Coincidence, Chance, and mere Luck. These are the lifeblood of our travels.

They are a large component of The Swerve, that gut feeling or shiny object that leads you down one road instead of another. And you can never know what lay down that other road had the choice been the opposite, even if you return to it, because a place changes significantly depending on the people populating it at that exact moment. There is no finer example of this than what happened in Brisbane.

There be magic in this town.

There be magic in this town, as seen, unexpectedly, from the tallest building in it.

On the heels of my solo Melbourne journey came a reunion with my new French brothers and their noble Jackaroo, now fully road-worthy and ready to accommodate the long-term hitch-hiker of me. We will venture north, passing thru some turf that Kurt and I had already covered, but with far more time to poke around it. Our first night in Byron Bay and my water bottle of two years disappears into oblivion, likely having rolled out of Jackaroo and into an unsympathetic gutter. Just 3 weeks prior, I had left its twin next to a belligerent, beer-guzzling pig in Tasmania. The universe did not want me hydrated. So, having passed that next week sipping from the bottles of Frenchmen, I elect to swerve into an outdoor equipment store on our exploration of Brisbane.

If you peer closely into the upper left, you can just make out that abandoned water bottle. I have a similar photo of our first travel computer, left behind in an airplane seat pocket when they upgraded us to first class and then assaulted us with gourmet dinner.

If you peer closely into the upper left, you can just make out that abandoned water bottle. I have a similar photo of our first travel computer, left behind in an airplane seat pocket when they upgraded us to first class and then buried us under a gourmet dinner.

Replacement water bottle now in hand (a fairly ugly one because, hey, clearance), Lucas ducks into the neighboring outdoor store to pursue the same luck in finding a replacement hat (the poor chap had sprinted 3km back down a mountain trail to retrieve it from our jump shot location, but it had joined my water bottle in oblivion).

It turns out, again and again, that losing something allows you to gain something even better; in this store is where our path intersected our new favorite humans.

This is Chance

Josh, a rock-climbing, base-jumping pilot with pretty eyes happened to be stopping by this store that he only occasionally worked at and assaulted me on the rickety stairs. He enthusiastically inquires what I am up to tonight. Ummm, hopefully climbing the cliffs at Kangaroo Point, I admit, referring to the rocks along the river smack dab in the middle of town. We’ll climb if we can rent some gear down there. Hey, join us (!), he exclaims, gesturing to his nearby pal James. They’re doing a barbecue and have free gear at the ready for anyone who wants to climb.

Uh, hell yes. We are so there.

Brisbane's Kangaroo Cliffs,  the best (and cheapest!) downtown feature of any city in the world.

Lucas climbs Brisbane’s Kangaroo Cliffs, the best (and cheapest!) downtown feature of any city in the world.

The beauty of trust between travelmates is that you can commit the whole group to an activity all by yourself and they willingly follow you into the unknown, because they understand that this is the beating heart of the trip. The ability to just say Yes to anything reasonable that comes your way allows for impressive levels of magic.

Now, with Chance underway, prepare yourself for a full-on assault of Coincidence:

Time is a-ticking on our parking meter so, after a quick bite, we meander along the river to reclaim Jackaroo from the clutches of $4/hr parking. As we swerve past the loftiest building in town, what emerges from the door blows my entire mind hole. I do a triple take. She does a triple take. What the hell are you doing HERE?

Emily Avers in the flesh. Mind blown.

Emily Avers in the flesh. Mind blown.

Emily and I have shared many adventures in our beloved Ann Arbor, MI. From enduring the torture of teching a gamelon concert to sharing a beer with Yo-Yo Ma, she is a cornerstone of the Hill Auditorium experience and a dear friend. Now she was strolling toward me on the opposite side of the planet from where she should be. Hugs ensue. Questions ensue. The Frenchies are wearing puzzled expressions.

She is here with the most notable University of Michigan choir, led by Grammy-awarded Jerry Blackstone, whom we find upstairs in a fabulously-appointed 69th-floor hotel suite. The view is incredible, as are the familiar faces. It’s a slice of home that I haven’t seen in well over 9 months, and I give and collect many hugs for Kurt, because these are his long-missed people. People who haven’t yet heard of his new job.

Jerry Blackstone in the flesh. Mind blown again.

Jerry Blackstone in the flesh. Mind blown again.

Emily owns a personality that can best be described as effervescent. She cloaks herself with just the right layering of crazy and you cannot help but get sucked into her fun. Thankfully, the French are not immune to her charms. With an invitation to the concert the following evening that has us all stoked, the boys and I head for Kangaroo Point and our new climbing friends.

Cliff climbing in the middle of a city?! Brisbane is all sorts of special.

My favorite sport accompanied by barbecue and new friends. This is bliss.

It’s a grin-filled evening and we fall head-over heels for James, the kindest Aussie you shall ever meet, and his girlfriend Kelly, a stellar chick from New Orleans who plays the perfect wingman in defending things American. We climb, we grill, we eat, we laugh. I cannot believe this kind of amazing adventure exists in the middle of a city.

Always drink strong French liquor before you climb.

Always drink strong French liquor before you climb.

And then there is an occurrence of unexpected unicorn magic – James and Kelly invite us to sleep near their house in Jackaroo and partake in their heaven brimming with showers, clean laundry and, ultimately, damn fine food.

Uh, hell yes, we are so there.

Our trio advances to the next adventure in our crazy day – a Salsa bar of unexpected magnificence featuring live music and no cover charge. While Lucas savors the sounds and drinks, Marc and I drench ourselves in sweat on the dance floor, completely sucking within the sea of experienced dancers, but not caring enough to stop. Sometimes I deeply appreciate that it’s the guy who has to lead, and boy does he.

Salsa bar

Salsa decor deliciousness. The live music is just as swank.

Exhaustion is an understatement. We drag ourselves to the house of James and Kelly and discover that sleeping in the car won’t be necessary – they have set up beds to accommodate all three. I was previously unaware of levels above Unicorn Magic, but this pair has achieved and will continue to exceed it.

Over the next many days we enjoy group yoga, bountiful climbing, Frisbee, a market, hospitality of the highest level, and utterly enriching conversation. Until now I did not comprehend how thoroughly I have missed conversing in my native tongue. It is one thing to speak English with a foreigner, be they Australian, Kiwi or, slightly more difficult, French or Thai, but to engage with a sister of your own tribe (and there are surprisingly few Americans out here, especially ones with which I desire to converse), with the same culture and colloquialisms and body language, illustrates fantastically how intimate and nuanced language can be when not burdened with uncertainty or translation.

[Marc will argue incessantly with me on this, but we will save it for its own post].

Another dose of pure bliss - fantastic foreign food with dear new friends.

Another dose of pure bliss – fantastic foreign food with dear new friends.

As a thank you for all of the amazing, our trio elects to cook the next many meals for our hosts and share the tastiest parts of culture. Marc and Lucas go remarkably insane with crepes and duck casserole and caramel-core brownie cupcake thingies (the made-from-scratch caramel utterly slayed our taste buds).

Marc calls this fondant chocolat, with a salted caramel heart. I call it a foodgasm.

Marc calls this Fondant Chocolat, with a salted caramel heart. I call it a foodgasm.

Marc has always desired a real American pancake breakfast, and Kelly has certainly missed them, so I jumped at the chance to use a real kitchen for the manufacture of buttermilk pancakes (infused with walnuts and blueberries and topped with lemon-soaked strawberries and, yes, real Canadian maple syrup). There are some things Americans just do right. This includes the gumbo soup Kelly labors over for our final dinner with them. And then she shows us the Tim-Tam slam, an Aussi tradition of sipping hot tea through a wafer cookie.

The thought of leaving this heaven is so painful we just continue to stay.

A audible postcard from home - the UofM Chamber Choir.

A audio postcard from home – the UofM Chamber Choir in the flesh.

The concert with Emily and her Michigan choir (yes, we are back to Coincidence now) is as perfect as one can manage, held in an intimate church and populated with exceptional songs sung exceptionally well, all followed by food and conversation in the basement. And this choir is all American – all currently living in my home town of Ann Arbor. I almost cry with happiness over the commonalities and shared history and sense of home they bring. My Frenchies and our new pilot friend, Josh (who strongly considered base jumping out the 69th floor hotel window), thoroughly enjoy the night of random, especially drinking the gift of fine wine rejected by teetotaler Mr. Jerry Blackstone himself.

When fine wine is gifted to a man who doesn't drink, the Frenchies can  finally satisfy their sophisticated taste buds.

When fine wine is gifted to a man who doesn’t drink, the Frenchies can finally satisfy their sophisticated taste buds.

As if we haven’t squeezed enough awesome out of Brisbane, our final adventures there will nicely illustrate Luck:

Josh and James run a new company specializing in scenic flights to wine country. It is a posh adventure the French boys and I would never consider but, when presented to us at crazy discount rate because the plane need filling at the last second, we cannot say no. Our wine glasses overflow with delicious all day long and the food equally impresses. The tour de force comes with our return flight to town, where Josh shares a bit of aviary acrobatics and we get to experience free fall.

Hells yes.

Food, wine, and flying insanity for 80 bucks. Hell yes.

Food, wine, and flying insanity for 80 bucks. Lucas and Marc approve.

Our time in Brisbane must end, or we shall never see the rest of Oz, so we take our bittersweet departure and head north to Fraser Island (4wd hilarity on the world’s largest sand island) and Cairns (for some SCUBA on the Great Barrier!). As a result of not wishing to die of the bends while in the air, I cannot return to Brisbane in time to visit our new favorite humans before I sprint from there to China. Strangely though, Luck has some tricks up her sleeve.

As a direct result of Murphy’s law, wherein we are at the wrong airport terminal and, after correcting this, my passport remains camouflaged on the carpet of the wrong terminal, I miss my flight. The opposite of luck, I know, but it means I get to spend a night in Brisbane with Kelly and James. In addition to reclaiming a lost journal entry from the digital ether (if you read the Twelve Tribes post, even YOU have benefited from Brisbane’s magic), while helping clean Jame’s car, my long-lost umbrella materializes before my eyes! James found it in the gutter (yep, fell right out of Jackaroo) and kept it because, hey, random free umbrella. I was in agony over the idea of venturing to China without it.

Is any umbrella this special? Yes, in fact, and it is back in my hand. And damn has it come in handy.

Do not venture to China without an umbrella - your flesh will melt.

Do not venture to China without an umbrella – your flesh will melt.



Twelve Tribes

The cuteness of the Yellow Deli is literally irresistible.  The benches and tables are carved from huge slabs of reclaimed wood and situated in nooks which bestow you with a cozy, secluded sanctuary; the lighting is soft and flattering; the décor is rustic and homey. And the food. Dear God the food. Fresh, organic, rich, comforting, and prepared with obvious love. It takes a few blinks to notice the odd garb of the staff, because they blend right into the ambience. The men wear hearty beards and ponytails and the women are fascinatingly modest, with no face paint and hair as plain as you can imagine, all in clothing one step shy of burlap sacks. Is this a coincidence of flower children all happening to accumulate in one establishment?

Nope.  This is a cult.

I use such a label with hesitance, because it brings to mind thoughts of Kool-Aid and mass suicide and sex scandals. This is a cult more like the Amish.

It's pretty much an interior I want to call home.

I pretty much want to move right in.

It was in Rutledge, Vermont that Kurt and I first made acquaintance with the Twelve Tribes, drawn to their cheery, yellow restaurant façade like moths to a search light. The food was a culinary orgasm and the people were as pleasant and generous and patient and warm as any human is capable. We were eager to learn more. They showed us the adjoining hostel (equally adorable), where weary or impoverished travelers (many walking the Appalachian Trail), could exchange labor for room and board. They spoke of their faith and their disillusionment with modern religions and warmed the cockles of my cold, cold heart.

Imagine the direction of my travel when I discovered a Yellow Deli listing in Australia.

Every now and again I take a selfie right alongside the throngs of other tourists. But within the hour I was bushwhacking, so don't judge.

Every now and again I take a selfie right alongside the throngs of other tourists. But, within the hour, I was bushwhacking, so don’t judge.

Kurt had climbed aboard a plane to go land his dream job Stateside, so I departed Sydney solo and headed for the hills. After a long drive into the Blue Mountains and a heart-racing decent and climb up the Giant’s Stair alongside the renown and far-too-photographed Three Sisters pinnacles, I headed into the town of Katoomba for my one splurge meal of the month at a restaurant I was certain would be worth it. You might as well have picked up Vermont’s Yellow Deli and plunked it directly into the mountains of Australia. Identical ambience, identical staff, identical menu. Absolutely no complaint from me.

The fateful table where I met my future travelmates.

The fateful table where I met my future travelmates.

The wait staff gave me pick of any bench in the establishment, an awkward choice because of my solo nature and the availability only of huge tables. Pragmatism dictated I choose a 4-top, but the presence of two interesting looking backpackers induced me to claim the 10-seat slab near to them. Conversation came easy, both with them (two French chaps, Lucas and Marc, just beginning their world trip) and the wait staff. It was a night of smiles and insight and pure deliciousness. The backpackers could only afford beverages here, and were keen to go heat up a ramen dinner, but invited me to join them for the night in their parking lot, as we were all sleeping in our cars and eager for some company.

My huge and hearty dinner arrived after their departure and I expected a solo consumption, but was joined by a rotating company of the wait staff on their own dinner breaks. We spoke of philosophy and the failure of modern religions, what exactly they believed and how that manifest itself in their everyday living. Their way of life was firing on all levels for me – organic, simple, devoid of selfishness and brimming with love and care. Until, somehow they drifted the topic toward evolution.

There are few “beliefs” I hold near and dear, as I am willing to change my opinion about nearly anything provided you have convincing evidence to do so. The scientific method is one of these beliefs because its entire concept is that evidence perpetually creates and recreates truth. Evolution is one such truth, backed by so much evidence it is impossible to refute by a person of actual reason.

Right here was our topic of impasse. I coughed up their metaphorical kool-aid and started probing for the cracks in their beliefs. Just a drop of doubt introduced in the right place and an entire structure of faith can be compromised.

But they killed my desire to break them with pure kindness.

The world doesn't get any better than free organic deliciousness. That is hot apple cider I am holding. Holy heaven.

The world doesn’t get any better than free organic deliciousness. That is hot apple cider I am holding. Holy heaven.

The boys and I returned for beverages the following night and, when the wait staff learned I had blown my budget on dinner with them the night before, they brought forth piles of food and beverage, completely free of charge, because they are really, truly that generous. They had already eagerly invited me to join them at the organic farm in the lowlands for a bit of WOOFing, and I now jumped at the chance – I wanted a sneaky beak inside this beast.

Unexpectedly, Lucas and Marc joined me. They needed to work on their fixer-upper of a jeep sorta thing (a 4wd Jackaroo), and thought the community might be willing to lend some tools. What happened is that my new French friends rear-ended an SUV in heavy traffic en route and wound up needing to borrow a lot more tools. The trauma of the situation bound us into a tight friendship, and we became inseparable companions, though the community constantly raised eyebrows at our easy banter and tried their damnedest to keep us distanced (conversion by isolation perhaps? Or just weirded out that girls and guys can get on so well without the necessity of procreation inspiring it?).



The farm sits on some hefty acreage a short drive from its companion restaurant near Picton, Oz. We arrived, a little shaken, to a meal of whatever we wanted from the salivation-inducing menu and another illuminating conversation with our favorite tribe member (who invited us to call him Ken, because remembering everyone’s Hebrew names was proving pretty difficult).

Work would begin the following day, thus the boys were shepherded off to the single males’ dorm (hot water bottles already warming the sheets), and I was returned to the farm to a camper trailer of exquisite luxury about 300 yards from anybody’s company. Morning prayer was at 7, but I awoke so early in anticipation of a real shower (I had been bathing in a waterfall for days) that I sadly avoided being lulled out of sleep by an exclusive performance of recorder and vocals by the young women.

Is this seriously for real?

My very private and so insanely adorable camper trailer.

My very private and insanely adorable camper trailer, complete with fruit and cookie goody basket.

Shit got real at that morning prayer.

It was the very definition of soul-sucking, even for this native English speaker who is fascinated by religion (I truly pitied the Frenchies and their inevitable incomprehension). This was a total overdose of meandering thoughts and impractical lessons. Passages are read from the Bible (they use several versions to compare the translations), and a multitude of contemplations are shared. Even the children are asked to ruminate. What widened my eyes was when the Bible study leader didn’t know, within a passage he was preaching, what a key noun meant. He was honestly asking the community. To wrap up, everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) takes several minutes to reflect on the topic of the day. Or really anything else they want. It is filled with raising of hands to Jesus, love and selflessness and these people are serious rockstars at compassion but, OMG, shut up.

Thank the heavens that, for the evening prayer, snacks, music and dance are welcomed into the mix. It is happy and heart-warming, and the live music of guitar and recorders is pretty respectable, but the dancing (based on Hebrew group movement) is sloppy at best (and they occasionally do this in public to attract new members). I long to join in, but it takes an entire song just to make sense of the footwork.

After an insanely delicious breakfast, we head to work – Lucas off to construct a house 12-years in the making (it has a long way to go, but will eventually house the full community), Marc to the bakery (it’s ‘men’s work’ here because of the crazy hours) and me to the place where all women belong (the kitchen). It felt phenomenal to be working again, and one of the members remarked at how at home I looked. As long as you don’t scratch too deep past the surface, this place really did feel like home.

Yep, I can play the part of a girl for a while.

Yep, I can play the part of a girl for a while.

Marc, for better and worse, was laboring alongside some French-speaking members, and his expression morphed from a smiling befuddlement in the morning to sheer aversion come dinnertime. He was just now coming to comprehend what they believe and was as horrified as I, minus the insatiable curiosity.

Bread baked with just a pinch of WTF.

Marc baking bread with just a pinch of WTF.

What concerned us most were the children. The adults had all come to the community by choice, sacrificing their independence and possessions willingly, but these youth would be confined to their parents’ choice for likely their whole lives. They are the nicest damned cherubs you shall ever meet, infused with respect and personal responsibility and empathy, but their role in society was carved in stone the moment their gender was determined.

The men shall bake and build, and the women shall cook and bear children. Their understanding of science will not extend beyond compost tea and soil composition. They will not have the skills with money or human nature to survive outside the community should they come to give it a try. And they certainly shan’t gift the world with their skills as a doctor or astronaut or even enjoy personal hobbies like mountaineering or travel. I enquired of this, and it was explained that aspirations of this nature are contrary to their beliefs of selflessness. They don’t even ‘own’ their own clothing, as it all comes from a community closet (though you are allowed to express preferences in color or style, not that I saw evidence of it).

I inquired too if a women might have the option to build or bake, but was greeted with a puzzled response. Why would a woman want such back-breaking work or such terrible hours? She has children to tend in the early mornings and her womb will be damaged with heavy lifting. And, I ask, what if this woman has no inclination to produce babies? The unhesitated response is that there is no such woman. This is a tribe that values family above all else. But, in fact, they are desperate for women of child-bearing years.

A stealth photo from an evening prayer. Pretty sure this fellow will never find a willing wife.

A stealth photo from an evening prayer. Pretty sure this fellow will never find a willing wife.

Following the evening lesson, dance, and group dinner (nachos heaped with actual sour cream and guacamole, both prohibitively expensive for my personal finances), I sought to freshen up my utterly spent laundry for the next day’s departure toward Melbourne. What I came to learn is that you can cook and use electricity and dance and wash dishes on the Sabbath, but you sure as hell cannot have a machine do your laundry.

How does a tribe come to decide what they believe and what Biblical rules to follow or ignore? For them, a question arises, they ruminate for a time, and wait for a spirit to guide them. The spirit said no to laundry.

And if some members believe the spirit is speaking one way, and others say another? Well, as explained by my laundry-denying new teacher, if you find yourself speaking alone, you are listening to a false, lying spirit. You can’t even argue with this kind of crazy. Just smile and nod.

The communal mansion 12-years in the making. Inside are some insane tools, especially the table saw with jig for making their own windows.

The communal mansion 12-years in the making. Inside are some insane tools, especially the mammoth table saw with jig for making their own windows.

Within a year or two this community will embark on a crazy experiment of faith. The Old Testament requires of the Hebrews that every seven years they and their fields rest. There will be no commerce and no agriculture. In the decades this group has existed, this schmita has never been attempted (it seems pretty rare that the Hebrews even tried it). They are deep into the ponderings of the logistics and awaiting spiritual guidance. I long to be a fly on the wall to watch it all unfold. Good thing we are here now, eating like kings, and not when they are starving come next winter.

The most beautious tomato plants my eyes have ever lied upon. These folk have compost tea down to an [ahem] science.

The most beautious tomato plants my eyes have ever lied upon. These folk have compost tea down to an [ahem] science.

While Marc’s jaw and spirit progressively dropped over the day, Lucas experienced a fabulous diurnal of work and made good progress on Jackaroo repair. Hilarious to me to see such dichotomy of experience between two best friends. Despite Marc’s heavy protest, they would remain two more nights to savor the comfort of this community while nursing their wounds. I would leave that next morning. And that next morning has affected my sleep ever since.

Sometimes your alarm does not go off because you set it when you are already half asleep. This was one such morning, and I was 300 yards removed from anything that would wake me up, save for the eventual sun . . . oh shit. The slightest hint of sunlight thru the camper window means I am already late for the morning prayer. No choral wakeup today – most of the group have departed for a festival up in Katoomba. I stagger into the meeting sleep-drunk and am reasonably certain what happened next is that they, despite their façade of pure compassion, cursed me for all eternity to wake up with the sun. I haven’t been able to sleep past dawn since.

The farm.

Good morning. Get yer ass outta bed and go pray.

I suppose this lengthy rumination needs a wrap-up, but I fear I cannot tie it into a tidy bow. It also lacks good photographic evidence of these people, because I didn’t want to come off as voyeuristic, even if I am. I am in love with them and adore their place in the world; they seem excellent stewards of the land and show the rest of us it is possible to live a selfless, simple life and to be happy doing it. But I also abhor much of what they believe and I remain conflicted on some values they bestow onto their children. Is your biggest aspiration as a young girl truly limited to exceptional motherhood?

Would the world would be a better place if filled with these folks? Possibly. It certainly would taste better. Are they hypocrites to embrace the science of soil ecology and the technology of electricity and credit card machines, but reject modern medicine (save for extreme cases) and the inconvenient truths science also offers, like evolution? I can’t even imagine what a homosexual child born into this world would experience. The depths of woe I suppose.

What I do know, with certainty, is that the Twelve Tribes and I get on famously, provided nobody mentions dinosaurs or monkeys, and that I will be back, be it in Oz or Stateside (or in their castle in Germany) because I long to mimic their lifestyle, just minus one very overreaching Book.

A little slice of heaven, provided you like yours with a hefty dose of crazy.

A little slice of heaven, provided you like yours with a hefty dose of crazy.

Little Big Brother

On a collection of tropical islands barely the size of New York’s five boroughs, nestled right up under the shabbiness of peninsular Malaysia, there stands, in complete defiance of its neighbors, a glimmering country of textbook modernity. Singapore, once a beloved British colony, and subsequently ejected from its adopted Malay affiliation for being too economically successful, has risen, quite literally, out of the ocean to claim titles to Asia’s highest standard of living and the world’s most expensive city.


It is both a city and a country, and run with an iron fist. With their unfortunate lack of land, Singapore must import everything, from food to water to oil, and are constantly hauling in sand to expand their shores. All that is most shiny and new is built upon what was recently ocean; 10 of its 60 islands are completely man-made. From the air you might attempt to count the swarm of surrounding ocean vessels, but you will run out of fingers and toes quite quickly – there are thousands, because this is the world’s busiest container port, and with those containers comes all of the luxury for which this city is known.

Singapore Port

The world comes to Singapore.

The difficulty with Singapore is that is gives you a stick against which to judge city planning and public transportation the world over.  From its inception as an independent nation in the 1959, the Puppeteers have seemingly manufactured the city ethos around inspirations from the Epcot Center, with a creepy overtone of Brave New World meets The Sims. The place is undeniably gorgeous and runs like clockwork.  We, probably erroneously, elected to go there early in our travels.


A fleeting glimpse at the most expensive building in the world.

Our first surprise: the mainland city is a veritable forest, albeit an extremely well-manicured one.  Having somewhat of a lack of land to dedicate to just being wilderness, the country has made a determined and immensely successful effort of incorporating the biological jungle right into the concrete one.

Trees line every street, immaculate and lush parks nestle between sky scrapers, and even the government housing (mind you, it is mostly government housing) comes surrounded by sumptuous lawn. The only greenery out of control is the cemetery jungle and its reclamation of any graves not actively being ripped out for the newest 8-lane highway (land is precious, and dead bodies get trumped by roads).

The abandoned Chinese cemetery of Bukit Brown, one of the few unmanicured corners of the city but soon to receive a new highway.

The abandoned Chinese cemetery of Bukit Brown, one of the few unmanicured corners of the city but soon to receive a new highway.

Not content to let trees simply be trees, the Architects have manufactured a grove of SuperTrees, their metal frames looming 16 stories tall, clothed in plush plantlife, and dazzling with an evening light show of Disney-like proportions. They harness sunlight and rainwater and vent exhaust from the nearby and equally staggering conservatories but, more importantly, they are colossal enough to compete with the jaw-dropping architecture just across the road.

The SuperTree-studded front lawn of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel monstrosity.

The SuperTree-studded front lawn of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel monstrosity.

The SuperTrees in action.

The SuperTrees in action.

Singapore structures give the impression that investors forklifted sacks of million dollar bills onto the lap of a famous architect with the sole stipulation that the radical design inspire tourists to venture round the world to witness it.

This town hosts the two most expensive buildings in the world; the winner, at $6 billion, is the gap-jaw-inducing Marina Bay Sands, a mammoth public resort sporting a luxury mall with its own gondola canal and 5-storey continuous escalators, a casino charging an $80 entrance fee, and a three-towered, cavernous hotel impressively spanned by a banana-split-shaped infinity pool (hotel guests only, and we certainly weren’t, though we played the part well enough to get into the guest-only roof restaurant, where we spent on drinks what would otherwise have been an elevator fee).

View from the bananna split.

View from the bananna split.

The silver medal bearer of expensive architecture dominates a nearby island that sounded so much like Vegas that we instead spent our time in the mainland cemetery thinking it would offer more culture.

With all of this glam, it shouldn’t land as a surprise that Singapore also holds title to Asia’s most mammoth per capita dose of carbon. They can dust the city in a leafy green veneer and engineer all of the grime away, but that every bite of food is imported and that such immense architecture exists purely for amusement means that Singapore’s public image of sustainability is mostly bogus. One would expect a few more solar panels and wind turbines if they were serious about any of it.

Our wanderings carried us through luxury boutiques that would have surely rejected us in our home country. We have ogled 5th Avenue’s New-Yorky glitz, and received a stink eye in every store; here our skin color was a guilt-ridden, nearly all-access pass. An associate in Louis Vuitton gave us a royal tour even after we made it perfectly clear we could afford nothing on the premises (the cheapest object was a $200 credit card sleeve).

The royal Louis Vuitton tour ventures onto the store's deck.

The royal Louis Vuitton tour ventures onto the store’s deck.

Perhaps it was because she was Filipina, naturally disposed to hospitality, and we brought tales from her homeland; perhaps it was because she not-so-secretly agreed that $5000 handbags were contemptuous: our Filipina hostess happily showed us some ridiculous products, led us onto the “bow” of the store, a veritable boat deck overhanging the surrounding lake with a magnificent city view, chatted for half an hour about culture and money and that, no, she did not get to keep the uniform shoulder bag (worth $1000), and then she dressed us up in Xmas silliness and took our polaroid.

She made relatively good money working there, as Filipinos do when they go abroad, but found the accompanying culture lonely and cold. In contrast to the chattiness of the Philippines, this gadget-obsessed population stares at their phones instead of offering smiles. They run a lot though, an oddity for Asia, and are blessed with workout machines in every park, so pudgy they are not.

A gym in every park.

A gym in every park.

Being our usual cheap bastards and in the priciest city we could find, we surfed on the couch of a pair of the most congenial, playful, and enlightening Indians one could imagine meeting. Boy and Girl (real names omitted to protect identity) gave us the opposite of a taciturn, Singaporean welcome and instead organized a raucous evening of Pictionary around our arrival, attended by a flock of pilots and stewardesses and an additional ethnic Indian, raised in Australia, with the oddest accent and a hilarious inability to communicate “India” to her Pictionary teammates.

Our own slice of Little India - Pictionary with Boy, Girl, and Entourage.

Our own slice of Little India – Pictionary with Boy, Girl, and Entourage.

Our hosts desire nothing more than to be American, are willing to settle for Australian, and wonder why the hell we would seek to visit India; they couldn’t have run any faster away from its filth, selfish crowds, and dirge of professional opportunity (healthcare is the only reason to venture there, they say, because competition is so fierce that doctors have mad skills and are cheap besides).

Boy earns a paycheck as a pilot for Singapore Air (yes, we are plagued by jealousy that his home base is the best airport in the world). Girl is a dentist who ran hard into the awful truths of the Singapore work ethic.

This necessary work ethic requires 12 hours days plagued with tasks no American PhD would tolerate, specifically the cleaning of toilets. Doctors’ wages are relatively low, yet the hours so long that workers have no time or energy for home cooking, which is probably for the best as groceries are staggeringly expensive (we often prepare an “American” a meal of tacos for our hosts, and this one broke our wallet, though it resulted in Boy and Girl discovering a tasty new cuisine). A government condo of 1600 sq/ft will set you back half a million dollars and a car, well, there is a reason the streets are nearly vacant, much to the pleasure of pedestrians.

Granted, the Singapore dollar is a bit weaker than ours, but it's still $9 a quart. Ouch.

Granted, the Singapore dollar is a bit weaker than ours, but it’s still $9 a quart.

It’s been called the most punitive Disneyland in the world, yet there’s unexpectedly not a cop to be seen.  Enforcement of rules must rely on fear, inspired by an abundance of security cameras, plainclothes officers, and the rare penal action. There are few big cities I would freely roam solo at 2am, and this unequivocally tops the list.

Big Brother says hello.

Big Brother says hello.

You’ve heard of the no chewing gum rule, which results in marvelously unblemished sidewalks. You may have caught wind of canings for graffiti or not flushing a public toilet, but what makes it a true pleasure to move about town is that pedestrians self-organize with every step: on escalators it’s “standers” on the left and “climbers” on the right (and they insist that you follow suit), in stores they are inordinately lithe and considerate with carts (compare to The Philippines where it’s a traffic jam in every isle), and when entering subway cars they patiently stand to the side to actually allow other passengers to alight.

Pure Magic.

A subway station. No dirt, no crush of bodies. And check out the markings on the floor - the trains and people both adhere to them.

A subway station. No dirt, no crush of bodies. And check out the markings on the floor – the trains and people both adhere to them.

Oh sure, this sort of order leads to a dreadfully predictable, even [gasp] boring culture, but sacrifices must be made. This environment swaddles and distracts you, easing poverty and chaos into foreign concepts. Even in this stew of Asian ethnicities (where Chinese, Indian, and Islamic Malay mix), the heavily-stressed modernity has a consequence of white-washing everything.

Emphasis is on luxury goods (nearly every lady carries a Louis Vuitton), but there is seemingly no panache or even good taste to accompany it. Style here is bought, by importing artists and architects and designer labels. The ONE thrift store in town was closed for reasons unknown and spontaneous creativity is decidedly absent; art is instead discussed, planned and carried forth with impressive precision.

You cannot afford anything in this mall.

You cannot afford anything in this mall.

Yet for all of the surface glitz and glam, there runs a marvelously seedy underbelly; it’s easier to buy a bootlegged DVD than a real one. Tailor-made garments and hearty food can be found dirt cheap if you venture into ethnic neighborhoods like Little India, a shock of color in a city of metallic, which was nearly void of tourists because of the recent riot.

Little India's splash of color melts your eyeballs after three days of more sophisticated hues.

Little India’s splash of color melts your eyeballs after three days of more sophisticated hues.

Why riot when you have such a standard of living? The pie is not divided with anything resembling equality and this country is notoriously racist. I am unsure of what the national identity is, but Singaporeans know it, and outsiders are only welcomed as tourists, not as residents. Even PhD-wielding Indians cannot rent an apartment under the accusation that they will stink it up with their curry. Foreign grunt workers suffer such miserable wages that they must reside in ghetto dormitories and endure a constant barrage of racial slurs and vocal venom concerning how they are depressing the wages of “real” Singaporeans.

Sound familiar? For a country of once-upon-a-time immigrants, it hits a bit too close to home how poorly they treat immigrants.

Xenophobia is a universal concept, but this government ignores it because cheap foreign workers offer such mighty economic impact. They ignore it right up until the workers riot, and then it’s deportation with hardly a question asked and no policies addressed. Perhaps it is at the urging of the Puppeteers that even the Hindu temples have posted notices that urge against uprising.

"Though shall not riot, even if they call you bad names" sing the chorus of Hindu showgirls.

“Thou shall not riot, even if they call you bad names” sing the chorus of Hindu showgirls.

The impressive economy cannot continue apace forever, and there will be carnage. But if you keep your eyes on the surface (like you should in any theme park), Singapore is marvelous. If nothing else, find the occasion to fly through their airport. Savor the free WiFi and abundance of comfy chairs and outlets. Stroll about the immaculate gardens (cactus, sunflower, butterfly . . .), feed the koi, luxuriate in a free foot massage, catch a movie or ten in the free theaters, go for a swim. Yes, a swim in an airport. This culture understands luxury – it is what they do best.

But leave before the place makes you soft, because the rest of the world will look mighty chaotic and filthy before long.

Yes, this is inside of an airport.

Yes, this is inside of an airport.

The Singapore airport is filled with unicorn glitter and rainbow hugs.

The Singapore airport is filled with unicorn glitter and rainbow hugs. And free WiFi.

Fighting Cocks

We’re going to begin this with an immediate and overly simplistic defensive maneuver:

I love animals.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an omnivore more strongly empathetic than I to the plights of those who live under human domination (which, if you count the unintentional consequences of our consumerism and its effects on habitats we haven’t even tried to subdue, includes every creature on Earth).

I won’t go so far as to say that I adore chickens specifically, because they are assholes, but I am excruciatingly concerned that they suffer as little as possible on the path to our plates. Having recently participated in the slaughter and processing of 100 farm foul, one of which I eagerly ate, I stand in an unexpectedly well-informed position from whence to witness the sort of event that is Cock Fighting.

Vermont chicken dinner.

Kurt prepares a Vermont chicken dinner.

Next to basketball, Cock Fighting is the unofficial national sport of The Philippines.  Filipinos flock to gambling opportunities like alcoholics to booze; it is in the national blood that an event is more fun if you can lose your shirt over it, be it cards, ball, or two angry chickens with knives strapped to their legs.

So it doesn’t take an expert to spot the effect – cocks are everywhere.  They dot the countryside, nestled alongside water buffalo by farm houses, they speckle village yards, each assigned a personal roof, food dish, and tether, and they clutter city sidewalks, defiantly proud within their laundry basket cages.  Where dogs are treated as little more than barking guards, given scant food scraps, but mostly ignored and left to their scabs and fleas, cocks enjoy beloved pet status, are cradled and caressed often, and consume carefully calculated fighting chicken nutrition.

The ease and calm with which they are handled is astounding to one used to farm chickens and their general aversion to human contact.  So, despite our remaining misgivings concerning animal cruelty within the cock ring, we chose not to ignore this culturally significant activity.


In Lipa City, where our hosts own a mango farm, we ventured forth one Saturday with their farm manager and our host’s elder brother to the local ring.  Behind food stalls reeking of animal flesh and across a dusty parking lot slowly filling with jeepneys and tricycles we found the arena, an open-air, tiered boxing ring of sorts and its hefty entrance fee of 400 Pesos each (roughly $10 USD).

Hardly willing to afford this price on a questionable activity for ourselves and certainly not with the added farm hands as our cultural guides, we were all set to abandon the idea in the same manner with which we’ll miss posh resorts and sky diving, but then our guides got to work. Oh, ladies are free? That’s a start.

One possibility for the guys to gain free entrance was to “rent” a chicken.  If the bird lost, it would also cost us a bet and the rental fee of 1500 but, if it won . . . ! (This particular chicken did win, so we could have made 30 bucks, but it was later explained that some owners rent out chickens for fights in which the cock is ill-matched and get a cut of the winnings from the opponent).

On the cusp of giving up to go hang out with our farm’s flee-ridden dogs, our savior appeared at last. He arrived in the form of a white-shoed Filippino in possession of all 28 teeth (two clear indicators of wealth and status) who invited us in as his personal guests to spectate from the manager’s box.  Just retired as a commander from the American Navy, this fine sir understood that there is such a thing as a poor white person.  Renee was enthused to share some homeland culture with citizens of his adopted one.


We had arrived quite early in the day and, while our entrance strategy developed, got to witness the steady procession of chickens arriving via motorcycle, jeepney, and farm truck, each tucked under an arm or stuffing into a cardboard cat-carrying box with tail feathers jutting rakishly out of the lid.

The ground level encompassing the stadium becomes a cauldron of cackling, posturing fowl as their owners erect foldable pens and set to meeting and greeting the competing roosters to find suitable pairings.

One of the paired birds is considered the “top dog” and assigned status as the Meron (meaning “hat”; the manager of this bird would traditionally wear a cap for denotation in the ring), and the cock more likely to lose is the Walla (“without” a hat).  How one determines status is based purely on the size of its owners bet – bigger is better. The enormity of the bet is partly a result of personal finances, but also the owner’s confidence of his bird to win, confidence based on a mixture of physiology of the specimen (long legs are good, but a young chicken still molting will be expending too much energy on feathers instead of fighting), aggressiveness (they are incited to fight by being allowed a peck at each other’s rumps), and an unspoken voodoo sense.  As best we can calculate by our own pocket change bets against each other, the House odds given for the top bird to win, 2 to 3, are spot on.

After playmates have been established, the fighters gear-up.   The routine is familiar because they practice often to develop those killer physiques and tolerance for bright lights and loud noise.

This time, instead of having their spurs merely wrapped to prevent battle wounds or capped with a dull sparring blade, a single spur (usually the left) is wrapped and then capped with a gleaming knife, sharpened just moments before.  What appears thru the window as solemn, nearly silent work quickly dissolves into jestful banter as the men spot the white female face peering in at this ritual (a bit of a rarity for these blokes) and they cheerfully invite me in to witness the preparations, proudly mugging the camera while they cradle their cocks.


At last the arena.

Without our host, everything would appear as utter chaos with all of the hollering and gesturing and throwing of money.  The birds enter the ring in arm and are allowed some aggression-inducing rump pecks and to charge each other while tails are held firmly by the owners.  Using a dusty sound system that translates the Tagalog language into mottled noise, the wager between competitors is announced and the crowd is invited to even out the bet inequality. To inspire this “Parada” bet, the MC of the event waxes poetic about the underdog Walla, highlighting the cock’s fine physique and the quality of the farm on which it was raised.  If not enough funds can be garnered, the managers (like Renee) make up the difference (but they offset their losses by placing side bets on the topdog Meron).

The competitors’ bet having been established (it can run $10 to hundreds of thousands), spectators are then free to bet with each other.  They use that same, aforementioned voodoo to determine their champion bird for each of the 80 fights although, having seen these birds interacting for only a few moments, it’s mostly gut instinct they’re going on, and inspiration from the size of the owners’ bets.

The air cracks with the shouts of “Meron, Meron!” or “WalaWalaWala!” Odds are adjusted on the fly, betting partners are established, and wagers are agreed upon.  “Tres, tres!” they holler with three fingers jutting the air, but whether it’s a 300 or 3000 Peso wager, or 3/2 odds they’ve requested, is an unspoken understanding.


Knives are uncapped, an antiseptic is applied, and finally the cocks are released, causing a hush to wallop the stadium.  Once their feet hit the ground the fowl stagger like drunkards for the few steps it takes to adjust to the presence of their sharp new appendage (not infrequently they slice their own ankle).

Perhaps the birds have been incited enough and they make straight for each other, or they may feign indifference for a time while plotting their surprise attacks.  Extended peace is never an option though; these boys will not tolerate an insult, and no fight we witnessed ever crossed the three minute mark.

The moment the birds make their move, it is a flurry of feathers and wings and knives until one of them is down or a knife is entangled in flesh (the audience shares an audible cringe for these).  In what seems atypical chicken fashion, these birds are not vindictive.  Once dominance has been established and one bird is down, the attack ceases.  The ref (respectfully referred to as “Christ,” because his word is final) will grab each bird by the scruff (held decisively at arm’s length) and test the functionality of the downed bird.  If it stands and reasserts its aggression, he tosses them both back to continue the brawl.  If the vanquished cannot stand, then its end is nigh and we have a clear victor.

The defeated, whether partially alive or not quite so, departs the stage in a bucket, the winner in its manager’s arms.  Money is tossed cross-stadium between betting parties, feathers are swept up, and the cycle begins anew.


But here is where I found the greatest surprise.  If you follow that bucket out of the arena, it goes straight to the butcher, and that bird is most decidedly dead by now.  The knife leg is severed at the knee, and the knife returns to service while the chicken proceeds in typical rustic fashion toward a dinner plate.  It takes perhaps a moment longer to die in this style than having your head “humanely” sliced off, and involves roughly the same scale of violence.

But the chicken met his end engaged in familiar and instinctual activity and was surprised only that he happen to bleed to death this time.  For a human to kill a farm bird, first it must be unwilling caught, unwillingly stuffed into a cone, and then there follows a gruesome amount of convulsing and thrashing when its head is parted from its body.  My first surprise was that this fight seemed a more noble and natural end.


If you follow the victor, however, you will see my second surprise: the winner has it the worst.  The valiant will live on to enjoy a courtship with a lovely lady and make more (valuable) chickens.  But, in order to do so, he must live.

Follow the victor out of the arena and he proceeds directly to the chicken hospital.  There is no anesthesia, only a blanket over his head to invite him to sleep.  When wounds are found, the surrounding feathers are plucked, and the slash may be cut open further to facilitate inspection of organs and removal of clotted blood.

Once again invited inside the room to witness chicken rituals, I could peer into some gashes and look straight at the thigh meat as the surgeon reached his hands and paper towels inside.   Only briefly did the operation elicit a thrashing response from the patient.  Once all clean, stitches are applied and the hunt for other wounds continues.  By surgery’s end, these birds are half naked and look like hell.  If there is brutality in the sport, it is right here.


When enquired what fate might befall a losing bird who happens to survive, and if he would pass through this gruesome hospital, the answer is succinct: why would you patch up a loser? The bird has no future in fighting and nobody would want its offspring.  The best fate for him is straight to the dinner plate.  Survival of the fittest is a bitch.

The vanquished cock becomes property of the winner, and is savored as glory appetizers. Does our manager friend, Renee, unexpected owner of 200-some cocks, feast on the flesh of his foe? Nope – he knows what sorts of antibiotics and growth hormones lurk inside. But his trainer sure enjoys the meal.

On a tour of his retirement “farm”, Renee further explains the intricacies of the sport, including pressures from the all-powerful Church, accounting tricks to make the business actually profitable, illegal fighting rings (in which he half-heartedly participates), and what happens behind closed doors for the winning fighters.

Turns out only half of the victors live long enough to propagate their species. Often Renee will take pity on his patched-up champion and donate it to the neighbor’s dinner plate.  With an air of respectful disdain, he explains that tradition bestows bad luck if you kill and eat your own champ, so there’s a “martyr’s graveyard” out back. Those who live have a lovely day with a lady and go on to fight another day. They may even live long enough to retire.

A cock many times valiant and many times a daddy.

A cock many times valiant and many times a daddy.

My personal jury is still out on the humanity of this event.  Without doubt it is a far better end than for unwanted male chicks to be discarded factory-farm style into bins where they slowly suffocate under the weight of their brethren.  It certainly is preferable to the demise of a “beaten” chicken in Banaue, where a bird is literally bludgeoned to death to elicit blood clotting (aside from being horrifying, the result has the unfortunate texture of rubber). For the average loser, this may even trump the most humane death we could manage for those Vermont farm chickens.

As long as we kill animals for food, they must suffer in the end.  It would be preferable to ask the birds what demise they might prefer, but they’re too busy being assholes to care.

An up-and-coming youngster, soon to fight. Dinner or daddy?

An up-and-coming youngster, soon to fight. Dinner or daddy?

Impressions of a Third World

People of the Philippines are rich, but not many of them. Far more find themselves utterly destitute.  No matter the income, however, they prove themselves industrious, eager, resilient, friendly, and able to maximize available resources. They sleep in mansions encased within barbed wire walls or unprotected on a couch in an alley, in a concrete apartment, in a lean-to, in the sidecar of their “tricycle”, in a skyscraper penthouse, in a stilted bamboo shack over their rice terraces, in their family’s cemetery crypt (you read that right), and directly on the sidewalk surrounded by their playing children.

Manila's North Cemetery means eking out a living in your family's crypt. Photo by Bahas (our camera was in the shop).

Manila’s North Cemetery means eking out a living in your family’s crypt. Photo by Bahas (yeah, our camera was in the shop).

They eat in lavish western restaurants or from sweat-drenched street vendors, at McDonald’s, out of a pot heated over a fire in an alley, Italian take-out and in their own very modest, sparely-equipped kitchens. Gas stoves run on propane and dishwashers are a luxury. And beware, products follow seemingly no safety standards and are all trying to hurt you.

The wealthier shop for food at bright new supermarkets where everything is neatly packaged behind plastic.  For a country whose staple is rice, there is a baffling array of spaghetti options, but good milk products are impossible to come by.  Strawberries cost $11 a box but, thanks to agro-science, the perfect mango can be savored year-round.


Unless you can prove that your meat was walking moments ago, this is the safest bet.

If the “Hyper Market” is too expensive or riddled with preservatives, live fish can be found flapping on counters at the public market. Beef and pork slabs are hung from hooks and every part of a chicken is spread out for purchase. Feet, hearts, livers, heads and entrails are available as well as the usual breast and leg, all eagerly displayed beneath repurposed ceiling fans outfitted with makeshift fly swatters.

In stalls past the fresh animals (so recently slaughtered, and often on-site, you can smell the ocean as well as the manure) you will find pungent dried fish, rice, and eggs – the standard poor-man’s meal.  Cooking oil is sold in single-dose bags. Even eggs are sold separate from their shells in bags.

Step past the puddles of ocean water and mammal blood and you find fresh veggies and fruit overflowing bins direct from the farms. Mango, banana, papaya, and “native” tomatoes are the staples. A blind man could easily shop the market following only the rich aroma of this locally produced food.

Yes, you can use a credit card, but it's going to take a while to figure out how.  Each bank gets a separate machine.

Yes, you can use a credit card, but it’s going to take a while to figure out how. Each bank gets a separate machine.

Vehicles on the road are as varied as the chicken parts: BMW, Nissan, Ford, Toyota, Hummer, and Lamborghini are all represented on the choked streets alongside home-made monsters. Watch out; lanes and traffic lights are merely suggestions, and bumpers here are used like they are named.

Like sand in a jar of marbles, the roving hordes of motorbikes pour through the tiny spaces between buses and cars and frequently take to the sidewalks. Yet the vehicles that will run you down fastest are Jeepneys and tri-cycles. They represent the most popular forms of ‘public transportation’. Each of these smoke-spewing clunkers are privately owned and make just a few cents off each passenger.

Jeepneys are repurposed WWII American military jeeps (originally at least. They seem, at last, to have used up the supply), cut, stretched and decorated (usually with blinding amounts of stainless steel) to become a sort of open air bus. They stop anywhere and everywhere along their cryptic course to pick up and drop off passengers no matter how thick the traffic, how risky the maneuver, or how detrimental to traffic flow.

A 20 cent fare will take you many miles, and is passed forward between the squished passengers to reach the driver, who dislocates his arm backwards to blindly reach the cash, calculates change while swerving between pedestrians, and returns change via the passenger brigade.  Occasionally he will need to purchase a cigarette from a wandering vendor in order to break a bill.  Often he will need to wait for the fare of a new passenger. He may even stop to refuel.

Following our deep-fried meal of delicious, a street vendor of Manila insists we try his Puto Bungbong on the house.  Sticky rice, butter, sugar, coconut . . .

Following our deep-fried meal of delicious, a street vendor of Manila insists we try his Puto Bungbong on the house. Sticky rice, butter, sugar, coconut . . .

A tri-cycle, conversely, is a motorcycle welded to a covered side car.  The fanciest of these have a ‘trunk’ that replicates the vibe of a ’57 Chevy.  The fare is a bit higher, but personal space is even more precious. Within this side car there is room enough for one adult, so of course two to five people are folded inside. To increase profits there are an additional two adults riding side saddle behind the driver. Occasionally extra bodies will stand on the trunk or sit on the roof, totaling up to perhaps 14 souls.  A pedestrian with a brisk pace will easily outrace a heavily laden bike, but walking for more than a few blocks here is contemptible.  To see white people doing it is downright puzzling, for they nearly always take a taxi outfitted with the equally important AC and air filter.

Carburetors are a luxury for any class of vehicle, so an oppressive film of black covers every surface in town, including ones lungs. When the time expired to pay back an American loan and cash was on short supply, Hilary Clinton mercifully instructed the government to keep the money and plant trees.  This resulted in an unexpectedly green and shady city, far more pleasant places for the homeless to sleep and, anecdotally at least, better air. Cough, cough.

Hot young men with guns patrol every store, bank, and toll-booth.  This one is stationed to check your receipt just seconds following the transaction.  Ladies, please note and appreciate the tight-fitting shirt.

Hot young men with guns patrol every store, bank, and toll-booth. This one is stationed to check your receipt just seconds following the transaction. Ladies, please note and appreciate the tight-fitting shirt.

Recycling is not only the ‘responsible’ thing to do in a city with 12 million inhabitants, it is a way to live. Trash and recyclables, if not casually littered, are placed in single stream garbage bins and workers sort and separate out the usable or profitable items. There is no warehouse or collection point for the sorting and no automated system or special truck. It is the roof-challenged residents who find, sort, transport, and sell the recycling or repurpose it for their own makeshift domiciles (however, in a land where plastic is the default packaging, most garbage lives a very short life and usually ends up on a shoreline).

You can witness the full efficiency of the recycling program as a stake bed garbage truck rolls by with half a dozen self-appointed sorters perched atop, scouring through the heap of bags, collecting their livelihood as the truck maneuvers the city streets.

Crystal clear waters do not mean garbage-free waters.

Crystal clear waters do not mean garbage-free waters.

That sort of resourcefulness is what keeps the poor self-supporting, but it has a nasty black lining.  As seen in the population of New Orleans, it is the poorest hit hardest when Katrina comes to town; they cannot insulate themselves against hardship and have few opportunities to run away.  When even the midrate parts of the Philippines are hastily built with questionable techniques and decaying material, what hope is there for shacks built from repurposed signage and bits of plywood, or a tarp tossed over a tree branch and pinned with rocks.

We watched with anxiety as Manila’s homeless prepared for Super Typhoon Yolanda, because it is they who line the shores, etching out a living on their scrappy fishing boats or within piecemeal food carts. While we pondered the structural integrity of our 34-floor high-rise with its already significant cracks, they seemed rather matter-of-fact as they placed a few additional rocks on their tarps and settled in for a rainy and, ultimately, uneventful night.

Other islands saw no luck that day and towns were utterly decimated, but they are as far from Manila as New Orleans is from our Michigan home.  And with miles of ocean between islands, there is little an average citizen can do to aid the ailing when even the Philippine government struggles to reach the desperate.

The mall is such an integral part of average Manila life that even the national basketball teams host their draft picks there.

The mall is such an integral part of average Manila life that even the national basketball teams host their draft picks there.

Here is a country perched uncomfortably between modernity and chaotic squalor, while suffering the worst effects of rampant capitalism.  An eyebrow can be raised at Manila’s ever-shifting downtown; a neighborhood of shiny skyscrapers and malls is erected over a “useless” patch of green earth or the forced graveyard of a former slum, ushering in the newest standards of cleanliness and urban design, only to eventually fall victim to age and decay and be left to rot as a shinier downtown is constructed several miles away.  From the air the skyline appears a mottled patchwork of high-rises vs. shantytowns.

One could remain insulated for a while within the cathedrals of consumerism, marveling at the Asian mall experience with its labyrinth of escalators, in-house supermarkets, call centers and open-air chapels, but eventually you’d notice that the workers building the newest downtown are all sleeping there as well.  In shacks.  On the construction site.

Take a few steps outside the area and urban planning lays in tatters with the tangled, bird’s nest power lines and crumbled sidewalks and filth and homelessness and a traffic jam of Jeepneys that have been regulated to the periphery of the Shiny Downtown where are they forced to navigate cramped residential neighborhoods, trying to get their passengers close to the Consumer Cathedrals without crossing that invisible fence themselves.

There are an extraordinary number of zip-ties involved in modernizing the older parts of Manila.

There are an extraordinary number of zip-ties involved in modernizing the older parts of Manila.

Here also is a country that chooses the labor and time-intensive method over the machine every time, because manpower is cheap and it gives a larger number of the burgeoning population an income, however meager.  Why mow the highway grasses with one big machine and two guys when you could employ 40 men with weedwhackers? Why buy a front end loader when you have hoards of workers with shovels? It’s a logic that almost computes, until you ponder how much pollution 40 weedwhackers spew forth and what other currently ignored tasks could be tackled with that kind of dedicated workforce, like picking up all of the damn useless garbage or repairing the barely-navigable sidewalks.

2013-12-08 20.32.48

There are no allowances for tree growth in the march toward modern.

But then, in small doses, you see that happening too, because there are just so many damn people to employ.  Within certain Barangays (an urban village with its own tax structure and powerful Captain), big strides to improve quality of life are being taken, and some of them are choosing to be pretty.  We’ve seen several employ gangs of grinning grandmothers to manually sweep the gutters with bamboo brooms and improvised dustbins (admittedly, Filipinos are obsessed with sweeping; we’ve seen a dirt yard swept of leaves minutes before being plowed, and sidewalks broomed right before a Typhoon).

One such Barangay was using its authority to construct concrete drainage ditches along the main road and, because houses are built directly adjacent to the street (an incomprehensible practice that allows no buffer from traffic noise or view) the encroaching entryways and porches and balconies of these structures had to be ruthlessly ripped off to make way.

Eventually they will discover the bureaucratic beauty of permits and building codes that will prevent such spacial conflicts but, until that dull day, it’s a bit of chaos and noise and doing things over and over until it looks just like its perfect Big Brother America.

Barangay campaigning in full swing.  There are no party affiliations and every position is hotly contested.

Barangay campaigning in full swing. There are no party affiliations and every position is hotly contested.



Balconies be damned, we need a street that doesn’t flood; a Barangay in the Batangas gets all medieval on the architecture.

Ten Steps

Your library contains a tear-dribbled section concerning grief and how to deal with it. These books will inform you that humans follow a reassuringly predictable pattern as they dredge their way through otherwise surprising combinations of emotions.  There’s denial and anger and depression, but an often overlooked step is the one where you let your now live-in relatives bust holes in your house and remodel the hell out of it.  In predictable fashion, this step directly involves us.

What is Kurt and Janine’s answer to any ailment? Indeed, a bathroom remodel.

But many interesting steps come betwixt the death of a brother-in-law and swearing at a $2000 shower enclosure; nobody can speak for our beloved sister Elizabeth (who lost far too much to fathom and has no shortage of words to speak for herself), but I can present to you Kurt’s and my personalized grief schedule, as experienced during an unexpected summer of ‘puppies and flowers and rainbows’.

Dammit Doll goes to Dover in style. The sole purpose of this fellow is to absorb abuse and pain. He will end up dismembered, burned, and legless by the end of the summer.

Dammit Doll goes to Dover in style. The sole purpose of this fellow is to absorb abuse and pain. He will end up dismembered, burned, and legless by the end of the summer.

Step 1: Emotional and Physical Upheaval

- Fly the fuck back to Michigan in a stew of disbelief, panic, and tears.

- Arrive and expend two days sobbing and hugging and swearing while sleeping miniscule amounts in a literal heap of family and friends, all while profoundly jet-lagged and also a bit guiltily gleeful to see all of these wonderful people in one place.

- Eat a lot, because it distracts from the hole in your heart by at least filling a nearby organ.  Notice that your Sister’s approach is the opposite because food gives her material to vomit, so hand her another bottle of vodka and eat her portion too.

- Play Dish Golf, an invention of the bereaved, using the remains of dish sets from your own wedding festivities and Jamie’s now abandoned golf clubs to launch (or smash) said dishes across the backyard river . . . which is strangely awkward and cathartic for both the associated wedding (have you ever smashed your wedding china while still happily married?) and funeral (try learning golf while sobbing). It becomes such a popular activity that piles more dishes are collected from local resale shops.

- Climb aboard a chartered jet to Dover with a hundred sad people to go witness the highly ritualized military transfer of the yet-to-be-identified bodies from cargo plane to morgue. While taking off, experience a demented appreciation of the potential irony if this planeload of families of planecrash-victims were to crash.

You must sleep where you can . . . Brandon proves his youthful resilience and Buster appreciates the warm opportunity.

You must sleep where you can . . . Brandon proves his youthful resilience and Buster appreciates the warm opportunity.

Because nothing is absurd anymore. With Vanessa's band of random: Seth, Matilda, and Hannah (yep, Seth and Tyler caught those fish in the river).

Because nothing is absurd anymore. With Vanessa’s band of random: Seth, Matilda, and Hannah (yep, Seth and Tyler caught those fish in the river).

Step 2: Take Action

- Buy some alcohol

- Pitch that unused tent you lugged all the way to New Zealand and back in Sister’s backyard so you have a place to both sleep and hide. (Then pitch another tent next door so the rampaging children can pretend to be as cool as you while not writhing all over your incomprehensively expensive travel gear.) Occasionally you will be annoyed to share this tiny space with another full-size human, but you will get the hell over it because your spouse is still alive to be annoyed at.

- Collect literal truckloads of firewood from the local pallet factory (awkwardly in Jamie’s giant rig, a specific truck you never fathomed driving), because nightly bonfires are required and Jamie would have wanted them visible from space.

- Plan a memorial and party from the ground up, porta-potties, airport and all, because you fare a lot better emotionally when concerning yourself with sound systems and seating layouts and parking.  Frequently you will suffer from debilitating heartache that the memorial falls on the one year anniversary of the beautiful wedding for which you just performed the same actions.

-Shop for funeral clothes in a less-than-ideal girls’ day out because everything you own is in storage half a state away. Lament that the economically ruined Monroe Mall adds its own veneer of depression to the excursion.

-Make some art, because apparently every memorial needs a sob-inducing movie, and you’ve been volunteered.  While combing through decades of jumbled photos acquired from various computers, shoe boxes, and Facebook, realize that you didn’t know Jamie half as much as you should have and a tenth of what you retroactively wanted.  His life was a constant adventure, and summing it up in 15 minutes of still shots seems entirely inept.

- Buy some alcohol

- Drink a lot of alcohol. Swear a lot at Jamie. And then interrogate the assembly of pilots on just how airplanes fly.  The answers are shockingly varied and unsatisfyingly incomplete (but cheers to Jamie’s dad for kicking the pants off all other pilots’ answers).

When your heart hurts from sad, fill it with booze and laughter.

When your heart hurts from sad, fill it with booze and laughter.

Step 3: Settle in for the Long Haul

-  As the crowds disperse and the supply of casserole dwindles, ask that inevitable question of Sister: do you want us to stay with you until you can get some footing on the situation?  After an uncertain pause, she will conclude that this is the Unwelcome New Normal – far from anything she would have wanted, but the best one can do under the circumstances. So yes-ish.

- Fall victim to Jamie’s parents’ plan to put you to good use, which involves a whirlwind 2-day Lowes shopping sprint, wherein all materials for a bathroom reconstruction must be acquired while completely unsure of the eventual design, all while desperately trying not to overwhelm shell-shocked Sister with questions concerning such arbitrary details as color and shape and style. Most of her decisions will be made whilst perched upon a display toilet chowing down Jimmy Johns.  Absurdity is the new normal.

-Experience a wrenching but watered-down version of what Sister must feel every time you unexpectedly come across a pair of Jamie’s shoes, or find yourself working on a project he was in the middle of, all while using his tools and trying unsuccessfully not to break any of his newly-precious shit.

- Drag that immaculate 1975 pop-up camper out of your parents’ storage so your back can have a break from tent sleeping and you can still pretend you’re not irritating Sister by having to fully move into her house.  You will drift into sleep each night wondering when, not if, a tornado will pass thru.

A small army of concerned relatives (Jamie's parents, Yerpa, and us) inspect the girth of a proposed shower enclosure.

A small army of concerned relatives (Jamie’s parents, Yerpa, and us) inspect the girth of a proposed shower enclosure.

Finally with an appetite returned, Sister perches on the judgment chair while her minions bring forth décor options.

Finally with an appetite returned, Sister perches on the judgment chair while her minions bring forth décor options.

Step 4: Shoehorn in some Additional Grief and Attend Your Own Grandmother’s Funeral.

- Feel wretchedly guilty for your sensation of relief that she died while you were only a car ride away.

- Spend several days in deep appreciation of your extended birth family, who differs vastly in political tendencies from yourself, but is filled with generous, kind, and hilarious people.  While standing graveside giving final farewells to Grandma, the funeral director will inquire of this Gun Shop owning family of expert marksmen why there is no 21 gun salute.  Did you leave the guns in the cars? Oh no, responds an uncle, they are much closer than that.  [Lengthy, uncertain pause].  However, an aunt expounds, they are not loaded with blanks.

Grandpa contributes a flower to the grave of his Sweetheart. She suffered from both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, so this day is a bit of a sad relief for him, who drove an hour and a half every day for many years to share lunch with her.

Grandpa contributes a flower to the grave of his Sweetheart. She suffered from both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, so this day is a bit of a conflicted relief for him, who drove an hour and a half every day for many years to share lunch with her.

Step 5: Find some Pleasure Within the Pain

- Sign Niece up for 4-H and spend a whole languid week at the fair ogling farm animals and consuming vats of deep-fried numminess.

- Venture to Vermont so you don’t have to pass yet another sad birthday in Michigan. Fall in love with the state and its people all over again while murdering, plucking, and gutting 100 chickens.

- Harvest wine grapes, enjoy the company of friends and family at weird events like Drum Corpse competition or just lazily kayaking down a river, help Niece Chloe with math homework . . . do all the things a normal day job keeps you from, but get such a taste for it that you regret not having the luxury of committing all of your time to wasting time.

-Finally get a ride in Jamie’s (dad’s) plane.  Ok, yes, sob while doing it, but feel intimately connected to him and that exact sensation that kept him coming back for more.

Niece Chloe and entourage receive lessons in goat milking.  Last year Aunt Yvonne dared them each $5 to have the milk squirted directly into their mouths. She was out $20 that day.

Niece Chloe and entourage receive lessons in goat milking. Last year Aunt Yvonne dared them each $5 to have the milk squirted directly into their mouths. She was out $20 that day.

Kurt re-lives his favorite childhood pastime and learns some new tricks for our future homestead

Kurt re-lives his favorite childhood pastime and learns some new tricks for our future homestead

Buster (Jamie's totally butch Chihuahua who loves rides more than literally anything else)  reclaims his place in the sky in Jamie's (Dad's) plane.

Buster (Jamie’s totally butch Chihuahua who loves rides more than literally anything else) reclaims his place in the sky in Jamie’s (Dad’s) plane.

Step 6: Get some Shit Done

- Earn grocery money repainting and repairing friends’ houses.  You really could make a career of this.

- Prevent Sister’s house from burning down while she’s in Alaska and realize that, in this world of coincidence, this is the moment for which you were intended to be right here.  An arcing main power line inside a breaker panel is now part of your world of comprehension.

- Rewire Sister’s entire house with dependable, conveniently-placed electrical, including ceiling lights, fans, and more than one outlet in each room.

- Gut, re-engineer, and expand a bathroom.  Finally come to realize that Sister’s décor ideal is much like your own, so joyfully design a bathroom you wish were in your own house.

- Swear at a $2000 shower enclosure.

The first stage of being "almost done" with the new bathroom.

The first stage of being “almost done” with the new bathroom.

Sister's new custom bathroom, including the $2000 shower enclosure from hell.

Sister’s new custom bathroom, including the $2000 shower enclosure from hell.

Step 7: Realize you need to Leave Soon and Finish Everything in a Blind Panic

- Finalize that rock-walled herb garden you’ve been putting off because of heat or mosquitoes or whatever lame-ass excuse you devised because you hate smashing your fingers with rocks.

- Order and return several dozen pairs of shoes from Zappos so you can find the perfect one to go back out into the world with.  Your efforts will be futile.

-  Place everything you’ve removed from storage back into it, including such luxuries as pretty clothes and power tools.


Step 8: Savor One Last Perfect Weekend of Northern Michigan Autumn Before Plunging into Months of Tropical Heat

The fashionable and always marvelous Karenanna, who is our link to the magical cabin in the woods.

The fashionable and always marvelous Karenanna, who is our link to the magical cabin in the woods.

Step 9: Ungracefully Extract Yourself from What Has Unintentionally Become Your Home

- Stop being helplessly in love with Jamie’s dog and the floppy new puppy.

- Ignore the heartache of abandoning Sister and Niece to an uncertain but surely difficult emotional and financial future (while housed within a structure still classifiable as a fixer-upper).

- Be certain not to speak at all of what you’ve all just been thru together and whether it was successful or not.  Words like this beget crying, and fuck if we haven’t had enough of that.

Attempting to make the summer carefree for a kid who's been thru the wringer.

Attempting to make the summer carefree for a kid who’s been thru the wringer.

Step 10:  Strap on that Backpack and Get Your Ass Back on the Road

- There are few people in your life whose very presence can imbue an instant sense of calm no matter the shit hitting the fan.  Be sure this person bookends your Summer Detour as your airport chauffeur, because such service is priceless.  And then fold him up into your luggage because you sure could use him out in the world.

- Depart with confidence; Earth is brimming with people who are familiar with everything you’ve just gone thru, and Jamie wants you to meet all of them.

Sending some warmth Jamie's direction.

Sending some warmth Jamie’s direction.


Visit the gallery for additional images:

Communing with Turtles

As a kid, snorkeling in Michigan never made sense. The water was murky at best and, besides that, you couldn’t imagine anything below the surface but seaweed and trout.  Better to just ignore whatever is down there.   A snorkel in Hawai’i, however, is pure magic.  Your face breaches the waters’ surface and the entire ocean transforms instantly into an epic fantasyland.  Holy mind warp, THAT is down there?!?  Now I understand what all those crazed, saltwater aquarium enthusiasts are pathetically striving for.  Now I understand why to put your head under water.

Reef in Honaunau at the beloved Two Step.  Just two rock steps down and you get THIS.

Reef in Honaunau at the beloved Two Step. Just two rock steps down and you get THIS.

It took me by surprise because the professional shots of various world-class reefs don’t really register as a possible in-person experience, and our location in Hawai’i is based solely on where we can work in exchange for free housing.  Call it luck then that the best two Hawaiian spots to have your underwater mind blown are within a mile of our doorstep.

Formerly annoyed at salt water and its bad taste and general sting-inducing sensations, I am a full-on addict now.  The pictures will do far better (but hardly do it justice) in conveying what is going on down there, but some words would be helpful to explain the motion and sound of the place.

Rock is the foundation for all great reefs, and here it’s relatively fresh lava all rough and poised to rend delicate flesh.  Add coral, which is abrasive in its own right (and you dare not touch for its own health), on top of this and then sprinkle with very stabby urchins and stir with some forceful and literally irresistible wave action and you have a recipe for sweet danger.  Sure, there are gentle areas where the water is crystal-clear calm and everyone lives happily ever after, but all of the best stuff happens in the turbulence.

As the tide comes in, the fish scamper to nibble the newly accessible delicacies and it’s an absolute marvel to witness their interactions with the pounding surf.  Whole schools of fish will swoosh up over a rock only to race back down en masse as the water pours back off.

The sound of fish feeding is a symphony of Pop Rocks in total stereo.  Parrot fish, with their beak mouths, add punctuations like ripping Velcro as they tear algae off of rocks.  Everyone mixes and mingles, occasionally sorting by type, but more often in total oblivion to speciesism (including sharks.  Yes, we swam with sharks.).  They mind your human presence only if you give chase or happen to be holding a spear.  It’s a Hippie dream of peace and love in all the colors of rainbows.  And then there are also turtles.

Green Sea Turtle scoping out the neighborhood.

Green Sea Turtle scoping out the neighborhood.

The perfection of the green sea turtle is its placid demeanor.  Like leaves on the wind they let the water carry them, cruising the waves with utter nonchalance and the barest of energy expenditure (but my money is on an impressive speed ability if motivated).

Much of the day seems to be spent napping on a bed of deep coral while fish nibble away at their accumulated shell algae.  Eventually they’ll surface to breath, take a cruise around the neighborhood to check on the status of the tide, then return for another hidden coral nap.  The time for excitement comes precisely at the time soft flesh should not be in the water; the tide comes in, the waves pound the rocks, and the water is a cauldron of bubbles taking visibility often down to zilch.  Then thru the din you spot that unmistakable shadow.  It is dinner time.

The higher waters expose the weeds in the shallowest parts of the shoreline and the turtles ride the surf in and out over the rocks, craning for a tasty bite.  The armor they wear, before now, seemed merely a defense against predators – what they daily use it for is something more akin to football padding.  The surf sweeps them over and into rocks, but provoking in them only minor course adjustments and the effort required to snatch a bite of dinner before being dragged out to sea or slammed into shore.  Clutching the rocks to avoid a similar trip, I’ve had a turtle ricochet right off of me as it was sucked seaward.  Touching them is necessarily illegal, but I’ve needed to perform some acrobatics to keep them from touching me (some seem strangely interested in my mask and camera tether).

What thoughts scamper thru the brain when face-to-face with such magnificence? Similar thoughts to when a moose starts swimming toward you: “oh dang, this is freakin awesome, and I’m pretty sure it’s gonna hurt when she decides not to like me.”

One second later he was nibbling on the camera tether.

One second later he was nibbling on the camera tether.

With such wonders come the tourist throngs and their shocking density to basic consideration.  I realize that we are a part of this group.  But hell, even some locals behave with complete abandon.  Kurt and I try our damnedest not to trample or molest or offend, and grow ulcers watching others’ insolence.  Am I my brother’s keeper in a foreign land?

With great privilege witnessing the world’s treasures comes the burden of seeing them destroyed, either directly with every coral-crushing footstep, or second-handedly (bear with me here) as fertilizer seeps into the sea causing blooms of invasive weeds which manufacture an amino acid that causes a latent herpes in the sea turtles eating it to develop debilitating tumors.  Damn. We’re fucking everything up, and it is most visible in these most precious of places.  It causes me to wonder what of my own presence is contributing to it.  And then, as an offset to my damage, the need to actually DO something about it.

It’s easier to just be utterly ignorant and pet some sea turtles.


For the uber-curious, there are more images in the gallery: and an article at National Geographic concerning turtle herpes:



Alaska felt too comfortable.  So much so we fell right into old habits of shredding a bathroom and slowly reviving it while partly neglecting the niftiness of being in freakin’ Alaska again.  Indeed, we fit in some truly fantastic experiences but, as I watch Anchorage and the mountains and the mud flats, all blanketed under a fresh layer of white, quickly slide out of view in the airplane window, I am struck with a regret that we didn’t go adventure every moment of every day.

Given enough time, patterns will form no matter the activity.  Probably if we had adventured every day we, and our hosts, would have regretted shredding the bathroom and not ever finishing it.

The "before" Anchorage bathroom.  Yes, that is carpet.

The “before” Anchorage bathroom. Yes, that is carpet.

The "after" Anchorage bathroom.

The “after” Anchorage bathroom.

The "after" Anchorage bathroom. And a round of huzzahs for Knut for building a fabulous custom vanity.

The “after” Anchorage bathroom. And a round of huzzahs to Knut for building a fabulous custom vanity.

When we first departed Michigan, I recall a sensation of concern mixed with shock mixed with disbelief.  Now well over a month “on the road” and it’s all subsided into a pleasant but unexpected and nearly unsettling comfort.  We are at last going places we’ve never been (Hawai’i), but to be greeted and housed by people whom we know and to perform tasks with which we are all too familiar: another bathroom remodel.  I fear the only difference will be in the scenery and the layers of clothing required.

Call this my commitment to busting out of our comfort zone.  Perhaps we shall learn to surf.

Now, as we venture forth, I shall like to ask a habit-creating question of our small band of readers: what activity or pose or object is worthy of a photo in every country?  Would you like to see the beds? The doors?  Every outrageous meal? Every bizarre mode of transportation?  Perhaps a hug from a local?  It would be ideal to have the photo mandate require us to stretch our comfort levels; in my quest to master the handstand, should I force myself to snapshot it in every country?

In essence, what image says the most about a country? Or about us?

Pretty Lights

Holy mind-blowing insanity, the world is full of strangeness.  Even in moments of complete familiarity, a new perspective can shift the mundane into weirdness.  But, for maybe the first time in my adult life, I have been first-person awed at an event unfathomable:

the Aurora Borealis.

One can have an academic comprehension of a phenomenon and find it pretty freakin’ neat, but all sense is knocked out of the head when witnessing it for real.  Now on my fourth trip to Alaska, and during a year projected to be filled with auroral activity, there was zip, zilch, nada all month.  But luck and fortitude panned out, and a night of utter amazement was on our dance card.

Dusk in Talkeetna, Aurora to follow.

Dusk in Talkeetna, Aurora to follow.

Skies had been crystal clear in Talkeetna all weekend; the warm sun blazing across a desert of white, Denali poised on the horizon without even a haze of obscurity.  Schawna and Mike skied the Oosik race that afternoon while Kurt and I set out, much slower, across the virgin snows on the Susitna River to ogle the mountain and to cheer on our people at a refreshment station (Gatorade and water, yes, but also Jaeger, Oreos, and Bacon).

Our lodging for the evening was the self-remodeled, plumbing-free cabin of Gretchen and John (the outhouse had been converted to a sauna), with a surprisingly good view of the forest-ringed sky.  Late into the wine, cheese, and chocolate evening, while we hovered near the bonfire, that pale glow, easy to mistake for city lights except that there is no city here, began to creep up the horizon.  Within half an hour it had pulled into a solid streak of parakeet green. When it began throbbing, we realized this was going to be worth chasing.

The beginning of the show.

The beginning of the show.

At that same highway lookout that had offered up such marvelous views of Denali during the day, we could witness the entire expanse of undulating ribbon across the heavens.  The view down at the lake proved even better, but so frigid it’s a marvel the camera continued working as I used snowbanks as tripods.

For a rookie aurora chaser, when the color drains from the sky, one assumes that the spectacle has ceased for the night and is thrilled to have seen anything that intense at all.  Yet, within the hour, the light’s turf has been reclaimed and expanded and there are heaps more marvels in store.

Punctuated by moments of body warming within the cabin, the next several hours are spent jaw-dropped in the empty road wondering how a natural phenomenon manages to feel so magical.  It shimmers, waves, dances and boils like a green fire in the firmament.  Some moments are shockingly bright, others soft and pensive.  Always shifting: filling the sky, then retreating, then returning in a new form.  It became so vast and varied that all I could do was lie down in the road and stretch peripheral vision to its limits.  If a zero degree sleeping bag was on hand, I would have lied out there all night.

Midnight Aurora over Talkeetna

Midnight Aurora over Talkeetna

The pictures of course can’t do it justice, partly because of my inexperience with shooting such a bizarre vision, on a less-than ideal camera at that, but also because the motion cannot translate.  So much of the awe comes with the subtle ripples, like heat radiating through hot coals in a fire.  So much more of it is the perspective of a tiny human under a dome of deep, starry black, already small in the naked-eye universe, and then made to feel miniscule under the enormity of our own atmosphere.

If I were a person of religion I’d have some useful verbiage and metaphor, but a girl of science has nothing more to say than “woah”.  And then all I can do is silently marvel that we humans are of the optimum intelligence and visual acuity to appreciate the splendor of such an event.

Running in Snow


Winter fun in Alaska comes in two forms: drinking indoors, or intense physical activity outdoors.  Somehow finding an energy reserve in spite of plentiful skiing and bathroom remodeling, we elected to volunteer for the Iditarod. We’ve always appreciated the sport from afar, but got to Alaska at just the right time for a full immersion.

The first days were spent heaving and schlepping sacks loaded with musher supplies around a warehouse.  Each team (usually the musher him or herself) would pull up in a beater truck, shocks fully compressed under the load, and the process of sorting, weighing, tagging, then distributing would begin.  I am literally staggered at the sheer volume and weight of supplies needed to travel 1049 miles via dogsled.  The mushers calculate what supplies they will need at each of 22 checkpoints, everything from booties and food for the dogs (when a giant crate started bleeding, we learned that a favorite dog snack is fish-wrapped beaver, frozen, then sliced on a bandsaw) to fresh sled runners or even clean clothes for themselves.  If you don’t pack it, you naturally don’t have it, but shipping all of it costs heaps of money, so one can’t get carried away with the “what if’s”.

A fleet of small aircraft outfitted with snowskis transfer all of these mountains of stuff to the tiny villages along the trail, and then must fly all of the used stuff back, including dogs who get dropped from the team along the way.  It is a logistical nightmare and, strangely, mostly executed by volunteers.

The gear and food for a single musher, about to be weighed and sorted for checkpoints.

The gear and food for a single musher, about to be weighed and sorted for checkpoints.

Still possessing energy, we enroll to be “dog handlers” for the Anchorage ceremonial start and the real Willow restart.  Dog handling is not the walk in the park the name implies; sled dogs, small as they are, are wily, hyperactive, and shockingly strong.  Getting them harnessed and clipped into the rig, then escorted to the start line with decorum and without tangles is a feat nearly impossible.  These dogs live to run, and patiently waiting for their turn to depart is not their style.  A wannabe handler must take a class, where he and she are pelted with lists of things not to wear (jewelry, nice clothes, crampons . . .) and what not to do (get in the way, get trampled, or treat the dogs like pets), and then a team is harnessed up in the parking lot and we get to see who among us is fit and sure-footed enough to run in the snow between jumping, lurching dogs while steering them in circles.

The eve of the ceremonial start, the main drag thru downtown is barricaded, cars are towed, fences erected, and snow brought in by the truckload, converting dozens of city blocks into a makeshift trail (strangely, nobody I’ve met actually knows where the snow comes from).  The Anchorage start is little more than a parade, so mushers are jovial and eager to chat.  Many of them bring an entourage (friends, family, sponsors) who handle the team, but less-famous and rookie mushers often need a hand.

The assignment method for handlers seems chaotic at best, sort of a stock market trading floor mentality of shouting and pushing.  A request for 6 strapping, hunky rugby players has been put in by musher Jodi Bailey and I, being neither hunky nor strapping, am the only one of a hundred volunteers who has ever played rugby. I find myself assigned, with Kurt, to handle what we can only assume to be an excessively energetic team that will need to be run 5 city blocks.  They turn out to be the calmest team in the bunch, and Jodi encourages petting and hugging and treating them exactly like the pets they aren’t supposed to be.  The request for hunky rugby players is a purely selfish one for her, a self-described basket-case with Turret’s.  She has a background in theatre and finds the performance of this charade and the masks put on by colleagues quite amusing.  When I inquire if she’s wearing such a mask, Jodi is eager to admit that underneath her calm and collected exterior she is a wreck.

Jodi Bailey's team eager to approach the starting line.

Jodi Bailey’s team eager to approach the starting line.

Everything that seems haphazard about the Anchorage start is ship-shape in Willow.  The staging area is situated atop a lake, and the densely packed snow is far easier to navigate than the dirty, loose snow from the day before. We have all morning after check-in to wander the staging area observing the teams (these volunteer badges really are the golden ticket).

Even with the hours upon hours of planning that have gone into gear and supplies, the mushers are still deciding, somewhat hilariously, what makes the final cut into the sled (the parallels to our recent packing experience are undeniable).  The variety of sled styles is another surprising observation; they use everything from classic wooden frames to aluminum, some with built-in seats and coolers, and one new design by Jeff King, always the inventor, that has him sit atop an insulated cook stove so he can melt snow for drinking while still moving.  Some mushers have huge corporate sponsors, most get by on small, local businesses and friends.  It’s not a life of luxury, even at the top.  Jodi Bailey, whom we connive to assist again, describes it as a hard drug.  It’s expensive as hell, addictive, all-consuming, and excruciatingly hard to make a living at.  But the bliss of hauling ass across an unforgiving wilderness with a dozen dogs pulling the barest essentials for survival is worth giving up all comforts for.

And we got a taste of it.  By sheer luck of timing, we are invited to mush “veteran Iditarod dogs on a veteran sled on the actual historic trail.”  GB Jones, three-time Iditarod musher, told us to brag about it exactly as such.  It is obvious this man has given up every comfort for this passion, living a simple life in a modest shack surrounded by an enormous yard of happy dogs.  The dogs need to run, so naïve rookies like us can take a turn along the trail trying to keep the sled upright and the team from running off into oblivion.

Mushing is unexpectedly the most natural sensation of movement I or Kurt have ever experienced.  What joy and wicked freedom it is to glide over snow behind undulating fur, a part of a team of animals who clearly would rather do this than anything else in the world.  GB sings to his dogs on the trail and, if it weren’t for the effort and uncertainty of balancing the sled around turns, I can hardly help but do the same.

Kurt tries his hand at mushing.

Kurt tries his hand at mushing.

What a bizarre sport competition mushing is.  It is a flurry of machines and bodies and barricades: helicopters, spectators, cameras, snow machines, burning fossil fuels . . . neighborhood cook-outs erected on the lake, literally surrounding the trail, complete with burgers and beer and fireworks and the opportunity to high-five the mushers on their way by (if the dogs weren’t so eager to sprint they would never make it past the distraction) . . . and then they’re off, into the empty wilderness.  It is, of course, a game of endurance, strategy, luck and love, but one where the moments that really count are spent alone with your dogs and everything you need is right there in your sled.  At least until the next checkpoint, where you can only hope the army of volunteers properly distributed that bag of melting, bloody meat.