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Santa Cruz and the Bolivian Lowlands

From Bolivia’s Altiplano down to Santa Cruz, aircraft require hardly any fuel whatsoever, as the course is a nearly free-fall trajectory down 2000 meters to Bolivia’s lush, green plains. They were gorgeous, but man is it another world. We arrived nearly a midnight to a town swamped with development conventions only to find the hotel had lost our reservations. Our guide had to scramble to find us a room elsewhere, and I personally wound up in a palatial, presidential suite in a place across town. The room reminded me of my house in Managua.

I attended a few round tables that didn’t excite me, and where the Bolivians didn’t seem to understand the nature of what we were doing. “Bolivians are tired of being asked about their development needs,” explained our counterpart back in La Paz a bit later: we’ve been doing it for so long, with so many partners, so many different ways. What never changes is after the round table is over, there is no action. I was overwhelmed with the sense of La Paz being perceived as practically an foreign, oppressor government. And my Bolivian friends wasted no time in talking to me about La Paz in a way that made clear the contradictions ran deep and were deeply personal. Continue reading "Santa Cruz and the Bolivian Lowlands"

The Hike from Candi Sukuh

Sheathed in forest on the middle slopes of Java’s Mount Lawu was a 15th century Hindu temple by the name of Candi Sukuh. Carrying only the backpack that had taken me across the Pacific and down half the length of Indonesia’s most densely populated island, I eschewed a 1000 Rupiah motocycle ride and began the long hike to the top. Bad Idea: it was exhausting, and even my “perfect travel bag” remained too over-packed: I was still learning how best to travel. But, it was also a Good Idea: I evaded the rest of the travelers and spent the walk amongst friendly Javanese. This is why we leave home, after all. I helped one old woman carry her things from the pasar (market), and some young women sitting coyly at roadside on a low wall of volcanic rock taught me the Javanese “sukueng siang” greeting, a near equivalent to the Bahasa I’d studied. I'd only been in Java a few days, but upon departing Yogyakarta in the direction of Surakarta, the adventures were already piling up. Continue reading "The Hike from Candi Sukuh"

The Bay of Fundy

Maine gradually turned quieter and quieter as I passed Portland and the roadway passed almost exclusively through trees. Northern Maine has some of the most gorgeous scenery of the Northeast, and yet so few live there to appreciate it. More than once I worried about running out of gas on the more distant stretches. By that measure, the border town of Callais (pronounced "callous", ha ha ha) was a metropolis of international shopping and dining under both New Brunswick and American flags.

The weather was cooling already in early fall, though it was hard to tell by glancing up at the omnipresent conifers. The water had turned a deeper shade of blue with the arrival of September's chill, and I didn't relish jumping in it. The road was long and life was good. Continue reading "The Bay of Fundy"

Stars over the bay, sunrise over the crater

Randall Wood

Making my way around the south of Bali I came to to fishing port of Padangbai, looking for someplace cheap to stay. A block away from the water, I found a little place striving for excellence. They showed me some fancier rooms going for 10,000 rupiah each – more than I’d spent to travel there, and more than I wanted to pay. But when I asked for something simpler they took me up to the second story to something more charismatic and far cheaper, and that’s where I stayed. It was a simple room with wide planked wooden floors well-trodden, windows overlooking the harbor, a single bulb, and just the hint of a smell of creosote from the shipyard next door.

After a simple dinner I crawled out onto the balcony with some candles, my notebook, a fountain pen. There was an oil lantern hanging from the roof and I lit it and watched as the moon rose over the Lombok strait. It was possible to travel more comfortably than this, I thought to myself, but impossible to travel more happily. With the exception of a sailor’s marlinspike knife in my pocket, everything I wanted in the world was in my bag, and nowhere on earth would have suited me more than where I was. Continue reading "Stars over the bay, sunrise over the crater"

Wonokitri, the Tenggu people, and Mt. Bromo

Late October, 1993, and a perfect day for traveling. Jamie and I struck forth on a train to Eastern Java. Malang had a a particular appeal to me, being the home town of the woman who had taught me Indonesian the summer of 1991, and I was happy to go visit her.

Afterwards, we took a bus north to Pasururan and then another to Parasen. Not easily, either! We were annoyed more than once by mysterious money deals happening in our presence, bad information, price changes, and the usual lot of the foreign traveler in places where prices are suggestions and formed on the basis of need and expectation. But the last leg of the trip was spectacular: by motorcycle up the hills through a Tolkienesque forest to the mountain town of Wonokitri. Hill after hill was surprisingly farmed right up to the peak, and deep cut valleys of stone esplanades unfurled before us. The tree tops formed a leafy canopy over our heads as the afternoon sun set over our left shoulders. The air chilled in that delightful way only altitude in the tropics can arrange, and as the road thinned and finally sputtered out the foliage melted into pines. Continue reading "Wonokitri, the Tenggu people, and Mt. Bromo"

Ujung Kulon

ujung kulon

It’s not much more than a thick hook of land tucked under Java’s jaw, located a couple of hundred kilometers south of Jakarta. But it’s within striking distance of the infamous Krakatoa island volcano, and it was a compelling destination and a journey representative of most of the trips I made in Indonesia.

First, you had to get a pass to enter the Ujung Kulon park, since it’s technically a national reserve. Then you had to hire a guide at whatever price you negotiated. Then the guide takes you to the corner store so you can stock up on food for both you and reminds you that you are required to buy him a couple packs of kretek clove cigarettes, too. Wait, what’s the deal, here? Then you set off to hike. Continue reading "Ujung Kulon"

Kaliurang and Merapi

We were four friends: teachers gathered from all over the United States in order to teach at the Universitas Atma Jaya in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. And despite differing backgrounds and differing personalities, we all got along with each other so well we were able to share a few adventures together. Scaling Mount Merapi was one of them.

At 2950m, Mount Merapi (“the mountain that blows fire”) is one hell of a volcanic peak, and though it was calm other than the occasional rumble the entire time I lived in Indonesia, it erupted five months after I left Indonesia. It has gone on to blow its top several times since then, destroyed dozens of villages and hundreds of lives, and generally lived up to its name: eruptions in 2006 and 2010 killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands. It's essentially in a state of continuous eruption or activity. During the two years I’d learned about Indonesia and studied Bahasa, I’d come to understand Indonesians almost without exception are born, live, and die within sight of a volcano. Merapi, which dominates the northern skyline of Yogyakarta, would be mine in 1993 and 1994. Continue reading "Kaliurang and Merapi"

Market Night in Bima, Sumbawa

Randall Wood, Bima, Sumbawa

Five hundred years ago the people of Bima, Sumbawa grew crops in volcanic soil, built small fishing boats out of hard wood, and traversed the Indonesian archipelago under lateen sail in search of fish. In 1993 when I visited them, they still did. Sumbawa is fascinating, lying at a "transitional point between the Indianized 'high' cultures of Western Indonesia and the traditional pagan cultures of eastern Indonesia."

I had traveled eastward down the Nusa Tenggara from Jakarta, crossing Java, Bali, and Lombok, and in Bima I was interested in boat schedules for a Pelni ship that would take me back west to where a job and my next adventure awaited me. But Sumbawa was too good to resist - even the name was delicious on the tongue. Sumbawa is rough, rumpled, mountainous, and in 1993 at least it was delightfully untouristed. From bus windows I saw not entreaties for foreign visitors but simply farmers and fishermen doing what they’d always done. The hillsides looked wild, untamed, even unused. The hillsides drew my eyes most easily: steep and parched, draped over the higher summits by dark clouds that seemed unwilling to shed their watery loads. It was no wonder people turned to the sea. Drawing on my own experience in small boats on the Eastern seaboard, Sumbawa’s rumpled coastline looked like a paradise for a small, maritime gunkholer like myself. But Sumbawa was full of fragant sapan and sandalwood timber too, as well as tobacco and lots of grains. Continue reading "Market Night in Bima, Sumbawa"

Gas in Bolivia, Steaks in Brazil

From El Alto, Bolivia down to Cobija we drifted downward from the Altiplano like a butterfly, and landed in a new world. 100% humidity, 30 degree celsius temperature: it was like I was back in Nicaragua, but greener and wetter. The earth smelled of wet clay, of vegetation, of burning: the smell of the tropics.

“El Chaqueo” explains Rodrigo, who picks me up at the airport. I struggle to get my luggage, which is picked up and lifted into a heavy cargo truck, and then unloaded by hand into a cement corner of the airport, where the crowd jostles forward to see and identify their belongings. I’m there, too. More than half of them are Brazilian: the border is just minutes north of here. Looking around while I wait for my one small bag to appear, I notice the airport is a one room affair, cold concrete painted celeste azul (what is with tropical countries and that color?) and a series of round, thatched roofs that march upward in concentric circles, lashed with bamboo. Continue reading "Gas in Bolivia, Steaks in Brazil"

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz skyline

I managed the pre-dawn arrival to La Paz despite being wedged in the middle class of an economy class seat between two weirdos. The first woman was terrified of flying and threw a blanket over her head and trembled the whole way. The other woman was clearly on drugs. Commercial flights are the worst.

La Paz was exhausting and stunning. So high up! And I wound up in a 5th floor hotel room that took me even higher. I’d been warned about altitude sickness and had come armed with some gingko biloba drops, but never really needed them. In fact, the only time I ever really noticed anything was when I stood up quickly to rush for the elevator and arrived feeling winded. The air is thin up there, after all. Continue reading "La Paz, Bolivia"

Dubai

It was late 1992 and all my thoughts were on graduation and the wide world that awaited me; even Ithaca was starting to seem small and I was itching to finish my formal education and get out into the world for some “informal education.” Evenings I took my passport from the drawer and examined it, took my backpack out from the closet and walked around wearing it, testing, probing. In my journal I listed places I’d like to see, adventures I wanted to experience, and laid out my hope that I’d travel far and wide, and my fear that I wouldn’t.

I read those old journal entries again for the first time in ages. And to my immense satisfaction, I read them while visiting Dubai. Imagine, the Gulf States, drenched in Arabic lettering and the architecture of the Middle East. Better still, I’d gotten there from Uganda, our new home. Better still, I’d soon be returning to a wife I met in Central America and kids raised in Francophone Africa. How immense is the world, and how endlessly fascinating and satisfying.

The same could be said of Dubai. Continue reading "Dubai"

Hiking the Rim of Lake Okeechobee

I had a Saturday free and decided to get out and do some hiking, South Florida style. That is: at risk of being chomped by a 'gator, in land only marginally drier than the swamp from which it emerged.

Lake Okeechobee was my first destination: it draws your eye inexorably as you gaze upon the southern half of Florida, and around it was a massive earthen dike with a hiking trail at its top. Built in the early part of the 21st century to control the sloshing floods of Lake Okeechobee, it thoughtfully included a hiking trail that permitted you to essentially circumnavigate Lake Okeechobee if you had enough time, stamina, and a decent rain jacket. The thing is perfectly flat, like tracing a doughnut. In fact, the lake's low profile is behind the flooding: it's basically a shallow lens of water, that passing hurricanes and storms were able to coax into sloshing up and over the low rim and into the surrounding farmland. Continue reading "Hiking the Rim of Lake Okeechobee"

Warm beans and wood smoke: Nicaragua's north country

We chose, then, to escape to the North like so many times before. I would make the same journey when I'd needed space in San Diego years before, and I knew the route by heart: it went first to San Sebastian de Yali and then eastward along the mountain ridges to this quiet mountain town in Western Jinotega, where mountains crowded us on all sides and the air blews fresh and cool. For good measure, rains blew in from the West, knocking out the electricity.

So it was that at 7:30 PM, Ericka and I were transported to the previous century. The boarding house of adobe pressed around wooden columns, the meal: refried beans cooked in a heavy pan with onions, some ground beef in spices, flat tortillas toasted over a wood fire, and soft cuajada from some nearby cow.

We ate in near silence, gathered around a small wooden table that a wax candle illuminated in soft orange light. Outside the wooden door, total darkness and the sound of falling rain on the muddy streets. One hundred years ago, in the years before even General Sandino stalked these hills with his armed men, life here was little different at all.

Shreds of Memory: Managua, 2003

July, 2003: A violent sun that thrusts its way through the greenery of Mango and Tamarind trees. Hot air of all sides and no respite from it anywhere, least of all in the house where the fans spin the columns of blistering air through the sala and kitchen. Outside, the parrots in their cages fidget restlessly or nap with their heads under their wings.

I'm passing through shreds of memory of another life I led, not so long ago but so many worlds away – the huge house on a hill in Las Colinas where from the road I glimpse the upper canopy of those immense Mango trees. With shame I recall scolding a man who had been stealing them from a back road by poking the tree with a stick so they'd drop, only to notice I was embarrassing him in front of his young daughter, whom he pushed with him in a wheelbarrow. Why do rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods always abut in places like Central America? Sheepishly, I let him have the mangos, remembering I wasn't even going to be able to eat them by myself. Continue reading "Shreds of Memory: Managua, 2003"

For the Love of Maps

It is one of the most prevalent misperceptions that the purpose of maps is to show you how to get from one place to another. They do serve that purpose, of course. But more importantly, they seduce you into exploring places about which you'd otherwise never have known.

I can understand the lure of GPS units: I use them too, navigating and learning the streets of big cities. And it's tempting to have a battery-operated unit in your hiking backpack that shows you your location in the mountains with a reassuring precision (assuming your unit has batteries, and your bag hasn't fallen into a river, and ...). But when it comes to coaxing you away from home and into new adventure, I find GPS units fail roundly. Just gaze at a big map you've posted on your wall some cloudy morning while you drink your coffee, and see if your boots don't start tapping. Continue reading "For the Love of Maps"