Saturday, September 12, 2015

Stunning Whistler Valley and Her Gorgeous Scenery

Whistler Valley, British Columbia. I have been many places, and few are as stunningly beautiful. For days I rode my bicycle around the valley, went on hikes (some quite strenuous,) swam across mountain lakes, sat for hours by falls and babbling brooks, and tracked down bears til I finally ran into a two year old cub by Fitzsimmons Creek- I was very excited.  
Lost Lake- not as big as it looks, I swam across
When I am in nature, the silence permeates my soul and mind, so I'm just going to pipe down, and let you look through the photos and videos here.
view from the condo I stayed in

Woodpeckers going at it- surprisingly large birds
surrounding mountains + glaciers

Whistler, Canada highlights. Enjoy. 

a boulder splits the falls

arduous hike to Rainbow Lake finally yields results- about 5 miles uphill

exploring Rainbow Lake late in the evening, sole person there

Harmony Lake- elevation 6,000 feet

lush and green and beautiful

natural bridge over the creek- deep in the woods

color in the forest

High in the mountains on the way to Rainbow Lake

I sat by this stream for hours on multiple occasions

Black bear

 if you go to Whistler, you're going for the nature. Enjoy.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Taste and Feel of Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver, public transport amazing. Within the city, car unneeded. I ride my bicycle everywhere, taking in the great summer weather.
guitar circle on "cold wet sand"
There's an undeniably pleasant, hippy feel around town, from the marijuana dispensaries, the yoga studios on every corner of the Kitsilano area, to the guitar circles on the "beach"- a term I use generously, really more appropro would be: "cold wet sand."

Near downtown is Stanley Park- 1,000 acres of land devoted to recreation for Vancouverites, you can bike around the lush green area in about an hour, but do stop and partake in some activity, whether it be photographing geese, doing pull-ups on rec equipment, tossing a frisbee, or toppling a totem pole. 
Lord Stanley welcomes to you his park, trees + totem poles
Canada's entire population is 10 percent smaller than the state of California, but spread out over an area substantially larger than the entire United States, which is, how to say, ample room.
Given that non-summer temperatures approach zero Kelvin, Canadians are highly incentivized to take advantage of the precious little time it is, in fact, legal to go outside.
They walk their dogs, bike, swim, paddle board, hike, and run, all government mandated training regimens designed to keep their citizens fit and fast so they can run from wolves (and sometimes bears) during the winter.  
alternate Canadian flag
Seriously though, if your goal was to come to Vancouver and watch obese people waddle around town, you've got "slim-pickings" ... mainly because the wolves got 'em first.
This level of fitness is directly correlated to the nearly 40% lower healthcare bill Canada spends per person versus their bloated cousins south of the border, and indirectly explains why the wolf remains such a cherished national symbol.

Downtown as viewed from Stanley Park
Canada Place

Canada Place, a popular tourist attraction lies at the edge of downtown and the bay. The architecture is stupendous, and it's the heart of Canadian patriotism, as signs proudly exalt the country's contributions to the world-"Hockey."
Gastown, Vancouver
Gastown old timey-clock

Vancouver's compass- merely look towards the mountains across the bay and head in their direction.
When you reach base of the mountains you've arrived in North Vancouver, where endless hiking trails and mountain streams are surrounded by arrays of blackberry bushes, delicious summer fruit on their branches making it impossible to starve. 
Vancouver's compass- the mountains of North Vancouver

On the whole, Vancouver is a stunning city, well worth the visit during the summer. Get a bike and ride it far and wide, go on some hikes, have a beer at a local bar. You'd be hard pressed not to enjoy this beautiful and diverse town. Just make sure to venture indoors the moment you hear howling. 
the sun sets over Vancouver Bay

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Biking Adventures and Criminals in Vancouver, Canaduh

I quickly discover that you really don’t need a car to get around Vancouver. I walk to the bicycle store; price of a rental- $45 a day.
“Plus a credit card on file in case it gets stolen,” the salesman quips.
“I can rent a car for that much,” I retort, “Don’t you have anything cheaper?”
“We have an old clunker the boss took to get some coffee ... speak of the devil,” a cool looking hipster pulls in on an old red mountain bike.
“What do you think that bike is worth?”
“Not much,” replies the salesman, waving it off.
I assess the situation, then introduce myself to the boss.
“I’m going to be here for a few days, and I simply cannot afford to rent a bike from you guys every day, and I think you might want to get rid of the old bike you were just riding. Can we work a deal?”
The boss seems surprised, but not unwilling.
“How much were you thinking?”
“Well, your salesman said it wasn’t worth much, it looks a little worn. How about $50?”
The boss considers, examines the bike. “The gears all work, Reddy here is in decent shape,” he coaxes.
“Yeah, but your guy said it wasn’t worth much, however I will need a lock as well, and I’ll pay you cash.”
“Yeah, you definitely need a lock here in Vancouver,” he states nodding. “Allright, you got yourself a deal.”
We shake hands, I’m pleasantly surprised it came so cheap.
Downtown Vancouver- the flag of Canaduh
“That was some good negotiating,” remarks the employee manning the register. … A little luck mixed in honestly. I'd have paid more.

They have some steel and chrome locks, but paying as much for the lock as the bike itself, a bicycle I’ll have to give up in a week or so, doesn’t sit right with me. Mr. Negotiator gets the cheapest combination lock chain they have ($18).
Freed from walking, I seemingly fly around the city, down to the beach, over the bridges, through downtown, up the hills. I feel a sense of freedom as the wind blows my hair back, and although it’s nowhere near the best bike in the world, Reddy's 7 gears do me just fine.
One evening I’m headed home, and at the stop light before the bridge, I overhear a girl speaking with her sister about “letting people in.” Her sister bikes away, and our light turns green.
“You’re an AirBnb host?” I ask, half stating it, even though the word never came up.
“I am,” she replies, slightly surprised.
Vancouver Harbor
Hard to reach Rainbow Lake in Whistler

We speed off on our bikes, side by side, chatting, getting to know each each other, as we glide over the ocean beneath us. By the time we cross, we’ve agreed to have a beer.
We lock up our bikes, which seems at the top of the Ten Commandments for Vancouverites, and enjoy each other’s company for the next hour, before bidding each other adieu.
After 5 days in Vancouver, I take Reddy up to Whistler with me, riding her all around the stunning valley, exploring as much as possible over four days, easily eclipsing 100 miles on my trusty steed.
But my trip comes to a close. I hitch my bike on the Epic Rides trailer back to Vancouver.
I'm set to fly out several hours later. What to do with Reddy? If I just leave her out, she’ll undoubtedly be ganked by some criminal.
“Alexis, I have an idea for you. When I came to Vancouver, I wanted to rent a bike but they’re ridiculously expensive. I’m sure some of your guests would wish to rent one, why don’t I give you mine, and you rent it out to your guests for $20 a day. You’re doing them a service, and making extra money. We’ll split the earnings up to $500, after that the bike is yours.”
“Great idea!” she messages me back, “Lock it up under the staircase by my apartment and I'll be back later tonight.”

Hot damn! Not only did I get to use a bike for 9 days for $50 plus the lock, I’m going to end up making money on this deal, helping this girl out, and giving her guests a superior deal. Win-win-win, this is turning out absolutely brilliantly.
Bike to her place, lock Reddy up, and head to the airport, a smile on my face the whole way home.
I get off the plane, turn my phone on.
“Rich, I’m so embarrassed by my city, when I came home the bike was there. I came out two hours later, the chain was clipped and the bike was gone.”
Sorry Reddy! Shoulda invested in a better lock.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Taste of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Okay Boutique Hotel, made and decorated with old growth rainforest hardwood, one of Cambodia's prime resources. Classy, for sure, and the reason the area around Phnom Penh looks barren and brown.
beautiful interior of the "Okay Boutique Hotel"
Superstitious? No floor 13. 
The ubiquitous motorbikes of SE Asia whiz by you, missing you by whiskers as you traverse the streets. Most spew toxic and visible fumes, but hey, it's economical transportation.
Walking down the street you'll have to avoid the occasional pile of garbage, a combination of plastics, leaves, cardboard cartons, dirt, and bottles. In fairness, late at night, at least in the commercial districts, a man comes and manually scoops it between two large flat metal plates and transfers the trash heaps into a garbage truck.
outdoor corner barbershop
crazy wires all crossing
independence monument

old woman at night market
here you'll get a more complete sense of what Phnom Penh is like/ feels like

night market entertainment
the palace of the the Cambodian King
I venture out at night. A few years ago the streets were nearly dark. It still feels a little eerie, but today there far many more lights. Progress.
I pass various lady-bars/brothels, a gaggle of scantily clad women wearing too much make-up trying to beckon me inside.
At nearby markets vendors hawk wares ranging from local fruit, breads, and fowl, to candies and cheap souvenirs. The Cambodian financial system operates on the US dollar. If you need small change from handing over an Abe Lincoln it comes in the form of Cambodian currency, which, when touched, has the feel of monopoly money but is an actuality, worth less.
Restaurants in prime locations of the capital cater primarily to tourists and government officials. You can eat a wonderful meal preset meal here at an Italian restaurant called Caravan consisting of appetizers, a glass of wine, a main course, and a scrumptious dessert for $12. Good luck getting that price back in the states.

While people seem generally friendly, there is undoubtedly a collectively felt trauma still present in the population from the genocide committed by the Pol Pot regime. Many of today's parents and elders grew up without families, forced into slave labor, witnessing atrocities, with nowhere to turn for help, a combination which rarely makes for a healthy mind. Sadly a gift bestowed upon the next generation.
Phnom Penh is not a must see, but if you do go, accept it for what it is. I'm doing my best.       

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Touts- Making the Journey From the Thai/ Cambodian Border Exciting

Tout- attempt to sell (something), typically by pestering people in an aggressive or bold manner

I'm the sole remaining passenger on the shared van as my Thai transport pulls into her final destination. I exit out and hike 50 meters to the border, the locale is surprisingly quiet and tranquil. I flash my passport and walk across to Cambodia.
Thai/ Cambodian border 
To give credit where it's due, a metric in which the Cambodian government truly excels, scoring in the top 90 percentile worldwide, is corruption. As I'm beset by impoverished touts seeking to part me from the money I've just spent on a visa which has jumped in price by 150% since my last visit, I'm filled with sadness knowing I've handed over a couple days worth of their wages to help pay the lease on some government minister's Range Rover.

Strategies vary- some smile, some cajole, some threaten consequence, or give exaggerated and false information to justify an excessive fee. The presupposition all touts adhere to is that it's a short game/con and the goal to extract as money as they can; good faith bartering largely absent.
A British couple (the only Westerners to cross the border in the half-hour I was there) bargain on our mutual behalf for a ride to Phnom Penh. The tout negotiates hard, they back at him, while I sit back, slightly bemused, witnessing the acrimonious fight over a few dollars. At last we get a price we can all agree on.
"Hey, at least he speaks English," I remark as we're escorted to a SUV. Our tout barks at an older man sitting nearby in Cambodian, gruffly ordering us in as he hands the keys over.
"Apparently not," remarks my new British friend.
We're faced with a bait and switch, a driver who doesn't speak a word of English. When we complain, our tout barks back that we'll get where we need to go and walks away.
Not too far from the border, crossing a bridge
It's 5+ hours to the nation's capital from the border. The first third of the journey is surprisingly beautiful, as we drive through what is essentially a jungle, only waterways and the highway interrupting.
vast expanse of trees :) 
Our driver fearlessly passes slower trucks around blind bends, betting our lives that there isn't a car coming the opposite direction, as we cover our eyes like children at a horror film, high-stakes gambling being legal in Cambodia and all.
The jungle gives way; the further we move towards the country's center, the more sparse and arid the land appears, the greenery giving way to man-made brown and ugliness.

The ugly part of Cambodia as we near Phnom Penh
packed cattle car full of garment workers 
Closer to the capital, we arrive at a factory town. A shift of workers appears to have been let out en masse as carpooled vans and cattle trucks with standing room only transport garment workers back to their homes. These workers make $100 a month, their yearly income not even paying for a month's rent for a one bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. When workers decided to strike, the government sent in the army, killed a few of them, and banned public assembly. Hey, we all want cheap clothes right?

The reason for the traffic- factories letting workers go for the day. Look at how packed all the cars are

We arrive in Phnom Penh in the evening at the crowded river waterfront, the commercial center of town. Our driver has no idea where our hotel is located. We find a tuk-tuk driver who speaks English who sees our hotel name, and tells us it's quite far (4 km away) and demands $4 to take us there. "We can't fit three people plus luggage into your tuk-tuk," I tell him, "our driver will follow you and we'll give you the money upon arrival."
Three blocks later we pull up to the hotel. 4 km huh? I give the money to our driver as a tip instead. We walk away, I turn around to see a verbal scuffle over the bills. Our driver soon hands them over. Fucking Touts.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Elephant Trekking, Pooping, and Washing on Koh Chang Island, Thailand

Speeding on my scooter down the island's main road, I catch sight of the sign: "Elephant Camp --->";  U-Turn, then left as directed by the arrow; the forest becoming thicker as I zip down the road.
An elephant meanders around to my left. I park my bike, and walk carefully, watching the ground to make sure I don't step on snakes or giant shits (not sure which would be worse.)
I sign-up for the trek, and a short while later am atop an elephant who introduces herself as Ellen. A mahut mounts her, riding on her neck, barking instructions in Thai, while I ride on a wide chair strapped to the Ellen's back.
Ten minutes later the mahut disembarks to clear some stuff off the ground. "Can I switch places with you," I ask.
"You know, ride on neck like you do," I gesture, waving arms.
"Dangerous," comes the reply.
"Can I?"
the Thai jungle- how'd you like to see us coming around the corner?
He chuckles. "Be careful."
My elation quickly subsides when I realize I'm 10 feet off the ground aboard a moving beast. Gingerly I climb over the chair's railing, placing a foot on Ellen's shoulder.
"Easy Ellen, eeeassssyyyy," I coax her.
Holding onto the seat, I throw my other leg over, and gently plop down on her neck, adjusting my position until both Ellen I feel comfortable (she told me.)
Mahut smiles at me, then yells in Thai for Ellen to move. We plod through the forest, each step testing my balance as I hold dearly onto her skin, coiling my legs around her attempting to stay clear from gravity's clutches.

Introducing you to Ellen Elephant- I never said I was a great speller :)  

Ten minutes later the lead elephant becomes excited and speeds up. Ellen following suit, and suddenly we're running the equivalent of a human sprint, and let me tell you, I'm hanging on for dear life, at the same time enjoying the thrill of riding bareback on a galloping elephant. My mahut races beside us, yelling at Ellen, who thankfully calms, and goes back to her plodding walk.
got the hang of it, look ma, no hands
As we prepare to cross a stream my improperly secured backpack falls from the chair and onto the ground. Watch the video below to see how I got it back-   

Ellen Elephant picks up my back-up, hands it to me, and sprays the mahut

We soon arrive at a river. A slow current drains a large pool of water downstream. Ellen almost dances in, submerges herself, her trunk behaving like a periscope occasionally rising to breathe. My mahut tosses me a brush, I begin scrubbing her rough skin, removing both parasites and dirt from skin. She seems to understand I'm helping her, and I take pleasure in that connection, that bond, with this huge animal. She might not know how to thank me, her vocabulary being limited and all, but she doesn't have to, we've enhanced each others lives.
Love, it's what makes the world go round.   

Scrubbing down Ellen, part I

Ellen poops in the river. My reaction. 

Why you need an elephant as a member of the family! 

Feeding my Ellen the Elephant for a job well done

Post scrub down discussion

Monday, June 29, 2015

Glimpse the Stunning Paradise of Koh Chang Island, Thailand

The spectacular coastline of Koh Chang approaches.

The coast of Koh Chang

If it looks like a primeval jungle, that's because it is. The entire interior of the island is a Thai National Park, basically untouched nature.
literally, the end of Koh Chang's main road
The small coastal population is dispersed, its main road coming to a thudding stop several kilometers from completing a loop, making it impossible to circumnavigate the island, except on foot.

my Gecko roommate
I check into a $15 a night guest house, which is likely a tad overpriced for what I get. At least I have friendly gecko keeping me company who's polite enough not to try to sell me car insurance.
I walk next door to a small restaurant and order noodle soup, full of veggies and chicken organically raised on the island. It tastes delicious, fills me, and costs me all of $1.25.
I rent a Honda motorcycle ($6 a day + gas)  and seemingly walk it along the road at first, til, gaining experience, I eventually top out at 95km an hour, the feel of exhilaration extinguished when a large insect smashes into the windshield called my face with the seeming momentum of a baseball.
I traverse the island, up and down, exploring every road in existence. The beauty of the island is palpable, and it's hard not to stop, and feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to gaze at the vistas in person.
view of small island just off Koh Chang's main road

jungle beach of Koh Chang
wild monkeys by the main road 
colorful Buddhist Temple on Koh Chang
pup resting atop a motorbike
I turn off the main road, and traverse a windy path about a kilometer where I find a seemingly deserted resort. It's the low season, and the place is completely empty, the only guards I find are the numerous nuclear sized mosquitoes who become voracious as evening approaches.
I flee to the beach and into the water, where I sit in nearly perfectly still water, meditating, taking in a sunset. Several minutes later I start to get bit by small fish growing in this protected cove sending me fleeing back to into the wide open arms of the island's mosquito overlords.
secluded beach all to myself on Koh Chang
colors of Koh Chang
Koh Chang beach, near the end of the road
I had planned on staying two days. I found the island so intoxicating, so relaxing, the water so warm, the Thai food so tasty I wound up spending six.
I'd strongly encourage all of you to see Koh Chang given the opportunity, but be careful not to fall under her island spell. You might never leave.