Exploring the DMZ – North Korea and South Korea No Man’s Land

I made this trip back in 2012…it seems like it was aeons ago. I considered finding a way into North Korea, but at the time it was beyond my budget in both time and money and I had a new child at home and was just learning what it feels like to have another human completely dependent on your choices – so I opted to go to the less visited DMZ in Sokcho, South Korea. This was after my first trip to Seoul and before my trips to the Penis Park in Samcheok and Busan in the South. 

I should start out with a rather silly confession. When I was a pre-teen there were two shows I watched I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, Little House on the Prarie, and M.A.S.H. I can still tell you the names of every character on each show and outline the plots of nearly every episode even though it’s been more than 25 years since I would watch those shows after school and before bedtime. For those who don’t remember the shows, Little House on the Prarie was the story of the Ingles family as they homesteaded on the Great Plains in the 1800s, Gilligan’s Island was about a group of castaways from a Hawaii sailing tour, I Love Lucy was about a funny lady from the 1950s,  and M.A.S.H. was the story of the U.S. Army 4077th Mobile Surgical Unit during the Korean War.

Don’t worry, this post has nothing to do with most of those shows (though my psychological makeup probably has a lot to do with the show) and not much to do with M.A.S.H. aside from the fact that every preconception I had about South Korea, North Korea, or all of Korea was pretty much based on an American TV show made in the 1970s about a war that took place in the 1950s. This is probably the reason I was so surprised to find an ultra-modern nation rather than rice paddies and water buffalo as I had subconsciously been expecting.

In any event, since the Korean War had played such a large part in my childhood development through M.A.S.H, I knew that I would pay a visit to the DMZ that sits between North and South Korea.  DMZ stands for Demilitarized Zone and is an area where it is prohibited to have weapons, armies, or military facilities. The two Koreas are technically still at war but they signed an armistice back on July 27, 1953. The Korean DMZ is a 248 km long and 4 km wide (155 x 2.5 miles) swath of land that runs between Kim Jong Ils wacky North Korean regime and the ultra modern South Korean industrial state. This is the world’s largest DMZ and it has been active for more than 50 years now. The amazing thing about the DMZ is that since no humans have been in it for most of the time it has existed, nature has almost fully recovered and it is filled with wildlife, forests, and more despite once being ruined by the horrors of war.

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So, I wanted to visit the DMZ. I was going to go to the DMZ from Seoul but when I saw glossy tourist brochures and realized it would mean riding a bus with a tour guide and then taking an escorted walk into the (Panmunjan) area before getting on the bus again for an awful tourist lunch, I decided that there had to be a better way. I figured I would find it even though when I asked in Seoul, nearly everyone told me that this was the only way to see the DMZ.

In Sokcho, I looked at the maps and realized that I was actually closer to the DMZ than I had been in Seoul. I asked the proprietor of the guest house about it and he told me that if I took the number one bus to the end, then hitch hiked, I would be able to get to the DMZ and the Unification Observatory in Gangwan-do. From Sokcho I would go to Goseong and then onwards by thumb past Hwa-jin-Po Beach and finally, I would have to walk a bit and I would be at the Unification Observatory which sits on the South Korean Side of the DMZ and overlooks the mountainous coastline heading up the North Korean coastline.

Of course, I wanted to visit North Korea since I had  been fairly interested in Kim Jong Ill and his wacked out claims to have invented the toaster, shot 18 holes in one in a round of golf, and of course his prolific movie making, opera writing, and novel penning which defies human capacity. The problem is that to go to North Korea is way more money than I could possibly afford. This was probably as close as I’d get. I was nervous about hitching to North Korea, I thought about trying to find cheap car hire, but ultimately the idea of hitching appealed to me, so I decided to go for it anyway. This might be my only chance to see it before it disappeared in a cloud of nuclear smoke.

I got on the number 1 bus and rode it to the end of the line at Goseong. From there I got out and stuck out my thumb and a father and daughter picked me up. They didn’t speak any English but they understood that I was heading to the DMZ. They took me up the coast through the concrete tank traps and along the barb wired Hwa-jin-Po-Beach where they dropped me off and I walked along the cold winter shoreline which was lined with barbed wire every inch of it’s beautiful length. Since the two countries are still at war, this is to protect against invasion, though in the summer months they open up the barbed wire gates to allow families to enjoy the gorgeous sand and shoreline. In fact, during the active war, this part was under North Korean control and Kim Il Sung used to bring his rotund son Kim Jong Il to play on these very shores.

From there, I caught a ride with two guys who were taking a weekend leave from their military duty and had driven overnight to come up and see the DMZ. These Korean soldiers were big guys, much taller than me and even though we didn’t have any language in common we ended up having a fun day together going through checkpoints, climbing to the Unification Observatory, and walking through the Gangwon-do DMZ museum.

At the observatory, we looked out over Mt. Geomgangsan and Heageumgang. Gangwon-do is the only divided province in the country with half belonging to the North and half belonging to the South. Looking at North Korea to the north there were mountains, coastline, and an empty road leading into the distance. Not a human soul in sight. And I might add that there were three other visitors at the DMZ observatory and they were all Korean. No tourists except me sandwiched between my new Korean soldier friends.

We had a light lunch of wet noodle fish kabobs dipped in sauce at the small restaurant at the observatory and one of the Korean soldiers bought a souvenir scarf which he then surprised me by presenting to me as a gift. It was a sort of traditional paisley pattern orange bandana with a map of the area of Gongwan-do showing North Korea, South Korea, and DMZ plus the towns that exist. No towns exists in the DMZ and to the North they are hidden in the folds of the incredible mountains.

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Our final stop of the day was the DMZ Museum which is the only DMZ museum in the world. The museum presented a history of the Korean war, the separation of the country, the creation of the DMZ, and the hopes for peace and unification some day. There was something very special about going through this museum with my new soldier friends and each of us writing our wishes for peace on the leaves of the peace trees inside. The museum detailed the entire DMZ, had a large collection of relics from the active part of the war in the 1950’s, as well as lots of information about North Korean attempts to tunnel under the DMZ, infiltrate beaches with mini submarines, and sabotage the South Korean government with spies.

The tunneling in particular is amazing since these weren’t like mineshafts but more like underground highways being carved out to move huge numbers of troops, armor, and equipment. From the DMZ and the world under Seoul, I can see one thing…Koreans love to dig tunnels. If this were middle earth, the Koreans would be the dwarves, though I was certainly the dwarf next to my tall new friends.

Grand total for the day was about 15000 won or $15 U.S. versus the nearly $100 a tourist trip from Seoul would have cost. So, I saved $85, made some new friends, had a unique experience, and didn’t have to ride a bus with a bunch of annoying blue haired baby boomers. All told, this day was a huge success.

As a bonus, I guess I could combine my childhood TV with my experience and write a new series called “Little House on the DMZ”. At the end of the day, my friends dropped me off in Sokcho and headed back to their base while I suddenly had a new understanding about Korea, the Korean War, and the DMZ. I still hoped that at some point I would see a rice paddy or a water buffalo though…

Korean Bathhouses – The Wonderful World of Jjimjilbang

On my first trip to South Korea, back in 2012, I found many wonders. I disocvered the joys of the Penis Park and the value of Love Motels as well as visiting the DMZ and exploring Seoul, Busan, and Samcheok. All of that was spectacular, but the thing I loved most were the Korean bathhouses , jjimjilbang. 

Korean Bath HouseMy favorite thing about Korea is the jinjabongs. I know, best is a word that one shouldn’t really use when writing about world travel since it’s such a subjective word, but here it applies. Korea is filled with wonderful things but the jingabongs (or jjimjilbangs) are the most wonderful.
So, what are they? Well, unlike Hamams in Morocco or Turkey, these are not just places for bathing and massage. These are full blown social zones. The thrid place extraordinaire. As you can see, I’ve become a bit of a bathhouse aficionado (okay, how gay does that sound?) and I found these to be without compare.

So, once again, what is a jingabong? Okay, it is a bathing place, and it’s a place you can get a massage…and more. Let me just describe the process. I didn’t take any pictures but found a few on the web to show you. Plus, a Vagobond reader provided these links which are the jjimjilbang I went to in Hondae
http://www.vesta.co.kr/ and the other in the area which is the www.hotelnongshim.com/.

JjimjilbangFor usually less than 10 Euros you can check into a jingabong for 12-16 hours. They are open 24 hours. When you check in they will give you jingabong clothes. Usually simple shorts and blouse, sometimes colored white for me and pink for women. You will also be given a locker key. Go in, take of your shoes, find your locker, grab a towel, and take off all your clothes (no room for modesty here, but I should point out that the locker and bath rooms are segregated by sex.)

Once you are nude along with all the other guys or girls, head into the bath room. First of all, you should make sure to shower in the stalls first. No one wants to share a bath with the backpacker grime that has accumulated all over you. After washing, you have a choice of a number of tubs ranging from cold to very very hot.

Jump in, soak, try not to be bothered by the fact that you are the hairiest person anyone there has ever seen. In fact, aside from there being tubs and steam rooms, an assortment of yellowmud, pine, charcoal, or salt saunas, a cold room and an oxygen room and a few special rooms where you can choose to get a massage, it’s not so different from locker rooms all over the world. So, that’s it?

JjimjilbangNope. This is where it gets really cool. You finish your bath and maybe you chill out in the massage chairs or get some electrolyte drinks from the vending machine. Then you throw on your ‘jingabong clothes’ and lock your stuff up in your locker. Don’t forget to bring money with you, you’ll want it.

You will now enter the area where the sexes meet. You’ll find that there are mats and pillows, plenty of space to lie down on the floor, multiple TV rooms, extensive manga libraries, video games, a restaurant, more massage areas, private rooms, and excercise areas just for men and for women. So, you can grab a meal, enjoy some tea, grab a mat and take a nap….

In fact, you can have a beer, go to the cinema room, go to the smoking room, or do just about anything you can do in the outside world but in a nice, safe, quiet little cave complex where stress seems to disappear. You can nap (but do be careful of your key while you nap since your valuables are presumably in your locker.)

JjimjilbangWait a minute…if it’s open 24 hours and you can shower, sleep, stash your things in a locker, drink, and eat there and you are allowed to stay there 12 hours or more, why don’t people use it as a hotel?

Ah-ha! Now you have it. Show up at night, have a nice shower and a relaxing bath, enjoy dinner, watch some television, lay down on a mat, sleep, and wake up for another shower in the morning. In fact, the facilities are better than most hostels or one or two star hotels and you are paying around $10. Not to mention the food is good, it’s easy to make friends, and you leave feeling completely refreshed.

My only regret is that I didn’t discover jingabongs until near the end of my time in South Korea. I should have avoided most of the time I stayed in hostels or love motels and just stayed in the jingabong. In Busan, there is even a view of the sea from the baths of the jingabong.

I love jingabongs. In fact, I love all kinds of bath houses. I can’t believe I just said that….

Sevilla – The Flower of Spanish Beauty and Culture #fridayflashback

I love Sevilla. I was there in mid 2009 and again in 2011. It was one of those places where – if I hadn’t of been on a schedule – I would have been very happy to hang around for a longer period. 

In doing a little digging, I find that this was the home of one of the greatest Sufi mystics ibn Arabi (aka Dr. Maximus)

A vastly prolific writer, Ibn Arabi is generally known as the prime exponent of the idea later known as Wahdat-ul-Wujood, though he did not use this term in his writings. His emphasis was on the true potential of the human being and the path to realising that potential and becoming the perfect or complete man (al-insan al-kamil).Some 800 works are attributed to Ibn Arabi, although only some have been authenticated

Also it was the home of Ibn Khaldun, the first real anthropologist, so my forefather by educational lineage.

…an astronomer, economist, historian, Islamic scholar, Islamic theologian, hafiz, jurist, lawyer, mathematician, military strategist, nutritionist, philosopher, social scientist and statesman—born in North Africa in present-day Tunisia. He is considered the forerunner of several social scientific disciplines: demography, cultural history,historiography, the philosophy of history,and sociology.


Finally, as if that isn’t enough, Seville is the setting for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in which Christ returns to earth and is arrested

The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the church. The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the three questions Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert. These three are the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favor of freedom, but thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. Thus, he implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer.



Seville was also the famous home of Don Juan, the world’s most notorious lover.

Don Juan is a rogue and a libertine who takes great pleasure in seducing women and (in most versions) enjoys fighting their champions. Later, in a graveyard Don Juan encounters a statue of the dead father of a girl he has seduced, and, impiously, invites him to dine with him; the statue gladly accepts. The father’s ghost arrives for dinner at Don Juan’s house and in turn invites Don Juan to dine with him in the graveyard. Don Juan accepts, and goes to the father’s grave where the statue asks to shake Don Juan’s hand. When he extends his arm, the statue grabs hold and drags him away, to Hell.

(Originally Published 03 APR 2009)

 

Below are a few more pictures I took when Iwas fortunate enough to visit this fabulous city. I hope I get the chance to go back again someday and simply enjoy the scenary and the food with nothing further on my agenda.

 

 

#flashbackfriday Wicklow and Glendalough – Old English Ladies, the Loch Ness Monster, and St. Kevin

#flashbackfriday – Back in 2009 – I had to make a mad dash trip from Morocco in North Africa to the USA so that I could get the paperwork and documents necessary for my Sahara marriage (2010) – it was a crazy trip that took me across Canada by foot and thumb, back to my hometown of Big Bear Lake, California, and many other places – among them – a very fast stop in Ireland where I had the opportunity to sip some Guinness, drink a little whiskey, and take this beautiful outing to Wicklow and Glendalough…

Glendalough
Yesterday in my jet lagged no sleep state I signed on to a tour of some pretty places outside of Dublin. As mentioned earlier, the guide was pretty good except for the fact that he didn’t tell me I wouldn’t get a ride back to where he picked me up until the end of the day and then dumped me off I’m not sure exactly where.
Wicklow County
I don’t remember a lot of what he said, lots of the same tourist jokes you hear all over the world. Pointed out where James Joyce mother lived and the homes of some fictional characters from ‘The Dubliners’. Yes, real homes of fictional characters. He wasn’t shy about his dislike of the English despite most of the other passengers being old English ladies. Also there wes a French couple that spoke no English and a couple of Germans.
Glendalough
I like old English ladies. They told me about their gardens and the lovely places back in England. They had a million questions about Hawaii and Morocco and so my guide skills came in handy.
Hey, what's the lochness monster doing in Ireland?

Hey, what’s the loch ness monster doing in Ireland?

We visited Glendalough in Wicklow County and drove through the moutains and peat bogs. A few mountain towns and a stop at a little village for lunch. Unfortunately, all Irish villages look like fake country villages. I had a bowl of veggie soup that was pretty good.

Situated right in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, Glendalough is one of the most visited locations in Ireland, with over 1 million visitors a year.

We stopped and looked over a lake they call Guinness Lake due to it’s black waters and white sand beach (and the fact that the water to make Guiness comes from it)
Glendalough gets its name from the Irish language. Gleann dá locha literally means the ‘Glen of the two lakes’. We stopped at a waterfall that was …you know…it was a waterfall from the road.
waterfall glendalough and Wicklow
And then we drove back listening to the kind of Irish music that makes me feel like it’s Christmas and actually…I hate Christmas.
Heather in Bloom Ireland
The saving grace was the old English ladies with thier over the top cheerfulness and their sarcastic wit. Also since I was the only one who speaks any French besides the French people, I did chat with them for a bit too…they spoke no English and we had a surprisingly decent conversation considering the state of my French. I need to improve that.
glendalough Wicklow
A lot of the tour was about St. Kevin, although this legend of St. Kevin wasn’t included but I found it online:

Perhaps the most famous legend is the one about Kathleen of the “eyes of most unholy blue”. She is said to have pursued the handsome Kevin in a bid to captivate him, ignoring the fact that he was bound by holy vows. He became annoyed and repulsed her by beating her with a bunch of nettles. She later sought his forgiveness and is said to have become a very holy woman, noted for her grate sanctity.

Nothing like beating a woman with a bunch of nettles. What a guy!
Here is the tour description from the company’s website.

Tour Ireland with Over The Top Tours. We’ll show you Ireland in a way that larger coach companies cannot. Experience fun and adventure off the beaten track.
Wicklow Glendalough
We offer you the opportunity to enjoy this land of mysterious mountains and spectacular valleys.
The tour starts over the Dublin mountains and into the picturesque Sally Gap. Experience breathtaking views with complimentary coffee! Wicklow is widely known as the “Garden of Ireland” Stop where you like and when you like along the route.
See the famous film locations for Braveheart and Ballykissangel. Visit hidden lakes and luscious waterfalls. Travel the by-roads to beautiful Glendalough and after a healthy walk, time for lunch* and a drop of the famous brew. Returning home via the depths of the Wicklow mountains passing the scenic lakes of Blessington.

coins in Wicklow and GlendaloughI thought about going down and collecting those coins but instead I just added one more and made a wish. Also wrapped my arms around St. Kevins cross and made the same wish, I’m not telling what it was. That’s me reflected in the middle and a couple of my old English lady friends on either side.
By the way, lunch and the ‘famous brew’ were not included and were overpriced at the little stop which is why I opted for coffee and the famous veggie soup.
Glendalough and Wicklow in Ireland, Dublin tripIreland is sort of like Hawaii in that there are lots of stone walls everywhere, sort of like the Pacific Northwest as there are lots of blackberries and people with big red noses everywhere, and like nowhere else really…I like it, but as I’ve said before recently, I’m finding travel to be more humdrum and boring than ever before, in particular this kind of tourist trip.
Here is more on Glendalough:
Glendalough, or the Glen of two Lakes, is one of the most important sites of maonastic ruins in Ireland. It is also known as the city of the seven Churches. Fourteen centuries have passed since the death of its founder, St. Kevin, when the valley was part of Ireland’s Golden Age.
The two lakes, which gave the valley its name, came into existence thousands of years ago, after the Ice Age, when great deposits of earth and stone were strewn across the valley in the area where the Round Tower now exists. The mountain streams eventually formed a large lake. The Pollanass river spread alluvial deposits across the centre of the lake and created a divide to form the Upper and Lower Lakes. The Glenealo river flows in from the West into the Upper lake which is the larger and deepest of the two lakes.
Before the arrival of St. Kevin this valley (glen) would have been desolate and remote. It must have been ideal for St Kevin as a retreat and area to be ‘away from it all’. Kevin died in 617 A.D. at the age of 120 years and his name and life’s work is forever entwine with the ruins and the Glendalough Valley.
The recorded history of the wooded valley dates from the 6th century – the dawn of Christianity in Ireland. For 500 years it was one of Irelands great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning. The establishment was attacked, burned and plundered by the Danes, who were based in the stronghold of Dublin, a shortish distance away, and making it an easy target..
Glendalough, despite extensive fire damage in 1163 A.D. prospered until the early 13th century. In 1163, Laurence O’Toole, Abbot of Glendalough, who later became Irelands first canonised saint, was appointed Archbishop of Dublin.

The arrival of the Normans in Ireland sealed the fate of Glendalough, as in 1214 the monastery was destroyed by the invaders and the Diocese of Glendalough was united with the Sea of Dublin. After that, Glendalough declined as a monastic establishment and gradually it became deserted.
Glendalough St. Kevin
The buildings fell into decay and more than 6 hundred years elapsed before a reconstruction program was started in 1878. Further work was carried out in the 20th century Today the valley of Glendalough is extensively wooded and a comprehensive network of walk ways have been completed and continually improved, which provides good access for the visitor and researcher to wonder the valley.
(Originally posted 02 October 2009)

Hitching Across Canada – Black Flies, Freezing Weather, and Near Death Experience

Across Canada

In early spring of 2009, I was in an existential crisis. I’d fallen for a girl in Morocco and far too quickly, we’d decided to get married. I felt trapped but at the same time I was in love and wanted to marry her – something inside me or inside her wouldn’t let me escape. I had varying degrees of panic, emotion, and fear along with a sense of things already being written and no chance of changing what the future would be. I had one chance to get away…away from rings and engagement parties and expectation – bureaucracy combined with poverty could save me. She knew I didn’t have any money and also, when I set out travelling, I hadn’t brought things like my birth certificate or other paperwork I would need for marriage with me.

Across Canada

A friend had offered me a kayaking guide job in Alaska and I proposed to her that I leave, work for the summer – gather my paperwork, and then come back and have a wedding. My thought process was that if we allowed ourselves five or six months apart – our emotions would cool and we’d probably both decide it was better not to get married. I didn’t have enough money to fly direct to Alaska from Morocco – so I had to be creative with what I had. I booked a flight from Morocco to Madrid, a flight from Madrid to Germany, Germany to Ireland and then a round trip flight from Dublin to New Jersey. I figured I would take the ferry from Maine to Canada and then hitchhike to Alaska. It might sound crazy but that was the cheapest way to do it and this was in the days that I was still paying cash for everything – I didn’t have a credit card only a bank account and a debit card. The European flights cost me a combined total of about $150 USD using Ryan Air. The trans-Atlantic round trip cost about $600. That left me about $300 to get across Canada and I figured when the work in Alaska was done, I would be able to pay for a flight back to New Jersey if I wanted to actually go through with the wedding at that point.

Across CanadaThere was only one problem –  my bank saw all this European activity and the ferry ticket to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and they shut down my debit card and cut me off from all the money I had. By the time I was boarding the ferry in Portland, Maine where I’d couchsurfed with two awesome waitresses,  I didn’t know it but all I had was enough money in my pocket to get $4 Canadian…and that’s all I would get for my trip across Canada. Also, one other hitch – when I’d landed in the USA, I found an email from my friend in Alaska – they’d already given the job to someone else – there was no job waiting for me. I couldn’t write about this at the time – maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this at all – since I ended up eventually going back and marrying the girl in Morocco – but there I was. Trying to figure out what the best course for my life was – trying to take control of my destiny – but my destiny was already laid out. I had thought there might be escaping it, but I’ve come to believe in powers greater than ourselves guiding our every decision. I believe that free wil is an illusion…an important one, but still an illusion.

Across CanadaWith no plan, I decided to proceed across Canada by thumb and by foot.

Canadian Customs can be tricky. They sometimes are angry that American customs treat them badly. The same happens on the other side – unfortunately  for me, I was targeted by an angry middle-aged Canadian customs agent. I’m convinced I reminded her of some guy who had done her wrong in the past, because she was relentless tearing through my bags…asking me suspicious questions in a machine gun patter….and ultimately, because she was convinced there must be something – she used drug wipe cloths inside a used book I’d bought in Portland, Maine and told me that it had tested positive for heroin. She read my journal angrily and when I protested she said “Why? Is there something in here you don’t want me to read?” “It’s my diary,” was all I was able to say. After several hours of interrogation and being locked in a small room – eventually a supervisor came and apologized to me –  he said that someone had used duct tape to tape thedust jacket on the book and duct tape often came up as a false positive with that particular test. I didn’t see the agent who had ‘apprehended’ me again. I was led outside and released into a beautiful spring day in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Across CanadaI spent a few days with a lovely couchsurfing host named Carla. She was the chief Across Canadareporter for the newspaper in her area and she led me to pickled aliens, student pinwheels, and I got to go to the Mayor of Yarmouth’s birthday party and eat some delicious mayor cake. Nova Scotia was amazing. I loved it. Acadian culture is a mixture of the French, English, and Native American people who lived in Eastern Canada over the past several hundred years. I said goodbye to Carla and stuck out my thumb.

Next came the hitch hiking. Hitchhiking is always a little bit risky. Hitching in Canada is safe but you run the risk of being left out in the prairie for a cold cold night. I traveled 2922.1 Miles by thumb and foot in 11 days. You don’t want to be in any country with only $4 Canadian…but if you have to pick one, it should be Canada.

Across CanadaHalifax is where the maiden voyage of Titanic really ended, with the most lasting legacy from the sinking located here. The world was stunned in 1912 by the loss of the liner Titanic on her maiden voyage. Halifax, Nova Scotia, located on the eastern coast of Canada, has one of the most moving and intimate connections with the Titanic disaster, playing a key role during the tragedy’s aftermath and becoming the final resting place of many of her unclaimed victims.

Three Halifax ships were involved in the grim task of recovering victims – many of whom were laid to rest in three of the city’s cemeteries. Rows of black granite headstones, each inscribed with the same date, April 15, 1912, are a stark reminder of the disaster.

In Halifax, I stayed with an amazingly funny girl named Anna – again through Couchsurfing. We hit thrift shops and out of the way and off the beaten path tourist locations. We had a blast. I almost didn’t want to leave. Actually, I didn’t want to leave – but I felt like I had to. I moved onward to Quebec City.

Quebec City is gorgeous. While the cities of Europe are very nice, they always felt like something was not quite right about  them. I think it’s because I’m a North American and we North American’s have a different sense of space, nature, and certainly history. Quebec City (like Victoria in British Columbia) has the charm of old Europe, the flavor of nobility, and the essence North America.

QuebecMost of my first day was spent in the beautiful Musee de Civilzation. A natural place for an anthropologist to end up I think. They had several interesting exhibits, one on Egyptology, another on the long lasting effects in North America of the 7 years war which it turns out led to the French Expulsion from Nova Scotia, the war of Independence in the states, and most likely to the horrid treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada by the English after the much more enlightened treatment of the indigenous by the French. Full citizenship to genocide including the use of disease ridden blankets by the English. My favorite was a look at creatures from outer space in fact and fiction.

I met up with my absolutely awesome couch surfing host, Kelie.  Over the next few days – she showed me as much of Quebec City as she could and frankly, each moment I was there made it harder for me to leave. She was one of the coolest people I met in my travels. And yet, I was to keep meeting cool people on this trip across Canada. I’d lived so close to Canada in Bellingham, Washington during the 1990s…I should have spent more time in Canada.

Across CanadaI left Quebec with that same feeling of being driven by something larger than me. That largers something drove me into the large province of Ontario. Ontario is huge and to drive along Lake Superior is more like driving along the ocean than anything else. I caught unmemorable rides all the way to Thunder Bay when i got picked up by Dawn and Leah. They liked my hat and they took me home to Sudbury where we spent the next few days recycling cans, drinking, having parties, going to parties, and absolutely loving life.

Sudbury is an interesting place. 1.8 billion years ago a huge meteorite smashed into this area. It was composed of mostly nickel. Then about 150 years ago the Canadians started mining here because of the nickel. The nickel mining process is incredibly environmentally destructive and until about five years ago Sudbury apparently looked like the surface of the moon because of the huge slag piles from the mines.
This is a railroad town and sits on the trans Canadian highway, so it has a familiar feel to it. Feels a lot like Bellingham, Washington to me. The people are an interesting mix of weeded out bums, artists, musicians, and environmental activists.

Across CanadaThomas Edison visited the Sudbury area as a prospector in 1901, and is credited with the original discovery of the ore body at Falconbridge.
During the Apollo manned lunar exploration program, NASA astronauts trained in Sudbury to become familiar with shatter cones: a rare rock formation connected with meteorite impacts. However, the popular misconception that they were visiting Sudbury because it purportedly resembled the lifeless surface of the moon dogged the city for years.

Dawn had just bought a car and hadn’t yet learned how to drive. She offered to take me to Winnipeg,  Manitoba where she wanted to visit a friend – if I were willing to teach her how to drive. Dawn is a midwife and again – one of my favorite people ever. Off we went! We picked up another hitch hiker along the way and finally, she dropped us both off in Winnipeg at a truck stop. The other hitchhiker wandered off but Dawn and I were all torn up at having to part company. It was hard to say goodbye! I forgot my travelling hat and about a month later, the lovely girl mailed it to me.
From Winnipeg I hitched to Calgary where I finally managed to get Paypal to let me access some of my funds through my debit card. I got a cheap hotel room before heading off into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I got a ride to the rockies early but after that – no one was stopping. Late in the day, I noticed that I was being followed by three bears – a mother and two large cubs who were hungry after their long winter nap. A chain link fence stood between me and them as they walked on the railroad tracks and I walked on the road. As the road and the tracks got closer, I began to worry that the fence might end because the three bears were watching me intently.

Thankfully, a retired park ranger was driving by and stopped. He invited me to stay at his house and the next day drove me through the Rockies taking me to Banff, Lake Louise, the Three Sisters, and many beautiful spots. He dropped me at the base of the mountains on the British Columbia side and paid for a hotel room for me. All the way across Canada, I had people offering me shelter, buying me meals, taking me to their homes or getting me hotel rooms. I was awed by the sense of human deceny I found in Canada.

Across CanadaThe next morning I caught a ride early from a guy who looked like he was coming off a serious bender. Turned out he was. He told me horror stories about his wife and best friend who had gone into the porn business together and then abandoned him to make their own movies. He offered to give me his and her wedding rings and the Rolex watch she had given him – I was broke and probably should have accepted but didn’t want the karmic weight he had attached to them in his tales. I politely said no but accepted when he offered to buy me breakfast at a Denny’s in Vancouver.

After breakfast I walked from Vancouver down to the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington. When the border guards asked where I was coming from, I lied and told them I had taken a day trip from Bellingham – which is what most people crossing the border were doing. I walked across the border and called my friend Dave in Bellingham, he drove up and picked me up.

That’s how I went across Canada by thumb and foot. It was awesome. I love Canada.

The Fez Medina in Morocco #flashbackfriday

From 2009 to 2013, Morocco was home for me. While I didn’t live in Fez for all of my time in Morocco (only about six months) it was the closest city to the town of Sefrou, where I lived the rest of the time I was there. Fez was where I found expat friends, a job, nightlife, and much more. It’s where my daughter was born. I love Fez. I wrote this back in 2013, when I was still going there on a regular basis – even substituting once in a while as a cultural tour guide in the heart of the medina. 

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

I first came to Fez, Morocco on a 3 a.m. train from Tangier. I’d been in Morocco (and Africa for that matter) for less than 12 hours and the adventures that followed are far too numerous to tell here but they involve a girl, a Berber Nomad marriage in the Sahara, a baby, and the fact that four years later, I still find myself living just 28 km South of Fez with my Moroccan wife and our baby daughter.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

The point of all of this, is that Fez is one of the most remarkable places on the planet and if you take a trip into the Arab world- Fez is an astounding starting place that will enchant you, fill your camera’s memory card, and affect you for the rest of your life. Perhaps not in as profound a way as it has me, but the truth is that I’ve never met anyone who has visited Fez with nothing remarkable to share when they went home.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

The ancient medina of Fes-el-Bali is the largest car free urban area in the world in addition to being the oldest inhabited medieval Islamic city left in anything like it’s original state. With more than 9,500 narrow streets, alleys, and twisty turny paths, it’s no wonder that people who have lived their whole lives in the medina still sometimes become lost.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

 

As a visitor, you will most likely first come into the medina through the massive maw of Bab Boujaloud where you will be called to dine on meat heavy tajine dishes or huge golden piles of couscous. The touts can be overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to worry because the days of the truly aggressive touts and false guides are now a thing of the past – the tourist police have reined them in.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Before you venture into the medina, you should understand that donkeys and mules have the right of way – they carry crates of coke, baskets of grain, and everything else that needs heavy transport in the medina and they will, run you over. So, pay attention and don’t get distracted by the magnificent architecture, the women scrubbing orange blossoms from the tile doorways, or the heady smell of mint flavored tea. Welcome back to the 7th Century.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

While you are in Fez, there are a few things that I recommend you must do. First of all, a tour of the medina with a licensed guide is essential in order to get yourself oriented. A guided tour will bring you to the Karouyine University and the mosque of Moulay Idriss as well as take you down many of the streets and alleyways where some of the most beautiful architecture hides.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Personally, while the fully restored palaces and riads are magnificent, my favorite destination to show visitors is the crumbling Glaoui palace. While not preserved or restored like the Batha Museum or the Karouyine Mosque, or perhaps becuase of it, the Glaoui Palace is overwhelming.Not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries and yet there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.If you read Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas, it is even more so.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

While you’re in Fez, I think it is essential to stay in a Riad in the Medina. New ones open every day, so there is always a deal happening somewhere. It’s best to check. You can spend anywhere from $20 to $1000 per night – I recommend somewhere in the $50-$100 range for the best value. Make sure that breakfast is included – especially if you pay $1000.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

 

The Nejjarine and Bou Inania Mederasas are beautiful examples of classical Quranic schools. Inside you will be bowled over by the intricate tile (zellij) and woodwork. The artisans of the Fez medina are an astounding living museuem of tha ancient arts and crafts of Morocco. Rather than taking the standard tannery tour most hotels or riads offer – my suggestion is to book an artisanal tour with Artisanal Affairs.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Another destination that isn’t on most itineraries is a trip down Taala K’bira to the donkey parking area next to Palais Jamai. For a more conventional tourist stop, visit Dar Batha (pronounced bat-HA), the home of the Batha Museum. An absolutely gorgeous restored 11th century house of sculpted wood, wrought iron, sculpted plaster and tile work. The gardens offer a respite from the of the medina and inside a treasury of embroidery, carpets, jewelry, pottery, and coins compete with one another to astound you.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

A visit to the Fez Medina can be overwhelming and that’s why a rest at Cafe Clock is well worth your time. Grab a date milkshake and a camel burger or sit on the roof with a cafe latte and look out over the 366 minarets of the old medina and listen as the call to prayer warbles at you from every direction. There’s also free wifi and a full cultural program of everything from henna, oud classes, calligraphy courses, Gnawa music on Sundays, and Moroccan cooking courses.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

For me, the best times to visit Fez are late Spring and early Summer when the temperatures have climbed above freezing but not yet to the scorching range. Early June also offers the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez which draws incredible musicians and interesting speakers each year.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Fez is known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. A visit at any time of the year will show you why. I recommend three to five days, though, like many others, you may find yourself still here three to five years later.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

#FlashbackFriday #vanlife on Oahu in 2004

#vanlifeThis is the story of me living in a van on Oahu in 2004. You can read a bit about it in a letter I wrote to the Honolulu Advertiser at the time –  Down and Out on the Island of Oahu

A bit of context here so that my Hawaii timeline makes sense. I arrived for the first time in Hawaii in October of 2001. 16 months later, I moved from the Polynesian Beach Club Hostel to Punalu’u on the Windward Side of Oahu for a failed experiment that ended up like a modern and less deadly Lord of the Flies. I fled from that mess to Kauai where I bought a rustbucket VW van and lived on the beach in Kapaa for thirteen months before going to the Philippines for three months after which I came back to Kauai until October of 2003 when I sold my rust bucket and followed a flight attendant I’d fallen for to Portland, Oregon where I tried to impress her by showing that an island boy could become a stock broker – it turned out that I liked being an island boy better and she knew enough drunk miserable guys in suits anyway – during that time I wrote my first book Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond – my publisher suggested that I do a promotion tour (and all the promotion) so I took my old VW van (not the rustbucket), left the brokerage, and spent the next five months drinking heavily and shilling my book to anyone who I talked to. It turned out my efforts led to a lot of interest – unfortunately, this was the early days of e-books and my publisher hadn’t protected the book and it ended up on a number of free download sites where it was downloaded tens of thousands of times while providing no revenue to me – the print version sold about a thousand copies which yielded me about $500 in the inequitable publishing deal I’d signed. I found myself in a lonely relationship with a girl who was gone more than she was home (not the flight attendant, by the way) – I tried my hand at commercial salmon fishing in the Puget Sound made enough money to book a flight back to Oahu, traded my VW van for a laptop and $500 (one of the stupidest decisions I’ve made but at the time it made sense) and came back to Honolulu where I bought another shitty van and was determined to write my first novel – which eventually became Slackville Road. Here is the excerpt from my Blogspot blog of the time.

 

June 25, 2004
Alright…I can’t resist. I’m living in a van again. This time on the island of Oahu. I got the van for $175. It’s a plymouth voyager and it seems to have fuel injection problems. It gets me where I need to go though, so far. I’m having a hard time sleeping at night. maybe because it’s an island, it’s a littel different than my old VW days.

The main annoyances….there are no parking signs everywhere mostly 10PM to 7AM, Hawaiians love to play loud music and have impromptu parties in marinas and parks without no parking signs. I tend to avoid drunken gatherings of big Samoans, Hawaiians, Tongans, and Filipinos. People in neighborhoods are so fucking healthy, they wake up at 5AM and start raking leaves, running, watering plants, etc) which makes it hard to sleep in a van undetected.People actually know each other in neighborhoods here, so I stand out…people look and say “Who is that guy in the van?” not like the mainland where no one knows anyone else.

Despite all of that, I’m figuring it out. I generally sleep in two stages, moving at least once during the night. In the day, I make coffee in the van, swim, shower at the beach, go for a sunrise run (yeah, I’m healthy too!), read for a while, then go to the library where I work on my novel. One very cool thing is wifi…I can use peoples internet from my van with my laptop. Very cool. I usually buy what I want to eat and then cook it. Why have extra. All in all. Life is pretty good. Hopefully, I can get my van fixed soon, the fuel injectors seem to be going out…crapola.Hawaii Hammock Time

This van phase lasted for a couple more months before it became too depressing and awful. During my time living in a van in Hawaii, I explored constantly and found plenty of great spots to string up my hammock. I worked odd jobs with a lot of them being in labor, construction, and television. I found a niche in the growing reality TV market as a productions assistant, location scout, and casting assistant. I’m ashamed to admit that I got several paychecks from The Apprentice. No one ever knew that I was homeless unless I told them. Towards the end of 2004 though, it had become too much. It was time for me to rent a place of my own. I had briefly rented a basement room in Portland while I was a stockbroker, but other than that, I hadn’t paid rent in nearly three years.

I found an awesome little studio in Kailua for $900/month and got hired as a private tour guide by Carey Hawaii, a high end limousine company. I had to have a suit for the job and (true story) found one that almost fit me in a thrown out suitcase next to a storage unit dumpster. It was close enough to my size that I had it tailored for $50. The tailor told me it was an $800 suit and admired the quality. From that time forward, I’ve had my name on a lease whenever I’ve lived in Hawaii. Hawaii might sound like a great place to be homeless, but it’s not. I got lucky on Kauai with an amazing place to park where no one would harass me, but on Oahu – it was awful.

A few years later when Twitter came along  in 2007 (I’ve always been a very early adopter), I was regularly using the hashtags #vanliving and #vanlife as I promoted my books. I was among the first to use those particular hashtags, maybe even the first.

Vago Christopher Damitio
I never looked homeless when I was homeless.

Since I’ve given the rest of my timeline in Hawaii, I might as well finish – in 2006, my girlfriend (then fiance) and I rented a lovely little cottage in Lanikai and then for work and school we moved to a place on the Punchbowl. When our relationship fell apart – I found a perfect little 1-bedroom in Manoa where I lived until I graduated in December of 2008. After that, I left Hawaii to wander around the world until mid-2013 when I moved myself, my wife, and our 18 month old daughter from Morocco to Reedsport, Oregon. We were there until 2017 when we moved to Honolulu and have been living in the Salt Lake Neighborhood.

I enjoyed most of my time living in vans in the Pacific Northwest and on Kauai – but I never want to live in a van again unless I own a piece of property I can park it on. The sad reality is that when I was living the #vanlife, there weren’t many people doing it and it was possible to blend in – at least a little. It’s not the case today – there are so many older folks and people without options who have moved into their vehicles – they are all a half step from being on the streets with no shelter – all it takes is a breakdown, an impound, or too many tickets. I love seeing all the nomadic millenials living the van lifestyle with their $20k Westphalia vanagons and their Mercedes Sprinter vans – the truth is – van living is a great thing when you are in your twenties. It’s great when you are young and beautiful and able to do yoga in the park at sunrise each day – but there’s nothing beautiful about a person in their forties living in a vehicle.

I was a Homeless Guy in China – Flashback Friday

American Vagabond in China

Back in 2000, just when the dot-com crash was happening – I quit my job at a company called Tech Planet, bought a VW van for $150, moved out of my house, and decided to write a book about how to live without being a wage slave. Eventually, that book turned into Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagobond. The Portland Mercury wrote my favorite review of it in which they actually compared me to one of my literary heroes – Jack Keroac. All of that however, came later. By the end of 2000, I was growing increasingly tired of living in a van in Seattle rain and was looking at options of either driving south to Mexico or finding some other way to stay warm without being a wage slave. My brother, trying to explain why I should be grateful to live in the USA, said something like “You should see how people in China live…” which I took completely the wrong way. I decided to go to China.  There was one problem – I was a homeless guy without any money…so I took my last $100 and went to one of the Native American casinos along I-5 – I knew I would win. I put my money in a slot machine and won closet to $1500. Next I bought a ticket to Beijing. Then I went back to the casino and won another $2000 on the same slot machine! That’s how my international travel started.

I parked my VW van in my mom’s backyard and then hitch hiked back to Seattle. My friends dropped me off. I went through customs and was on my way. There was a connecting flight in Vancouver, British Columbia. When we landed, I had to run through the Vancouver airport to make my flight – as I ran, I saw TV’s playing footage of the huge Nisqually earthquake that had hit Seattle Tacoma International Airport – the same airport I’d just left. These were early days in the internet – I didn’t have a smart phone (no one did) and I didn’t have a laptop or access to the web. It would be days before I found out the details of the quake because I would have to get to China, find an internet cafe or English language newspaper, and frankly, I had more pressing concerns. I hadn’t made any arrangements for where I would stay or what I would be doing in China.

Beijing kids 2001
These were the first Chinese people to speak to me in English “Hey Mister, Take Picture” I wonder where they are now..

 

I didn’t have any credit cards, hotel reservations, or anything else. I’d bought a Lonely Planet China Guidebook the day before in Seattle. Essentially, I was a scrungy 29-year-old homeless guy who arrived in the Beijing Airport without a clue. It was awesome. I had astounding culture shock. I had about $1500 in US currency – I changed $500 over to Chinese Yuan, figured out how to get on and pay for a bus and decided I would get off at the twelfth stop. No reason.

View from my beijing hotel room
This is the view from my first Beijing Hotel Room

 

Very few Chinese seemed to speak English and I didn’t speak any Mandarin. I got off at the 12th stop and with the help of a friendly Chinese workman who spoke no English managed to figure out where I was using street signs and the Lonely Planet maps. There was a hotel nearby and I managed to find it, paid two nights rent, and locked myself in my room with the snacks I’d bought along the way. For two days I crammed Mandarin learning some basic phrases, directions, etc – I used the Lonely Planet to figure out what I wanted to do in China, and I slept off my jetlag.

American Vagabond in China
There was heavy smog and a sand storm in Beijing when I arrived

 

When I emerged two days later, I was ready to climb the Great Wall of China, visit Tiannamen Square, and visit the Forbidden City. I had also located a fun sounding backpacker’s hostel and some internet cafes. I was ready for China. I had one month before my return flight to Seattle and my visa expiration date – but I already knew that I was going to burn that flight and stay in Asia for a while.

Tomorrow for Slideshow Saturday – I’ll share some of the pictures I took of those first days in China – climbing the wall at Badaling, the Forbidden City, and Tiannaman Square. These were film days – so I don’t have hundreds of shots – still, it’s fun to finally share them.

Lanai- The Pineapple Island

Lanai is owned by Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle Corporation. The people who live there are not owned by him. The last time I was there was in 2008. It was a short trip – mainly because I couldn’t afford to stay any longer. Lanai has two expensive resorts and the Lanai City Hotel which was fully booked except for the two nights I stayed there.

To be more specific, Ellison owns 97% of the island. There are some private homes and a small portion owned by the State of Hawaii – but he owns the rest.  The island is 140 squrae miles and highest elevation is Mount Lana’ihale at 1026 meters (about 3,366 feet). There are about 3100 residents on Lanai. So, in a way, it’s a small town. It’s also the 6th largest island in the Hawaiian Island chain. The island is approximately 30 miles from Oahu and is visible from Oahu’s south shore on clear days. Residents are proud of the fact that there are no traffic lights on Lanai. 

The name Lānai is of uncertain origin, but the island has historically been called Lānaʻi o Kauluāʻau, which can be rendered in English as “day of the conquest of Kauluāʻau.” This epithet refers to the legend of a Mauian prince who was banished to Lānaʻi for some of his wild pranks at his father’s court in Lāhainā. The island was reportedly haunted by Akua-ino, ghosts and goblins. Kauluāʻau chased them away and brought peace and order to the island and regained his father’s favor as a consequence.

In ancient times Lanai was ruled by the Maui chiefs and kings, this has translated to modern times when it is still considered a part of Maui County (along with Molokai and Kohoolawe). Lanai was a sugar growing and Hawaiian taro growing place until 1862 when it was purchased for the Mormons and subsequently stolen by Walter M. Gibson – who subsequently became the prime minister of the Hawaiian Kingdom under King Kalakaua.

Gibson’s adventures are another story but suffice to say, he lost the island and in 1921 Charles Gay planted the first pineapple. Today the island is known as the Pineapple Island mainly because the island was bought by James Dole of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (Dole Food Corporation and Dole Plantation). The island stayed part of Dole until it was purchased (with Dole) by David Murdock. He sold the island to Larry Ellison in 2012. The island hadn’t produced pineapple in two decades at that point. The island cost him $300 million.  He remodeled the Four Season’s Lanai at Manele Bay and is restoring the other Four Seasons Resort at Ko’ele. Ellison has also funded many public works improvements.

Not many visitors go to Lanai – but those who do typically have the money to stay at the Four Seasons. The Lanai City Hotel is more of a locals place. There are three very nice golf courses on Lanai and a trap shooting range. These are also attractions for wealthy folks. As is the yacht harbor. There is a concrete ship which is crashed on a beach appropriately called Shipwreck Beach. It’s sort of an attracation. 

Most people rent cars to see the remote places. I went hiking each day and managed to make it to most of the same places. Lanai isn’t that big.  In addition to hiking to the Garden of the Gods, I was able to visit the Luahiwa Petroglyphs, the Pu’u Pehe Overlook and also spent some time lounging in Dole Park and exploring the plantation streets of Lanai City. 

I want to go back to Lana’i someday – but not until I have more money.

A Christmas Trip to the Big Island of Hawaii – Flashback Friday

Last year (2017) I took my family to the Big Island of Hawaii for a Christmas holiday. I’d been to the Big Island several times before – the first time back in 2002 and then again in 2006 and last year for work and an earlier trip to explore the possibility of buying some land in Kurtistown . Each trip had been about a week – so I suppose that means that all together, I’ve spent a little over a month on the Big Island. I love it and can’t wait to spend more time there.

Kohala Big Island

The Christmas trip last year was by far the best – sure I wasn’t staying in the scientific barracks on Mauna Kea with all the astronomers, hiking through active lava fields, or even driving a convertable Mustang through Kohala with the wind blowing through my hair (hair that is now mostly gone, I might add). What made this trip special was being able to share it with my wife and daughter.

Big Island Hawaii

We stayed at the Hilton Double Tree in Hilo – a hotel which sits on one of the most scenic bays in the world. From there we explored in many directions. On Christmas Day, we went to the visitor center on Mauna Kea where there was a little bit of snow to play in. Another day we explored the Volcanoes National Park where we didn’t get to see huge lava flows (those came a few months later) but still got to see a little bit of activity in the distance.

Big Island Hawaii Volcano

It was fun to share the vast lava plains, the cold mountain tops, the rugged and raw beauty of Kapoho Bay (which completely filled in with lava during the eruption of 2018). We wandered around Hilo and Kailua-Kona (not to be confused with Kailua on Oahu). We explored the lava tree forest and Akaka Falls and we enjoyed almost every minute of it. Even better, Santa somehow found us in our hotel room (our six-year-old Sophia never bothered to ask why usually light packing Daddy brought a huge suitcase on this trip – hint: this was Santa’s bag). We almost had a not so perfect moment when we went down to get breakfast on Christmas morning and found out that there was a 2-3 hour wait in the hotel restaurant – but adapted and headed out into Hilo town where Ken’s House of Pancakes was open and working hard on Christmas morning.

This was a super fun trip and since this is a Friday Flashback – I’ll share a bunch of pictures since every picture really is worth at least a thousand words. Aloha and a hui ho and ho ho ho!

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Sailing on a Yacht in the Greek Aegean – Flashback Friday

Sailing in GreeceThe only thing better than having a yacht…is having a friend with a yacht. In 2011 and 2012 – I was fortunate to sail with my friend Graham on his yacht Jouster for a couple of really great voyages through the Gulf of Volos and into some of the Greek Aegean islands.


As a little kid geek reading big fat sci-fi and fantasy novels, I used to hide out in my  tree fort and read for hours every day. The amount of time I spent reading must have doubled when I found A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony.

In the Xanth series, Anthony introduced me to Centaurs and creatures of Greek myth and I was hooked, entranced, and spending far too much time in my teens reading Piers Anthony’s other books when I should have been out chasing girls.

That geeky kid never disappeared from within me so it was with a huge amount of excitement that I set out for the Gulf of Volos in Greece. You may be asking what the connection is – don’t worry, I’m about to tell you.

The Gulf of Volos is where the Greek Argonaut, Jason set out with his argonaut crew to recover the Golden Fleece and his crown. It was in this very body of water that Jason learned to sail the Argo.

Here is the legend in brief:

Pelias (Aeson’s half-brother) was very power-hungry, and he wished to gain dominion over all of Thessaly. Pelias was the product of a union between their shared mother, Tyro (“high born Tyro”) the daughter of Salmoneus, and allegedly the sea god Poseidon. In a bitter feud, he overthrew Aeson (the rightful king), killing all the descendants of Aeson that he could. He spared his half-brother for unknown reasons. Alcimede I (wife of Aeson) already had an infant son named Jason whom she saved from being killed by Pelias, by having women cluster around the newborn and cry as if he were still-born. Alcimede sent her son to the centaur Chiron for education, for fear that Pelias would kill him — she claimed that she had been having an affair with him all along. Pelias, still fearful that he would one day be overthrown, consulted an oracle which warned him to beware of a man with one sandal.

Many years later, Pelias was holding games in honor of the sea god and his alleged father, Poseidon, when Jason arrived in Iolcus and lost one of his sandals in the river Anauros (“wintry Anauros”), while helping an old woman to cross (the Goddess Hera in disguise). She blessed him for she knew, as goddesses do, what Pelias had up his sleeve. When Jason entered Iolcus (modern-day city of Volos), he was announced as a man wearing one sandal. Jason, knowing that he was the rightful king, told Pelias that and Pelias said, “To take my throne, which you shall, you must go on a quest to find the Golden Fleece.” Jason happily accepted the quest.

Mt Pelias which sits above the Gulf of Volos was the home to the original centaurs, including Chiron who educated Jason and later Achilles in the arts of sailing and swordplay. I was going to be sailing and eating and drinking on the same body of water as the ancient heroes and centaurs.

Sailing in the aegean

The Gulf of Volos, it turns out, is a fantastic place for a novice sailor such as myself. With winds that usually stay below F3 and not a whole slew of hazards that can catch you by surprise. Called the Pagasitikos Gulf, this is a place that hasn’t been overrun with tourists, yachts, or development. While you can go to most of Greece and find thousands of people on holiday, the Gulf of Volos has just a few – some days we saw no other yachts and just a couple of fishing boats!

Aegean gulf of Volos

We found crystal clear waters and a good wind provided by the ‘Meltemi’ blowing from the NE, quiet bays and fishing villages, history to investigate and many islands to explore. The whole area is known as Magnesia – which I might add has the same name as the region I lived in Turkey though the Turks have allowed the name to become Manisa!

Magnesia is one of four counties which make up the region of Thessaly. Magnesia is the coastal county with Mount Pelion and the Aegean Sea to the east, the Pagasitikos Gulf to the south and includes the islands of Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonnisos otherwise know as the Northern Sporades Islands.

Pelion is a hidden peninsula, an unexplored area of Greece, where life in the mountain villages and little fishing harbors remains as serene as in the distant past.

This was an awesome and beautiful place though I must admit – I din’t meet any centaurs, sirens, or heroes – except in my imagination. What I did meet though was the beauty of the Greek culture, the kindness of the Greek people, and the joy of sailing for days on open water without being crowded, barraged with noisy jet-skis or powerboats, or annoyed by blaring booze cruises.

 

I’d been in the Aegean in Izmir, Turkey. I swam in the Moroccan, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish Mediterranean, but always I had this idea of sailing sailing sailing in Greece. The problem was part monetary and part mental. I’d gotten it stuck in my head that only rich guys get to go sailing and as far as living in caves…those islands and (I was thinking) all of Greece were so developed and monetized that the kind of cool adventure I was thinking of could never exist in anything but dreams. Maybe, in some ways, I was right but also – I was definitely wrong.

Volos Greece Aegean

My friend Graham runs a guesthouse in Fez bought a share in a Greek sailboat a few months ago and he invited some close friends to come out and sail with him during the end of the summer season. The only problem was that they only were staying half the time and as a new sailor, he wasn’t entirely comfortable manning the yacht solo – lucky for me, he mentioned he needed crew and even luckier, when I told my wife about it she said that I should take the opportunity to go for two weeks even though we have a new baby who was only about six weeks old. I think she was glad to be rid of me for a while. Since she had her whole family around her, she assured me that she would be fine and so…off I went!

While I wasn’t able to get the ultra low fares from Morocco to Greece that I got on the way back ($16 US dollars from Volos, Greece to Bergamo, Italy and $16 from Bergamo to Tangier, Morocco and then $18 from Tangier to Fez by Train!!!) Even with last minute fares, I was still able to get to Greece for a relatively cheap amount and since I would be sleeping and often eating on board – the cost was worth it. I went with Ryan Air from Fez to Girona, Spain for about $125, then from Girona to Milan for about $80, and another $100 or so from Milan to Volos, Greece. So all together round trip from Fez to Volos with stops in Milan and Girona ran me about $355 US dollars!

It’s things like RyanAir, WizzAir, AirArabia, Jet4You and other budget airlines that make me very hesitant to ever return to the USA where even a flight from one state to another will cost you more than it costs me to visit five countries (a fact which I can confirm in 2018 – in fact, flying from one Hawaiian Island to another can cost more round trip!)

So anyway. There I was. A not rich guy on the way to sail in Greece. Who says you have to be rich to lead a rich life?

Sailing in the Gulf of Volos is a total joy – not just because the weather is mild and the gulf is beautiful but also because it is far from crowded and the places you can visit are so incredibly not-ruined-by-tourism!

Take our first port of call- Amaliapolis on the west side of the gulf. Just a small fishing village with a lovely beach and several great tavernas sitting right on the water. We were able to tie up to the quay and this is where I went ashore for my first taste of real Greek food in Greece.

The Taverna overlooking the quay I ordered feta, tzatziki, and cheese stuffed eggplant – plus the bread and of course some ouzo. While Greek food can be very similar to Turkish food in many regards, I would say that the Greeks tend to use about ten times more garlic which is just fine for me. The waitress told me – don’t order the tzatziki if you plan on kissing anyone – my only plan was to enjoy amazing Greek cuisine. Not a problem there at all!

Graham on Jouster

This was a particularly nice place for me to experience Greek culture for the first time as the staff at the taverna spoke some English and since Amaliapolis is small and not overrun with tourists, they were able to tell me about and demonstrate at the same time the Greek custom of filoxenia which essentially is being welcoming to guests and friendly to visitors. Everyone I met in Amaliapolis was incredibly warm.

There was a wedding in the center of the town and while we would have certainly been invited to dance and join the festivities – Graham and I hung back and watched from a distance while having some adult beverages by the sea. We were hardly dressed for a wedding and the bride certainly didn’t need a couple of foreigners bumbling around what looked like a wonderful event. Music, dancing, and more than a little bit of singing too.

In fact, when I was in the taverna eating – earlier in the evening, the group next to me was a big family all singing together and really enjoying being a family. I wish families were like that all over the world. I hope that my little family will sing together like that someday.

Further south was a second mooring we thoroughly enjoyed. Nies Bay was a very sheltered little harbor with nothing around it. A nice looking beach lined one of the shores and a few fishing boats were anchored in the shallows of the deep interior. No other yachts and no one on the beach – but this was late September and early October so the beach season was over – even though the weather was perfect for the beach and the water was warm and clear.

By the way my extravagant first Greek meal spoiled me since the prices in Amaliapolis are about the lowest you will find anywhere – four mezes, bread, and ouzo for 8 euro! I hear that the tavernas in Amaliapolis are famed for their seafood – I’m sure it’s the best you’ll get anywhere with price and friendliness!


I treasure those memories of sailing on the Aegean with Graham and other friends. Sometimes, when I get stressed out living back in the USA and having to work all the time to make ends meet in Hawaii, I think about those tavernas and I’m instantly in a better place. I will go back again someday. Until then…Greece is certainly in my dreams.

 

Flashback Friday: Hawaii Hikers – Oahu Hiking Videos from the Early 2000s

These are a real flashback to the past. One of the best things about these videos is the ever changing shape of my facial hair. The other thing that might be confusing is that when these were made, I was in college and just about everyone called me Chris. I was the President of the UH Branch of the Sierra Club and also started a couple of an independent hiking club called Hawaii Hikers. The quality of the videos is circa 2004-2008 – so I apologize for the grainy footage and shaky camera work – at the time I thought it was really good!

If you thought that Oahu is ‘the city island’ of Hawaii just because it is home to Honolulu and nearly half of the state’s inhabitants – think again. Oahu is filled with nature, rural life, history, and plenty of surprises.

There were many more hikes, but these were the ones I made videos of. What happened to the people in the videos aside from me? It’s a good question.

KokoHead #1

Kaena Point

Manoa Falls

Kuliouou Ridge Trail

Kokohead Rim Trail #2

Hawaii Loa Ridge Trail

Waimano Falls

Kealia, Oahu’s North Shore

There are some astounding hikes on Oahu. This one is considered to be mediocre unless you happen across the Wallabies which actually do exist.

Ka’au Crater is a fantastic hike with some dangerous points, plenty of waterfalls, and lots of birds. Count on spending 5 hours minimum.

Mt Olympus is considered one of the toughest hikes on Oahu…and for good reason

Waianai Kai is a surprise and you won’t find a lot of other people there despite the stunning beauty all around you as you hike.

Mount Olo’mana near Kailua offers three peaks and plenty of challenges plus a stunning payout in terms of the view. Unfortunately, I was getting a bit too arty and trying to use aspiring musicians for the soundtracks.

Okay, this last one — it’s just weird. Easter at Pu’u Pia, an easy hike in Manoa.

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