Sunday, November 30, 2014

South Dakota


South Dakota is one of those “once in a lifetime” kind of places. A place where you (literally) have a beer with the mayor an hour after you get into town. It’s a kind of unspoiled plain trying to hold on to the legends of Doc Holliday cowboy saloons of Deadwood from a hundred years ago. But silly as it may be, it kind of works. When you’re staying in a town like Miller, South Dakota and you have to prepare for Sunday because 100 percent of the restaurants (3 our of 3) are closed, you really start to develop a sense for what “small town” is all about. Lucky for us, the South Dakota state fair happened while we were in town, a measly hour away.  I had never seen a donkey beauty pageant before, but there’s a first time for everything. 
There is plenty in Asia that I will never understand no matter what I do, but I don’t get South Dakota at all either. And if Wall Drug and the world’s only corn palace can’t help me out, there might not be much hope. But I’m sure glad I went.  Oh, and the badlands are absolutely stunning. And Sioux Falls is really, honestly worth a solid look. The state surprised me in a lot of ways. I'm just glad I left before the snow storm two days later. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Rochester, MN


 

     Rochester, Minnesota. I never expected to spend any extended amount of time here because frankly… I didn’t even really know it existed. People will spend whole lives, entire existences living in a place that you’ve never hear of. A place that you might never consider even visiting. People may cringe if you mention a place like Behghazi, Libya, or consider science fiction to the thought of Zam, Burkina Faso. Yet it’s another person’s entire existence.  

                I’m a firm believer that every place has its own charming qualities. Rochester is a very unusual town, its whole existence hinging on the world renowned Mayo Clinic. A strange mixture of rich surgeons, young nurses, and the old, sick, and dying.  Some things you notice right away. The elevator in the hotel is large enough for a roll in gurney. The airport has 6 gates, but claims international status for wealthy non-Americans to have direct access to the clinic. Other things come later. Trendy shops, upon a closer look, build fashionable custom limb replacements for amputees. Everything is about the clinic, for the clinic, and exists because of the clinic.

                Fortunately, rich doctors lead to good restaurants, a pleasant downtown area, and some pretty fantastic golf courses. With a population just over 100,000, it’s a city that’s on the rise. A somewhat surprising and pretty substantial Muslim population throws an interesting curve ball into the diversity mix. It really is an odd place with a somewhat fascinating aura.

                But once you get to our extended stay hotel, the perspective of why the city exists switches to the people that need it so badly. The blind, the broken, the sick. People on their last hope, and sometimes quite literally their last limb. We met men watching their wives die. An old ghost of a man clings onto the last hopes of his past life and watches them fade away night after night into the bottom of a bottle. The broken and weak of all kind congregate as their loved ones watch them die.  We use the back patio of the hotel to escape after work and be social. They use it to escape from their lives and their mortality, even if just for a few minutes. A certain bond has formed between our group and the people of the hotel.

                People need more than just a doctor. Whether you’re sick or not, you need a release. And as sad as it has been to hear the stories of the various people that circulate through the hotel, we’ve gotten a lot of smiles too. Many warm hearted thanks have come our way. We’ve been open and welcoming to everyone around us, and it’s been heartwarming to see them smile, relax, and forget why they have to be where there are for a little while. And that’s where the charm in Rochester eventually ended up coming from. It’s not always served with a plate of caviar on beautiful blue beach. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find what makes a place special.

Rochester is a lot more beautiful than other places I’ve been in a lot of ways. The landscape can be beautiful. The skies have presented epic shows of clouds and storms. But like most places I’ve been, it’s the people that grow on you. Once you break through the tough outer skin, at the end of the day, everybody just wants to smile and have someone to call a friend.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Austin, TX


           Just a few days is hardly enough time to dig in deep. But what I did see, I really enjoyed. Austin has a vibrant nightlife and was rowdy even on Easter weekend. The city takes pride in its counter culture, with live music bursting from every corner, people performing elicit activities on the street corners, and tons and tons of food trucks and small bohemian eateries galore. It’s a nice town with some lovely people and hardy, serious food. Austin takes pride in its reputation. The Portland of Texas. The liberal Mecca in a vastly conservative gun-toting desert.
            The next day, it looks quite a bit different than the night before. What’s covered up as fun and excitement at night carries over to a sad problem of addiction and homelessness by the next morning. People scatter the streets and alleyways, wasting away at absolute rock bottom. You know it’s bad when they don’t even ask for change. Sitting and staring off into oblivion, life over before it even began. Keep Austin weird might be a nice catch phrase, but maybe the city has taken it a little too far. But how do you stop a problem so gripping and rampant? It certainly isn’t vast prohibition like has been tried relentlessly These people need help. Where do you turn when the whole world has abandoned you?  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ecuador


Short but sweet, a tiny country with a whole lot to offer. I flew to Quito (yet again, in the middle of the night) and sat through the hour-long car ride to my hostel. 30 bucks a night for a private room with a big comfy bed? I could get used to it. That kind of quality location somewhere like NYC or Tokyo would have cost closer to 200 a night.
            I took a walking tour in the morning, guided by the enthusiastic hotel worker and cultural food critic Ovidio. I’m typically against organized tour, but they certainly have their place. I learned a lot more about the city than I could have hoped to on my own. And damn right I was going on the food lover tour later in the week.
            I met a European traveler named Philippe and toured around the city with him. We visited the colossal Basilica del Voto Nacional and made the haul all the way up to the top of the highest steeple (an unthinkable idea in the states) where we were greeted with a staggering view of the city.
            It turns out that he had similar plans for the next day. The next morning, we were on an early bus to Mindo accompanied by two other Swiss girls that Philippe had met the night before.  There’s nothing like a little landslide to hold you up for a few hours, but once we got through and entered the beginnings of the rainforest, intricate beauty filled our eyes. Lush, vibrant mountains greeted us as we arrived. A fantastic little tree house style hotel found us. Unbelievably cheap and beautifully original.
            The next day we went on a hike through the jungle. A (very) sketchy cable car (this thing would have failed the most lax of rigging inspections) sailed us through the jungle over a vibrant gorge to the beginning of the trek. About 45 minutes into the hike, we found the two stunning waterfalls we were looking for. The water was chilling and refreshing. And then, we all learned what they meant by “rain forest.”
            A torrential downpour came out of nowhere and ruined our lives. Or at least it tried. In reality, it was invigorating and humbling. The cable car and truck ride back pushed images of more primitive times; one of those moments where you feel truly alive.
            There just so happened to be a chocolate farm and restaurant right next door to our rooms. The chocolate tour was awesomely informative (and of course, delicious). A young entrepreneur from Hawaii had moved there with his Ecuadorian wife to make innovative chocolate development his passion and life’s work. You can tell right away when somebody has that passion about them. Kind of makes you question what you’re doing with your own life.
            Ecuador was fantastic until the last few hours when someone tried to steal my camera in a scam. You want to visit these places and enjoy and learn about their culture and way of life. And then someone blatantly disrespects you as an individual. It messes with your head a bit, but you always must get back up and continue on. The bad comes with the good, and it’s all part of seeing and enjoying this crazy world we all live in. My camera and I are still together and in tact, so I push on. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Peru


It always seems like it’s the middle of the night when you arrive in a new country from a long flight. But that never matters to the taxi driver mafia, always preying on any new tired soul that just wants a bed. It’s always a good idea to do your research before flying to a new place. Figure out the taxi scams well before you arrive and have a plan. It’s just part of being a safe, responsible traveler.

Man did we jam a lot of stuff into this one.  Lima, Nazca, Arequipa, Puno, Cuzco,  Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu. I typically don’t plan out a trip so thoroughly, but sometimes you can see a lot more if you do. Especially when you have a limited time frame. I had heard a lot of bad accounts from friends about Lima, but to be honest, I quite liked it. We found a nice place to stay in Barranco and enjoyed wandering the streets and gawking at the beautiful homes. Lima was also a fantastic first dive into Peruvian food. Ceviche and Alpaca steaks until you explode, and Coca Sour’s to ease any headache imaginable.  We explored nearby Miraflores and found a nice park and a great little tea shop. Now I’m not naive here, I know that Lima’s reputation for poverty, wealth divide, and danger is founded and widely spread. But I found a certain charm in the city that I was not expecting given my word of mouth preconceptions.

                We went on to Nazca where we took an exhilarating (and probably excessively dangerous) dune buggy ride through the desert with a very excited and not quite worried enough driver. We visited the aqueducts and Cahuachi, an unexpectedly massive ceremonial ruin left over from the Nazca peoples in the early Common Era. We also got to do a little sandboarding on the dunes. I failed miserably.

                The next day Ben arrived and we headed to the airport. We hopped on a little 6-seater airplane to do a flyover tour of the Nazca lines. The lines are massive geoglyphic designs hand made on the desert floor. They depict images such as spiders, trees, monkeys, birds, fish, etc. A truly impressive site if you can get over the vomit inducing stomach churn of the airplane. I’ve been in several small planes and never had a problem. This time, I was sweating bullets and holding my stomach down for the entirety of the trip. Others aboard weren’t so lucky.

                We took the bus to Arequipa and found a fantastic hotel with the biggest bedrooms that I’ve ever seen. The effects of the high altitude started to set in as we wandered the streets in search of souvenirs for the family. This is where we tried Cuy (or roasted guinea pig) for the first time. Ok, but not super impressive. There’s hardly any meat on it! Arequipa was a really beautiful city; I wish we had had longer there.

                It was a long bus ride to Puno, but it was worth every second. We headed straight to a handmade floating reed island on Lake Titicaca to stay with a family for a night. This was probably the best part of the trip for me. What a lovely experience. It’s excellent to see such fantastic craftsmanship from such dedicated people. It’s amazing to be around someone that can literally build anything that they need to survive. A wholesome, escaping, calm experience, a great way to really get away. Wow.

                And then the long road to Machu Picchu. From Cuzco, we took a nice train ride for several hours to the little tourist town of Aguas Calientes. It’s a stunning little town set on the side of the mountains. Really beautiful. No roads go to it; it’s only accessible by train. And unfortunately, it has the worst food out of any city I’ve ever been to. Really really pathetic, it’s hard to believe that nobody in a place so nice has any pride in their food.

                What do you expect anyone to say about Machu Picchu?? Did you expect some kind of review? Some kind of eloquently written stream of thought about how perfect, amazing, awe-inspiring it is?? Maybe you should just go. See it for yourself. There’s a reason so many people do. Peru, excellent destination.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Oregon

   Oregon ended up being pretty much exactly what I expected. A place that I would fall in love with right away.  A magical land of huge mountains, powerful waterfalls, immense hangovers, and lovely, hospitable locals. Even the (very) small town of Arlington we are staying and working in has its beauty. 
   
   Yet like any place, a dark side exists too. As we walked into the deli across the street from our hotel (one of three restaurants in the town) I saw a notice offering a 10,000 dollar reward for information leading to the arrest of a local arsonist. Since March of 2013, more than 13 counts of arson and vandalism have been reported in the small town, including several burnings of multiple churches. Some punk kid(s) are obviously bored to death. Another self perpetuating problem facing the modern day world. It's hard for me to even imagine what would drive someone to burn down a church or someone's home. Is it a case of a couple of bad seeds roaming free? I think the problems are much more deep seeded than that. I don't think anyone is born with hate in their heart. It's something we learn. We are all a product of our environment. We can all help fix this kind of thing. We all have something positive to share. And obviously there are those that desperately need it.

   I hate to write such a negative place about somewhere that I grew to enjoy so quickly. Don't get me wrong, this is already one of my favorite places in the country. Very exciting things are happening here in a very creative way. The culinary and microbrew worlds are top notch and cutting edge. The outdoors are expansive and stunning. But it's important to take in both the bad and the good. It's not always a pretty world. But sometimes you have to see the ugly to enjoy the beauty. You have to see it in order to help. In order to realize how good you might have it.