Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Great Pyramids

The Giza Necropolis- more commonly called The Great Pyramids of Egypt, actually is an ancient temple complex of three large pyramids, three small pyramids, and the mighty Sphinx. Built in 2560 BC, it is also the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World that remains intact.. or somewhat, at least. Of the structures that make up this complex, The Great Pyramid of Giza is the tallest, the largest and the oldest. Originally built as the final resting place of Pharaoh Khufu in the Fourth Dynasty, it took 20 years to build and remained the tallest manmade structure in the world for 3,800 years- finally surrendering that title to the English Lincoln Cathedral in 1311 AD.

There have been varying scientific and alternative theories regarding the Great Pyramid's construction techniques. Most accepted construction theories are based on the idea that it was built by moving huge stones from a quarry, dragging and lifting them into place. Originally, the Great Pyramid was covered by casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface. What is seen today is the underlying core structure because in 1301 a massive earthquake ripped most of the casing stones free. Some of these stones that once covered the structure can still be seen scattered around the base, but essentially these stones knocking loose are what made climbing the pyramids possible. A goal of mine for many years, climbing one has been something I have read about but is inherently difficult and remains so for many reasons.

So one day while visiting Cairo, we set out to visit the pyramids. Arriving at the Giza Necropolis before sunrise and thanks to Muhammad the taxi driver, we were directed to some back alley which we learned later is a standard tourist trappy kickback to drivers. Turned around, a bit confused as to what was being pressed on us and ultimately still interested, we elected to see a bright orange sun rise on the pyramids from a nearby roof top and then hopped on horses with a guide named (yep) Muhammad who led us around the south side of the complex and up to the crest of an overlooking dune. There, we watched excited kids race horses back and forth haphazardly across the sand while shepherds tended to their flocks of sheep as they headed out to grazing fields further out from civilization.

Once the site opened for the mornings tourist rush, we said goodbye to Muhammad and waded into the masses that exist at the front of the complex. There we paid an entry fee that is 10 times what it is for locals, but in all truth, what can you do? It's not like you cab blend in.. and you want to see them. So you just deal with it, knowing all the while that you are getting ripped off but it's still only about 5 bucks in Egyptian Ribles.

Once inside, you aren't exactly immune. Throngs upon throngs of street urchins and "cultural sentinels", or whatever these guys claim to call themselves exist even past the ticketed entry point and were absolutely shamelss in their attempts to hit you up. Their goal: to milk you from as much of your money as possible. This was actually so bad that we routinely resorted to two methods that clearly slowed our cash flow to these people: One was to split cash in to no less than three pockets- large bills into one, medium into another, and then a final pocket to hold an assortment of smallish bills that could be doled out with a "sorry, this is all I have". Sometimes this wouldn't work- I had a kid actually pat my pockets when I gave him a low Rible note.

The other, better way was to respond to the universal 1st question of "where are you from" with a 3rd world nation. This being because the stronger the economy you throw out, the more you are hit up for in your local currency. Amazingly, these urchins also speak an unlimited set of languages for cash. Say you are from Italy? Italian flows from their tongues. French? Look out, they speak that too. I even bumped into a kid who knew enough Japanese to tell that I was warning some tourists- and respond back to me in Japanese. They are that familiar with Tourist Milk. So- the most sure-fire way of getting them to leave you alone?

"Where are you from?"
.. walk-off.

Not only do they not know where Paraguay is- hence the inability to hit you up for any given amount of Euro, Yen, USD.. whatever, but they also don't know what language to talk to you in. In essence, a perfect formula.

Weaving our way through the unexpected crowds, we meandered over to the Sphinx- in many ways it is stunning to see this firsthand with your own eyes. There is so much history behind the Sphinx that seeing it elicits a bit of a unique response. Almost immediately, a dude on a camel came by and asked us if we wanted to ride. I'm pretty sure his name was Muhammad. It's so funny.. at first there was no way I was getting onto his camel- it just seemed too touristy. But Jon had his SLR handy and we all decided to give it a go. Despite all of the people just meters away, we still were able to capture ephemeral scenes that were right out of storybook Rudyard Kipling or Richard Burton lore.

All the while, I scoped out possible entry points to the complex. How do people scale these pyramids? Where do they get in? I have read several narratives and blog entries- the best time seems to be in the dead of night when you can slip in and then watch sunrise, to get busted on the way down, paying Paraguayan bribes to keep out of jail. Interestingly, climbing the pyramids used to be legal- even Mark Twain did it. But in the 1980s, Egyptian authorities put an end to the practice- for cultural reasons and specifically after several westerners slipped and fell. There are many stories about Japanese tourists who are particularly adept at avoiding guards and slipping up top in the middle of the night, but I didn't really have that luxury so this initial foray around the complex was also a bit of a recon of sorts.

We slowly made our way around the Pyramid of Khafre and south toward the Pyramid of Menkaure- a moderate sized pyramid that sits alongside the Pyramids of the Queens. As we wandered around this 200 foot tall pyramid, some Egyptian casually skulking by the far corner said quietly to us "hey.... do you want to climb?" and pointed toward the top. This stopped me dead in my tracks. Was he serious? His shifty narrow eyes darting over toward some police and back toward us made me realize that he definitely was.

"How much"
"What country are you from?"
"40 Euro"

There are many things in Egypt that cost 40 Euro but climbing 200' of pyramid under my own steam to what clearly was a bribe didn't make any sense to me. We moved on, but something in me wondered if that was an offer I shouldn't be turning down. Yet dressed in white and standing out like a sore thumb didn't make me feel like this undertaking at midday among hundreds of money grubbing "Cultural Sentinels" would keep me from seeing the inside of an Egyptian jail or completely clean me out.

We wandered on, but part of me still wondered. Was it worth it? To climb to the top and see Mark Twains, Alexander the Great, or other famous names etched into the summit block as rumor has it? Would it be better than this picture, taken on the first few steps of the Pyramid of Khafre? This one- while cool- still cost me $10 bucks and resulted in a feeding frenzy over that money between the Sentinels and some guards who clearly wanted in on the action.

I wondered aloud what it would cost if I got nailed on top. Everything in this park comes with a price, a bribe, and an equal secondary bribe. But why not? After all, to say that I had climbed a pyramid was well worth 40 Euro to me. It was set- I wanted to go back and take a shot.

The next day Chris and Jon headed off to sightsee at the Citadel and walk around the Old City while I grabbed a bunch of cash and headed back to the Pyramids. I negotiated a rate with a taxi driver outside the anti-terror barricade of the Cairo Hilton, and made it crystal clear that I was limited on time. My goal: Get to the pyramids. Climb one. Get to taxi. Get back to hotel. We fly out. The driver said he understood. He didn't care.

Instead, he drove me right back to the same little sketchy horse stable we were dropped off at that first morning. Wtf!? I jumped out, told him to get lost and headed straight to the ticket booth. I was immediately swarmed by urchins who actually followed me into the site but were easy enough to shake. I headed right back to the corner of the Pyramid of Menkaure and looked for the same kid who offered me to climb. Not around, some other dude kicked off bidding at 80 Euro. For a Paraguayan, this is pretty steep.

I declined, stated 40 Euro- and said that I had no more. He finally relented, seeing that 40 Euro was better than 0 Euro, which he was rapidly cruising toward. The caveat: "can you come back at 1:00?" We were heading to the airport at 12:30 so that was clearly out of the question. Apparently this is when the guards go on siesta, and when climbing a pyramid is possible.

"I can't. It has to be sooner"
"Ok ok. Come back in 30 minutes" he said, warily glancing over at three guards.
I did, and was told again that I had to come back in 30 minutes.

This happened two more times, and I was getting tired of this. The urchin was clearly aware of this, and finally asked "can you come back at 1?" Frustrated, I said "sure, I'll come back at 1." "You are going to come back at 1, aren't you?"
"Promise me"

Promise me? Is he serious? The guy that is looking to milk me out of my money, probably dime me out to a guard so he can get a cut, and has had me sitting around for close to 2 hrs?

"I promise. See you at 1."

With that, I turned, walked down past the Pyramid of Khafre, past the Giza Pyramid, past the Sphinx and out into the crowd. For now, the summit of a pyramid would have to wait.

Marine Antics
While on active duty in 29 Palms, CA, I worked with a Gunnery Sergeant named Ward Lemmons. A crusty salt who was at the end of his time in the Corps, he told me a story at one point about his Marine Security Guard assignments. American Embassies are guarded around the world by US Marines, whose charter is to ensure that embassy personnel and the actual grounds- deemed sovereign US soil are fully protected. The assignment typically involves a small team of Marines that work for 4 days on/ 3 days off or whatever, with the first Embassy being a "hardship" (I use that term loosely.. if you have ever seen State Department living overseas it is hardly a hardship) tour, then the second Embassy being a premier posting.

Gunny's first embassy was Cairo. On this posting, he said: "you know, those pyramids go way out there! Me and a few other Marines would hop in a Jeep and drive way, way out into the desert. Finding some random pyramid, we would climb to the top with a case of Heineken and sleeping bags. And those Heineken bottles are made of some tough glass too. We would roll the empties off the top, hearing them go 'clink clink clink' on their way down until you couldn't hear them anymore. We would pass out in our bags until morning when some British tourists, thinking they were going to have some spiritual experience would stumble onto us after passing all those empties on their way up. Thinking they were going to have some spiritual experience at sunrise, instead they'd find a trail of empties leading to bunch of passed out Marines."

He went on to tell me that during this posting he also managed to make it into one of the extensive catacomb networks riddling the Egyptian plain. There, he stole a human skull, tossed it into his backpack and brought it back to the Marine House where he would then pull it out from time to time for party-goers to inspect: "you can tell he was a grain eater because his molars are all worn down."

Two years later, Gunny Lemmons found himself and his Egyptian skull assigned to the US Embassy in Paris, where he met and married a local girl. His proposal came with only one demand: Get rid of the head. So, he concocted a plan with some fellow Marines. One quiet Sunday afternoon they all boarded the Métro de Paris with the skull in a brown paper bag. Sitting down, they put the bag under their seat, waited a few stops and then collectively disembarked. The bag and it's occupant kept going on it's merry way, finally to be discovered at some point down the line. The next morning's front page newspaper headline read: "Human Head Found in Métro" although it did seem to confuse everyone how a 3,000 year old head managed to get there in the first place.

The Muhammad's

If you have ever seen the coming-of-age movie "Superbad", one favorite story line comes when Fogel is proudly showing off his Fake ID to his friends. Seth and Evan comment on the name he has chosen for himself: McLovin, the Organ Donor from Hawaii. His friends get on his case until Fogel claims that his choice was between McLovin and Muhammad. Seth says "Why the F*@k would it be between McLovin or Muhammad? Why don't you just pick a common name like a normal person?" Fogel's response: "Muhammad is the most commonly used name on Earth. Read a f-ing book for once."

So here we are in Egypt, and everyone we meet is named Muhammad. Taxi drivers, Egypt Museum crappy tour guides, hotel bellhops. Even in this mob of kids- at least ten of them are named Muhammad.

Exiting the swarm of tourists and vultures at the Giza Pyramid main entrance, I track down a taxi driver who leads me to a side alley and his vehicle. Jumping in, I notice a solitary figure sitting alone on a storefront stoop diligently and carefully carving away at a piece of alabaster. "Hey Muhammad, can you wait for a second? I want to see if he is selling canopic jars." I crossed the street and approached this largish individual in man-dress and keffiyeh who immediately breaks out into a giant smile and strikes up a conversation.

"Hi, how are you my friend? My name is Muhammad."
"You don't say. I'm doing well, thanks for asking. Do you sell canopic jars?"
"Yeah I do."
Yeah? Hmm.. that's a little odd. The conversation wears on.
"Where are you from?"

Typically, this general question would have elicited my usual "Paraguay" response, but for some reason that I couldn't explain I felt ok and replied with "United States"

"What part?"
"Quite rainy there this time of year."
Err? This response definitely wasn't normal. We continue talking.

"So do you hand make these?"
"Uh huh."

At that point I stop, turn around and look him in the eye. "Ok...Where. Are. You. From?"

"Hawaii. Big Island."
"Get the hell out of here."

We talk for the next ten minutes while I get his life story, which involves him growing up as a surfer outside of Kona, meeting an Egyptian woman (of course), falling in love and her convincing him to move to Egypt in the mid-90s, converting to Muslim along the way. He travels home every other year where the old gang remains the same and where he's still able to maintain the faint glimmer of Hawaiian Pidgin that he now feels ok to spurt fluently. There we are- two Americans who bumped into each other, half way around the world at the foot of four thousand year old pyramids and talking about surfing in Hawaii. So incredibly random. His smile grows larger and he laughs heartily when I tell him that my usual response to the tourist vultures of nationality is Paraguayan, then becomes saddened when talking about a drying of American tourism post-9/11. "It will come back though, I am confident!" he replies, pulling out his smile again. He insists that I not even consider haggling with him as he gives me bargain-basement prices on everything I want to purchase and then throws in a few pieces free of charge. We part ways, only after he insists a return to his store again when visiting Cairo next time.

I promise, Muhammad... because I need to get to the top of that pyramid one day.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ulu Temburong- Brunei Darussalam

The third largest island in the world, Borneo is a steamy hot, remote and far-off extension of the Asian mainland separated only through shallow seas from the Malay Peninsula. Sitting immediately adjacent to Sumatra and Java and barely above the Equator, the tropical archipelago is surrounded by warm, milky, silt-ridden waters of the South China, Sulu, Java, and Celebes Seas slopping gently against island shores. Hot and humid, temperatures remain fairly constant throughout the year at 90 degrees with annual rainfall averaging from 100 to 160 inches that typically arrive in heavy afternoon cloud bursts.

Three nations share this land, parsed out between Indonesia, Malaysia and the small, extremely wealthy nation of Brunei Darussalam. Only three hundred miles east of Singapore, this tiny nation is only 2,226 square miles in size with a total population of 333,000 people. It's pretty quiet here- no, wait.. it's really quiet here. Flipping through the Borneo Bulletin headlines, it's a who's who of local gossip and non-news: "4x4 Adventure to K'Lapangan Cancelled", "RBPF Sacrifice cattle in Aidiladha." Good in a way, I suspect.. much better than the other way around. But it does go to show that this place- even the thousand year old capital of 75,000 people making up the largest city in this Sultinate is an extremely quiet and well-managed place.

Under Muslim law, it is extremely strict. I'd put it on par with Malaysia and Singapore, all of whom have "DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS" on their immigration entry cards. While formed in 1984 as an independent entity when it broke free from British rule, understandably it is fundamentally and ideologically more aligned with it's Malay and Indonesian neighbors. All of this is clear when walking around the quiet streets of the capital. Well paved, sparkly clean and highly efficient, the absence of any sort of traffic makes this place almost uncomfortable during what should be Rush Hour.

Mosques dot the Bandar Seri Begawan skyline and afternoon prayers ring out across the heavy air as brightly colored birds zing by and distant lightening illuminates far-off thunderheads, silhouetted by orange sunsets. The most prominent of all structures here is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, built in 1958 but so well maintained that it appears to have been erected yesterday. Rising 171 feet from the surrounding plain that forms the origin of this nation, the main dome is covered in pure gold and can be seen from virtually everywhere in the capital city. Named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei, it is considered amongst the Bruneian people to be their major landmark and is also amongst the most spectacular examples of architecture in Southeast Asia. As a non-Muslim, you can even walk inside during daily visitor hours (or.. visitor hours actually = more like 30 minutes) and take in the mosaic stained glass and imported Italian marble. If any structure in this nation speaks to it's fantastic oil wealth, this one clearly does.

If you look at the island of Borneo, Brunei Darussalam is situated at the northern edge, and is actually cut into two distinct pieces. Bandar Seri Begawan is in the western, and much larger section of the country, while the Ulu Temburong National Park is situated in the rugged and much more remote eastern prefecture. Only a small number of jeep trails exist in the park, mainly connecting interior Indian villages. To get there is quite literally an expedition in itself. Located south of Temburong District, the park covers 550 square miles of pristine forest that is almost exclusively accessible by boat. As the only way to get there, that's how I went. How often is one on Borneo, after all?

One hot, muggy and stale-aired morning, I grabbed a taxi and rode the 10 minutes down to the central watertaxi jetty, straight across from the Water Village. In the Seventh Century, the first settlers of Brunei Darussalam set up shop here by erecting houses on stilts in communities along the Kampong Ayer in a tradition much similar to their way of life today. I could have walked, but I decided that if I was soon going to be stacked like cord wood into a decaying boat, I didn't want the spectacle of a white guy that towered over everyone to be even more entertaining by being covered in sweat. Me just standing still in that oppressive heat is usually more than adequate to start sweating profusely, and this was no different. So I didn't need any help in that category, but a short relief of air conditioning is always well received.

After ten minutes, a high speed boat came along and off I headed toward Bangar. Ringing the island of Borneo, the coast maintains a low, marshy belt between 10 and 50 miles wide. Most of this area is composed of mangrove swamp and it is precisely through this that the boat drivers quickly snake their way along over the next half an hour. The water taxi service is known as "penambang and is primarily used for transporting people and light cargo between Bandar Seri Begawan and Kamping Ayer. Our driver was so adept at navigating these tight passages that at times Mangrove branches would scrape the side of the boat as he cranked by. I just threw in my MP3 and resigned myself to a much different experience as we passed into a shared bay-like area situated along our area between Brunei and Malaysia.

Along the way, it is possible to see the reddish brown, medium sized Proboscis Monkey. Endangered, it is found only on Borneo, and we saw ours swinging around in clusters of 20 monkeys- essentially a Proboscis Monkey community of sorts almost across from the Sultan's palace. Not too shabby an existence. I wonder if they tell all the other monkey species on Borneo about how great they have it- show offs and all proud until they catch the other monkeys staring at their nose. Then they get all self-conscious I bet.

Males have a large and protruding Jimmy Durante nose that apparently attracts "da laidiezz" in the Proboscis Monkey world. Besides working to attract women, the nose assists as a resonating chamber to amplify warning calls. Or, to snore louder than my buddy Chris does after 5 weisbiers in Munich.

Finally, after an hour ride, the high speed water taxi arrives in lovely Temburong District. It took all of 5 seconds after the boat stopped for me to question this plan. It is so, so, so hot here! It makes me convinced that someone around here is going to spontaneously combust. This town is extremely small- perhaps three blocks total, not much in the way of tourist chotchkie shopping, and more of a stepping off point for Temburong National Park than anything.

It is also here that our group met Asman- a tour guide that was sent out by the Ulu Ulu Resort to collect us up and get us the last two phases and 2 hours of the trip. Asman, it turns out, is from a tribe of former cannibals and head hunters. He states that back in the early 80's one of the Sultan's mandates to independence that all the Borneo headhunters stop playing their Reindeer Games. No more cannibalism, says Asman- and then proceeds to go on telling us about an "unexplained" event against some cluster of local politicians that seemed to fall victim to a crime that seemed at first glance to be an old and familiar crime. He didn't say anything about anyone getting convicted, which made me chuckle thinking about how you can be put to death here for bringing in drugs, but local crimes by headhunter clans can go unpunished.

Before heading off in a park Land Rover across some well-paved and several poorly maintained roads, we meandered through a local food market. Not very big, but loaded heavy with regional fruits and vegetables. One of my personal favorites- more for the reaction it gets out of people who have never had it- is the Durian. Highly pungent, it is banned from airplanes and most hotels because people either love the sticky, almost rotting sweet smell, or they hate it with the passion of a thousand burning white hot suns. This pesky fruit has so many spikes on it that it can be dangerous. Once in Vietnam a few years back I was driving a motor bike and had one suspended from a plastic bag from my handle bar. The bag pendulum'ed forward, then the weight of the 10lb fruit pulled the bag backward and straight into my knee where it drew blood. Ya gotta watch out for these fruits all sorts of ways.

Driving overland, Asman regales us with stories. Someone honestly needs to tell these guys about what sort of stories are appropriate, and what aren't. Brunei is working feverishly to develop it's eco-tourism industry in Temburong, seeing the biodiversity of Borneo working in it's favor and looking to draw in the ever elusive tourist trade. So here's Asman, chirping away. "So, Asman- what did you do last night?" "Oh, Doug. two friends of mine and I went out with blow guns into the jungle and shot three Silver Leaf Monkey. We then cooked them and ate them in a BIG feast. We were very happy."

After a while, we arrived at the Temburong River, where a flat-bottomed boat was prepared to take the final leg up river to Ulu Ulu Resort. Barely held together yet somehow durable, these boats slip through the shallow river waters with the aid of only a severely chipped up propeller. This was definitely my favorite part of the trip to Ulu Ulu. Weaving in and out of rapids, water so shallow you could reach out of the boat and touch the riverbed below. Bumping, bouncing, lurching and getting wet the whole way, there is no other way of getting to Ulu Ulu. And it is one unique ride.

After another 45 minutes, the Ulu Ulu Resort filters into view. A highly ambitious private project to bring eco tourism to the region, I honestly had mixed feelings. It is modern, they are building like crazy, it is almost 1,000 meters from end-to-end along the riverfront, and.. we were the only guests. Literally.. the only guests. I get the need to make a really great place to draw in the tourists. But this place is so remote, Brunei is already so quiet, and the challenges of getting here to this spot, nestled almost in the exact center of the vast Ulu Temburong National Park.. it just doesn't seem possible. The extremely friendly staff talk about the near future where the hotel will be at 70% occupancy, but then I walk the quiet halls, these extensive structures completely abandoned- I'm immediately struck with what I felt the whole time I was there. Like I was watching an episode of the TV show "Lost".

The hotel winds up several hundred meters into the surrounding hillsides. Step after agonizing step continue up endless walkways to the tops of hills. It's not rarefied air here that makes you want to stop- it's the oppressive humidity that gives you a headache, has you burst out into fits of uncontrolled sweating, and mosquitoes giddy with excitement. Asman insists on no fewer than two "nature" walks before lights out, followed by two more tomorrow. After one, I'm ready for a nap and wondering aloud where I'm going to be able to wring out my sopping clothes in the middle of a rain forest.

Wildlife is everywhere. After all, it is Borneo- one of the most nature-rich habitats on the planet. And it is truly cool. We saw civet cats, tarantula, 8 inch long gecko, crazy moths the size of a dinner plate, bats feasting by dive bombing the cloud of mosquitoes that hovered around our heads and some crazy colored birds. Monkey were surprisingly absent, although given Asman's penchant for eating them, he probably cleaned out the local talent from the hotel area years ago.

At one point on a "nature" hike that to me was more of a forced march to make me sweat, we were stumbling about in the pitch black. All of a sudden, there are these mossy steps, followed by some stressed metal from the corrosive tropic air. Behind a mung-covered control panel, soft reddish and orangish bulbs glowed, and a creepy bridge appeared out of nowhere. Before I was reminded of the TV show "Lost". Only now I felt like I was actually living it. A strange, creepy feeling washes over me as the only sound outside of an occasional gecko is the noise we make in the pure blackness of only faint starlight penetrating the triple canopy jungle. Trudging along as sweat beads regularly and drips in a constant stream off my nose, I learn that the grounds of Ulu Ulu are littered with these things built for a much, much larger audience that won't ever come. So, maybe in a way the silence made these structures more "Lost"-like. But they were definitely brought up in conversation several times. "Hey Asman! Where's the countdown doomsday clock?" So weird..

One great highlight did come in the form of another painful jungle hike- this one initiated before the sun came up. With a knock on my hotel room door, I stumbled through a dehydration headache to compete with a cornucopia of insects over a watered down coffee breakfast. Then, movement to the start of what was billed as "a leisurely 271 meters to the jungle walk". 271 meters in my mind is 271 meters. To the Ulu Ulu team, 271 meters is actually closer to 450 meters up an almost purely vertical mud slope awash in army ants, spiders and other Borneo friends. Again, I arrive out of breath at the top of a very step hill, covered in grime and bathed in sweat. After one day, everything I own is wet.

But, I soon learn that it was worth every bit of it. Ascending to the top of the hill, we find a Erector Set ladder contraption that allows you to snake your way to the top very top of the jungle canopy. Twelve mini ladders wind their way 70meters up past vivid orchids clinging to tree trunks and finally to the tree tops themselves, where you can look out across slow mists blanketing the valley below. No noise other than macaws and howler monkeys calling out warnings. Gentle hues of oranges and purples extend out across the horizon. It was truly beautiful.

Above the trees, the canopy jungle walk extends for another 150 meters or so. En route, you can peer down into the rain forest to take a bird's eye view of the numerous vines, flowering plants and dense undergrowth that covers most of Borneo. From what I hear, occasionally you can see small leopards, rhino, orangutans and gibbons walk below, and even a possible python or cobra if you are lucky.

Finally, wobbling along on your canopy walk, you arrive at a sign pointing the way to Bandar Seri Bagawan and Mount Kinabalu. The island's highest peak at 13,455' and located in the extreme north, I guess you could say that I have had my eye on this peak for several years. But it's not easy to get to, and takes a level of effort that I am still debating to this day as to whether or not it's worth what goes into it.

Looking to the return to civilization, covered in bug bites and completely dehydrated, Asman chimes on and on about how much he is looking forward to that night's activities. No head hunting or cannibalism, unfortunately. No, that night, he and his friends we going out hunting again. "Maybe a few pythons! Those are tasty," he claims. "Want to have some?" If not those, then he'd go back after the monkeys. Eco tourism in Borneo.. long, long way to go.

Back to Main:

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A-Ha: Oslo

On a rainy November Friday, my c0-worker Laura and I were wrapping up a quiet Friday night in Oslo. We had just spent a long week in the office and were looking to blow off some steam, but the astronomical cost of living there made doing just about anything cost prohibitive (example: $56 for one 12" pizza, 2 sodas and a side of chips/ $12 for a beer) . We wandered the streets that were being gently pelted by cold rain, disoriented by the fact that the city goes dark at 4:30 on short winter days.

As we drew close to the hotel at about 10pm, we heard music coming out of a nondescript, concrete building with an open door, people streaming in and out. Clusters of Norwegians sat around engaged in the national past time of smoking. Chatting it up, they were blissfully unaware of two American wandering among their midst. "Hey, let's go check that out." "Ok."

Ascending a flight of ~10 steps, we got out of the rain and walked straight in without even a second glance. Inside, we found a minor hallway dotted with about a hundred people that were wandering this way and that. Finally I identified the music, and said plainly "oh, someone is doing a crappy version of 'Take on Me'."

Straight ahead we saw a heavy cloth curtain that covered an obscure entry way. Unable to avert our eyes and drawing us in like a giant mosquito lamp, an intriguing purplish neon glow streamed through the cracks. The music that drew us inside was clearly coming from behind, glowing louder with each step.

In retrospect, the funny thing is that other than "Take on Me", I honestly didn't know what to expect to find when we pulled aside the curtain. It could have been a drunk kid singing on a Karaoke machine to a few of his friends. It could have been a college band wailing away to a dimly lit bar full of drunks.

Or, it could have been a -pull back the curtain- stadium full of 20,000 Norwegians watching the real A-Ha at the end of their farewell concert tour.

I looked at the well-lit stage, complete with A-Ha singing away at their most successful song, their recognizable yet much older faces splashed on 10 Meter high screens. There they were, complete with fans dancing heavily and screaming throughout the arena. Stunned and speechless, I looked at Laura. She had the same shocked look on her face and we both laughed incredulously at the randomness of our encounter.

To this day, I can still remember the first time I saw their video, in Huntsville, Alabama a week before my friend Ro Delibris and I were going to attend Space Camp (yes, that's right.. Space Camp). A side story in itself, Ro lived in Huntsville and in that week we got into more trouble and did more things that could have gotten us thrown into Juvenile than I can recall. We shot at street signs with sawed off BB guns. We rode down massive storm sewers with modified dirt bikes, emerging from manhole covers and bathed in green slime. We ended up with an assfull of rock salt thanks to an irate neighbor who didn't appreciate us cutting through his backyard. One night, we ended up in a movie theater watching "Back to the Future", and after a few previews aired, the A-Ha cartoonish music video kicked off and I was hooked.

Fast forward to November 2009, and out of complete, random luck we just so happened to stumble onto this, one of their last concerts on a farewell tour before splitting up. Totally random. I grabbed my camera, snapped this picture, and then was yelled at in Norwegian by some security guy. Good times..

Back to Main:

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Labor Day Monsoon

The goal for Labor Day was to climb Rainier... until our small team reviewed a summit forecast of six degrees and fifty mile an hour winds. Not exactly what one dreams of for a relaxing Labor Day trip. Still, some of us wanted an adventure so we continued to watch the weather and keep our fingers crossed that conditions would change.

Saturday morning we woke to gloomy grey skies, wind and heavy rain moving sideways. A raincoated woman scrambled from her car to a nearby doorway as her umbrella turned upside down. Not exactly fun outdoor weather. We continued to discuss options while I watched a small river move past backed up storm sewers. Reid asked if this meant that sunscreen, sunglasses and a sunhat were now off the packing list. Got any moleskin?

Ever the optimists, we all agreed to meet up at Huntington's house to discuss a plan which for safety sake now seemed in jeopardy. Even Glacier Peak seemed unlikely- four thousand feet lower than Rainier, the forecasts still clearly indicated a purely miserable experience. Hiking fifteen miles with full packs through rain and strong winds, we would be completely drenched when passing through the snow line where everything would soon freeze. So awesome... not.

Over the years, I have had the fortune- or misfortune depending on how you look at it- of being cold many, many times. It can be fun, situation dependent. Most of the time it's not. But either way, misery can generate some great stories. Believe it or not, the coldest I have ever been was in Quantico, Virginia when I was at The Basic School- where Marine Second Lieutenants go to learn how to become baby alligators. One dark, cloudy January morning at 5am and with barely three hours of sleep, we packed up our gear, stumbled out of our warm barracks and sat in the cold grass to wait for a CH-53 ride to a training area across base. Then it started raining. Not hard, but just enough to get everything immediately wet. Over the course of the next three days it rained constantly, with the temps shifting hourly between 31 and 33 degrees. Everything was wet. Then it all froze. Then it got wet again. And then it froze again. Back then we had something then called a Shelterhalf- a World War II era throwback tent contraption that has fortunately since been replaced. My buddy and I would come back from day-long training, break the ice crust off the seal and crawl in. We would then shiver all night in our damp cotton sleeping bag, taking our mind off of how cold we were by talking about how cold other suckers must be.

Then we would go out and do it all again. Thursday, it rained so hard that even the 1/4" sheen of ice that had built up on all our gear melted away and left our platoon's bivouac area under a foot of water. Some genius had managed to scout out the low ground when planning and now we were all wading through a lake. One of my platoon mates laughed so hard he cried when I unbuttoned the Shelterhalf and watched my soggy sleeping bag float by in shin-deep water. Nathan Neblett, another platoon mate walked in circles in the water, shivering and repeating over and over "I will not be a casualty to the cold. I will not be a casualty to the cold". It truly sucked. They pulled us out of the field a day early because I think they were afraid we would become popsicles. Noone complained.

Saturday morning and I'm reminded of all that. Not one of us wanted to go out in that weather. All the Everett cops on our team bailed out. Our team shrank from 10, to 6, and then to 4. Huntington was deeply upset when we arrived at his house and broke the news. Reid and I had already discussed it offline and were in agreement- it was just too dangerous to press on. Leonard just wanted hardship and to be a part of the action. We all wanted stores. We needed to do something.

On Huntington's couches we tried to come up with a plan that would be fun for all of us given the weather. As the wind continued to howl outside, we settled on the Olympic Peninsula. If we were going to be wet and miserable, why not have it happen on the coast where at sea level we wouldn't have to worry about humping ten miles to find ourselves freezing?

It was agreed. Four hours later, we were off. Four hours?

- Huntington re-packed on his porch.
- I repacked on his sidewalk (why drag mountaineering gear to a beach, right?).
- Leonard told us how glad he was to just be there.
- We all drove to Reid's place where he repacked.
- Leonard ate a pound of sour patch kids and drank two Rock Star energy drinks.
- We drove Reid's St Bernard to his father-in-law's. Mistakenly thinking it was Reid's parents house, Leonard strolled in uninvited to check out his mom and had both Reid & his father in law stare him down.
- Long faced, Huntington mopily announced he wasn't joining us for the weekend. Yes, there is more to this story.
- Inhaling a fistfull of blackberries, I wondered aloud why they were crunchy. Once the taste hit me realized I had just eaten a stinkbug.
- Despite everyone having 3 pair each that he could have borrowed, we returned Reid's rental crampons to REI.
- I found Tums to settle whatever stinkbug weirdness was going on in my stomach.
- We grabbed a cooler from Reid's parents' house where we all got to meet his hot mom and play with his dad's power washer.
- Leonard & I downed two pounds of sour patch kids.

Somewhere during this melee, Reid re-recruited Randy Marrs. He had decided that despite the weather, he was willing to go to the beach to be wet & miserable. Reid also recruited a friend from High School named Dee Dee, a woman who had a second tent and who was given zero warning for what she was about to get herself into.

Five minutes after getting into Reid's truck, Marrs tells us that he is currently up to his eyeballs in Facebook drama. And what drama it was. He's totally freaking out. He had met some girl named "Sapphire" who had recently dropped the "L" word on him. Several weeks before, he had told this woman of three kids by three different men that he wasn't interested in anything serious. When she dropped the L Bomb, he responded with something like "Thanks".. and then beat feet. And she was now super pissed. Everything had eroded and now they were in a heavy war of words via Text Message. "God, I wish I hadn't friended her on Facebook.. she's threatening to friend all the girls I know. Hey do any of you have Internet access?" Marrs is in his 40s, is former Army Special Forces, Iraq vet and now Everett PD so the irony wasn't lost on us.

All this drama! It truly made our trip entertaining as the miles ticked by. Snarky text messages rolled. Reid and I laughed so hard we were crying. "Hey Randy, whatever you do, you had better hurry. Once we hit Hood Canal Bridge we go out of cell range and then you are F-ed." "Yeah yeah"...

-ring ring-

"Hey Joe! I wish you answered. I need you to do me a favor. Can you log onto my Facebook account and un-friend Sapphire Woodfield? My username is Hotcop_1 and my password is Pistola. I NEED YOU to unfriend her!! She's crazy. Like literally crazy! Thanks buddy. You need to do it now, don't wait. Do it now!"

Marrs finally lost cell range and wondered aloud what all of this would mean once we returned to civilization. Finally, we arrived in La Push, a remote town on the Pacific coast along the Olympic peninsula. This is the home of Second Beach, our intended home for the weekend. The skies had grown increasingly grey, rain and winds were now picking up to a frenzied tempo. Dee Dee looked at us like a crazy woman. Wearing jeans, sneakers and a cotton sweatshirt, it was very clear that Reid hadn't given her any advance warning on what she was getting into. She had a stuff sack thrown over her shoulder with string, a Coach purse and was clutching a pillow.

"Dee Dee, you look like a high school runaway."

We made our way down the 1.2 mile winding, tree-rooted forest trail through ever darkening skies and intermittent rain showers to finally emerge on the beach. In the windy darkness, we set up our tents in a protected stretch of trees that was high enough to avoid any random wave. As we set up under the faint glow of head lamps, Dee Dee's tent started waving wildly in the wind. Reid, Marrs and Dee Dee threw their gear into her tent while Leonard and I tossed our equipment into mine. Beef flavored beer started flowing as Reid plucked one after another out of the cooler, haphazarly packed under pallets of now-dripping steak and pork. Wind and rain picked up to fever pitch. We crawled into Dee Dee's tent and sat cross-legged as it shuddered with each gust. With a huge smile, Leonard pulled out a fifth of some random drink called American Honey.

It turned into a hilarious night. Marrs, who is 125 pounds when there's a 25 pound weight in his pack, was ready for bed within three hours. Dee Dee's tent stayed upright, although it appeared to be on the brink of collapse every time a gale pushed off the ocean and headed inland. Inside, the tent was illuminated with wildly bouncing head lamps suspended from the ceiling. We all feasted on Sour Patch Kids and slurped down another beer. A tarp we had tied between two trees to act as a rain shelter tore free. Any time one of us left the tent to go pee, we returned completely soaked. Dee Dee wondered for the hundredth time why she hadn't been told about what she was getting into. Marrs wondered what was going on with his Facebook page.

Reid showed us Crang.

Finally it was bedtime. Marrs passed out on 95% of Dee Dee's precious pillow and attempted to spoon her... which she loved. At one point Marrs woke up and saw that the only part of Dee Dee's head that was touching her beloved pillow was her nose because he had hijacked the rest. Lightening storms. Heavy waves crashing not far from the tent with high tide. Leonard woke from a dream imagining that the tent was under water. What must have been a rat chewed a large hole through the side of Dee Dee's tent to get at a bag of hot dog buns which were right by Reid's head as he slept. I went out to pee in the middle of a storm to returned a minute later completely drenched. Heavy rain. Wind.

The next morning, we emerged from our waterlogged tents and focused on breakfast. I think it took us close to 45 minutes to finally get a fire going, thanks in large part to Marrs' Boy Scout skills. We dug a pit and finally got something going, which Marrs lovingly coaxed into a blaze and tossed on metal grills, suspended with a wet log we dragged out of the woods.

Dee Dee kept talking about how much she wanted to leave and was willing to abandon her tent- especially after hearing two loud "CRACK" noises that turned out to be tent poles finally giving in.

"You guys can have it. I'm leaving."
"You can't leave it, Dee Dee. You can't abandon it."
"I'm outta here. I don't want it anymore. You can have it."
"It's not like a hermit is going to move into your tent. We have to bring it out."
"Fine, you do it. I'm leaving."

Marrs muddled away, making quesadillas until I stepped on a log suspended over the fire and acting as a wind break. As the whole thing came tumbling down and crashed into the blaze, Marrs reached into the fire and grabbed the metal grill as everyone looked on.

"Ahhhh!!! S&@t f*~k cr@p sh~t!!!"
"Dude, are you ok?"
"Hey it looks like your fingers are a pannini!"

Marrs continued to cook, making our steaks. We didn't have any utensils, so Marrs used tin foil to grab the scalding hot steaks and hand them to us. "Hey Marrs, you know that tin foil has zero heat dissipation characteristics, right?" After a bite I dropped my steak in the sand and chose a muddy brown stream to wash it off. It was either that, or the surf line where a flock of sea gulls were pooping into the waves. Mmmm. good eatin'.

We looked out to the darkened ocean sky and saw the Mother of All Squalls coming in- and fast. It was time to go. "Leonard! Throw everything outside! We have to get this tent packed up now!" We immediately started to pack up and break down the tents, jamming gear into packs as quickly as we could. Just as we finished, a turbulent sideways moving wall of grey air reached us with rain drops the size of water balloons. We were sopping wet within seconds. Smoke billowed everywhere as the fire began to fizzle out.

With the rain dumping gallons and gallons of water, we quickly made our way up and out along the winding path. After twenty minutes of slipping and sliding, we were at the cars, ready to head back to the relative warmth of civilization. Only 24 hours after we arrived, we were heading home.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mad Cow Disease

Last Friday while on an R&R day at Munich working the Ciao! integration intitiative, a few members of our team decided to take advantage of a beautiful Bavarian day and see the countryside.

This was a bit pre-planned by design. We had built an extra day into the trip for touristy things as usual trips involve 18 hour work days. In talking through our plans, Laura, Michelle and I discussed re-visiting Neuchwanstein- a magical castle nestled among the Alps and used by Walt Disney as a model for his Cinderella fairy tale. Agreeing on this as our destination of choice, I brought up that in February, another co-worker and I had discovered a hidden rock gully that led to an overlook where one can take stunning pictures. Laura and Michelle were both game, so I threw a rope and harness in my bag to prep for steeper sections of the gully.

Friday arrived, and we were off to the castle. Michelle had rented a car for the three of us, so we were able to drive to Schweingau (the closest town to Neuchwanstein) in no time. After a quick tour through the castle, Michelle decided that she wasn't interested in going on the climb to what we had affectionately called "the Grassy Knoll"- a nub of meadow clinging to a steep and exposed 400 foot section of cliff immediately adjacent the front of the castle. This is where Jon and I had climbed in February, and our goal was to make this same section.

Setting off from the car, Laura and I followed a cross-country ski path that in the summer doubles as a walking path. Meandering through meadow after meadow, we warmed our faces on a sun gently peeking through clouds and listened to cow bells clattering away in the distance. Wooden turnstyles, designed to keep cows from in their designated fields remind us of Old Country living while a casually strung, low intensity electric cloth tape keeps us firmly planted in the 21st century. Finally, we found the trail- much different in winter when no undergrowth exists. In summer, a spree of waist deep brambles, raspberry bushes and nettles intermixed with mountain flowers constantly pull on our legs.

It took about an hour for Laura and I to scramble, climb, and shimmy our way up to the Grassy Knoll. Along the way, we found no fewer than four areas involving vertical rock that were made more complicated by wet mud and slick moss. The gully that Jon and I had some difficulty with was actually protected now by a fixed line someone had placed- my guess being a local who knew of the hard-to-find route and wanted to set a fast path for himself to the Grassy Knoll. It was good fortune for us in that it quickened our journey and allowed fast entry/egress through one of the tougher sections of the route. Emerging through the trees, a beautiful setting was made even more picturesque by dramatic clouds, sun rays streaming to the ground in pools of electric green, and an ethereal Alps mountain backdrop.

After twenty minutes, the distant clouds heavy with rain made me decide to look up. Uh oh.. The storm clouds were brewing- and had slipped in quietly behind us as they drifted in from the opposite direction of where we were staring off toward Neuchwanstein. "Hey Laura we need to GO...NOW. We're going to get really, really wet."


"Well, as long as we can make it down through the last vertical pitch before it starts raining, we'll be ok."

As usual, the downhike proved much quicker than the way up. But still not without the regular pull of brambles and sting of nettles digging into skin. These sucked, too. These are the plants that have the super-fine needles that you can't see sting like crazy when you accidentally have one run up against your skin. Even as I write this- three days, an ocean and continent away, I'm still digging those little punks out of my skin.

We used the ropes to rappel or hand-over-hand down through vertical sections, slip-sliding on the mud and skittering down to the last pitch. From there, we still could see through trees and across the valley laced with red-roofed farmer cottages, white washed churches and neatly manicured farmland. One more pitch to go and we would have descended back down into the valley itself and away from the technical pitches. Almost there. As I prepared our rope for the last rappel, Laura stated flatly and with zero amusement:

"It's raining."

And rain it did. Within seconds, it was like someone had dumped a giant bucket upside down. The skies opened. Looking across the valley you could see rain falling heavily, illuminated by a far-off sun contrasting with an incredibly dark sky. Great. Within minutes we were both drenched and the last pitch became an incredible pain in the ass. Everything was wet- much to our chagrin, but I'm sure thrilling to the local peeper frogs that littered the ground and hid among the nettles that continued to scratch us everywhere. Finally, we made it down, quickly jammed our gear into packs and headed down to the pasture.

As the rain started to abate, I looked at my sweat, dirt and water covered watch, noting aloud that we were ~1 1/2 hours behind. Michelle would be back at the car waiting. The last thing I wanted was for her to call out Hofbrauhaus Moutain Rescue, so when we reached what I thought was a good shortcut down an old jeep trail, I suggested we take it and Laura quickly agreed.

The trail left the forest quickly and traveled over a slight hill, opening up into a meadow leading directly to where we needed to go 400 meters distant. Almost there! Except.. at 200 meters, standing directly in the path and all staring right at us were 50 billion cows. These things were massive- easily three thousand pounds each. One of them, a bull, was staring us down and walking towards us.

"Holy cow"

"That's right..."

At this point it's important to note that Laura is from Wisconsin and used to travelling through, underneath, alongside, on top of, and around cows. All Things Cows. I'm originally from New York City. There are no cows in NYC other than on a dinner plate. So knowing how to act around one usually comes with a steak knife and side of mashed potatos.

"Just act like a cow. Walk slowly through them and whatever you do, don't walk directly behind one."

Act like a cow? How the hell does a cow act? "MMmmoooooo!" Laura the Cow Whisperer isn't doing me much help in figuring this out. As we draw closer, more cows come out of the forest and block our path. The bull won't take his lazer eyes off of me and starts flaring his nostrils. Then, as we passed the first of hudreds of cow patty mines set to let intruders know that they were treading on hallowed ground, we realized that we were squarely in the Danger Zone. We pass the first of them and one says to me "Moooo", which in cow speak means "Screwed, buddy."

The bull starts shaking his head and gets ready to charge. So I tell Laura "I'm going for the treeline and go that way". "Fine", she says, and keeps walking straight on to her impending death. As I dodge the bull, I realize that I haven't really done much to help myself because two smaller cows start chasing me up the hill and through the trees. Freaking chasing me! WTF, ya know? I look left and see that I'm right by their watering hole, which explains why they are hot on my trail.

Wet, muddy, sweaty and being chased, a regular dose of pine needles and ticks drop down my neck. I finally end up in a clearing, where I run straight into the largest bull on the planet. Ten thousand pounds, easy. It had 4' horns and prison tattoos on it's flank. On it's front leg it had 15 notch scars to represent each of the people it had run down through the years. Smoke came out of it's flared nostrils. Glowing red eyes immediately shot in my direction. I look down to the path, and watch Laura casually saunter on, past 3 or 4 cows that don't even pay attention.

Crap. What to do? Encircled by cows vowing my death, I took the opportunity to slip through a small opening where I could double back to finally gain the jeep path. Take that, cows! You aren't so smart after all, huh? I'll show you. I look left again- and watch Laura take a second to pat one on the head. This situation is bullsh*t. Literally.

While I'm getting attacked from all sides and barely surviving, Laura is trading stories with the cows in one giant bonding moment. I look ahead: 50 more meters before the electric tape and only 500 more Mad Cows to get by. I'm still alive, barely. One more bull stares directly at us, and stands immediately next to the trail. Ahead, lie safety and life. I see my big break.

"I told you, just act like a cow."

"I have no idea what that means."

"Just don't act like a predator. Don't look them in the eye, and don't make any fast movements."
"Thanks so much, that would have been helpful to know about ten minutes ago."

While a wet behind the ears Marine 2nd Lieutenant, I sat through a class and had an instructor explain the difference between meat eaters and leaf eaters. "Are you a meat eater, Lieutenant!?? Or are you a leaf eater?" "Errr... meat eater...?" "Damn straight you are! A leaf eater is passive! He has eyes out on the side of his head, and is slow and timid like a cow! He never makes decisions! A meat eater has his eyes face forward. He's aggressive! He's decisive! He's like a wolf, or a tiger! So if you ever feel your eyes drifting out to the side of your head and you are becoming a passive leaf eater, get them focused again! Drag them eyes back to the front! Get back to being a meat eater! You're a carnivore, Lieutenant!" Ahh, the good old days.

So. All this did me absolutely no good when actually surrounded by a sea of leaf eaters. I'm not a leaf eater, I'm a meat eater, its in my DNA. I can't play cow, no matter how hard I try. But then again, I sure did try and it clearly didn't work out for me.

Somehow, we survived. Reaching the end of the pasture, Michelle appears over a rise in the pathway. Smiling and waving, she walks straight through a dozen cows who promptly and casually move out of her way. As if she is parting the Red Sea to come save us (*me*) from cows. COWS.

Laura and Michelle didn't seem to notice how we had barely escaped with our lives. But I noticed. I know how close we came to seeing the Other Side. Somehow, we were able to convince these people haters that we weren't going to turn them into steaks, just yet.

I had lived to see another day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Everest One Year On

It's hard to believe that one year ago to the day, I was standing on the roof of the world, watching the sun rise on a windless, cloudless and beautiful morning. So today on a day of reflection, I can't help but note how fast time can slide by.

On May 21st 2008, our team found itself in the thick of it. Pushing forward, one step at a time, we experienced the thrills of the climb in a manner where I had to catch myself on occasion and be reminded that like everything, it was not forever. One day, the climb would end and everything would become a memory. I wrote down everything I could, took pictures at every opportunity, and pressed myself to make the most of the experience. Largely, it worked and the memories remained intact. Giving slide shows or telling stories continues to remain as exciting for me now as the day I first placed foot on the Khumbu Icefall.

But now there is a new set of climbers, a new set of teams. It is their time, their turn. Beginning in March, I have been reading their stories one at a time as they have worked toward the summit. Some echo similar experiences to those our team faced. Many are new, steeped in human interaction and uniqueness. I want them to succeed, have their experiences, reap their rewards, and then return home safely.

So there I am- reading blogs, tracking the progress of my friends. Many have already summited- this years push happened a few days earlier than last year. The weather was a little warmer, the snowfall a little more irregular. These teams didn't have to face the threat of a Chinese blockade that forced slow progress to higher camps, but they did have their own challenges. I'm proud of them, and once again of the clear-cut display of human spirit that comes shining through as people defy a host of obstacles and overcome.

So it has been an interesting ride, and today of all days there are many things going through my head. Emotionally, it is a strange feeling to be sure. I can close my eyes and vividly recall my own experiences. I am there, in spirit. I crave to be back.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

So long for now, heated toilet

Few things in the world can bring such placid moments as a heated toilet seat that also allows one to use a bidet, vibrate, and for those less private moments emit an electronically initiated flushing noise. What happens when you become used to such pleasures and then have them taken away? Toilet withdrawal.

During the last two days of our time in Tokyo, we ran around, checked out some familiar sites and stumbled across some new ones.

One of the first stops was Edo Museum- located right next to the Sumo Hall at Ryogokyu Station. For 600 Yen, you can ascend six stories to the spacious viewing floors and check out all sorts of cool exhibits from mustachioed Samurai armor to replica dioramas of ancient Edo settlements (complete with little binoculars to look out across all the tiny people and buildings).

We then had a really nice tie-in of all things Japan: a wide variety of wood cutting prints showing sakura blossoms and iconic snow-capped Fuji- our winter nemesis- decked out in tons of color. From Edo Museum this was a solid transition into sakura blossoms alongside the Imperial Palace and Yasakuni Shrine.

Alongside the Imperial Palace and located midway to the Tokyo Station railway stop is one of my favorite statues- this being of the brilliant tactician and loyal Samurai Kusunoki Masashige. Masashige is known for giving his life in protection of the Emperor during the 14th Century:

"During an internal power struggle, the Emperor insisted that Kusunoki meet another Shogun's superior forces in the field in a pitched battle. Kusunoki, in what would later be viewed as the ultimate act of samurai loyalty, obediently accepted his Emperor's foolish command, left his death poem with his young son and knowingly marched his army into almost certain death. The battle, which took place in modern-day Kobe, was a tactical disaster. Kusunoki, his army completely surrounded, committed suicide along with 600 of his surviving troops. According to legend, his last words were Shichisei Hōkoku! (七生報國; "Would that I had seven lives to give for my country!")"- Wikipedia

And then it was time to go. Off to Narita we went complete with tons and tons of bags. Reid, Hiromi, Schactler and Peterson all surprised me with a birthday cake at the airport, which was a complete surprise and flattering to say the least.

Then we processed through customs, had some last minute sushi, a last glimpse for now at cool & campy Japanese signs. And then Japan slipped beneath the wing of our 777 bound for Seattle.

I'll miss you heated toilet.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fugu & Sakura

Yesterday we walked around and went to various shrines and temples in the greater Tokyo area.

First stop was Ueno Park, where cherry blossoms (sakura) are almost in full bloom. You can tell that in about 2 or 3 days, these blossoms are going to go bat crazy and explode with an array of pinks and whites that make the Washington DC Tidal Basin seem like the kid brother who wants to play on the basketball team.

Because of the Sakura festival underway, oodles of foodstalls and vendors come out to ply their wares and sell goods. 99% are legit, some are your standard scam artists that we had a fun time calling out at one point. This is one vendor that didn't get a sale from us:

At the Kaminarimon Shrine with giant chochin, Asakusa is one of the more traditional areas of Tokyo to visit, and it's throngs of tourists makes it easy to see that it is as popular as it is busy. And why not? These shrines were one of the first places I visited in Tokyo, and I routinely come back here to bring people new to the city. It is literally chock full of shops, chotchkie stores and kitsch, but you can still find a nugget of gold nestled away in one of the hundreds of shops selling Japan keychains, replica swords, mochi, Godzilla figurines and Ninja facemasks.

By the senso-ji shrine, Schactler tried again, for the second year in a row, to get a good fortune. This is where you place your luck in the hands of an obscure metal box that you spin until a thin piece of wood akin to a chopstick comes out. On it, you read a number and pull a piece of paper out of a similarly numbered drawer. This, then, is your fortune. As we all learned, there are several layers of fortune: Supreme Good Luck, Good Luck, Moderate Luck, Luck, and Bad Luck. Schactler tried twice, and both times ended up with Bad Luck fortunes.

Given that our next stop was to eaf Fugu (blowfish), we thought it wise to make sure the waitress was aware of this, and to ask the chef to be extra special careful with the cuts made on his blowfish.

So off we went, to Akasaka (not Asukasa.. Akasaka) to eat up on our fugu meal. Tucked away in an obscure side alley, we found our store- it's sort of hard to miss if you are searching for it, given that massive blowfish replica on top of the store and a hundred odd fugu swimming around aimlessly in a tank wondering what happened to Bob and Joe, who were just there with them until a minute ago.

So while the sashimi comes out and is the version that is considered the most likely to inflict harm on a person eating it, there was one dish - a shabu shabu version that hit our table and was so fresh that chunks of meat were actually still twitching from where the poor fish was wriggling up until about 5 minutes earlier. That fresh.. crazy.

While everyone got out of there in one piece, one guy said that he felt his lips turn numb, and two eaters lips literally and honestly turned blue. I wish I were kidding about this, but it's the truth. Crazy stuff, but still quite an experience to remember.

Fuji Return

Heisman'ed again.. That's all I can say.

But even with a turnback, it wasn't something this team wasn't aware of. After all, each person on this team had been turned back at least once already, so we all went into it fully aware of what winter Fuji could (and did) throw at us.

After doing battle with some park ranger who did a fantastic job of convincing us that we weren't allowed to go forward (in his mind, essentially saving us from ourselves)- only to learn in hindsight that he really couldn't tell us, just warn us.. we found another route and continued on. Making a nice spot and bedding down, we all fell asleep like kings. But to show just how dramatically this old joker threw us off, I superimposed our route, turnaround points and how far we had to go out of our way once we encountered our setback:

At 7am we kicked it and made solid progress until about 9am, when a storm brewed basically out of nowhere. We were all excited because up until that point we truly all thought that we were going to summit this time. Then clouds moved in, and then a storm started dumping snow along with 75mph winds. We found a shelter at one point to try and hunker down out of the wind, and that worked for a few minutes until we all started getting cold- temps dipped to -20.

It was at this point that one of our team started feeling ill and essentially passed on the summit push. This is always the right thing to do, but unfortunately too many people can fall victim to "Summit Fever" and ignore all of the warning signs. With wind whipping around corners, snow whiting out even the small area we were holed up in, we made a call. I had already been up this part of Fuji in the summer months and knew the trail, having way-pointed it up and down in my GPS. But I also knew where I had placed the wands and knew the trail that I had led the team up, so I offered to take our one teammate down while the remaining 3 attempted to push higher.

The two of us sticking close together as we navigated the wands off of the snow field, we looked back and for only a brief second saw the rest of the team heading higher and quickly disappearing into the blizzard of white. On our way down, I noticed that the winds were strong enough that the marker wands placed on the way up were knocked over, so if that GPS failed...oohh nellie.

Fortunately, it didn't. The remaining 3 teammates moved farther up the mountain and made another thousand feet when this freight train of wind hit so hard that the whole team was literally flattened. At 7,000', this wind was strong enough to make me worry about the others, but for them the wind gusts were severe enough that they understood they had reached their turnaround point. Many of the wands placed to mark the route had been knocked over, so in a whiteout like we had it was a bit of a challenge given none of our original tracks were there- washed over with new snow and wind. So use of the GPS was critical, and through this tool they navigated themselves back down to where we were located and the whole team was together again.

It took about three hours to get back to the car, where we grounded our gear, loaded up and headed straight to McDonalds for a hearty meal. On the way home, Dana was A-driving and stayed awake with me while everyone in the back slept like champs. We finally made it back to Tokyo last night around 10pm and slept for close to 12 hours.

It was only after returning to the warm and safe confines of our downtown hotel room that we began the "what if" conversations. But like last year, this weather was so extreme, and so strong that there really wasn't much debate on the right course of action- and we had taken it. Even if that damned park ranger hadn't stopped us and made us go around, we would even now still be stuck on the Fuji Subaru Line trying to figure out how to get our car out- the road is still snowed in and closed 2 days later. I guess everything happens for a reason.

So, there's always next year.. or even before that if timing works out.

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