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Patria o Muerte

In March of 2013 I went on a 3 week trip to Cuba. It’s tough to properly articulate how I felt about an experience that provided as many highs as it did lows. When I’ve been asked about the trip, words have never been able to do justice to how unique of an experience it was.

I’ll start by providing a few pictures from my trip (taken by a disposable camera). In the following posts I’ll add a story or two I wrote during my time on the island. Eventually I’ll give a little more detail on the overall experience.

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In this video I say coup de grâce at one point, I meant pièce de résistance. I don’t speak a word of French (as you can tell) thus causing the mix up. Anyway, the video is fairly self explanatory. I might post pictures from this trip and from Cuba (maybe even some writing and musings) in the near future. Stay tuned!

*As always sorry about the wind, kind of a trademark in my little videos.

 

Fin

I fear nothing more than going home. I’m terrified. Assimilation back to American culture is going to be terribly difficult. Considering it’s a culture I never understood from the start makes me wonder why I’m so keen on returning to the United States.

It’s strange to stay, but what reason do I have for going back? What’s there for me in the hills of the east bay, waiting to surprise and sweep me off my feet? Sadly, nobody has that answer. I sure as hell don’t. The only answer I have is to the question, why did I leave?

For most of my adult life happiness has been hard to come by. I did many things I’m not proud of and made many painful mistakes before realizing I had to change the status quo.

I originally left because I was running. The pain from personal mistakes set by the catalyst of my parent’s divorce allowed me to run. I ran fast and I ran far but I could never have run far enough. I could have gone to the deepest, darkest corner of the earth and would still have been stuck with the one person I was trying to outrun. Still I ran. I looked back for a second and before I knew it I was flat on my face.

It’s hard to believe but waking up in a South Korean police station with a shattered hand was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I often think that one day I’ll run into someone who was there that night. That someone will be able to tell me what happened, how I’m the most disgraceful person they’ve ever met and how I should be ashamed of what I did. I might fear that confrontation more than going home. It’s why I’ve changed my appearance so much. I fear I’ll be recognized by one of the five people who can tell me what happened.

I never want to know what happened. I want to live with that fear.

Breaking my hand forced me to stop running and evaluate what I was running from. It allowed me to realize it wasn’t the environment that pushed me to make bad choices but something inside myself I didn’t understand. For so long I thought I knew what was best for me, that I could take care of any obstacle in my way but looking at a useless blue hand brought to light a painful truth.

I realized I was a stranger to myself. Part of me was crying out in pain and anger and the other part had to live in shame and sadness due to the consequences of those actions. This wasn’t a completely unique idea but was the first time I had to face the grave consequences of what I had done. I felt I no longer knew who I was.

For two months of rehabilitation I contemplated continuing my trip, leaving again to catch up where I had left off. I knew I couldn’t stay at home but my trip had to have a new purpose, a new direction, and a new goal. I resolved that by learning about other people, other cultures I could better understand myself. If my fear was rooted in feeling alone in this world I would do my best to connect on levels far deeper than I had  in my previous travels.

I landed in Vietnam and before I knew it was comfortably settled on the road. I went through Thailand and marked my body in a ritual that balanced out the weight of the terrible scars I’ll always carry. I went through India and found beauty in the unexpected. I went through Israel and then to Palestine, learning that a friendly smile has equal value regardless of  which side of the wall it comes from. I went through Erie and was treated with beautiful hospitality without mind to artificial borders. I went through England and learned how truly unifying a pint can be. I went though Portugal and left with amazing friends regardless of a difference in sexual preference. I went through Peru and learned the true meaning of hospitality and kindness. I went through Ecuador and was welcomed with open arms. I went to Colombia and finally found myself.

I don’t think people ever truly change. I’m still the person I was before I left, before I broke my hand, before I went to college. While numerous events have helped shape and form the man I now am, I can’t say I’m entirely different from how I’ve ever been. I’m still egotistic, arrogant, and terribly stubborn. I’ve simply learned how to make the same mistakes less often. I plan to grow further, learn more about others, about myself. It’s a work in progress and I hope that’s the way it’ll always be.

I don’t know why I’m going home. Maybe I don’t need a single answer. In this moment I’m happy. I’ve been mended by a shattered hand. I’ve found myself after being so terribly lost. I’m going home to beautiful friends and family.

After all this rambling, those sound like good enough reasons to me.

A torrid pace has slowed to a crawl as I have now reached my final stop before California. The whirlwind that was the end of my time in Colombia and several weeks in Venezuela was a beautiful end to a beautiful year of travel. Keeping in tune with the rest of this blog, a recap is in order but a little note first!

Though it won’t officially be a year until a few days before leaving Costa Rica, I deem myself done with rambling. The final 2 plus weeks here is more of a stop gap and adjustment period to prepare for the culture shock I’ll be facing back home.

In two days I’ll see my brother Scott who, funny enough, I left last December not speaking to. Distance makes the heart grow fonder and thus old wounds have healed due to lack of proximity and the inability to cause new ones.

I love my brother dearly with his kind soul and adventurous heart, he is one of my best friends, but preparing for him is on the slate as well. Luckily we have about two weeks to spend in a tropical paradise, it should be a low stress environment for us. Rambling as I know it might be done, but a new beautiful adventure awaits.

On to favorites and whatnot!

(Speaking of my brother…)

Favorite unexpected visitor: As I crossed into Colombia, I received an e-mail from a rather unexpected place. From all the way up in Seattle, I was contacted by the mother of one of my brother’s best childhood friends, a lovely woman named Cindy. Though Lauren and Scott’s days of running around naked together (a story both my mother and Cindy share with laughs and smiles) ended when I was mere six years old, references to Lauren have popped up randomly throughout my life.

Through the power of the internet, Cindy knew I’d be in Colombia and was wondering if we could meet sometime during the span of a trip she was taking for a friend’s birthday. She sent me the itinerary of where they’d be and luckily were able to make it work, meeting on Colombia’s northern coast in the unbearably hot town of Santa Marta.

We got together at the beautiful Casa Verde Hostel, owned by a man named Tom, Cindy’s friend who orchestrated the trip and who was having quite the 2 week birthday party. I was graciously welcomed by her colorful cast of companions, mostly the family of Tom’s wife as well as Cindy’s husband Mark.

We went out for a wonderful dinner in the lively downtown of Santa Marta. Cindy told me of her action packed two weeks complete with a private tour of a massive sugar cane plantation, a fully catered lunch while looking over the city of Cali, a night out in Bogotá at the biggest club in the Americas, and down time at a beautiful hacienda in the lush Colombian countryside. A pretty good way to spend vacation time in my opinion, augmented by the fact her and Mark had an incredibly friendly and lively group of locals to take it all in with.

The following day we met up again and toured the city for a while before having a very nice lunch and a short walk along the beach. Cindy provided a much-needed open ear as I was able to talk about home with someone who understood the cast of characters I was discussing. In Cindy I not only had a taste of home for the first time in over 9 months, but a new friend. Someone with whom I could not only share this new phase of my life but one who has seen a piece of the world that helped lead me to where I am now.

It was a beautifully unexpected visit.

Taken by the studly Mark

Shout out to the Bay: I’ve been going to sporting events in the Bay Area as far back as I can remember. As avid sports fans, both my Grandma Joyce and my Father have instilled a sense of love and pride in me for the teams from the area I was born in. My Grandma taught me to love Joe Montana, hate Barry Bonds, and that one should never, ever leave before the end of the game (something Scott and I forced her to do when we were youngins).

I root for every team in the Bay Area wholeheartedly (minus the Raiders, I wish them well). Though I’d say for most my life I’ve leaned a bit more to the A’s, watching the success of the Giants over the last few years has been a thing of beauty. Going to games with my father has been a very important part of my life and for me, very few activities beat a beautiful day in SF watching a ball game with my old man.

In Colombia I adjusted my travel schedule around the playoffs and was able to watch almost every game in the Giants historic run to a second World Series title in a mere three years. Watching baseball over fully immersing myself in the country I’m travelling might look bad in the eyes of some but the truth is, just because I’m on the road doesn’t mean I stop loving something that has been a part of me since childhood.

P.S. Going to Venezuela was largely dictated by the fact that the World Series MVP, Pablo Sandoval, is Venezuelan.

P.P.S. Why the hell isn’t there going to be hockey when I get back?

P.P.P.S. In Harbaugh I trust.

P.P.P.P.S. Do you root for anyone in sports harder than Buster Posey? Seriously what a class act. MVP after that nasty ankle break, stud.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Winning season from the Warriors this year? I’m going with no. They don’t fool me. FREE ANDRIS BIEDRINS!

I set out on a mission to take a picture with a Venezuelan man wearing a Giants hat. Mission accomplished!

Favorite beer: Club Colombia Roja. This is actually my favorite beer for all of South America. Surprisingly full favored yet refreshing, it kept me good and hydrated for the aforementioned Giant’s World Series Run.

Least favorite food: Colombian Arepas. I have to specify because while they were the best food in Venezuela, they were easily the worst thing about Colombia. I don’t know how a border can change something as simple a flat corn disk, but somehow it does. In Colombia arepas are served with set lunches and will come as cold, tasteless, rubbery disks. Every once in a while I’d find them mixed with cheese and fired up over a grill out on the street for serviceable snack. However in Venezuela you can get delicious, fully filled arepas everywhere. Stuffed with veggies, banana, beans, meat cheese, whatever you want. In Colombia gray, cold, tasteless. It’s a mystery to me.

The very meh grilled Colombian arepa (though much better than the diner version)

Favorite activity: Catatumbo lightning. The 3 day trip down to Lake Maracaibo was a special experience. It was easily one of the most fun three day stretches I’ve had on this trip. Between the beautiful nature, the human and cultural interest, and pure awesome in being in a house hit by lightning, I couldn’t have asked for more. Alan Highton is a fascinating man and even though I’ve only been on 5 or 6 in the last year, I’d say he runs the best tour in the world!

Favorite place: Mocoa. This little Colombian town where the Andes meet the Amazon will forever be a special place in my heart. It’s where I will forever remember the first time I was able to look into myself and find comfort with what I found. Where I learned to start accepting the great mystery that is life and how I can do no more than try to love and respect this beautiful world I’ve been privileged enough to be put on.

Thank you for reading, a few more posts should be up with pictures of Scott and I then I’ll probably throw a few more things on here – wrapping up my trip, getting overly introspective and whatnot. Until then my friends, que le vaya bien.

Paradise Falls

There have been two vehicles landed atop the great Auyan Tepuy of the Venezuelan Gran Sabana. One was a single engine plane set down by a man named James Angel. The plane got stuck on the top as he landed in search of valuable ore, forcing him to climb down and leave his plane behind. It stayed atop the tepuy for 33 years. The other vehicle was a house kept aloft by a mass of balloons piloted by a Mr. Carl Fredricksen.

When figuring out what to name the massive waterfall cascading from the top of this tepuy, they were stumped for a bit. Fredricksen Falls seemed to roll off the tongue incredibly well but it eventually lost out to Angel Falls and the heavenly imagery it provided (if this makes no sense to you go see the movie Up! and thank me later).

The truth is Salto Angel really is named after Jimmie Angel and his ‘discovery’ of the largest free-falling water fall in the world. The waterfall’s name as we know it is credited to him but was known to the indigenous populations of the area as Kerepakupai Vená – waterfall of the deepest place.

Anyways, that’s all I’ve got for Angel Falls. To be honest getting out to see the falls culminated in the worst 3 days of this last year of travel. Instead of ranting and raving, I’ll put up a handful of pictures and let you wonder how I could have such a horrible time in such a beautiful place!

 

Spirit of Adventure

After 33 hours in transit from Merida to Ciudad Bolivar, a stinking hot Friday, a stinking hot Saturday mixed with terrible food poisoning, a 12 hour bus ride that night, a 7 AM wake up in Santa Elena where I was walking sideways, lunch in Brazil, and finally a good night’s sleep, I woke up Monday morning ready to hike to the top of Roraima, Venezuela’s largest tepuy.

Tepuy is the name for the table top mountains that are spread out across the savanna of Eastern Venezuela. Stashu and I signed up for a 6 day, 5 night hike that would take us 2,700 meters above sea level. We geared up with our meager belonging – change of clothes, camera – and set off as two in a group of 13 destined for the top.

On our first day we realized if we moved at the same pace as the group we’d lose our minds. We shot off ahead and enjoyed the beautiful scenery of rolling hills reaching out to the great tepuies of Roraima and Kukenan. About a half hour from our first camp rain started to pour and we were drenched head to toe. When we arrived we set our things out to dry and bathed in the Rio Tek flowing nearby and craned our necks to look at the imperial Kukenan just above. A massive waterfall cascaded from the side and our guide Marco said that it’s not always there and we were lucky to see it due to the heavy rain.

On day 2 Stashu and I again shot off ahead of the group. We had to cross two rivers, the first being very small but the second forcing us to wade in up to our waists. We later found out that the guides showed the rest of the group an easier and much drier way to cross but we actually found getting across to be one of the best parts of our day.

We pushed uphill from the river to the base camp as we steadily approached the cloud covered Roraima in front of us. Stash and I arrived a few hours before the rest of the group and killed our afternoon playing cards with the massive walls of Roraima to one side, Kukenan and it’s beautiful waterfall to the other and the Gran Sabana behind us stretching to the horizon.

Day 3 was the day we set off for the top. As usual we went ahead and stormed the steep path climbing up the mountain. After forging a bit of jungle we arrived up against the flat walls of the tepuy. It looked terribly imposing but the steep vertical path got us to the top in no time. We both had a good sweat going but were surprised by how quickly we had finished the climb. We enjoyed our success as we watched wisps of clouds run and dance across the mountain’s flat top.

One of the porters came up and we followed him to our camp nestled in the side of a cliff. Our tent was put in a little cave that looked out at Kukenan and across Roraima’s alien landscape of rocks that rose and dipped haphazardly. When the group arrived at the camp Marco took us to the highest point of Roraima just a 20 minute walk away. We were able to get to the edge and look straight down at the 500 meter drop to the jungle below. My heart jumped to my chest looking over the side but I went to look over a few times just for the sake of the adrenaline rush.

On the 4th day Stashu went with one of the other guides to the triple point where Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil meet and I went to the ‘window’ with the rest of the group to see the canyon between Roraima and Kukenan. The clouds obscured the view quite a bit but we had about a 5 minute break where part of the gap was visible. Afterward Marco took us to a place called the jacuzzi where we ironically bathed in perfectly clear, ice cold rain water. Though it was very refreshing it did nothing for my machismo and when clean, I happily jumped out.

On the 5th day we woke up early with the intent of making it to where we camped the first night. When we looked out to the gap between the two tepuies there wasn’t a cloud in sight. Marco trusted Stashu and I to get there and back on our own so with eyes barely open we were off across the mountain top to the viewpoint about an hour’s walk away. We made it just before 6 AM with a combination of brisk walking and running and had a perfectly clear view of the gap stretching between the tepuies. We drank in the stunning view realizing how truly lucky we were.

We dashed back to camp as the group was leaving but Marco told us not to worry, that we could eat breakfast and head down with the porters. We took our time and still caught up to the group about a half hour after setting off. In the end, we all made it down in good time in the scorching morning sun. We had a group dinner around sunset and were all laughs and smiles as we reveled in the experience and what we felt to be a great accomplishment.

The following morning I woke early to beat the sun and even left Stashu a little behind as I pushed through the final 13 km in two hours. I looked back periodically to take in the amazing view as all 7 peaks in the area were visible in the clear blue morning sky. Perfect, perfect I’d say to myself looking across the vista. Then I’d turn back and power forward, the first stage in my final push to home.

*I rushed the writing in this post a little bit for two reasons. 1) Nothing of serious note happened on the hike. Though it was fantastic, story-wise I can’t do much more than I’ve provided. 2) No words can do justice to the immense beauty of these mountains. Thus I have provided 54 pictures. I hope you enjoy!

Catching Lightning

Our second day started with an 8 AM wake up call. Apparently there was another call around 4 AM for the lightning but I slept right through it. I asked Marc, who had stayed awake, how it was and got the impression it wasn’t much different from what I saw in my 15 minutes of observation the night before. After some breakfast Alan told us he’d be taking us out down a small river in hunt of a rare and elusive butterfly.

Loaded in the boats we went deeper into the lagoon, across the black water. The perfectly still lake reflected the vibrant green jungle as we approached the mouth of the river. Our boats pulled up and sent ripples in the water, breaking the perfect mirror.

We sat at the mouth for a while looking and listening for birds as Alan tied up bait for the butterflies. In mesh bags he put in old, fermented bananas and guava telling us butterflies are attracted to odd scents. He even told us of friends who use rotten fish, urine, and human excrement to attract them. Never would have guessed butterfly hunters were that type.

Alan proceeded to tell us (he had actually told us several times by this point) that this particular part of the river houses a butterfly found nowhere else in Venezuela. On top of that, he’s the one who made that discovery. The name of the butterfly is the Queen Morpho but its scientific name is morpho rhetenor hightoni. Alan’s last name is Highton.. coincidence? I think not!

We cruised down the tranquil little river setting up the bait in trees. Various butterflies flew around but none were the Queen. Alan said they’d come out between 9 and 11 but only if the sun was shining. We spotted many Emperor Morphos, the Queen’s closely related brethren but they weren’t exactly what we were after.

After a bit of driving we stopped where the river got too narrow to continue and looked back. Sitting on a rock about 40 meters away was a great river otter. We all went silent between our two boats and marveled at this massive beast. He climbed about on a log and swam around in a bed of lilies before being lost from our sight for a moment. When we saw him again he popped up 10 meters closer to the left. Then he started swimming closer, poking his head up and down as he swam diagonally to our right. On the opposite side of the tree just in front of me he came out of the water and looked directly at Stashu and our boat’s driver, the only ones who could see him.

The other boat was up against ours but on the back side to the otter. We heard a metal pole clang as someone repositioned and the otter swam off before anyone else could get a better look. He disappeared to us for the rest of the day.

Soon after the otter sighting, Alan nabbed an Emperor butterfly. Vibrant blue, it was very beautiful but still not the one we were after. We all took pictures with the butterfly in our hands but let him go in search of the Queen.

We went back down river and after many failed attempts, Alan finally netted the most beautiful butterfly I’ve ever seen. The Queen flies about 20 feet in the air and is quite elusive so it took a pretty good strike from Alan to catch it in his long net. Not being one to get too excited over butterflies, seeing this one up close somehow made me incredibly happy.

Alan took it from the net and the blue top of the Morpho glew electric in the morning sunlight. When he turned it slightly, it became a darker, richer blue yet still retained magnificent beauty. Again we all got a chance to take a picture with it in our hands (you’ll see how happy I am about this) and a bizarre thing happened. After holding it some of the color from the butterfly’s wings rubbed off on our fingers. I had a small sprinkling of glittery blue but Stash had a large streak down his finger. Pretty strange yet awesome at the same time. After everyone got a good look,we again let him fly free.

We got back and had lunch. Most of the group fell asleep in preparation for the long night but Stashu and I lounged around on the back deck reading. After about 20 minutes a group of local kids came up to play with Kalen, the son of Kelly and Devlin. Having the same maturity as 10-year-olds, Stashu and I ran out with them to the small grove of coconut trees.

One of the kids had made his way about 25 feet up into one of the trees and was throwing coconuts down to us. I took out my camera and was immediately surrounded. I let the kids use it to take some photos as Stashu and I posed with them. Everyone was smiles in the intense afternoon sunlight. We took the coconut and after cracking them open, let sweet juice run down into our mouths and across our exposed skin.

A little later in the afternoon we made our way to the other town in the area called Congo. 15 minutes away and a bit larger, we had a military check point upon arrival. Kelly got out to take a photo with some of the guards and Stashu saw an oportunity. He jumped out and took a picture with one of the soliders who happily pulled out his AK-47 and let Stash get a grip on the handle. Unable to let him have all the glory, I hopped out and got next to the other soldier. He too took out his gun but only let me get a grip on the nozzle. I tried to get a grip on the trigger but my hand was pushed away. In the end, Stash was the still the victor.

In the town we were greeted by children floating in cut open plastic petrol containers and one girl in a styrofoam boat. They drifted between the stilted houses reflected off the glassy water. We stopped at a church, talked to some military personnel, had a beer, saw a soccer game played on a platform, and generally enjoyed viewing more of this unique lifestyle.

On the way back, the sun set bright orange, its round form perfectly visible low in the sky. I thought it was beautiful but Alan said it wasn’t anything special. That boded well for the storm in the coming night.

After dinner lightning started raging on the south-eastern horizon. We went out front of the house to capture these amazingly visible bolts a fair distance off. Dark blue still was in the sky yet clouds were starting to blow in. I took a few nice photos of the stars and sky before chasing the storm back around to the other side of the house.

To the north, the lightning crept closer. Again I was able to get a few nice photos but my camera wasn’t adjusted properly and the bolts appeared blurry on my screen. I didn’t get any quality photos and had to again chase the storm to the front.

Devlin, Z and I sat out front and took numerous pictures of the storm to the south. I got few quality photos and was very happy with how much activity there already was before 10 PM. The storm moved to the south-west and the bolts crept closer. As they became more frequent, so did the rain. We soon had to take cover under the roof of the house as the wind also picked up and water blew in sideways.

In a matter of minutes we were in the eye of a storm. Electric blue flashes filled the sky and rain dumped on our humble abode. The water was raging and the trees looked like they’d be blown over. Some people got a little nervous but Stash and I each grabbed a beer and celebrated the madness (see the video at the bottom!).

We were called around front and saw a post had been ripped up from the property and thrown through the roof. Stash and I couldn’t figure out where it came from until we used a flashlight to look into one of the boat bays and saw the pole had been uprooted from its cement base and destroyed part of the roof, throwing the pole through a completely different part. The pole was a good ten feet tall with a cement block at the bottom. We later found out it landed only three feet in front of Kelly.

The thick of the storm lasted for about 30 to 45 minutes. During this time no lightning bolts were seen, only constant blue flashes across the sky. As the wind died down Devlin and Z made their way around front. Realizing I was chasing the same picture as the two of them I ran around to find them watching massive bolts flash across the south-western sky, tripods set up. With tripod and camera in my own hands, I set up shop and looked up to enjoy the show.

For a quality photo of the lightning I set my camera to a long exposure setting in order to catch the split second lightning. That means the camera captures any light over the 30 second period I set it to. I’d click my camera and let it do its work with the adjusted settings, hoping and praying for a bolt while our camera lens was open.

On one of my first shots, two bolts hit down in the same 30 second period. Z and Devlin also had their cameras open at this time and all of us were screaming, high fiving, howling in our excitement and the adrenaline caused by this lighting hitting no more than a kilometer away.

I ended up capturing a few more bolts but none as good as that first one. We still cheered like little kids as the whole group was gathered around the under the roof in the opening in the gate where we were still protected from the rain. I kept clicking away but unfortunately my camera battery ran out and I had no charger to fill it back up.

I put my camera away and quickly came back out to see more of the show. We thought it was dying down before the entire sky lit up with 4 or 5 massive bolts in the mater of a second. The sky was illuminated and rolled with both thunder and our collective hooting.

A minute or so after the massive strikes the entire sky went white. For a moment I could see nothing and knew the house had been hit. My mind had a solitary thought: at least I’m wearing rubber sandals. In this same moment I heard several screams and felt someone grab me in fear. I also realized I wasn’t touching anything else, no metal and knew I was safe. A crackle came from overhead in the same instant as the flash and was like nothing I’d ever heard. I looked to see Marc grabbing me and we exchanged glances making sure no one was hurt. When we realized we had all made it safely we emitted a huge cheer. We had caught lightning.

The night continued with more storms, more lightning, and more cheering. The majority of activity moved north and Stash and I watched it shoot both horizontal and vertical through the sky. I had seen more lightning in 5 hours than I had in my entire life and couldn’t have been happier.

Exhausted from a second consecutive long day, I called it quits around 2 AM. I went to sleep with bright light flashing across my dreams.