Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Koh Samui by Motorcycle

The Gulf of Thailand in October is not exactly mild. It's the tail end of the monsoon season, and the heat is absolutely brutal. Our arrival on Koh Samui was no exception. The blistering sun made walking anywhere absolutely unbearable, and after hours of riding a cramped ferry we were ready to find a place and stick with it.

After being vastly overcharged for a taxi ride across the island (oh yeah, Koh Samui is a beautiful tropical island, if you didn't pick up on that yet) we ended up at a section of beach on the eastern end. Quickly we located a row of rustic bungalows set down in a tranqil garden and backed up to a beach. At 1000 Baht they were a bargain - roughly thirty-five dollars for an exception location. We ended up booking four nights total, with the intention to explore every square inch of the island.

We managed to do a pretty good job of it. Pictures will tell the rest of this story; we rented a motorcycle for a few days and toured the island on it. Here's a few of the fun shots we got...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Return to the Kingdom of Thailand

Somehow I always knew I'd come back.

A year and a half ago my flight leapt off the Bangkok runway bound for Hanoi, Vietnam... one stop away from the Philippines, and my departure from mainland Asia imminent, I was filled with a sense of relief. Circumstances had not been kind to me; I'd spent the last several weeks stranded in the northern mountainous region Thailand (read about my survival story here.) Though I loved Thailand and its people, an eventual return was the last thing on my mind.

Then later that summer I ended up in Nicaragua, met the love of my life (an avid traveler and adventurer herself) and - fast forward to five days ago - got married. The honeymoon destination was Thailand.

After a restless trans-Pacific flight and a brief layover in Japan, we touched down in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. From the moment we stepped off the airplane, I was amazed at the extent to which I felt perfectly normal. Unlike last year's torrent of culture-shock, nothing felt foreign to me. Not the cryptic Thai script covering signs and storefronts, the dense traffic, the never-ending hawking of pirated DVDs, fake Gucci goods, wristwatches and sex... not the mixed aroma of rice and noodles and tuk-tuk exhaust and fried pork and leaky sewer lines and gasoline and incense and fresh fish and foul canals, not the gilded pagodas and gaudy monuments on display at every turn. I could just as easily have been enjoying a lackadaisical weekend in Greensboro; walking the crowded streets of Bangkok felt just as routine.

The biggest difference to me has been the Thai language. Interestingly, signs are more frustrating to me now that I have a grasp of the script; I'm able to read the writing out loud, with some time, but I generally remain clueless as to what it actually means. Regardless, my study of the Thai language over the past several months has proved invaluable. Much the same as a handful of Spanish words was invaluable trekking across Mexico and Guatemala, a few key words here do wonders. On our second day in the city they got us out of two different common tourist scams.

The first happened on our way to Bangkok's Grand Palace. Jordan and I were walking towards it from our hotel on Khaosan Road when we came across an elevated statue adorned with flowers, shrines, and incense sticks. I stopped to snap a few pictures and was thusly distracted when a woman, probably in her mid-forties, approached. She began casually talking to us, mentioning offhandedly that the statue wasn't religious, but rather a symbol of good luck.

"Chohk dee," I said right away, and her eyes widened. I had just said "good luck" in Thai, a phrase few farang know. Her surprise was clear. Looking strangely wary, she then launched into a speech about how recent heavy rains had covered the train tracks leading out of the city, and that places like Surat Thani and Chiang Mai were inaccessible. "You're stuck in Bangkok for two weeks," she declared, and at the same time another person approached, a similarly-aged man this time. "You want to see Bangkok?" he piped in, opportunistically.

At this point the scam was obvious: they'd offer us a great tour of Bangkok with hotel arrangements, all for a hefty fee, since we couldn't get out of Bangkok. I'd been subjected to similar ones in the past; Jordan and I simply walked away. The woman made no attempt to stop us or call after us - it was pretty clear by this point that we had previous experience in the country. Crisis averted.

I can't say I fared so well on the second scam (there were three in one day, a somewhat dubious personal record.) On a tree-shaded sidewalk I noticed a flock of pigeons feeding from an elderly woman's hand. Cluelessly I forged ahead for the photo-op, envisioning a great shot of the birds bursting into flight. I was surprised when the woman subsequently shoved a bag of corn into my hand, ripped it open, and motioned for me to throw it in the air. She loosened the tie off a second bag and threw the corn up into the air, smacking my hand to get me to do the same. Then, just as quickly (this had all taken only moments to transpire) she jabbed me in the chest with a gnarled finger and demanded 150 Baht as payment for the corn. She was loud and demanding; nonplussed, I handed her 140 and hurried off. I felt foolish. She had done a masterful job of parting me from my money. I couldn't help but admire her tenacity and resourcefulness, if not the state of her moral character.

About an hour later, after touring one of large wats (temples) we headed towards Hua Lampong railway station with the intention of purchasing our tickets to Koh Samui. The sun was beating down pretty hard and we'd yet to ride on one of the three-wheeled motorized taxis that plied the city streets, so we figured it was a good time to start. We argued our driver down from 150 Baht to 100 and climbed on board.

Very quickly it was apparent we weren't headed in the right direction. I'd spent days wandering the streets of Bangkok the previous year and was familar with the location of most major landmarks. When the Democracy Monument popped into view through a sidestreet to our left, I knew we were headed in the opposite direction. Something was fishy. Sure enough, our driver pulled over next to a small shop. He turned off the tuk-tuk and motioned us to go inside. "Ten minute," he grinned.

"Mai," I said firmly. No.

"Ten minute," he repeated. "Shop." He tugged at his shirt for emphasis.

I'd heard of these scams before. The driver would be paid a gas stipend for getting unwitting tourists to shop at his friends' stores. It clearly was not legit. "Mai, mai!" I repeated, shaking my head. "Hua Lampong. Kun gam-lang pai Hua Lampong!"

His eyes widened in the manner of the Bangkok Tour Lady. His shock was replaced by a sheepish grin, and then annoyance when he dropped us off. (My careful "korp kun krahp" was ignored, wai and all.)

Happily we escaped Bangkok with all our money (except for that one hundred and forty baht the pigeon lady scheisted from me, of course) and after a long bus ride we crossed over the Gulf of Thailand onto the island of Koh Samui. We're still here, resting in bungalows overlooking a placid beach. The contrast is deafening: we've gone from the urban roar of the city to absolute serenity in half a day.

We'll probably be here a while.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Closer Look: Tikal

Describing Tikal in a paragraph or two is like trying to get across the Belize border without getting ripped off by the moneychangers; it's just not going to happen. My brief description of the archeological site in a previous entry hardly did it justice; my intent here is to provide a more complete view of the ruins, based on my experience.

Tikal is a three-hour drive from the Belize border or from the beautiful island city of Flores (five or six if you're riding a local bus) located in the steamy jungles and wetlands of northern Guatemala. We were fortunate to charter a brand new SUV to get us there, passing by Lake Peten Itza on the way... we rolled into Tikal National Park around 10:00am.

We declined to pay for a map in the park, instead photographing the large direction map at the trailhead and referring back to it on the camera at a later time, and drawing a quick reference map on a blank page of my journal. Armed with these critical bits of guidance, we marched into the jungle. The first thing was came across was a Ceiba tree, an enormous specimen worshiped by the ancient Mayans as a connector of the planes of the underworld. The massive trunk absolutely dwarfed us, an appropriate introduction for what was to be a day full of awe.

As noted previously, we discovered a vine hanging next to a plunging gorge in the jungle while on our way to the pyramids; naturally we were waylaid and spent the next half an hour testing the strength of their hold and gingerly climbing up, daring to inch a little higher each time. When it was apparent that the trees above weren't going to give it away and let us plunge to our certain injury, we got more daring and donkey-konged it high enough to afford an excellent (if precarious) view of our surroundings.

Done with the vines, we meandered into a clearing in the jungle, where we spotted our first few ruins. They were outliers of the main center, the Grand Plaza, where we were headed. We were fascinated by the ancient structures; Tikal had existed for at least two thousand years before our time, and the ruins likely dated back to at least 700AD. We were treading on ancient history.

The southern end of the Grand Plaza opened up before us as we approached it; a massive pyramid very nearly blotted out the sun above us as it towered above the surrounding jungle. Wandered into the Plaza itself, bookended on the north and south by enormous temples and bordered on the east and west by a large number of stone religious structures, altars, carvings, etc. The northern pyramid had a wooden staircase affixed to the side where tourists could climb up and view the scene; we did so, struck by the immensity of the area.

Directly north of the Grand Plaza was Temple IV, the facade of which was under construction; scaffolding on the east side served as a reminder that we were indeed still in the 21st Century. The sounds of the jungle suggested quite the opposite: spider monkeys screamed from the treetops, parrots called to one another, fluttering in sudden flashes of color from branch to branch. On top of Temple IV we heard the belching, guttural roars of enormous jaguars, warning intruders on their marked territories.

Naturally we plunged into the jungle after a once-in-a-lifetime photo-op... no such luck, only sudden, horrifying silence and the hair-raising grumble of a very angry, very large predator a handful of yards away. Pictures didn't seem quite so important, and we backed out of the jungle, now quite content to explore Temple V and photograph things that wouldn't eat us.

Temple V was the largest of them all; surrounded on all sides by dense jungle, it was nearly impossible to get a full picture of. An altar, complete with blood grooves, was inlaid into the earth in front of the temple's face, a chilling reminder of the human sacrifices of generations past.

Joel and I found a smaller pyramid located on the eastern end of the park that was devoid of human activity; it was just us. Not quite mollified by our experience with the jaguars, we took our adrenaline out on the top of the structure. I edged along the three-inch outer rim of the top of the pyramid, clinging to the stone ledge above it, a deadly plunge to the jungle below the difference between a firm footing and a faulty one. Joel clambered to the top of the crumbling peak, posing arms-spread for an epic shot. We took turns leaping across an ancient doorway... poised on one ledge, we'd take one step and a carefully-calculated leap across the abyss, aware the price for missing would be at best a broken leg, or a face smashed into the opposite wall.

Thankfully our calculations were solid. We left the temple satisfied, and spent our last hour in the ruins exploring the throne room and palace structure. Indiana Jones type stuff. "I wonder where this water's coming from?" Joel asked, casually, when we were inside. The walls were dark and moist... he pushed his hand up against it and pulled it away just as quickly, suddenly disgusted.

"Bat guano," I laughed. On more than one occasion we'd approach a dark, heavily-shadowed room and duck as a swarm of bats fluttered out at us from inside.

Darkness had begun to fall, and we had to get back to our driver, who'd take us as far as Flores that evening. We purchased small wooden pipes and machetes at one of the small markets in the park, which was located next to a crocodile pond, and then met up with Hector. We'd spend the rest of the evening riding in the back of his truck, standing facing into the blasting wind, adrenaline flowing again, as the truck roared through the backroads of northern Guatemala. It seemed like something the ancient Mayans would've done if they'd had trucks.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Journey's Completion

Ever seen a monsoon? I promise you you haven't, not until you've been in the middle of a driving Mexican rain. Rain is not the right word. Even flood doesn't cut it. Think a vertical river, coming straight out of the sky, and you've kind of got the idea.

We got caught in the middle of it, a tropical depression that brewed along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula for a few days. Joel, Jordan, and I spent twenty-seven consecutive hours in buses riding up through Guatemala into Belize, into the Mexican border town of Chetumal, and finally into Tulum, Mexico. The rain started there - just a bit at first, enough to be annoying, then departing for a few hours at a time.

Rather convenient timing, really, as it allowed us to photograph the Caribbean Sea, emerald waters and white sands, and explore the coastal ruins north of the city. Hardly as impressive as Tikal, but stark and striking nevertheless: austere stone formations speckled the coastline, perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea. Enormous iguanas, not a bit scared of human activity, bathed in the sun as tourists from all over the world wandered throughout the park. The crowds were a bit large and made good shots difficult to find; still, we managed.

We departed early in the afternoon, arriving in an incredibly humid Playa del Carmen, 30 miles or so south of Cancun. The skies were bruised and grumbling, enormous black columns in the sky... rain, and lots of it, was imminent. We managed to get in a game of volleyball on the beach with a couple of travelers from Chile before the skies opened up... we retired to our extremely cheap and sketchy hostel on Avenue 10 Norte, anticipating a few sweet hours of sleep before I rode with Jordan to the airport at 5:00am (she'd be leaving two days before Joel and I.)

At 5:00am Jordan and I walked through six inches of water in the hostel's reception room, letting in another three or so when we opened the front door, and slogged through the shin-deep rapids that was now Avenue 10 Norte. Ten minutes later and drenched to the bone, we arrived at the bus station... the fact that an opportunistic taxi driver hadn't hailed us from the curb was a testament to the severity of the storm. No amount of pesos was worth the risk.

Mercifully the rain eased up by the time we arrived at Aeropuerto Cancun, and after dropping Jordan off at the terminal I was able to make my way into the Cancun bus station. I inquired there about my beloved travel guitar, which I'd mistakenly left on the bus from Tulum... no luck. RIP dear friend.

Joel and I spent the last two days in Playa del Carmen, watching the FIFA tournament and taking pictures. The rain let up on our last day so we were able to get in a bit of beach time... we flew back to the Estados Unitas on Thursday morning hundreds of Pesos, Quetzales and Belizian Dollars poorer.

But since when has true worth ever been measured in dollars?

The Proposal

After much delay, I've got a copy of the video-taped proposal. The opening sequence was supposed to be a panorama of the old cathedral and the volcano backdrop with me narrating the story (our secret arrival, and our imminent mission) before we made the mad dash around the second level of the courtyard... but for some reason the camera didn't begin recording until about 20 seconds later. It picks up here, as we're running around the upper level of the courtyard.

To watch the video, simply click on the picture below!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

An Engagement Story

Blinking the sleep from our eyes, Joel and I climbed aboard our TranAir flight bound for Baltimore. We´d have a layover there for about two hours before flying into Cancun. We were traveling lightly - we each had a small backpack filled with essentials, and a satchel that we´d carry on with us. I brought my Essex acoustic guitar, acquired in Australia, so we´d always have some music.

The mission: get to Antigua, Guatemala, within five days to surprise my girlfriend, Jordan. She was in the mountains outside of Guatemala City working with an orphanage, and had no clue her brother and I were coming. The stakes were high - I´d brought a diamond ring with me, and plans for one epic proposal.

We landed in Cancun, Mexico around 1pm. Once we´d cleared customs, we carried our gear outside - it as hot and humid, as expected - and hailed a shuttle bus to a nearby hostel. Our gear stashed on the upper floor of the Maya Hostel, we set out to explore the city. There was little that stood out - we were a few miles from Cancun´s famed beaches, and with a strict deadline (we had to be in Guatemala City by Thursday night) we couldn´t afford to stray far. We spent the rest of the day watching Mexico lose to Argentina in the World Cup (a fear unappreciated by the local population) and tasting some of the local cuisine. Dinner was at an Argentinian restaurant, a mixture of chicken and vegetables with a couple of beers and cigars... tremendously satisfying.

The next morning dawned hot and humid - a perfect day to be trapped in a cramped metal bus/oven. Stopping every ten minutes or so to pick up and let off passengers, the bus to Chetumal - a Mexican border town - crept along the eastern shore of the Yucatan Peninsula. Brief stops in Playa del Carmen and Tulum were hardly enough to stave off hunger and cramped limbs... we arrived in Chetumal half-starved.

Resisting the urge to spend the night, we located a ticket station and bought passage to Belize City. We spent an hour or so jamming with the guitar in the bus station before departure... it was a nice break.

Upon showing up in Belize City, we were informed that if we walked into town we´d probably get stabbed... it´s pretty rough. A helpful local pointed out a bus to San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border, that was about to leave. We hopped on board and took off. San Ignacio was much better... the climate was cool, as we were surrounded by mountains, and only a few people were roaming the streets. Absolutely starved, we wolfed down plates of chicken and potatos, washed down with a couple of locally-brewed Belize beers. Our hostel was fairly cheap, and right down the road from the bus station. We crashed that night, knowing we had to be up at 6am to catch the 7am bus to the Guatemalan border.

The next day we hit the road on a dilapidated bus. Its muffler clearly shot, it labored noisily up the western Belize hills, grinding to a halt an hour later in Benque, a tiny border town. A cheap taxi took us to the customs office. Joel and I exchanged our Belize currency there (we´re pretty sure we got cheated out of a good 50 Quetzales) and got our passports stamped at the border.

Our next decision was how to get to Tikal. Flores was the next town on the way to Guatemala City, but the ancient Mayan pyramids jutting out of the jungle floor appealed to us too much to pass up. We had the option of taking another ancient bus, but we had a schedule to stick to. We decided to spring for a private cab for $50 each; it was absolutely worth it. Our cab was actually a brand new Toyota pickup truck... our driver took us through gorgeous winding roads in northeastern Guatemala, stopping at an enormous lake for us to take pictures. We swung north to Tikal after that.

Luckily I have pictures, because any number of thousands of words couldn´t possibly convey the splendor of the scene. After a ten minute walk into the jungle and a detour to swing on a few conveniently-located vines, we meandered into the Grand Plaza.

It was enormous.

Towering temples blocked the skies from our views in some places. Crumbling ruins surrounded us in every direction... it was truly a jaw-dropping scene. We spent hours climbing the larger ones, taking hundreds of pictures, and never quite getting tired of them. We were standing atop Temple IV, gazing out over the jungle landscape below, shirts wrapped around our head for protection from the heat, when a series of roars echoed from the jungle. We assumed, at first, that tourist jeeps were simply downshifting through the narrow roads... a few minutes later we realized they were really, really big cats.

Naturally curious, we scrambled down the side of the temple, taking time to photograph a monkey on the way, and once on ground hurried to the edge of the jungle where the roars were the loudest. "Que es?" we asked a local.

"Jaguar," he replied, pointing to a cub perched in a tree.


Being two testosterone-filled explorers, and therefore stupid, we naturally plunged into the jungle in search of a cool picture. Creeping along a winding path, cameras in one hand and large rocks in the other, we approached the sounds, until suddenly they stopped. The silence was eery... we stood, motionless, peering through the jungle... nothing. Even the monkeys had stopped their incessant chatter.

Then we heard it: a deep, low, warning growl, no more than ten feet in front of the dense jungle in front of us. My hair rose on the back of my neck as we realized simultaneously that whatever was in there was pissed off, and it was HUGE.

Very slowly we backed away, adrenaline surging, senses heightened, ready at the first rustle of leaves to slam the rocks forward in self-defense. The rustle never came, and we backed onto the original path, where locals gawked at the stupido americanos.

The roars stopped after that. Neither of us got a picture, but we were happy to escape with our lives.

We finished the afternoon off by climbing on top of a pyramid set apart from the rest and daring each other to take flying leaps from one ledge to the next, a leg-breaking drop the price of miscalculation. Neither of us slipped (which is why I´m writing this in an internet cafe and not a Guatemalan hospital.) We left the ruins around 5 hours after arriving, purchased some souveniers (epic machetes, of course) and left with Felix, our driver.

On the way to Flores, we sat in the bed of the truck with a couple of the park´s employees. We spoke just enough Spanish and they just enough English to carry a conversation... we ended the day standing in the bed of the truck, facing forward, as the scenery flashed by at 70 kilometers per hour. We rolled into Flores, a beautiful town set on an island in the middle of a lake, drank margaritas, and jumped on a night bus for Guatemala City.

We arrived the next morning, Wednesday at 7am, immediately took a bus to Antigua, where Jordan would be on Friday morning. Conveniently we were dropped off in front of a cheap hostel where we could check it early. We happily paid 40 Quetzales (about five bucks) each and crashed for the next six hours.

We weren´t prepared for the splendor of the town. It stood next to a tremendous volcano, several more in the distance behind it. Most of the architecture was Spanish Baroque style, and a number of stunning ruins - collapsed cathedrals from an earthquake in the 1600´s - lay scattered around the town. Joel and I spent the rest of the day photographing as many of them as possible. Because of their status as relics (Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) they´re all gated and locked... but we noticed an unlocked gate and went inside. We didn´t regret it. The beauty was astounding - four hundred year old Baroque ruins, with a volcano as the backdrop. It also happened to be right next to the town´s famous arch, and a staircase wound up to it. We bolted for it, and a minute later we were standing atop it, taking panoramic pictures of the city and volcano.

When we came back the next day the gate was locked, and has been since. We definitely lucked out.

Wednesday and Thursday flew by - both were filled with exploration - and we knocked the jitters out at a chill bar on Thursday night. Friday morning we rose early. We knew Jordan would be showing up around 11:00 am (I´d been emailing her team leader during the entirety of the trip.) Joel and I had found the perfect spot - a restored cathedral with a beautiful fountain in the center of the courtyard. We set up on the upper story, overlooking the fountain, and kept a sharp eye out for the next two hours.

Predictably, I was nervous, anticipating all the things that could go wrong. To calm myself down I opened my journal and starting sketching the scene... the old spires against the volcano. I lost myself in my art and was in the middle of penning an arch when voices rang through the lower corridor.

Joel and I dove down behind a bush and he started videotaping the scene. We dashed in a wide circle around the opening, making sure we were unseen, and sneaked down the stairs into the courtyard´s outer hall.

Pausing for a deep breath and adjusting my cap, I plunged out into the courtyard. Jordan turned and saw me just as I leapt up onto the fountain. She gaped. "What are you doing here?" she asked in shock.

I had a huge speech prepared, but in that instant it flew out the window. "Proposing," I said, and dropped to a knee. "Will you marry me?"

Luckily she said yes.

We´ll be traveling back up to Mexico over the couple of days, (as are pictures... all we have so far of the actual engagement are videos) so more blog entries are coming. It´ll be hard to top this one.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fort Macon, North Carolina, USA

Photographs taken during a trip to Fort Macon, near Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, in March 2010.

Panorama of Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach pier at night

End of the pier

Cannon in Fort Macon

Panorama of Fort Macon

Southeastern corner of Fort Macon

Southern wall of Fort Macon

Cannon, Old Glory in the background

Southwestern entrance to Fort Macon