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Exploring the Yucatan

Posted by Ted on May 3, 2011 in Activities, Events, Travel

In just a couple of weeks, I will be participating in the 5th Annual Sacred Mayan Journey, hosted by Xcaret and the Riviera Maya Destination Marketing office.Yucatan

The Sacred Mayan Journey recreates the Mayan pilgrimage from the Ppole port (now Xcaret). The ancient Mayans would row across the ocean towards Cuzamil (now Cozumel) to hear the oracle predictions from goddess Ix Chel. The rowers would then cross the ocean once again to arrive at Xamanha (Playa del Carmen).

Not one to be satisfied with just a few days in a new place, I will also spend some time driving around the Yucatán, exploring ruins, passing through small villages, and diving in a cenote.

Curious about my whirlwind itinerary through Mayan history?

 
Every day has some driving, with the last being 5+ hours of driving from Merida to Cancun. However, like the sacred journey of the seven villages, it’s about the voyage, not about the destination. Although, I do expect a hot tub at the end.

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Review: Crank Adventures – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Posted by Ted on Apr 22, 2011 in Activities, Biking, Outdoors, Reviews, Travel

It all started with a dog named Lucy.

On an evening in early December, Liz and I had been celebrating the Shan New Year with our “Team Chiang Mai“ friends at the Thai Freedom House. Arriving separately, I biked back to our guesthouse, and Liz’s walk home took her past a man and his dog grabbing some dinner at a streetside noodle stall. Liz was friends with Lucy by the time she found out that her owner was an adventure sport and tour leading expert. After a quick flurry of late night emails, it was settled — I’d be picked up early in the morning to join Crank Adventures for a 2-day mountain biking tour.

Blearily waking up at 7:40a, I took a quick shower and grabbed breakfast to go from the nearest 7-11. I ate my pork bao, yogurt, and pandan cake as the van carried us north into hills, an hour past Mae Rim. I spent the time getting to know the owner. Damian is a jovial and knowledgeable Australian, fluent in Thai and familiar with just about every trail in Northern Thailand. Finally we were deposited on a hilltop where we unloaded the bikes, donned our gear, took the requisite ‘before’ photos, and charged down the mostly paved hill.

The valley scenery was stunning. We rode past rice paddies and hill tribe villages, and up and down a number of small hills, of which I walked up many of the climbs, out of breath but determined. On or off-road, bicycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Senses of sight and smell are heightened, and you attain an intimate connection with your environment. A rutted dirt track took us through a field, thick smoke rising from slash-and-burn farming. We crossed the Mae Taeng at the river village of Ban Sop Kai, where we stopped for lunch at a noodle shop and were accosted by Hmong women selling cheap bracelets, smiling with betel-blackened teeth.

Back on our bikes, we headed downstream, taking our leave from the road to explore the hills. This was my first time, so I was unaware that the holy grails of mountain biking are “single track” trails, and Damian’s passion is seeking them out. Whereas such trails at home might be created ad-hoc by bikers, these paths were clearly used for inter-village travel – for some villages, a small trail might be the only way in or out. Many of the villages are sustained by the King’s Royal Project to turn opium fields into rice, teak, lychee, longan, corn, banana, cabbage, and passionfruit. Lulled into the peaceful scenery, I was unprepared for the grueling mid-afternoon climb, wherein I pushed the bike and my backpack up a rock-strewn rutted mountain trail.

Bikes and bikers strewn across the forested hilltop, we enjoyed a short rest. Then, as if we were getting off a ski lift, it was time to launch ourselves nearly straight down the mountain. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of barreling downhill, on track that was maybe 9 inches wide, with a precipitous dropoff to the side. I quickly learned new skills of gauging paths, speed, and break control. Sliding on dirt and rubble is not only unavoidable, it’s part of the skillset.

We finally arrived at a village along the Mae Taeng, used by several tour groups as an overnight stop. A bouncy bamboo bridge spanned the river next to a much bigger, yet broken, concrete one. The first thing I did was strip down to my underwear and jump in the river, letting the fast-flowing cool water carry the day’s sweat away. After rinsing my clothes just as the locals do, I wandered up the hill to relax on the deck with a beer before dinner - green curry with chicken and pumpkin. A long day behind us, and another ahead of us, it was early to bed. We slept dorm-style, in a big multi-room building, and I was unlucky enough to be between snorers, earplugs useless against the reverberating of floorboards throughout the night.

In the morning, after a breakfast of leftovers, we loaded bikes onto the roof of a truck, and took an e-ticket ride up the mountain, bouncing around the back of the truck. After what felt like forever, we reached the top, where we once again unloaded the bikes, and took off down a twisty mountain road. We went through a gate into a nature park of completely overgrown forest, often with no visible trail. We crossed little streams on foot, or over “bridges” of lumber.

We rejoined civilization next to the rapids of the Mae Taeng, riding past white water rafting outfits and negotiating around elephants. I waved to a man making a thatched roof, and passed by a woman doing laundry. The dirt road led to the place we’d had lunch the day before, and the same Hmong women were peddling trinkets. Across the river again and down the other side, up a long hill, then we shot off towards Lisu Lodge, biking down same road I last went down on ox-cart seven months earlier.

Looking back, it was a blur of concentration – extremely technical riding, but thru scenic valley vistas and rice fields, forests, and past villages where kids waved and laughed as we passed by. A decade of serious road cycling was barely adequate training for the sorts of skills that one must quickly learn in mountain biking. Our adventure ended at Wat Tung Luang. We stopped in Mae Rim for lunch, and I savored my last khao soi. Finally back home, I enjoyed a 2 hour massage for 240 Baht ($8).

I still haven’t met Lucy, but I look forward to thanking her when we return to Chiang Mai.

Crank Adventures
3/2 Ratchapakinai Rd, Tambon Suthep
Amphur Muang Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand
Phone: +66 (0) 819527699
Email: info@crankadventures.com
Web: http://www.crankadventures.com

 

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A harrowing river adventure in Laos

Posted by Ted on Jan 15, 2011 in Activities, Outdoors, Travel

Of all six countries that we visited on our Southeast Asian Adventure, it was Laos that was the most challenging. The least developed of the lot, roads were not always paved, the language barrier was more pronounced, food quality was more questionable, and we narrowly avoided drowning in a river.

It all started in the quaint village of Nong Khiaw, nestled along a bend in the Nam Ou. We had decided to take an overnight kayak trip back down to Luang Prabang, 150 km to the south. The trouble began when we booked our tour with Green Discovery, one of many adventure specialists in the area; they charged us a higher-than-average commission for using a credit card and a lower-than-average exchange rate. Clearly, the “green” that they “discovered” was American dollars. That said, had that been the only issue, the most expensive activity of our trip would still have been worth the $360.

We were up early at 7am on the day of our departure, having already packed the night before. We enjoyed a tasty breakfast of banana pancakes with chocolate sauce and a couple of hard boiled eggs. We walked over to the Riverside, the one upscale resort in town where Green Discovery’s tours depart from. We met our guide, Tung, and proceeded to gather the supplies and take them down to the river where the kayaks were waiting. Despite being on-time for an early departure, we didn’t leave shore until 9:30.

It was a gorgeous day. The air was warm, the sky was clear, and the sun was shining down on the dramatic karst hills that flanked both sides of the river. Kayaking downstream was slow and peaceful, quite unlike the small, loud, and overcrowded hellboat that we took upriver a few days before. Dragonflies and butterflies flitted around us, and a large spider hung from the bow of our guide’s kayak, its legs skimming the water. We passed fishermen and giggling children along the riverbanks.

A few hours later, we pulled to shore for lunch at Ban Huihang, a small Khmu village. We hiked up the embankment and into the rustic settlement, where we were immediately beset upon by dozens of children. While Tung set out our lunch in the shade underneath a stilted house, we ‘falang‘ were the main attraction. Liz engaged them by taking and showing photos of them with her iPhone. While we ate our lunch, their gazes never left us. I decided to offer them their own diversion, and laid my iPhone on the ground, with ‘Bloom‘ set to ‘Create’. While the children seemed intimidated by the simple camera of the iPhone, Bloom spoke for itself with just a few taps from me to show them how it worked. It not only provided distraction from us eating our lunch, but it was fascinating to watch the understanding of how the completely intuitive UI and repeating patterns fell into place.

Finally it was time to get on our way, so we packed up and were escorted back down to the river by a few of the kids who waved to us as we paddled away. A couple of hours later, we stopped at Ban Houaikoung, another Khmu village on the prescribed tour itinerary. After a longer break than was necessary, we set out again and that’s when everything started to go wrong. We had navigated through some rapids throughout the day, but they were mere ripples compared to the turbulent whitewater that we soon encountered. To our novice credit, we did pretty well at first, shifting our weight and paddling down and over and around, attempting to remain upright. Then we collided with the other kayak and lost our balance, capsizing in the fast-moving river, our feet bouncing off rocks. My first instinct was to grab the drybag with my precious camera and hoist it above the waterline. Tung took the bag and helped us right our kayak and` get back on board. Our adrenaline pumping hard, our hearts beating fast, we caught our breath on the other side of the rapids and thanked Guanyin for keeping us alive. Had that been the extent of the day’s adventure, we might have even looked back on it as exhilarating fun, but it gets worse.

The sun had already dipped behind the jagged limestone peaks to our right, and soon after the colors in the sky revealed that it was setting behind the horizon. We called ahead to Tung and asked him how far until our stopping point for the day, another small riverside village where we would spend the night in a homestay. “Only 15-20 more minutes,” he reassured us. An hour later we were still paddling furiously downstream as full-on darkness descended upon us. Apparently, our guide had never run the route during the dry season when the river runs slower. We had no lights and under a sliver of a moon we could barely see our guide three meters in front of us as we navigated even more rapids. Our nerves were wracked and we didn’t know what to do. Finally, even Tung realized that the situation was dangerous and we were just not going to make it to our anticipated destination, so we pulled to the shore where we could see a single dim light of a village.

We trudged up into a dark settlement behind Tung, who asked around for the village elder. Finally, we were directed to the vice-chief’s house, who would put us up for the night. The simple two-room house with wicker walls and a corrugated tin roof was a welcome relief. Off the kitchen, we changed into dry clothes in the bathroom area, delineated only by a 5-foot-high concrete wall. We sat in the livingroom as they arranged mattresses and mosquito nets on the floor, and waited for dinner to be ready. We ate in silence, and the rest of the evening was spent in an awkward state of feeling like an imposition. Needless to say, we were disappointed by the turn of events – we had been looking forward to our homestay, and presumably our intended home was looking forward to visitors, instead of feeling obligated due to circumstance.

Once again, had that been the last complication and we managed our time better on day 2, we would have chalked it up as a colorful anecdote. Unfortunately, Liz became violently ill in the middle of the night with travelers sickness. While we ate the same meal, I was thankfully spared, but she was up for much of the night visiting the squat toilet all too frequently. I woke up with the rest of the village at 6:30a as the monks’ morning drumming in the wat next door sounded a slow beat at first picking up tempo over several minutes. Arriving at night, it was disorienting waking up in a strange place. A man walked by carrying fresh caught fish, and women with baskets of rice called “Sabaidee” through the open doorway. The vice-chief’s teenage daughter got ready for school, primping herself in front of a small mirror on the wall of the livingroom. I walked down to the small village pharmacy to get some medicine – we never knew what the discolored expired pills were, but they seemed to help.

Sick and unable to continue downriver, we waited for a couple of hours for the van that was supposed to pick up the kayaks in Luang Prabang to come and take us the rest of the way. Finally, it arrived, the kayaks were loaded, and we left Done Nun. The road followed the Nam Ou, and I could see it occasionally through the trees, wishing that we were on it rather than beside it. Eventually we made it back to town, we checked into a guesthouse, and Liz spent the rest of the day and evening recovering. What should have been a pleasant, slightly adventureful kayak trip turned out to be everything but. Thankfully, we have the memory of those children in Ban Huihang and the beauty of the river valley as some consolation for the stressful hardship we endured.

Have you had a similar experience of an activity going horribly wrong? Have you wondered if you would be lost at sea, dashed to rocks, or worse? Share your travel horror story!

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Putting your trust in the man with the knife at your throat

Posted by Ted on Nov 17, 2010 in Activities, Travel

If you’ve been following along my Facebook and Twitter updates, you’ll know that we are now in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, having taken 20 hours of buses from Luang Prabang in Laos. Initially planning on a week, we’ll be here for at least two while Liz takes Thai Massage classes at ITM, just around the corner from our guesthouse, WaLai House.

Showing up last minute, the cheaper fan-only rooms are booked until tomorrow, so we’ve been in a slightly more luxurious AC-room. While we haven’t used the under-powered air conditioning much, another feature of the room is a TV and DVD player which we’ve taken advantage of a few times in order to relax and watch movies. The last movie we watched was Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp. Somehow avoiding this Sondheim musical until now, the story, while somewhat predictable, was new to both of us. Unsurprisingly, this Tim Burton version is particularly dark and gruesome.

Despite that fact (or perhaps in some twisted way because of it) I decided it might be an interesting experience to find a capable barber in order to get my own close shave. Part of yesterday’s afternoon involved not only a one hour back massage for 130 Baht ($4.33), but walking into half a dozen shops in the area asking if any of them did shaves. Obviously, this is a separate skillset than the cutting and trimming of the hair atop one’s head. I was finally pointed down a street to the one guy who does. Today I paid him a visit.

A small shop with sliding glass doors, the barber was resting on a couch, wearing a colorful Tibetan shirt. He was quick to stand up, and upon me making a shaving motion with a questioning look, he waved me to the chair. I sat down as he covered me in a sheet and adjusted the head rest. I watched as he opened a fresh blade, broke it in half, and slid it into his razor. Then he lowered the head rest. As I kept my eyes closed for most of the procedure, I have only sound and sensation to recount. At first, I felt the cool wipe of an alcohol-based cleaning of my face, followed by the tender application of the barest minimum of shaving cream, massaged into my beard. I opened my eyes to see the hinged razor moving towards me.

He started with my sideburns and cheeks, and the first thing I noticed was how rough it felt, and how scratchy it sounded, as if it were a completely dry shave. I breathed calmly. He worked efficiently, moving around my face, to my lips and chin. I felt a pulling sensation, and what seemed like the hard edge of the razor, but trusted in his experience. Then he brought the blade to my throat.

With the same efficiency of motion, he worked across my neck, pulling the skin slightly taut as needed. I remained as still and calm as possible, taking care not to swallow when he was working around my Adam’s apple. With short order, he finished the longer initial strokes and moved on to touch-up work, his tender fingers caressing my skin finding missed spots. He laid down his blade, and trimmed my nose hairs with a pair of fine scissors before laying a cool washcloth over my face. Preparing for the experience to be over, I was then surprised as he gave me a head and shoulder massage.

I opened my eyes and looked in the mirror, and a new me stared back. The man with the knife had been gentle and efficient, carving away my goatee and weeks of stubble, complete with a relaxing release of stress. All for less than $1.

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Just hanging around..

Posted by Ted on Oct 16, 2009 in Activities

Just under half an hour north of San Diego on I-5 and just opposite UCSD Park, you’ll see a sign that says “Gliderport“. You might look at this quickly as you drive by and wonder what a “Gilderport” is, thinking about either Dutch money or the Princess Bride, and go to investigate as we did last weekend while in town to see a concert.

It turns out to be a hill on the Pacific coast that is great for Para and Hang gliding.

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Paragliding

The Torrey Pines Gliderport is a school, cafe, and shop that will not only take you up as a tandem flier for $150-$175, they will also teach you how to be your own pilot, and are the American distributor for several companies that make para and hang-gliding gear. For over 75 years, they have been a nexus for would-be aeronauts in Southern California. Paragliding involves a running takeoff from a point on a hill with favorable winds, and this spot just south of Torrey Pines is perfect. Gliders can be seen most days, but especially on weekends, up and down the coast, literally hanging in mid-air. With a slight shifting of the weight and a pull of the arm, you can climb, dive, twist, or hover above the scenic rocky shore below. It is a cheaper sport to get involved in than flying a small plane or hot air balloon, or buying a boat, but it still has an entry cost of at least $5000 for a glider, harness, helmet, and basic instruction. Sadly, we only got to watch for awhile this time, but you can be sure that the next time we are in San Diego, we will take the opportunity to fly for half an hour, watching the sun set over the Pacific.