Hiking at Starved Rock State Park

At some point May offered up that she’d like to do a bit of hiking.  Once a mutually available weekend coincided with decent weather, I made it happen.   There was debate as to where we should go expend all our pent up workweek energy, and in the end decided to properly invest in the activity by driving some 100 miles southwest to Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park.

S__3686529Before hitting the road we carboloaded at Walker Bros. Pancake House.  It had a line out the door, but 15 minutes was plenty justifiable given the soon to be discovered quality of the food.  I went with the Sante Fe Omelette, and May some eggs and ‘cakes; we struggle to make certain decisions sometimes though, and had to split a Dutch Baby as well.

The sky ahead of us was a bit worrisome, but a veer toward the south allayed those fears.  Our weather guy let us know that rain would hit at 6pm, giving us ample time.  The weather and temperature were both suitable, and after manufacturing a spot in the car park, we set out in earnest.

Neither of us had been here before, but the pictures sold it.  There are a lot of different trails to trace, but as we came across our first landmark it was clear that our understanding of the map scale was completely off.  This state park is well known for the sandstone features unlike the rest of the otherwise flat Illinois topography.  All of the trail was wooded, and some of the earlier sections traced through the basin of an old canyon.  The spring leaves were just coming in.

There were a number of spots on the map marked with names, which pertained to those areas with small waterfalls and particularly impressive walls.  Now I know this pales in comparison to such a place as the Grand Canyon, but for something in my own backyard, I was impressed.  Whenever I request to be in included in a photo, I always manage to look foolish and out of place.  Much credit goes to May for ignoring all my poses and pauses, in favor of something more organic.

S__3686527It was not even an hour in before May started to notice some congestion.  Throughout our time there, it got worse and worse, and she fell completely to the mercy of the springtime pollen – I guess this isn’t the best time of year to trudge through nature.  I was of course completely free of its miasmatic effects.  The rest of the hike was without too much variety, S__3686530aside from the moment that we stopped to sit and stare out over the Illinois River while feasting upon Stax and Turkish figs.  After a bit we got up to continue, but thought it best instead to turn back and avoid the impending weather.  We arrived to the car at the very moment precipitate began to ‘tate.  I’m pretty sure this shot of us is from before May was harried by her runny nose and constant sneezing.

Prior to heading home, we wanted to stroll around the small town of Ottawa before the weather became too much of a problem.  On the way in we noticed a few robust murals on the sides of buildings that merited further investigation.  We parked near the centrally located green space to get out and stroll.

There were a great number of benches haphazardly strewn about Washington Park, but our attention was quickly stolen by large statues of a certain Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.  As I am sure you all remember from your history education, this town played host to first of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  I can’t say my life has been changed too much in the wake of this visit, but it may just serve to benefit some future crossword session.  Ottawa has more than just that too, I learned!  Ottawa was a famed ‘station’ on the Underground Railroad, and it was in this town that William Dickson Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America, back in 1910.  I’d recommend you make a mental note of those.

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Also, because curiosity drew me into doing some additional research on the town, I have a bonus nugget for you: Ottawa was once the location of the Radium Dial Company.  For about a decade women here applied glow-in-the-dark paint on S__3686533watch faces, which would be a pretty cool industry, that is, if the radioactive pigment they handled directly, ingested, and dolled up their nails with wasn’t killing so many of them.  There are still areas of the town that register tangibly higher on a Geiger counter.  I’ll allow these cheerful flowers to assuage thoughts of necrosis and anemia.

The rain grew in significance, so we hopped back in the car to make the drive home.  I was intentional about not using my wipers to see when May would notice. (‘Can you see?’ – Yeah, no problem.’)  T’was a fine day, and among the better ways to spend a weekend. I’m told that hitting the park during each season offers a different experience, so, I may add a Fall update, we’ll see.

Livin’ la Vida de la Republica Dominicana

With my girlfriend heading down to the DR to revisit friends and attend a wedding, it was easy to make that my next destination as well.  I wouldn’t be joining in on those festivities, but we’d get a couple overlapping days together before she returned home and I onward with the rest of my trip.  I conned a couple past travel buddies into joining me for the additional days: Kei Mamiya of Japan and compatriot Neil Ferguson agreed to once more throw caution to the wind in pursuit of adventure.

My flight departed on Christmas day and arrived before sunrise the next morning.  May offered that there could be a taxi waiting for me at the airport, but I saw no sign bearing ‘Señor Bussies’, and instead charmed a Japanese guy into splitting a cab to La Zona Colonial.  It was going to cost way too much going solo, so this worked out perfectly.  After dumping him at his hostel, I went the rest of the way to where May was staying with her friend Marybell.  It was early, but after waking May and fumbling with an absurd number of locks, the two of us sat in the morning sun and caught up for the first time in quite a while.   I was very pleased to find this awaiting me.

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We needed some food, and for that visited a nearby cafe.  Curious to try out the new cuisine, I took one of everything.  Most of these items were a sort of fried dough with a meat and cheese inside.  I was relieved to have no issue paying with plastic, meaning my bankroll could last a bit longer.  By the time we finished up and got back, the rest of the family was stirring.  The first person I met was abuela, a nice lady who spoke zero English, and interestingly was a follower of SGI – a denomination of Japanese Buddhism.  I briefly spoke with madre, and then finally Marybelle.  It was great to meet them, sip espresso sized coffee, chat, and sort the rest of the day.  The architecture, and warm weather assured me that I had gotten far from the Michigan winter.

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The plan that emerged involved a trip over to La Romana, where a friend’s family had a place we could stay.  The drive lasted 2 hours, but traced the beautiful southern shoreline.  Their place was quite nice, and by my count had no fewer than 110 places to sit.  The villa is located in Casa de Campo, which is the DR’s Hollywood Hills equivalent and is indeed home to many celebrities, baseball players, and I assume golf players.  Once settled into our rooms, we made our way out to check a few places and grab some refreshments.  The nearby beach was glorious, but so too was the Altos de Chavon, a re-creation of a medieval European village.  The place offered incredible views.  I was told that somewhere along this river the movie Anaconda was filmed.
IMG_4184aAnother stop that day was to a restaurant that served more of the fried empanada-esq delicacies, along with a couple of El Presidentes.  From there we regrouped back at the chateau before moving on to the evening’s activities.  One of the social conventions I apparently failed at was identifying the need to change into something else for that evening.  Feeling confident about one’s appearance is apparently inadequate, especially if in the presence of those who did feel the urge.  I went on and got garbed up into something different (for different’s sake), and we made our way out to the marina.  We were going for a Christmas yacht parade, but by the time we arrived, most of the boats had bailed on the contest to go do their own thing.  This was described by my hosts as ‘typical Dominican’, but was still a great time.  The weather was warm, and the atmosphere down there great as well.

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On the way back towards the car, we caught the parents sipping on wine and were invited to join.  There, we had a nice time all together and even corralled in a few other familiar faces.  We later moved on to have our own night but did seize the opportunity to snap a picture as group.  Here, we have the parents below, and the rest of our crew.

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From there we went out to see what fun could be had.  We hit to a bar or two around the Altos de Chavon area, and I destroyed some street-style hamberguesas before we worked our way back to the estate.  The next morning, after a nice breakfast overlooking the sunny golf course, we tore off to the easternmost point of the island, Punta Cana.  Another of the family members had a house there and was happy to put us up for a night.  It was an hour before we arrived, and we were excited to at last hit the beach.  The amount of seaweed in the water and on the shore really had me wondering why people spend hundreds of dollars a night to stay here, but I was told that it wasn’t the norm.  To be fair, everything else was spectacularly beautiful.

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…especially the people.
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That evening the May and I hung back whilst the others found food.  We were both exhausted and passed out instead.  We arose again around 1 am to find people lingering and still contemplating the idea of going out to do something, but we unilaterally agreed that we lacked the ganas.  I was completely fine with that.  That next morning, May and I bid adieu and bused back to our Santo Domingo hotel to meet up with the rest of my travel crew and begin an entirely different type of trip.  It was great getting the chance to meet some of May’s good friends, and of course to see this country from an angle that would contrast the rest of my trip.  As usual, I was well on my way to packing in a great deal during the short week on that half of the island.

DSC_8875_edited-2We checked in to a decent bed and breakfast where Neil had already arrived.  He came in on the same painfully early flight as I and went on to spend the day sleeping himself back to life.  We grabbed a bit to eat and awaited the arrival of Kei.  With the whole team there, tourism began at last.  The plan for that evening was to walk the streets, eat, and eventually get ourselves dancing.  It was a Sunday night, but the Dominicans seem enjoy a good dance on any day, and it only took a few blocks before we found a little salsa place.  May and I had been excited about dancing together in the months prior to this trip, but in the end I had to cede her to an older man who actually knew what he was doing.  We were ready to move on to somewhere playing music that was a bit more Dominican, and wound up next door at more of a bar.  It was club music, but at least it the music being played was of the island.  We moved on looking for just one more place, but in the end just returned to our domicile.  May was going to be departing that next day, and I’d be without any chance to see her for over a month, so we spent a good long while chatting before finally turning in.  Kei was stuck taking the photo below

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IMG_4241aThat next morning we rose in time to catch our complimentary breakfast and sort out the rest of the day.  Walking around, one of the stops we made was to a Cuban cigar shop, and also the Santa Maria la Menor Cathedral, the first to be built in the Americas.  May had been in on a previous trip to the country, so she took care of some last minute shopping while los tres amigos took an audio tour.  The most interesting takeaway for me was that it was the only cathedral in the entire hemisphere to be built in the Gothic style.  There was an excessive amount of information covering each of the flanking chapels.

IMG_4238aAfter regrouping with May, we walked over to the America’s first castle, the former residence of Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego Colon, who was kind enough to serve as the Viceroy of the Indies.  Our research suggested that it was possible to enter the structure, as well as the adjacent museum, though we struck out on both.  We returned to the hotel to see May off, and then we men gathered our things and set out for the next night’s accommodation. We trudged under the sun to the one proper hostel in town, arriving just a short moment after they filled their last room.  They sent us to another spot that was a bit of a dump, and completely without personality, but could at least offer us lodging.  We actually followed the street down all the way to the ocean before decided we had probably gone too far.  I was approached by some kid wanting money for food, but I instead gave him a Cliff Bar.  I would be remiss to neglect this quality photograph, crafted by Kei.

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The rest of that afternoon involved walking around, and not much else.  Though the area was full of history, what one could really do in the area was somewhat less. We had had our fill at least.  We lazed about, faked conversation with some annoying people at the pension, and then went to a supermercado to get ingredients for dinner.  We would be dining as kings this evening on imported chips and salsa, and grilled cheese.  The bread seared to the pan though and came out pretty carcinogenic, though we had also gotten some large beers to help rectify the poor cooking.

The next morning we went to Los Tres Ojos, a national park located in the center of the city that really couldn’t feel further from the capitol.  The limestone in this area had been eroded over the ages to carve the ‘three eyes’ caverns out of the jungle.  Getting to one of them required crossing an underground pool on a hand powered raft.  Finally, cameraman Kei makes his appearance.
DSC_8951aFrom the capitol area, we left and spent several hours on a bus that hauled us to the northern shore of the island.  It took a few transfers, but we eventually got into the sea town of Cabarete, where we had booked a stay at some resort.  When trying to figure out where to stay the next night, we realized that by each pitching in 50 dollars a day, we could make it an all inclusive stay.  Obviously the place was not going to be a Four Seasons, but our expectations were nowhere near that.  We were extremely content to have reasonably priced lodging along with the bonuses of beach access, wifi, food, and an open bar.  This would all be especially beneficial as we were turning over the New Year there.  Nothing about this place was pristine, but it was perfect for a few bros.
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During our days there we spent time around the pool, on the beach, playing pocket pool billiards, eating a glorious New Year’s feast, coconut boccie, horseshoes, volleyball, and some of the best live entertainment in existence.  Don’t miss the tinge of sarcasm in that last one.  None of the staff spoke any English, but they would put on skits every night for all of the guests.  Production value was extremely low, but endearing all the same – there was one lip-sync in particular that was killing us.  The weather was great throughout our time, but one day on the beach was enough.  Seriously, how are people be entertained by laying in the sun over consecutive days?!  It is perhaps the most unexciting of ways to spend time in any foreign nation. DSC_9012_edited-a1

We did of course plan this part of the trip to coincide with the transition into 2015, which made for a great night.  We skipped the taxis and instead walked the couple of kilometers along the coastline.  It took a while but our party did arrive to the bustling beaches of Cabarate where masses of revelers had already gathered along the shore.  Open container laws clearly didn’t exist, so we got our own fix and set out to take in the sights and sounds.  People were launching lanterns that soared up over the bay.  The sounds of the open air clubs pounding away proved good foreshadowing, and before long we were up there ourselves.  I was a hot sweaty mess, but no one seemed to mind.  We stayed quite a while before making the hike back.

DSC_9046aThat next morning we spent those last few hours of our stay around the pool before packing up and hitting the road.  Neil would be flying back the next day out of Santiago, so that was where we had to get to.  There were some taxis offering to take us into town for what would be a stupid amount of money even by American standards.  I had been wanting to take advantage of the local transportation, and this proved a great chance.  These are generally just junked out vans that they pack with anyone wanting a ride.  Sadly, all those that passed us by were completely full.  We waited a half hour before I spotted a three wheeled something cruising past to whom I half jokingly gave a wave.  I was a bit surprised when he actually stopped.  The man had no qualms with us hopping in the back for a small bit of cash, logic presumably being that he might as well get paid for a trip he was making anyway.  The way people stared at us gave the impression that this was not a conventional means of getting around.

IMG_0232_edited-1The hike to Santiago didn’t take long, and we were soon checked into our austere abode.  There was a McDonald’s within walking distance which certainly made for a good last meal for the trip.  We got in and were astounded to find it absolutely packed – there was nowhere to sit, and even had a security guard on hand to ensure order.  The menu was pretty unimpressive and had nothing that really reflected the local culture.  Back at the room, we watched 21 Jump Street and passed out.  When Kei and I woke up, we were a man down.  After cashing in on our free breakfast, we took a cab to the bus station that would like us to the next destination.

The DR was an awesome destination, thanks in large part to the variety in locations and experiences that I was able to enjoy.  The two phases of the trip with May’s good friends and mine, really made for some great memories.  The week cruised by, but the adventure was only halfway over!
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Haitian Heaven

Our plan was to hop on a bus from Santo Domingo, cross the border, and arrive to Cap-Haitien a few hours later.  For as long as I had been making these travel plans known, everyone seemed to state authoritatively what I needed to watch out for.  That these same people were basing their advice and ‘knowledge’ on untenable rumors – or a border visit at best – was quickly apparent though; I found no consistency between their warnings and reality.  My plan was to tackle this country with the same level-headedness I take to every new place.  People were all surprised that I would even want to go to Haiti, and that I would ‘risk life and limb.’  So why then was I?  Definitely to find the beauty in a place unfairly smothered by negative press.

Our bus rolled to the border, and we piled out to go through the two checkpoints, just as I had done at many other land crossings.  It was fair to say that the place was a zoo though, and that nationality could be generally be ascertained based on skin tone – things were a whole lot darker without the Spanish influence.  The language had shifted to French Creole as well.  Having entered Haiti, we boarded our bus and set out toward the northern city of Cap-Haitien. There were some that offered such advice as to only take a bus with bulletproof windows, but I fared well enough without.  An odd observation perhaps, but one of the first things I noticed about this new place was that cacti were used as fences to mark property and contain livestock.  A photo of the beautiful disorder.

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We arrived to the town, gathered our things, and then set out for the hotel.  There were a number of taxis anxiously awaiting the bus, so we decided to see what we could manage on foot and then take a cab that wasn’t so hawkish.  In the end though we walked all of the kilometers to our hotel, really enjoying things along the way.  During all but the last moments of the trek we saw not a single fair skinned individual.  I’ve been in those places where people stare at me for sticking out, but never happened in the Americas.  The best part about the place was how apparent the French influence was, in architecture, colors, and planned layout.  I was later told that the city now looked like New Orleans did some 100 years ago.

10390480_964594403035_6158561247560183811_nWe were hot and sweaty upon arrival, but the Imperial Hotel was truly an oasis.  The domestic travel market is nonexistent and therefore removes the budget niche provided by hostels in most places.  We were fine with the relatively higher costs though: this place was clean, equipped with AC, and had a bar.  After some much appreciated showers, Kei and I sampled Haiti’s local beer, Prestige.  With a name like that it had better deliver, and it surely did.  The crispness brought back memories of Kirin, or Asahi.  Another interesting tidbit unique to Haiti is the manner in which a beer is served.  They first wrap it in a napkin, and then pop the cap – BUT WAIT! – it is left atop the opening.  When asked why, our bartender explained that it wasn’t his beer to be messing with.  Every beer in that country was handled in just the same way.

Actually though, we weren’t going to be spending the whole of the evening at the hotel bar.  A friend of May’s had put us in touch with a few local people who were happy to meet and improve the overall quality of our experience. I reached out to let them know we had arrived to Cap-Haitien successfully, and then we set out to take in the best of the city.  We flagged down a few motorcycles on the street to take us away.  I was surprised that they had never taken such transport before.

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We were zooming off to La Kay, considered the best restaurant in town.  Kei and I had pangs for some legit Haitian food, and knowing nothing of it ourselves, left the ordering duties to our hosts.  In addition to a glorious spread of food (conch, pork, and of course pikliz), we got some bottles of Couronne, which is an extremely sweet soda loved by the Haitians.  The place had great atmosphere, and also a dance floor where we foreigners showed off our impressive skills.  Though there were other fair skinned individuals present, I was informed that they were almost certainly locals who had lived their whole lives in Haiti – not tourists.

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We took motorbikes back to the hotel to plot out the following day.  Our plan was to hit the nearby citadel, but time restraints necessitated our own transportation.  The cost of this was significantly higher than cramming into the back of a local’s truck, but skipping this site was out of the question. We thanked our fantastic docents as they took off and then spent the rest of the night chatting with the hotel manager.  She helped us arrange the private car, and was interesting to speak with in general.  The manager was Filipino, which we learned was common among middle management in Haiti.  She explained how hard it was to keep working class Haitians doing their job properly, and that they needed to be reminded constantly of the task at hand.  Having not grown up in our capitalist environment, most just don’t grasp concept of work with the same attitude.

IMG_0009_edited-1aThe next morning we downed a breakfast and hit the road.  Our vehicle reeked of the diesel spilled in it the night before, but with windows down we rolled on.  The first stop of the day was to King Henri Christophe’s Sans-Souci Palace.  Although largely ruined by an earthquake, it was still impressive.  The average person likely envisions Europe when the topic of fortresses and castles are brought up, but these in Haiti were actually the largest in the Americas.  We were forced to hire a guide, but he did at least tell us about the history of the place.  Built in 1813 by King Henri I, a former slave and leader in the Haitian Revolution, he ruled from here for 7 years before taking his life with a silver bullet in one of the many rooms.

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After a good walk through the structure and grounds, our guide made the expected transition into crapmonger, peddling stuff from his shop.  He insisted that he was giving us the best deals, but failed to notice my complete lack of interest in his wares.  The driver took us further up the mountain to our next location, the Citadelle Laferriere.  This along with the Sans-Souci Palace comprised a very worthy UNESCO site.  The car could only go so far before we were responsible for the rest of the way, hoofing it by either ass or foot.  Being perfectly capable of tackling the arduous slope on our own, and undeterred by a little workout, we trudged up the grade as the sweat poured.  The hike was a couple of kilometers, but the weather was at least fantastic.  The citadel loomed impressively atop a 3000 ft mountain in the distance.
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We were in a bit of a rush to get back before the last bus of the day, so we requested the slightly abridged version of the tour.  There were all sorts of interesting things about the history of the place, but to me the best part was the view.  Although the Napoleonic cannons they had won in battles with the French could never hit ocean invaders, from this lofty perch any attack could be spotted well ahead of time.  I do realize that this is not the coolest photo of me, but the view was only met in vastness by that from Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya.

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IMG_0466aOnce we had soaked in the sights and bathed in our new-found knowledge, the two of us scooted down the hill back to the car.  We were cutting it a bit close with our bus, but the departure wound up being an hour late.  We did finally take off, and it was an insane ride.  We snaked through the mountainous jungle for hours, bounding along the pitted roads.  It well after dark before we would arrive in the capitol.  Along the way I spoke with a local guy who filled me in on the state of government corruption, as well as the ‘Money = Power’ mentality that most people had.  I took his cynicism with a grain of salt, but can’t imagine that he was too far off the mark.  We arrived to a sketchy bus station on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, and would need to get a cab to take us up to the safer area of Petion-Ville.  Fortunately, this guy that I had been talking to was heading in the same direction.  I wasn’t the most excited about that bus station, and glad to find my garrulous nature rewarded.

We parked in front of a landmark cathedral and then called that night’s host.  This was another friend of May’s contact, and he was kind enough to welcome us to their home.  Coordinating the taxi and transfer would have been extremely difficult had we not met the guy on the bus, but sometimes you just need to bank on things working out.  Once Gerald arrived, we transferred cars and went further up into the hills.  We stopped along the way at a pizza parlor to grab dinner and a beer.  It was interesting talking to the couple.  The wife was with an NGO that was working to improve the still devastated capitol following the 2010 earthquake, and Gerald had worked for many years as an adviser to the Olympic Weightlifting Committee.  It’s always great to learn from people bearing such a diversity of experiences and backgrounds.

After some delicious food, we arrived to their nearby homestead.  They were kind enough to give us the master bedroom and take the pull out for themselves.  They explained how to make use of the facilities, we took refreshing showers, and then turned in for bed.  I had a wee bit of indigestion and faced some minor issues when a power outage complicated the toilet process.  Here was a view from the porch.

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IMG_0468aThat next morning, the wife had prepared some Soup Joumou for us, which is the Haitian national dish.  Way back during colonialism, it was a dish reserved only for the French nobility.  After the successful uprising, slaves celebrated by eating the soup for themselves.  Our batch had quite a kick, and the flavor was excellent.  We spent the rest of the morning sipping on Haitian coffee and listening to Gerald rock out on the guitar.

Once we finally got around to starting our day, the sunlight reveled what beauty the area had.  We swapped out their vehicle for a more capable Jeep Wrangler, and I eagerly accepted an offer to drive it.  I would never turn down such a chance, and I did indeed navigate the crazy traffic and hairpin turns without any issue.  Gerald returned to the helm before going through a police checkpoint, which almost certainly would have caused our party issues otherwise.  Along the way he spoke a bit on the religious situation of Haiti, which is mostly Catholic and Voodoo.  In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson had the US Marines take control of the country to promote our own economic interests.  The United States ran the show until 1934 and in that time tried to squelch the agglomeration of African folk religions that is Voodoo, and instead promoted Christianity.  In order to hide the places of worship from the Americans, Haitians disguised Voodoo deities as Catholic saints.  This legacy is still extant today, so someone outside of the know could go into a church thinking their prayers were going to St. Peter, but instead reach Papa Legba instead.

Our first stop of the day was at a BnB up in the hills.  It was a quiet area with good gardens and exceptional food.  I had no idea what anything on the menu was, so we again left the decision making to our ‘aufom’ hosts.  We wound up with a bit of Chicken Djon Djon (a sauce made from a black mushroom),  fried plantains and pork, and a bit of djon djon rice as well.  That, mixed with the crisp Prestige made for the perfect light lunch.  After some chatter, our party settled up and resumed the course.

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The primary reason for us making this trip up the crazy unpaved roads was to reach of the best view in all of Haiti.  There was a small restaurant and cafe atop a mountain that overlooked the entire capitol valley.  Google Maps confirmed that I was seeing things well over 50 miles away!  We nibbled on some fried cassava and marveled at all before us. With the sun setting behind the mountain, we were challenged to get good light for this photo, but here was our group.

IMG_0529_edited-1aBack down the mountain, Gerald dropped us at Le Perroquet, a bed and breakfast back down in Petion-ville.  I was really looking forward to sitting still for a few nights as we closed out the rest of the trip.  Straight away, we were welcomed by a couple of beers and the amicable owner Eric.  He and his wife Lana would come to be the best of hosts and wonderful company throughout the our remaining time there.  For that evening, we had very little planned, just drinks and relaxation.  We put off the idea of getting street food until things had gotten a little too late, and were instead advised to just stay in and eat whatever they could whip up for us.  Lucky for us, Lana was a world class chef and her ‘lil’ something’ was anything but.  We spent the evening catching up on our neglected lives, downing beers, chatting with Eric, and sorting the rest of our Haitian plans.

IMG_0541aThat next morning we truly enjoyed sleeping until whenever and eventually got around to the unambitious mission of walking around the locality.  We planed it to be a languorous day but wanted to continue on with our mission of finding Haiti’s awesome.  The first stop was to the Kinam Hotel, which is really nice, but more for people who are not of our travel caste.  From the roof of it though, we were able to grab a gander at an exceptionally colorful hillside a la Valparaiso, Chile.

IMG_0556_edited-1aAnother stop that afternoon was to the bank, were I was surprised to find no issue pulling cash out with my debit card.  While walking over there though, a truck lost control and slammed into the wall about 30 feet ahead of where we were.  Had the timing differed by just a bit, I would be without my legs, and quite likely my life.  There was a really nice art gallery selling the works of Haiti’s most famous artists.  This country has an artistic expression all its own, and much of the cheaper art being sold on the streets was based on the styling of these in the gallery.  I liked Franz Zepherin’s work the best (center, and right).

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Later that evening the two of us were privy to more of Lana’s wonderful cooking.  As a sort of promotional effort, Monday was dubbed Purple Monday and featured a dinner menu incorporating the color into each dish.  We went with a combination course that included some of each amazing offering; one of my favorites was the locally sourced blood sausage that was hearty and a bit ferrous to the taste.  It was all washed down with Dr. Zhivago’s beet juice martinis.

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Throughout dinner and in the time after we were posted up at the bar, we enjoyed a wonderful evening.  The Prestige flowed, and so too the conversation.  Around midnight, Eric and Lana led us up to an area below the stars with a great view of the surrounding area.  As things started cooling down, we returned to the bar area as the only patrons, and it became the best per-person-party in which I’ve ever partaken.  With just the four of us, we had a fantastic evening dancing and singing to old music.  I could scarcely believe being asked ‘Have you heard of the musical Chess, by Murray Head?’.  Lana was born in the USSR, so I was doubly pleased when she threw on Boney M’s ‘Ra-Ra-Rasputin’.  What an incredible night.

That next morning, for our last day of tourism, we arranged a car to take ourselves and another Chicagoan down to Port-au-Prince to spend time walking around the more poverty stricken areas.  Ron put my collections to shame: not only had he made it to twice as many countries, but his currency collection dwarfed mine.  The driver brought us down to the Banque de la République d’Haïti where he would be purchasing two uncirculated copies of each banknote.  His deeper pockets solved the issue of choosing between which side of the banknote to display back home.  I am usually content to get the best circulated note I can, but took his lead and picked up a set myself.  The woman who humored our obsessions had a bubbly personality and even volunteered a personal tour through an exhibit on Haitian money.  We were also led to the roof to view a few of the area landmarks.  I was really interested in the subject matter, though, our driver could not have possibly been less enthused by the lengthy detour.
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He seemed to think the bank was the only reason we had driven 45 minutes to the downtown area, and kept acting like he knew where nothing was.  I had GPS and a map though, and our collective pressure was enough to get a few more stops added to the itinerary.  The Iron Market is an absurdly cluttered and unsanitary jungle of people peddling everything from food to garbage sculptures.  We didn’t venture inside the madness, but were content to drive around the car-high trash mountains amassed on the outskirts.  We were also on a quest to see some of the wreckage from the 201o earthquake that killed an estimated some 160,000 people.  They had already cleared away the ruins of the National Palace, but we were able to visit the remains of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, which has been ‘preserved’ as a monument to the event.

IMG_0606aBack up to cozy Petion-ville at last, we agreed to have dinner with Ron, and a Belgian guy he had met before.  The food was great, and the service acceptable, but Belgian had to make a huge fuss about everything, eventually refusing to pay for his meal.  In the end, he succeeded in nothing more than making us uncomfortable, taking advantage of the locality, and proving himself a complete ass.  It was soon evident that he was intoxicated as well, and his catcalling of every hooker was doing a fantastic job of drawing unwanted attention.  Out of nowhere, a band of some 30 guys on motorcycles encircled us.  Of course, there he was trying to pick a fight.  Ron, Kei, and I were a mere block away from our hotel, so we just bailed on that situation for our safe haven.  He would survive and later join us back at the hotel, but we were all thoroughly relieved when he left soon thereafter.  Those are the sorts of people that get into trouble in places like this, not sensible folks like ourselves.

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The next morning it was time to bid farewell to this fantastic country.  There was an elderly man short several marbles leaving nice and early from our hotel to the airport, so we planned to ride along with him.  He had already reserved the vehicle for 40 dollars, and when we arrived to the airport our driver was seeking an additional 20 each from Kei and I.  Was the cost of the services rendered somehow greater with more people in the car?  I was fine yielding a 20 to him, since it have just gone to the old man anyway, but no way was he getting any more.  I realize that my actions were probably approaching pettiness, but I despise being taken advantage of on the grounds of being foreign.  In the end I won out.  That car was reserved the day before, and 60 was already more than he planned on; victory felt good.  At the airport, Kei and I found a place to spend the last of our gourdes on what was certainly the worst meal of the trip.

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All in all, Haiti was an absolutely fantastic, and I would go so far as to place it in my top 5 all time destinations.  For one thing, Haiti felt like such an altogether different world compared to anything else in the Americas, or anywhere I had ever been.  Going to this country truly came with the sense that I was in a new world – or at least one different to me. It brimmed with the novelty I felt in those first ever journeys during my young adulthood.  While the language, food, culture, and history stood apart as interesting, it was the people I met along the way that really buoyed my positive experience.  Everyone with whom I interacted were such genuine people, and clearly overjoyed to have the chance to initiate an outsider the real Haiti.  And if I had to pick a third reason, this place was also made great by the masses who insisted it would be anything less.  I can’t honestly recommend it to the fresh or first time traveler, but those with an open mind and sprawling curiosity will find a dark horse of Haiti.  Go.  Before the rest of the world figures this out too.IMG_0246_edited-1a

Wrigleyville Date Night: Batting, Brews, Band, & Burritos

For an impromptu evening out, I picked up a couple tickets to see Clean Bandit down in the city.  They have at least one song making the radio rounds, and the impending concert was certainly reason enough to study up on the rest of their catalog.  Fast forward 3 weeks or so.  May swings by mine to dine on my famous sandwich a la célibataire, which on this occasion sported muenster, seasoned pork chop, and jalapeno, all loaded between an everything bagel.  May was appropriately impressed.

We take off and cruise for an hour before getting down to the Wrigleyville area – it is always nice to be walking in the vicinity of such a Chicago landmark as Wrigley Stadium.  Our first stop was to Sluggers World Class Sports Bar.  May didn’t know why, but soon understood when I led her right to the top floor, which is complete with batting cages.  She had mentioned in passing a few days earlier that she wanted to give it a whirl sometime soon, so I figured this would be a good move.  The blur was artsy, and actually intentional.

10402460_10153099558156878_7229008512306122462_nAfter a little BP, we walked over to grab drinks at some burger bar.  On account of the aforementioned sandwiches, we needed only the beers.  I got an alright Allagash Tripel, and a fantastic wheat from some local brewery that featured hints of salt, coriander, and citrus.  Saying no to the Old style was just so hard…  We truncated our discussion on work and life, and transitioned over to The Metro for the show.

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We skipped the opener and set change, instead walking in after Clean Bandit had just taken the stage.  They were halfway through ‘Dust Clears’ already, so we rushed up to get a good spot…way in the back.  We could hear and see well enough as it certainly wasn’t the largest of venues.  That first song, and rest of the show too was all fantastic.  The members of this band are classically trained and several of the songs feature cello, violin, and sax in addition to the synth, drums, and vocals.  They eventually left the stage and did the encore thing with their Grammy winning song ‘Rather Be’.  I’ve added the video for it below.  I not only like the song a lot, but can also attest to how well they captured everyday life in Japan.

Their set wrapped up in a succinct 60 minutes, and our being situated toward the rear eased the evacuation.  We made our way back to the car, fighting the temptation of fast food ice cream all the way, surprising winning out against the urge.  In navigating back to the freeway, we drove past The Burrito House.  We had seen the same location with Parker only a few days prior.  Both then and now the place was packed, despite the 11:00 hour; our curiosity had been effectively piqued, so we parked up and stopped in.  They ran a bare bones shift and were only able to take orders between making the food.  My steak fajita and her tongue taco took a good while to come out, but ¡Dios mío! was the wait worth it.  Never in my life had I had munched such a masterfully made Mexican meal.  It was so freshly cooked that my hands were burning just holding it, but it could not be put down.  What a nightcap to a glorious evening.
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Pupusas en Pilsen con Parker

With my brother in from out of town, May and I wanted to maximize our multicultural exposure.  Because those two share a fondness for Latin culture, we opted to spend the afternoon in the Lower West Side neighborhood of Pilsen.  Chicago has a great many such culturally distinct neighborhoods that I have thus far done a poor job of exploring.  The time spent here certainly inspires me to get around to a few of the others as well – Greektown perhaps?

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Immediately upon our arrival, it was clear that we were someplace rather different.  All signage was Spanish, the people were Latin, the primary language of communication changed, and all of the shops catered to the local tastes.  Our first stop was to the National Museum of Mexican Art.  Outside of it though we bumped into a friend of Parker’s, who seemed familiar to me as well – oh yea, my college adviser’s husband. iQue casualidad!  The museum wasn’t enormous, and we took a pretty quick pass though the exhibits.  The art though was of impressive, colorful, and distinctly Mexican.

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We enjoyed what we saw, but wound up having the better time in the gift shop. Los Tres Luchadores!

S__3506180We left the museum with a certain pang in our guts, we stopped into a garishly decorated Salvadorean restaurant that was dressed in some some odd combination of tropical Margaritaville and nationalistic flair.  The food that caught our eye, one of El Salvadore’s signature treats, are called pupusas.  These are about the size and thickness of a pancake, and include some meat and cheese inside them.  One top, one adds salsa and pickled cabbage to taste.  It was muy bueno.

S__3514480We stopped into a few vintage shops, a bakery, a bookshop, and whatever else struck our fancy.  One of our last stops however was a paleteria, which included a number of exotic ice creams.  Parker of course had to sample each before making his calculated decision.  May and I on the other had just dove in and hoped for the best from the tequila and corn flavors; both were a surprisingly true to life.
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We hit up a couple of bodegas on our way back home to get what we needed for dinner.  May was going to be treating us to some chicken nanban.  After carefully selecting thighs for their succulence, she breaded and fried them, and then added a vinegar sauce to it.  This provides the unique, sour bite.  Chicken nanban was one of my favorite meals when I first got to Japan, but this home-cooked version blew that away.
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Business Tripping: Bismarck & Fargo, ND

I once again had the opportunity to set out for work, and this time to fabulous North Dakota.  I was genuinely excited about this opportunity for numerous reasons: a chance to see somewhere new that I certainly wouldn’t have hit otherwise, going solo would leave evenings my own to plan, and most importantly, it was a speaking opportunity that would provide me a great opportunity for growth.  I spoke the week before as well at a one-off event in Oconomowoc, WI which served as a good warm up for this spot at the Tessman Turf Academy.

I arrived on Monday to a small Bismarck airport, AmEx in hand, and there was not a single cab waiting to take me to the nearby capital.  I went to the help desk and they were able to provide some numbers of taxi companies, of which two didn’t want to come to the airport, and none accepted plastic.  I guess I was unaware that this was going to be a trip to the developing world.  I got some cash, a cab, and was soon checking into my hotel.

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Having no obligations that evening, I wanted to make use of it somehow and opted for the newly refurbished Heritage Center.  The cap from the hotel was going to take longer than walking, so I decided to grab some exercise and fight through the fierce Dakota winds.  One thing I noticed along the way that every restaurant, store, and potential employer was hiring.  ND’s unemployment rate sits somewhere below 3% and has been the lowest in the country since 2008.  It would seem that anyone wanting a job need only to sign up at the company of their choosing, at a twice the minimum wage.

The museum was described to me as the ‘Smithsonian of the North’, and the 52 million dollars that they spent really went a long way.  Even better was that entry was free.  This museum had all the sorts of exhibits I appreciate when I travel; the range went from prehistoric to modern times.  The first room showed what a balmy, dinosaur utopia the Dakotas once were.  Much of the area was covered by an inland sea.  Here is the main entrance, along with some large stones fashioned by the glaciers that long ago covered this area.

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The exhibits took me through the influx of settlers – the region’s folksy accent can be attributed to the Norwegians – the histories of the various Native American tribes, and also some information on North Dakota today.  I thought that the information on the indigenous peoples was one of the most valuable, and the quote below caught my attention; the idea that man always was and simply awoke to existence was a fresh take on things.
20150301_163224The museum closed up at 5, so I saw myself out to take a peek at the capitol complex.  The state’s tallest ‘skyscraper’ and capitol building is located here, along with a statue dedicated to Sacajawea, the woman who helped Luis and Clark.  I never realized that this good ol’ American tale took place way up here.  I knew that they were exploring Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, and therefore assumed them to be more to the south.

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I walked the rest of the way to the downtown area to grab some food and a drink.  One of the other things that amused me was the absurd mishmash of houses that lined the streets, consistent only in their uniqueness.  The docent directed me toward the town’s microbrewery where I plopped down for a bit and sampled the spread.  They had a solid selection, though the day’s dark horse was the Strawberry Wheat Ale, whose flavors were subtle and not too fruity.  The Laughing Sun comes highly recommended by myself, and all the other patrons I spoke with.

20150301_182052Like many fledgling breweries they offered no food options, giving me the chance to see another Bismarck monument.  When the former Patterson Hotel opened in 1911, this 7 story, towering behemoth used to be the swankiest place around.  It was the place to stay on those rare occasions that presidents and dignitaries actually visited the area.  The rooms have now been converted to accommodate senior living, and the lobby into Peacock Alley.  The oldest bar in the state had another beer to try from the nearby Mandan Brewery, as well as great burger.  I worked though both and then set about getting back to my hotel.  No way was I going to walk back the way I came, so I asked them to call me a cab.  I was amazed to have them present me with a voucher for a gratis ride!  This awesome (and probably easily abused) system is meant to keep people off the road who shouldn’t be.
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The purpose of this trip was of course to speak, which I did in Bismarck, and then again in Fargo.  I rode east to the second location with one of the other speakers, and together we enjoyed a full three hours of unchanging landscape.  There was a little bit of snow, and the odd outcropping of houses, but it was mostly nothing.  Once in Fargo, I checked into the hotel, supped on the complimentary dinner, and then set out to explore this fabled town.  I swung into the local Drekker Brewing, and also fought through the frigid cold to snap a blurry shot of the famed Fargo Theater marquee.  Here’s a better one, compliments of Google.

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The next day I delivered the speech again, and I can say that it went pretty well.  It started strong, but felt like it grew a bit repetitive in the last ten minutes or so.  Still though, it was a strong showing, and something I could definitely feel good about.  Toastmasters encourages its members to record themselves so that they can listen back after the fact and critique themselves.  I went ahead and did that, and have also uploaded that here for your listening pleasure.  I assure you, it is not the most gripping of content, but if you’ve got 40 minutes and nothing better to do, here you are.

After the work was done, I joined some of the other speakers for a beer before they dropped me back off at the hotel.  Just across from my lodging was an airplane museum that had caught my eye the day before.  I’m always curious, and such places are great for rounding out a trip.  Of course I was in North Dakota for work, but I always approach these opportunities with the mentality of a traveler as well.  For such a place as Fargo, I was genuinely impressed with the quality of the collection.  Overall, it was a great trip, and another great opportunity to grow my experience and capabilities.  I must also add that it inspired May and I to watch Fargo, the movie.

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Business Tripping: The Mohegan Sun & New Haven, CT

Once again, I was given the opportunity to man a booth, and this time it was for the World Baseball & Softball Coaches’ Convention being held in the podunk of Uncasville, CT.  There isn’t a great deal going on in the area, but the show was being held at the impressive Mohegan Sun Casino.  I would have volunteered to go anywhere the company asked, but this one genuinely seemed like it would be a good trip.  The show ran Thursday to Saturday, leaving the door open for an extra day of exploration on Sunday.

I arrived into Hartford on Thursday morning, and took a rental car to the casino. The small towns and old homes I was passing though had a distinctly New England charm to them, though the casino was anything but quaint.  After parking up, I had a long walk through the various gambling floors and past all the shops before I could get checked in and off to set up the exhibition space.  We were upgraded to a booth twice the expected size.
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There were a few hours that first evening spent chatting with attendees, and then it was time to stroll around the casino and grab dinner with Aaron and Amy, a distributor doing the show with me, along with his wife.  None of us were big gamblers so we just watched table games for a while.  They were eventually bit by the bug and decided to make a sacrifice to the penny slots.  For dinner we went to Michael Jordan’s 23.Sportscafe, where I got a delicious burger, and the beer that I frankly deserved.  One of my early impressions of the Mohegan was that it was a sort of geriatric Disneyland.  There were plenty of old, overweight folks scootering about on their Hoverounds, parking up at slot machines, and then spending hours dumping their children’s inheritance down the toilet.  This certainly wasn’t the same crowd as Vegas…

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All Friday was spent at the booth.  We talked to lots of people, and it was a good investment, but I’ll just skip to where we patrol the tables.  Our game that night was Roulette, and my mind was filled with fantasies of undeserved riches, and what I would be doing with them.  Reality came quickly though as I failed to hit on both spins, leaving me out 20 dollars.  Oh, for shame.  My companions got in next and walked away with 100 dollars between them…I guess I was doing something wrong?

We took a stroll into the high stakes section to see the real ballers, and were not disappointed.  I watched a gentleman drop 5K on the Roulette table…and lose it all.  These were tough moments, but in the next turn he hit it huge and took in some 15K.  For every spin he had thousands and thousands out on the board.  It seems crazy, but unbeknownst to me was whether that amount is peanuts to him, or if he does in fact have a serious problem.  It was entertaining either way.  I thought that they pulled off the Native American decor in a modern and uncheesy way.
MoheganfloorThe show was great and spawned numerous leads, but by Saturday afternoon I was pretty ready to get myself out of there.  Fortunately I had a rental car and an extra day to play with, so my first stop was the quaint seaport of Mystic.  I arrived as shadows were drawing long but with enough twilight left to check out some shops and take a few pictures.  With a bit of time on hand, I hunkered down at Bartleby’s to enjoy some ‘Fine Coffees & Teas’, and also a muffin.  My phone’s camera is rubbish but something so photogenic doesn’t take much to capture well.  This place was exactly what I would have expected from New England.
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The next stage of my weekend involved a night spent in New Haven with a Couchsurfing host.  The thought was that if I had to come all the way out to CT, I may as well add a little something more to round out my experience.  From Mystic I had to burn three hours before meeting my host, so I took the slower, meandering Route 1 and hugged the shoreline as closely as possible.  It was of course dark, but I could still appreciate the coastline.

Based on his online profile I knew that my host had an interest in bourbon, but I was actually blown away by his passion for it.  Not only could he talk in detail about the different flavors and production methods, but he had a collection that impressed on a basis of both quantity and quality.  Many of these bottles ran in the hundreds of dollars, with the Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year worth something over 1000.

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A buddy of his was celebrating a birthday, so after tippling a bourbon we set out to meet some people at Karaoke Heros.  As the name suggested, this bar involved public display of song, and was actually packed out.  I left the singing to the pros though since Japan has left me most comfortable singing in a box.  After a bit the lights came up, the taps ran dry, and people were heading home.  My host however insisted on some aerial maneuvers.  You can see that I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, but his sound reasoning must have won me over in the end.

The next day he cooked up a solid breakfast before we set out to stroll the Yale campus in the rain.  New Haven was America’s first city to feature urban planning, and the university sat squarely on a few of the city blocks.  All of the stone buildings really gave it that Ivy League feel.  We made a stop at the Yale art museum, which was free, and featured an impressive collection.  There were some Picassos, Reubens, and Rothkos, among many others.

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My last stop of the trip was to an establishment with the creatively generic name of ‘BAR’, which is known for their pizza.  We met a friend of his there and split a ‘medium’ mashed potato and bacon pizza.  It was cooked in a stone oven and then brought out to us on a large baking sheet.  The enormous size meant they can’t even place it on the table, but instead set up a sort of luggage stand next to it.  This was a new flavor combination, but I was told that it’s the crowd favorite.  I approved.  From there I packed up and made the drive back to the airport.  This extra night in New Haven was great, and helped to make my first visit to the state a memorable one.

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はるばるの手紙だ! – Letters From Afar!

This recent holiday season I decided to be an adult and send Christmas cards to friends and family.  I recycled spoilage that I had siphoned way back during my print shop days and stashed in my room, only to be unearthed some 8 years later.  There are a whole lot more of them remaining, so perhaps you too can look forward to one of these lovely cat hate crime cards in 2015.

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Now that I’ve got myself a real address, I’ve been fortunate enough find a few notes in my letterbox as well.  Old fashioned as it may be, there is no modern day replacement for that satisfaction felt for getting something personal in the mail.  I appreciate everything that comes in of course, but perhaps the most exciting were those that came in from students and friends in Japan.  Perhaps because it furthered the illusion that I still mattered to people over there…  This first set came from the Nakai family, my awesome landlords of three years, along with letters from their daughters and a picture taken on a recent trip.

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The other two letters to come in from Japan were crafted by the students of Kaminishi Elementary School.  These remaining four (yes, four) students, just finished their final semester in that mountain school before it was officially closed down.  While the opportunity to play and learn among all of Shionoe’s other kids is great for them, it does feel like the end of an era – teaching at that school was just so refreshingly different than the others.  There were lots of good feels from being remembered by them despite being well over a year returned from Japan.  First were the two younger students.

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There were a bunch of pictures showcasing some of the recent student endeavors enclosed, but one of my favorites was this group shot, featuring all members of the school staff and student body too.  They were just in the planning stages of that mosaic when I left.  I got to know all of these people pretty well.

TeamKaminishiThe two older students slipped in a bit of English, which I suppose brought some merit to my time spent there.  One of my 2015 goals is to write a letter each week, and I’m sure that I’ll be crafting them responses in the coming months.

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Business Tripping: Dallas & Fort Worth, TX

For the first time in a while, I was given the opportunity to visit somewhere new on behalf of work.  I would be hopping over both to Dallas, and Texas, for the first time.  My obligations were actually in the nearby Fort Worth, but I flew in a day early for the chance to walk around and see some of both.  The flight arrived without issue, and then a short cab ride had me at the Wild Wild West Backpacker’s Hostel, in the suburb of Irving.  There was only one other guy staying there, but the place was actually pretty decent. Once checked in, I was only up for getting some grub and to relax.  I wasn’t feeling 100% for some reason, and didn’t mind the opportunity to sit down and catch up on life.  Here’s the inside of the place.

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Irving isn’t much of a tourist draw, but it had personality.  I was struck by the sprawling ranch homes – almost nothing went above a single story.  For food I walked a short way down the road to El Jefe’s Cocina Mexicana for some authentic Tex Mex.  Judging by the quaint appearance and maximum occupancy of 12, this was going to be legit.  I scanned the menu and assessed the depths of my hunger before inevitably caving to an enormous burrito. When I travel anywhere, these are the sorts of restaurants that always lure me in.

20141214_140118After waking rested and well the following day, I walked a few blocks over to the train station to get myself time in Dallas.  After alighting I was approached by another tourist for directions.  I fessed up to knowing nothing myself, so we set out together.  Food was first, so we sat down at a Corner Bakery where I brunched and learned a little bit more about my companion.  He had just come from the UK to take part in a world grappling competition, which he had in fact won [for his age group].  Hard to believe he was 42, but here he is atop the podium.

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We walked around a bit but time was short and The 6th Floor Museum was our primary objective.  This of course is all about the JFK assassination.  I’ll admit to knowing little more than that Dallas was home the the assassination, and Lee Harvey Oswald the shooter.  There was a lot of potential to learn nothing new about this major piece of American history.  The bullets were fired from the 6th floor, corner window into the motorcade traffic below.

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The museum was informative, and actually located on the same 6th floor, in the same building where LHO made the fatal shots.  It was a bit eerie looking out the same windows, with the same view as the man who assassinated a president.  News to me was that JFK was actually the fourth US president to be assassinated – roughly 9% of those to ever hold the office.  The continuation of the debacle, where Oswald was shot point blank by some vigilante club owner from Chicago was all new to me.  Towards the end of the exhibit was information on the various conspiracy theories abounding over this case.  The two of us shuffled through the gift shop, where he picked up a novelty newspaper running the headline.  I thought it a bit crass for them to be selling ‘The Game of LIFE’…

20141215_120626From there we parted ways so that I could to Fort Worth, where duties awaited me.  I only needed to set up the booth at the Omni by the morning, which didn’t take much time.  The plan for the remainder of the evening was to locate a Texan feast, sip a local brew, and then pass out in my enormous bed.  After walking a few blocks into town to the concierge’s recommended spot, I gorged on the best beef brisket ever, and quaffed an average lager.

20141215_184226The next morning I made a few finishing touches to the booth and waited for my flocks to come.  What I’ll say is that we sell a number of a great, established products which are well known and used in the sports and turfgrass industries.  This makes the process of wrangling people in to go over things and explain new products a whole lot easier – no snake oil necessary.  Fast-forwarding a couple days, I can say that the show was both a complete success and fantastic opportunity for me to get out and prove my worth to my overlords.

20141216_095313That last night before going home, I walked back into town to check out a show happening at the Jazz Lounge I spotted earlier.  To get in, I had to walk down a dark alley to a neon-clad marquee and pass through a door which opened directly to an elevator that took me down to the basement.  The secluded entrance, and cigarette smoke wafting inside really gave this the quintessential lounge feel that I had hoped for.

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The music started and I was impressed.   With Big Sexy on the drums, a 7 string bass, awesome guitar playing, and strong saxophone lead, they cobbled together a fantastic sound.  What amazed me was that entrance was free when the level of musicianship was so high, and also that there weren’t more people there enjoying it.  For a rainy evening spent alone in Texas, this one turned out quite alright.  My flight home the next day was in no way exciting, but I was able to meet friend Ian Hudson at the airport.
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Jamaica: Montego Bay & Ocho Rios

After a full eight months of rotting away stateside without any opportunity to explore on an international level, I felt like my travel-tuned mind was growing soft from neglect.  There were several signs that I was in need of a tuneup: I failed as a vexillonaire to some country’s flags flying in downtown Chicago, and was also unable to name Chad’s capital in during team trivia.  This was just unacceptable.  I looked at my travel map and decided that a complete lack of Caribbean exploration merited an excursion.  Jamaica seemed like it would have a distinctive character and so the decision was made.  I must admit that as I write this, I’m nearly 4 months returned from the trip.  I’m sure that some details I often capture have been lost, but this steeping process will ensure that those most profound will be brought to light.

For this trip, I was able to lure friend Nick VanderHovel away from his Michigan life to come on down and try something different, and I certainly give him credit for booking a flight despite the lack of concrete details.  This is just how I tend to travel, and it can be far from what others are comfortable with.  Nick turned the reins over to me, with his only demand being ‘that we not get stabbed’.  Jamaica has one of the highest homicide rates in the world though, so there was only so much I could guarantee.

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Our adventure began at the Montego Bay airport where our separate flights came in on time.  With a little local currency in our pockets, we marched through the salvo of taxi drivers, and opted to go for a bit of a walk.  We weren’t going to be on as cheap a budget as I subjected myself to on other trips, but we were certainly going to avoid the obvious rorts.  And the walk wasn’t bad either: we grabbed some disgusting stout beers, traced along the shore, and found ourselves locals wanting to take advantage of us in no time at all.  In the end they did a bit, but I hadn’t fully acclimated to the Jamaican tourist environment and wasn’t quite on my normal guard.  It took me very little time to realize that similar to other countries, many people are disingenuous crapmongers, just looking to get their piece.  After thickening our skin, hardening our hearts, and honing our ripoff alarms, the rest of the trip carried on pretty well.  Here you can see the Montego Bay coastline, as well as the vacant husk of a Burger King.

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Our initial impressions were that this place was rough.  A handful of resorts dotted the shore, but the absolute lack of Montego Bay charm would make any extended stay here truly a disappointment.  After walking all the way to the taxi depot, escorted much of the way by some hucksters, we rode up to our pension.  I had been talking up the hostel atmosphere to Nick as a sort of oasis in places like these, but honestly, this one did not deliver.  We were relieved enough to at least see some fellow foreigners staying there, though it appeared all would be leaving the next day.  We unloaded our things and set out on a little walk.  We were both starving, and the first meal we ate was goat curry, which while bony was rich in flavor.  Nick was not of the same mind on the quality of the cuisine.  This area looked better from a distance.

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The rest of that day was spent getting ourselves established.  We needed to walk a fair distance to the hospital to make use of the ATM, exchange our US dollars at rates far better than those offered at the airport, and stop at the store for something more to eat.  Nick had no doubts about his shopping list.

IMG_3416This was about all the excitement to be had this day, except for a few drinks in the evening.  The hostel closed down and we were basically locked in there, with just one other guest.  At first she seemed normal, even interesting I might say, but as we listened further her presence became neigh unbearable.  I’ll first of all state that these feelings took a while to appear, but she did indeed become comic relief.  Imagine how much you would enjoy spending time with someone who talks constantly of being vegan (but takes no issue with fish), had to modify every single thing she orders, is cheap beyond belief (letting mere cents affect her decisions), talks of refusing to tip in the US, complains constantly about anything and is always argumentative, refuses to come in contact with cold water (including the patently un-cold ocean, neglects taking showers for days when the water wouldn’t get warm enough, is completely unappreciative of financial or physical assistance (and yet expecting of it), complains that despite her Jamaican descent everyone identifies her has a foreigner (as if the fanny pack she wore didn’t calcify that label), was intent on getting tanned (despite caking on a thick layer of SPF 55 ever 5 minutes), and takes offense at the numerous people asking why her face was looking white (which again, was attributed to the absurd amount of sunblock).  There is no vignette that can be painted to show just how we loathed this individual, but I thought it necessary to at least take a moment and make sure to capture the ire that emerged from our time together.  The one nice thing about her was a willingness to share, that is all I’ll give her.

Before developing this knowledge of her nature, we agreed to go to the beach together.  She wanted to go to a local spot which sounded good to us – why pay to hang out with the people I had just gotten away from?  It was a little bit overcast, but still plenty sunny enough to give us a healthy dose of color.  Nick had a tan line by the time we got there beach.  I was the only one to swim, and the water was fantastic.  A while later we returned to the hostel where some locals were gathering to listen to music and play dominoes.  I fancy myself a sporting man, and despite their challenge that we wouldn’t stand a chance, managed to take the first few rounds.  It was a bit different from the Mexican Train that I’m used to, but wasn’t too confusing.  Nick was not taking my superiority in stride.

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The next morning, we cleaned up our mess, took a last shower, and then ‘checked out’.  There were no employees, so this just meant leaving.  Nick had allegedly promised to carry the scourge’s bag, well before he realized how heavy it was, or how far we would be going.  We were all sweat bombs by the time we arrived to the minibus depot.  We located a ride going to Ocho Rios, and ended up paying a couple extra dollars to avoid shoving another sweaty, disgusting body in that cramped back seat with us.  She would go on to neither pay Nick[el]back, or even thank him for hauling the suitcase all the way there, which really marked the beginning of the end of our patience with her.  Yeah, we got some color.

IMG_3437smallThe merits of travelling in a smaller country were quickly obvious as it only took an hour or so to get to our next destination, quite unlike the 40 hour bus Neil and I took in Argentina.  The road traced the ocean and offered some lovely views of cerulean waters, beaches, palms, and the occasional blight.  We were overjoyed to have MoBay behind us, because it offered so little..

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We arrived and fought through the ‘generosity’ of people willing to help (for tips, of course), and eventually made our way to our next hostel.  We both breathed a sigh of relief, seeing that it was actually a nice place.  This place was so much more like what I had been describing to Nick: things were nice, it was a bit more developed, the hostel was located on the beach, had open air rooftop bar, decent accommodations and, most importantly, other people with whom to mingle.  Once checked in, the first order of business was to find food.  My travel companion was not loving the local cuisine so far, and fair enough goat isn’t for everyone, but we decided that some of Jamaican’s signature Jerk Chicken could perhaps turn his heart.  Right we were, this was delicious.

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Back at the hostel we started to formulate a plan.  As always, this trip was being planned just a day or two at a time, but with a lot more people to gather intel from, we came up with a good idea of how to spend our remaining days.  One of the tourist traps here is Dunn’s River Falls, not that it’s a bad spot, but everyone described it as over hyped.  They unanimously suggested that we get ourselves over to the Blue Hole instead, since it offered all the same atmosphere as Dunn’s, but without all the other tourists, and a great deal more adventure.  We banded together with some others, hopped in a van, and took off.  We were able to leave ‘her’ behind, as she was defeated by the ‘cold water’ and ‘expensive’ cab.  I assure you, both were extremely reasonable.  The ride took us up into the jungle a bit before we reached a clearing with some locals ready to take care of us.  For about 10 USD each we had an afternoon filled with excitement, our own personal guide, and plenty of good memories.  This was the first basin we came to, and it was was a perfect remedy for the heat and humidity.  I was ever the acrobat.

IMG_3464After a bit of merriment around the rope swings, our guide took us further up the river, stopping at all the good spots along the way.  We were clearly down for anything, so he made sure we got the full tour.  This included jumping off a high ledge out from the jungle foliage and into a pool far below.  I went for it with little hesitation.  I should add that our guide was clearly just having a great time with us, and the number of times I heard him say ‘yaa maaaan’ was unbelievable.  He gave us a little Patois performance as well.

Some other stops included more rope swings, a waterfall we were able to run down and spelunk behind, and plenty more places from which to jump.  Our guide had clearly done this before and at one point climbed a tree to reach branches high above a pool.  Leaping from the branch he was standing on, he grabbed a smaller one, built momentum by swinging, and then did a perfect flip and dive into the pool far below.  We were all very impressed, though, I was indeed disappointed when they wouldn’t let me try…I guess the last white guy to attempt it punctured his eardrum…bush league.  While this photo doesn’t particularly exhibit the beauty of the spot, it was a trip favorite and needed to make an appearance in my write-up.

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We working our way back to the start, and relaxed a bit while the afternoon passed us by.  Our guide, deciding that he was hungry, eyed a few breadfruit hanging from a tree high above.  Being the beast that he was, simply bear-climbed a tree to knock a few of them down.  These green balls are not what one would generally consider food at first glance, but he assured us it was a true Jamaican dish.  To have it freshly harvested and cooked before us made for a truly authentic experience.  These are cooked by tossing them into a fire until they’ve taken on a deep carcinogenic black.  Once cool enough to handle, the char is cut off, giant pit removed, and then the yellow flesh portioned out in banana leaves.  It had a dense, spongy consistency with just a hint of sweetness.  It wasn’t something that I needed to eat a great deal of, but it wasn’t bad either.IMG_3544 IMG_3546 IMG_3547 IMG_3551

That evening, back at our hostel, we spent much of the night on the roof with the other guests.  It was good fun listening to music, enjoying some of the local rum, and also the comfortable temperatures.  As the night wore on people retired to bed, and soon it was just us two and a security guard.  We were really feeling the pangs of hunger, and with KFC tempting us from just across the street we had no other option.  We indulged in 30 dollars worth of glorious fried chicken, which we devoured with help of our new-found security guard pal.  The bunk room was too hot for comfortable sleeping though, so I relocated to an outdoor hammock, and Nick to a nearby picnic table.

IMG_3458Before leaving this town, we checked out a nice Indian restaurant.  I know it would make sense to eat more local food during our relatively short stay, but this was what sounded good.  We ate just as the restaurant opened and were the only two in there, and the food was great.  There was some sticker shock, at least compared to the prices of the other food available, but we were awash in gaiety.  After dinner we packed up, begrudgingly exchanged contact details with the girl, and departed on the next stage of our trip.
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