Walking the Plank Road in the Sky: A Lesson in Overcoming Fear

Walking the Plank Road in the Sky: A Lesson in Overcoming Fear

Think of something you fear. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Conjure up the images, sounds and smells that accompany that fear. Did your hands start to sweat? Or your stomach turn flips? That’s how I felt whenever I thought about doing the Plank Road in the sky on a mountain called Huashan in China. Now that we are on the same page, What is the Plank Road in the Sky? Picture a two foot wide plank of wood stitched together with huge, but rusty, nails suspended 1,000 meters above a craggy mountain range. The 60 meter long Plank Road in the Sky, located on the South Peak of Huashan (near Xian, China), is a major draw on the backpacking circuit.  It is an attraction akin to the Death Road in Bolivia – a borderline right of passage for those that make a trip to the respective areas.  The mountain itself is no slouch. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China and is considered one of the most beautiful mountains in all of China. Just look at the sunrise from the South Peak (The sunrise from a Sacred Mountain is kind of a big deal to the Chinese). So I knew I had to hike Huashan. I just had to. What I didn’t know was whether or not I would be able to do the optional Plank Road section while I was there.  In the months and days leading up to the hike, I went back and forth in my mind about whether I could do it. Some people may find the Plank Road nothing more than an elevated stroll with a beautiful view.  Let me...
The mostly overlooked, but greatly underestimated Mount Heng

The mostly overlooked, but greatly underestimated Mount Heng

A sixty-degree incline of stone stairs stood in front of me – 103 stairs to be exact. Atop the stairs was Beiyue Hall, a splendid Daoist temple halfway up Mount Heng in the Shanxi province of China. Mount Heng, or Hengshan, is one of the five sacred mountains of China. Already, I could smell the incense burning inside the temple. Standing just outside was my taxi driver and a woman from Sevilla I met the day before. I was surprised that Oscar, our middle-aged, portly taxi driver, was making the trek with us. When I reached the top, I found Oscar drenched in sweat; the last time he made the climb was 10 years ago. Still, he told me later, he would like to visit all five of the sacred mountains. The five mountains were the favorite pilgrimage points of Chinese emperors during the last 2,000 years. The five mountains are delineated by their direction: North (Hengshan), South (Hengshan as well, confusing right?), East (Taishan), West (Huashan) and Center (Songshan). Emperors from all major dynasties made pilgrimages to the mountains. They were, in effect, surveying the edges of their empire. Supposedly, Hengshan is the least important Sacred Mountain. The five mountains are strongholds of Taoist temples, although they also contain smatterings of Buddhism as well. Due to Hengshan’s northerly location, Chinese commoners mostly overlooked it in favor of the other, more accessible mountains. According to Wikipedia, Hengshan is the least important religiously of them all. Which makes Hengshan less crowded. As we hiked up, we passed a few groups of Chinese tourists on their way down. Since it was late in the day,...
37 Things Backpacking has taught me to be grateful for

37 Things Backpacking has taught me to be grateful for

I’ve lived outside the US for over 7 years. Most Thanksgivings, I was fortunate enough to spend time with other expats. Often, somewhere between carving the turkey and seconds of cranberry sauce, someone would inevitably bring up what they are thankful for. I always enjoy this part of Thanksgiving because it’s cathartic. But this year, I am backpacking through China and will not have a proper Thanksgiving with all of the literal, and metaphorical, trimmings. So, instead, I decided to write down some of the small things that have made me happy while backpacking. Most of these things are small; but I believe their sum is bigger than the addition of their parts. So here are 37 things that backpacking has taught me to be grateful for: My sense of direction – when it works. Acts of kindness from strangers because without them, I would be lost. Literally. A good book for those long flights and days of travel. Fully charged devices so I don’t run out of juice while taking photos or posting to social media. An extra battery pack for when I do run out. Being fluent in the international travel language (English). Sorry French, German and Spanish! Trains because they are so much more convenient than planes. My ability to go multiple days without a shower. The ability for those around me to cope with me going multiple days without a shower. My ability to eat almost anything. Seriously, I’m like a goat. Local markets and all of their rich, exotic and tasty food. Remembering Immodium and Pepcid AC for after the local market. Leaving cold weather...
How to eat Scorpion in Beijing

How to eat Scorpion in Beijing

In the heart of Beijing, off the side of one of its busiest streets, lies a peculiar market. It’s where tourists go to test the saying that the Chinese will eat anything with four legs and isn’t a table. Actually, the saying shouldn’t be restricted to only four legs, really anything that lives and breathes is a potential food for the Chinese. Flying lizards, beetles, grasshoppers, snakes, scorpions, organs of cow, pig and chicken – the Chinese are not restricted to one Phylum let alone one Class of food. I have my eye on a row of black scorpions. The street vendor notices immediately and begins his pitch. “Scorpion good. Taste like Chicken. You try. Come.” I am still a bit nervous from a run in twenty minutes earlier I had with a snake. It had a slimy, gelatinous texture and even the four scoops of chill sauce dumped on top couldn’t suppress an overtly reptilian taste; something like fish that had gone rotten. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t seem to locate any actual meat, just the scaly, translucent skin. I ate two bites and chucked it in the trash-bin. “Come, come. You try.” He diverts my attention away from the huge black scorpions, to the smaller, brownish variety. The scorpions are skewered on small wooden dowels and displayed in rows. The wiggles of tails and clamping of claws prove their freshness to connoisseurs of scorpion in Beijing, before they are unceremoniously fried. I am no connoisseur, just a tourist with a peaked interest. On my first day in China, I posted on Facebook that I was starting with...
Inside the Mountain that Eats Men: A Photo Tour of the Potosi mines

Inside the Mountain that Eats Men: A Photo Tour of the Potosi mines

The deep thud of the blast ripples along the stone walls of the mineshaft. The walls are laced with moisture, the liquid appearing out of nowhere and everywhere. The explosion brings with it a light breeze and the earth shakes around me. It is hot, damp and hard to breathe 30 meters below the earth’s surface. The mask that I wear, made of a material similar to cardboard, is now more black than white. Only 45 minutes earlier our tour group had witnessed the placement of 10 sticks of dynamite. To maximize the explosion’s effectiveness, each stick was muzzle-loaded into its own two foot hole using a makeshift metal rammer. The men stuffing the holes are dinosaurs in the mine, close to 40 years old. The BBC reports that the average lifespan of the miners is 35. Nine more explosions sound off in rapid fire, like an underground 21 gun-salute. Then silence. The blast unearths the bounty of tin, zinc, magnesium and silver encased within the walls. The minerals are collected by the lowest laborers on the totem pole and hauled up to the surface in iron carts. When compared to the young faces pushing them, the carts seem positively ancient. History To history buffs and avid South American travellers, the Potosi mine or Cerro Rico “Rich Mountain” needs no introduction. Up until recently, I was neither, so taking a tour of the mine was an eye-opening experience. Potosi mine has been in operation since 1546, originally under the auspices of the Spanish crown. The silver rush exploded here and buoyed the rise of the Spanish state. Potosi city held the largest industrial...
Thank you Bolivia for Reminding me

Thank you Bolivia for Reminding me

“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.” David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas Thank you, Bolivia, for reminding me of who and what I am. I had forgotten. It’s been a slow process and I can’t pinpoint when it was that I started to forget. Maybe sometime during college, maybe even before. Perhaps during high school when I was trying to get over my lanky awkwardness. Perhaps it was later, when I was working at a multinational company, a small cog in a giant machine. And I don’t know why I forgot either. Maybe it was because I was too busy going to parties and having a good time during school. Maybe it was because, afterwards I was too obsessed with my career. Maybe, it’s simply because that’s what you are expected to do when you grow up. In any case, I forgot. Thank you, Bolivia, for reminding me that I like being outside. I forgot how good the sun feels in the early morning, right when the coolness of night is just a faint breath in the air, and the earth is starting to soak up the life-giving heat. Or the way the wind feels when it rushes past me as I ride a bike downhill, the wind whipping my cheeks and shouting in my ear something that only I can hear. Thank you, Bolivia for holding me in the dance of the earth. I remember the feeling. On your ground, I really looked at the stars. I used to do that when I was a kid – look up at them and take in all of the possibilities of what could be out there – contemplate how...

Samaipata, Bolivia – Markets and Ruins

We arrived in Samaipata late at night. The chill of the night reminded us that we should be finding accommodations quickly, preferably somewhere that had central heating… Then we remembered, finding central heating in Bolivia is about as common as spotting a jaguar at a national park (Jaguars are hard to spot if you didn’t catch my drift)… Click on the title at the top of this page to read the entire...
Santiago de Chiquitos – A little town with a big view

Santiago de Chiquitos – A little town with a big view

Santiago de Chiquitos is stuck fifty years ago in time. But it’s not a bad thing. Come to think of it, outside of the major cities (Sucre, La Paz, Santa Cruz) most of Bolivia is beautifully stuck. Cows and donkeys have as much right to the road as cars.  Laundry is often done in flowing streams and horses are a valid form of transportation.… (Click the title at the top of the email to read the rest of this...

Making the best of a travel delay in Chapada dos Veadeiros

I arrived shortly after 6 pm. The sky was a haze of red, yellow and blue, punctuated by wind swept clouds and palm trees that dotted the horizon. Although it was a nine hour drive from Uberlandia to Chapada Dos Veadeiros, a table top mountain near Brasilia, I looked out over the expansive landscape with satisfaction. I was happy that things were working out. After the World Cup ended, my plan was to join two Brazilian friends on an epic road trip across South America. Ahead of us lay Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Unfortunately, beaurcratic documentation issues set road blocks in our path. Our trip would be delayed by a week so that everything could be sorted out. There was little I could do from my side. I don’t speak Portuguese and these were matters with the Brazilian state. Wheels needed greasing, and when gringo hands are involved, the cost of lubricant increases significantly. So I reviewed the surrounding area, picked a place that I had never been before, rented a car and 9 hours later I was in the Chapada dos Veadeiros. I had done minimal research on my destination. I made it to my hostel in the town of Alto Pariso, located on the outskirts of the Chapada, shortly after 8pm. I parked opposite my accommodations near an open square the size of a suburban back yard, mostly brown, with patches of green, a seesaw and bouncy horse. To my surprise the park was inhabited by a score of hippies. Was some jam band having a concert in the immediate vicinity? I strode over to gawk and investigate further. Dreadlocks, sundresses and Rastafarian colors were...
What’s it like to attend a world cup match: part 2 of 3

What’s it like to attend a world cup match: part 2 of 3

Bosnia vs. Nigeria You arrive at the stadium in your Duplo rental car. It’s not the sexiest car in the world, but it does the job of transporting you and your 5 other friends to the stadium. If it gets you from A to B, what else matters, you always say. After you park your car, you realize that the car hasn’t done it’s job completely. A lock on the door isn’t working. Have a friend return the car to the airport, while you and the others scope out the bars near the stadium. Easy to get along In the bar you are at, you count at least 7 different nationalities. Your group accounts for 3 of them. Bosnians, Nigerians and Germans all want a picture with you. Your not sure why it is so easy for everyone to get along at the World Cup. It’s different than club soccer, where the pride in a team can turn violent much quicker. You think about it long and hard. Why is the atmosphere at a World Cup game so inviting? What is it about the event that makes people buy you beers, give you jerseys from their home country and want to learn your nation’s chants? And why is that guy dressed up like a nun? You figure you have drank too much beer, so the answers are not going to come to you now. You instead, learn a Bosnian chant, forget it five minutes later, down your last beer and walk on towards the stadium. Stadium security You approach the security line. It snakes back and forth through 10 rows...
World Cup Memes: How Brazilians take the piss during the Cup

World Cup Memes: How Brazilians take the piss during the Cup

Ah, the World Cup. A time of fierce competition, where heroes are created and unknowns become household names. The World Cup is a time for people to come together to watch games and show their patriotism. It’s also a great time to take the piss. And Brazilians seem to be quite good at it too. Below is a selection of Brazilian World Cup Memes currently circulating around whatsapp, forums and blogs. 1) Useless Fred World Cup Memes Fred is a player on the Brazilian national team that gets dissed so often, I am starting to feel really bad for the guy. Generally, they think he is useless. It’s not that he plays bad, it’s just like he isn’t playing at all. Translation: Fred being carried off the field   Translation: Good one, Thiago Silva   Translation: I’ll go directly to the club… didn’t even sweat.   2) Neymar getting hurt Neymar’s back injury (broken vertebrae) is certainly a topic that everyone is talking about in Brazil. Can Brazil win without him? Shouldn’t the player that injured him from Colombia be suspended? (Ok, so these memes are also about Fred, but now they incorporate something new: Neymar’s injury.) Translation: Campaign – Fred, donate a vertebrae to Neymar   Translation: Brazil already had Hulk, also had the Invisible Man and now we will have Professor X (This Cup is already in our pocket).   3) Making fun of Dilma Before the World Cup, there was constant chatter about Brazil “buying” their 6th championship. In the game against Mexico, Brazil failed to pull out a win. Thus, a thread of memes came out...

What it is like to attend the World Cup: part 1 of 3

Arrival and Pick Up of Tickets You arrive in Natal, Brazil after 35 hours in a plane.  Your flight itinerary was rerouted due to bad weather and you flew: Denver to San Franciso to Mexico City to Panama City to Sao Paulo to Natal (It was the only way to make your first game, USA vs. Ghana).  You are exhausted, but hey it’s the frickin’ World Cup. You share a cab with a pair of American brothers from the airport to Ponte Negra, Natal where your Posada and the stadium is located. Along the way, the cab driver gets lost. It shouldn’t really be a surprise; the airport has only been open for 5 days, and the road that takes you directly along the coast to the innards of the city from the airport isn’t ready yet. No ques to pick up tickets Now it’s time to pick up your tickets. You’ve been dreading this moment. You picked up tickets in South Africa and had to wait 3 hours in a stuffy, non-airconditioned room in a que that moved slower than a trail of ants trudging through molasses in January. Be surprised. 5 people are in line in front of you at the pick up location inside the shopping center, Cidade Jardim. Swiftly you make it to the front. Pick up your tickets and you are on your way. USA vs. Ghana You glance down to check your itinerary. You have tickets to 8 games (USA vs. Ghana, Colombia vs. Ivory Coast, Bosnia vs. Nigeria, Colombia vs. Japan, Portugal vs. Ghana, a second round game in Brasilia, a second round...
A King’s Day in Amsterdam

A King’s Day in Amsterdam

Stephanie and I were walking through Vondelpark on our way into the City Center of Amsterdam. It was noon on King’s Day; the sun was shinning but it wasn’t hot. Occasionally, a song would come into clarity, but after a few seconds it too would join the white noise of indistinct music that hovered in the air. Smiles were worn on the faces of Dutch children who, along with the leafy fauna, lined the interconnecting walkways of the park. If you are hungry, they have your sugar fix. Every 25 meters another stand sells fluffy, golden brown homemade pancakes that smell like Saturday morning. Or maybe you would like to win a prize. Creative games like a live version of Angry birds or “slice a sausage” are here too. They also sell their once loved toys that have fallen out of favor. And they are musicians, dancers and face painters as well. Part of King’s Day tradition are the large flea markets that dot the city. In Vondelpark, the market has a definite family feel to it. We stopped briefly so Stephanie could tip one of the only non-smilers – a drummer not more than three years old, that was lost in concentration on a full functioning drum set. Instead of walking, we could have taken the tram, but it wouldn’t have gotten us very far. During the festival, Amsterdam swells by one million people, making public transport inside the city center impossible. In any case, the park was much more exciting than the inside of a tram. As we neared the end of the park, a carnival game where you...

Camino Epilogue: Santiago to Brussels

If you give yourself 15 minutes to do something, it usually takes all day. But if you give yourself all day, well then, a lot of times it only takes fifteen minutes. This was a quote from a video that Stephanie, my girlfriend, was showing me inside our luxurious hotel room in Santiago de Compostela. Luxurious, mind you, because of its comparison to sleeping in albergues with up to 40 people  – 10 percent of which are always heavy snorers – for the last 32 days. The video was about training horses, but not in the traditional way of training them which involves aggressiveness and “breaking them”. This was the famous and ever so soft “horse whisperer”, not unlike the character played by Robert Redford with the same name. He was talking about going slow, not forcing the horse to develop trust, but providing the framework conducive to that state. This especially rang true for me on the Camino. I have constantly wanted things “now”, the impulse only being diluted by fulfillment. I thought about slowing down on the airplane ride home to Brussels as well. I used to love boarding an airplane, where you could check not only your physical luggage, but your work and social baggage as well. The heyday of flying, if you ask me, was when you couldn’t be reached by anyone in the world that wasn’t on the same plane as you. But we are hungry for outside stimulation; we slop to it like a pig through mud to his trough. Now, even planes are equipped with Wifi and our worries can easily reach up...

31st Day: Azura to Santiago de Compostela

If you expect a brass band to be playing when you arrive in Santiago exulting your most excellent achievement, you will be sadly disappointed. I didn’t necessarily expect that, but I expected some knowing looks from people as I passed them on the street, or maybe a head nod of respect from a shopkeeper as a I made the final walk through the side-walked outskirts of Santiago. I guess it’s a case of my hubris again, but I was a bit miffed that I didn’t at least get a solid Buen Camino during the last 3k. Most likely it has something to do with the fact that 200 thousand pilgrims receive a compostela every year, so giving out nods left and right might get a little cumbersome after a while. Originally I hadn’t planned on making it to Santiago yesterday evening. When I left in the morning, I planned on stopping in O Pedrouzo, about 20 kilometers away from my starting point of Azura and then walking into Santiago the next day. I was determined to take my time. I had spent the last two days clicking my poles on the ground at a hurried pace to outrun the other pilgrims to the Alberuges (hostels) by the end of the day. They say that the real Camino starts when you get home; meaning all the lessons you have learned along the way need to actually be implemented. I would be damned to forget to slow down before I even got to Santiago. Matt, Sven and I arrived in O Pedrouzo around 2 pm for a late lunch, or right...

30th Day: Palas del Rei to Arzua

The Camino is winding down. Santiago is only 43 kilometers away. Many people are looking back on their experience, trying to put all the pieces together from the last 30 days. Most people, including myself, use the Camino primarily for a self serving purpose – to get away, to enjoy being outside of a hectic life and to be, to some degree, inward looking. The Camino is a great place for those purposes. As I passed by all the crosses and graves behind an old church in the hamlet of San Xulian do Camino, I remembered what Dag said yesterday – that cemeteries remind us that we won’t live forever. Matt knows that better than most. I caught up with him today a bit outside of Melide, which by the way, is known for the best Pulpo in Spain (Pulperia Exequiel is excellent!). It wasn’t the first time we had met each other. For the last five days we have ended up in the same village at the end of the day, often having dinner or a pint together. He’s a natural leader, (he owns five businesses) and at dinner time, you can often find an international crowd around Matt’s table. A while back, Matt’s mom had lung cancer. It metastasized into brain cancer. She pulled through, amazingly, perhaps partly due to Macmillan Cancer Support. They provide nurses, mostly in a hospice role, that help care for cancer patients. Matt shared a statistic with me today, right before reaching Azura, the last big town of the Camino – 80 percent of their patients die. Matt was struck by the...

29th Day: Portomarin to Paris de Rei

They hobble into the Albergues with a limp and a cane, sometimes even two canes, or more hiply referred to as walking sticks. Slowly, the newcomers are worming their way into my heart. Even after two days, they are feeling the aches and pains of the Camino. In some ways, the Albergues are almost like geriatric assisted living facilities. Everyone, even the newcomers, complains about knees and hips. We eat dinner and go to sleep 3 hours earlier than the rest of society – in Spain, its normal to eat dinner at 10 pm, but Peregrinos munch their Menu del Dias starting around 7pm. We talk about what medication we are taking and even take naps in the afternoon. And with our earplugs in to drown out the snoring, we are hard of hearing. I had the opportunity to discuss the topic of TourDeGrinos with Dag today at length. He sees the whole thing from a bit different perspective. For one, what the newcomers are doing may be even harder for them than for a lot of the people doing the whole Camino. Some are way out of shape and some are really quite young or old. Walking 100 kilometers is still not easy. And secondly, can it really be a bad thing that so many people are doing the Camino? Isn’t that a positive? Thinking of the many other alternatives, I didn’t really have a good counter argument. And was I so naive to think that everyone could take 33 days off to do the Camino in one go? Somewhere between Ligonde and Eirexe, Dag told a parable....

28th Day: Sarria to Portomarin

The Camino has reached its maximum capacity today. Portomarin, my end destination, sits past the 100 kilometer mark to Santiago, so any pilgrim that would join the route tomorrow, would not be eligible for a compostela. That being said, after reaching the end of the village of Sarria, where I started my walk this morning, I came upon a hoard of walkers. I thought perhaps this was “rush hour” – it was 8 am and most people have to be out of the Albergue at that time to start their hikes. Then I thought maybe if I took a lot of pictures in Sarria, the crowd would lessen, so I set off to find interesting subjects to photograph. First place I went to take photos, I sort of broke into. Well not sort of, I did. The Castle of Sarria is surrounded by walls on all sides. As I circumnavigated the perimeter, I found no gates or doors that would let tourists inside to see the castle in full glory (from outside the wall you get glimpses of the structure, but not the entire thing). Full glory might be an overstatement, as it’s just a ruin of its former self, with stairs leading up to a lonely lookout tower. If there was a back to the walled area, I found it, and there, behind a smattering of rapeseed and thorny bushes, the wall had crumbled in on itself. I hiked up and peered over the top. It must not be open to the public, because sheep were grazing on the other side. I hopped over, snapped a couple of...