Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ecuador: Travels in South America

Note: Dear reader, we are out of sequence here. Though we traveled to Ecuador more than two years ago, the memories are fresh and the experience unique. Please enjoy this interruption of your (ir)regularly scheduled posts about China, Mongolia, Italy, and Croatia, and indulge me the details of our South American sortie.

"Taylor...wake up....how about Ecuador?"

It was 2 o'clock in the morning, and she was a little confused.

"What? Ecuador? Why?"

"Because tickets are cheap and I'm buying. Lets go!"

Thus began an adventure that would see Taylor (wife extraordinare) and myself traversing mountain-tops, tackling treacherous volcanoes, riding tiny horses, braving raging whitewater, and constantly wondering when...oh when?!...were we going to eat some barbecued guinea pig.

First, dear reader, you should be introduced to Taylor, as she has not yet made an appearance in this space:

Yes. She is really that lovely.

So how did we go from this:

To this:

It's quite a story.

We left Washington, DC on Christmas Day, long flights and no Chinese food making me a dull boy. Our destination? Fabulous Quito, Ecuador! The second highest capital in the world, and with an elevation of nearly 3,000 meters, not the type of place to take high speed, physical activity lightly...

Which is why as soon as we arrived we set off hiking into the mountains around the city.

Quito sits in a kind of basin formed by mountain ranges stretching out endlessly on either side. The city has low valleys and shallow hills mounted with high-spired churches. It is less cosmopolitan than other capital cities, and retains a lived-in, accessible aesthetic that made it feel almost instantly home-like.

We decided that we needed to get a more holistic view of the city, so we (very, very stupidly) decided on our second day to take the teleferico, a cable car that ascends you from 2850 meters to 4050 meters in about 9 minutes. Have you ever...been alive, at high altitudes before? It's hard right? Usually, when you are dealing with high elevations you take things slowly, you let your body get acclimated to the new situation and, after several days, you feel better, more clear-headed, and able to function.

You can do that responsibly.... or you can take a cable car 1200 meters straight up the side of a mountain, sort of like if you hopped into a jet, pointed it towards the sky, and just hit the ignition switch.

This was really stupid...wheee!

By the time we got to the top, and realized that a good portion of the things to do at the "top" were to hike even higher, we decided it may be a good idea to take it easy.

Okay I'm lying, we just went higher

Spooky buildings are usually on top of mountains

Eventually, our oxygen-deprived brains turned us around and sent us back to town.

Free ear flowers to everyone who survives rapid, entirely ill-advised elevation changes!

We decided that perhaps a few more terrestrial days would serve us well, so decided to follow our natural tourist-y instincts and visit Mitad del Mundo, or "Center of the World." Despite being misleading for a variety of reasons (no dinosaurs, don't enter through a volcano, not actually geographic center of anything) there is a big monument that theoretically shows you where the equator passes through Ecuador (quick: how did Ecuador get its name? Bam! Now you've learned something. Apologies). How big is the monument?

Eh...about this tall.

So that's what it looks like at the equator. I know, everyone thinks that they'll see water just spinning endlessly in pools without actually draining away...

At least...I thought it would...

but really, the only thing there was this real big monument. And also an insect museum. Not insects native to the equator, just insects. Of course, you have to pay for entry, I guess as many attractions as you can cram in make it worth maintaining the really big obelisk that people come to gawk at.

We spent another day or so in Quito, in Churches and on hillsides, taking in the variegated views that a hilly city in a basin provides. But soon, our itchy feet needed scratchin', and we were on our way to Cotopaxi, to see what this whole "volcano-climbing" business was all about.

This church....super tall..

In case you didn't believe me about the hills and stuff...here they are! Also that is a mega-big Jesus up on that hill, however the stairs to walk up to are so dangerous (because people will rob you) that you mostly admire it from a distance

This view makes the church look way more menacing than it really was

I should not have been sitting up here...

Taylor made it to the top, despite being totally (and reasonably) freaked out about the height, narrowness, and general absurdity of attempting to get to the upper-most part of nearly any church.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Guest Post: Brilliant new writer contributes Unicorn story to handsome blog writer/editor

I want to introduce everyone to a promising young writer from the snow-drift laden lakes of Minnesota. She is a creative force to be reckoned with and you can expect great things from her in the future. Without further ado, I give you the newest literary creation of Miriam Pentelovitch!:

Once upon a time there was a pegasus. And a friend that was a unicorn. They were close. Fly fly fly! They were so high that they touched a cloud. One day they got lost in a cloud kingdom. When they arrived they were amazed. It was beautiful! It was covered with diamonds and flowers! They loved it! They loved it so much they lived there. The end.

Miriam Pentelovitch currently resides in Minneapolis with her family until she can afford a loft apartment or fairy tale castle. She concentrates her writing on unicorns and other mythical creatures and can often be found preparing to be a princess. She is also an avid pilot.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Beijing, the Great Wall, and Chinese Nerds

"Hey man get up, time to go."


Its 2am. I can't remember where I am. I can't figure out how to turn off the alarm clock. Music is throbbing and for some reason I seem to be sleeping on a piece of wet cardboard that smells like the backdoor of a bad seafood restaurant. Am I drunk? Am I hungover?

Nope, I'm in a Chinese guest house. Good morning!

My erstwhile traveling companion Nate is attempting to rouse me after my 16 hour flight and hour and a half of sleep. Fortunately, I've planned ahead. I'm already wearing thick socks, tough pants, and a sweat-wicking shirt. And a headlamp. I somehow managed to fall asleep with my headlamp on. Fantastic. Well, time to go.

We stumble out of the guesthouse into the "street," which is really more like a giant pit because whoever owns the block chose that week to dig up every inch of traversable ground to put in new pipes (if you've been reading this blog for a while, you will recognize this as the very same situation I encountered on my first morning in Cambodia).

We make it to the end of the block by employing various technical climbing techniques, coupled with extreme leaping, and find a car waiting. Putting faith in our ability to overcome would-be kidnappers, we get in and start driving. We are paying way too much money for the privilege of a 2 hour car ride, a 5 hour hike, and supposedly lunch. Guess how much of that happened? Fortunately, we have a guide, sort of.

"Good morning! Do you want breakfast?"

Yes of course we do. Our guide (whose name I've forgotten so I call him "Pouty") digs into his bag and proudly hands around slices of white bread.

Value of trip so far relative to cost: low.

The driver rapid-fires some Chinese at the guide.

"The driver would like to be able to smoke a cigarette so he doesn't fall asleep."

It takes a few seconds to realize this is a question, to which we are only too happy to respond affirmatively. Smoke in a car from a cigarette is infinitely preferable to smoke from an exploding gas tank.

Confidence level in our survival: low

We drive and drive, through haze that sticks to you in nearly tangible gray clumps. My head lolls on the headrest, and I'm only aware of our movement when it stops so that our driver and guide can ask for directions. This happens far more often than you would hope. Finally (oh god...FINALLY) our driver pulls over on the side of a dirt road (a very steep dirt road) and orders us out. Glad to be doing something else, we hop out, flip on our headlamps and look around.

Goats look back at us. As does a towering, steep forest. Our guide takes a few tentative steps forward, smoking a cigarette. Eventually, something occurs to him (perhaps that he is a guide and not a tree) and he starts moving.

It feels good to be moving. Early morning, hiking up a nearly vertical wall, I remember several years ago when Nate and I were doing the very same thing half a world away in Chile. I smile, and press on, eventually looking back to realize our guide has stopped to smoke a cigarette. He is out of breath and looks confused at our pace.

Verdant greens flash under our lamps, and the damp ground gives just enough to make each step interesting.

Eventually, we see the high brick towers of the Great Wall of China. Sweaty, exhilarated, we stop for a moment to catch our breath

I know this looks like a sweaty morning in 'Nam...but it isn't. Thats just smog.

What do you mean I look ridiculous? Explorers are sexy!

Preparing for the final ascent...it was about 20 feet.

We climb a narrow flight of stairs, arrive at the top, and begin our wait.

We waited a long time. Japan may be the land of the rising sun, but in China its more like the "sun that drags its ass out of bed and sort of makes it up eventually." It crested a high mountain in front of us and took about an hour and a half to finally get up over the darn thing. Of course, we could only see it like a bit of egg yolk on some cotton given all the smog.

These are ancient Chinese portraits of the greatest warrior-poets in all of China.

Finally (finally!) the smog began flying away over a lower section of the wall, looking for all the world like ghosts fleeing a blinding light. You could watch the white tendrils stream over ramparts, and what it left behind speaks for itself:

And of course we took awesome-dude pictures, since we are awesome-dudes.

After snapping away for well over two hours (joined by a small group of hard-core Chinese photographers who had camped at the top all night just to get good morning shots), we hiked back down along the Wall. It is a remarkable structure, less for its height (which is impressive) but more for its depth and width. It would have been easy enough to build a high thin wall, but the Great Wall of China was easily wide enough for carts and people to pass each other comfortably. I'm sure I could google some measurements for you, but what fun is that. Just stick with the cart/person image and you'll be well served.

After making it back down to our car, we headed back to the guesthouse. Nate, having already done the "Beijing thing" too the afternoon off, while I hopped in a cab to go see the Olympic structures. I'm going to be brief here because I can be. The buildings, sculptures, memorials, and other variegated hoo-ha related to the Olympics were all:

1) very large;

2) very interesting looking;

and 3) very crowded.

Crowded with NERDS!

On a hot day, surrounded by people and having trouble breathing, I wandered about for a while, paid way too much money to get inside the "water cube" (an honestly cool building, worth a visit) and then paid way too much for a cab back to my guesthouse.

...which largely ended my time in China. We hadn't intended to spend much time there in the first place, as we had other, different goals in mind. Goals specifically involving yaks and horses...ONWARDS!

Next: This train ride is HOW long?...Ulaan Bataar, its everything you could want in a post-apocalyptic future, with Communism!...and our first foray into sustainable-eco-green-local-agri-feelgoodaboutyourself-toursim!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Go forth, young lawyer

*Note to new and long-time readers: given that my blogs tend to run to roughly book length, and I have been informed on more than a few occasions that this makes each post somewhat difficult to muddle through. Thus, I will be telling the story of my time in China, Mongolia, Croatia, and Italy, with Nathaniel the insane, and Taylor the beautiful, in shorter, episodic posts. Think of them as the tapas to the porterhouse steaks I used to serve. If that analogy makes you groan and hate me, think of these shorter, more nimble posts, as the oompa-loompas to my previous willy-wonkas. Sure, you can take a whole book to explain what happened, but really all you need are some funny people singing a song to sum up the points, and maybe some technicolor wonder to keep you engaged. Consider the following my oompa-loompa songs, for you, dear reader:

94 hours after wearily boarding a plane in Buffalo, New York to return to Washington, D.C. with the New York Bar exam under my belt, I find myself in the ultra-modern airport in Beijing, China. My body thinks its the day before, my eyes think they'll never get moisture again, and my stomach is already rebelling against what will inevitably be a month of, shall we say, interesting food.

What am I doing here, half way around the world again, with an enormous backpack, a heavy pair of boots, and a med kit full of antibiotics? Well, I had always heard that nearly starving to death in the vast grassland steppes of Mongolia was a thrilling experience, so why not give it a shot before starting my new life as a corporate litigator?

How much yak do I have to eat?

A window! China is so crazy!

Four days ago, I was concerned with torts and arson and the law of mortgages. Now, all I can think about is how the hell I'm going to find a guesthouse without an address, with an unpronounceable name somewhere in the middle of Beijing. Lucky me, my innumerable e-mails, phone calls, smoke signals and telepathic thoughts have been received by the guesthouse and someone is there waiting for me when I get through customs.

Stepping out of the airport, I immediately begin coughing like I have a new and instant form of bird flu. There is nothing I could say about the air in Beijing that has not already been said far better by better writers, so I will limit my comments about it to this: if you can imagine what it would be like to walk into the smokers lounge of a bar that still allows smoking, while you yourself were smoking several different things at once, and there was a machine producing smoke blowing directly in your face, it would still not be as hazy as my drive into central Beijing. Breathing was similarly difficult, in that, it was impossible. For all of you who have lived in Beijing, two questions: 1) Why? and 2) How?

Arriving in a dark, narrow alley, the driver gets out and signals that I should follow him down an even darker, narrower alley, past sparkling arc welders and dangling telephone lines. At some point in my life, this may have seemed strange, but you spend enough time following people in developing countries to guest houses, and inevitably you're going to end up in a dark narrow alley, hoping against hope that the person leading you believes they can make more money from their commission at the guesthouse than by just grabbing at your wallet. We get to another street and I see a sign for a guest house...sigh of relief, its actually where I'm trying to be.

I have traveled half-way around the world to find my friend, Nathaniel Weiss, so that we can go have a look at Mongolia. For those of you readers who don't know Nate, all I can tell you is that he spent the last several years in Afghanistan and Iraq, then spent the past year traveling pretty much anywhere in the world that suits his fancy. Nate goes from deep under the ocean to the top of mountains the way most people go from New York to Boston. What I am saying is that he does so regularly and with a minimum of hassle.

Communist Beer...no smiling

Nate and I have been travel companions on many occasions, and, as before, reuniting with a fellow adventurer requires specific and timeless rituals

We are underwater here

Now, of course since I arrived into China at 6pm, after flying for more than a day, and just a few days after the most stressful period in my life, Nate had booked us to climb one of the highest parts of the Great Wall of China. The next morning. In time to see the sunrise. From the top.

It was shortly after the above beer was finished (roughly 11pm) that Nate informed me that our start time for this first adventure was 2am.


I'm actually trying to indicate that there is a terrifying insect above me...please someone get it!

Fortunately, I am a hardy sort, so rather than going home and, I don't know, getting some freakin' rest, we set out to see the sights

This is entirely photoshop...I've never even been to Guam.

And of course, got some dinner

Little known fact: starfish are the natural enemy of the seahorse...they are enemies in the battle of whimsical entities

What's better than sticky rice? Sticky scorpion! (Ooh! pun!)

After some late night jostling to find a cab back to our construction-zone lit hostel, I flopped down on the bed (which, incidentally, flopped me right back...you really do get what you pay for sometimes), and got a whopping one hour and thirty five minutes of shut eye. That was just enough sleep to get excited to see one of mankinds greatest triumphs: a super-long, super-tall wall, that inspired a thousand ships to sail...and at the end of that sailing they opened a thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States named in honor of that great big accomplishment.

Next: Defying death in the early morning, pictures, oh so many pictures, and the beginning of a great journey.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Quiet Evil

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

March 31, 2009

It is rare to be in the presence of evil, and there is very little doubt that Kaing Guek Eav is the embodiment of evil. He has confessed to crimes so ghastly that it is difficult to use mere words to define them. Yet words were the focus on the first day of Kaing Guek Eav's (alias Duch) substantive trial.

The courtroom of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is part judicial forum, part theater. The participants are sequestered behind an enormous wood and glass wall, a gleaming curve that allows the audience to view the proceedings, as well as see themselves reflected. The "audience" (and the people in the seats are referred to with that word) enters the auditorium/courtroom after passing through a number of security checkpoints. The line to get in is not long, and the guards are well-trained enough to keep the process brief. Passing through the first of two metal detectors, visitors are shunted down a long fenced corridor to the main court building. Journalists queue outside the fence, snapping pictures of whoever happens to be walking past.

The court building feels as much like a high school as it does a court. Concrete stairwells fixed with iron railings lead to yet another metal detector, where cameras, cell phones, and candy and gum packages that were missed at the initial screenings are collected on a table and kept like a bizarre court concession stand.

There are many chairs on the "stage", though far more on the prosecution side of the room. Attorneys, civil parties, and other court staff filter in and take their seats, variously putting on their robes of black or purple, and their white cravats. As they enter, the audience watches them like animals in a cage while consulting a printed roster of who is who behind the glass shield.

A bell sounds, the audience rises silently, and the seven judges file into the court. Everyone puts on their headphones and prepares to listen. The president, Judge Nil Nonn asks that Duch be brought to the dock by his jailers. The audience is rapt as the slight man with large ears and clean white shirt steps gingerly around his lawyers and sits in the appointed chair. The president directs biographical questions to him, where are you from, are your parents alive, what names have you used during your life, and Duch answers in a low gravelly voice. There is a tense feeling that this is all new and revelatory, though the information is already known and the process a formality.

The president informs the audience that the greffiers will read paragraphs 10 through 162 of the closing order which lay out the factual analysis of the charges against Duch. A greffier begins speaking, and the audience settles in to hear what Duch is accused of doing.

Listening to simultaneous translation takes some practice. Part of you wants to listen to the loudest voice in the room, but unfortunately, that voice is not always speaking a language you understand. So you focus instead on the voice in your headphones, a halting, careful English. The system is not perfect. The interpreters have the ability to control the flow of proceedings, and do so occasionally, stopping the judicial activities as a technical glitch is remedied.

The voice of the greffier is telling you terrible things. Things you can hardly believe are true, things you wish weren't true. Yet Duch has confessed to a great deal of what he is being accused of. He disputes only small details: that he intended this, that he knew about that, but not the overall thrust of the charges.

Throughout the morning, Duch barely raises his head. He has produced a pair of glasses and is reading the closing order along with the greffier. His movements are small and precise, nothing that would excite the burly guards seated directly behind him.

At noon, the court breaks for an hour and a half, with only half of the closing order read. The audience is listless and disturbed: two hours of death and misery can do that.

In the afternoon, Duch returns to the court, and the process continues. The greffier continues to read, and the audience is anxious that the trial move on, that the opening statements occur. Again, Duch is impassive, turning over pages and rarely looking up. Finally, the closing order has been read, and Duch's defense lawyer, Francois Roux, stands up to speak. He asks the court that since one hundred and fifty paragraphs of damning material have just been read to the court, that the ten paragraphs which follow, paragraphs which he claims are exculpatory, be read. The court adjourns for a half hour to deliberate, and upon returning, rejects his request. There is a legal basis for their decision, but it was in no way a foregone conclusion.

The prosecution is asked if they would like to make their preliminary opening statements, and the Cambodian Co-Prosecutor, noting the hour of the day (3pm) and the anticipated length of the opening statements (two hours) asks that the opening be conducted the following morning. A brief conference on the bench yields an agreement to adjourn for the day, which the rustling of the audience indicates may be an unpopular decision. This audience came to hear trial proceedings, not to hear a publicly available document read aloud.

Duch exits the courtroom quietly, and a moment after he disappears it is hard to remember he was there at all. His is not a large presence. If left alone with him under different circumstances it would be possible to forget he was there at all. Yet it is impossible to forget the words that describe what he has done. It is impossible to ignore the gravity of his crimes. Tomorrow, and the next day and the next, he will enter and leave the courtroom in his quiet way, and stand trial for some of the worst atrocities ever committed against fellow human beings. And we will watch.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Like Halloween, But Everytime You Go Shopping

Yes. That is a pigs head.

I’d like to spend my time in this post taking you (dear, loyal reader) through the mysterious, crazy, joyful, frustrating, smelly and stiflingly hot experience that is shopping at a Cambodian market. A few words about markets generally are likely in order.

First, there ARE in fact grocery stores in Cambodia. If you’d like, you can head into an air-conditioned, brightly lit store, where dozens of courteous (if not incredibly bored) employees will literally jump to your aid should you help finding anything, anything at all. Even if it’s right in front of you and you’re reaching out to grab it at that very moment. Quite helpful. In these stores, you can buy your pre-cut, cellophane wrapped meat, devoid of any notion that this bright pink thing under lights ever came from an animal that is likely walking by outside right then. You can buy beer and you can buy chips and, for some reason, dried squid sold like beef jerky.

But you cannot buy an entire cows liver.

...the cow wasn't using it anyway...

...or an entire plucked chicken...

Did you know that chickens start off with heads? I always thought that came breaded and fried?!? Who knew?!

...or a bizzarelly fileted fish...

....this was so strange as to defy words...except these words...and those just there.

...or a big ol' pigs leg (not pigs foot...pigs leg) and some tripe!

See! How disappointing to miss that.

Now, to say that you can shop at a grocery store is not to say that many people do.

...but if you go to a grocery store you'll make meat lady mad!

The majority of Cambodians go to one of any number of markets for pretty much anything you can imagine.

like custom made jeans...in 5 minutes...

Need a scarf? Need 17,000 scarves? They’ve got you.

"yeah I'll have the red one...no the OTHER red one. No not that one either..."

In addition to krama’s, most sellers have hundreds of incredible silk scarves that they will force on you. Heaven help you if you show interest in even one, because you will be walking out with about 27. There are also table runners, table cloths, sheets, and towels.

Need an enormous sword and a tiny wooden bowl in the shape of a mangosteen? That’s three booths over. But if you buy it TWO booths over, you can get it for just slightly less.

Ladies and gentlement...chotchkes!


Any chance that you want to buy some DVD’s? Of movies that came out in theaters yesterday? Of movies that are still in post-production? Of a book that a studio just bought the rights for? There are ten different vendors all vying to sell you some. An entire season of Lost? 7 dollars.

Markets are crowded, could induce claustrophobia in mine workers and are so loud that rock stars walk out complaining about the noise. The aisles are as wide as one narrow-shouldered Cambodian, which I can assure you is not nearly wide enough for one narrow-shouldered American, much less two or three of such behemoths. The merchandise is stacked in front and the vendors sit behind it, occasionally shouting out an inducement to check out their wares.

“You need t-shirt? I give you good deal.”

“Fruit? I give you 1 kilo of rambuton for 4000 riel.”

Eating this stuff would have been a lot easier if ol' Babe hadn't been staring at me (see first picture of post)

“I give you good price for scarves, sell you many many scarves.”

Ahhh I'm sideways! Yet otherwise an uninteresting picture! Ah!


There is rarely a moment where your attention isn’t being diverted. Of particular note are the silk and cotton accoutrements. One of the primary items for sale is the krama, a traditional Cambodian scarf that is worn by both men and women, often while bathing, around the head soaked with water if out in the fields, around the neck to wipe sweat, pretty much anything you can think of, you can do with a krama.

Like eat brownies at my apartment back in DC (I have violated the blogger laws of temporal picture relativity! ARGHHH!!)

The best thing that I can compare a Cambodian market to is a haunted house. You’re sweating, nervous, and you pretty much have to be prepared to come face to face with anything, including a disembodied head, a sweaty zombie tourist, or a deeply, deeply drunk group of Singaporeans...