Posted by: escapethecube | May 29, 2009

Catch Up! Yes, I´m Still Alive.

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Post by Allen Burt
Well, it has been over a month since we last posted to the blog. Things have been shaken up on the RTW front since then and it´s about time to catch everyone up.

I apologize for the lack of postings, but the departure of Nick, the LibraryForLaos.org campaign, and myself focusing on writing a few articles for the online travel magazine Matador (see first published article here) have forced the blog to the back burner.

After the great Cambodian adventure, the three amigos parted ways. Nick to meet his girlfriend for a couple weeks in Thailand before making his way back to the States, Mike back to his cubical and unlimited supply of American food, and myself to continue the traveling adventure around the world . . . SOLO.

Solo travel is an interesting experience. While completely on your own, you are never alone. New friends are made and travel companionships are created over a few beers after a long bus ride or after trading travel stories in a hostel dorm room. Friendships are many, although short lived. It has been an interesting and exciting experience.

There is no possible way for me to go into detail about my trip since Cambodia. Therefore, I will just give you the bullet pointed highlights!

Thailand
-My 25th Birthday Celebration in Bangkok
-Kiteboarding Lessons in Southern Thailand
-Traditional Thai Cooking Class and Adobe House Building in North Thailand

Laos
-Dining on French fair along the Mekong in Vientiene
-River tubing and hiking in Vang Vieng
-New Years Celebration in Luang Prabang (country wide water fight)
-Launch of LibraryForLaos.org (funded 6 village reading programs!)
– Mountain biking through rural northern villages along the China/Laos border

China
-Travel along the Tibet border (illegally) in West Sichuan
– Hiking the Great Wall of China near Beijing
– Mountain biking in Jangshou, Southern China
– Dinning on Dim Sum in Hong Kong

After surprising my girlfriend, Jess, in NYC a week ago, we departed for Buenos Aires Argentina for a week of fantastic wine, massive steaks, and sight seeing.

Back on the road solo again, I am currently in Buenos Aires awaiting my flight to Tierra Del Fuego . . . ´´the end of the earth´´ as they call it. It is the southern most point in South America, and the world after Antarctica!

I will be working my way north along the Andes in Patagonia (in the middle of winter. . . should be interesting) for the next two weeks before meeting Allen Penn for my final couple weeks of RTW travel.

The countdown has begun, only one month until I´m back stateside – unemployed and broke!

A new picture Album is up! The rest of the pictures should be uploaded soon (once I find my camera cord!).
New Albums

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Posted by: escapethecube | April 28, 2009

Give a Poor Child the Gift of Reading – LibraryForLaos.org

Post by Allen Burt

Fund Raiser for Children’s Books in Laos – Monday, April 27 – Friday, May 1!

LibraryForLaos.org

In an effort to be “responsible travelers,” before leaving on this round the world adventure we incorporated a non-profit (Socioeconomic Ventures Inc.) with the purpose of advocating charitable causes we encountered while on the road.

FINALLY we are excited to announce the launch of LibraryForLaos.org – a 5 day ONLINE blitz fund raising campaign to support literacy in northern Laos!

In collaboration with the Laos charity Big Brother Mouse, we are striving for $5,000 to support reading programs and book purchases in rural villages in Laos. As a non-profit publisher of children’s books in the native Laos language, Big Brother Mouse has been recognized by both the World Bank and the Clinton Global Inititive for its work to improve literacy in Laos.mouse

Having made my way up into northern Laos over the past week, I´ve had the opportunity to meet with the staff and founders of Big Brother Mouse. They are an intrepid group of volunteers dedicated to providing enjoyable books to the masses of rural and impoverished children in Laos. I will be accompanying the staff of Big Brother Mouse on local reading programs to show all contributors to LibraryForLaos.org how their donations will be used!

We would appreciate any contributions to the campaign! However, if you can not donate, PLEASE HELP US SPREAD THE WORD! You can visit us at www.LibraryForLaos.org for information and tools on how to get the word out!

In 5 days, let’s raise $5k. It only takes 5 minutes. Make a difference. .

Posted by: escapethecube | April 15, 2009

The Great Cambodian Adventure

Sunrise of Angkor Wat

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

This is a guest post [dictated but not read] by our good friend, confidant, and general sage Michael Berner; a travel buddy who lacked the chutzpah (read: cash) to make the RTW leap.

Pack Rat Syndrome and Bangkok [Actually] Dangerous

5 minutes into a 12 hour flight to Tokyo, cordial seatmate introductions have been made, casual conversations re: jobs, economy, reason for travel ensue, and no sooner than that 6th minute, still in conversation, I find myself searching the plane like a NY rat scouring for scraps. That’s right friends, Pack Rat Syndrome (PSS) has set in. A few minutes ago I lived a comfortable life with all the Western amenities I could ask for. Now I find myself eyeing suspiciously and with intent the blanket gift wrapped (saran wrapped) for the flight, noting that this would make great ground cover for a night slept on the concrete parking lot in the Suvarnabhumi airport. The lifeless pillow turns into the saving grace on a 10 hour bus ride to the Cambodian ‘Wild Wild East’ county of Montilkiri. The crackers become the pour mans Antacid, when the third bowl of Cartilage soup doesn’t quite settle with your unaccustomed stomach. I think your getting the idea. Needless to say I packed on a couple KG’s of items that may come into use on my two week journey through Cambodia.

Guard at the Royal Palace

Guard at the Royal Palace

I arrived in Bangkok, the city of Angels, technically called Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasi (Look it up, it’s in the Guinness book of World Records) 22 hours later. This is a thriving city, a popular starting off point for those craving the “seclusion” of the Phuket from Leo’s film The Beach (no more my friends). From the moment I landed I felt like I was going to be mugged…maybe it was me brushing off the rust from a 2 year travel hiatus, maybe it as the inherent danger of that city. Let’s just say I came out unscathed, faring better than certain friends I know. I will say the backpacker strip of Khao San is a sight to see (and to overindulge in)…but I digress.

Shirtless pushups and a Tragedy not to be Forgotten

Phnum Penh isn’t a conventionally pretty city, to that fact; it’s not even that unconventionally pretty.  It can be summed up as “a lot of things are going on here”.  Let me explain.  I arrived in Phnum Penh the morning of Sunday, March 8.  Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I hopped my first Tuk Tuk where I promptly felt like an out of place tourist taking a carriage ride in the middle of the day by myself.  That quickly faded as I realized this city is overrun (literally) with Tuk Tuk’s and scooters and random cows and kids and a complete and utter lack of organized traffic patterns (more on that later).

15 minutes later I pull up to Guest House #11 (or was it #9, or #10 . .. we stayed at all 3 over the course of the trip, each slightly less

Guest House View in Phrnum Penh

Guest House View in Phrnum Penh

comfortable than the prior).  I was greeted graciously by the staff who marked me immediately as the third roommate.  We walked down the long, narrow corridor, and my kind friend decided to show me to the room first.  Now let me preface this with the fact that I have not seen Nick or Allen in months . . .our only form of communication in planning this trip was quick short emails once in a while (Destination: Cambodia was initially Destination: Tanzania, Destination: Nepal, Destination: Cashmere, Destination: wherever Nick and Allen happened to be).  Either way, I was excited to see my friends.  What I was not excited about is walking into our small room, only to find it 90 degrees and Ron, shirtless on the ground doing pushups.  Three pushups later, Ron finally realized I was standing there and graciously cut his workout short.  In search of Nick, we find him completely zoned out watching some pirated movie amongst a quality selection of  the world’s finest drug induced hippies (Nick was not, might I add), each person’s dreads longer and mangier than the next’s. We decide to find a bar and catch up.

(Change of Grammatical Person)

Beers and noodles ensue, noodles and beer continue and we find ourselves thoroughly enjoying yet not fully remembering our first night (as a group mind you, Nick and Allen had been there two days prior).  We awake with an adventurous spirit yet lacking the full capacity to fulfill our plans. Nevertheless we head for the Royal Palace. In typical fashion, we spend no less than 30 seconds enjoying the palace (from outside the gates, and for one rea$on or another, we decided again$t entering).  We should note the stark contrast between the utter poverty throughout the 3 million population in Phnum Penh compared to the utter opulence of the Royal Palace and surrounding residences is eye opening.  There clearly is a disparity between the rich (often corrupt) and poor that we truly have never seen before.

S21 Prison

Removing ourselves from the grandiose, we decide to head to more sights, in particular S21 and the Killing Fields. For those unfamiliar,
the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979 killed nearly 21% of the population; led by the ruthless and utterly heartless Pol Pot (Brother #1 of the Khmer Rouge). S21 was locally known as konlaenh choul min dael chenh – “the place where people go in but never come out”, a former high school turned torture den where 17,000 entered, but only a handful ever left.  A somber experience.  We followed this with the Killing Fields, a mass murder site for the Khmer Rouge, where those not conforming to the insanely rigid policies of Pol Pot were led to their death.  If you have not seen it yet, we recommend watching the movie The Killing Fields.

The Police Escort and The Crash Heard ‘Round Cambodia

After partaking in most of what Phnum Penh has to offer, it was time to get a move on.  Now if you know us at all, you understand that this does not involved jumping on a tour bus, taking a nice, cushy trip around the country.  In order to add a little spice to this trip, we opted for a more unconventional method of getting around: Dirt Bikes. Sounds great, but the one kink in the idea is that Nick and Allen have never driven Manual 2-wheeled vehicles; the only experience we’ve had with Allen on two wheels involve a crash in Santorini that nearly got him run over/killed. So before we headed cross country, we opted for a few hours of training.

The National Sports Complex, best known for being built for the ‘All Asian Games’ which never happened, proved to be a fine place for Nick and Allen to learn. Little did we know, Cambodian Military Police had the exact same idea (although they were training to guards foreign dignitaries and we were training to not crash – didn’t work). We’ll tell you that 3 hours later, a burnt-to-the-ground clutch, and slightly bruised yet somehow more confident ego’s, we were ready to hit the road.

We left on our first trek, desperate to leave Phnum Penh and thankful to have done so alive. Traffic in that city is unlike any you could possible imagine:

Drivers Quiz: Your going 86km and your only familiar with mph, you are behind a motorbike with 50 chickens dangling off the side, a group of cows is 200 m head crossing the road, 400 M ahead there are 3 trucks oncoming, one Camry passing and 30 scooters on both sides of the road, 10 of which are housing squealing pigs, 3 of which have king size beds on the back, and all but 1 contain 3+ people each. It’s a dirt road with no distinguishing dividing lines, 3 kids are awkwardly close to running across the street and your blinker doesn’t work. You need to pass for no other reason than to hit 90km . . . what do you do!?

That scenario was our life every minute. You could not imagine more stressful yet simultaneously exhilarating driving, where every time you passed a car/moto/cow, you put your life at the mercy of your 2-wheeled skills and the ability for others to get the hell outta your way!

Look at those Hogs!

Look at those Hogs!

This continued as is for an hour and half. Our second pit stop was at a beautiful Buddhist Temple in a non descript town. Allen and Mike stopped first, followed soon thereafter by Nick. By all accounts Nick looked pretty badass. He pulled up rocking his motorcycle, skid to a slick stop, and then once he hit the deadly speed of 0 km, promptly fell over. Yep friends, it was graceful. Nick fell right over. He was ok and all, but his bike incurred the first of what would be many breaks. ..Nick broke his clutch. At this point we thought we were screwed. We were in a small town that spoke no English, 2 hours outside of Phnum Penh, with a repair that could quite possibly require a fancy big city mechanic (how little we knew). We walk our bikes into the town, and find the mechanic by walking up to various locals, clutch in hand, pointing back and forth between the clutch, our bikes, then made a defeated smile and shrugged our shoulders. Our clear proficiency in linguistic interpretations led us straight to the town mechanic (after 5 previous stops). No joke, in 5 minutes, Nicks clutch was fixed, we had a crowd of no less than 50 locals surrounding us (poking and prodding included), and after paying $5 for parts and labor, we are as good as new and on our way.

Now I would love to say that this was our only incident on the trip out East. Nevertheless, I cannot. 3 hours outside of the capital, and 2 hours from our destination lays a waterfall 5 clicks off the beaten track. A dirt road that meanders through tiny villages and thick

Burt's Road Rash

Burt's Road Rash

forests. Mike thoroughly enjoyed this section, taking advantage of the off-road adventure and the fact that dirt inherently causes the bike to slide (a fact he probably should have conveyed during his training session hours earlier). After a decently tricky bit, Mike and Nick looked in their rear view mirrors and saw a cloud of dust and a group of locals running towards Allen. Bringing their bikes around, they pull up and find Allen sufficiently dazed, thoroughly dirty, and beginning to bleed from shoulder to foot. He touches his appendages to make sure none are broken, and fortunately all are intact. After we confirm that his only injury is a bruised ego and some decent road rash, we start to find the situation pretty funny. Allen has every local woman trying to rub all types of foreign ointments on him, attempting to clean up his blood stained cloths and wipe the mud from his body. This goes on for about 10 minutes as Allen repeatedly tries to tell these locals in English (they don’t speak it), that he doesn’t need their creams and in fact will be just fine. We bow, they bow, they laugh, at us, and we thank god that Allen’s bike starts up.

Koh Rung but it Feels Koh Right

Out dirt bike trip was taking us to the west coast of Cambodia to Sihanoukville, a place of white sand beaches and untouched tropical islands. After 4 days in Phnum Penh, the idea of some beach time and, well, frankly no Phnum Penh was incentive enough for us to push through the last hundred km. We pulled up to Sihanoukville, and itching for some western comforts, stayed at the Monkey Republic, a place owed by 4 Brits and populated by no less than 30 likeminded and equally white individuals. While the first 30 minutes were fun, we promptly realized that this town was not for us.

Overrun with tourists and Westerners, this town lacks the beauty and isolation we were hoping for. What didn’t on the other hand was a supposed beautiful island 2 hours off the coast called Koh Rung Samloem. After an hour or two we were confirmed on a boat that would take us there, us and 6 others intrepid travelers.

View from our Koh Rung Bungalow

View from our Koh Rung Bungalow

We pull up and our jaws drop…this place is sheer beauty. Secluded and occupied solely by a lighthouse and 10 bungalows, we’ve finally found a place we were happy to waste a few days in. 10km long, Koh Run Samloem is occupied by no more than 200 people at any given time, 90% of which live on the secluded northern tip in a small local fishing village accessible only by boat. We spend the next two days hiking through the jungle to untouched beaches, making up beach games that would make any man envious (ex. Float a Frisbee upside down in the water, throw sand in the Frisbee, Frisbee sinks, start again). We read and we relax and we thoroughly enjoy 90 degree weather where your only responsibility is remembering to jump in the ocean after your badminton game to get ready to play volleyball.

But all good things come to an end, and we decided that the adventure should continue. We left paradise with a plan to head back towards Phnum Penh, and then up to the town of Siem Reap and the mythical Temples of Angkor

Angkor WHAT! and the St. Patty’s Black Out (not what you think)

“Angkor Wat?” Fingers point. “Angkor Wat!?” Fingers point in the opposite direction. “Donde Esta Angkor Wat!?” Wrong language. Laughter then fingers point in a third direction. Its 3 am and we have just entered in the temples of Angkor, a complex built in 800AD, completed in 1432, and subsequently forgot about until the French “rediscovered” it in the 1860’s. We came there early as we’ve heard that the sunrise of Angkor Wat is in itself one of the wonders of the world. Problem is, we can’t see ANYTHING, there are no street lights, no directional signs, and nobody else around. Its pitch black, our bikes are low on gas, and for all we know we could be 10km from

This is what all the locals do at the Temple

This is what all the locals do at the Temple

the site. Now, as luck would have it we were actually standing directly outside of the massive temple complaining that we had no idea where we were…our mistake.

We cross the 200 m long bridge – no guards – and enter the temple – no guards. We continue unencumbered through the Temple and for a few minutes think we just broke in! High fives ensue until we notice our mistake when a group of German tourists walk in 5 minutes later led in tow by their “I’m too excited for 3am” tour guide.

We’ll start with this: the sunrise of Angkor Wat is a sight to see, and we’ll recommend it to anyone heading over to that region. On the other hand, the fact that everyone and their mother knows about it, plans for it, and has a red carpet laid for their viewing, makes it a little less satisfying. We were hoping for a challenge; make us work to see something so beautiful; where is the 4 day trek followed by 1,000 step hike like Macchu Picchu; why are we not heavily breathing on the verge of collapse? Frankly, we were out late last night enjoying the sights and sounds (Angkor/Anchor beer incl.), and the only hardship was the fact that we had to wake up early. While not to downplay the experience, there is something inherently gratifying and supremely satisfying about reaching a sight or point of interest by overcoming an obstacle or achieving a goal. Nevertheless, it did not stop us from putting our helmets on, our Cambodian scarves, and taking numerous pictures jumping and dancing around the temples.

That day was spent roaming through some of the most beautiful sights we have ever seen. This is when the dirt bike really paid off; we took the big circuit around Angkor (25km), and every km or so would stop at a temple and explore all it had to offer. Words don’t do it justice so we encourage you to take a look at our pictures.

[side bar] Allen and Mike were sore, probably from the 12 hour bike trip from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap, probably from our (read: Allen’s) crash, so we opted for a traditional Cambodian massage while in Siem Reap. What we didn’t opt in for was getting massages in the same room, on the floor, literally 2 feet from each other. Now this would be awkward in any situation; what made this particularly awkward, however, was the fact that getting a Cambodian massage is akin to getting beat up by a tiny women with powerful hands for an hour. We didn’t know we could be put in such awkward positions and hear so many things crack and pop, all in the name of relief. At some points it hurt so bad we had no other options but to start cracking up . . .we were paying for this and all ($5, though). But besides the pain, we left that massage room feeling absolutely amazing.

It was time to leave Siem Reap, and to our chagrin, we realized that our schedule would leave us sleeping in Phnum Penh for another night (something we always tried to avoid). We opted for a new yet ubiquitously similar hostel called the Capitol, this time in the downtown region. Now what made this day different is the fact that we would be celebrating St. Patrick ’s Day in Cambodia. We found the one Irish pub that the capital had to offer, and began the festivities. Now if you’re reading this blog and have ever met us, you understand that the 3 of us are obsessed with Guinness. Unfortunately, Guinness is probably the most expensive drink you can get in Cambodia. Instead, we opted for $1 Achor beers and the occasional Jameson Shot (each beer also came with Irish Stew, which we ate in abundance). All was well, the crowd was picking up, and conversation was lively. Right at the apex of the party, the circuit breaker gave and ALL the lights went out. In the States, this would equal frustration and anger by the patrons, in Cambodia, a flashlight comes on and the party continues. Electricity is so poor here and unbelievably expensive, that roaming blackouts like this are not uncommon, but rather a fact of life. But after making a few great friends, the party came to an end and our next journey would begin.

“Barry Goldstein Here. What Can I do you for?”

His excitement was palpable and frankly, quite noticeable. Barry Goldstein was in love (or maybe just in need or some action!). His advances, however, were thwarted time and again by Milli Meriweather, because much to Barry’s disappointment, Milli’s life partner Sarah was close behind.  Barry took this like any overly zealous young elephant male would, by coping a dejected feel every now and then hitting himself on the head with a coke can and tearing a tree out to showcase his strength. Yes, Barry was young and he had a lot to learn, but with time would learn to hit on straight female elephants (who were also not his sister, as it turns out Merri was-plot twist!). Yep, you got it folks, this is what happens when 3 guys sit around 3 elephants, with no supervision other that the 2 year old boy guarding the door to his hut. Our elephant trek was to begin and we’ve already built a back story worthy of at least half a season of CW Primetime.

From left to right; Milli Merriweather, Mike, Ron, Guide

From left to right; Milli Merriweather, Mike, Ron, Guide

A day earlier we were leaving Phnom Penh for Montilkiri province. The “Wild Wild East” as they call it, due to its remote location, it’s practically inaccessible roads, and the violent and politically unstable period it had just come out of. All that stood between us and the windswept rolling hills – evoking a strong resemblance to Wales in the summer and Tasmania in the winter (ripped from LP) – was a 10 hour bus ride.

The bikes were gone dear friends, as our bodies could not take the incredibly long and difficult trip needed in the short time we had left. The bus, however was a welcome relief, one we spent sleeping and reading; the 3 of us foreigners in the back and the 10 other locals up front, segregated still by our grade school habit of sitting In the “cool seats” (we finally made it after 25 years!!).

The road was fraught with obstacles as it literally was being built around us. The slightest rain caused a runoff that would delay traffic for hours due to flooding and in which turned the clay road to putty.


We arrived and noticed a group of backpackers wandering town, potential poachers for our hostel beds. In order to secure a spot at the Nature Lodge (a Swiss Family Robinson style Eco commune), Mike hailed a scooter, tossed the driver a buck, and sped off to get a bungalow. 2 km and a half hour later, Nick and Allen arrived as we settled in for what would be some of the most relaxing 2 days of our lives. But before the relaxation began, we needed to meet our friend Barry Goldstein.

The native tribesmen revere elephants, and have so for centuries. The animals are highly praised and equally taken care off. This isn’t Barnum and Bailey; these elephants MUST graze for 2 hours after every 2 of work. They can only work 20 days a month, and are given an all around good quality of life. We met the tribesman trough a local connection, and they were going to take us through the jungle to a remote waterfall for some cliff diving.

Note: elephant treks are cool, they make for a good story and a lasting memory. But, they are uncomfortable as all get out, and we will all probably avoid them in the future.

Nevertheless we trekked for 2 hours, with 2 grown man in a small basket on top. Every few yards the elephants would stop, grab a tree, and yank it out of the ground. “Why?” you ask. “Was this tree obstructing the trail?” No my friends, this was simply for fun, and we could find no other rhyme or reason for this act, let alone rationale for tree selection. But 2 hours later we appeared triumphantly to our destination, sore and excited to have an hour or two reprieve from the not so soothing wobble of Merri and Barry.

The next few hours were spent diving off waterfalls, enjoying our packed lunch and generally wondering if we were going to be left here to fend for ourselves (our elephants were gone and our guides were MIA). But worry aside they returned and we continued our journey home.

The following day was spent predominately in hammocks surrounded by animals and staring at the beautiful rolling hills, getting up only for meals and to find a new book as we were flying through our stocks.  It was needed and a nice way for the trip to wind down.

What lie ahead was a 10 hour car ride to the capital, a flight to Bangkok where we almost got in a fight as for the umpteenth time we had to tell every other person we were not interested in Massage Boom Boom or even Massage Bam Bam, and a departure that would leave Mike heading stateside, Nick to meet up with his girlfriend Cait, and Allen on a solo journey which was as yet undefined.

Bato Burt Bernie, tanks and all!

Bato Burt Bernie, tanks and all!

If you’ve read this far, congrats!! Perhaps not many have. This is but a small recap of the events of the Great Cambodian Adventure, in which the pictures will do it far more justice then stories ever would.

If you want to reach out, you know where to get a hold of Nick and Allen. For Mike, you can contact him at bernerms@gmail.com, twitter @michaelberner, and FB via the same name.

Posted by: escapethecube | April 6, 2009

Follow me on twitter . . .

twitter

Whelp, I finally gave in and signed up for twitter. A fellow traveler recommended it as a much easier way for friends and family to keep up with my minor travel stories that don’t make it on the blog.

Feel free to follow me at @allenburt!

boat-sunset

“Is that a human footprint?” as Nick pointed to an approximately sized 10 male footprint in the mud.

“Must be. But why were they following us, and why were they, um, barefoot?” I asked, closely examining the prints as they made their way along the muddy trail we had blazed into the jungle an hour earlier. We were now carefully retracing our steps, making our way out of the jungle, back to “civilization”. There were many locals in the village of Sakau, where we were staying, but contrary to our ill based and naive perceptions of Borneo’s wild northeast region, we had yet to see anyone tramp around the jungle barefoot.

“They disappear after 20 or so yards. Veering left, over there.” Nick pointed deeper into the jungle, away from the river we had been following. “That’s creepy.”

“I agree. Lets get out of here. Besides, I smell like elephant crap.”
_______________________________________
Per usual, we had flown into the the Malaysian region of Sabah, in Northeast Borneo on a whim. Tales of dense jungles, mighty orangutans (with the strength of 4 grown men), and nearly extinct indigenous pygmy elephants led us to the airport, cash in hand, to purchase a flight departing only an hour later.

Housing the tallest mountain in SE Asia, the number 3 top scuba diving location in the world, and the largest and most ecologically diverse river in Borneo, the Kinabatangan, the northeast region of Sabah is truly an adventurers’ paradise. Unfortunately, its reputation has caused most of its major cities to westernize their attractions – throwing up KFCs, Pizza Huts, and Burger Kings on every street corner. However, the tiny village of Sakau, nestled on the Kinabatangan river, is not one of these major cities.

Pygmy Elephant Footprint

Pygmy Elephant Footprint


The Jungle
It was in Sakau, that we found ourselves alone trudging shin deep in mud following a loose trail of elephant dung in the hopes of viewing a herd of the rarely seen and nearly extinct Borneo Pygmy Elephant. A venture that was eventually aborted after the trail of footprints and dung was lost and the leach count had entered into the teens. We had been accompanied into the jungle by a young British and Australian couple, who had met a year prior while she was on a guerrilla tracking tour in Uganda and he was the one doing the gorilla tracking, but had abandoned us after 30 minutes once his lighter fluid had run dry from burning off leaches. It was here, alone, that we ran into the mysterious footprints, later explained to us, belonging to an elderly orangutan. Usually thought of as tree swinging inhabitants, as orangutans get older they loose their ability to navigate in the trees and are forced to move by foot on the ground. Apparently one had decided to follow us along.

pic11

Later that day on a boat trip down the Kinabatangan, we got to see a few our ape cousins face to face. Two massive orangutans making nests in the trees above us (they build a new bed in a new tree every night), alongside swinging hordes of long tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys. Proboscis have easily become our new favorite fratnimal as their awkwardly shaped long noses and protruding bellies resemble the form of a grumpy old man after years of proper beer drinking. You can’t help but laugh every time you see one.

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Extreme Snorkeling
Finally making our way out of the jungle, we shot over to the far east coast of Borneo towards the island if Sipidan. Sipidan is touted as one of the top 3 scuba diving locations in the world! Due to restrictions by the Malaysian government, Sipidan limits the amount of divers per day and has no island accommodations. Therefore, most shack up on one of the nearby islands waiting for their turn to dive. We chose the island of Mabul, home to the infamous hostel, Uncle Chang’s. The island of Mabul is not much larger than two football fields, but its inhabitants have surrounded the island with mangled homes build on stilts far beyond the beaches edge. The entire area near Sipidan sits on a submerged shelf, keeping water depths around the islands very shallow.

pic-4
Our three days on Mabul included multiple snorkeling adventures around the island, watching the local children reel in fish for dinner with a line and coke bottle (twisting the line around the mid section of the bottle creating a makeshift fishing rod), and sipping illegally imported rum while listening to poor Malaysian cover bands. The employees of Uncle Chang’s are a roughed up group of Malaysians that give diving lessons by day and play hard rock by night. Being two of the only “snorkelers” on the island, we quickly became the joke of the local employees with our “extreme snorkeling” maneuvers, under water twists, and elaborate dismounts from the side of the boat. We offered to stick around and give snorkeling lessons, helping people gain their level 5 certifications in “extreme snorkeling”, but our offer was less than graciously declined.
stilts1

Finally on the third day, it was our turn for Sipidan. The morning began with treacherous thunder storms and threatening surf that put our small dive boat at the mercy of the sea for the 3 mile journey to the island. Once on site, there was no waiting around for the storm to clear. We strapped on our masks and flippers and went straight after it. Luckily after our first dive, the storms faded and the previously murky ocean cleared revealing all that Sipidan is cracked up to be. Elaborate corral reefs stretching for 100s of yards out surround the island, small white and gray tipped reef sharks swim ominously below, and six foot wide sea turtles move gracefully through the water – a kind of beauty we had never seen before.

On our second dive, we were dropped directly in the middle of a school of silver backed jack fish and barracuda. Thousands of fishing swirling around you. Once completely submerged, its like being dropped into the funnel of tornado – completely enclosed by a dense moving wall of glistening silver. An experience like no other!

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After Sipidan, it was on to Phnom Penh to meet Berner and pick up our motorcycles for a cross country adventure in Cambodia!

Note:
For those keeping close tabs, its clear that our blog is about a month behind reality. Do to slow internet and an unfortunate incident in Cambodia involving me, my laptop, and it getting stolen, we are a bit behind. We should be throwing up some rapid “catch-up” posts shortly to get back on track.

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We were like giddy school children on a field trip, giggling and snapping photos, as we boarded the 16 seater Twin Otter prop plane en route to Bario, Borneo. Based on nothing more than an online article recommendation and a strong urge for adventure, we walked up the stairs and crouched into our seats, ready for an exciting flight. After making friends with the pilots and the other locals on the plane, we watched the propellers lift us into the bright morning sky and over the oil palm plantations that cover seemingly all of northern Borneo. After a few shaky reminders that we were in a plane that was likely produced in the WWII era, we leveled off parallel with the “twin peaks” of the highlands and began our descent into Bario. After 50 minutes of the most exciting plane ride of my life, we landed on the lonely airstrip of Bario, deep within the Borneo jungle about 8 kilometers from the Indonesian border. We took our bags off of the plane and, not having any plans for lodging, agreed to stay at the “hiker’s lodge” whose price included all meals. Some things are predictable.

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Bario is a little-known town nestled deep within the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysian Borneo, accessible only by plane or helicopter, making it a relatively tourist-free zone. The corruption that the tourism industry brings has yet to reach Bario and we instantly fell in love with the hospitality of the people and natural beauty of the surrounding area. Our first full day began bright and early as we prepared to trek through the jungle to the village of Pa Lungan. We had met our guide, Joshua, the evening prior and been impressed by his friendly demeanor, knowledge of local trails, and the size of his calves. The man has clearly spent the majority of his life in the jungle- It would be a good day.

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The Trek
Our trek through the jungle was unlike any hike I had ever undertaken. We were sweating profusely, batting away mosquitos and crossing jungle streams while keeping an eye out for the monkeys and stopping occasionally to flick the leeches off of our legs and ankles. The ones that had already gotten into our boots were having a field day with our fresh American blood. Calling the leech bites our “trail tax,” Joshua pressed on, blazing what seemed to be his own trail by hacking away with his machete and giving us different jungle plants that he claimed were edible and often consumed by the locals. I quickly dismissed the notion that he was teaching us basic jungle survival directly before he abandoned us to fend for ourselves (confirming my mother’s fears), and was happy to find that after about 5 hours we arrived at our destination, the village of Pa Lungan.

Pa Lungan
We stayed the evening with an old couple in the small village of Pa Lungan, giving us an opportunity to not only try the local cuisine but also engage in some conversation with our hosts. The village itself is only accessible by foot, meaning that the nearest place to obtain any materials involves going to Bario (5 hours each way). Given its remote location, Pa Lungan maintains its livelihood through hunting and farming, just as it has for generations. The village is comprised of about 20 families and has a chief, a specified number of local hunters (a wild boar was caught the day before we arrived), and a large rice paddy in which each family is responsible for a portion.

Upon arrival, we were given lunch of wild boar soup, fresh papaya, and barking deer, all served with their world renowned rice (Bario rice is apparently heralded as some of the world’s best). The evening’s cuisine consisted of the above as well as freshwater turtle meat that had been caught by Joshua while we were getting ready for dinner. The resourcefulness of these people was astounding- left to our own abilities, we would have certainly gone hungry during our time in Bario. Our appreciation for the variety and taste of the food was only surpassed by the conversation that accompanied it.

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Our hosts had been running the homestay for 11 years and, combined with Joshua, shared some of the history of the area and the culture. (Although we have been trying, our Malaysian isn’t quite to the “conversational” level, despite Allen’s affinity for languages. Luckily for us, the British occupation with World War II means that most locals know English and, even today, all school courses are taught solely in English.) The Kelabit people are known for their hospitality but also for their history of violence and intense notion of pride. Prior to World War II, the practice of headhunting was not only accepted, but was the only way for a man to show his courage and honor. A young man would simply go to a nearby village and attack other men, bringing back their heads as decoration to show his bravery. Apparently, a man needed to have accumulated at least 5 heads for a woman to even consider marrying him. Joshua’s grandfather was known as a great warrior and accumulated 36 heads (stud!). Upon my asking what spiritual reasons there were for this practice, Joshua asserted that there was not any spiritual meaning behind the headhunting, simply a man proving his manhood. Allen and I concluded that we would have led very short, unmarried lives as Kelabit men. In the morning, we thanked our hosts and took part in a quick game of darts (using traditional blowdarts, of course) and began our trek back to Bario.

Rainforest Café
Upon our arrival back in Bario, we enquired as to whether there was a place in town to relax with a couple brews to contemplate our jungle experience. What we found was a rudimentary shack aptly named “Rainforest Café.” Built of warped jungle wood and powered by a generator to keep lights on throughout the evening, the Café serves up an ample supply of warm beers (due to the lack of a refrigerator) and friendly locals celebrating after a long day laboring in the rice patties. Then the music came on- Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley were top picks of the local crowd who, intrigued by our nationality, confessed their love of country music and yearned for more Alan Jackson CDs. After getting their country music fix, they began the equally hilarious nightly ritual of karaoke. The only problem is that they only have one karaoke CD: 100 Best Love Songs. All in English and riddled with hits by Michael Bolton and Sting, our Bario highlight may well have been watching drunk Malaysians rock out to “Hey Jude” and singing arm in arm with us while we belted out “Country Road” into the wee hours of the morning.

All in all, Bario has undoubtedly been a top travel experience for us and acted as an appropriate introduction to our much needed “Borneo adventure.”

Next stop: Sabah, the eastern state of Borneo, for orang utans followed by some “hardcore snorkeling.”

Posted by: escapethecube | March 5, 2009

SE Asia . . . We may never leave

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In proper fashion, our arrival in Thailand was unexpected, unannounced, and without planning. Unfortunately in recent years, the Thai government has begun clamping down on its immigration rules and standards. One such example is its frequent denial of travelers entering the country on a tourist visa who do not have a booked flight out of the country. Although enforced randomly at Thai immigration, if a tourist’s entry is rejected, the cost of a flight back to the country of origin is born by the originating airlines. This being the case, many airlines have begun screening passengers upon check-in, at the city of origin, to ensure they have a return flight, and often times removing one-way passengers from the flight.

Not knowing our next destination after Thailand, and of course not booking an onward flight, we were quite nervous upon arriving at Istanbul’s international airport to check in for our Gulf Air flight. Wearing our only collard shirts, and cleanest pair of pants, we were hoping to slip through the cracks. However at check in, things quickly went south. Managers where called over. Manger’s managers were called over. Eventually the head of the airports security was called over. After some back and forth, and stellar acting on our part, we were allowed to pass. We like to think that our boyish charm, remarkable good looks, and Nick’s uncanny resemblance to the airline manager’s cousin won the day over, however the simple fact that we were Americans, holding American passports, seemed to clinch the deal. Although our reputation for international policy may be tarnish throughout the world, as a country we are still appreciated for our large pocketbooks and willingness to spend ample tourist dollars abroad. The airline manager let us pass because he believed Thai immigration would look past our one-way flights, simply because were were American tourists on vacation – another humbling reminder of the privileges of being an American.

Finally, we were on our way to SE Asia, but not before a quick 2 hour layover in Bahrain! For those of you familiar with my “Bahrain career decision,” it was a hilarious addition to our trip, even if only for a brief layover.

After a grueling overnight flight we arrived in Bangkok, Thailand (and proceeded through immigration without a problem). Knowing that we would be back in the area in a couple of months (to meet up with Mike Berner and Nick’s girlfriend Cait) we decided to start making our way south as soon as possible through southern Thailand, Malaysia, and possibly Indonesia.

Some of the more famous islands lie to the east in the Gulf of Thailand. However, these have skyrocketed in popularity and commercialization in the past 15 years turning the two largest islands into backpacker “theme parks” stuffed with western style bars and cafes and late night “full moon” ravers. Although fun, we were after a more traditional beach experience and wanted a taste of the secluded, and relatively untouched, white sand and turquoise waters that can only be found in the deep south near the Malaysian border. Buses are the way to travel in Thailand, and after a couple of days of getting our bearings in Bangkok, we hoped a bus to the furthest most destination we could find on the route map.

Arriving at 4am in a small farming village presents itself with a few problems. But ones that you become quite familiar with while on the trail. English is widely recognized as the international language of commerce and is spoken, to some degree, in all major cities (thank god). However, once outside of these metropolitan areas, grunting, hand waving, and face pulling become the international language of choice. After amble attempts at communication and a few laps around the city, we learned that the next leg of our trip was via local ferry which could be reached by the city’s local bus (yes, singular bus). In fact, the city’s bus was no more than a small ford pickup truck with two benches drilled into the back bed. Fares are paid in route by reaching your arms outside of the truck bed and around through the passenger window. We were accompanied buy a couple of lovely young Spanish ladies adorning red mo hawks, scalp tattoos, more face piercings than a pin cushion, underarm hair grown, and a keen interest in each other – a look that we simply wrote off as “European.” If my morning EL rides in Chicago were as entertaining, I may not have left.

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Reached by slow local ferry, or speed boat, the islands located off the south west coast of Thailand are simply magical. Long stretches of beach lined with simple huts and minimal tourists, days are filled with cheap and delicious thai cuisine, kayaking between islands, snorkeling off shore reefs, and sipping local brews There are no cars or public transportation. Walking, biking, or motorcycle taxi (personally preferred) are the only ways to move about the islands. The 100cc motorcycles/scooters are driven by flipflop wearing locals, usually weighing in at no more than 120 lbs. Its a pretty hilarious site when Nick and I jump on the back with our packs and start whizzing through jungle interior. Pricing is very negotiable, however after watching Nick’s driver stop mid route to pick up her 5 yr old son (who was positioned between Nick and the driver, on a single person motor scooter) and drop him off at school, motivation to haggle over a $0.50 price difference quickly fades.

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After our brief island stint in Thailand, it was on to Malaysia. After crossing the border via speed boat, we spent a few days and nights on the island of Penang, in the city of Georgetown. Founded by the British during colonial occupation of Malaysia, the city bares a very strong resemblance to old colonial cities found on the eastern United States. In fact, Malaysia as a country has a very unique ethnic and cultural make up with a mix of Indian, traditional Malaysian, Chinese, and Thai. This mix makes the city of Georgetown even more intriguing. Thirty minutes of walking around the city will have you pass through small Chinese neighborhoods, buzzing Indian restaurants, and old colonial British fortresses. The food was absolutely amazing and the people incredibly friendly. Highlights included the outdoor Chinese food stalls, a Malaysian cover band playing Allen Jackson and White Snake, and our hostel owner named Joseph (everyones name is distinctly British).

After a night in a bed-bug infested hostel (an experience only made worthwhile by the horrible, but hilarious Malaysian 80s cover band showcasing at the bar – see video below), we moved into the Old Penang Guesthouse run by a slightly psychotic, but overly generous and friendly Malaysian man named Joseph. Air conditioned dorm rooms, free breakfast, wifi, and a flat screen television with scores of pirated movies (most of which were still in theaters). Although this may sound like the exact experience we are trying to avoid on this trip, after nearly two months on the road (and a couple weeks of sweaty, itchy SE Asian heat), a little taste of western comfort can be a big boost to morale.

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After Georgetown, it was on to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (or KL as known by the locals). KL was nothing more than a layover between peninsular Malaysia and the island of Borneo. Famous for its Petronas Twin Towers (touted as the tallest buildings in the world until 2003) and eclectic neighborhoods, we were fairly disappointed with the city beyond its opportunities for great ethnic cuisine. Dirty and disorganized the city itself left much to be desired. We will be avoiding it at all cost for the remainder of our time in Malaysia.

After cruising the beaches of Thailand and getting a taste of city life in Georgetown and KL, we are on our way to the interior jungles of Borneo in search of remote jungle villages, blood sucking leaches, and endangered pygmy elephants!

Posted by: escapethecube | February 13, 2009

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Upon leaving Istanbul both heavier and poorer, we were excited to set about the Turkish countryside to experience what we thought to be more “authentic” Turkish culture. To us, this meant small halls watching whirling dervishes, some beaches with hairy, mustached Turks sunbathing, and the “most authentic” kebabs. While we missed out on 2 of the said expectations, we did manage to experience some fantastic historical ruins, some gorgeous Mediterranean vistas, and, you guessed it, the Turkish men basking in the January sunlight.

Selcuk
Things began in Selcuk, the name for the ancient town of Ephesus, which contains ancient Greek and Roman ruins, a 25,000 seat amphitheater (where Paul “combatted” the idol-worshiping artisans before being sent off to prison on a nearby hill), St. Mary’s church, and St. John’s Basilica set amongst the more everyday ruins, such as the footprint which leads the way to the local brothel. Given the vast number of historical highlights in Ephesus, we did not want to chance missing vital information by simply hiring a guide. Instead, we took a 15 year old guide book from the hostel and took a “self-guided tour,” wherein we stopped at an interesting site, read the description aloud, took a picture, and remarked “ah, that’s pretty cool.” It then comes as no surprise that our highlight was the old latrines, in which the “holes” were placed curiously close to one another and apparently (the book says) was regarded as a wonderful area for “shoulder to shoulder conversation.”

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After an extremely educational afternoon amongst the ruins (and tourists), we took some bicycles from the hostel to ride out to what we expected to be a picturesque Aegean beach. Under the impression from our hostel manager that the beach was 2 miles away, we grabbed the one-speed bikes and took off down the road only to discover that the beach was, in fact, 6 miles away, and more of a cluster of pebbles than a picturesque beach. After chalking up an afternoon at the beach, we later dubbed the experience as a “much needed workout” and planned our departure for the morning.

Olympos
We awoke on Friday bright-eyed and bushy tailed with aspirations of heading down to the Mediterranean town of Kas for some seafood, sunshine, and a nice laid-back backpacker scene. We estimated that by late afternoon we should be in our swim trunks and lounging in the sun with an ice-cold Efes lager in hand. 14 hours later, we instead found ourselves admiring the constellations in Olympos while waiting in an abandoned market parking lot for the owner to drive us to our “treehouse.” Needless to say, there were some communication errors that left us tired and impatient without a chance of getting to Kas, so we took the bus (with the market owners help) to Olympos.

The town of Olympos is, well, not like any other town we have ever seen. Surrounded by orchards, mountains, two-thousand year old ruins, and the Mediterranean, Olympos is essentially a row of treehouses built alongside a dirt road and stream that houses backpackers all year round. We haggled down to an acceptable cost for our WiFi equipped bungalow (no kidding) and got some much needed shuteye after a long day of travel. The next few days were spent trekking through seemingly untouched nature, stumbling (literally- Burt fell) upon old overgrown ruins, and feeling like Indiana Jones as we climbed over ancient roman baths and theatres throughout a the dense forest.

We also hitch-hiked one evening to see the much-touted “Chimera,” which, as Greek mythology has it, is a creature with the body of a lion and a tail of a snake that came to being in the mountains outside Olympos. Given our well-known affinity for Greek Mythology, this was clearly a must-see. In reality, Chimera is actually a mountainside filled with small, naturally burning flames that have been burning for thousands of years. Given the amount of time that these flames have been burning and the fact that it is the cause of a Greek mythological creature, we were quite happy that we experienced it. We pondered the cause of such a flame for about 20 minutes (without conclusion) and headed back to the hostel for a nice hot meal, some beers, and intense conversation on Greek mythology (again, no conclusions) before finally heading to Kas the following day.

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Kas
After leaving the gorgeous, if eclectic, Olympos, we took a beautiful drive along the Mediterranean coast to the town of Kas. It is a beautiful old fishing village with many adventure activities and gorgeous beaches around the town. Kas is known for its sea kayaking, the beaches of nearby Kalkan, and snorkeling through the old ruins of a “sunken city.” We however, spent 3 days relaxing on our hostel terrace, cooking tuna, and enjoying the occasional pint of Marmara Lager. We quickly found that, despite the 60 degree sunny weather, this is “winter” so no activities can occur. Bummer.

So, in typical fashion and especially when given ample time for thought, we have completely trashed our previous travel plans and are heading to Southeast Asia until mid-April. Enough chilly weather and “low seasons” have propelled us to to SE Asia for sunshine, white sand, and $10 daily budgets. After all, our board shorts are the only clean items in the pack….

Next stop: Thai border and Malaysia

Posted by: escapethecube | February 4, 2009

Taking the “bul” by the horns – Istanbul, Turkey

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After our Kebab Machine experience in London, we could not wait to experience the tasty lamb concoction whose origins are rooted in Turkey. And upon arriving in Istanbul, the quest for the perfect Kebab began. Having crashed the night before in London’s Gatwick airport, curled up on a cold bench in the “special assistance” area, our energy was low but morale high. We were dreaming of a land that rained garlic sauce and where meat spits twirled on every street corner.

Istanbul has been called by many names including Byzantium and Constantinople. Its history and origins date back to before Christ and still houses the relics to prove it. The only city located on two separate continents, Istanbul merges Europe and Asia culturally, as well as geographically. Separated by the Bosphorus, the European and historical side of the city sits on the west banks with Asia on the east.

After landing in Turkey and a few hours of travel by bus, train, and foot, we found ourselves in the historical portion of Istanbul standing amongst the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia. The old city lies on the European side of the Bosphorus and feels exactly that. Apart from the clear Muslim influence and Middle Eastern ethnicity of its inhabitants, walking around was reminiscent of any western European city with street markets, food vendors, and ancient relics to boot.

However, on a trip like this you can only see so many museums, visit so many churches/mosques, and sit on so many site seeing tours. The real fun comes from diving head first into the culture. Which for us, means finding the perfect Turkish Kebab.

Kebabs come in many forms and I am not one to discriminate. Chicken, lamb, or beef. Vertically or horizontally grilled. Diced, shaved, or ground. Served on pita or baguette. Doused with garlic sauce or covered in dry pepper spices. They are all delicious, bountiful, and do wonders for your figure.

After an unsuccessful bout at a crowded tourist kebab shop our first evening (a factor of our laziness and naivety), it was clear that although bountiful, there were many kebab impersonators. Kebabs that appeared to be fantastic juicy kebabs, but while you weren’t looking performed their tricky Turkish magic and transformed into dry tasteless kebabs. However, after a few days of searching we finally discovered true kebabs in the back alleys and streets of the modern city. Needless to say, we haven’t put them down since.

Along with hacking the art of kebab locating, we had to discover and experience another cultural icon of Istanbul and Turkish culture – the hookah. A major part of daily life, hookah (shisha in Turkish) is everywhere and is a common activity any time of the day. Clearly inexperienced hookah smokers (see picture), we were hooked after our first authentic experience and foresee this becoming a constant throughout our time in Turkey.

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It took us until our last day to hop over to the Asian side of Istanbul. It is downplayed by many of the guide books, however we discovered it to be the most authentic and interesting part of the city with street markets and small Turkish cafes geared completely for the locals. Apparently on the Asia side, nobody over the age of 45 works in Istanbul. They all huddle into small cafes, drink tea, smoke, and play board games. Inspired by their daily routine, we changed ourselves to follow in their footsteps. So we hunkered down into a small back alley cafe and grabbed the locals board game of choice – backgammon. However, after 30 minutes of unsuccessfully teaching ourselves how to play backgammon we resolved to a very boring round of checkers and hookah for the remainder of the afternoon. (Note: After our second round of hookah, its novelty has worn off. We are now on a “hookah hiatus”)

We have met some remarkably interesting people thus far on our trip. However, the most interesting by far has been Anton, a Brit in his mid 30s who is determined to bike around the world. Beginning in London, he worked his way down to Italy before becoming sidetracked and working as a tour guide for two years in Rome(I believe a lady may have been involved). We met up with him in Istanbul after he had biked all the way from Rome with around 50lbs of gear. He is planning to make his way through Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan on his way to India. Conversation was rousing over a few pints of Turkish lager as we three discussed history and world politics. Its always fascinating and educational to hear perspective on US and world politics from someone outside of America.

We have zero itinerary for the rest of our time in Turkey beyond a late night bus down to the ancient city of Ephesus (think St Paul’s letters to the Ephesians). Although we would like to hit up the southern Mediterranean coast as soon as possible.

[Hygiene Update as of 1/29/2009: Showers -10 Laundry – 0]

Posted by: escapethecube | January 29, 2009

A Proper English Pint

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After 2 weeks spent traipsing around a somewhat developing nation, it was quite refreshing to land in London and be reminded of the comforts and luxuries of the Western World. The lack of constant begging and the sound of English were both very welcome changes. We had 3 days planned for London and the great fortune of staying with and old friend and great Beta brother, John Dietmann, at his home in Stanmore (about 30 minutes on the tube from the city centre). We were both excited for London and to see John, and for good reason- the man is coming up on his 72nd birthday and he has boundless energy and a zest for life that is inspiring. Both he and his wife treated us like kings, a luxury that we did not expect and certainly did not deserve. There are no words to express the genuine feeling of embarrassment and remorse as we were being fed beers and stew and we were undoubtedly smelling up his nice home with our bags and unwashed clothes.

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The first full day in London was one that any of us can appreciate- a conveniently cold, rainy day in which a man can only go one place in search of refuge: the comforts of a cozy English pub. John is the ultimate tour guide- he knows the best “real ale” English pubs in any section of London and is always greeted by the owner with a smile and a proper pint. We first hopped into “The Harp” near Trafalgar and had the pleasure of meeting Johns good friend, Henry. Henry is a 62 year old personal consultant to oil tycoons worldwide, has lived in 45 countries, and has a reputation as “the guy who gets what he wants.” Also described by John as an “eternal adolescent,” Henry entertained us with his worldly stories and impressive background.

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After a few pints at the Harp and a brief stop at The Porter, we went to our old favorite watering hole, The Guinea Grill. Henry astonished us by taking us to the back restaurant (probably frowned upon to sport gym shoes and a severely wrinkled shirt) wherein we dined for hours on ribeye, English pudding, along with a couple bottles of 91 Bordeaux. Clearly, not a lunch that we would have afforded on our own dime. A few more pints followed with the old Guinea regulars and left us well-suited for the train back home, some homemade pizza, and a nice rugby match before bed. It goes without saying that we will never have another day like this on the trip, and maybe not for the next 20 years.

Other than johns hospitality, we were also excited to see the old London haunts that we (and Berner) used to frequent. After an afternoon of pints and bidding John farewell, we trekked over to Kensington/Hammersmith seeking nostalgic fulfillment at the pubs where we used to work. As some of you know, the pub that Burt worked at was a bit of a joke. The Albion served as a refuge for the alcoholic elders of the community, and Burt spent many a day serving up one Fosters pint after another while trying to decipher how the heck cricket is played…

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Boy have things changed! The Albion is now a Kensington hotspot- live music, a young trendy crowd, no Fosters to be found in the whole bar. We honestly considered staying in London for a while longer and trying to work at the Albion full-time. It is safe to say that Burt’s presence at the Albion served as the moving force behind the bar’s dramatic transition from drunkard’s haven to the hippest spot in South Ken.

After a few pints, as is customary, guys need to “refuel.” before continuing a journey. We found our fuel at what we consider to be the finest sing establishment in all of London, the take-away restaurant Kebab Machine. We always had fond memories of this heavenly establishment and our high expectations were not only met but exceeded. Truly a magical experience. We giddily snapped pictures as the same old Turkish men “sawwed” the lamb and layered it with sauce and salad. The proprietors watched in bewilderment at our slightly tipsy obsession as we devoured the artistic creation that is The Kebab (Burt’s note: Bato didn’t finish).

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We washed it down at Bato’s old pub, the Brook Green before hopping on the bus to Gatwick for a restful night in the “special assistance” area of the airport…

Next stop: Istanbul

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