And on to the Big Rigs

Surf\'s up in Santa CruzContinued from Redwoods, Big Rigs and Glowing Grapes

Okay, back to that surprise. Turns out, Bruno lives in someone else’s backyard… in a shed turned tiny, cabin-styled home thingamagig. He has a toilet outhouse jimararig near his “room.” The room has electricity. He gets access to the bathroom and shower inside the house whenever needed. Whoa! People do that here? Awesome! I found my way to live dirt cheap in Cali and with no rent contracts!! Yay!! Also turns out, it’s quite a common thing. I guess rent is so high in Cali that people do what they can to generate a little extra rent money. Perfect for a roving adventurer like me! I can have a small base of sorts to keep stuff. But, nothing extravagant or costly. And all just blocks away from the beach! Perfect! I’m heading abroad again very shortly, but, you can put money on it that’ll I’ll be operating out of one of those when I’m back stateside again for my spring/summer “blogging” season here in the U.S. Seaside yoga in Santa CruzI’m quite excited about that prospect actually.

Bruno treated us to a scrumptious breakfast in downtown Santa Cruz the next morning. I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was delicious! Bruno then took Dustin and I on a tour around Santa Cruz, showing us all the different beaches and surfing hot spots. Bikers and runners were everywhere. Surfers were scattered among the waves like pods of dolphins. A young woman was out on a small outcropping, moving gracefully through her lone yoga routine, the expanse of God’s beautiful sea in front of her. As for us three, we just slowed down and took it all in. Continue reading “And on to the Big Rigs”

Redwoods, Big Rigs and Glowing Grapes

Grapes at Cakebread Winery in Napa ValleyLately, I’ve been telling myself money doesn’t matter. Well, my West Coast Cali adventures taught me just how much money really does… or doesn’t… matter to me. Back to that in a minute.

Dustin and I set off for Cali in great spirits excited about the prospect of unknown adventure ahead of us. We hadn’t planned much (just the way I like it!) and what little plan we did have was all Dustin. He had friends to visit and ideas to cruise the Pacific Coast Highway and I was all for it. So, after touch down in L.A. our first mission was food. A quick inquiry directed us to a sweet little Mexican joint. The food was good, the horchata… a bit chalky. Definitely good enough food to satisfy our grumbly stomachs though!

St. Supery wineNext plan of action: rent a car for a decent price. Dustin really wanted a convertible, but most of the regular rental places were a bit outrageous… you know, Cali style. A bit much for us Midwest folk. Dustin then went to a shifty, foreign-owned rental shack. The guy just about had Dustin… had him convinced to rent a beat up old eighty-something Mazda with no guaranteed roadside assistance. Fortunately, I was able to sway Dustin otherwise. After hopping online and pulling some strings a of a friend of Dustin’s we managed to snag a Dodge Charger for a super decent price. Great! It was time to hit the highway!

BJ, Dusting and I at St. Super winery in Napa ValleyOur destination was Davis, CA. Home of UC-Davis and of Dustin’s childhood friend Bj and his girlfriend Tiffany. The two were excellent hosts. Tiffany had a plethora of sample products like shampoos, lotions, mouthwash, face wash etc in the bathroom… a better selection than any hotel! On our first full day in Davis, Dustin, BJ and I set off for Napa Valley for some fine wine fun in the sun after all four of us enjoyed some excellent breakfast crepes at Crepeville. Geez, Napa Valley is every bit as gorgeous as it’s prestigious reputation implies. Not quite Tuscany… but close, really close. We visited three wineries: Cakebread, St. Supery and Frog’s Leap. There are nearly 250 wineries in the wine growing region that do boast wines comparable to those of Italy and France, even if the landscape is a close close second/third. So, there’s plenty of reason to go back. Continue reading “Redwoods, Big Rigs and Glowing Grapes”

More Sights and Sounds from Chi-Town

Last week’s trip certainly wasn’t my first visit to Chicago. I’ve blogged about past Chi-town based adventures including my first-ever couchsurfing experiences, The Passion event, and coverage of the 2007 Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 (actual coverage of the race can be found on DomesticFuel.com).

This time, the U.S. Africa Agribusiness Forum brought me to Chicago for Novus International sponsored coverage on AgWired.com. You know, the event that reaffirmed my inspiration for the “Dollar-a-Day” Charity initiative. (Nope, haven’t forgotten about that!) The Novus crew that I worked with was great. Very welcoming and easy-going. The best kind of people to work with! Jeremy, one of the Novus clients, and I sprung for a “cheeseborger” at the infamous Billy Goat Tavern. The “Gotham city” tavern and the curse of the Cubs was a frequent theme and popular skit for a while on Saturday Night Live. The burger joint dates back to 1945 and is located underneath the viaducts on Michigan Ave near Navy Pier. Our visit came complete with “cheeseborgers” and little, paper souvenir hats.

Anyway, after work I jumped right back into Chicago’s urban playground. As luck would have it, the Taste of Chicago was just kicking off as I got into town. Restaurants throughout Chicago set up booths in Grant Park and offer single-serving sized portions from their menus for a specific amount of tickets. Twelve tickets could be bought for eight bucks. The ticket system meant things were a bit pricey, but hey, when else can you skip around trying dishes from a slew of restaurants?

I managed to track down some couchsurfers who planned a cs outing to the Taste of Chicago the very Saturday I was going to check it out myself, so I had a band of “instant friends” to share the festival with. I enjoyed a wide array of cuisine including African plantains, Indian something or other, gelato, ravioli… and even shark! Shark was an absolute new one for me. Not bad. Tastes like fish, but more dense. Not quite as dense as chicken though. Continue reading “More Sights and Sounds from Chi-Town”

Sunrise Over the Grand Canyon

In 2006, my fairytale adventures truly took off. After spending 3 utterly enchanting months living and working in Italy, I came back to the U.S. But, the enchantment followed me home. My uncle Keith invited me to join him on his yearly retreat to Garland’s Lodge in Oak Creek Canyon, AZ. The rustic lodge with extravagant, home-cooked, five-course dinners was our base for exploring the nearby Red Rock State Park in Sedona, AZ.

But, before becoming deliciously fed and fattened at the lodge, of course Keith and I had to make a detour to see one of the most famous American wonders: the Grand Canyon. There is nothing that will prepare you for what you will encounter. After being on the road for hours, we finally entered the national park. But, all I could see was acre upon acre of pined forests. ‘Where is this so-called “Grand Canyon”?’ I wondered. And then, the Earth suddenly opens up before you, as if it’s been split by the hand of God. You stare into its depths with speechless wonder, glimpsing over 230 million years of creation through a chasm that took about 6 million years to form.

Keith and I woke up before the sun every morning so we could catch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon on camera. But, the first two mornings, misty cloud cover kept the colors of the morning awakening subdued. Pretty, but not spectacular. On our final morning, I rolled out of bed as the stars still shined overhead with the hope that this would be the morning for the photograph. As the sun broke over the the canyon though, I was largely disappointed. It wasn’t misty fog that veiled the sky that morning, but a thick wall of clouds. It seemed none of the days first rays would manage to reach the jagged peaks, crags and crevices of the dark, shadowy canyon.

Yet, just as I was turning away to give up, the sun pierced through a gap in the dark cloud barrier with insurmountable determination and flooded the canyon with one of the most spectacular sunrises I had yet to witness. I would venture to say its even one of the most most spectacular sunrises over the Grand Canyon… ever. But maybe that’s just my pride for this picture talking.

Gusts and Gales Sweep Through a Hidden Vietnam

It was as if we had suddenly stepped into an entirely different world. A wild world that threatened great unknown, but also promised treasures not yet dreamed of… if you would only venture on to explore it.

We were on a bus traveling down a roughly paved road from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne. The typical roadside shacks and garages, interspersed with palms and rice paddies, trailed along with us. As is customary when traveling by bus in SE Asia, we stopped at a restaurant designated especially for tourists. The restaurant boasted plastic picnic tables, the luxury of somewhat clean bathrooms with no plumbing, and mediocre food at best. Even though the food looked unimpressive, I was hungry so I ordered vegetable coconut curry with plain white rice. In Thailand and Cambodia, even the least of curries can offer an appeasing satisfaction and flavor. But the least of Vietnamese curries simply don’t.

Just after I ordered, Massimo (the Italian I was traveling with) came over and urged, “Laura come see this. You’ll love it. Bring your camera.” The Vietnamese man who took my order nodded a wordless reassurance that he would bring my order out when I came back, so I grabbed my camera and followed Massimo down a gravel trail that led away from the back of the restaurant. At first, I could only see the odd mixture of palms, ferns and pines, further down the trail, lining my horizon. But, as I drew closer, I glimpsed a vast lake with sunlight dancing along the surface and a stunning fortress of mountains encircling it. I gasped, looked at Massimo flashing him a “You were so right!” grin and ran off ahead to take in the hidden treasure. Emerging through the foliage, I saw a handful of boats beached on the shore in front of me. A few local villagers were on the water: a browned elderly couple wrinkled with time, a young woman drawing in yards of fishing line in a waterlogged boat…

I stopped to take it all in… this unexpected and spectacular landscape. And JUST as I inhaled my pleasure with a long, heavy breath, a sudden onslaught of forceful, gusting winds swept down from the heavens. In an instant, the sun went into hiding behind a veil of darkening clouds, white mists filled the valleys and jagged mountain ridges. Gales fell like drapes along the water. It was as if, suddenly, there was some unseen presence swirling among us. Mighty and untamed, but soothing and enlivening all at once. Our hair whipped around our faces with frenzied fury, but none of us, foreigner nor local, felt alarmed. Instead, we felt filled with gladness, as evident through the smiles we couldn’t help but flash at one another.

And that’s when I made these two pictures…

A Hop, Skip, and a Jump to the Western Sahara

…just kidding. But, with some of these pictures I might just be able to fool you. I’ve never seen sand dunes before! But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself… again.

Massimo and I bussed it to Mui Ne, a beach resort along the southern coast of Vietnam. Along the way, Massimo started chatting with a laid back and amusing German guy, Markus. By the end of the ride our little party of two became a party of three. But, that worked out perfectly, because Massimo was planning on rushing through Mui Ne. I, on the other hand, was considering staying longer to take wind surfing lessons, so now, I would have a new travel buddy when Massimo took off. In the search for a guesthouse, we also met two Kiwis. Our little group had now just grown to five. Massimo, Markus and I shared a room for the night to save on the cash. The Kiwis, Mahara and Bart, got a room right next door. We then all wound up booking a jeep together for exploring the red and white sand dunes the next day. Wait? Red and White sand dunes?? How cool!!! I’ll be honest. I hadn’t read up too much on Mui Ne before I arrived and I didn’t realize there were cool sand dunes to check out until we got there. I was pumped! Like I said above, I’ve never really seen sand dunes before. That night we all kicked it at the Pogo Bar. There was a German DJ who was really friendly and helpful. The drinks were a bit expensive, but it had free Wifi and great atmosphere… so that was good for us.

The next day it was early to rise and early to eat for an early start of adventure. Our jeep arrived at 7 on the dot… we wrapped up breakfast by 7:30 and headed for the dunes. Wow… how to describe? I don’t know if I can. Looking out across these massive hills of sand that are constantly shifting with the wind, it looks like your looking at heaps of flowing silk, wavering in smooth ribbons. The peak of the next dune looks so close… ha! You could rent these little plastic sleds from the locals to go sledding. We had been told by the German DJ that you should be able to rent them for 5,000 dong, unlimited slides. They try to tell you it’s 50,000 dong per slide. Okay, that’s a record. The little mongrels were going for ten times the price! When we kept refusing and then ignored them, they finally handed us the sleds for 10,000 dong a piece, unlimited slides. Double what we should have paid, but hey we were talking about 60 cents versus 30 cents here. But again, my point proven, you’re always paying at the min, double than what you should… just for being a Westerner. I’m starting to get a small taste of what being discriminated against would feel like. Oh, just so you don’t think I’m a scrooge here. Most locals (who don’t deal with tourists) work all day for $2… and live off that. So, 30 cents is a lot of money here. Anyway, I took a plunge on the slide… and got nowhere fast. Total rip-off. But, a 60-cent rip-off nonetheless. We ditched the sleds and took to diving off the dunes instead. Well, I was the only one ballsy enough to dive. Everyone else jumped feet first. It was so fun! We amused ourselves for about 45 minutes just doing karate kicks and dives off the sand dunes into… well, more sand. Of course, when you landed the dive you had to finish with a roll. It took me a few “dives” before I was really able to just thrust myself out there. Whaahahaha… it was so fun! Massimo had wandered off while the rest of us were diving and karate kicking. When I finally stopped throwing myself over the edge and looked up… Massimo looked sooo far away. Cool! I wanted to go deeper into the dunes! Markus and I took off. The Kiwis stayed and kept playing the jumping game. As Markus and I set off deeper into the dunes… a storm started brewing. The sky was darkening, clouds were building, winds were blowing, sand was swirling. Nothing too major. The storm was a little ways off… but it was still rustling the dunes a bit. The sand started forming into these currents that skimmed just above the dunes… until they finally spun off of the edge. Mesmerizing… Whoa… That’s all I have to say. Whoa. Can’t wait to trek through the Western Sahara Loic-style!!

After the white dunes, our guided jeep took us to the red dunes. The red dunes are cool, but less impressive. Not as big. More weeds. Still cool though. The last part of the morning adventure was a hike through Fairy Stream. More like Fairy Gorge of Natural Drizzly Sandcastles! Really. It was the gorge formed through sand by water. The walls of the gorge is sand that’s been shaped by water run-off. Totally drizzly sandcastle style! The sandy walls are rather hard and packed for sand… but still soft enough to send chunks crumbling as Mahara and I found out when we climbed it. We were the catalysts for a few miniature sand waterfalls. Cool… minature sand waterfalls… another first! The water through the gorge was shallow since it was the dry season, thus very easy to trudge through. The red sand mixed with the water, turning it a frothy ruddy red color. There were deposits of darker, coal-colored sand that would form cool swirls with the yellow and red sand. It looked like the same pattern of swirls you would find on marble tiles. I liked the name of this gorge or stream or whatever you wanted to call it. Fairy obviously makes you think of fairytale and these surroundings definitely seemed like something out of a Pan’s Labyrinth-style, The Little Princess-style or Finding Neverland-style fairytale (all great movies you should see if you haven’t seen them). The place is strangely compelling and intriguing with an almost absurdly exaggerated quality about it. Does that even make sense? If you saw the Pan’s Labyrinth or The Little Princess or Finding Neverland and think of the way the fairytale scenes were way illustrated in those movies, you would understand what I’m trying to say here. Either way… magical. Without a doubt. You know, it’s really invigorating when you discover that the imaginary realms of fairytales really do exist in some places… smile… yes, still very much a little girl sometimes. Unfortunately, there were kids that tagged along bursting your fairytale bubble every once in a while, acting as your surprise guide telling you where to go. Bahhh! They lead you to an overlook… which, gasp… you could easily find on your own… and a small waterfall… which gasp… is another easy find… and a ruin to a nice little surprise when they tell you about it ahead of time… thank you very much! Then, on the walk back they want money of course. Did you hire them? No. Did they really provide any service? No. Are you past the poor little kid act when all these kids have perfect teeth, nicer clothes than you and chocolate stains on their shirts? Yes. (Okay. So most still don’t live in houses so-to-speak with heating, a/c, proper windows with carpeting and tile and hallways and bedrooms and foyers and all that… but, in perfect honesty, I don’t think they want to… and why should they? They live on a tropical, palm-fringed coast with mysterious sand dunes and magical fairy streams. What’s the point of closing yourself in when all you need is a shack, a hammock a fire to cook fresh fish and some tourists to suckle milk money from?). A five-thousand dong coin was all I was willing to give up to the little money-hound when he held out his hand. He looked at me with a sympathy-beggar face (which my even my lil bro had perfected at 3 months) and whined, “No. One-dollar (that’s 16,000 dong).” Ha! When beggars get to be choosers… they’re not beggars!!! I snorted a scrooge-like laugh and walked off without giving him anything. He followed whining “Okay, five-thousand okay.” I turned and gave him nothing. Then I wrestled with whether I should feel guilty or not. The kid was not poor. But, I still felt like a scrooge. And, many couchsurfing hosts can attest… I’m not a scrooge! I definitely felt confused about how I should feel. Bahhh!

Again… I found the real, live realm of the fairytale world… only for that discovery to be popped… and by a kid nonetheless! I just wanted to scream at them to go dive off some sand dunes or chase crabs with a flashlight and leave me alone! There are children that need to be fed in this world… but… these little buggers are not them. The more I spend time in SE Asia, the more I wonder… how rich and how poor are people really? How rich are those with all those freaking material anchors that keep them slaved in offices all day and who feed off of fish that’s been shipped in frozen containers for days at fine dining restaurants. How poor are those whose bathrooms and kitchens aren’t what you’d call the most sanitary, but who eat the freshest fish from the sea, the freshest juice from coconut trees, just outside their shack… and who hound tourists for milk money in fairylands all day? What’s worse? A society that is built upon getting rich, but where, in most cases, you can still count on the average person giving you a fair price and a helping hand, as… gasp… a free favor? Or a society where wealth is still at war with “poverty” and it feels like everyone is out to cheat you, smiling all the while? A guide I had later in my travels, revealed something very interesting to me. He said all the “poor” villagers in Vietnam don’t want to work. Work as in the Western way of working. They want to stay in their villages, grow their own food, eat their own food and make their own supplies from the materials the amazingly exotic jungle just outside their shack provides. They embrace some modern convenience like western clothes (which all come from Asia for pennies anyways) and Satellite TV (so funny to see Satellite dishes on top of shacks – trust me, it’s common.) Life is simple, and they like it. They don’t want to change it. That all falls in line with the answer I get every time I ask whether villagers who see the tourists plodding in and out of the their villages ever wonder… what life is like outside their village? or, where do these Westerners come from? or, why do they come here? But, many have assured me… ‘No. They don’t care.’ Tourists are just a way for them to keep living the way they do and make some easy money while they’re at it so they can buy their satellite dishes and tack them on top of their shacks. Weeeeelllll, thousands were spent on my education so I could get a degree, so that I could get a good job, so I could work long and hard (for a while in a box!), just so I could save enough money to then travel halfway around the world, to see your little village of shacks in paradise! So please! Don’t mind me little villager, or city bumpkin for that matter, when I refuse to fork over my “wealth” of money just because you stuck out your hand!!! These villagers have satellite TV. The house where I grew up never had satellite TV. My little brother and sister still don’t have satellite TV. Hmmmm…

Okay, I’m done with the rant. There really are some poor, desperate people here. They are rarely ever the ones begging you for money though.

So, our morning of fun on the sand dunes and in Fairy Gorge (I like Gorge better than Stream) was over by noon. Massimo was back in time to catch his bus to Nha Trang (another beach resort city further up the coast, this one famous for good diving.) I might catch him a bit later in Laos. The rest of us were sticking around a bit longer. Again, I was contemplating wind surfing lessons. But, shortly thereafter, I decided I didn’t want to fork over $250 and maybe have to stay up to 5 days longer. I just didn’t have that kind of time or money. I couldn’t give up one dollar for crying out loud. Remember? Markus, Mahara, Bart and I had a fun afternoon finding a place to enjoy lunch, goofing off in the ocean (where I got stung by some unidentified creature that left welts wrapped around my ankle for a day), splurging on dinner ($7 for pizza!) and splurging on after dinner cocktails. Of course, some dancing ensured. The boys were fun and funny to dance with… hehehehe. We all had our own goofy moves we designated before we hit the dance floor and when we yelled out “MOVES!” we had to bust them out like crazy fools. Hahahhaha… it was so fun! Speaking of… I need to get those pics from the Kiwis…

The next day we all moved on. The Kiwis went to Nha Trang… I might catch them as well a bit later in Laos. Markus and I went to Dalat. Nha Trang was another beach resort city. Dalat was a mountain town in the central highlands that seemed to draw less Western tourists.