Friday, May 15, 2015

The Backgammon King

Photo credit:
Even in October, Ankara is scorched earth hot.  My buddy and I were walking down a small street in Turkey's capital when the shoulder strap of his backpack snapped, swinging the load to the side and nearly toppling him off an embankment.  I was pissed.
If there is one thing I'm a fan of it's a minimally packed bag.  There is very little you need to haul around unless you are bringing gear for a special activity like climbing.  Basically I adhere to this rule:  If you need it, put it in the pack; if you might need it, leave it out.  Worse than an overpacked baggage is an overpacked baggage that inconveniences your travel buddies.  They need to help carry it.  They must wait for a taxi because five blocks is too far to walk.  Now we had to fix the damn thing because a surplus of unused clothes and appliances (including a blowdryer) overpowered the fabric of the shoulder strap.  I was an un-happy camper.  We had a full agenda of museums and ruins to see that day.  My tightly wound itinerary was in jeopardy.
 We descended into an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood looking for a tailor who could sew up the bag.  A few inquiries lead us to his faded green door, but knocking got no results.  "One hour," says the neighbor.  "One hour?" I say.  "One, two hour," he says.  Deep down this sounded like three.  I left the bag with the neighbor and we set off for a shady spot to kill time.  A few doors down there was a teashop, a staple of Islamic countries.  They are places where Muslim men can enjoy some of the few vices allowed them:  drinking caffeine, smoking cigarettes, and playing backgammon.  Muslim women are not present.  They must entertain themselves at home.
 We pushed open the class door and entered the smokey, musky room full of idle chatter and the clack clack on chips moving around a wooden course.  As i scanned the room for an empty seat I caught the gaze of a couple men in the middle of the room.  They beckoned us to come and gestured at the backgammon board in front of them.  I was no whiz at the game, but I did brush up a little bit before the trip.  I must have also been bestowed with a touch of beginners luck.  I beat this guy, which created a huge roar in the joint.  The man was furious.  Elevated chatter ensued.  Someone was sent out to get someone.  Ten minutes later a hush fell over the crowd as the neighborhood king of backgammon strutted in through the door, other men moving aside deferentially.  Word spreads fast in this part of town.  Neighborhood pride had taken a hit and the heavy artillery arrived to shore up the defenses.  We sat face to face in a scene reminiscent of the drinking contest that began The Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The place was now jammed to capacity, kids peering in through the windows.  It was USA vs. Turkey for all the marbles.
I pick up the dice and rolled double sixes.  The man fixed a stare on me so intense I considered apologizing and re-rolling.  No.  Don't show weakness.  In this game, in this neighborhood, they respect a man who holds his ground.  I moved my pieces, leaned back, and, looking back into his gaze, cracked a small smirk.  The king rolls double 4s.  Not bad.  He moves the chips lightning fast.  When I move I touch the board with the chip every step of the way, murmuring the count.  From here on out my fortune slid and his held firm.  A 2 and a 3 to his 6 and 4.   A 1 and 4 to his double 3s.  It wasn't just the tosses, he was building up a fortress of piles which crept down the board without breaking formation.  I had loner scout chips skipping forward and being picked off like field mice in Hawk Land.  It was turning into a massacre.
I made a late comeback.  Just enough to constrict chests and make the collective breath a little more shallow.  When the king's last chip left the board the crowd sighed in relief.  The hero was still the hero and the outside threat was neutralized.  After a lot of backslapping, tea drinking, pantomiming, and smiling we walked out of the cafe into the fresh air of a Turkish afternoon, cigarette smoke spilling out behind us like a stage effect until the door swung back shut.  We fixed that damn backpack and climbed up onto a small hill to watch the sunset.  The museums were now closed, but the memory of them, had we made it, would now be as extinct as their fossils.  What I had in my pocket instead was a real connection with regular guys and a true moment in time.
 Since that day this has been a great observation of my travels:  misadventure trumps straight adventure everyday.  Take local transport, meet people, and when a detour appears always take it.  One day you might just end up a backgammon king.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

RLT Valleys and Peaks - 2014

I've always believed life is like an ECG.  You need the highs and the lows to know you are truly alive.  Nowhere is that signal pumping harder than on the road, and filming throughout the majority of 2014 has granted me a wild ride.  Here are some of the highs and lows from The Road Less Traveled production this past year.


Filming in Europe in the summer - The flowers were in bloom, the air hummed with life, and the long days allowed us to soak up more of the rich visuals all over the continent from the architecture in Rome, to the waterways in Ghent, to the jaw-dropping Dolomite mountains.  I ran into a couple good friends in Venice, Italy (who I know from Venice, California); I got the privilege of filming Tomorrowland with buddy Max Sperber joining our crew; entered vampire society in France; and a had a romp through England that opened up my eyes to Wicca, Druidism, grime, and many other little known niches.

Venetians in Venice

Max at Tomorrowland


Quitting caffeine for our Romania episode - The word "drugs" is severely unspecific.  There are substances that are vilified and there are others which are celebrated with slogans on t-shirts.  But let's just say anything you put into your body to alter your mood is a kind of drug.  When I stopped drinking coffee for the 2 weeks we filmed in Romania I had a 10 day withdrawal that included mild depression, sleeplessness, and craving that gave me sympathy with anyone who's tried to shake a habit or addiction.  Why did I do it?  Because the only way to know you are in the drivers seat is to prove you can stop the ride.  Now I'm back to having a morning cup of joe because ultimately I think it's a fairly harmless (and perhaps even beneficial) habit.  This holiday season as some might enjoy caffeine, sweets, nicotine, alcohol, and whatnot let's raise a glass to the fact that no one will be kicking down the door and putting us in cuffs for these vices, and let's consider our fellow citizens who are separated from their families because they were peaceably enjoying different ones.


Working with Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia -  One thing I've learned on the road is that while most people working in charities have the right intentions, not every NGO is making a positive change.  This is a subject you will see covered in our Romania/Moldova episode.  However, in Cambodia I found one that I was happy to throw my support behind.  More than that, I met some people of true conviction.  Guys who had been shot at with AK-47s, offered bribes of 500,000$, and who encounter corruption at every turn.  Additionally they may be fighting a battle they will ultimately lose.  The odds are certainly not in their corner.  Yet they have laced up the gloves and are slugging it out fighting the good fight nonetheless.  Conviction and principle are hard to come by in this world.  I have the highest admiration for people who possess it.
Patrolling Cambodia's rivers with Wildlife Alliance.  Heart of Darkness style!


Witnessing the stream of crappy hands dealt to the women of Banda -  If the central goal of travel is to expand your consciousness, then you will get no bigger bang for your buck than India.  It remains a place which will shake you and change your world perception if you are even partially open to receiving the message.  One thing, however, shook me in a foul way:  the treatment of women in the region of Banda in Utttar Pradesh.  Here women are the property of their parents until they become property of their husband's family.  As many as 95% suffer silently from domestic abuse.  If they are thrown out they have no where to go without money or education.  They wouldn't even make it out of the Delhi or Mumbai train stations without getting snatched up by vultures.  I personally witnessed three cases of of smart and affable girls getting steamrolled by society.  The area needs a serious revolutionary movement.  Thankfully there is one team trying to lead one.  You can see the work the Gulabi Gang is doing in the 4th episode of season 3.  Remarkably, within the same country one can get a view of a society where women are ultra-empowered up in the NE city of Shillong where the matrilineal Khasi tribe abides.
Cameraman Dante Calvelli had his own low on the train from Delhi to Banda when he had to sleep in a linen closet ... got locked inside it to boot!


Making a short movie in Romania - What a great country to film in.  Affordable talent and crews, and loads of amazing locations.  Where else can you shoot in heaps of abandoned castles without another soul around?  The movie was inspired by the work of Irina Margarita Nistor who secretly translated over 3,000 prohibited films under communism.  You can see both her story and the movie in our Romania episode.
Bad guys approaching in The Revolution Will Be Televised


Ridiculous injuries on the road -  You've seen me ride a Royal Enfield over "dead body pass", you've seen me launch paragliders under dubious conditions (we nearly ate it in Leh), you've seen me leap over Dutch canals climbing up a giant moving pole like a monkey.  I fought muy Thai, kickboxing, wrestling, boxing, and MMA champs.  I always come out with no injuries except those to my pride.  However, this year I got injured twice.  Once by a 90 pound masseuse in SE Asia who snapped my leg like she was Indiana Jones cracking a whip.  The second time by carrying a 10 kilo bag of dog food on my shoulder around the ruins of Bucharest for 3 days (entirely in vain).  Of course I must lay some blame on our 9 kilo tripod (supporting a 1/2 kilo camera) for exacerbating the first injury, which i have schlepped around a good portion of the world.   I whined like a petulant child until the executive producer replaced it.
Apocalypse ready in Bucharest 


Getting a creative snap of my crew members sleeping -  There is a lot of jocular humor flying on the road.  One of our longstanding jokes is to catch each other in the compromised position of spotty sleep.  Nowadays our subconcious minds have been honed to wake at even the smallest relevant snicker or sound of a smartphone being pulled out of a pocket.  Nonetheless I'm the reigning champ of slumber photography.  The E.P. Sashi De is a master of looking cool while asleep but mark my words: In 2015 I will get him good.
Like shooting fish in a barrel

Cool for school


Having these shots taken of me

Disrespecting your superiors

More to come on the best of RLT season special.  Thanks to everyone of you who personally or remotely shared a piece of this year with me.  2015 is looking to be a great one.  I hope yours will be too.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holding the Fort: Cambodia's Hot Gates

(Originally published in the Phnom Penh Post)

"I think I see a cooler in there," said Dante, the cameraman.  I was squinting right beside him, hands placed around my eyes like a scuba mask and then pressed hard against the dusty window.  “Oh yeah… I think I see it.  I bet he ain’t chilling beer in that sucker,” I replied.  It's a bizarre, one of a kind sensation to play peeping Tom at the private residence of a Cambodian police officer.  Weirder yet when our erroneous intel leads to his bedroom door being dismantled.  But the guy had it coming.

About a year prior, while working in Thailand, I got wind of an innovative collaboration between the Cambodian government and a small NGO called the Wildlife Alliance.  Their objective to sustain around 720,000 hectares of forest from loggers, poachers, and massive tourism projects seemed like a real David vs.Goliath proposition, but the model and framework set in place hinted at a possible answer to a question I'd long pondered.  Ten months later there I was playing with school kids, patrolling riverways, and smashing in fine mahogany doors.

In Alex Garland’s best selling thriller The Beach, an overarching theme is the Lennie Small touch of tourism, destroying the beauty of that which it handles.  "Set up in Bali, Ko Pha-Ngan, Ko Tao, Boracay, and the hordes are bound to follow. There's no way you can keep it out of Lonely Planet, and once that happens it's countdown to doomsday," writes Garland, singling out the guidebook that inspired some of my first international adventures.  There is, however, no sense in pointing fingers.  Since Herodotus first poked around the pyramids of Giza tourism has evolved into a rather unstoppable force.  Like the eye of Sauron it scans the planet looking for the next pristine spot.  A guy like me, hosting an off-the-beaten-path travel show, is at the speartip of this process.  Being a bit of a bleeding heart, I’m as vested as anyone to find a solution to this conundrum.  In Cambodia I’d hoped to find one.

The trip started with a visit to Chi Phat, one of those small dusty strip towns indistinguishable from many others I’ve seen in the country save for some pivotal particulars:  It sits near a confluence of rivers leading both to the sea and deep into lush forest stretching all the way to the Cardamom Mountains.  It’s a wilderness full of rare animals like elephants, bears, and big cats; natural wonders like poetry-inspiring waterfalls; and old growth forest replete with rosewood and teak; making it both an ideal destination for adventurous travelers and a big, fat, juicy target for loggers, poachers, and overzealous developers.

Straight off the ferry crossing the Phipot I met Martin Leighfield, project manager for an eco-tourism branch of Wildlife Alliance’s ambition.  By the rivers edge I put him on camera immediately.  After a few rambling takes we honed in on the ideal in a nutshell:  Bait the mighty gaze of tourism and when its armies arrive, corral that energy to proper ends.  Put a firm limit on numbers and channel the money to sustaining the golden goose.  The same brute that steamrolled Phuket and Kuta Beach might not just be contained, but it could theoretically be funneled into a hero’s role.   Part of the idea is to allot the community a large stretch of land from the get go with a hard cap on it.  Other techniques include restricting tourism business to locals and putting 20% of tourist money into town projects.  The model sounds fit, but there are barbarians at the gate, and the gate is groaning from their push.

A handful of NGOs promote educational programs that teach school kids an awareness and appreciation for Cambodia's forests and the laws that hypothetically protect them, but while this environmentally conscious generation comes of age someone needs to hold the pass.  While the Wildlife Alliance and other eco-tourism projects wave small carrots in front of the old guard, someone must brandish the stick.  As a reasonable savvy pre-producer I knew the money shots for our episode would come from finding this Leonidas.  I found two.

In the forest is Eduard Lefter, ex-French Foreign Legion, given to excitable rants and raucous storytelling once you cut through his steely nature and pass from inconvenience to ally.  When we met on the river he seemed convinced I was about to ruin his day, but by nightfall we were swapping tales of hedonism while plowing down the quiet waterways that crept up to the Cardamoms.   Around us on the longtail boat sat three armed Cambodian soldiers.  When the occasional skiff came from the other direction it would, without fail, quickly make way for a piece of the bank obscured with overhanging vegetation.  If you didn't see the shadow of men jumping out into the dense forest or note the ripples from things hurriedly pitched into the water, you could definitely deduce that less people and items were in the boat upon closer inspection.  After a decade of hard-ass river enforcement, poachers and loggers can now spot the outline of Eddy's boat on a dark night like airport security detects a pair of nose hair clippers inside a stuffed handbag.  But it's a five day hike to the farthest reaches of his jurisdiction, and you could fit his entire team on a schoolbus.  I hiked just 30 minutes into the vast territory and straight off the trail found two snares ready to spring and one holding the rotting corpse of a civet.
"What are some of the stranger things you've found deep in there?" I ask him as we filmed the remains of an illegal logging operation, abandoned when the team came upon it.
“Where they take the sassafras root.  They hike it these metal pieces. Four to five days through jungle.  And make a place, I don’t know how you say, where you boil the sassafrass root and take the oil.  That is used to make the ecstasy and amphetamines,” he tells me.
Big jugs of the oil now sit like a massage therapist’s dream in a giant warehouse partially funded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, who were pleasantly surprised with the team’s hunt and destroy missions that included such labs.  Inside the facility rows of chainsaws, guns, traps, nets, and snares pile up beside a fleet of cars and motorcycles seized from illegal activity.

“OK. We’re good here.” I say to Eddy after we get a couple simple shots of the logging camp.
“Dats it?”  Eddy says with sudden relief.
The last media guy came by just a week ago and surprised his team with a script.  They sweat, swatted at mosquitos, and struggled with lines for 3 hours re-enacting the moments before and after the team sent the illegal loggers sprinting into the forest, chainsaws dropped and humming on the woodchips.  Now I understood his lack of enthusiasm when we met.
“That’s it man.  Travel show.  No acting,” I reaffirm.

On patrol with Eddy

If Eddy is Maverick, Dean Lague is the Iceman:  Calm, unflappable, and silent behind the Wildlife Rapid Recovery team he advises, bringing with him a career of law enforcement experience from Australia.   I had embedded myself with their crew as they patrolled an area near the Vietnam border, looking for poached wildlife making its way across.  This was essentially the last line of defense.  The team would conceal their widely recognized green trucks off the road while informants gave them leads they could spring upon.  

What I’d hoped to find were cute fuzzy animals I could show our audience.  A feel good story about how they would make their way to a recovery center and then be released back into the wild.  We found one:  A sun bear that had the fortune of still retaining its gallbladder (often removed for Chinese medicine) and its paws (removed, often with the animal still alive, for soup).  More often we discovered ice chests full of meat.  It was such a cooler just inside the lawn of a gaudy house that lead to a more thorough search.  Inside the home we found framed pictures hung of the resident, proudly receiving medals of ceremony in his police officer’s uniform.  It’s also where we discovered the locked door.
“This happen often,” I asked, “someone in an official position involved in the trade?”
Dean gave a small, silent nod of his head while the Cambodian team struggled with the door, sweating profusely as they attempted to remove the knob with a huge monkeywrench.
“I bet you’ve kicked open a few of these in your day,” I said.
“Plenty,” He replied, not moving a muscle as the team continued to fumble with the wrench.

Chatting with Dean outside suspect's house

At the end of the day a big bonfire was built and all the seized wildlife meat went up in flame.  I stepped as close as i could to the fire so Dante could get the shot.  It struck me as a shame that the animals died in vain.  Not utilized in the way I romanticize Native Americans used every part of their slain prey, hearts full of appreciation; but I understood the logic of the burn.
“Wait.  One more angle,” said Dante as a faint wind pushed the heat my direction.

Wildlife meat up in flames

Engulfed in smoke rising up to wildlife heaven, I began to wonder if the Athenians would be ready before these Spartans gave up the ghost. If the school kids grown up would join forces with a burgeoning eco-tourism industry and together reach a critical mass of understanding that Cambodia's forests and all that grows and resides within has more value on the long play than the short sell.  Could paradise stay paradise even with all eyes upon it?  The insiders didn't seem rosy about the prospects, but they appeared convicted to fight the good fight tooth and nail.  If I didn't find a solution to my traveler’s dilemma I sure did steal a glance of an exciting clash of ideals and interests.  I always fear returning to a cherished destination to find it sucked dry and in ruins.  How exciting would it be to return to Cambodia 10 years later and discover the experiment worked.  The forests thriving, tourism lucrative and sustainable, and the threat contained.  The people of Cambodia, much like Athens, realized that they had something irreplaceable under attack and they would not roll over.  Xerxes defeated once again.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Culion: Off the Beaten Path Palawan (A teeny weeny guide)

Palawan is currently blowing up as the top vacation destination within the Philippines. Like just about everywhere else in the nation, it's a long stretch of disjointed islands. If your time is limited, you've got to pick your spots.  Coron and El Nido rise up to the top of recommendations.  Asking around people seemed to consider these destinations comparable.  A couple folks gave a small edge to Coron so I pulled the trigger and flew down.

Here is the lowdown on Coron:  The surrounding islands are beautiful.  The hidden lakes, the coral, the Japanese shipwrecks are all top notch sights.  Worth the tour prices to go visit (for as cheap as 17$ a head including lunch).  The rub is that Coron itself is a shabby town where a constant stream of motorcycles sputter loudly though the shack lined, sun-baked streets.  Day trips aside, you'll be spending the majority of time in and around your hotel, and the vibe of the place is far from relaxing.

Coron town
Subtly acknowledging the inelegance, several resorts (including the reasonably priced Discovery) have moved a short boat ride away to neighboring micro-islands.  Some others have set up deeper down the road leading to the airport (but off the water).  I stayed on one of the islands, but the price you pay for the serenity is isolation.  There is no exploring you can do on your own two feet.  It's chilling at the resorts (with no beaches), or taking boat trips.  You're basically locked into the tourist paradigm: Any exploration you'll do will be arranged for you.  The seasoned traveler can't help but feel the restraints of the setup and get antsy pantsy.  It took me two days.  And then I found Palawan's Road Less Traveled destination.

For decades the island of Culion was one giant sanitarium.  Beginning in 1906 the first boats arrived from Cebu containing societies most undesirable:  Lepers.  The irony is the outcasts were sent to a place that had a better foundation in place than most Filipino cities.  Unlike Coron, someone, at some point, paid attention to things like architecture and design, including proper streets, pedestrian walkways and staircases, and spacious courtyards. Perhaps credit goes to the Spanish, who built a magnificent church and a looming fort, setting the bar high for all future construction and giving the town its centerpiece. Or maybe it was the Americans, fresh of their later defeat of Spain (and subsequent acquisition of the P.I.), who scouted the island in 1901 as a suitable location for a colony and allotted 50,000$ for its construction.
The cure for the leprosy has since wiped the bacterium off the face of the island (retreating, it would seem to its last stronghold inside India), but the noticeable lack in tourism might lead you to believe there is still an issue*.  I'm writing this in high season, but if there are travelers here I'm having difficulty spotting them.  Two different walks up to the church and fort found me there by my lonesome, able to savor the view and a reverie of firing those old cannons at invading man-of-wars.  The great Sauron-like eye of tourism has not yet set its gaze firmly on the island.  You should get here before it does.

Ready to blast

The main deterrent for casual tourists is transportation. Some brochures floating around Coron advertise day trips for about 3,000 pesos, but this option is listed far down the pamphlet below trips to lagoons, lakes, beaches, and reefs at half the price. Tommy the tourist came for fun and sun, not to tour sanitariums and think about history.

There is a public ferry going to Culion so under the radar your hotel staff might not know about it.  Certainly there will be a lot more incentive to sell you on the 75$ day trip. The boat leaves from the town's main pier.  Not the place you grab all those tourist day-tour rides.  You'll need to jump on a tricycle to take you down there.  A 10 peso per head 5 minute ride.  Those who do know about this public ferry seem confused about the time of departure.  12pm and 1pm are popular ideas.  As of the date of this article there were two boats at 1:30 and 2pm, however they fill up fast. Get there early, pay your port fee of 20 pesos head, and put your name on the manifest.  I wouldn't recommend sitting in the port's waiting room.  Instead take a cheap tricycle ride back to Coron center.  You can sip a beverage with decent WiFi (rare in the islands) and good A/C at Coffee Kong. Or drink mediocre coffee with slow WiFi, but a much better view, at SeaDive. Return to the pier at least 30 minutes before departure time.  Don't wait in that big room with the crowd.  Go out the back and walk towards the water's edge of the pier and find the boat.
The coastguard runs a check before the ferry departs and while the officer is on board the ship's crew will make a big show about getting everyone to don a lifejacket.  As soon as the officer departs and the boat is on the open sea they walk around and collect them back from the passengers.  I can only assume to place them in some container so that none are stolen.  This is one of those frequent travel moments where you will have to make a stand for your own safety in the face of social pressure.  Remember you are going out into open sea.  Boats do go down now and then in the Philippines (including the Jezebel right out of Coron).  It could be a long swim.

Where to stay:
Top choice is the historic Hotel Maya, clutching onto the same hilltop as the cathedral and Spanish fort.  Rooms for about 1,200-1,500. The best room is in the NE corner with sea views out both windows.  Menu is limited but the food is tasty.  There are a couple other options in town, including the Safari (near the port) but the lodging is significantly more backpacker-ish.  I did find Safari a nice place to eat however, with friendly staff.

What to do:
Here is the real joy of staying in Culion.  The main town is a treat to walk around.  There are friendly locals everywhere, lots of access to the water for an impromptu dip, places to jump in on a local game of basketball or badminton, and a competitive volleyball match occurring in the afternoons with rapt audience attention.  Small alleys and overgrown staircases can be found here and there leading to either abandoned ruins of the old sanitarium structure or to neighborhoods never visited by tourists.  You can't, and shouldn't, miss the cathedral or the fort. Pass by the church once after sundown and listen to the creepy sound of bats echoing around inside.  Here are a few other tips around town:
1.  Climb Mt. Aguila all the way to the top.  300 some cross adorned steps lead up to a big-handed Jesus on the side of the hill pushing up from the back of town.  Walk just past the statue and you'll see a rough trail leading further up to the SMART cellphone tower at the peak.  The view opens up just a little more.  From there you should be able to spot another rough trail leading down to the southeast (towards the small bay).  A local told me this trail is used to carry fuel up the tower's generators in times of blackout.  Descending this trail can be a bit perilous as the ground is steep and loose, but it affords an interesting view of the less visited side of the municipality.  Notice the long neighborhoods stretching out into the water along tiny piers.  On the other side of the bay you'll see two ragtag shipyards where boats have been either shelved or are under repair.
2.  Those long neighborhoods you saw stretching out into the bay are worth a visit.  Tiny communities of homes and shops tied together by shoestring thin boardwalks.  Most residents make their living in construction of developing resorts, taking a boat out every morning from a small pier south of the cathedral/fort/hotel maya hill. I didn't have time to do it, but it would be a nice little adventure to show up at this pier at 6am with the workers and try to go to the construction site (Chinese owned Sunlight Resort). Could be some fun snorkeling and island exploring to be had before you return with the work crews.
3.  Down a set of steps to the north of Hotel Maya you'll find a Kamilah Ayesha's store with a balcony overlooking the sea.  The owner, Onie (child of a former patient), will gladly bring down some mugs and hot water from his house to mix with a pack of instant coffee or hot chocolate.  Right below his shop is a small pier with a set of steps leading into the water (careful there are a couple urchins stuck to the side).  I can't think of a better way to end the day than to take a swim and then head up to his porch to watch the sunset with a hot drink.  Occasional storms will flash in the distance over the big mountain on Sangat island to the north.  Look for Rilakkuma sitting among the goods in the shop.

Descending Aguila on rough path.  Notice neighborhoods stretching into the bay.
Path leads you to abandoned school.  Slide out.
More ruins hiding in Culion.  Choose your path.
Making buddies in the shoestring neighborhoods stretching into the bay
Several of the hotspot boat trips out of Coron are actually much closer to Culion, including the famous Malcapulya island.  Unfortunately, the lack of tourist infrastructure also means a lack of competition and higher prices.  It may actually be cheaper, yet more time consuming to visit these spots out of Coron.  But unlike Coron, where boatmen seem to have unionized a bit and adhere to firm pricing structures, a little bit of bargaining can be had on Culion. It's a buyers market if you have some patience and time to waste.  A half trip to Bugur and a sunken Japanese gunboat was originally quoted to me at 3,500 pesos (!) including snorkeling gear.  I told the receptionist at the Maya I was looking for someone who could do it for two and the next day I had an offer for 2,500.
In the end I opted to do something a little less known.  On the NW side of the island a Swiss man named Urs runs the small and rustic Safari Resort, where he resides with his Filipino wife (a former member of the National Bureau of Investigation), three dogs, chickens, geese, ducks, monkeys, and a python. The spot is remote and peaceful (once you move away from the cacophony that animal kingdom makes in the morning).  There are no provisions, but they can provide basic meals at reasonable rates; there is some beer and rum on hand; and a freshwater spring will fill up your canteen and shower bucket.  You can hike three kilometers down the beach to the north to the small village of Canimango (turn towards the interior on the trail when you hit flatland dominated by coconut trees (a few boats will be parked there)). At the "resort" you can slap on a snorkel and take advantage of one of the largest, most pristine reefs on the island.  Just straight out from the cabins is an amazing variety of coral occupied by a variety of tropical fish, eels, lobster, and the occasional black tip reef shark.  Inquire about trips at the affiliated Safari Lodge in town.  If you're an experienced rider, the roads are dry, and you plan to stay briefly I'd recommend heading there on a rented motorcycle.  Otherwise a boat can be sent to fetch you, but it is loud (bring earplugs or improvise with napkin) and the fare started off extremely high before a little negotiation.

Ban Ban, Culion at sunset in front of the Safari
Overall the real charm of Culion is wandering around town on your two feet. Look for alternatives to the main road. There are at least 4 staircases snaking out of the Hotel Maya going to the sea, the fort, and the street. There are abandoned structures everywhere and neighborhoods where you might just arrive as the first representative of your homeland. Be a good one.


* There is a juicy, but unsubstantiated, theory that tourism is being suppressed rather than promoted by Culion's local government which is still raking in federal subsidies over its yet-to-be-adjusted classification as a leper colony.  The word is there are a few old-timer former patients who, for lack of a better plan at this late stage in life, are still taking hospice.  On official visits and during photo-ops these guys are trotted out, visibly worn from both age and their former battle with the disease.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Real Story from Rajastan

A somewhat belated story from last summer.  New stuff coming very soon.  Pinky promise..

“Man I’m so sick of this Rajput shit,” said Kuldeep, in a voice that confirmed he was named properly. 
When he spoke it was in a relaxed baritone that resonated and projected.  His buddies and colleagues, drunk, were heaping praise on him, the alpha of the group, and he was diffusing it with a bit of modesty.  Kuldeep and most of the men who sat in a circle around us were of the warrior caste.  We were in a state named after them, Rajasthan, on a ranch between the middle of nowhere and the boonies.  As raw onions were passed around on a plain silver tray and Bullet beer was poured from large bottles into thirsty cups, the men began to relax and open up.  These men, whose ancestors swung swords for kings, now owned tourist operations.  Instead of running foreign invaders out of the state they now welcomed them in, filing Germans, Americans, and Chinese into tour buses and walking groups.  A clever guide knows what their audience wants to hear and delivers the goods.  Although I was supposedly on an exclusive “insider” look of he area, what I had heard all day long was largely the paint-by-the-numbers routine.  Yet Kuldeep and I had struck up a little friendship during our time together in Jodhpur.  It was enough to get an invitation to join the gang of tour guides at a late night wind-down dinner and drinks session.  As alcohol began to overpower livers, tongues started to loosen.  Honest opinions, gossip, and pet theories emerged under the gaze of a dull moon.  Harish, a short stocky man with a hearty black moustache leaned towards me.
“I’ve got to tell you something that you want to think about,” he said.
Harish had one of the most successful companies of the group.  The crown jewel of his itinerary was a visit to an authentic Bishnoi household.  The Bishnoi people have one of the most fascinating stories you’ll read in the books.  It’s an affirmation of human will and principle.  Every guide on every tour will tell this story.  They probably know it like a flight attendant knows the safety demo spiel.  Harish, however, brimming with both booze and strong opinions was at the breaking point of towing the line.  He wanted to spill the dirt.
It’s a funny thing drinking out of another man’s hand.  The scenario becomes even more odd when you’re drinking opium water.  The old man filled his palm up three times with the brackish brown liquid and I bent my head down accordingly to slurp it up, wondering just how strange and horrifying my trip might be in 30 minutes.  The man chanted a bit, ritually tapped a few parts of the strange wooden contraption that had brewed the concoction, and the service was over.  He and I sat face to face, bonded yet basking in the kind of awkward silence that always precedes an announcement that it’s time to go.
I had just undergone was an important ritual for the Bishnoi people.  The ceremony of offering of this drug-laced drink is the equivalent of passing a western farm hand, fresh off a hard day in the field, a cold beer.  It creates a bond of camaraderie.  Drinking it out of the host’s hand, and therefore placing yourself in an extremely vulnerable position, is a display of trust.  Although heroine is officially illegal in India the tradition continues on the hush hush.  Officially speaking I never touched the stuff.
The name Bishnoi, the brochures will tell you, comes from a variation of the Hindu word for 29.  These people live under the banner of 29 principles that revolve around a central theme of environmentalism.  They are not born into the group, but rather they have, much like a Jain or born again Christian, decided to adopt the lifestyle and dogma full kit and caboodle.  The man’s house in which I sat was constructed of wood that was gathered only after the tree had died, and was lashed together instead of nailed.  Birds flew in and out of the humble shelter as we sat on a hard packed manure floor.  The place was clean and Spartan.  The food cooking in a pot behind us was purely vegetarian.
All of this is not something terribly remarkable in a country like India, where you’d need an extremely good memory or about 10 sheets of paper to list every cult, sect, and faith.   The Bishnoi would be just one more group of guru followers if it weren’t for a rather extraordinary tale of courage. The story starts almost two centuries ago when the maharaja of Jodhpur determined he would need more wood to construct a new palace, so he sent a platoon of soldiers and lumberjacks out to the countryside to cut down some khejri trees.  A woman named Amrita Devi, a Bishnoi, caught wind of the project and rushed to intervene.  To the Bishnoi the khejri (prosopis cineraria) is one of the most sacred and valued species of the land.  Amrita, in retrospect, was kind of the Julia Butterfly Hill of her day, but she paid a much heavier price for her principles.  The altercation escalated to the point where the woman, in a dramatic all or nothing toss of the dice, wrapped her arms around the first tree in line and declared that they would have to kill her before felling the khejri.  The maharaja’s authority wasn’t a strong point to debate in those days so, LOP!, off went her head, in full view of her two daughters who had stumbled out of the house at the sound of commotion.  Now the daughters, fortified with mom’s dying resolution, took their places, one at a time, against the tree.  They would have to kill them as well.  Two more tiny heads rolled to the dirt.  At this point, word had spread throughout the nearby community that something was going down.  “Oh brother,” some soldier must have muttered as Bishnoi from the village, clothed in white, faces hardened with determination and conviction, began to spill out of the forest and into the scene.  In a supreme act of sticking to one’s values the people came one after another and wrapped their bodies around the trees, cloaked in no armor stronger than cotton.  It was a slaughter.  By the time an update reached the maharaja’s ears over 350 Bishnoi had been hacked to death, the blood from their headless bodies disappearing into the thirsty earth.  The ruler, overcome with both grief and admiration, called off the soldiers and the project.  The khejri tree would henceforth be protected, and the Bishnoi would go on to become legends of guidebooks, websites, and pamphlets.
It was regarding this story that Harish, breath ripe with hops and barley, wanted to clarify a few things.  He had a different take on the matter.  A theory I could tell he’d spent a good deal of time working out.
Caste, in India, is a delicate thing.  It’s the big elephant in the room.  It’s the big elephant in about every room.  I arrived in Calcutta, at the very start of my Indian adventure, a few days early.  I wanted to get a lay of the land myself before hitting the road with the crew.  A friend had graciously offered the use of his apartment, which was more than spacious enough for a single guy.  Over the next week the place began to get a little cruddy, both from what I tracked in and from floating dust arriving from nearby construction projects, so we hired a maid.  She doused our dirty clothes in a big plastic tub and hung them out to dry, washed dishes left in the sink, and went over the floor twice with a straw broom and then a wet cloth.  The place looked fantastic… until I walked into the bathroom.
“Hey, our made forgot to do all the bathrooms,” I said to the neighbors, hoping they could pass the message on.
“No bathroom,” they replied.
She would not clean a bathroom.  That kind of work fell below her caste.  She may be a laborer, but she wasn’t an untouchable by god.  So I pulled out the scrub brush and cleaning fluids and took care of the bathroom myself, thinking how peculiar this situation was. The lady washing your floor and your clothes would not dare step into a telemarketing firm and ask for work.  She would probably receive the same reaction, as would a trapper with a musket and raccoon hat looking for a job on Wall Street.  This is above her.  However, this same lady will not extend her floor cleaning into your restroom.  No.  This is beneath her.  There is one more rung down to the bottom of the ladder.  Those people clean bathrooms.
In America what you will or will not do largely depends on your economic means.  The harder up you are, the more willing you are to get your hands dirty.  Yet there are several people who enjoy doing tasks they could probably pay some one to do for them.  Personally speaking, washing dishes and cleaning up the apartment actually gives me a little Zen.  I suppose it’s the singularity of focusing on one simple task, plus it’s a fantastic way to procrastinate from more challenging work while fooling yourself into thinking you’re doing something productive.  I don’t see cleaning as a reflection of my worth and standing.  I grew up in a house where menial chores helped secure an allowance.  There was a direct connection between cutting grass, pulling weeds, and cleaning house on one end, and candy consumption on the other.  If you are a kid born into an upper- middle class household in Delhi, however, you would have spent your childhood watching another person, or people, perform all these chores around you while you did homework, played games, or watched television.  It’s not a matter of what you’d care to do.  It’s a question of what you are born to do.
So how about the poor guys on the very bottom of the caste ladder?  Their ancestors handled jobs no one else wanted to do.  They would slaughter animals, cremate bodies, and clean out sewage systems.  Centuries later they find themselves largely doing similar tasks.  Your value and economic means lie strictly in providing services within your caste’s range of options to the community.  The lower you sit on the totem pole, the more concrete this rule stands.  If you happen to be born into the top three castes, priests, warriors, and merchants; there is, generally speaking, a good deal of room to reinvent yourself.  If you are born close to the bottom then good luck to you pal.
Lower castes, as a rule of thumb, do not get much of the spotlight in India.  They scurry around your kitchen, or work behind the scenes largely unnoticed and ignored.  Several times in India I have been welcomed into a living room for chai and snacks.  The hospitality truly is wonderful.  I would carry on frivolous conversations with my gracious hosts as a lady swept the floor around my feet.  The proper thing to do in such situations is not to address her, include her in the conversation, or offer her a seat or drink.  You should rather carry on as if she wasn’t there.  This is business as usual.  However, in a tiny region of Rajasthan things have been turned on their head.
Rajastan is the land of the Rajput, a class which sits near the pinnacle of the caste system.  The Bishnoi are comprised of the Shudra ranks, which sits on the very bottom.  That’s why one group has houses and palaces and the other lives on packed manure floors.  Everything was as it was designed to be for generations, and then suddenly heads started rolling.  Cutting down peasants for insolence was supposed to teach them a lesson, but instead it gave them a legacy.  It’s not only a good story.  It’s the kind of story that tourists generally consider the mark of the purest most estimable character.  Things have become awkward for the Rajput born guides, whose forefathers could assault a man of lower caste for simply looking at them the wrong way.  Now they must ask permission to bring tourists into the homes of the Bishnoi where the admiration runs in an odd direction.  Environmentalism is in vogue among the general traveling public of the developed world.  The Bishnoi are quickly recognized as the grandmasters of the philosophy.  They were green before it was cool to be green.  So the guides sit on the sidelines, next to their buses and vans, and watch Japanese, English, and Canadians gush over men of lower caste, paying them the highest respect.  I can only imagine that some of these proud men must feel just a bit like an ageing starlet whose young assistant has suddenly caught the fancy of the director, who now wants to take a chance and make her the star of the show.

“Think about this,” said Harish, “you are a young child and have just seen your mother decapitated by a large group of men.  What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “probably cry.”
“Exactly,” he said, picking up steam, “if you are a child you will cry or run away.  You will not sacrifice yourself.  This a child does not do.  Now how about your neighbor?  If you see him killed are you going to rush into the axe that spilled his blood?”
“So you’re saying the story is bullshit,” I offered, waving my beer in a grandiose sweep for emphasis.
I pushed open the door and Harish came barreling through.  His arguments were hot and fast with no pauses for emphasis or breath.  He’d been biting his tongue for way too long.  The Bishnoi was a clan composed of people who had been kicked out of their original communities for crime or bad behavior:  Thieves, cutthroats, and two time losers.  Where can a man who is already on the bottom of the ladder go when he is kicked off the last rung?  He is an outcast.  Jumbheshwar Bhagwan, the founder of the movement, solved this problem in Rajasthan.  Like many cult leaders, he was a charismatic charlatan with a good idea in search of a following.  A person, regardless of their path could adopt his creed, pledge allegiance to his leadership and vision, and become part of a community again.   He could start a new life.
“Well, O.K. let’s say that’s true,” I said, cutting in as Harish finally sucked some fresh air into his lungs, “Maybe you’re suggesting they didn’t start off with pure ‘green’ intentions.  O.K.  But obviously some commotion happened over the trees so they must have eventually embraced the idea just a little bitty bit.”
“There were no trees,” Harish exclaimed, spreading out his arms like a hawk in a dive.
This story was a cover.  What really happened was this:  The princess of the land was returning to the palace.  As her regalia laced procession passed by a couple Bishnoi standing on the side of the road she heard one of them drop a degrading remark.  “I’d like to shake that peach tree,” he may have said, thinking her just out of earshot.  She returned to her fortress traumatized.
“She did not think this bad for herself.  She was unconcerned for herself,” Harish clarified, “but she was thinking ‘if his man can say this to me, a princess, how must he say with every woman on the street?’”
So the princess, selfless heart dedicated to the proper treatment of village women, dispatched a platoon of soldiers to give this leach a lesson in manners.  When they accosted him the lecture escalated into some sort of conflict.  At this very moment another procession was heading down the road.  This one, much larger in size, was comprised of Bishnoi celebrating a wedding.  They saw one of their own getting roughed up by the elite guard and did not like it.  Men ran over, pent up frustrations boiled over, and before you could say “khejri” all hell broke loose.  This, according to the unofficial version, is how over 350 Bishnoi died that day.
I leaned back in my lawn chair and muttered, “huh..”  The term “sour grapes,” came to mind, but I was neither of the disposition or sobriety to launch a rebuttal, so I leaned back and took a swig of my Bullitt beer while the night cooled around us. 

On a long flight, weeks later, I thought about that conversation again.  I recalled Winston Churchill’s wonderful aphorism, “History is written by the victors.”  Certainly this is the reason why neither book nor teacher in my grade school had a bad word to say about Christopher Columbus, who I later learned had a nasty habit of slave trading and decimating peaceful island tribes.  It might also have something to do with why I never heard about allied forces firebombing civilian neighborhoods in Tokyo, killing more people than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  If the Royal guard in Rajasthan were on the winning end, wouldn’t they be the ones to spin the story of what happened that blood soaked day?  Why would they fashion a tale that made them look so monstrous in the murder of hundreds of villagers?  Could a sorely defeated and depleted Bishnoi community, composed of the most ill educated members of society, have the savvy to turn a story of class conflict into one of environmental defense and get it to stick?
Perhaps there was some veracity to both versions.  Maybe the princess herself accompanied the soldiers and lumberjacks on that ill planned logging expedition.  When the saws and axes creating a ruckus around the village a crowd began to form.  People began to shout things like “sacred,” “property rights,” and “compensation.”  At this moment her highness may have stepped forward to declare everything was completely justifiable under the authority of the king.  One rambunctious soul, hidden in the pack, perhaps piped up and told her where she could stick her royal decree.  Guards, enraged over the treasonous rhetoric, would have moved to accost the wretch.  Pushing into the mob they would have shoved aside villagers who began to shove back.  A punch was thrown, rocks were slung, swords were drawn, and the violence spiraled deep and dark red.

For the moment the tree defense story stands while the foulmouthed villager version lurks in the shadow of late night whispers.  Although nothing jaw dropping has occurred in the last century, the Bishnoi continue to defend the khejri, quickly filing legal action and swarming courthouses when the protected trees are cut.  They also protect the endangered black buck that roams the plains of Rajasthan.  When famous Bollywood actor Salman Kahn thought it might be a good idea to poach one of these animals from the safety of his entourage and fame, he found out the hard way that the Bishnoi are pretty darn dogged about seeing their point through to the end.  Although his clout leveraged a five-year sentence into six days of actual jail time, it’s been a legal nightmare for the bulked up star for over a decade.[1] 

The man who offered me a heroine drink in his home...  I liked him.  I felt at ease in his breezy shack with the birds and lizards darting around us like some Disney movie.   The guides who cracked a few beers for us on a moonlit night...  I like them as well.  Everybody’s got their frustrations with work and needs to let a little steam off.  I am no stranger to a little drunken badmouthing now and then, though I’m usually just a shade sensible enough not to do it around journalists or writers.  I hope they forgive me one day for sharing their pet theories.  The Rajput and Bishnoi will continue their awkward economic dance.  A dance stepped to the tune of a modern world where information has become stronger than the sword.  Dot-commer nerds scored trophy wives once reserved for genetically superior jocks, everyman Arabs armed with camera phones gained critical mass against deep-rooted regimes, and presidential elections were won from grassroots movements powered by text messages, Twitter, and Facebook.  Own the right story and the world is yours.... reputation, status, and busloads of tourists in the palm of your opium laced hand.

[1] This story also has a revisionist version. Salman’s spin on what happened that night was captured on a late night Indian talk-show years later.  The actor contends that he was driving through the desert when he noticed a baby buck caught in a bush.  He got out of his chauffeured car, offered the trapped doe some food from his hands, and then freed it from the branches.  Somehow, in the confusion, a rumor spread through the Bishnoi community that he had killed the buck.  He’s not sure how they came to that conclusion.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Pistols, Pedals, and Platitudes: A Short Journey Through the Barranca del Cobre

So here it comes,” I thought as the three gunmen strutted down the embankment to our right, positioning themselves directly in our path.  They looked at each other and smiled, cradling automatic rifles in their arms, pistols hanging off their waists.  I’d been braced for this moment and, frankly, it was a long time coming.  I thought we’d get it right across the border in Nogales.  Though it doesn’t have the rep of say a Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican bordertown is a place of crooked authority, drug runners, and desperados.  In my last three trips through Tijuana I’d been rolled twice, both times by the police.  The last one left me returning to U.S. soil without the 60$ I’d had in my wallet or the nice watch I’d been wearing on my wrist.  This was before things had officially turned really ugly.  Before narcos started rolling decapitated heads across discothèque floors and dumping piles of dead bodies onto freeways from overpasses.
So why was I going to Mexico despite warnings from friends, the United States government, and about every stranger who got wind of the plan?  I could reference the old travelers aphorism that what you hear in the news is always worse than the reality, or claim a higher level of testosterone and daring-do than your average viajero; but the reality is that I was simply unprepared.  My traveling compadre, James, and I had previously devised a grand plan over an afternoon of several margaritas and idealistic musing.  We were to organize, within two months, a thrilling rally down to Panama comprised of 10 teams and as many used cars.  Time quickly closed down on us, other money making enterprises took precedence, and we found ourselves, a week away from our departure date, with two solid commitments (He and I) and about 5 “maybes” (which are as good as “no”s when it comes to travel preparations).   Unwilling to throw in the towel and admit defeat, and with no plan B in place for the holiday season, we chucked everything but the kitchen sink in the back of James’ old Jeep Cherokee and hit the road.  Climbing gear, surfboards, mountainbikes, and hiking/camping equipment were loaded in our recreational vehicle like bullets in a revolver.  We may not have a clear target, but by God we were going to pull the trigger.  Well, that or a bandito gang would fleece us just over the border and send me slinking back to REI, credit card bracing for some serious abuse.
We stopped in Nogales, Arizona to spend the night.  There was only an hour of sunlight left and the only thing worse than driving a loaded SUV through a Mexican bordertown is driving a loaded SUV through a Mexican bordertown at night.  This is apparently, among ex-pats in the know, the #1 rule about travel in Mexico:  Don’t drive at night.  To test this theory I asked several locals over the course of our trip if it would be OK to scoot down the road just a bit in the dark.  They all shook their heads and suggested we better not.  “Hay gente mala,” said one old timer on the fringes of Los Alamos, running a weathered finger across his neck to emphasize the point.
Gazing both to the south and north from a hilltop in Arizona you didn’t need to be an educated fellow to figure out in which direction sat Mexico.  The neat, squared off fields and uniform, cookie cutter subdivisions of Arizona immediately and dramatically gave way to a hodgepodge, ramshackle assortment of homes and buildings surrounded by a labyrinth of potholed streets.  There was no architect gazing down at a big sheet on paper before this was thrown together.  No top down master plan.  But what it lacked in organization, I would later gather, it made up for in intimacy, community, and personality; three qualities of which first world tract housing projects are completely void and empty.  But at that first moment, gazing over the big iron fence below us, it looked like danger.  We hustled back to our hotel and gave the camping stove a test run, cooking up cup of noodle by the outdoor pool as we went over maps and tried to formulate a last minute plan.
Over 1,000 miles of driving, web-browsing, and guidebook reading later we found our plan coming together in the colonial style town of El Fuerte, named after a fort the Spanish had built to protect themselves from indigenous tribes unsettled by the conquistadors’ agenda.  The old part of town, around the zócalo, was truly a romantic gem.  The kind of place that makes you yearn suddenly for a particular lover, wishing she could walk down the cobblestone streets holding your hand, losing yourselves in romantic exploration as the faint sounds of Latin rhythms echoed through the air and festive string light cast a soft glow over her beautiful face.  Surely we were a bit out of place strolling through the streets in grubby fleece jackets in search of a taco stand, passing by well-dressed lovers furtively eyeballing us from park benches and dark corners.  We’d come from a restless night of sleep on the beach of San Carlos and were in need of a good hot shower and a shave.
Just outside of El Fuerte passed the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, a powerhouse old-school train that would carry us up into the far edge of the Barranca del Cobre, passing over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels as it chugged up the canyon.  The Copper Canyon is reputedly six times the size of the Grand Canyon, deeper, and much less explored and documented.  Fifty years ago the tourist industry didn’t even know it existed.  You wouldn’t find a single mention in a guidebook.  It was essentially an Atlantis, the size of Costa Rica, sitting right in the middle of Mexico.  If you want to figure out how to get from A to B when you’re inside one of the 20 canyons or 200 interlocking gorges in its expanse your only recourse is to hope you’ll run across someone in that remote land, and then hope they know what they’re talking about when they give you directions.  The few maps available are laughably oversimplified and inaccurate.  The one and only true authority inside those massive cliff walls would be the Tarahumara native tribespeople.  Known in the running world for being able to crush even the best of the best ultra-marathoners (wearing leather sandals), they are also famously reclusive.  You’d be a lucky man to have one go out of their way to appear from their cliffside dwellings to guide you out of a tough spot deep in a slot.  More likely you’d run into a narco-trafficker whose gang was utilizing the more remote sections of the canyon to grow weed for the U.S. market.  A traveler who happened to stumble across a crop was as good as fertilizer.  They would vanish without a trace.  Another victim of a land with a long history of swallowing people entirely.
Our newly minted, long-time-coming plan was to jump off the train at a town called Creel, 266 kilometers out and 2,300 meters up, and ride our mountainbikes back down to El Fuerte, exploring the canyon and it’s remote pueblos along the way.  It was a great idea, and we felt the euphoria of a trip coming together, right up until the locals burst our little balloon with some very unfortunate news.
“No se puede llevar los bicis en el tren,” said the hotel clerk.  You can’t bring bicycles on the train.  Three years ago yes, but they changed the policy.  One by one, everybody we asked in town agreed that this would be impossible.  They weren’t happy about it either as they could no longer haul bigger cargo up to friends and relatives living further down the line.  A dread set over us.  Thousands of miles down the road and we hit a complete dead end.  “Could we drive up from here,” we’d ask.  “No creo,” would say some.  “No es recommendable,” said others.  I don’t believe so.  I wouldn’t recommend it.  We’d get lost and run out of gas.  The roads that would be barely passable in our 4x4, if we could find them, would also be trafficked by narcos.  Get caught out there in the dark and it’s goodnight Irene.  What could we do?  After an hour or so of moping, bellyaching, and feeling sorry for ourselves we decided to go to the train station anyhow in the morning and hope that through luck or guile things would work out.  We bucked up each other’s spirits with positive thinking mantras (“You never know unless you try!”) and went to bed slightly less troubled.

Matias, a big, headstrong German man was there ahead of us, waiting with his bicycle.  From the moment he opened his mouth it was evident that this man was determined and also one beer short of a sixpack.
“Zee ticket agent promised me, so I think it is alright,” he assured us, conflicting with the opinion of the Mexicans waiting by the track who did not believe we’d have a chance.  When the train arrived, Matias was like a pitbull off the chain, pushing past the conductor who was trying to politely explain in Spanish that his bike was not allowed.  He got on anyhow.  Security was called in and they removed his bike and bags.  He scooped them up, walked over a few meters, and got on a different car.  They removed him again and he jumped on another one.  While this amusing show went on I decided to hit them with another tact.  Saddling up next to one of the trains attendants I began an appeal to his personal gain.
“Surely there must be some kind of extra fee the railway could accept for the extra baggage”
“The thing is I don’t really know what to tell you.  It’s a difficult one.  I’m not really the guy in charge here,” he said.
I could see a little wheel beginning to grind behind his eyes, but his posture was one of the powerless.  He had little pull.  I stepped away to grab my camera.  The German was being extricated yet again and I had a feeling he was truly going to blow.  I had to get that on film.  Another train employee strolled up to witness the struggle.
“The ticket agent promised him he could take a bike on,” I explained.
“She just said that to sell the ticket,” he said, “the reality is that we are in charge.”
“Is there some kind of way we can make this happen.. maybe a special fee to the railway?” I asked, angling for the bribe again.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, and then strolled off.
I raised my camera to catch the German being pulled off yet one more time.  Then in the frame, the security guard looked to the side and pointed.  I lowered the camera and saw the crew waving us to the front of the train.  Things were suddenly looking up.
Until they came to the dining car, I wasn’t really sure what had caused the change of heart.  Well polished, German engineered insistence; or slick American deal making?  In the front of the train, however, it started to come together.  I was trying hard to comprehend the conductor’s mumbled Mexican Spanish as we sat on top of a huge chugging motor and blasted through a series of tunnels.  Our bikes hung loose just to my side, tied slipshod to the side of the engine.   
“You know we let you..” Rumble Rumble “ guys might be difficult” Rumble Rumble “maybe work something out but don’t know what you want to do.”
I was 90% sure he was angling for the bribe, but 100% sure I didn’t want to start talking figures until he did.  So we went around and around for about 15 minutes.  He’d drop the vague spiel and I’d say, “What do you recommend?”  Then he’d drop the same spiel again.  Finally he brought up money.  Since he wanted me to throw out the first numbers I lowballed the price, and we came up with 6 to 7 dollars a head (down from his 60$ a head), to be handed over in the next to last station if we wanted to continue all the way.  He’d explained that, although he let us on out of the kindness of his heart, the crew would change there, one stop away from our destination.  In order to press on he’d have to convince the next conductor to let our bikes slide.  It was a good pitch, casting himself as an altruistic man who needed us to help him help us.  Well played.  I climbed out of the engine car, stepped over the gap, and slid back into the passenger portion of the train to break the news to my Anglo-Saxon contingent.
“No, ve do not have to pay!” said Matias raising a finger into the air with jubilance.  “Zeh is a bus to Creel from dis station!”
I had to hand it to him, like a master chess player he knew right then, several moves ahead, that we’d already won.  By making the second to last stop the negotiation point the conductor had inadvertently moved himself into a checkmate position.  I would have paid the bribe, but I prefered not too.  It would have slid us through, but also began to set a precedent that fellow travelers would have to suffer.
“You’re leaving?!” the conductor asked as we unloaded our bikes.
“Yeah, we didn’t want to bother you with the hassle,” I said, staying in character.
“Thanks for your trouble,” said James, whipping out a 100 peso note.  He hadn’t noticed, but just behind him the new crew was walking up.  A loose bill in these situations attracts eyeballs like a naked woman at a strip club.  It was a masterful, though inadvertent play, offering the bribe in front of all the man’s peers.  He naturally demurred. 
“Thanks again,” I said as we parted ways
“You’re welcome..  que le vaya bien,” he replied.  But his eyes said, “Sonofabich…”

So how should one react when armed men swing out in front of you, blocking your path?  This was not my first rodeo.  A decade ago, in the forests north of Bogota, Colombia I had split with a hiking group intent on blazing a different path to the pueblo that was our destination.  I scaled up a steep hill and came up over the lip to find myself in a small clearing.  Surrounding the open space were 6 guys in full camo.  One had a grenade launcher and the others carried automatic rifles, apparently in the middle of a little siesta until I emerged, walking right into the center of their circle.  Running into armed men in a Colombian jungle, especially in that era, was a little bit of a crapshoot with poor odds.  If they were the guerillas (FARC, ELN) I was as good as kidnapped.  I could look forward to a year or so of being led around the backcountry in chains while the group tried to extort money from my family in exchange for my life.  The money not necessarily guaranteeing my release, because, if the goose lays a golden egg, why not try to get another one out of her?  If these guys were narco-traffickers I was probably going to be quickly executed.  If they were paramilitary (not to be confused with military), I would either be killed or kidnapped, but perhaps left alone.  My only solid hope is that they belonged to the Colombian army.
“Hola amigos!  Que tal?  Que mas?  Que hay de Nuevo?” I exclaimed with as much buddy-buddy inflection as possible.  What’s up guys?  How’s it going?  What’s new?  My goal was to convey that I was relaxed and a super fun, cool guy.  Not the type at all that you’d want to kill or slap chains on.  I cracked a few jokes and generally danced like a monkey until the crowd was good and warmed up.  Then I got around to the nuts and bolts.
“So.. enough about me.  What are you guys doing up here?”
Lucky 7 baby.  Colombian army tracking the guerillas on a kill mission.  Said they had passed by that way just recently.
So here I was 10 years later in that old familiar spot.  James and I had just ground out a steep climb from the river valley below.  The past three days had been like that.  Technically, since the train climbed the entire journey, we were going downhill headed back to El Fuerte, but it sure didn’t seem like it.  My bicycles middle gears were as virginal as an early years Britney Spears.  There were no gentle slopes or even grades.  Rather it was either a long steep, brake searing drop down to the canyon bottom, or a lowest of the low gears muli-hour grind thousands of meters up so you could drop back down to the river again.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  At this point of the ride, when the gunmen stopped us, we were deep in that zone that a long and steady climb requires.  If you think about how slow you are progressing, how high you have yet to go, and how much your legs hurt and your lungs are burning you’ll eventually crack and step off your pedals, suffering a small moral defeat.  No mountain biker wants to be seen walking their bike unless the conditions are outright impassable.  So you drop into a place in your mind much like the daydreams explored in gradeschool history classes.  You think about women you love or have loved.  You ponder your future plans and ambitions.  You fantasize about foods you will consume and drinks you will gulp down when given the next opportunity.  So when men with guns step into your path, it takes a minute to snap out of your state and come around to this new harsh reality.  You’re caught so off guard that you’re almost whimsical about the situation, as if it were somehow as ephemeral as your thoughts.  Nonetheless, we came off our pedals and put our feet down.
A beat passed as we all stared at each other as if in a high noon shootout.  Just a tick before it started to get awkward, I dropped it in gear.
“Hola amigos!  Que tal?  Que mas?  Que hay de Nuevo?”
I smiled wide and continued with the routine, smoother and more nuanced the second time around.
“Somos viajeros.  Vimos de Creel con nada menos nuestros bicis y una carpa.  El camino es dificil, pero muy lindo su pais!”  We’re travelers with nothing but bikes and a tent.. it’s a hard journey but your country is so beautiful!  I paused for a second to see how well I managed to convey poverty and appreciation without hammering the points too hard.
“So you came by bicycle,” said the big one, “that’s pretty cool.”  “Say did you ever hear the one of the guy who rode his bike to the store?”
I shook my head no.  I figured 50% chance this was a joke, 50% chance it was a parable about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffering the consequences.
“He wants to buy a bra for his wife, but he doesn’t know her size,” he continued.
The shopkeeper asks, “Well are they like watermelons.”
“No way!” says the guy letting out a laugh. 
“Well are they like cantaloupes?”
“No, no.  Much smaller.”
“Like grapefruits?”
“Even smaller.”
“Like… eggs?” the shopkeeper tentatively ventures.
“Yes!” says the man, “but fried!”
All four men let out a roar of laughter, machine guns swinging on straps as they buckled over.  James looked at me with upright eyebrows.
“I’m not quite sure.  Some kind of joke about tits,” I mumbled between hearty guffaws.  I hadn’t quite caught it at that point, but when a man with an automatic rifle tells a joke, you laugh at that joke.
“So you must be strong guys, riding those bikes like that,” Said the young skinny guy with a peach fuzz mustache.
‘Here it comes,’ I thought,  ‘He’s leading this to some kind of challenge.’  It’s always the small guys who like to pipe up and act tough when they’ve got their posse around.
“Nah.  Today I’m dragging.  Didn’t have my coffee,” I said.
“You want some coffee?” chipped in the guy with a crew cut and wrap around sunglasses.
“Uh…” I looked back at James, who was eager for an update. “I think they are offering us coffee.”
“Ustedes quieren café?  Hay café!  Vamonos!” young and skinny said waving us up the embankment.
Sure enough, on a big pile of ashes and embers, sat a well-worn iron pot full of java.  We were in what appeared to be an encampment where the guys had spent the night.  I held out my canteen as the big one, the jokester filled it with steaming hot, pitch-black coffee.
“Quieren crema?  Tenemos azucar tambien,” offered crew cut holding up little plastic bags full of powdered creamer and sugar packs.
This was either the most congenial mugging of all time or things were not as they appeared.
“So, we can head up this road and get to Tubares?” I asked, which was really a way of asking “So you’re just gonna let us march out of here after this coffee?” masquerading as a request for directions.
“Si…. Quieres comer algo?” Skinny guy said.  Yes.. Do you want to eat something?  Crew cut was back from rummaging in a bag with two pastries in his hand.
“I don’t want to eat your breakfast,” I said.
“No, no.. esta bien.  We already ate,” Skinny assured us.
Big guy cracked another joke I didn’t get as James and I divvied up a cinnamon bun and a roll with pink jelly in the center, washing it town with the bold and slightly metallic flavored brew.
“So that was great,” said James a few minutes later, standing up, “but I think we have to go now.”  It was a brave, assertive move spoken slowly in his friendly, crisp British accent.
“No-no,” said big guy holding his arms up in a ‘stay right there’ kind of gesture.  He looked over to skinny to do the talking.
“You have to… uh… wait,” he said in English before dropping back into a deliberate and simple Spanish.
“You have to wait for an escort.”
“An escort?”
“Si. An escort to take you through the mine property.”
“Oh.  This is a mine!  Up ahead a mine?”
“Yes.  A gold mine.  Canadian.  We called the supervisor and he should be on his way.”
Two hours later we had both bikes stuffed into the back of an old Ford bronco and were driving past monstrously large machinery and the biggest tractors I’d ever seen.
“Those are nothing,” said the supervisor at the wheel, “We’ve got ones twice that size.”
We were dumped off on the other end of the property and a large metal fence swung shut behind us.
“Ain’t life all how you frame things?” mused James
“How do you mean?”
“Well that started off as a scare.  Then it became an inconvenience cause I wanted to get on with the ride.  Now, looking back, that time we sat talking with those guys, drinking coffee, swapping stories, showing pictures out of our wallets… we’re going to look back at that as a highlight of the trip.”

Completely exhausted after a long climb up to yet another pass

James and I training knife defense before the trip under the tutelage of combat specialist Thomas Lynch

What amounted to the last leg of our ride came at the end of three days of grueling ascents but unbeatable vistas.  We finally rolled into a town called Tubares.  Judging from what I’d gathered from a couple campesinos the day before, Tubares would have a nice little posada where we could get a shower and a clean bed, and a couple restaurants.  We pondered our order at great length on that final stretch into town.  A couple asada tacos and a big glass of hibiscus juice to wash it down?  No, we would eat at least three tacos apiece.  Maybe make them quesadillas, getting a handful of cheese thrown in with the meat.  Then stuff them out with the guacamole sauce, salsa, and chopped onions the restaurant would place on our table.  Maybe have a cold bottle of coke first, then the hibiscus drink when the food came out.  Or if they offered some kind of pineapple agua, like the restaurant in El Fuerte, we’d definitely take that over the hibiscus. 
Picture us rolling into town and asking a crowd of kids in ratty shirts where the nearest restaurant is.  Now picture our countenance drop when they respond “No hay restaurante aqui.”  There was no restaurant in Tubares.  There was, however, a small tienda, a general store, down by the church.  We rode over there in silence.  Each man coming to grips with his juicy beef taco becoming a bag of crackers.  His cold pinapple juice, ice cubes cool on the lips, becoming a room temperature soda. 
At the counter, simultaneously shoveling spicy red chips and brittle chocolate chip cookies into our mouths we struck up a conversation with the shopkeep.
“So El Fuerte is pretty close to here?” I asked.
“No.  Not close.  Far.”
“But it’s fairly level.. not a lot of up and down?”  We were at the river basin.  El Fuerte was at the river.  It made sense.
“No senior.  Mucha subida y bajada.”  A lot of climbs and descents.
“Ay yay yay..” I exclaimed leaning hard and heavy on the counter.  I was over it.  I was so over it I wanted everyone to known I was over it.  James, a stronger rider than I, was undoubtedly up to the task, but I believe he too had had his fill.  Climbing up and down that canyon was a bit like eating pancakes:  It’s quite a treat, but you reach your limit abruptly, and when you do the thought of one more bite is repulsive.
“This guy is going to El Fuerte.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“This guy is going to El Fuerte,” said the shopkeep again pointing to a man who was suddenly standing beside me.
“You’re going to El Fuerte?” I asked.
“Si.  We are all going to El Fuerte,” said the mustachioed fellow matter of factly as he gestured grandly behind him.
I turned around to see a fleet of silver pickup trucks that had rolled into the dusty square while I was soaking in my pity party, oblivious.  Each one had a bright seal stamped on the side.  CHIHUAHUA STATE DEPT. OF HEALTH
An improbable turn of events got us on the train, beginning our adventure into the Barranca del Cobre.  A right place at the right time stroke of luck ended it.  Five minutes earlier or later to that little shop and we would have missed the only ride out of town.  The caravan, which had just spent three weeks in the region distributing anti-malarials, was wrapping things up and stopped on a whim to grab a few snacks for the ride home.  With our bikes in the back of a new F-150, we reclined deep into a couch that had been installed in the bed and watched 2 more days of hard riding whisk by.  A cool afternoon breeze blew over the land while it slowly transformed itself from shade to shade as the setting sun coaxed different colors out of the canyon walls.
It turns out fate does occasionally open up some doors for the unprepared.  It’s probably fair to say there are more doors out there, on the road and in the unknown, than we tend to imagine.  And those doors lead to some pretty interesting places.  Occasionally you’ll go through the wrong one, but usually, even if it’s not what you had planned, it’s the right one.  But you have to knock.  You have to knock.