of a lighthouse some hundred miles to the north.

There were four of us on the voyage, paddling our kayak convoy south along British Columbia’s storied “Discovery Coast” – Matt, a weathered New Zealander with a physiotherapy practice in Vancouver, his girlfriend, Anne, a lithe musician who had stowed both a flute and a French horn in the belly of their double-kayak, their friend Dave, a gaunt, red-haired giant of indeterminate occupation, and myself, a school-teacher basking in the relief of summer holidays.

The four of us made a motley but workable crew as we map-read, GPS’ed, and bladed our way through narrow inlets and across rough passages, avoiding bears and breaching humpback whales where possible, seeking the rare jewels of fresh-water springs and dry campsites, and generally meandering our way through a serrated world that looked straight from a Tolkien novel. It was all perfect, and perfectly surreal – except for the food.

Travelling by kayak along remote coastlines, you don’t get much in the way of gourmet takeaway. Weeks of canned and freeze-dried rations were enough to dull even the most tolerant palate. There are only so many ways to get creative with pasta, tunafish, baked beans, and powerbars – and we’d run out of ideas. It was at this gustatory nadir of the journey that I found the lagoon which was to provide so much bounty.

Taking a break from kayaking on the white shell beaches. (photo: Mark Malby)

That afternoon I had been scouting for a pass between long, narrow islands which – according to the map – would provide the next day’s shortcut to the outer coast beyond. We’d had a hard paddle against the wind all morning and the others had stopped to recharge the fresh-water tanks while I went ahead to plot the next course change. I had just rounded a corner and negotiated some standing waves from a rip-tide when I saw it. Off to starboard, a wide, shallow bay with the kind of turquoise water and white sand you expect to find only on Caribbean travel posters. It was perfect.

I turned and paddled in at once, glad for a break from my mission as I let my boat drift soundlessly over the placid water. The sun came out, breathing a deep copper-green to the bay, and the sands grew almost blinding white, and I was beautifully alone in the world. Or so I thought.

Then I noticed that the pale swimming-pool-sized bottom of the lagoon was full of frisbee-sized shapes. Red rock crabs. They were everywhere, mottling the sand in slow-moving ovals. There must have been hundreds.

Without thinking, I reached down through two feet of water, grabbed one with my neoprene-gloved hand and scooped it up – a huge red-rock crab the size of a dinner plate – a snapping, mature crab, the kind you would pay $20 for if you bought it at Safeway or a Granville island fish stall.

I soon realized that even neoprene gloves wouldn’t save the bones of my fingers from those crushing claws, so I grabbed some socks from behind my seat and neatly wrapped the claws shut. Then I strapped it beneath the bungee cord of my deck and made a U-turn back to the others, all thoughts of my scouting mission abandoned.

“Crab dinner tonight!” was the first thing I shouted as I came into view. “Anyone interested?”

They were.

I told them about the lagoon and my plan to return with reinforcements and enough duct tape to capture four more of the beasts. The thrill of a gourmet feast in camp that night was electric.

And so Operation Crab Hunt was born. Dave offered to go with me and, despite the uneasy looks he kept giving those garden-shear sized pincers, volunteered to be the one to duct-tape the claws together while I held the crabs. Anne provided us with a thick burlap bag to hold the spoils.

The Crab Hunt was perhaps the freest, most absurd adventure I’ve ever known. Back at the lagoon we stepped out of our boats to properly face our quarry. Armed with my thick gloves and neoprene boots, I splashed through the shallow lagoon, diving suddenly at a bright red oval, dexterously avoiding the wicked claws and shouting happy curses at their strength and rage:  “You bastard!  You fucker! This one is the mother of all crabs!” and so forth.

Some escaped our lunges, while others defended themselves ably, but in the end five of the biggest crabs from the lagoon were trussed and strapped to the boats. The burlap bag had somehow gone missing during the fray.

We were just starting to head back to the others – who were by now preparing the campsite and boiling pots of water – when one of the more intrepid captives broke free of its bonds and expertly dropped into the cockpit of Dave’s boat. (For those less familiar with kayaks, the cockpit is the cavity which holds your body inside the boat.) I’ve never seen a human being move so fast as Dave did, scrambling out of the boat in an effort to protect his nether-regions. Fortunately his kayak stayed upright, and we managed to retrieve the errant arthropod before any lasting injury was done.

That night, sitting on a sandy beach and licking the last succulent crab meat from giant claws dipped in melted butter, the air filled with murmurs of deep praise: “Exquisite.”, “Sumptuous”, “A feast of kings”, “the best goddamned crab I’ve ever eaten.”

And it was. It was a meal I’ll never forget, there on a remote beach surrounded by windswept islands and a darkening sea. I’ve never since tasted seafood so pure or a moment so authentic since. As dinners go, it was perhaps the most memorable of my life.

Plotting the day’s journey on a north coast morning (photo: Mark Malby)

 

Eiffel Tower

photo by Patricia GW

I was deposited at the Chatelet metro station with my large backpack sagging on my shoulders, wearing a straw cowboy hat that read “Je t’aime Charles de Gaulle Aeroports.” My clothes were disheveled from a sleepless night across the Atlantic, and my look must have screamed AMERICAN TOURIST to the impeccably dressed French women who sniffed their noses as they passed me in their four-inch heels and flowery summer blouses. Welcome to Paris!

Chatelet station was a huge hub of eight metro and RER trains coming together in bustling, frantic jumble. I followed the signs toward Line 7, then turned around as another sign pointed me in the opposite direction. I wove through the underground maze of tunnels and moving conveyor belts that whisked me passed giant advertisements peeling in curled loops over the dark walls. As time wore on I thought I’d been transferred down into the catacombs, and at any moment I might find a skeleton lying beside the open water drains lining the walkway. A begging homeless man lurched at me from behind a curved wall and I dashed down the tunnel in fright.

Eventually I found my train and reached my new studette apartment in the Latin Quarter. In English, I confirmed with my French landlord that I was renting for the entire month of July, which I was spending in a writing workshop at the Paris American Academy. After I paid the rent, she gave me a map with the city’s tourist attractions highlighted in green. After classes, she explained, I could easily hop on the metro to see the sights. Me? Go back on the metro? I don’t think so! Right then I vowed to walk – and only walk – across Paris to get where I wanted to go.

In only a week, this promise was put to the test. Using Notre Dame as a marker, I was able to navigate my way around the City of Lights without too many hours wandering down unknown boulevards, asking for direction using the only words of French that I knew. One evening the writing workshop had an informal meet-up at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Champ de Mars – all the way on the other side of Paris!

Following the curve of the Seine, I walked the entire way from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower. Two hours later I arrived at the Champ de Mars, slightly late and exhausted. The writing group welcomed me with wine and cheese, and we read poetry until sunset, which this time of year meant 10 pm when the sky was lit on fire with an orange and yellow glow.

When we decided to head in, I realized that my apartment was too far to walk back to at night. I had to take the metro – but I didn’t even know where the nearest station was! Where was my transit map? Tipsy and worried, my new friends calmed me by linking arms and we all walked to the nearest station and descended its gritty steps. Everyone had a pass that they swiped through the gate and I felt self-conscious as I muddled around with the ticket machine in French, trying to purchase one-way fare while everyone waited for me. Finally, with my white ticket slip in hand, I joined the others and we rode off in the train.

It seemed at each station we said goodbye as another member of the group got off, until I was the only one left. I clutched my umbrella close to me – my weapon in case another Frenchman lurched at me – and reached the Jussieu stop.

As I ascended out of the underground, the antique streetlamps glowed down into the escalator shaft. I looked up at a large tree next to the steps, its leaves swaying in the wind and rustling over the sound of the screeching trains behind me. Every moment I rose higher and higher, until I reached the top and walked out in the cool night air with a smile. There, that wasn’t so bad was it? Maybe the metro wasn’t going to kill me after all.

The next morning, I stood in front of the entrance to Jussieu station. I grabbed the map my landlord had given me, and traced my fingers along the transit lines that could take me to Sacre Coeur, or the Louvre, or even Versailles! Clutching my umbrella for strength, I descended the dark steps into the metro, and all of Paris opened up to me.

I was at the end of my rope with China when I arrived in Chengdu. After two weeks of crowded cities, cheating taxi drivers, and shady tour guides I was beyond frustrated.

This wasn’t all China’s fault. I didn’t do my research and went at a peak time for domestic travel. Fatigue was also contributing to my state of dissatisfaction. I tried to see too much in too short a time; catching 16 hour train rides and all night buses for several days in a row. At the risk of stating the obvious, China can overwhelm you; there is just too much of it for one trip.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is famous for panda bears and hotpot, but I had other reasons for the visit. From Chengdu, I was going to travel to Tibet and then on to Nepal. I wanted to see Lhasa, of course, and also get out into the mountainous country side, and maybe even to the Everest base camp. I was going to the top of the world. My goal was shot down almost immediately.

“No, no, no, right now is impossible, impossible.” a young lady informed me.

Tibet was closed off to tourists due to recent protests and a heavy crackdown from Beijing. That sealed it for me.

“I’m done with China, just book me a ticket to Thailand. I’ve got to get out here.”

“Hey, did I hear you say you wanted to go to Tibet?” a voice said from a nearby table. “I think I have a good alternative.”

The voice belonged to a Fin named Mikko. It was an interesting voice, a fantastically unique accent in English—like someone smashed a Norwegian and a Russian together, stuffed them into Dolph Lundren’s little brother.

I quickly noticed a few oddities about my new acquaintance. First, he was a walking encyclopedia on all things Chinese—from History to Geography, he was prepared to dish out information about a place, at any time, whether you asked for it or not.

“Did you know that when the Mongols invaded this area, they killed over a million people?” he would say, which is interesting, if I weren’t in such a crab of mood about the whole country.

He also had an incredibly deep knowledge of idioms in English. Hearing him explain the origins of Tibetan Buddhism or the Analects of Confucius was interesting, but hearing Ivan Drago say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” was rather peculiar.

Mikko needed one other person to book the trek, and so he explained the options. We could book a horse trek up to Ice mountain. The mountain was (and still is) in the same chain as the Himalayas, and the trek would be led by Tibetan guides. It was Mikko’s feeling that we could get a better experience of Tibetan culture this way, since, at the moment, Tibet was impossible to get to.

“I don’t know. It sounds good, but I’m looking to head out of here. How many days would it be?”

“Oh, it varies, from 2 days to 2 months.”

“Have you ever ridden a horse?” I asked.

“No, well, once when I was 7. Let’s do 8 days.”

I wasn’t sure what I thought of the old boy just yet. He was big enough to be intimidating, so I listened to what he had to say, but I knew if we were on a trek up in the mountains I couldn’t just accidentally lose him in a crowd. However, Mark Twain once wrote, “there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” So I went for a compromise.

“You haven’t been on a horse in over 20 years, and you want to be on one for eight straight days? Come on, let’s do four, and see how that goes.”

He agreed, so we signed up and paid the money.

We caught the bus at 6am the next morning. The ride, we were told, would take between 8 and 10 hours. I had stayed up nearly the whole night, with the hope of being unconscious for most of that time—any way to avoid a history lesson from little Dolph. The driver, as it turns out, had other plans.

We were up early, first in line, and were sat right in the first row, over looking the driver and the gigantic windows.

“Ah, this is great. Perfect seats,” Mikko said, “the early bird gets the worm, aye?”

I propped my feet up and prepared for a snooze.

Sleep hadn’t completely taken hold when we pulled up to the traffic light outside the city. When the light turned green, the driver morphed into a Rally car driver; handling the bus up and down mountain roads, passing slower vehicles, and around livestock traffic jams with the skill of a champion racer.

When your holding on for dear life, conversation is limited, but we managed a few utterances.

“I’ve got to get out of this country, I said, I think it’s killing me!”

“Oh, no , You should stay a while, I’m heading down to Yunnan, it’s…”

“OH S—, watch out for that YAK.”

The passengers held on to anything stable, while the driver turned and gassed and braked—all while simultaneously downing pints of green tea and chain smoking Chinese cigarettes. The bus ride was said to take between 8 and 10 hours—we made it in 7 hours and 7 minutes.

I got off the bus in Songpan, dazed, and looking for the nearest place to pass out. Mikko jumped off the bus, gave the driver a high five, and came my way.

“Let’s go check this town out!”

“What about our stuff?”

“Oh, let’s just carry it, it’ll be fine, it’s not a big town.”

And he was right. Songpan isn’t a big town, but it is a bustling one. The streets are filled with motorbikes, carts, cars, horses, and tour buses. Souvenir shops, cafes, and trekking companies line the main-street all the way down to the ancient city walls, where a nice new Statue sits.

“So, Songpan was founded around 618 AD by the Tang dynasty, and rebuilt by the Ming dynasty and used as a military outpost.” Mikko started.

“That doesn’t mean much to me, I don’t know any of the dynasties.”

“Oh, right, right, well, the Tang dynasty is…and the Ming, well, you’ve been to Beijing, they commissioned the Forbidden City. That statue is of a Tibetan King and his Chinese Wife, I guess it’s supposed to represent the bond between Tibet and China ”

That didn’t clear much up for me at the time, but I did appreciate the effort. And I found that last bit interesting, considering the bond between Tibet and China is the reason I ended up in Songpan in the first place.

Mikko went on and on like that until we’d covered the town, and he’d had enough. “Let’s hit the hay.” he finally said.

“You got it man, I’ve been ready for that since 6 am.”

We stayed at one of the nearby Hotels, and woke early the next morning. We met up with our group around 6:30. It was a good mix of people; China, Japan, Australia, France, Canada, Germany, America, and, of course, Finland were all represented.

We packed up the horses, headed out of town, and up the mountain path. The trail was steep and the ride not terribly comfortable. The saddle and stirrups were not for handling those above five feet. A few griped, but all continued onward.

The first hour was spent getting away from the Town, and was not very scenic. After that hour the land opened up to mountains in all directions.

“This reminds me of Montana.” Mikko said.

“What? You’ve been to Montana?”

“No, ha, just pulling your leg, but I did see it in a movie, and this is what it looked like.”

“Fair enough.”

As we continued, the path continued—steeper, wetter, and rockier. And although I wasn’t at ease on the tiny horse, I was impressed with it’s stamina. That feeling was short lived.

We came up on a shallow creek and all started across, with the exception of Mikko’s horse. This horse decided a bath would a better choice. It circled around an open area in the creek, like a dog trying to get comfortable in its bed—and then laid out full body in the water, with Mikko still on-board.

Mikko went headlong into the water, and came up grinning. He was laughing, he loved it.

“Oh, whoa, that’s cold. What’s that one about beating the dead horse?”

“I don’t know if that one fits here, but take it.”

For a serious looking person, this Mikko was sort of entertaining. The trip was starting to turn around, and for the first time in two weeks I was beginning to enjoy myself.

The trek went on, with a slightly soggy Mikko, for another 3 hours. On the way we passed the sun worn faces of Tibetan farmers, working their Yaks through creek beds and up the mountain trail. We passed colorful prayer flags, that were strung along the ridge, and stones, called Mani Stones, with Tibetan mantras inscribed on them.

Around 5pm we came up to an open field, surrounded by steep hills, and divided in two by a shallow stream—one side was to be our base camp. A villager had set up a small wagon with goods for sale on the other.

The guides set about setting up, and several of the travelers explored the surrounding hills. Mikko and I tried to help set up camp. Steve, one of the Americans, and one guide set off for the wagon. They returned with all the beer the villager had to offer…and a goat.

“Alright, the beer’s on me, but everybody throw in 100 yuan for this goat.” he said.

This was my first transaction involving any type of livestock, so 100 yuan sounded reasonable.

”What’ll we call it?” some asked.

“Oy dunno, Whatcha reckon we call it ‘Wanfan.’” Australian George responded.

“Great, what’s that mean?”

“Dinner!”

We drank the beer and watched, some what amazed, as the guides slaughtered, skinned, and skewered the goat–all in about 20 minutes, and then roasted the thing over a fire.

The meat cooked for an hour or so. They covered it with salt and spices, cut squares into the sides, and we ate the freshest and finest goat meat I’ve ever had. Actually, come to think of it, that is the only goat meat I’ve ever had.

The next morning we awoke to the sound of screams and laughter. We popped out of our canvas shelter to find our guide yelping and hooting and chasing our horses all around the open field. “Looks like the horses are on the loose.” Mikko uttered.

Apparently tying the horses up at the end of the day was left off of his to-do list. The rest of the guides were sitting by the fire, drinking tea and laughing at our young friends foul up.

By the time he had found all his horses, we had eaten and were ready to ride out. We took a dusty country road, through small villages with stone shingled rooftops until we reached the mountain trail that would take us all the way to the base of Ice Mountain.

Ice Mountain, was bit anti-climactic. It wasn’t bad, but, because of our late start, the clouds had rolled in and visibility was limited. At that height, movement can become stagger. Only professionals and the hard core mountain climber could continue on. We hung around a while, taking pictures, and headed back to camp.

That night, we ate a less spectacular meal of stewed cabbage and mutton. The sky had cleared and the stars were bright. It was strange to be in a group of so many, with so many different experiences to share, only to stay completely silent staring out at the sky. No one even touched a beer.

When the sun came up the next day we packed up and prepared for one more grueling day on the horses. I was feeling fatigued from the altitude, sore from from the ride, and not really dying for another full day of trekking.

“OK, We go back to Songpan,” one of the guides announced. “What’s that?” Mikko exclaimed. “We paid for a 4 day trek.”

I kept my mouth shut.

The guides hadn’t counted on this. They looked confused. So, they huddled, discussed, and came back with a solution. Our rookie horse guide would guide us the rest of the time, alone, all the way to his house.

We parted ways with rest, exchanged contact info, and headed to the house. We pulled into his place. It was like a compact farm, complete with crops, a stable, goats, and a dog. The guide’s wife greeted us with stare of confusion, that quickly faded into a welcoming smile. Their rosy cheeked child just stared.

The guide showed us to the common area, which was underground and cool, a relief from the hot sun. We drank tea and relaxed as he went out to unpack the horses.

It was not long after the guide stepped out that we were visited by the younger brother and his friend. They were coming back from the temple and dressed in the robes of young monks.

We attempted to communicate using English and Mandarin as best we could manage. The Tibetan is as indistinguishable to Mandarin Chinese as French is to Romanian, but with the help of hand gestures and facial expressions, we got by fine.

They explained that our guide, despite having a house, a wife, a son, several horses, a small farm, and the forearms of an arm-wrestler, had only just turned 22 years old. His wife was 23 and the baby 2. And that he and the other brothers had built the house—on their own.

He came back after 30 minutes and showed us the area. He took us to a small road-side temple, and on to a small cave. Pray cards littered the cave floor. We climbed down until we arrived at tiny crack in the wall.

After some communicative effort, we came to the understanding that we could continue on this path, underground, all the way down into the valley and back up the other side of the neighboring mountain, in less than a day…if we weren’t so fat.

We went back to the house and explored the rest of it. It was a rather spacious house. There were several stories. The rooms were simple and devoid of anything from IKEA, Mikko noted. Mikko took this time to explaining more Chinese history.

“China’s claim on Tibet goes back to the Yuan Dynasty…”

“That doesn’t tell me anything, I’ve never heard of it.”

“Sure, you have. It’s the Mongolian Empire…you know Genghis Khan.”

“No kidding? That’s strange, isn’t it? Claiming land conquered by a foreign invader?”

“Not strange to Chinese. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is History, I guess.”

Dinner was animal fat, green beans, and several pints of yak butter tea, which I learned was a sort of delicacy. After dinner, we were led up a few flights of wooden stairs to the attic. Before he opened the door, he turned and winked like we were about to be in on the secret. It was a pray room. A picture of the Dali Lama dominating the area. The room smelled of incense and had an orange glow to it.

“Do you know who that is?” mikko asked.

“That’s the Dali Lama,” answering himself.

“You don’t say.”

“He is the leader of Tibet, but since the 50s he’s been living in India. China views him as a separatist, like a revolutionary.”

“Like Mao?”

“No, definitely not, if you put Mao’s picture up your house wouldn’t get raided by the police.”

“So it’s illegal to have his picture up like this?”

“Yeah, I think it’s fine out here because we’re in the middle of nowhere, but it could be bad news closer to Lhasa. That’s just what I’ve heard.”

We sat in the room a while, just sort of soaking in the experience. But the hour was getting late, so our guide showed us to a room where his wife had made pallets for us to sleep.

That morning, we loaded up and headed back to Songpan. The ride was short, and the goodbyes to the guide brief, but I had a great feeling of contentment. My trip that had started so hectic, had led to a fine horse trek and impromptu home-stay; complete with a constant stream of cultural information from an eccentric travel partner.

There were two buses leaving Songpan—an eight hour hell ride back to Chengdu or a 24 hour bus down to Yunnan.

“So, what’s your plan? Still heading to Thailand?” Mikko asked

“Eventually, but you never finished telling me about Yunnan.”

“That’s right. Did you know that Yunnan is China’s most biologically diverse province…”

“Nope, but tell me all about it. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”

The wall of rock in front of me seems to be moving.  How can this be? I swim closer and realize that I am not hallucinating from nitrogen narcosis. The movement is real, but it is not the rock.  It is a million tiny, navy blue fish which live on its surface.

I feel myself begin to float upward.  Slowly, I let the air out of my lungs.  Then when I am sure that they’re empty, I let out some more.  The ascending stops and I sink back down.  The amplified sound of my breath provides rhythm to my movements. I revel in the sensation of weightlessness. My plan to take advantage of Thailand’s fabulous diving opportunities is off to a good start.

I was a child when I first fell in love with the ocean.  It was 1977, our family’s second trip to Hawaii. We had made our first trip the year before because my father had won a sales contest.  We made the next trip because the first one was so great. Between times, my parents, brother and I all took classes to learn snorkeling and skin-diving.

Photo by Fah Rojvithee.

I remember seeing the colorful pictures in the book “Fishes of Hawaii” and thinking, “Yeah, but I’m not really going to see things like that.”  Eight years old and I already had a sense of cynicism, already knew that the reality would not live up to the advertisement.

Then I put my face in the water and discovered how wonderful it is to be wrong!

Wanting to see more of that marine wonderland was the motivation for learning to dive.  The ocean is truly another world (not to mention 70% of this one!).  It is a landscape shaped more by animals than plants.  They come in a myriad of colors- gold, turquoise, emerald and pink-  so bright that they would make neon jealous.

To my surprise, I’ve found the process of learning to dive to be rewarding in itself.  I like the skills it makes me cultivate. Diving is like yoga- it requires bringing awareness to body and breath. You have to resist the urge to flap your hands around. You use the amount of air you are holding in your lungs like the buttons on an elevator to go up or down, but it takes a few moments for the changes to take effect so you have to be patient.  Diving is willfully slowing down.

My advanced diving course was held at a place called Black Tip Resort on the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand.  I had chosen this place because it was a bit isolated and promised a tranquil environment far from the sex and drugs for which tourism in Thailand is also famous.  The resort was named for black tipped sharks which I saw none of in spite of going on six dives.  Now I had come to the town of Krabi on the other side of the Malay peninsula to check things out in the Andaman sea.  I chose Krabi rather than better-known town of Phuket because I thought it might be cheaper. Diving is, after all, a splurge.  Hotels and meals in Krabi were affordable and I especially enjoyed the night market with its cheap eats.

I went diving on December 26th. Thailand being a primarily Buddhist country, the day before had been uneventful, but today’s date was notable- exactly three years after the devastating tsunami had destroyed so many lives here. Today things were quiet.

“I want to see a shark,” I told the dive master, as if I could just order up what I wanted the ocean to deliver.  “I’ll see what I can do,” he said agreeably, then went on to explain that the place we were going to sometimes had leopard sharks and that if we were to see one, we should sit down on the bottom because they will leave if they see people swimming above them.

A giant step off the back of the boat and I was descending through the warm, clear water.  Immediately, as if wanting nothing more than to grant my wish, a leopard shark appeared in front of me.  Leopard sharks are four to five feet long, harmless to humans and beautiful with spotted skin that earns them their name. I tucked my fins behind me so as to not stir up any dust and sank down, kneeling on the sandy bottom.  The ever-so-accommodating shark came and sat in the sand right in front of me. I’m surprised my regulator didn’t fall out of my mouth from the grin on my face. It was thrilling.

My shark.

It wasn’t so different from that first time I went snorkeling as a eight-year-old.  Once again I was surprised and delighted.  Once again the ocean delivered more than I dared to expect.

Sometimes our best memories of travel are from being in the right place at the right time. Here, Candace remembers a new adventure on the east coast of New Zealand, all while overcoming an old fear.

Tikitiki on New Zealand's East Coast

Sam nudged me awake at a quarter to six. The sky was still dark and I fumbled blindly around for a sweatshirt. I followed him and Alex to the stable, where we collected the horses: Major, Daisy and Wai, the older mare I’d be riding. We mounted them quickly and set off.

We didn’t want to miss the sun.

I was in the middle of a month-long roadtrip around New Zealand’s North Island, and had just reached the remote East Coast, famously known as the first inhabited place in the world to see the sunrise. I was running behind, as so easily happens on the road when the best-laid plans of our itineraries go awry. The night before, I’d located Eastender Backpackers, one of only two hostels in the area.

Just inside the fence, five figures sporting cowboy hats were lounging around a fire pit when I arrived. Had I somehow stumbled upon the Wild East of New Zealand? I joined them as stars appeared above and made an off-handed remark that the only thing missing was a guitar. Miraculously, one was produced from inside the lodge. Acoustic strumming soon filled the air.

Tikitiki on New Zealand's East Coast

We slept outside, raiding the dormitories for thin mattresses and old duvets from which to build cocoons of warmth for ourselves. Sam donned a headlamp and cut a stock of firewood. We built piles in front of everyone, so that we could keep the fire going through the night without having to get up. I fell asleep tracing the four points of the Southern Cross.

The stars were gone in the morning, I noticed, my hips moving in sync with Wai’s steps. We reached the top of the cliff just in time to see the sun break over the horizon. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, just an endless ocean set ablaze, and the primeval cliffs glowing, distant hills shrouded in the early morning mist. We watched the sunrise on horseback, the moment augmented by the knowledge that we were the first in the world to witness it.

Tikitiki on New Zealand's East Coast

But our adventure didn’t end there. Sam headed down a path that seemed too steep to be safe until we leveled out on the gloriously deserted beach.

“You ready for this?” he asked me.

Truth was, I wasn’t. It’d been a long time–six years–since I’d last been on horseback. Much of this had to do with a college friend of mine who was paralysed from the waist down after being bucked by her horse. Unsettled by her accident, I hadn’t yet attempted to ride again.

And yet here I was, making Sam wait until I could shakily nod my head and pretend I wasn’t afraid. Sam edged Major up to me and Wai until we were side by side. Suddenly, he took off down the beach before I could manage to protest.

Wai was harder to get going. “Give her a kick!” Sam yelled out in front of me. I stood up in the saddle, digging my heels into her side, leaning forward like a jockey until I was flying. My fingers clutched Wai’s mane like the fear surging through my chest gripped my heart.

“C’mon, get into it!” Sam shouted, louder this time.

“Yah! Yah!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. Soon I was laughing, soaring through the surf on a cantering horse, imagining that I alone was responsible for ushering in the sun.

Sometimes, all it takes is giving our fears a little kick in the side…

Tikitiki on the East Coast of New Zealand

 

We were travelling Australia by four wheel drive – a trip which was the culmination of a dream I had had for many years, built upon the tales of a trip around Australia my father did back in his twenties.

Our steed was the legendarily rock solid Toyota Landcruiser 80 series – a vehicle which for many is the definitive off road companion. The challenge before us was to cross a river, the first body of water across a road we’d encountered in our trip so far.

Crossing a river is one of the riskiest endeavours possible in a four wheel drive. Water and engines don’t mix too well. And this being Australia’s Northern Territory, the water was likely to be filled with all sorts of deadly creatures, not least of which would be the saltwater crocodile, a fearsome man eating beast capable of growing to up to five metres in length.

Normally, one of the first things you’d do when pondering a river crossing would be to walk across the river and gauge the risk. In this case, being in croc infested territory, this wasn’t an option. Our only aid to the task before us was a little depth marker sitting in the water which indicated the river was 0.8 metres deep where the depth marker was. This wasn’t entirely reassuring.

At this point in our trip, our vehicle wasn’t fitted with a snorkel – a device which moves the air intake of the engine to a happy height just above the roof. If you’ve got water up to that point, you need more than a decent four wheel drive. Without a snorkel, 80 centimetres of water was the absolute maximum that we could risk driving through – any more and the engine might flood, with disastrous consequences.

Nor had we had the foresight to learn how to fit a “blind” – essentially a tarpaulin stretched across the front of the engine to help stop water from pouring in through the front vents. No – hugely prepared we were not. I had read a book on the subject of four wheel driving which had covered river crossings. Theory was about to become practice.

Our only alternative to crossing the river was a massive back track, back along the four wheel drive track we had just spent a couple of days driving through. The far side of the river was home to a main road, which could blast us up to Darwin in barely any time at all.

We couldn’t handle the thought of defeat and so we decided to press on.

I engaged the low gear ratio, and set the hand throttle to a steady pace. Using the accelerator in a river crossing isn’t usually advisable – a bump in the riverbed could cause your foot to slip with a potentially catastrophic loss of speed.

We nosed our way down the river bank and into the river. The water rose to the top of the tyres. We had already measured these as being seventy centimetres in height – we only had ten centimetres to play with. But we were committed now – no turning back.

The secret was to keep a steady pace, to stay just behind the “bow wave” that the vehicle created.

The engine fan, which we later learnt we should have disabled, was quickly immersed in the water. This resulted in water being sprayed out of the top of the bonnet. This was deeply unnerving stuff. And the river was at least twenty metres wide – we prayed there were no hidden holes.

The tension was nail biting. But our steed was more than up to the challenge. Her wheels bit the riverbed firmly, and she conveyed us with dignity. There were no hidden surprises, we didn’t meet any sleeping crocs, and we emerged at the far side, dripping and triumphant. Our first river crossing of many to come.

Shortly after this river crossing we fitted our vehicle with a snorkel and learnt how to fit a blind. We also adopted a new river crossing tactic – to wait until someone else gave it a go before heading in ourselves to get an idea of the depth and hidden risks ahead. Faced with the same challenge today, and knowing what I know now, I’m not sure I’d still take the risk we took that day. But it was a hell of a ride.

About the author: Laurence is the author of Finding the Universe, a travel/photo blog detailing his ongoing journey, started in June 2009.