Hitting the Road Instead of the Books (p4)

26 06 2018

(Read Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3)

The first week of our big road trip was filled with familiar landscape, down paved roads lined with oak and maple trees, just barely starting to transition from green to yellow and orange. The air was crisp in the mornings, but the sunshine streamed in that giant bay window in the afternoons as I drove westward.

A virtual ‘orange-a-topia’ awaits us

We began to develop a comfortable routine, with some small adjustments to our daily packing. We didn’t spend more than a night in any town, and most nights were spent planning the next day’s route over a dimly lit road map, with our 3-inch-thick printed USA campground directory. We had fun sharing our quaint Midwestern novelties with Gwendolyn the goose, but were most excited to gain distance from Michigan, to start reaching less familiar territory.

 

darwin_mnThe night we reached the border to Minnesota, we were giddy with excitement. Tomorrow, we could hardly believe it, we would finally get to experience the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota in person! We didn’t know how much of Weird Al’s song would ring true, and what was simply written in satire. Would there BE a souvenir miniature ball of twine?? Surely, at the very least, we would be able to give them our money to receive postcards and a bumper sticker, which would be added to the growing collage of stickers covering the windows of the bus.

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The next morning, we rose with the sun, ate a cold bowl of cereal followed by a hot shower, and packed up the bus for Darwin, Minnesota. I buckled my seat belt, stepped on the metal pedal to the right to prime the carb, and fired up the engine. “Today’s the day, Gwen!” I hollered over my shoulder to our beloved travel companion. She rode in the back of the bus, gently perched atop a pillow like the royalty that she was. She smiled back at me from the rearview mirror, and off we went!

 

Jamie gripped the curled and tattered edges of the atlas to keep the wind from turning the pages, as he navigated us down two-line country roads. Darwin is not exactly a thriving metropolis, and getting there definitely required the scenic route. We didn’t have an actual address for the Ball of Twine, and were simply driving towards the tiny black dot on the map, hoping we’d be able to figure it out without too much difficulty.

 

The sun was shining strong, casting heavy shadows straight down when we turned onto County Rd. 14 at noon. We had been listening to our Weird Al cassette tape on repeat for an hour straight, joyfully singing at the top of our lungs, the song that brought us to this day. There, in the middle of the tiny town square, stood the wooden pagoda, just as it had been described. 21,140 pounds of string (according to Weird Al), sheltered in a plexiglass-sided shrine, with all the glory of a miraculous piece of toast with a Jesus profile burnt into it. I pulled over to the side of the road, parked the bus, and out we leapt.

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I pulled out my camera, double checked that I had film in it, and began to document this glorious culmination of years of planning. There was a large sign next to the pagoda that substantiated the facts shared in the song, along with additional historical information, all of which is still permanently burned into my brain to this very day. Francis A. Johnson was a farmer who got a bit carried away with his excess baling twine, developing a ball that eventually required a tractor to rotate it with each new addition of twine, in order to create this perfect sphere. For 29 years, he worked on his art. He originally housed it at the farm, until the Ball’s infamy prompted a relocation to the town’s center, so that all 276 residents could enjoy its majestic glory.

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Just 7 years earlier, I could have actually reached out and touched the Ball with my own flesh, to truly commune with the Twine, but, alas, the high security required in the 1990s led to the protective layer of plexiglass. It was disappointing, but I respected that this was for the good of the Ball.

 

Grinning like a giddy child, I circumnavigated the pagoda, to ensure that I captured every fathomable vantage point, before walking across the street to the nearby visitors bureau. Inside, I was greeted by a cramped little welcome center, replete with all the terrible tschotchkes I had hoped for. I bought the blue button, 10 postcards, a mini ball of twine, and, of course, 2 large, rectangular bumper sticker to affix to my bus, Sam.

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With tears of joy, we sat outside in the grass to enjoy our peanut butter sandwiches while staring at the Ball of Twine. When we finished our al fresco lunch, we waved farewell to Darwin, and headed north. Just in case you are still planning your summer vacation, the town’s “Twine Ball Days” festival is in August!

 

Next up? World’s Largest Prairie Chicken!

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Sweden

13 06 2018

About six years ago, a dear friend of mine moved to Sweden. It was quite a departure from her life in San Antonio, Texas, where she had moved after we graduated Architecture school together in Austin. In fact, winter in Austin was just slightly cooler than summer in Stockholm, where she now calls home.

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For years, I had been meaning to prioritize heading there to see her and her husband, Carl. It just kept being pushed to the back burner for more adventurous trips that aligned better with our travel matrix. You see, as an avid traveler, with a modest budget, I can only make it so many places in a given year. Usually I try to travel to places that are higher on my list, which is a pretty simple assessment.

 

Top Travel Priorities =

  1. Places at risk of disappearing due to climate change (already checked off the Maldives, Glacier National Park, and the Everglades)
  2. Places that require very long travel times (Asia, Australia, very remote islands, etc.), which are easier to handle while my body is young, and will be more painful if I wait until I’m older to explore.
  3. Once-in-a-lifetime events and cheap deals that are too good to pass up. (Solar Eclipse in Paducah, KY is a local example, or visiting a friend in the Peace Corp in Ouagadougou, which I regret missing out on)

 

So, when I heard an interview last fall on NPR about silly-cheap flights to the Nordic regions, I had to explore. Apparently, Norwegian Air was offering round trip flights for as little as a few hundred bucks, which was less than half of my first European travel back in 2001! Online I went to explore the possibility.

 

At first, it seemed too good to be true! $400 to fly to see Raina and Carl? Totally worth it! As I worked my way through the airline’s website, however, I was nickeled and dimed to death, with add-ons for so many ridiculous things that mainstream airlines like Delta or American Airlines don’t pester customers with. Eventually, I made it to the final page, with the “no-turning-back” button staring me down. As I prepared to click to book the flight, I was accostsed with yet another pop up. “Want to pay with credit card?” It taunted, “That’ll  just be another $33 fee!” This was the last straw.

I opened another tab and did a quick search. Turkish Airlines, which we had flown last year to Sri Lanka, was all-inclusive, and just about $500. It was worth it to know I had an assigned seat, room for my luggage, and even free drinks on the flight! Plus- BONUS- I had enough reward points from my credit card hobby to buy both our tickets without spending a dime!!

 

Thus, our trip was booked! Free flight, free accommodations (thanks to Raina and Carl for putting us up in their office/spare room!), so we just had to pay for meals, entertainment, and local transportation. My wife and I were very much looking forward to a different kind of vacation, with the ease and comfort of knowing locals, and a cultural experience more like our own than different.

 

What I discovered, was a bit surprising. This is very much my personal experience, which reflects my own travel history moreso than Sweden’s generous offerings.arctic circle

 

Sweden is north.

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Really far north. Like, “further-up-than-most-of-the-country-of-Canada” north. Which means the sun plays tricks with your body, by doing things like making the sky light at 3am (or 10am, depending on the time of year). While it technically rose at 4:30am, the sky begins to glow for hours before and after the official existence of the sun in the sky. This seemed like no biggie, but after tacking up extra curtains, wearing an eyemask (thank you for the freebie, Turkish Airline!), and covering my head with a pillow, the sun was no match for my body’s incessant alignment to the cycles of the sun. I slept well every second or third day, which made it tougher to fully enjoy our daily excursions.

Sweden is soooo easy.

Never in a million years did I expect this to come out of my mouth, but our vacation was almost TOO easy for me. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy the challenge of learning a new language, adapting to other countries’ cultures, and the challenges of figuring out how things work. This is definitely a sensation that has evolved over years of traveling to less and less developed parts of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lazy day where I can relax, order a beverage in my native tongue, and not have a care in the world. But I also (apparently) really enjoy the challenges of foreign travel. Maybe it just makes for better stories.

There’s no language barrier.

In Stockholm, as in many large European cities, everybody speaks English. Here, it’s partly because they have free college education as citizens. Even when we tried speaking Swedish, people responded to us in English, which, as a language lover, was sometimes disappointing. Clearly, I’m privileged as a native English speaker, but it was also beautiful to see so many other visitors from countries all over the world speaking in their native language, and then switching to English (instead of Swedish) to order a meal.

 

Cars not required.

Our friends and hosts, Raina and Carl, do not own a car. They live and work in a place where they can either walk, bike, or take the metro every single day. Even when we wanted to escape to the country, we could do so by simply taking one of many ferries out through the archipelago to a remote island, knowing that there was a regular schedule to allow us to return home at regular intervals. Never once did I feel ‘stuck’ without a car, because their transportation system is so interconnected, frequent, and redundant, that at almost any point we had multiple options of how we wanted to get home.

Stockholm was inviting.

This city is extremely clean, feels very safe, and most importantly, it has good urban design.

 

As an Architect, I relish in discovering the dichotomy of ancient ruins, historically preserved buildings, and modern infill. Yet, unlike other major European cities I’ve been to, Stockholm feels much more preserved. It’s not that there is no modern design, but that the scale is kept in check with historic neighbors. There is not a ‘downtown’ filled with skyscrapers, in fact,  there are seldom any buildings taller than the predominant 5-8 stories. Instead, new construction is respectful, and typically built no higher than the tallest neighbor, which is often a church steeple from 400 years ago. The city has maintained a human scale, where you feel like you still matter. This makes it feel like a much smaller city than Indianapolis, despite having 50% more residents.

 

The density of the built environment n Stockholm is much more consistent, versus the skyscraper cluster that transitions into single family homes in less than a mile of downtown Indy. Single family homes are rare in Stockholm, and our friends owned a flat in a 4 or 5 story apartment building with a beautiful courtyard filled with bicycle parking.

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People MOVE here.

I’m not talking about immigration, although they DO have an unbelievable program that paid for Raina to take a year of intensive language courses specific to her field of expertise so that she could be a fully productive member of their society.

 

No, I’m taking about how people get around. I mentioned the mass transit, and referenced the bikes, but it really is amazing to see just how little cars are used here. It took me a few days to put my finger on it, but when I did, it was truly eye opening. After spending endless hours walking the cobblestone streets of the chain of islands that make up Stockholm, we sat at an outdoor cafe, joined by others willing to brave the chilly 61F temps to celebrate winter’s passing.

 

31403986_2000446300037984_1177753822146862086_nWith a glass of wine in hand, we sat and watched the boats pass by, the regular trains over bridges, and the abundance of pedestrians. I started watching more closely to observe the footwear of those who clearly were walking to or from work. What I noticed was starkly contrasting to what I would see back home. Unlike the business professionals in Indy, the very stylish Swedes made one small concession. They wore comfortable shoes. Think about this. Not a single woman walked past us wearing high heels. They were just too impractical! Instead, women wore sneakers- all of them! They might have fancier shoes at work to change into, but nobody was judged for wearing logical shoes on their walk to work. And you can see the difference in how fit everyone is!

 

There’s room to breathe.

One of the very unique aspects of Stockholm is that is is made up of a series of islands. Each island is connected via numerous bridges and tunnels, and many waterfronts are also lined with public parks and trails for biking and walking. While many of these parks are narrow strips of green, the interstitial space between the islands effectively functions like additional park space. No matter how dense the buildings are, you are seldom more than a 15 minute walk to a waterfront, which functions as a ‘release’ from the density. It gives your mind and body space to breathe, and enough visual distance for beautiful vistas that encourage you to slow down and enjoy the view.

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People Matter.

Hands down, the most fascinating thing to me about our experience in Sweden was the culture.  It left me so impressed, I can imagine why people want to live here, despite the dayless winters and nightless summers.

 

Taxes are high, and they have the social support system to prove it. For example, I saw more men pushing baby strollers on any given day than I have seen in the US in any given year. Swedes get 14 months paid leave when they have a baby! They also value work-life balance. When you work overtime, it gets banked as extra vacation time, on top of the 4 weeks of standard vacation folks already get. And your boss expects you to actually take all that vacation time!

 

Lastly, I have one word for you. FICA (pronounced “Fee-kuh”). Fica is a national concept that every employee, EVERYWHERE, takes a mid-morning break, where it’s practically mandatory for you to leave your desk, grab a coffee, and socialize with your coworkers for 15-25 minutes. Then, in mid-afternoon, you do it again. We actually went to Raina’s architecture firm to witness a Fica, and it was surreal. They even play ping-pong like socialists. Everyone grabbed a paddle, walks in a circle around the table, and takes one turn to hit the ball before continuing forward to make room for the next player. It felt like I was in a commune (but in a good way, and much cleaner). I’ve now taken it upon myself (as a person who eats lunch at my desk while working) to embrace this concept of Fica and bring it back to Indianapolis.

All-in-all, we had a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t even get into the specific sites and attractions Sweden offers, but that’s what your ‘big box’ travel sites are for! If you’re looking for a nice entry to oversees travel, I highly recommend it. Or if you just want an easy place to wander, you’ll never feel lost in Sweden. Say “Hi!” to Raina and Carl for us!





Hitting the Road Instead of the Books (p3)

11 06 2018

(See Part 1 & Part 2)

The early days of the big road trip required a bit of adjusting, as I learned how to live (not just camp out for a couple of days) inside my Volkswagen Bus with another human being. We spent a lot of time strategizing how to maximize our storage in ever nook and cranny, while leaving enough space to not feel claustrophobic. The original Westfalia conversion was designed with some smart features, like a dining table that folds down flat against the wall, a narrow closet and pantry along the opposite wall, and a cargo net above the mattress for pillows and blankets. Most importantly, the rear bench seat folds out into the bed, and is surprisingly comfortable and functional!

At night, when I parked the bus in the campsite, we developed a fairly quick process to migrate stuff from the back of the bus to the driver’s seat, to make room for preparing dinner. I was a lousy cook, but thankfully Jamie was far more experienced than I. Still, given our limited space for food storage, and few kitchen tools- a single burner, one pot, and one pan- our repertoire was pretty limited. We ate a lot of boxed mac n’ cheese. A LOT. I’m surprised my skin didn’t turn orange, given the high quality of ingredients we were consuming.

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One night, we pulled into a campground on a chilly evening just as dusk settled. Jamie stepped out to the picnic table and got to work boiling water for another riveting round of mac n’ cheese while I rearranged the bus for sleeping. When I poked my head out to check on dinner, I was greeted by an unexpected stranger!

A rustling the dark preceded a flash of orange, as he lept onto the picnic table to greet us. This incredibly friendly orange cat began brushing his giant head against my outstretched hand,  and quickly warmed his way into our hearts. As the frost began to settle, we worried about this cat being left out in the cold. I debated letting him sleep in the bus with us, but was concerned about fleas. Our bleeding hearts got the best of us, so we decided on a compromise. I opened up the door and called out, “Here kitty, kitty!” He bounded onto the wooden table like he already knew what I was about to do. As I set down the bowl of leftover mac and cheese, our new friend wasted no time lapping up his hard earned treat.

(Note: In order to protect their identity, images of the cat and the KOA are portrayed by actors)

Good deed done for the day, I snuggled into my puffy Kmart sleeping bag, grateful for a warm meal in my belly and residual heat from the engine compartment below our feet. I dozed off into dreaming about what great adventures lie ahead.

 

[Thump-THUMP]

I woke from my slumber, confused and sleepy.

[Tap.. tap… tap] A tinny sound appeared to move over my head.

Now I knew I wasn’t dreaming. Wide awake, I wrestled my arms from my sleeping bag to poke Jamie from his sleep. “Did you hear that??” I whispered.

“Hrmm?” he came to.

“There was a sound outside. I think something is on top of the bus!” I whispered more urgently. My heart was bounding. Here we are, in a strange state, in a strange campground, with just a handful of other campers. What kind of Fargo nightmare was out there?!?

We both paused and listened intensely. I heard another loud thump, but this time it sounded heavier, more like wood. I sat up and lifted the curtain up 2 inches, and peaked out the side window. There, on the picnic table, stood our little friend. He sat there, staring at me. “I think he wants more food!” I hissed. Then he leaped up onto the roof of the bus, pacing from front to back.

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I’m not sure how long that cat was up there, but he was pretty persistent. I think he worked for the mafia. Eventually, sometime before sunrise, he gave up and left us alone. I definitely did not sleep well that night, and I decided that maybe feeding feral animals outside our vehicle was not the smartest idea. This trip was already fulfilling its destiny by teaching me valuable life lessons!

 

 

 





My ‘Test Road Trip’ from Hell

27 02 2018

Ever since the day we met, I knew I had a new road tripping buddy. Even though it was just the beginning of a long, cold winter in Michigan, and we had only just met, we began daydreaming about where we would go together the next summer. Bethany was equally adventurous, and we were elated by how many things we both enjoyed, and wanted to experience together. So, we decided to plan a “Test Road Trip.” Ya know, in case we got sick of each other after so many days…

 

My new best friend and I could hardly wait to begin our adventures, so when her friend, Kristin, invited her up to northern Michigan for her 40th birthday celebration, Bethany immediately squealed, “You should come with me!” Beulah is not exactly a short trip, but if we made it a long weekend, it would be a fun mini-adventure. Except, Kristin’s birthday falls on February 29th. May I now remind you that northern Michigan is prone to some pretty significant snowstorms in February? Yes, clearly this was a brilliant plan from the get go.

 

Lo and behold, as our trip grew closer, the weather forecast grew more ominous. Bethany wasn’t too worried, because she knew that her Swedish tank (aka “Volvo”) would have no problem in a few inches of snow. What she didn’t plan on, however, was that she was taking this road trip with a sustainability freak, who would insist on driving her own Honda insight Hybrid. For the unenthusiast, let me tell you briefly about this car. My “Silver Bullet” is a sporty looking 2-seater, with aerodynamic covers over the rear wheel wells, manual transmission, 2” clearance from the ground, weighs about as much as two women, battery-powered with a gas backup, and averages 65 mpg. So, yeah, obviously I couldn’t be seen in a 20-year-old, gas-guzzling Volvo, tank or otherwise.

 

Bethany (who I was learning is decidedly NOT a morning person), had not yet had any coffee when I convinced her of my sound logic for switching vehicles. We threw our luggage into the back hatch, and got ready to go. Just one small problem. Bethany had decided to buy an unassembled IKEA bookshelf and deliver it to Kristin for her birthday. It was in a long, thick box, and weighed as much as my car. We tried sliding it between the seats vertically, and it fit! But it came right up to the dashboard, completely blocking my view of everything right of the middle of my car, including my mirror, and my passenger. This would NOT do for a 6 hour road trip.

 

Being the problem solvers that we are, we pulled out some straps to tie the box to the top of my car, where I had installed a rack for mounting my bike carrier. The IKEA box sat snugly atop my car, functioning perfectly as a giant sail for catching wind! It was not ideal, but by this point we were well over an hour behind schedule, so I decided to roll with it. (Literally). Off we went on our first adventure!

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Bethany had prepared some freshly juiced “Love Potion” for our journey, had consumed some caffeine, created a stellar music mix on CD, and was happily navigating. She had made this journey before on her motorcycle and had a favorite halfway spot where she liked to gas up, so that was out first destination. I was glad I was driving, because the weather was not cooperating, and the fierce gusts of wind were blowing my sail hard, tensing my arm muscles as I kept it between the lines on the road. As we got further out into the country, open fields of shimmering white crystals drifted over the highway, gusting and swirling into sudden walls of blinding whiteness before they disappeared into thin air. Fun!!!

 

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I couldn’t wait to get to the halfway point.

The driving was too stressful for me to do anything but focus on the road, and I was growing hungry, and needed to pee. Our route looked quite different in the snow-covered terrain, Bethany noticed as she squinted at signs to try to remember which one was her exit. She knew it by sight only. I silently watched as my gas gauge dropped, which was especially alarming because our IKEA sail was depleting my battery as well. I began to worry as the distance between each exit grew further and further. “I think it must be this one,” she guessed, as we finally exited the freeway. “No… this isn’t it. Let’s turn around.”

“Are you SURE?” I asked.

“Yeah, this is too soon, it’s coming up next.”

“Should we just stop and find a gas station here, since we’re already off?” I prodded.

“No, my gas station is way nicer. Let’s keep going,” she insisted.

Against my better judgment, I complied. After all, I didn’t want to argue on our Test Road Trip. I turned around, only to discover that the exit we had taken was one of those where there’s an off ramp, but no on ramp. Only a road to the previous exit, with no way to abort. So, there we were, driving 9 miles the wrong direction, only to then get back on the freeway and try again. We passed two more exits with nothing but an intersection in sight, and I was seriously starting to freak out. Here we were, my new best friend and I, preparing to become that story you hear on the news. That tragic one about two ladies found frozen in a snow drift, after they ran out of gas in the middle of a blizzard in northern Michigan with nothing but an IKEA bookshelf to burn for warmth. So sad.

I started thinking about all the warm layers I could put on, and mentally preparing myself for the long, cold walk from our abandoned car in search of help, when finally, like a beacon of hope, the gracious orange glow of a Shell appeared on the horizon. WE WERE SAVED!! I breathed an audible sigh of relief, trying not to pee my pants, and coasted into the gas station on fumes and prayers to the universe.

 

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I looked over at Bethany, our eyes both wide with amazement, and we smiled at our success! As a peace offering, she offered me a sip of her Love Potion, reaching down at her feet to grab the sealed bottle. As she twisted off the cap, a superheated explosion of beet orange juice splattered all over the inside of my car with shocking thoroughness. Bethany gasped in utter horror as her brain processed the phenomenal fermentation that we had just witnessed. You could not have engineered a better volcano had you tried.

 

Unable to speak, we both opened our car doors to go find something to clean up the mess. That’s when I heard the soft THUD of my passenger door hitting the concrete bollard next to Bethany. “You have GOT to be kidding me,” I muttered, but I could no longer deal with this insane series of unfortunate events. I HAD to go pee.

 

When I returned to the scene of the crime, Bethany was still feverishly dabbing at the upholstery with water and paper towel. Thankfully, the seats were pretty dry, since we were still sitting in them when it happened. I could see in her eyes that she was terrified that she had just killed our friendship. That was it. The Test Road Trip served its purpose and all future adventures were no officially cancelled. But I walked over to her, smiled, and said, “I can’t even believe our luck,” as I reached down to give her a hug. What else could I do?

 

downtown-beulah-in-winterBethany offered to drive the second half, and I decided to take her up on it. My shoulders ached from the tension of fighting with the wind gusts and snow drifts. She drove us the rest of the way, and it grew dark as we approached Kristin’s house. There were two ways to get to her place, nestled high up on a hilltop surrounded by trees. We now had a good 6 inches of snow on the ground, and were strategically coasting through stop signs to keep enough momentum to not get stuck. We turned onto the less steep approach, and I gulped. “There’s no way we’re going to make this,” I thought.

 

To my joy and awe, we fishtailed our way all the way to the top, and could see her driveway! That’s where we finally got stuck. I didn’t care at that point, we were close enough to walk. I grabbed my bag, tromped through the snow to her front door, and waited for instructions from B. “She said she’s not home yet, but the door’s unlocked,” Bethany read from her phone. She reached for the door and a booming series of barks ensued. “Oh, uh, hi Chopper. Do you remember me?” her voice quavered. “Great,” I thought, “we made it all the way here to be eaten by a dog.”

 

“Is he friendly?” I asked, having grown up with large dogs that cans sometimes sound meaner than they really are. B thought so, but clearly had a fear of dogs, so I decided to attempt to enter. I asserted myself and commanded the dog to sit to get a treat, and shockingly, he listened. After befriending him enough to get in the door, we walked inside, threw down our bags, and collapsed on the couch.

 

B’s reunion with her friends was lovely, though I (the introvert) was meeting everyone for the first time. We had some tapas and wine and caught up with Kristin and Kate. We were so exhausted, we didn’t stay up too late before asking where we were sleeping. Kristin’s two little boys had twin beds downstairs, one decorated with Batman, one with Superman. Bethany chose Batman, leaving me with the latter, and we passed out from our crazy long day.

 

In the morning, I awoke with a cold nose, and burrowed my face beneath the comic sheets. “Was yesterday for real?” I wondered. “That was EPIC.”  I began making some grand analogies to the journey of Odysseus, and then the cold found me. It penetrated the rest of my skin, as I shivered myself awake. I’m all for energy efficiency, but this was a little ridiculous. Moments later, my loud thinking woke Bethany and she agreed, so we toddled upstairs to make some coffee and tea. When Kate and Kristin awoke, it was to the realization that they had run out of propane, which is how they heat their house. After some frantic calls, we learned that it would be a couple days before they could get refilled, what with the snowstorm and all. So we prepped the house for the cold snap, and bundled up. Later that afternoon, B & I curled up together on the Batman bed for a nap, sharing our body heat for warmth. This was probably the highlight of the test road trip at that point.

The party was held next door, at Kristin’s parents’ home, which was empty because they were gone on vacation, and had heat. B & I moved over to their garage apartment for the night, grateful for a backup option. The party was amazing! I met so many new people, and had so much fun hearing all their old stories about B. And at the end of the late night, I got to lay in bed and stare up at the stars through a skylight, and make a wish on a falling star.

 

And, yes, my wish came true.

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How to Kill the Planet in 8 Easy Steps!

3 12 2017

dinosaur-fuelAfter billions of years, I think it’s about time that we realize that this planet that we reside on is truly only here to do our bidding. As such, I think we need to show it who’s boss. I am American, after all, so domination is the only solution. The problem? Well, the only problem is that those lazy dinosaurs didn’t last longer, and so we are running low on their decomposed corpse energy, so therefore, the Earth must pay!
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I know what you’re thinking. “How will I make time to properly destroy the planet? I’ve got soccer practice at 6pm!” Don’t worry, I will show you just how easy it can be to decimate the third rock from the sun, without impacting your schedule. Rest assured, no shin-kicking snots will go without their juice boxes… in fact, that’s part of the destructive fun!

 

In an effort to expedite to modern society’s 7 second attention span, I’ll even put it in the form of a list that can’t be divisible by five, because we all know that will get shared on social media more. So, without further adieu, here are the…

8 Easy Steps to Killing the Planet

#1. Avoid Using Your Legs

We all know how annoying it is to have to walk up a flight of stairs when the elevator is broken. Now people expect us to walk to lunch too?!? No way! Walking is too healthy, and might make your legs more muscley. We all know that our future is Wall-E, and the fashion trends are going to be more blobular. Therefore, we need to start practicing now if we ever hope to be in shape for space season! Plus, walking doesn’t burn ANY fossil fuels. What fun is that?

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hummerWhat you need to do is focus on doing everything humanly possible with a large hunk of steel surrounding you. Ideally, you want to do it alone. Taking the bus is a cop out. Go get in one of your cars, preferably a large SUV, and drive to lunch. Don’t get sucked into making other stops along the way because it would be more efficient. The bank can wait. Make sure that you take a separate trip for EVERY place you need to go! This way, you are able to burn as many dead dinosaurs as possible! Die, you bastards!!

futuristic-car-gadgetsPro Tip: Be sure to crank your heat/AC, charge your phone while using Google maps, blast your radio while simultaneously playing 4 movies on separate tablets, and turn on every overhead light in your car. This way, you can use just a skosh more energy!

 

#2 Use as Much Plastic as Humanly Possible

plastic recycling_636032246920960325The future is plastic. So is the past. Because plastic is made from… dead dinosaurs!!! Yay! The only thing better than that, is that plastic will NEVER biodegrade, which means that all 300 million tons of it produced each year will just keep building up in our landfills, oceans, and streets! Awesomesauce!

 

straw

 

What more can you do to help drown our planet in plastic?

Did you go to a restaurant today? Of course you did. Did they bring you a drink? You betcha! Did they forget to bring you a straw? WHAT?!?! That straw is a tiny but critical piece of our master plan! You simply must demand a piece of plastic to sip your beverage through every single time. How else would we accumulate  enough to clog drains and kill animals? If your waiter doesn’t know better, be sure to kindly request that they always bring guests a straw, and not to even offer an option to go without. It would just be tragic if someone’s lips had to touch that sterilized glass.

 

rKpPCocDid you know that you can also ask for your grossly oversized portions to go? Better yet, that toxic styrofoam (the best kind of plastic there is because it is entirely impossible to recycle!) will come in a plastic bag! Plastic bags are really the highest honor you can bestow upon the earth, as their elusively thin material makes them guaranteed to fly out of the beds of trucks, soaring into the air, where they can catch on tree branches, land on fences, or, ideally, float away down a river, to become part of the world’s 5 oceanic gyres. What’s a gyre, you will ask? Well, this is really a perfect bedtime story for your kids. A gyre is a magical place, far, far away, where allll the world’s plastic ends up. It’s a mystical place, where the currents swirl around an iceberg made of plastic, and the lonely plastic bag reunites with all of its ancestors, which break down into smaller and smaller bits, but never completely go away. So it’ll be there for generations to come! Now, there is a sad part to the plastic gyres. Some plastic does disappear, when it gets swallowed by birds and fish. Then their bellies get full of inedible garbage, and they die. So it does have a happy ending!

plastics-are-forever-rise-above-plastics-youth-presentation-20-728

plastic platesWhat else can you do with plastic? Well… everything! Vote with your dollars! You can purchase products that are wrapped in plastic. Be sure to avoid items with minimal packaging. You can also make sure to be individual sized servings instead of buying in bulk. Costco is for losers! (Unless you can buy massive quantities of individually wrapped items. Then it’s okay.) You can also ensure an ongoing supply of plastic by using disposable goods whenever possible. Plastic razors? Check. Unrefillable pens? Check! Red Solo cups for that party next week? Check and check! Dishwashing is lame. Why do you even own dishes? You could just buy plastic plates and forks and never have to wash dishes again!! Genius!

Pro Tip: What’s the best way to up the ante on your single use plastic plates? YES! Good job! Styrofoam is truly the best option because it’s cheapness is made up for with the fact that it cannot accidentally be recycled, so you can sleep easy knowing that your good deeds can’t be undone.

platic ringPlastic is forever. Seriously. For-ev-er. You should really consider replacing that engagement ring with a plastic one. It’s a much more romantic and meaningful gesture. Then, once you get married and have more babies than required to replace you on the planet, be sure to buy the next generation nothing but plastic toys to play with!

 

 

plastic bottlesLast but not least, the tried and true way to incorporate plastic into your daily habits is… the ubiquitous plastic water bottle! Can you believe that our parents grew up drinking water from the tap??? Heathens! We know now that companies can put that precious water inside plastic, and charge us way more money! Yay capitalism! Do your part by refusing to use a refillable bottle. Better yet, take your costco bottled water bounty everywhere you go, and offer it for free to other people! You’re guaranteed to be popular! At home, at work, or on the go, you’ll never be without BPAs or water, unlike those poor people in Africa who walk 4 miles to the river to get water. You should ship them bottled water too! See what a good person you are?!? Mother Teresa’s got nothing on you, hot shot!

No-Plastic-Challenge-Courtesy-Chennai-Coastal-Cleanup-FB-page-2-650x408

#3 Gobblety Gook

Did you think I was going to give you all 8 tips at once??? Silly human! Nah, I’m going to drag this out until I get my book deal.

Peace!

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Sri Lankan Angels

19 01 2017

cambodiaAlong our journey, we met some truly amazing people! Some of them were fellow travelers, some were locals. I mentioned in a previous post how much the people of Sri Lanka ended up transforming my opinion of their country for the better. Now I’d like to elaborate with a few short tales from our trip, exemplifying the goodness of humanity. After all, they’re the reason why I love to travel.

 

A Local Lifesaver

While I was immersed in the International Conference for Sustainable Built environment (ICSBE) one day, Bethany was working on lining up logistics for our post-conference travels. She spent a frustratingly long time standing at a ticket counter at the train station, trying to arrange a train to get us back to Colombo at the end of our trip, after realizing how impossible it is to buy a last minute train ticket the week of Christmas. The ticket person was growing annoyed by translating everything into English for her, and answered her questions with curt & confusing responses that only lead to more questions. She finally managed to understand that she could buy a ticket from the end of the line all the way back to Colombo, which would allow us to have a reserved seat, but get on at any stop along the way. Since we didn’t yet know which beach town we were going to end up in, this was a wonderful option. She managed to get the two tickets booked, and took her printout and her growing appetite to a nearby cafe for a long overdue lunch of rice and dhal.

 

jaffna-express-train-ticketAt the cafe, Bethany chatted up the man who smiled and seated her for her meal. He was the owner, and proudly shared that he had actually been to the U.S., to study at university! His English was unusually good, and he proceeded to chat with her while she waited for her order to be cooked up, then left her to enjoy her meal. As her blood sugar resumed its happy-go-lucky levels, Bethany started packing up to head back to the hotel, and pulled out her ticket for one last look before departing the Old Town of Kandy. In a moment of sheer horror, she saw that the printed ticket, which she had paid full price for, had the WRONG CITY as the destination. As printed, it would not get us back to Colombo, where we needed to fly out from. She was immediately embarrassed, knowing that there had been a sign at the ticket counter clearly stating that purchasers are responsible to check their ticket BEFORE they leave. Her emotions fluttered between bursting out in tears and screaming in frustration, in a manner that surely was visible to any onlooker.

 

citrus-cafeThe owner of the Citrus Cafe walked over with her change of rupees in hand, and could see her look of despair. He kindly asked what was wrong, and she dumped her terrible story out onto the table. With one felled swoop, he reassured her that he would help her to get the problem resolved. He spoke quickly to his staff in Sinhali, grabbed his keys, and told her that he would drive her back down to the train station and talk to the ticket person.  Within just a few minutes, he had managed to get them to correct their mistake, and she walked out a second time with a train ticket to Colombo.

 

That evening, we booked our next 2 nights at the guest house above the Citrus Cafe, and ate dinner there two nights in a row. (I’ll share that it was not a very nice guest house, with mold on the walls, but it was cheap, and we were grateful enough to endure it for 2 nights).

 

Sri Pada Selfies?

Traveling as a light-skinned person in Sri Lanka, it’s pretty hard to blend in. Add to that my braided blue hair, and it was impossible. Many people smiled and told me, “Nice hair!” when they did a double take to watch us walk past, but no place was I so popular as in Delhousie. I imagine that they get a fair number of young, adventurous tourists from
across the globe, and have probably seen their share of unusual kelly-hairstyles. In our travels, however, I had seen nobody else with a head full of braids (or dreads), and nobody else with such colorful ‘do. Many times along our trek, we would be taking photos and either offer to take photos of someone else (a couple or solo traveler), or ask someone to take our photo together. In almost every case, when I offered to take the photo of a Sri Lankan person, they would smile, and reach out their arm with their camera. I would, in turn, extend my hand to take their camera for them, and they would say, “No, no!”  Then they would turn the camera around, scootch up next to me, and take a selfie. One guy even looked at me and said, “Sunglasses!” insisting that I put on my stylish shades for the photo. Each time it made me laugh, because all they wanted was a photo with the strange foreigner, and then they would scurry off, in some cases to show their friends. I wonder how many photos of me are floating on the internet from that one adventure…

 

I wish that I had thought to turn around and take my own selfie each time mine was taken by a stranger. But I did manage to take some of my own, hopefully with a little more respect for the person I was asking.

 

15622296_10211763388310400_6221069219264689183_nMy favorite is ‘Brenda.’ The night before our bike hike to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), we wanted to scope out the start of the trail, so we wouldn’t get lost in the darkness of the night. Bethany and I walked down the dirt road, past a gauntlet of makeshift booths selling a mix of sweets, warm clothing, and plastic junk. The road kept winding, until it came to a bridge. Across the bridge, we could either go left or right. We looked at the light poles for a clue, and turned left, where we ran into another couple of foreigners who were being given advice from a local guide for their own trek. We listened in as he told them, “… there will be a fork, make sure you go left.” We got a little worried that the trail would not be as clearly marked as we anticipated. The only guidance we had was that the trail was lit, and that we saw the Buddhist flags threaded above the path periodically.

 

Without ever finding a clear “Trail starts here” sign, we gave up and turned around to go back to our guest house and get some rest for our journey. “I’m sure that it will be clear when we see a stream of pilgrims making their way to the trail head in the dark,” I hoped.

 

As we were walking back up the dirt road, I saw an elderly woman with dark skin and white hair. She looked me straight in the eyes and smiled, so I smiled back, assuming our languages would not allow us to exchange pleasantries. As we kept walking in the same direction, I sensed that she was still focusing on us, and slowed down to take a photo of something along the way. As she caught up to us again, I turned towards her, feeling that she wanted to say something to us. To my surprise, she spoke to us in English, and proceeded to walk along beside us as we slowed our pace. We strolled leisurely, as she asked us if we were planning to do the hike, and whether we had a guide. We said that we did not, and Bethany added, “we will let our hearts be our guide.” I suspected that the woman was trying to sell us something, but instead she paused, looked at us both, and replied, “you- no need guide.”

 

She went on to explain that she IS a local guide for the hike, which amazed me that a woman her age would be capable of such a strenuous journey, let alone multiple times a week. She clearly saw something in us, and wanted to impart her knowledge. She shared advice on some of the things we would see, and warned us not to give money to the monks along the way. “The journey is free,” she said, “but those monks, they…” she motioned with her hand to mouth like drinking from a jug, then shook her head disapprovingly. “OH!” we responded in unison, surprised to even fathom that a monk would drink alcohol. “No pay them,” she reiterated, “only donation at top, if you want.” 15590096_1397670863648867_1701599906302630025_n

 

When we got to our guest house, we asked the woman what her name is. “Brenda,” she told us. We introduced ourselves at the end of our lovely conversation, hugged the woman, and said goodbye. “Oh, wait!” I exclaimed, with my sudden epiphany. “Picture? Okay?” She smiled, and I took my selfie with Brenda, who I will fondly remember for years to come. She might not still be there next time I return to Sri Lanka, but she will definitely live on in my heart.

 

 





Travel in Sri Lanka: Tuk-Tuks, Buses & Trains, Oh MY!

1 01 2017

 

Life is about cherishing the good times and overcoming the bad. Every bad experience leaves us with perspective, and perhaps new knowledge or insights related to ourselves or those around us. Without fail, my experiences have shown that HOW you get somewhere is often equally memorable as where you are heading.

 

thailandOn my first trip to Asia, I learned to embrace the art of unplanned travel. While it was uncomfortable at first, it was my gift to myself, to liberate my need to know every next step, in order to embrace the unknown paths that would undoubtedly find me. So, after researching everything about Sri Lanka, I again chose to only book the bare minimum, leaving the rest up to destiny. As it turns out, that might not have been the best idea.

 

mirissa-xmasDespite being a predominantly Buddhist country, the week of Christmas is a huge holiday for Sri Lankans. Although they celebrate Christmas in a strictly secular sense, many richer Sri Lankans in the big city work for international companies, who give employees this week off to be with family. So, the families head to the central mountains and the southern beaches to enjoy the winter break. This means that all the train seats available to reserve in advance are sold out… which means we were left in Kandy with no clue how we were going to get to our next destination.

 

The Train to Hatton

While my conference was wrapping up, my wife had a day to research our options. She figured out how to take the local bus into town to the train station, where they confirmed that there were no tickets left for purchase. The only choice we had left was to simply show up the morning of, and hope to get lucky, or to pay exorbitantly more money to hire a private driver to take us one way into the mountains. So, we loaded our packs onto our backs, hitched a tuk-tuk to the train station an hour early, and crossed our fingers.

 

15589830_10211698209520971_3362054281497370108_nAmazingly, we got the last two tickets remaining in 3rd Class! We were ecstatic, though we didn’t exactly know what to expect. Our train ride to Kandy 4 days earlier had been booked in advance, which means first class, reserved seats, A/C, & wifi! They even served us snacks and hot tea. (Try drinking tea on a Sri Lankan train… it’s like sipping coffee while horseback riding).

 

img_2808We braced ourselves for the worst case scenario, we planned our locations strategically so that at least one of us could rush onto the closest rail car and attempt to secure a seat. If we failed to do so, we could at least sit atop our backpacks on the floor for the duration, right? The train pulled up, and people began to cluster for the doorways. We couldn’t figure out how to tell which cars were 3rd class, and had to thrust our piece of paper towards an official in order to get a finger point in the right direction. We climbed on board, and it wasn’t too bad… people were sitting calmly in seats, there were even a few open here and there. We started to ask if they were free, when someone asked us what our seat numbers were on our ticket. Seat numbers?? Bethany looked more closely at the faded monotone print, and, sure enough, it said, “9 & 10.” As it turns out, what we had purchased IS 3rd class, but it’s 3rd class RESERVE, which means that we had guaranteed seats!! We were thrilled to enjoy a comfortable ride, making friends with strangers, and listening to the drumming and singing flowing from passengers packed into the unreserved car directly behind us.

 

Hatton to Dalhousie

15541932_1393960027353284_5754440423933363127_nFrom Hatton, we had to take a bus or hire a driver to finish the journey through the mountains to the tea village of Dalhousie (pronounced ‘Del-house’). This is where the steep pilgrimage climb to Adam’s Peak begins. It looked fairly close on paper, just about 40 km or so, and we knew that a bus would be much cheaper, so we set off from the train station to figure out where to catch the bus. We crossed the tracks to what looked like a main road lined with shops, and walked into the town, assuming the bus station wouldn’t be far. Hatton is a small city, bustling with people and traffic, with mostly Sinhali signage. We originally thought we would stop someplace for lunch, but only saw ‘short eats’, or street food vendors. While we enjoy the fried samosas, dosas, and rotis greatly, we were really hoping for an actual restaurant to set our packs down and get our bearings. After a few blocks, we grew flustered, and I tried to ask someone for directions. Most small town Sri Lankans can understand some English, but cannot speak it, so my question was answered with a simple gesture- an outreached arm with a finger pointing in the direction we were heading. I looked at Bethany, we shrugged our shoulders, and kept going. A few more blocks down, I asked someone else. I got the same response. Finally, at the opposite end of town, the neverending facade of open air shops peeled back to reveal an enclave of tired buses, churning and groaning as they maneuvered around each other like coy in an overpopulated pond.

 


15665546_10211763329908940_9146162320501730702_nBethany found a ticket booth and asked which bus to Dalhousie. The man replied, “No, no one bus to Delhousie!” We tried asking a different way. “No bus! Maskeliya bus!” Finally, we understood that we must take TWO buses to get to Dalhousie, first to Maskeliya, then transfer to Dalhousie. Phew! Another man walked up, listening to our conversation, and tried to guide us to the right bus. This interim town was not at all on our radar, so we had no clue what name we were looking for. We boarded the empty bus, picked seats close to the driver, and waited. We still had no tickets, but this appeared to be okay. More people got on, including several people carrying baskets of baked goods and sweets to sell to weary travelers. After not too long, the driver started up the bus, and the conductor guided him out of his narrow slot, through the bus yard, without hitting any other moving targets. Once we were on the road, the conductor came by to collect our fares… a whopping 150 rupees, or about $1 total!

 

Trick or Tuk-Tuk?

img_2840The path may have looked short, but the mountain roads are anything but straight. The practically single lane roads wind along the edges of lakes and tea plantations, pausing frequently to let trucks and cars squeeze by on hairpin turns. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside, and the topography was simply stunning. It took what felt like an hour to travel 19 km to Maskeliyae waiting to get to the next bus station so we could figure out our transfer, when all the sudden a man boarded the bus and started yelling for us, “Tuk-tuk?” We were thoroughly confused and told him no, but then the conductor appeared, waving at us to get off the bus.Nobody else was getting off here, and I was nervous that something weird was happening. Our big packs had been stored in the back of the bus, so Bethany followed the conductor to go retrieve them, while I waited with one foot on the bus, scared that it would take off with our packs still in the boot! Once I saw that she had them safely on the ground, I disembarked to join her. The next bus was supposed to be just up the road, but this tuk-tuk driver was very adamant about giving us a ride. “Much faster!” he persuaded us with his smile. b-thailandWe asked how much, and, although it was many times more expensive than the bus, it was still only $5, and we were already running much later than we had planned. We negotiated the price a little lower, and gladly accepted his ride the remainder of the way. He promised to stop for photos along the way, and even pulled over to lead me down a hidden path, which revealed a beautiful waterfall known by locals!

 

‘Bad Trees’ en route to Nuwara Eliya

img_2951The Tuk-Tuk driver also gave us a price to drive us back the next day (after we were to climb SriPada overnight- more on that in a future post), though it seemed a bit high. In our exhausted, aching state after hiking from 2am-10am, we opted to skip the unknown of missing a train back in Hatton, and hired a car to drive us all the way to Nuwara Eliya. It was money well spent! For 6,000 rupees (about $40 for both of us), we had a comfortable ride the entire 3 hours, saving at least 2 hours of total travel time with all the transfers required to go by bus. Our driver, Sameer, was very friendly, and although he could not answer many of our questions, he was proud to stop and show us things along the way. At one point, still making our way around the beautiful lakes, he stopped and pointed, “That tree!” Huh? I stared, not understanding and shrugging it off. “Bad Tree!” he insisted. I furrowed my brow and squinted at the trees, trying hard to understand. “BAT Tree!” I looked one last time… OH!!! My gosh! The trees were filled with hanging bats! It was so weird to see bats in daylight, I asked him to wait for me to change to my telephoto lens so I could see them better. There were hundreds of them! It was incredible! Proud that he managed to finally get us to understand, we continued our journey, with a deeper friendship.img_2952

 

Searching for South

img_2853The rest of the central mountains are known for relaxing holidays, beautiful waterfalls, and some milder hiking destinations. Originally, I wanted to hike Horton Plains to a place enticingly called World’s End. But by the time we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, my aching calves had morphed into full rigor mortis. I was still hopeful that a good walk would benefit our muscles the next day, but we still had to figure out how to get from Nuwara Eliye down south, to our next destination. Despite everything we read, we were still hoping to find a magical train that would slice through the center of Sri Lanka to get us quickly and comfortably to some  much needed relaxation along the beaches. Unfortunately, this invisible train does not exist, so our only options were to take the bus, or hire a driver. This part of the journey is much farther, and a driver can cost upwards of 20,000 rupees ($90-130), which was not in our budget. Luckily, there’s a government bus! Our AirBnB host in Nuwara Eliye kindly helped us to figure out the current bus schedule, which changes frequently, but calling his friend to get the latest details. We could catch one bus the entire way to Mirissa, but it leaves at 8am. That means, no time to explore anything else in this area, unless we want to stay another day. We debated, but our exhaustion kicked in, and we opted for the beach instead of another night in the crisp fall weather of the mountains.

 

The Wheels on the Bus…

The next morning, our host offered to drop us off at the local bus station, just 5 minutes from his house. He previously said he was busy, but- totally unrelated to the fact that his dog had bitten my foot the night before, I’m sure– he suddenly had time to help us out! He not only drove us to the bus station, but dropped us off in front of our bus, then promised to go park his car and come back to make sure we were all set. The conductor helped us load our packs into the boot, and we climbed on board the bus, about 45 minutes early. It was completely full. The few seats that looked open were being saved for family members with bags and coats. I looked at Bethany with horror, as I realized what this could mean. This bus ride is scheduled to take 7 hours. SEVEN. With no seats available, this means that we have no choice but to stand in the aisle, gripping the overhead bars through the winding mountain roads. We started to have a conversation about whether or not we were willing to do this. Is there a later bus? Not a direct one. Should we wait another day? The thought alone exhausted me. Just then, our host popped on board the bus, aware of the situation. “Don’t worry, I’ve spoken with the conductor, and he says that when you get to Elle, there will be two seats for you.” Elle is about 1 ½ hours into the bus ride. Okay, that’s doable, I thought. We thanked our host for his help, as we were literally the only foreigners on the bus, standing out like candles in a chocolate cake.

 

An hour into the ride, we slowed down more than usual, and I leaned over the seat backs to my left to try to catch a glimpse. While normally this vantage point would have me peering into a canyon, since the drive on the left there, I saw a car between us and the edge of the road. There were several, which we were inching past on the right, where oncoming traffic had stopped. Then, I saw the cause of the delay. There was another bus, just like the one we were one, sitting on its side, hanging just barely over the edge of the road. I saw no people standing around, so it had either just happened, or been there a while. It put the fear right back in me, and- I hoped- in our driver too, as we continued past the wreckage, through yet another hairpin turn.

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Six hours later, we were approaching the coastline… still standing. By then, we were quite friendly with our neighbors, with no personal space left to speak of. With each stop, the conductor squeezed through the aisle, pressing us against the seated passengers nearby while we sucked in everything that we could. Every 10-15 minutes, I would switch arms, feeling my biceps burning with each unexpected swing or heave of the bus. I shifted wait frequently from left leg to right, stretching upward onto my toes to give my calves some momentary relief. Just one stop before Mirissa, someone stood up to get off, and we slipped into the empty seats. The immediate relief sent out an audible sigh.
Memorable? Yes. And, believe me, when I got to our next guest house, that bed could not have felt any more well deserved than it did that day. Since we saved so much money riding the bus, we proceeded to spend those hard-earned rupees on drinks ocean-side.








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