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.