Monday, March 28, 2011

Last DAY in 'Merica!

The US portion of the trip has finally come to an end. After dumping all my new pictures on to flickr (be sure to check them out at the link at the top of the page) backing up my iPhone, and figuring out my new phone plan while I'm abroad, I'll eat a hearty pork chop dinner tonight thanks to Clara and her chef/beau, Micah and then catch my 10pm flight to Reykjavik tonight.

While my trip through the US really has been worthwhile, I've seen all this before. I'm ready to go do some real exploring. Like I outlined in my first post, I've designed this trip to slowly increase in difficulty as I go. Now that I've ironed out some of the kinks here at home, I think I'm ready for the minor leagues of English speaking western Europe. Biggest mistake so far: leaving my journal behind in New York. Thankfully, Melissa was able to overnight it to me so that I now have it, safe and sound, in Boston. Thanks Melissa!

Certainly NOT a mistake! First strike candle-pin bowling.

Boston has been a reunion of old college friends, for the most part. I haven't really felt the pressure to go out and explore Boston because I lived here during college. I've taken the opportunity, then, to work on logistics; like figuring out where and whom I will stay with in Iceland! So far, I've got it pretty well planned out through this coming Sunday. The blog entries from Iceland are going to be fun if only for the fact that I'll be typing in a bunch of Icelandic town names. I'll have to figure out how to attach a map to this blog so that you all will know where the hell I am at any given point. 

So, to look forward for a bit, my plan is to land in Reykjavik tomorrow morning, 6:30, spend 4 days in Reykjavik and then take off on the main highway that goes around Iceland. I have two weeks in Iceland due to a misunderstanding of when the first ferry of the season leaves for Denmark (April 12) so I'll be able to REALLY get to know Iceland. If I can stay in some of the smaller towns for 3-4 days like I plan, I could probably manage to meet everyone in that town if I put my mind to it. I'm interested to see what has become of Iceland since their economic collapse in 2008. Already I know that they no longer have cheap and easy access to Oreo cookies. This tragic piece of information came to me via a request from an Icelander to bring her Oreos from the US. 

Most of Iceland outside of Reykjavik has always relied on fishing and so probably hasn't felt the economic collapse quite as strongly since they never really had a bubble to begin with. It'll be interesting to compare the capital region with the far flung periphery - if my fingers don't freeze off in the process. Admittedly, late March/early April is not the best time to go to Iceland, but it's what I've got.

I'm currently reading "The Long Ships", a modern novel that has borrowed heavily from the old viking sagas talking about their exploits and adventures. Already I've learned much about how the vikings butted up against the Moors in Spain. I'll try to do a book review once I finish it. 

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears' Texas Pride

Finally, I had an appropriate "Good-bye, America" celebration last night going to see one of my favorite bands from Austin, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, who just HAPPENED to be touring through Boston at the same time I was. If you haven't ever heard of them, check it out. I was nervous for them before the show - they are definitely an ass-shaking band and Bostonians are decidedly NOT an ass-shaking group of people, but they managed to put on an awesome show. I felt proud to be a Texan as I was leaving.

Until Iceland,


Friday, March 25, 2011

Last Stop in 'Merica

This past week, I hit New York and Boston as I neared the end of the North American segment of my trip. Everyone seems to be kind of disappointed that I'm still in the US, but I'm having plenty of adventures still at home and, besides, this is the general pace of the trip. I'm not leaping over any big areas at once (well, except the North East Atlantic ocean) and taking the slow way around the world. The US is a big place and, seeing as how I've already gone over 2,000 miles in in just three weeks, I'd say I'm still making decent time.

Walking over the rooftops of the lower east side on the Manhattan Bridge

Anyways, like I said, I was in New York and Boston this week. New York was kind of special because it was the first time that I ever visited the city and my brain didn't explode. I have a troubled relationship with New York and, up until this last visit, I really didn't like the place. Too much steel and concrete, too fast and too anonymous. This visit was aided by staying with two friends though - the first time that I actually stayed in people's homes opposed to staying in "cheap" $200 a night hotels.

My buddy Joe from college hooked me up the first night. I returned the favor by helping him write an April Fool's article for the NYU Law School Newspaper about how the Greenwich Village Preservation Society (apparently the nemesis of NYU's expansion plan through the village) won the lottery and so was able to buy NYU. Link to come, on April 1 I guess.

The next two nights, I stayed with Bryn's sister, Melissa, who is a med student at Cornell. I felt a little honored to be staying in student housing at some of the best universities in the country.

In addition to staying with people I actually know and getting to see a little sliver of their life, I also went out swing dancing on Tuesday night at a famous jazz club, Swing 46. Laugh all you want, but swing dancing is a great way to quickly plug into a group of people. I showed up at the club at 830 essentially alone, and by 1130 I was hugging people goodbye. I can do this in most cities around the world, which is very encouraging.

George G and his orchestra at Swing 46

I walked the 2.5 miles back to Melissa's place with a little more optimistic take on New York than before. As soon as I could associate some faces and personalities with this otherwise anonymous city, I felt much more comfortable there. I was less self-conscious about talking to people in lines or asking questions in the subway. Of course, I left two days later, but I think I'm getting better at breaking my way into a city. Next swing dance will be saturday in Boston and then Wednesday in Reykjavik! My flight leaves Monday night for my first international stop of the trip.

PS Sorry there aren't any pictures with this post - I did get some good ones, but I'm posting this from a Mac and it doesn't have a port for my SD card. I'll sneak them in later.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Advancing Beyond Mason-Dixon

Tonight is my last night in Washington DC. Tomorrow I get back on the Mega Bus and drive 4.5 more hours to New York. Things are rolling along now and, though I look forward to my next week in New York and Boston, I'm ready to leave the US and start hearing some funny languages and see some territory that I've never seen before.

I got into DC on Thursday night, caught up with Amanda and Scott, my friends and hosts here. I've known Amanda since Middle School and Scott ever since they started dating in college. Since they moved up to DC from Texas a couple years ago, I haven't gotten to hang out with them as much. They also have a little boy now and I, as honorary uncle, have enjoyed getting to know him a little better. For example, this trip, I learned that Azure utilizes his belly in many unusual ways by sticking it way out in front of him, he can accentuate his midriff while dancing and sticking out his belly seems to be his preferred strategy for catching balls. He also seems to enjoy just ramming things with his belly. It's not exactly an appendage adept at fine motor skills, but I guess it works if you're one.

On Friday, I basically walked a 12 mile square around DC, hitting the Naval Ship Yards, Anacostia River, Foggy Bottom and then back to Capitol Hill, where Amanda and Scott live. I avoided most of the major attractions and stuck mostly to the back streets. I hate how pretentious that sounds, but DC really can turn into Disney Land in some areas. For any city I go to, I want to see how it operates on a day-to-day basis, not necessarily how it presents itself to outsiders. The former is much more interesting to me and, I feel, allows a more authentic look at a place. Plus, it's fun to find things that you weren't expecting to find - like one of the President's Marine One helicopters flying over the Anacostia River, or the fish market further downstream. Following maps, you always know what's going to come next.
Later that night, I took the train up to Baltimore to meet up with a friend of Bryn's from Oklahoma. We went to the opening night of Guys and Girls Gone Wild, a Baltimore swing and jazz dance weekend. They had a live band (Sac au Lait) and a vintage bathing suit badminton competition. Seriously. Photographic evidence is below.

So now I can mark Baltimore on the map of places where I've swung out. Also, fittingly, I met a girl who had just FINISHED a circumnavigation by water. Hers took 7 years compared to my 9 months, but I like that people like that are out there. Hopefully they'll have lots of tips for me later on down the road.

I negotiated my first transportation snafu Saturday morning when Amtrak, beset by inexplicable delays, failed to get me on my train on time, even though I spent $29 on a ticket to go about 50 miles from Baltimore to DC. Geez. I found three others trying to get to DC and we split a cab down there. Total cost: $100, which means it was only $25 per person, proving that, in some cases, taking a cab is actually cheaper than Amtrak. Unbelievable.

Aside from my expert problem-solving skills on display in that specific case, overall, I haven't felt particularly sharp these past couple of weeks. I am realizing that, before I left, I had had about four years to perfect my life in Austin. I could operate on auto-pilot there, taking for granted the little things like getting from place-to-place, eating, socializing, working, etc. But now, auto-pilot has to get turned off. Now, all those things that I took for granted in Austin I have to expend more energy just to make them happen (much less make them happen efficiently) since I'm in new, less familiar territory.

I can tell that my brain is a little slower, duller and less witty in situations here. I remember this feeling from past travels and experiences living abroad. It's just something that I have to deal with and let my brain get into better shape. Ultimately, of course, this is what I want. I want to shake my brain up a bit (figuratively) to get it thinking about new things and working on different problems. I want to remain cognitively flexible and a trip like this will certainly do that.

I expect Vintage Bathing Suit Badminton to be all the rage when I get back to the US. Make it happen, guys.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The End of The Trace

Greetings from Knoxville, TN!

Yesterday, I finished up the Natchez Trace. But I didn't finish it in the way I intended. Instead of pedaling gloriously past mile marker 444 to fireworks, marching bands and baton twirlers, we simply were forced to exit onto Tennessee HWY 100. In a car. Not on a bicycle.

No marching band, but there were these pork chops smothered in southern goodness with collard greens and creamed corn at Loveless Cafe at the end of the Trace just outside of Nashville

You see, on day five (Sunday), I set out from Tupelo, MS charged up with the wind at my back and encouraged by the fact that I'd passed the half-way point the previous day. I rode about 5 miles when I realized that my knee was kind of bothering me. I pulled over at an unidentified confederate grave site area, walked around, stretched and got back on my bike feeling fine. Then, about five miles later, I started feeling the same pinch on the inside of my left knee whenever I put pressure on it. Not good. I had counted in previous, less exciting miles about 300 times per mile when my left knee would be called upon to exert pressure. Pain in that knee when I applied pressure to it would add up quickly, considering that I had 170 miles left to go.

I stopped once more, stretched again, tinkered with my bike a bit and got back on, determined to make it at least the next 10 miles to my prearranged pit-stop location. But this third time, I only made it about a mile before my knee flared up again.

I decided to call it a day after riding all of 11 miles and give my legs a break. After all, I had been going pretty hard on them for the past four day. I figured they just needed a rest and I had factored in a day of rest on the trip anyways, so no big deal.

The next day, though, was rainy and nasty weather; Mom got sick, and my knee wasn't feeling any better. It was obvious that no biking would get done on Monday, either. Along side these hurdles was a growing boredom with biking the trace. I had biked 275 miles through forests and swamps and, while I had learned a ton about Mississippi and traveling on bike (see my last post) I felt like I was facing diminishing returns with the bicycling. I believe strongly that you finish what you set out to do, but I also understand that, for the sake of being pragmatic, sometimes you have to give up on something in order to maintain the overall objective. In my case, biking the Natchez Trace was a very small segment of a much larger trip around the world. The last thing I needed was to injure myself in the second week of my trip being stubborn on the trace.

Also, I felt like I could still appreciate other aspects of the trace by driving the rest of it. You see a lot more of a landscape biking it than driving it, but you seen even more walking it. I had walked very little of the trace for the first 275 miles - mostly because I was weary of expending the energy to detour 200-300 feet off the trace to the trail heads. But in the car, I was able to stop at every trail head, nearly every segment of the old trace left in tact, and really get down on the ground level with the trace. I got to the edge of Bear Creek and watched the eddies swirl debris back and forth along the banks in Tishomingo State Park, admire the Tennessee River in Alabama and walk through an old tobacco plantation in Tennessee. It's unlikely I'd have stopped to do any of thee things had I been on my bike, too focused just to get to the next mile marker so that I could drink some water or east some trail mix. So, in short, I got over any guilt I initially felt about giving up on biking pretty quickly.

Like I said, I'm a terrible photographer, but I worked too hard at this one not to post it. Any guesses what it is?

This experience serves as a really good lesson to remember for the rest of my trip. I'm sure I'll come to points later on where carrying out my intended plan will bring big consequences that may require changing that original plan. Seeing as how I already broke the seal on the Natchez Trace, I don't think I'll need to wring my hands too much about dropping future plans that carry too big of a price.

As for the knee, it's fine to walk on and even run on. If it takes me another 23,000 miles without another incident, I'll forgive it for skipping out on the last 169 of the Trace.

Next Stop: Washington DC

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Natchez Trace

I just finished day four, mile 260, on the Natchez Trace Parkway about 4 hours ago. As a refresher, you'll recall the last time that I wrote, I was in Natchez, MS, getting ready to bike the 444 mile (I think I may have mistakenly said 422 earlier - don't want to short change myself) Natchez Trace. So far everything has gone a-ok; for the most part. I did get a flat at mile 21 (complicated further by a broken tire wrench, too), just as I was warming up, and I shared the road with an unhealthy number of other cars passing through Jackson at around mile 100, and then there was the rough road for about 20 miles past Kosciusko, MS (160 to 180) - and then, I can't leave out the ever so slight headwind that I've been up against the whole time that is driving me towards psychosis. But all in all, I'm doing alright.

The Half-Way Point, Crossed at Noon Today

The first day was the beast. 100 miles from Natchez to Jackson. About as flat as you can get through the swamps and river bottoms of southwest Mississippi. Along this part of the trace, landowners and other rich folk from Natchez expanded out of town and built schools and plantation homes. The trace is pretty heavily wooded through this stretch and liberally garnished with Spanish moss. I met up with a cousin of mine who I'd never met before in Jackson, MS - always nice to be able to link up with unknown family members, it gave me a more personal experience in Jackson.

The next day was by far the hardest. I only made it about 45 miles from Jackson when, stopping for lunch, I fell asleep in the grass and couldn't be bothered to finish up the 15 miles more I'd planned on biking that day to Kosciusko. So we got in the car and drove up to Grenada, MS to see yet ANOTHER family member. My paternal grandmother was from Alva, MS, just outside of Grenada, so that town has been a kind of epicenter for family gatherings that I never had the opportunity to go to as a kid. Finally in the neighborhood, I figured driving an hour off the trace was worth it to meet up with my cousin in town for fried catfish and then go see my great-grandparent's grave site in Alva. Being able to identify blood relations and genetic history to an area really makes it feel like home. It's given me more purpose as I've bicycled along the trace, reminding myself that these forests and river bottoms were familiar to my ancestors and that, by experiencing them, I was getting a little closer to them. It helps that I really am enjoying Mississippi. Forget the stereotypes, it's a great state and one of the most laid-back places I've ever been. Yes, even more laid-back than Austin, guys.

Great-Grandparents' Grave Site at Alva-Parker Cemetery

On Friday, I picked back up where I'd dozed off at mile 145 and rode about 35 miles before my legs just gave out. I wasn't recovering from the first two days and, along with a decline in the road surface quality, I cheated and had Mom drive me about 10 miles to Jeff Busby state park where we camped that night. Three things that bicycling magnifies are road surface quality, change in elevation and wind. Driving along in a car, you have to see pretty dramatic changes in any of these categories to notice a change in driving conditions, but on a bike, your legs (especially by day 3 or 4) are EXTREMELY perceptive of every little bump, shift in wind or increased graininess in the road. Up until mile 160, I'd enjoyed nice, smooth blacktop, but then it went to this really chunky asphalt with huge cracks and potholes in the road that slowed me down big time. Once I finally gave up and drove the rest of the way, I could barely notice the road condition. Same with wind. Standing there, you can't notice anything, but as soon as you start pedaling, you are very aware the slightest resistance. Wind resistance seems to increase exponentially with ground speed. It drives me crazy to be going along, getting buffeted this way and that and fighting against a wind, only to stop and experience absolute stillness. ARGH!

Dispatch From the Road
Ok, enough about the finer details of bicycling. I could obviously go on about this for many more pages (I have lots of hours to think about these things while I ride). Today, all the factors were working in my favor and I made it 57 miles to the outskirts of Tupelo, MS. Remembering the harrowing 10 miles through Jackson three days before, I opted to drive into Tupelo to avoid the traffic. So, altogether, I've cheated for about 20 miles out of 260. There aren't any more towns between here and Nashville, so the cheating may be over, but I won't promise.

Finally, it's amazing how far I've gotten out of my little world in Austin, even though I only left about 10 days ago and am still in the same time zone. The US is a pretty amazing place with lots to explore. I keep reminding myself that this is only the very beginning.

Happy Weekend!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mighty Mississippi

Yesterday we drove through the flat farmland of the Louisiana side of the Mississippi valley. I'm convinced that the only reason we couldn't see New Orleans some 200 miles south was because there were periodic rows of trees breaking up the cotton fields. Spotting these gigantic Live Oaks and Pecans on the horizon and guessing how far away they were became a game. My mom won. My conservative estimations of 2 or 3 miles lost to her extravagant guesses of 4-5 miles. Eastern Louisiana is an extreme place.

We drove south along HWY 65 from Pine Bluff, AR, where we were visiting a grandmother, about 150 miles down to Vidalia, LA before crossing the Mississippi river into Natchez, MS. Vidalia, LA lived up to the reputation of being the "other side of the river" from stately Natchez. Natchez grew up on a bluff along the Mississippi, attracting a French fort to defend the upper Mississippi river in the early 18th century and complemented the French stake in New Orleans further downstream. Natchez was a secondary port along the river, attracting lots of riverboat men from Kentucky and Ohio and lots of frontiersmen constantly pushing the boundaries of the US from Georgia. Natchez became a key port for the booming cotton industry at the turn of the 19th century. The road leading from Natchez up to Nashville, the Natchez Trace, served as a highway for boatmen to return upriver on foot, their flat-bottom  boats chopped up for lumber since they were worthless in the face of the might Mississippi current.

All this wealth (stemming from the geographic advantage Natchez had of being 200-300 feet higher above the river than Vidalia) allowed it to escape the poverty of subsistence farming that the people across the river never really seem to have left. Driving through Louisiana, only the cloud-filtered sunlight and thin veil of trees lining the highway allowed any idyllic interpretation of the landscape beyond the highway. Cypress lined swamps seemed beautiful peeking through the bare limbs lining the highway, but their reality was economically useless land to those who owned it. Plowed, wet dirt rows lining up for miles under a low, evening mist looked romantic under the filtered, northern light. Silhouettes of barns and farmhouses half a mile or more from the road looked inviting and much more solid than the tiny car I was in hurtling down the highway at 70 mph.

But viewing anything more closely in direct light on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi river revealed more of the truth. Most buildings in towns were empty. Gas stations seemed to be the busiest places, with cars parked in no particular order making the stations impossible to access for us out-of-towners. Locals were leaning against the walls of the convenience stores under big "no loitering signs" drinking from paper bags at 3pm. It appeared that their work was done for the day.

Photos from the drive yesterday would have made for a really poignant coffee table book in some Natchez mansion gift shop on the other side of the river. Sixth or seventh generation Natchezans (pronounced "Natchezians"), their wealth a little deteriorated since the Civil War, could have certainly capitalized on the raw images of natural beauty contrasted with social ills from the agricultural communities across the river. Too bad I'm a terrible photographer and the picture up top is really the only one out of about 20 that were worth posting.

Back in the 19th century, Vidalia experienced the refinements in Natchezan society by absorbing the prostitutes, drunks and gambling halls that Protestant Natchez could afford to rid itself of. The antebellum mansions lining Natchez's streets (they earn their keep by charging $15 for a tour) are not seen at all on the other side of the river. The perch where the French built Fort Rosalie back in 1716 is now occupied by Rosalie mansion - perhaps the most prime real estate in all of Mississippi, situated on the highest bluff over the river in town. Big, concrete casinos can be seen nearly a mile away in poorer Louisiana. But Natchez's mansion fees haven't been able to bouy the economy as the strategic importance of Natchez declined with the advent of the steamboat (thus rendering the Natchez trace obsolete) and they've had to dial back on the pretentiousness. Now, an enormous "steamboat" (I'm not convinced it was ever actually in service) is parked below Rosalie Mansion and services Natchez's riverboat gambling fans. "The Isle of Capri Resort" has consumed a large part of southern Natchez, with the "boat", parking lots, dry land hotel and busy shutles all marking a very visible presence here.
Rosalie Mansion, former site of Fort Rosalie that put Natchez on the map.

Tomorrow I set off on the Natchez Trace on my bike. The plan is to bike all 422 miles to Nashville, TN by March 17.  I need to average about 60 miles per day to hit that mark. We'll see how my legs hold up. The next post will be from the Trace, and might include some bitching about how I can't stand up. Just be warned.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The first REAL post

I had the first "Kazakhstan moment" of my trip today. The place where I am staying had some old razors that I pilfered for shaving. These things were old. Nice, double steel blades and a handle that must have weighed a pound. This wasn't any of your wussy Mach 5 moisturizer strip stuff. This was straight up blades on your face. But they didn't fit on the handle right: I could only fit them on upside down so that I had to shave by pushing the blades up the side of my face to make them work, and even then, they constantly popped off the handle and wouldn't fit back on so I had to keep using new blades, even though the previous one was still sharp. It was a highly frustrating shaving experience exacerbated by the fact that the water faucet handles were installed backwards, so that turning them to the right would open them and turning to the left would close them. I was highly confused, shaving upside down and constantly turning the water off when I meant to open the valve more.

"I guess this must be how they shave in Kazakhstan", is all I could think.

But I'm not in Kazakhstan. I'm in East Texas.

The razor blade and handle probably belonged to my dad 30 years ago, as I had this unique shaving experience in his old bathroom at my grandpa's house in Palestine, TX. Not Kazakhstan. It is the first stop after leaving my home in Austin last night.

It's appropriate that the first stop on my 'round-the-world trip be in Palestine. This is my second home, where I've been coming to visit family, feed cows and shoot pigs since I was a little kid. If my trip were depicted as concentric circles, Palestine would be the innermost cirlce just around the bull's eye. I like that my trip is starting out small. Aside from the fact that I get to shock people by telling them that the first stop on my world trip is in Palestine (first a shock of horror, then, as I explain it's Palestine, TEXAS, boredom) stopping here first lets me ease into my trip, blurring the lines between the life I left behind yesterday and the life that I'll be leading for the next nine months. Technically, I'm on my big adventure and I'm treating this stop-over at Grandpa's as such, but my brain just feels like I'm up at the ranch for the weekend. I'm tricky like that.

I helped Grandpa feed the cows this morning by cutting and removing the bailing twine wound around the bales of hay that he was setting out for the cows. Later on, my uncle Robert came over and we got started smoking four racks of pork ribs - Robert's pork ribs are one of my favorite forms of meat on earth. I have been seriously spoiled by excellent food in the past week as everyone has stuffed my face in preparation for my journey. They seem to think that food does not exist beyond the borders of the United States and I am happy to harvest the consequences of this delusion.

From the beginning of one food chain... the end of another.

Palestine is a great place. As we were leaving the grocery store this afternoon after our rib-run, a guy about my age in an apron came running out to us and offered to assist us to the car. I did not know that American grocery stores still offered this service. It'll be interesting to see how today's trip to the grocery store compares with the one that I'll inevitably take in Almaty - or Tbilisi, or Guangzhou or Ulambatar! So many menial adventures to have. I can't wait.


Hey Everybody!

Here it is - the much anticipated blog chronicling my trip around the world. Some of you know the back story but more of you are probably unaware of the background. So let me catch you up on the past year and how it is I got to be traveling around the world.

My new year's resolution last year was to do a feasibility study on traveling around the world. My girlfriend Bryn suggested that I set a date for deciding WHEN I would start my trip. That date was June 30. An arbitrary date that gave me 6 months to research my resolution. I spent the next 6 months figuring out my budget, route, means of transportation, parameters and the all important mission statement: to feel all the places that I had spent the past 3 (now 4) years of my life reading about and writing about for my job. Parameters: make it from Iceland to Indonesia without flying.

Today is the first day of my trip, which explains why you're getting this now. I'll be spending the next 8-9 months going places and telling you all about those places, and maybe even sending pictures of those places. Some of  you may remember the "weekly updates" I sent back in college. This will be something like that, with the added advantage of being in blog form, which means you get to read these words will all this nifty blogspot formatting and color schemes. For those of you unfamiliar with Ben's weekly update, just rest easily knowing that this is a huge improvement.

There are certainly people that I will leave out of the distribution list, so please forward this to whomever you think would be interested.

Here we go,

Welcome to the adventure!