Fiji

When I was 22 I got it into my head to take a trip to Australia and Thailand.  The driving motivations for this adventure were, of course, surfing and Thai food.  So, after earning a few bucks working as a deckhand in Alaska, I set off in November of 2002 for six months of fun in the sun.  First stop: Fiji.

The flight to Fiji was memorable to the extent that it was terrible.  I did have a good book to read, as I had brought along Howard Zinn’s iconic The People’s History of the United States, but the hang-over from the night before was epic.  At one point the flight attendant came over unsolicited with some ibuprofen and a 7-Up because she had, “seen her dad like this before.  He drank a lot.”  Good start, Abrams.  12 hours later I landed in the sunny capital city of Suva.

Fiji is a small island country in the Pacific.  The Fijian people are a mix between ethnic Fijians and Indians, who were brought there as labor in the 1800s during the era of British rule. Today that ethnographic dynamic presents a significant challenge as the Indian minority has managed through hard work to rise from their humble origins to amass a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth and power.  The ethnic Fijians resent this, and in 1990 there was a military coups that enacted changes in the constitution that codified ethnic Fijian dominance of the political system.  Since then there have been numerous efforts to improve this situation, although the tension remains.  In many ways the landscape of Fiji is a paradise.  The white beaches and palm trees border an iridescent blue ocean.  And, like any proper Eden, there is fresh fruit within arm’s reach, as mango trees line the jungle paths.  Behind the dreamlike facade, however, there is a dirtier reality.  Many of the most beautiful places are not accessible to locals, a populace that struggles with the poverty and health issues of most developing countries.

During my time there I basically travelled in a loop around the perimeter of the country.  After Suva I
went clockwise to the North, where I stayed on a small island just off the coast.  There, in the blazing hot Fijian sun, I received what to this day remains the worst sunburn of my life.  I had decided to hire a small boat to go snorkeling in the deep, clear water off shore.  In true Fijian style the boat was only about 12 feet long and barely ran.  On board were myself, the driver, and one other diver.  About an hour away from the beach I noticed the driver, a native Fijian who was black as night, reach into his bag for his sunscreen, a thick white paste that must have been SPF 1000.  As he spread this over his ebony shoulders I knew I was done for.  And I was.  Within 24 hours the outer layers of my skin had sloughed off like a lizard molting, and in addition to the cancer I will likely develop, I also got a tan line that is with me to this day.

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New Zealand


New Zealand was next on my stop.  Although Australia and Thailand were my main destinations, I was eager to find ways to add to my trip, and I found I was able to have my “lay-over” in Auckland last three months without much hassle.  New Zealand would be the perfect addition, as I had discovered how much I enjoyed the outdoors during my time in Utah and Alaska, and New Zealand was famous for its extensive hiking trails, surfing, and rock climbing opportunities.  Auckland, the capital city, was fine.  Coming from the Northwest, it actually seemed quite familiar.  The climate, culture, and demographics are all pretty similar to back home and I came to see Auckland like a smaller version of Vancouver, B.C.   The country itself is two mid-sized islands, and I decided the best way to travel would be to buy a cheap car.  After searching the classifieds I found an old, orange Ford Cortina for sale by an expat Irishman, and I was off.

Seeing as I was now “the guy with the car” it wasn’t hard to make friends on the backpacker circuit.  The first of many good pals I made on this trip was Markus, a good natured hippie from the United States.  We cruised around the mellow towns of the North Island looking for fun.  The highlight was Lake Taupo, where I decided the time was right to jump out of a plane.  As I walked up to the plane I was greeted by the professional who would be strapped to me during the jump.  He was in his twenties and covered in innumerable piercings and tattoos.  When I asked if he was the guy I was jumping with he seemed offended and responded “is that alright with you?”  Sure, pal.  Whatever.  He assured me that he would lead us in a variety of twists, flips, and spins to make this jump more exciting.  Since I am notoriously prone to motion sickness, this was not the assurance I was seeking, and I attempted to explain to him that just jumping out of the freakin’ plane was gonna be fine, thank you.  The jump itself was incredibly fun, and I wasn’t nearly as scared as you would think.  I guess that’s the benefit of being 22, you really think you’re invincible.  But I haven’t done it again and probably won’t because it’s such a roll of the dice.  I prefer doing things with a little bit of danger (surfing, snowboarding, climbing) where it is up to you to stay safe.  With skydiving it seems to be more just hoping today isn’t the day the chute doesn’t work.

Fortunately the chute worked that day, and a good thing, too, as I had grown to like the country I was jumping onto.  Laid back and largely rural, there is still an educated and progressive feel to the place.  For example, there was a female prime minister when I was there, which shouldn’t be too surprising, as New Zealand has the distinction of being the first country to enfranchise women.  And there is a healthy diversity consisting primarily of whites, Asians, and Maoris.  The Maoris were, and are, a large bunch; it is they who largely comprise the fearsome All Black rugby team.  They are the descendants of the Polynesian tribes who first inhabited remote New Zealand in the 13th century.  Maoris have a history of violence and warfare, and it’s not hard to imagine, but today they, unlike many indigenous peoples around the world, have integrated fairly well into the post-colonial culture.  When I first went to a bar the bouncer was a huge Maori man, and the realization that he could break me on a whim wasn’t far from my mind.  When I gave him my id, though, he flashed an award winning smile and in their very friendly accent wished me a good night.  That experience proved to be the rule and not the exception; the Maoris are a wonderful people.

Europeans didn’t arrive in New Zealand until a couple hundred years later.  Capt. Cook mapped the coast, trade began soon after, and it wasn’t too long before the Brits turned it into part of its empire.  The impact on the land from both Maori and European settlement was significant.  Isolated from the rest of the world for so long, the native wildlife had evolved independently and many species became extinct due to hunting and the introduction of foreign animals.  The most popular examples of this were the elimination of many species of flightless birds, although today there are still kiwi birds running around, from which the country and the people get their nickname, Kiwi.

Learning about the country and having fun was all good, but I kept in my mind the ultimate goal of the trip: Thai Food.  Ever since my days of college and eating at Thai Tom’s I had what can only be described as an addiction to spicy curries of Southeast Asia.  So in every town I visited I tried to find the local Thai restaurant.  This was partly out of enjoyment, and partly out of training.  You see, I had heard the curry in Thailand was on a different scale of spicy, and that I would need to up my game if I were to hang in the motherland.  The problem was trying to find sufficiently spicy curry.  Everywhere I went I would ask for five stars and they wouldn’t deliver the goods.  At one particular place I asked for “as hot as you make it” and the waiter didn’t appear to hear me.  Not trying to be rude, I wanted to be sure he heard me so I repeated my request.  He curtly responded “I heard you.”  I was in for it.  When he returned later with our meals he did not bring mine. Instead, the chef himself came out with my plate and then he went and sat at a nearby table to watch us eat.  Strange, right?  It turns out he was trying to kill me.  The curry was hot enough to melt lead, to kill a lesser man.  In normal circumstances I would have taken it back or simply not eaten, but this had become a matter of pride, so I turned to the chef and smiled, “Thanks, this is just how I like it.”  And I finished the meal, although I would be too sick to drive us back to the hostel and be forced to go straight to bed.  Victory.

Before leaving the North Island I wanted to try out a farming volunteer organization I had heard about, WWOOF.  It is an acronym for “willing workers on organic farms”, and it was started by some hippies that wanted to share the knowledge and experience of permaculture farming.  The basic agreement is the volunteer works around four hours a day in return for room and board.  Because you are ostensibly free labor, there is a little competition to get volunteers, and this means many farms will advertise their great location, interesting work, and leisure opportunities such as horseback riding.  I chose a winery that seemed a hippie paradise.  The family grew roses and made wine, and their notice highlighted big, healthy organic meals.  When I arrived, however, it was a different story.  The wife had left her husband for the wealthy wine tycoon across town, and the husband was not handling it well.  The roses were all dead.  Every one of them.  And instead of organic meals the refrigerator was full of meat, little of which I was allowed to eat.  He left the children largely unsupervised, so they used their time the best way they knew how, by becoming pen pals with porno stars.  Can’t make this stuff up.  My co-volunteer was a French guy about my age who enjoyed nothing more than explaining why the French are superior to Americans.  “You see”, he would say in his admittedly cool accent, “while you are a tourist, traveling with your friends and always taking pictures, ‘snap, snap’, I am a traveler seeking true experience.”  My undoubtedly misguided reply that I was in fact doing the same thing he was, and that it was he who was traveling with friends, was but a helpless snowflake in the inferno of his smug superiority.

After the farm debacle I boarded the ferry to the South Island where I continued to find good towns and great people.  Nelson, Queenstown, and Wellington are all on my faves list.  And it was here in the South that I found the best of what New Zealand has to offer–a boundless amount of outdoor recreation.  In addition to rock climbing crags, on the South Island there are hundreds of miles of excellent maintained hiking trails that provide cabins for hikers.  In fact, next to Nepal it is hard to think of a country better equipped for hiking.  The only downside is that with all the preservation efforts you lose some of the off-the-beaten-path feel of being outdoors in America.  My primary wingmen during this time were two brothers from Namibia, the country located just north South Africa.  (Don’t worry, nobody else knows that, either)  And our highlight together was the canoe trail which serpentines for several days.

After we split ways I heard a long haired dude on the corner in Queenstown shouting, “I am looking for a climbing partner!”  I wasn’t too experienced, but I loved climbing so I told him I was his guy.  He was a really good climber so he led all the routes.  It was just great to follow him up amazing routes throughout the country and using new methods such as traditional climbing, which is where you place your own gear in cracks instead of relying on pre-drilled protection. After three months of great outdoors it was time to move on, so I sent out an email to all my friends along the way that the famous “Martina Cortina” was available, and for free. I hadn’t had any luck selling my car, as I think I was too generous in my offers.  When somebody offers to sell you a car for a $100, I found, the response is that they think you have something up your sleeve.  So I simply parked the car and put the keys under the seat.  A couple of days later I heard that a gal from Switzerland I knew had got the car.  Of course, she later sold the car for a decent amount and gave me nothing.  Such is life…

Australia

Australia is a massive island country located in the South Pacific.  But you already knew that.  It has been inhabited for over 40,000 years by the people now known as Aborigines.  Europeans didn’t arrive until the 1600s with Dutch explorers being the first.  By the 1770s the British had claimed Australia and were using it as a penal colony.  Not a bad idea, really.  Today the descendants of these criminals are doing pretty well. The country is wealthy and modern, and Sydney is a legitimately world-class city.  The men are still rough, as they are quick to prove.  You can’t spend ten minutes among Aussies without one of the them explaining to you how rugby is tougher than football.  They’re probably right, and their other sport, Australian Rules Football, is downright crazy.  All in all, Australian culture is similar to ours for better and worse.  For some reason, however, the Aussies get a lot of love internationally while we…..don’t.  They’re like the Canucks in that respect.  While all three of us only speak English, the consensus seems to be that Americans speak English because we’re arrogant and dumb, and the Canucks and Aussies get a pass.

But I’m not bitter. Aborigines split from the European and Asian branches over 60,000 years ago, making them the second oldest population group next to Africans.  A downside to their unique evolution is that Aborigines did not develop a resistance to alcohol.  This lesser resistance, combined with cultural and socio-economic factors, has led to an epidemic of alcoholism among Aborigines.  During my time in Australia I was struck not only by how many intoxicated Aborigines I saw in the streets, but also by the indifference of the white people to their plight.  I soon learned why.  While on a nice Saturday afternoon date I saw two Aborigines fighting in the street, and I mean really fighting.  One dude was on top of the other and just beating his ass.  Me being me, I decide to jump in and pull the guy off.  Next thing I know I’m holding on for dear life as this crazed drunk turns his bloodshot eyes to me and starts screaming, “You can’t cage me white man!”, while swinging his arms wildly at my face.  The original guy I helped had already ran off, everybody in the streets was simply ignoring us, and I learned an important Australia lesson: whatever liberal weaknesses you might have, it is best to leave a drinking Aboriginal well enough alone.

But I wasn’t in Australia to study its culture, I was there to surf.  And surf I did.  Australia is stupidly blessed with good waves, so it was easy to hop on board with a local surf tour company that heads north along the coast, camping at beaches along the way.  I bought a beautiful board  with red trim and a picture of the sun slurping the ocean out of a straw.  It was a “fun board” at about 7’6″, which means that it is not as big as the long board used by beginners and soul surfers, but longer than the short boards preferred by experts.  Basically, the longer the board the easier to catch and ride waves.  Because I had spent a summer in Hawaii when I was 19 it seemed like the perfect board for me.

My favorite surfing memory happened off a random beach whose name I forget.  I was about a quarter mile off shore and the waves were perfect.  The sky was blue and on the beach I could see a number of kangaroos near the bluff.  The swell began to rise and I caught a wave, when all of a sudden I saw two fins in the water.  After a brief moment of panic I realized they were dolphins.  I was surfing with dolphins!  A perfect Australian moment.  Most of my time in the surf, however, was not this successful.  It turns out that Aussies are good at surfing.  And so for the most part I was getting snaked by packs of locals or stuck riding the shoulders of the waves.  It seemed the only way for me to get good waves was for me to go out at sunset, when everybody else went in.  The only downside to this option was the fact that sunset is known as feeding time for the great white sharks that patrol the Australian waters–this being the reason nobody surfed at this time.  But since I was young and dumb, whereas I am now old, I didn’t fear this potentially fatal option.  Luckily for me, great whites must not like the taste of skinny Americans.

To get back to Sydney I decided to save some money and hitchhike.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but my enthusiasm for alternative travel melted away after a few hours waiting in the rain.  Finally, a truck stopped by and the driver opened the doors to ask, “Do you smoke pot?”  This, clearly, was a loaded question.  “Sorta”, I responded, hoping that my equivocation would allow him to hear what he wanted to hear.  Apparently it worked, because he offered me a ride.  And what a ride it was.  I couldn’t understand a word that mothaf*$ka said, as he spoke in a bizarre tongue of mumbled drunken Aussie.  I took my cue to say “yup” or “you’re right” whenever he paused to take a breath, and that seemed to suffice for conversation.  The marijuana question, I learned, was to find out if I was game to load bowls with his endless weed and to buy booze from convenience stores since he was prohibited to do so as a trucker.  I was, and we spent a rollicking good time roaring down the road in the most illegal manner, stopping only for the aforementioned booze or to unload refrigerators.

Thailand & Laos

Thailand was in some respects the primary mission of this trip.  Specifically, I wanted to eat the best Thai food in the world, and that meant heading to the source.  Now, I recognize that this is a silly reason for a trip, but remember I was twenty-two and had just earned a chunk of change fishing in Alaska, so any ol’ reason would do.  Many other people wax philosophical about travel; they claim that discovering the world is really about discovering yourself.  And this may be true.  However, my main, surprising discovery was that the best Thai food in the world is found in Seattle, Washington.  That’s right, soggy Seattle has better Thai food than Thailand.  You see, the curry dish in Thailand typically consisted of rice, curry, and bamboo stalks, while the curry in Seattle boasts a variety of meats and tons of fresh vegetables.  It turns out the greater wealth in America allows higher quality ingredients and that, coupled with the large Asian population in Seattle, propels good old Thai Tom’s to the top.  USA!  USA!

But the food there was pretty good, and Bangkok impressed by demonstrating that fast food can be delicious and relatively healthy.  You can just walk up to a street vendor and they will cook some noodles and sauce on a skillet right in front of you that is ready to eat in under a minute.  Take that, McDonalds.  Apparently Thai people are in a hurry, because in addition to the fast food the whole city seemed to be frantically racing.  Just spending the day there is exhausting.  The iconic symbol of this frenzy is the tuk tuk, Bangkok’s go-cart on speed that careens dangerously through traffic.  While on board I thought I was going to die, literally, a number of times, and was nearly reduced to prayer–although I wasn’t quite sure Jesus was the man calling the shots in Thailand, considering the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist.  That, and, frankly, I haven’t believed in the Big Guy since around the time I lost my first tooth. (A sentiment reinforced when the Sonics were allowed to be stolen from Seattle in 2008).

So Bangkok is a large, bustling city with pretty good Thai food.  What else?  Well, did I mention that it is home to Muy Thai boxing, perhaps the world’s most bad-ass martial art?  The main fights take place in a coliseum in the northern part of the city.  The tickets aren’t expensive, though they’re getting more so as time passes and the UFC popularizes martial arts, and you get quite a show.  One fascinating element to the matches is the role of music.  A band in the stands play drums and other instruments to correspond roughly with the tone of the match; when the fighters are circling the music is suspenseful, and when they are connecting kicks and elbows the drums are pounded loud and fast.  It really adds to the experience, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much it influenced the fighters as well.  The matches themselves were brutal.  For quite some time I figured they fought until someone was knocked unconscious, because the first five fights ended with one man being carried off in a stretcher.  I found out there is scoring and all that, it just happens that the loser usually gets knocked the f*#k out.

After Bangkok I took a trip to islands down south before heading north to Chang Mai, an ancient city still surrounded by moats and medieval walls–two forms of protection made necessary by the threat of the Burmese and Mongolian empires.  In the 1200s it was the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna and only became part of Siam (Thailand) in the late 1700s in exchange for protection.  Clearly this was a different era.  Imperialism was naked and raw; no need to manufacture consent among the public through smoke and mirrors.  Today, thankfully, the scene in Chang Mai is more laid back.  Most of my days started with some curry and a delicious fruit smoothie, followed by an hour of Thai massage.   For those unfortunate souls who have not had a Thai massage the best way for me to describe it is saying it is like passive yoga.  You get all the stretching and good feeling of yoga without doing any of the work.  Instead, a tiny Thai lady climbs on you and contorts your body into positions that hurt oh so good.

Songkran festival. The moat supplied the water.

After my morning routine I would hop onto my motorcycle (okay, I confess, it was a scooter), and head out to the local climbing crag, Horse’s Head.  I was still traveling with the climbing shoes I had bought in New Zealand, so I went to the local climbing shop where I met a buddy from Austria name Jurgen and we had a blast dangling from the rocks for a good week.  I also had the good luck to time my stay in Chang Mai with Songkran, the Thai new year’s festival that happens in the middle of April.  Although it is a national holiday the biggest celebration is in Chang Mai.  Traditionally the holiday was a time to visit the elderly and cleanse Buddhist statues with water.  Nowadays the “cleansing water” aspect has gone wild and Songkran is a week long water fight in the streets.  Everybody gets soaked.  Monks, kids, tourists, all free game.  And, amazingly, due to the peaceful nature of the Thai people there is almost no fighting amidst all the chaos.

But time was ticking and even I have my limits of getting drenched, so I went farther north towards the Burmese border and began a village trekking tour.  It was amazing.  My guide was this super friendly rural Thai guy who barely spoke English.  He took our group of five to different villages throughout the area, where we stayed in huts at night.  At one village I was able to meet with the leader and ask him questions.  When I asked him about theft he didn’t know how to respond; the word, the very concept was alien to him.  Due to the language barrier I wasn’t able to learn whether he meant nobody took anything or there simply wasn’t the same perspective of ownership, but the fact that theft was absent in his way of life was incredible.

Every rose has its thorns, and the seemingly utopian village existence in nowhere Thailand had its weakness, too:  the food.  There have been studies that show the foods we like are imprinted in our brain during our time in the womb and infancy.  If that is true, it is certain that my mom went nowhere near this place when I was a bun in the oven.  The pounds shed off me fast, as I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the delicacies of congealed blood, bats on sticks, and baby bird embryos.  This was the point in my life when I realized, “Nope.  Eating strange foods ain’t my bag, baby.”  To be fair, we eat some things that gross out Asians, too.  When I mentioned to an English-speaking Thai that I couldn’t get into the food he laughed and asked me about cheese and yogurt.  “Don’t you let milk go bad and then eat the fungus?”  Good point.

Laotian “bus” station

In Laos I wanted to continue exploring village life.  I chose Luang Namtha, a small town near the Chinese border, as my destination.  To get there I took Laotian public transportation:  pickup trucks on dirt roads.  At one point we had to stop for hours due to road contraction.  About ten minutes into the wait I noticed an Osama bin Laden sticker on the side of the construction truck claiming Bin Laden was “The King of Afghanistan”.  I should have got a little nervous considering we were in the middle of nowhere and these guys apparently supported  Osama bin Mass Murderer, but, again, we return to the theme of my youth and assumed invincibility, so I just took a picture and read my book.

In Luang Namtha and the surrounding villages I was again struck by the contrast to modern life.  Here in the jungle the men seemingly spent their time either sleeping or hunting, while the women casually cooked or took care of necessary chores.  Children of varying ages played in a pack just within sight of the women.  Conspicuously absent was the look of stress and exhaustion on the mothers’ faces.  Most of the parents I know back home are two dirty diapers away from infanticide, and I think the reason is Laotian child rearing is more “natural” in the sense that their method is more closely aligned with how humans have evolved to raise children during the past 100,000+ years.  Being the sole caretaker/entertainer of a child in an isolated home is an example of modernity taking a wrong turn.  It would be interesting to learn where and when this approach began and to explore ways to improve it.

Water Buffalo, chillin’.

Before heading to the sleepy capital of Vientienne I wanted to stop in Vang Vien, a village known on the traveler’s circuit as a bohemian destination (side note: I have been there since and Vang Vien is now obnoxiously full of hostels and tourists).  The road to get there has a history of violence due to the Hmong insurgents, an ethnic group located primarily in the mountains who oppose the communist Laotian government.  Apparently, the West has tired of fighting for democracy, and we are letting them fight the good fight on their own.  The village itself is surrounded by beautiful meadows and is tucked alongside a lazy river that has large numbers of even lazier water buffalo cooling off in its waters.  The perfect place to….party?

Now, I didn’t really “party” that much this trip.  I was in a fraternity in college and had a “been there, done that” attitude towards being inebriated, however, Vang Vien was famous for its “special shakes” of ganja and who was I to refuse a local custom?  The first night I ordered one shake and had a great time walking trails under a clear, moonlit sky.  The second night I figured I would do the same thing, but when I went to pay he asked for 10 baht instead of 5, which was what I had paid before.  By this point in the trip I considered myself a pretty savvy traveler, so I haggled a bit and then just left him a 5 and walked off despite his protests about a “special, special shake”.  Then the drugs set in.  The hard drugs.  Later I realized I had accidentally bought a shake filled with mushrooms instead of marijuana, but at the time all I knew was that the world was melting around me.  Not prepared for Fear and Loathing in the Laotian jungle I headed back to the room, where a sympathetic Jurgen took care of me while I temporarily departed from reality.

We kayaked out of town on our to the quirky capital of Vientiane, where the French heritage blends with Asian culture.  And from there it was a hop, skip, and a jump through Bangkok and back home to a new chapter as a wilderness guide in Bend, Oregon.