Travel Destinations

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

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kyoto, Temples and Kitchen Knives

Just one of Kyoto's Temples by night
What can I say?  It's very easy to fall in love with Kyoto.  It happened when I traveled there 10 years  ago, and it only took a few minutes after arriving this time around to remember why. Kyoto is tremendously historic, perfectly quaint and  completely charming from head to toe. It was also nice to have a few more bucks in my pocket this time, so I didn't need to sleep under any bridges, or stay in a flophouse run by a former North Korean soldier.

We arrived by Shinkansen on Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after landing in Tokyo. As the cherry blossom festival had just taken place a few days prior, the city was crowed with domestic and international travelers alike.  This gave Kyoto a buzz, filling the city with lingering travelers exploring the many temples, gardens and winding backstreets Kyoto has to offer.  We jumped right into the action, quickly dropping our bags and hit the street.  Strolling from temple to temple and garden to garden, we took in the peaceful air of the city that quickly settles onto your shoulders like a warm blanket.  After a few beers or a bottle of sake, the tension in your muscles dissipates and you find yourself awash in tranquility.  You feel like you're in a town of 15,000 when you're actually in a town of 1.5 million.

Our second day in Kyoto took us to the main market in central Kyoto that morning, stopping at stand after stand and sampling several types of Japanese specialties.  From fish balls to tiny squid, we stuffed our faces trying to take in all the varied flavors, some of which were less than appealing.  After a few passes through the market, we found the most important store of the day we had eagerly planned to visit - Aritsugu Knife Shop.

The history of Aritsugu runs deep.  The Aritsugu family opened their store back in 1560, over 18 generations ago, honing their craft of blade making by first producing samurai swords that were highly valued by the Japanese elite and royalty. Once the country fell into peaceful times, they transitioned into a cutlery producer for some of Japan's top culinary masters.  The walls of their modest shop are lined with every possible type of fish knife one can possess.  I fixed my eyes on a beautiful, handmade santoku, which they carefully pulled from the counter for inspection. After agreeing on this choice and going over pricing, the shopkeeper wrote down my name and passed the blade over to one of the craftsmen. He then pounded my name in Japanese characters carefully into the side of the blade which is customary for them to do.

You might say that writing a blog post about a kitchen knife seems a little absurd.  You may be right.  You also might be a big jerk. I'm kidding - just checking to see if you are still awake.  But for me, it embodies so much more. Craft is something that is going by the wayside.  Sure, there's been a resurgence of craft beer, craft cheese, craft kombucha and every other craft Brooklyn, Boulder and guys with silly facial hair can shove down your throat.  The beauty here however, is that 1 family, for more than 18 generations, felt compelled that what they were doing was important enough for the next generation to take over, continually perfecting their art and passing it on to their children. The precision, care and time they've each put in from generation to generation is astounding, making them some of the finest knife crafters on the planet.

10 years ago I stood in front of many a knife shop in Japan, hoping to one day own a blade that's been so meticulously crafted.  This time I was able to do it. Frankly, there may be no better travel artifact to bring home from Japan then a blade from Aritsugu.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tokyo - A Lost Post

She's been running the same coffee stand for the last 50 years
I wrote a long post this morning that was accidentally delete when my blogger app crashed.  It was beautiful in its prose, thoughtful in its imagery and inspiring in its efforts.  But as technology has taken the last hour and a half of my morning and surreptitiously thrust it into the ether, I've decided to provide the abridged version.  We ate horse meat sashimi, prawns, roasted pork, went to a famous tuna auction at Tsujiki fish market, ate exceptional soba noodles and traveled by Shinkansen to Kyoto within 24 hours.

As I'm still reeling from the loss of this morning's post, I thought I'd share some pictures instead.

Recently caught Tuna - up for auction
Tuna Auction at Tsujiki Market, Tokyo

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.