Travel Destinations

Churchill, Manitoba - Panama - Cuba - The Philippines - Croatia - Montenegro - Bosnia and Hercegovina - Kosovo - Peru - Colombia - Israel - West Bank - Jordan - India - Nepal - South Korea - Mongolia

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Polar Bears, Helicopters and Plane Wrecks

Copyright Jordy Olsen
As I reflect on my recent trip to Churchill, I can't help but think about the experience and exposure that the Hudson Bay threw my way.  Let me start with the fact that seeing polar bears in their natural habitat is a completely formidable experience.  I'm not exaggerating. They are enormous creatures, with razor sharp claws and are capable of cannibalizing their young (not mothers, only the male bears eat cubs).  But in the same breath, they are fully adorable, with all the qualities that allow us to easily anthropomorphize their every movement.  The brain often fails to process how vicious these creatures can be, until you see an image of them dissecting the the blubber from a ring seal, or much worse, when someone is mauled by a curious bear that has wondered a little to far into town.

Polar Bear Lift
While it happens infrequently, a bear will sometimes get a little too close for comfort.  In these instances, The "Polar Bear Alert Program" will step in and tranquilize the bear.  It'll then be taken to the polar bear holding facility, where it will be monitored and held for upwards of 30 days.  A helicopter will then be brought in to lift the bear out of town approximately 40 miles or so, to an area where it's deemed a safe distance from human habitation. While many bears do exist within a few miles of town, the captured bears tend to be the rambunctious ones.  After local scientists take advantage of studying the bears during this time, they are put in a net, hooked to a heli and whisked away along the skyline. Watching the process take place is pretty damn cool.

Over the course of my stay, seeing the bears from the polar rovers was quite spectacular, however watching them from a helicopter as they sparred, lazily explored and began wondering out on the slowly forming sea ice, really set the bar for the Churchill experience. After hopping in a six person helicopter with a colleague of mine, the blades began spinning as the motor powered up.  A few minutes later we were on the radio and lifting off the launch pad, heading in the direction of the arctic tundra.  Along the way, we saw a collection of 5 bull moose in a boreal forest, before coming across two large male polar bears sparring along the water's edge.  As we gazed off in the distance, an anxious bear began wondering out onto the semi frozen sea ice.  He then self correcting and headed back to a more sure footed shoreline as the freeze was still thin and quite fragile. From there, we headed towards slightly more open waters, which gave sight to the shipwreck of the SS Ithaka, which ran aground 5 miles outside of Churchill back in 1961. Next, we set out to explore for more bears and were delighted to have a group of 3 males sleeping side by side along the grease ice of the Hudson Bay.

Miss Piggy
Even more exciting was the feeling of hovering above the plane wreck "Miss Piggy" that went down in 1979 during a cargo run.  Within an hour flight, we saw 9 bears, 5 moose, 1 plane wreck, 1 shipwreck and the the beautifully designed Prince of Whales Fort.  Just being back up in a helicopter again was a rush in and of itself.  Adding in all the fascinating elements of the surrounding natural history, along with mankind's triumphs and tragedies that dotted the landscape, really spoke to the importance of getting out and seeing what the world has to offer.  Really - get up right now.  Stop reading this and close your computer. Go find something new to add to your memory bank. That's my plan.

Whether it be polar bears, a killer concert, a hell of a hike or a meal that looks weird as shit and may still be moving on your plate, experience and exposure means everything.  Repetition of the familiar may bring you joy and can certainly be comforting - but to tackle something new, something that feels pure to your life, is the distilled essence of discovery.  Who gives a shit if you weren't the first to do it.  If it was a first in your life, then you're on the right track. Frankly, what's life without some type of new sensation? Where's the excitement in a perfectly controlled world?  Regardless of experiential size, take advantage of your full range of emotions and try for once to feel as much as possible.  Peel off a layer of body armor and rediscover your humanity.  Get excited about new experiences in this existence - because for all we know, this could be it.

Fort Prince of Whales

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba

Two male bears sparring
The polar bear season has finally kicked off and seemingly with a bang.  Since my start with Nathab in March, I've heard the lore from multiple colleagues about the massive operation we pull off during the October/November bear viewing season. With great anticipation and a few days travel, I'm finally here in the polar bear capital if the world - Churchill, Manitoba. 
I started my journey a few days ago and after two nights in Winnipeg, we touched down in the tiny outpost town of Churchill.  With about 900 locals that call Churchill home, this spot on the map packs huge character as a polar bear mega hub and for good reason. The west Hudson Bay bear population in Churchill reaches nearly 1000 bears during the October/November timeframe.  No other town on the planet can boast these numbers.  The trophy belongs to Churchill, and Churchill alone.
Upon entrance into Churchill, the regular images conjured up by most outpost towns smacks you square in the chin.  Vehicles on blocks, dilapidated buildings, wilting porches and a generally somber mood.  Supplies are expensive and hard to get, industry never began bourgeoning on a large scale and it's so goddamn cold most of the year that people don't want to go outside to tidy up their lawns.  The locals are friendly and welcoming, although they can be a bit quirky and colorful to say the least.  But you might be too, if your winters went down to -50 below, polar bears regularly wandered through town and sporadically mauled a neighbor from time to time, and the only way out of town is by a fairly expensive flight.
After a night of exploring, settling in and getting caught up on some sleep, we woke the following day and headed out onto the tundra in the polar rovers. An hour of rolling over the frozen dirt and the burnt colored tundra, brought us to a huge cream colored mound nestled snugly in the willows. Before long, he shook his back side and rose to his feet and wandered past our vehicle. 

He sauntered into the path of another bear behind our rover that had just made himself known, where they began sniffing nose to nose.  With careful positioning and measured movement, they then both reared onto their hind legs and slammed their paws into each other's chests.  With mouths wide open bearing teeth, they sparred for more than 10 straight minutes, rolling, playfully biting, shoving and putting on a spectacular show right before our eyes.  My jaw hung agape, fully amazed at the scene playing out before my eyes.  It was a moment of true beauty - wild and fully visceral.
These bears were getting ready to hunt by honing their self defense skills and my camera was reaping the benefits.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mission:Wolf - Colorado

2 plus months ago, I left New York and moved to Boulder, CO to take a job with one of the world's best adventure travel companies.  While I'm sure my position with them will fuel several blog posts from exotic locations in the future, this entry is focused on the grandeur of our own domestic soil.  I've yet to post an entry about the states, but as this move has opened up exciting possibilities for adventures in a new environment, I promise I'll stay away from the mundane aspects of everyday life, and will post only escapades worthy of note.

When I told my previous boss at Insight Cuba that I'd be leaving NYC and moving to Colorado,  he was emphatic that I visit a wolf sanctuary lost deep in the shadows of the Sangre Mountains named Mission:Wolf. To be very clear, Mission:Wolf is not a zoo.  It is wholly and completely a sanctuary, devoted to the care of wolves that have been domesticated at various levels. I've always been slightly fascinated by wolves for reasons I can't quite determine.  They're enigmatic, elusive and awe-inspiring, with eyes that make the hair on the nape of your neck stand up.  I had to see them.

I left work on Friday and barreled south along I-25, aiming to land in the heart of the mountains some 35 miles outside of Westcliffe, CO.  5 hours later and multiple dirt roads with no discernible landmarks, I yanked my emergency break to its peak and shut off my ignition.  I then stepped out of the driver side door into the crisp mountain air, to find a glaring moon and and a handful of stars bouncing their light off the snow capped peaks in the distance.  It was perfectly quiet and wonderfully remote.  

After rustling around my backpack to find my headlamp, I laid out my tent, sleeping bag and food to settle in for the night.  I uncorked a bottle of Estancia, sliced up some peppered salami and shaved off a few slivers of swiss cheese. I shut off my headlamp and drank in the dark.  I imagined the beauty of the scenery in front of me, and what it'd look like in the morning.  My mind and the wine decided it would be spectacular.  Sure enough, the morning did not disappoint.

I awoke to the sun heating up the cool mountain air as it began peaking through my tent.  I peeled back the vestibule to find myself perched on a bluff, overlooking an incredible landscape of an open valley, layered by rolling hills and backdropped by a rocky mountain curtain, topped with snowy peaks.  As I stumbled about, finding my coordination and camp stove to make tea, the howling began.  First one, then two, then several wolves.  They howled intermittently for the 20 minutes with each time, sounding like it had been perfectly orchestrated for the background noise of a Dracula monologue.  

After a quick breakfast in the morning sun, I wandered over to the fences that made up the wolf's quarters.  Mission:Wolf is located right in the middle of a canyon/ravine that gives each wolf substantial room to move freely and comfortably.  Nothing replaces the true wilderness, but these creatures were far from the cages of a zoo.

Some of the local staff (long term volunteers) came out to greet me and gave me a quick tour of the premises. We walked from fence to fence, over simple footpaths and wooden bridges, visiting each of the wolfs in their respective spaces.  Some were skittish and preferred to pass their time incognito, while others I learned, yearned for human attention and would welcome you into their cages.  

The volunteer staff encouraged me to wonder about on my own, but encouraged me to come back at 12pm, as they'd take the few of us that made the journey all the way out here, into the cages to meet the wolves.  I took a quick hike to the highest point of a neighboring hill for the celebrated views I'd been told about, before hiking back across the valley to step into the wolf cage to meet 6 different wolves.  

When entering the cages, we were given a few simple instructions:  

1. Ignore the wolves
2. Sit down at their level and stare into their eyes
3. If they approach you, reach out under their chin to pet them first to assert dominance
4. Open your lips and close your teeth, as they will lick your teeth to make themselves comfortable with you.  To pull your face away is to reject them, which apparently is not very smart.

When I sat down, a wolf named tiger came over and began immediately licking my teeth.  Then another would approach from the side and do the same.  The experience was surreal.  Part of your mind is telling you not to be there, but another part tells you it is really ok.  It feels fully procedural, until the moment the wolf stares deeply into your eyes and your heart skips a beat. After 5 minutes around the wolves, comfort starts to set in and any unsettled nerves start to dissipate. The experience is superb.

As I stayed the previous night and offered to volunteer that morning, I had a chance to feed the wolves as well.  While each wolf is at varying levels of domesticity, watching them eat is a reminder of what true carnivores they are.  They abandoned all manners and lunged for the huge chunks of butchered horse we threw over the fences.  They ripped and tore at the meat, while chewing through huge chunks of bone.  

After the feeding, they all found shady spots in their pens to lay around and burp for the afternoon.  I too, made a small meal and sat back enjoying the view one last time before I split for Boulder.  

On the way out, I thought about not only what I had just seen, but rather, how and when I'd make it back.   I'm telling you now - go see a wolf.  


Monday, February 3, 2014

Panama City, Panama

Panama Canal
I'm back in the fish market.  Two times in two days.  I've tried 5 separate types of ceviche, consumed two, very fresh fried fish and watched Panamanian social culture unravel right before my eyes over an ice cold pilsner.  I have little to no time in Panama and I've chosen to spend it huddled around tightly packed tables, with blaring salsa music and the ever-lingering smell of fish.

I'm here on business.  I've been waiting about 10 years to say that while abroad.  I'm meeting a group of 50 U.S. doctors and escorting them to a conference we've organized in Havana.  It's quite an ordeal as this association has not been to Cuba since pre-Castro times. Expectations are high.
Fish Market
But Panama - I'm a true latecomer to this country.  My parents were here 7 years ago.  My sister and brother-in-law got engaged here.  I wonder if they spend as much time at the fish market as I did. I'll have to ask.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a wander around San Felipe, the historic colonial Old Town that has been well preserved and restored. It was nice, kinda charming, but it can't shake a stick at the fish market.  These are my people.  Believe it or not, smelly places like this usually offer some of the richest cultural rewards.  Unlike the carefully crafted, sterile, hospital like corridors that have been becoming so perfectly normal in the western world, fish markets offer age old commerce, tables wiped off with dirty rags and a perfect place for the brunt of humanity to take a load off and enjoy some beer and seafood.  This is a place without pretense, without issue. As long as the sea exists, so will the fish market.

Damn Good Fish
I'm staying at the Trump Ocean View Hotel.  I know right?  The help call me sir.  I call them sir.  They insist.  I insist.  Last night I ate a full fried fish on my balcony 33 floors up, purchased at the fish market of course. 

Like a good tourist, I went to the Miraflores viewpoint, overlooking the central lock of the Panama canal.  Massive ships pass through quite regularly.  Some have only about two feet to spare on either side of the walls.  The canal really is quite interesting.  When I caught a taxi back to town, the cab driver told me he used to live in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.  I told him I lived in Queens. After talking New York shop for a bit, he asked what I thought of the canal.  I said it was a man made marvel; a true accomplishment of early 20th century man.  Then I ask him what he thought if it.  He told me he had never been. "Looks boring" he said.  Then he asked if I had been to the fish market.  "Of course! Great ceviche," I said.  "No man, the best," he added.  It felt good to be amongst friends.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Undiscovered Cuba - Part 2 - Camaguey

Square with bronze figurines
I awoke to the sensation of dry lips and a rancid flavor in my mouth like I had licked an ashtray.  After 5 years of not smoking, the cigars with the fellow guides seemed like such a good idea the night before. I slipped on a shirt and brushed my teeth twice before venturing out the door to meet a friend for breakfast.  Over multiple cups of coffee, we discussed the plan of attach for the day.  We were headed to the central province of Camaguey, smack dab in the heart of the country.  I had been eyeing this part of Cuba up since I began working with Insight.  Central and eastern Cuba carry a different sort of allure.  Whether it be the general remoteness of the east side of the country, or that it is far less explored by the modern American eye, I was wonderfully enthusiastic to dig in and absorb all that eastern Cuba offered.

By the time we had arrived in Camaguey that afternoon, I was already beginning to absorb the infectious feel and flavor of the city center.  Bronze statues of life size figurines blended in on benches and street fronts in the most peculiar way.  We did double takes to be sure our minds weren't playing tricks on us. Flowers dressed the trees of neighboring houses and brightly colored facades made each street a veritable Kaleidoscope of activity.

Camaguey is punctuated with a simple yet inviting pedestrian promenade in the heart of the city.  It widens near the north side and spills into a small, yet effective public square that offers perfect stoops for rum consumption, as well as public performances by local theatre groups and oddly dressed clowns.  This seemed like a town of old.  Simple, central and personal, with enough edge to keep you alert, but enough smiles to keep you comfortable.

Contemporary dance troupe of Camaguey
Before darkness fell, we took the group to see a contemporary ballet rehearsal.  As we wondered into the dilapidated theater building, we came upon a simple stage with a huge and vacant orchestral gap that looked more like where you would keep lions, just in case the performers began slacking on their steps.  We sat down on dented folding chairs with little to no expectations of what we'd be seeing . Before long, dancers leaped onto the stage in acrobatic strides from both sides.  They glided and spun with tremendous conviction, consistently thrusting one another into the air with arms outstretched, as if blasting off into the heavens.  They lead interpretive dances to industrial music while pulling, tugging and contorting their bodies on the stage curtains that were perfectly position.  Where the hell was I?  This was world class by all standards and most travelers to Cuba had no idea this town even existed.  Undiscovered gems like this are the true beauty of Cuba.  A world class musician may be sitting next to you on a bus.  A Julliard quality dancer may be performing in a tiny venue, in a town you've never heard of somewhere well off the grid.  The talent per capita here  must be some of the highest in the world.

After chatting with the dancers, we moved on to enjoying some drinks with a large group of locals we stumbled upon at a small flamenco show, held in an alley near the main square.  The performance was jam packed and brought to life Camaguey's endearing magic for instantaneously invigorating an area of the city that could so easily be missed otherwise.  When the performance ended, we showed nonsensical dance moves to the locals of Camaguey, while they giggled and showed us actual dance steps that were fully in step with the music.  It turned into a great night.
Camaguey by night

The following day, we snuck into a baseball game during the 6th inning to expose the group to the way Cubans play ball.  It felt incredible to not only be the only Americans in the stadium, but most likely some of the only foreigners there as well.  Cubans stared on in interest for a few minutes before diverting their attention back to the game.  A baseball stadium is an excellent place to watch humanity push through an abundance of emotions in a short period of time.  Watching the meter tilt one way on the emotional spectrum, before gaining reverse polarity and flipping around to the other side, shows the fragile state of the human psyche.  Regardless of nationality, in a mob mentality setting, it only takes a moment for a unified emotional shift to occur.

New friends making noise well into the night
After dropping off the group, we went to a true locals bar in a shaded courtyard and begin enjoying drinks with a few new friends we had met the night before.  By the second bottle of rum, someone had handed Jason (my travel companion and co-worker at the time) a guitar and asked us to sing a few songs in English.  Jason can play like a son of a bitch and before I knew it, we were rattling off Ryan Adams songs to a group of toe-tapping strangers.

Camaguey is one of those towns that really requires a traveler to pop the hood and have a look around.  On the surface, it gives a decent showing.  But when you start fishing around, you'll find the magic that makes this place work. If you're passing through, but sure to stop in.  Bring a bottle of rum with you and you'll have companions to sing with, partners to dance with and new friends to wave goodbye as you finally pull away.  I'm definitely a fan.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Undiscovered Cuba Part 1- Havana and Santa Clara

Cathedral Square for New Year's Eve
When I sit back and think about it, I've spent a year and half of my life expounding the never ending virtues of travel to Cuba for every American under the sun.   I've taken 4 trips since January and have explored the island's nooks and crannies far more than the average Joe.  I've led groups as a tour leader, experienced several behind the scenes moments with locals and have formed a small, yet reliable cast of friends and coworkers in country.  Every aspect of my career revolves around the culture and politics of the island, yet I haven't once mentioned it here on my blog.  What is that about?

National Ballet
Honestly, I haven't the slightest idea why writing about Cuba has evaded me until this moment.  It's a robust and reticular culture that commands your full attention from the moment you touch down until the moment of departure.  It is beautiful hypocrisy in action; a full blown cultural conundrum.  Trying to understand it will twist your mind into damn near permanent knots, with no string-ends in sight. It's stubborn, sensual, enigmatic and straightforward all in the same breath.  It suffers from immense pride to the point of guilt, displays a sense of cast-iron courage at the expense of it's people, and proves highly contradictory through it's zealous campaigns that rampantly contrast its stifling authoritarian approach.  It's simply fascinating.

My first trip to Cuba was on our Undiscovered Cuba program, which for those unfamiliar, is part of a licensed program from the U.S. Treasury Department that allows for what is known in the industry as People-to-People travel.  The license allows any American with a valid passport to travel on a program that has been constructed by a tour operator or organization holding a specific license.  As part of a staff familiarization trip I was sent to scope out the landscape of our newest program, set to navigate the better half of 650 miles across the 780 mile island from Havana to Baracoa.  If you're a reader of mine, you know that I'm not much of a tour person.  I'd rather stumble through the unknown areas of a country to craft an experience that is purely mine, no matter how miserable it may feel at the time. My sense of satisfaction grows exponentially when I stumble across something that was not meant for me to discover; something that was not planted like an easter egg, but rather an organic discovery excavated from the landscape because I pushed a little further than the guide book suggested.  This has been a recipe for success many times over and has also proven to be a form of self sabotage on other occasions.  You live an you learn right?
Casa de Jose Fuster

The soles of my shoes hit the tarmac of terminal one for the first time on December 31, 2012.  What a day to arrive!  After settling into the hotel and visiting the home of renowned artist Jose Fuster, our group went to Cathedral Plaza in Old Havana for an opulent celebration with a few hundred other people wearing goofy hats and blowing kazoos in celebration of New Year's Eve.  The wine and rum flowed heavily and before I knew it, a group of us were on stage dancing to the wild rhythms of Cuba salsa. For some reason, my colleagues and I felt it was more appropriate to dance in a funky hip hop style mash up of moves, rather than bastardizing the actual moves required to look eloquent. The band played well into the evening and slowly we dropped off one by one to head back to the hotel, swimming in a sea of exhaustion. Face down in an aged pillow, I prayed that the morning wouldn't come as quickly as I expected.  4 hours later, my alarm went off and I rolled out of bed cursing the activities of the previous evening.  After a few sips of expresso in the hotel lobby, my eyeballs evened out and the haze began to lift.  It was a hell of a way to spend New Year's Eve the night before and I wandered into the New Year with great cheer and optimism.  

The next two days were spent exploring the people and places in Havana, including the National Ballet with Alicia Alonzo, several artist studios and a plethora of cultural activities that began providing a more comprehensive picture of what life for the average Cuban was really like in Havana.  Our nights were spent passing around bottles of rum on the Malecon with local Cubans near anti-imperialist square, while live music pulsed in the background.  We were beginning to adopt the "a lo Cubano" mentality and it felt so natural.

Che Memorial
The following day, we made our way 4 hours east to Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara mausoleum where Che, the face of international leftist revolution, has been preserved in full cannon for generations to admire.  After being killed in Bolivia by the national army while trying to overthrow the government, Che's hands were promptly cut off.  He was then buried in an undisclosed location near an airstrip, only to be discovered nearly 30 years later.  His remains were then repatriated to Santa Clara, which served as the site of the most decisive battle in the Cuban revolution led by Che Guevara.

After our visit to the monument, we found our way back to the the center of town where we drank cold bottles of Cuban beer and watched a tired sun tuck itself in behind a welcoming horizon.  As night drew to a close, we gathered together with our Cuban partners and smoked enormous cigars poolside at a local hotel.  I was only a third of the way into my trip and already I was planning my next visit back to the island in my mind.  Cuba was proving to be everything I needed it to be and more.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

El Nido and Bacuit Bay, Philippines

After Port Barton and a second flat tire, we doubled back to Puerto Princesa and ditched the bike.  The following morning, we caught a van to El Nido, roughly 6 hours to the north.  Upon arrival, it took me less than 20 minutes to realize that the town was lackluster at best.  The streets were a chaotic malaise of generic tourist crap.  Shakes, crepes, pizza and pasta, along with shops exploding with beachy tourist junk.  This town was a perfect example of a mad dash for money.  Unfortunately  Southeast Asia is dotted with places like this.  I should have known better.  The noce part is, there are so many nicer places to visit around El Nido, making it a great jump off point for world class diving, snorkeling and island hoping.
The following day, we hired a shared boat with two backpackers from Slovakia, as well as a solo traveler from Colombia.  As we cruised from island to island, we stopped periodically to explore hidden coves, isolated beaches and to snorkel through incredible coral reefs.  It was a hell of a way to spend the day. 
The following day we caught a flight back to Manila on a small prop plane.  Upon arrival at the airport, we were.met by the father of one of Laura's colleagues.  Along with his driver and wife, we traveled to Tagaytay for the next two days to eat, relax and and recover from our travels. 
We hiked a small volcano the next morning and spent the remainder of the day remembering tthe high points of our trip to our gracious hosts.  This was the perfect way to cap off our journey and left the greatest of impressions on our mental landscapes.  This is surely a country I will return to in the future.