We have beer money… now where’s our beer??

By now you surely know of our struggles to get our hands on some cold hard rupees. Turns out, that was nothing compared to our struggle in turning those rupees into ice cold beer.

You see, Kerala is going dry… words I still shudder to write more than a month later. The reasons don’t appear to be religious, but rather an overreaction to Kerala’s unenviable status as India’s top imbiber of alcohol, with all the corresponding social ills that follow: domestic violence, drunk driving, listening to Coldplay.

Now I’m not heartless to these concerns, but first, prohibition doesn’t work, something we Americans know a thing or two about, and second, cycling is proven to make you parched and after a long day in the saddle it’s my right as a Vishnu-fearing non-Hindu to have an ice-cold Kingfisher, maybe two, or was it ten… alcohol impedes arithmetic as well.

Having ignored the warnings in our Lonely Planet, reality set in quickly that first night in Kovalam. I ordered a beer with my dinner and am pleased to report it arrived promptly — in a paper bag, placed on the floor under the table, and served in a coffee mug.

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And that was the best case scenario. As we cycled throughout southern India, our greatest challenge day in and day out was procuring a cold one at the end of the day. Without exception, not a single one of our hotels served beer. That meant buying it elsewhere, which typically involved having our driver Jamal go on a beer run. (Where he got it, we don’t know, and how much money he skimmed off he top, we don’t really care.) Having at last scored some warm beer, all we needed was a fridge to chill it and a place to drink it. Easy enough, right? Once again, our hotels, which lacked a basic liquor license, offered little more than a helpless head shake. We couldn’t drink in their common areas, or bring them with us to dinner, or even refrigerate them. Banished from decent society, we took turns hosting each other in our rooms. (Jamal saved the day yet again, allowing us to use the cooler in his van to cool our contraband.)

This isn’t to say there were no bars in southern India and we never gave up our search — leading to mixed results. Which brings us to Kodaikanal, an old British hill station perched at 7,000 feet, high atop the Western Ghats. It was the site of our first rest day from the bikes and, sadly, proved to be one of the driest places along our route. We got wind that there was a bar at a nearby hotel so after dinner a few of us ventured out for a nightcap.

Little did we know we were walking into the single worst bar any of us had ever come across.

Located in the hotel’s ill-lit basement, it was filthy and reeked of urine. The beer sat warm atop the bar. When we asked for cold beer, the bartender brought us some very mildly chilled Carlsbergs. The glasses were dirty, but when someone pointed this out, the bartender proceeded to go back and wash them in suspect water with a dinghy old rag. No thank you, we’ll take our chances drinking straight out of the bottle — after we’ve wiped it with our sleeve! (When Warren arrived shortly after us, he took one whiff and promptly closed the door to the loo. Sigh. If only it was that easy.)

But whatever — the company was great and the experience a memorable one, so we soaked up the, umm, ambience, staying until the bar was about to close and we were asked to leave. As we prepared to stumble back to our hotel, we spotted a sign high above the bar that read “DRINKING LIQUOR WILL RUIN THE FAMILY.” Indeed it will.

So there you have it. From now on, when I say “I’ve been kicked out of worse places than this,” you’ll know I’m serious!!

Photo by John Layton

Desperately Seeking Rupees!!

Flying into Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, was a whole lot easier than pronouncing it, that much is certain. After a long night in the air (connecting through Doha), I found myself standing outside the terminal in the dead of night. But this is India and even at 4am things aren’t dead. There were throngs of people outside arrivals, only they were all quiet and still. An eerie hush welcomed me. (It wouldn’t last.)

By the time I checked into my hotel in the coastal town of Kovalam, it was 5am. My head hit the pillow and I was out cold… only to be awakened at 9am by the front desk wanting to know when I would be taking my breakfast. Are you kidding me??

I managed to get some more sleep (thank you Ambien!) and eventually ventured out to look around and grab some lunch. Kovalam is a resort town, built around a crescent-shaped beach with a “boardwalk” lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels. By day it is hot — sticky tropical hot. There were westerners here, for sure, but for the most part Kovalam was packed with Indian beachgoers enjoying the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and munching on street (make that beach!) food.

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Our immediate challenge on landing in India was laying hands on some rupees. India is in the midst of an entirely self-inflicted currency crisis, stemming from a November 8 announcement by Prime Minister Modi that all 500 and 1000 rupee notes would immediately cease to be legal tender. That’s almost all the money in India. Worthless. Overnight. In all, the move removed some 23 billion notes, more than 80 percent of the currency in circulation. (Indians were given until December 30 to deposit them in banks.) Naturally, in addition to providing no advance warning of the move, the government has yet to print new notes.

Delhi’s goal is to crack down on the underground economy and tax evasion, but regardless of the good intentions, the move has been deeply disruptive to an economy that runs almost entirely on cash. Regardless of how much money they may have in their bank accounts — and for half the population the question is “what bank accounts?” — ordinary Indians are struggling to get their hands on hard currency to spend. Needless to say, businesses are struggling as no one has much cash.

For us, the currency crisis turned a seemingly simple task (going to an ATM) into an adventure. Most bank machines sit empty. If you’re lucky enough to find a functioning one, you’re likely limited to withdrawing 2000 rupees (roughly $30). If only the problems ended there. The lack of lower denominations made obtaining change exceedingly difficult. Get your hands on a 2000 rupee note and no one wants to change it. Try paying for a bottle of water with one of these notes and it’s the equivalent of buying a pack of gum with a $100 bill — in a country with no tens or twenties. Once you do break a 2000 note, you hang onto the change for dear life. The next two weeks would require continual strategizing and team work to ensure our bar tabs were fully paid.

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You never want to miss the initial group dinner, but I found myself with little choice but to go rogue that first night. It was December 24 and our hotel had organized a Christmas “gala.” This is the worst thing known to man. A massive buffet. A loud rock band (playing together for the first time). A Santa Claus handing out cake and punch (oddly before dinner). I’d learned in Vietnam a few years ago to avoid these spectacles at all costs. So, after finally finding a working ATM, I walked into town and grabbed a sea-side seat at Malabar Cafe. (I lucked out and found a machine that limited withdrawals to 2000 rupees, but didn’t limit the number of withdrawals — four transactions later, I had my hands on 8000 rupees.)

Malabar and a number of other Kovalam restaurants cleverly display their fresh catch on beds of ice by the entrance. Ordering consisted of picking out three of the biggest prawns I’d ever seen, and once they were weighed, into the tandoori they went. Plus garlic naan and lemon rice. I could hear the surf crashing on the beach and the day’s earlier heat had given way to a gentle breeze off the Arabian Sea. As I munched away, my friends Dennis and Warren from Colombia, and their friend Angela, walked by and joined me for a beer.

A pretty good first day in India!

Patagonia: the John Garner Pass

Day Three: Los Perros to Refugio Grey

This was the big one. The one the first two days had been leading up to. The John Garner Pass.

Standing at 1241 meters (4071 feet) it’s the highest point along the Torres del Paine Circuit. To reach it required a 5:30 wake-up call. Cubano, our cook from the night before, scrambled some eggs, we hastily assembled our lunches, and then we were on our way.

Climbing that morning, our route gradually became more exposed, and those famous Patagonian winds picked up. Above the tree line, the terrain turned to loose rock — a familiar surface for those of us who’ve hiked the Colorado Rockies. To our left and right were jagged peaks, ice hanging off their steep slopes, and behind us, growing more distant with each step, was the lake from our campsite.

Still, we got very lucky, and we knew it. The Garner Pass can be… well… impassable. Hikers have been blocked from crossing it by the elements, and some have gotten lost and even perished. Us? We reached the top in our base layers. What should have been a very brief pause at the top — my guidebook warned “the near gale-force westerlies blasting through this keyhole may make it hard to enjoy the views for long” — turned into a leisurely (first) lunch.

Eventually we got moving again. That initial part of the descent was a highlight of the day and the entire Circuit. Dominating the landscape below us was the end of the mighty Glaciar Grey, a massive hunk of blue-tinted, creviced ice stretching nearly 100 square miles, itself a part of the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the largest in the world. The glacier jutted through the mountain range, feeding into Lago Grey to our left. Soon, the terrain under our feet began to vary, still rocky on the surface but bursting with vegetation.

Its beauty aside, the descent eventually turned bruising, noticeably steeper going down. And it was long, so very, very long, and we had used up a good amount of energy on the way up. In all, the 24 kilometers (15 miles) took their toll and for the third straight day a group of weary hikers stumbled into camp. We would feel it the next morning.

Before we made it to camp though, we had one more hurdle to clear: a bridge taken straight off the set of Indiana Jones. The views were stunning — if you dared to look. Danny, borrowing Elizabeth’s phone, provided death defying cinematography (as well as narration)!

Refugio Grey was situated a stone’s throw from where the glacier calved into the lake, but aside from the location, it was easily my least favorite. By now, we had joined the “W” portion of the Paine Circuit, which brought us in contact (and close quarters) with many more hikers. Grey was a vast camp, with two large buildings, some nasty showers with long queues, and an enormous dining room that even had a bar — and couches.

Couches! We were sooo tired after dinner, I thought I might fall asleep right there and then. The sole exception was John, who seemed to have a limitless supply of energy. While I sank deeper and deeper into the couch, he bought a bottle of Jim Beam and a few Cokes — as well as some bonafide glacial ice! — and stayed up drinking with our porters. (Wanna know what glacial ice tastes like? Like Jim Beam and Coke.) The following morning, he was still hurting less than any of us.

Day Four: Refugio Grey to Paine Grande

Another “rest day,” which meant another 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). But at least we got to sleep in a little!

The porch of our refugio was now a makeshift ER as Danny drained blisters right and left. First Elizabeth, then Catherine, then Freddie. He had a great technique that wowed us all. Using a needle, he threaded a small piece of string through each injured toe. The thread absorbs the fluid in the blister without breaking the skin. It’s genius.

Then Peter announced he had the biggest and squishiest one. Silence. He wasn’t kidding though. His blister was the biggest any of us has ever seen and we quickly took to calling it his sixth toe. Draining it drew a small crowd as other groups and guides came to watch Danny perform his miracle surgery. Overall we were now a full half hour behind schedule. (Good thing it’s a rest day!)

Eventually we ventured out for a short walk to the tip of the peninsula that faced the end of the Glaciar Grey. It felt liberating to leave our day packs and trekking poles behind, if only for a half hour.

The glacier had a blue glow unlike anything I’d ever seen. The ice absorbs all the other colors but can’t absorb the blue, so it’s reflected. We returned to the refugio for a so-so lunch (pasta alfredo) and relaxed before setting off at 1:30.

The hike itself was a breeze. An easy climb brought us to a lookout that provided a view of the glacier calving. We finally experienced a more authentic Patagonian climate, too. The sun disappeared, the wind picked up, and there was even a little rain. Our layers came in handy as we paused to take photos.

From there we descended, took a break at a secluded nook where I polished off what remained of my precious dried kiwi, and ultimately found ourselves in a valley that resembled a dry riverbed. I especially enjoyed this final segment. Simple and peaceful, it led us straight to Lago Pehoe, where we stopped for the night.

Refugio Paine Grande was the largest and most elaborate of our campsites. It had a second floor that Danny described as “the bar with the best view in the world,” and while that may have been a stretch, it was indeed a beautiful setting. On one side was the lake, and looming in the distance was the Paine Massif. We enjoyed quite a few cold beers there while I caught up on my journal and Elizabeth found removing her hiking boots to be “amazeballs.”

Then it was onto Thanksgiving dinner: some sort of ground beef and vegetable mixture atop mashed potatoes (the only trace of home!), a broth masquerading as a soup, salad, and dessert. Uneventful, for sure, but then it was back upstairs to the bar and a nice Carménère 2014.

All that good wine reminds me of another highlight from the day — our game of “Trail Tinder,” in which John, Peter, and I swiped left and right on oncoming trail traffic. Suffice it to say Elizabeth was unamused. I swiped right a lot and probably didn’t help my cause when I explained that I wasn’t picky.

Patagonia: First Steps

Patagonia. The name evokes images of jagged peaks studded with glaciers feeding into bright blue lakes — and at least for some, clothing catalogs.

It’s the trip of a lifetime and for us the planning started more than two years ago when we nearly pulled the trigger — but ultimately pulled the plug — on a trip. We vowed to try again in two years, figuring we’d need to catch our collective breath after the elections. How’s that for clairvoyance??

Our journey took us to Torres del Paine on the Chilean side. It was a deliberate choice to focus on one “small” part of Patagonia instead of hopping around this vast region. To truly experience the park, we would hike the legendary Paine Circuit, around the Torres del Paine Massif, bookending our trek at the one-of-a-kind EcoCamp Patagonia. The Paine Circuit is a 136-kilometer (85-mile) trek that we set out to cover in seven days, going counter-clockwise (as most people choose to do).

We flew all night to Buenos Aires and continued onto El Calafate, a small Argentine city that serves as the ideal jumping off point for much of southern Patagonia. After feasting on Patagonian lamb, split and roasted over a wood fire, and a good night’s rest, we crossed into Chile (a rather long and tedious border crossing). Upon arrival, our guide Danny, whom we had met the prior day, briefed us on what was to come while we sipped on some sticky sweet calafate pisco sours (calafate being a berry native to the region).

It also happened to be my birthday (commemorated with a pair of passport stamps) and we celebrated the occasion at EcoCamp, where I ate king crab legs and two desserts, and drank more wine than I should have on the eve of such a long trek.

Day One: EcoCamp to Lago Dickson

This one was a slog. A breathtaking slog, but a slog nonetheless. It’s worth noting that my guidebook refers to this stretch as “Day One” and “Day Two.” That may have been a pretty good hint to break up these 32 kilometers (20 miles) — but Danny’s objective was to cover as much ground on the first day as possible, building up our strength and leaving us with an easier second day before we hit the John Garner Pass. So we hiked 11 hours.

We started by heading north from EcoCamp through a mostly flat valley, broke for lunch (at a refugio where most people opt to spend the night!), and pivoted west at Laguna Alejandra, a small horseshoe-shaped lake. From there we climbed for about 40 minutes and, with Lago Paine to our right, headed southwest until we reached Refugio Dickson. Not a whole lot was said towards the end — especially after we came across a freshly-killed hare, mauled by a puma — and we eventually limped into camp tired and aching (but still doing better than the hare).

That first day we saw preciously few fellow hikers. There were a few people early on, but they stopped for the night at the midway camp, so after lunch we had the trail completely to ourselves (and apparently a puma).

Our first night’s camp would be one of my favorites. Situated in a clearing on the southern shore of Lago Dickson and protected by mountains on its other side, it was lightly populated with a basic refugio at its center. We were served fried chicken with tomato risotto, which isn’t as fancy as it sounds (wait, does it sound fancy at all?) but was downright delicious compared with what we’d be served at the larger camps.

Danny spoke to us about our punctuality, or lack thereof, and he was right. If we continued to take our time with breaks and photo ops (we’d finished an hour behind schedule), it wouldn’t bode well for the more challenging days ahead — namely the John Garner Pass. We took his comments to heart and never needed to be scolded again.

We crashed hard that first night.

Day Two: Lago Dickson to Los Perros

Our second day was a “rest day.” We quickly learned those words meant something entirely different in Chile. So we hiked 11 kilometers (7 miles) at a leisurely pace through dense forest. It really shouldn’t have been a tough day, but I think some of us (ok, it was me) were still feeling the effects of the prior day’s march.

Freddie, Peter and I started the day by walking down to Lago Dickson and dipping our feet in the icy blue water. It felt really good… for about five seconds… and then you started to lose feeling in your toes. (That didn’t stop us from doing it a few more times.)

For the first part of the morning, Lago Dickson was at our back, but I couldn’t help sneaking a few peaks before it completely disappeared. We stopped for lunch at a thunderous waterfall, enjoying the shade and some mist. That Patagonia sun could be powerful at times!

One of our great early discoveries was that in Patagonia fresh water flows like wine. We had ample opportunities to refill our water bottles every hour or so at various mountain streams. (Even if my bottle was mostly full, I’d refresh it with cool water every chance I could.) This was a big change from prior treks, where water had to be purified, and we’d grown accustomed to carrying up to three liters with us. That fact alone greatly lightened our loads.

Before arriving at our campsite we hit the day’s highlight: Laguna de los Perros. There a glacier calves directly into a small lake and chunks of ice float on its surface. It’s a spot known for its notorious winds, but in what would become the norm on our trek, we were able to spend a substantial chunk of time there.

We spent the night at the Las Perros campsite where we had our own cook for the night. “Cubano” spends three weeks at a time shuttling supplies between Las Perros and Dickson and cooking for trekkers. After a cheese and charcuterie course (a local gouda style cheese with jamon and small sausages), as well as some pisco sours, he made us a filling beef and lentil stew, paired with Chilean sauvignon blanc. Hey, life could be a lot worse! The campsite itself was in a small uneven clearing in the forest. We were pretty tired after dinner, but with the sun not setting until around 10, a quick after-dinner walk to the lake was in order.

Then it was time to go get some sleep. Because the John Garner Pass awaited us…

Innsbruck… or how I Tyrol!!

The Alps and I were separated at birth.

That certainly didn’t take long to discover. I stepped off the train in Innsbruck, and the cool mountain air made the trappings of Vienna seem like a distant memory. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Vienna! The opera, the schnitzel, the palaces and pastries. But Innsbruck was where I needed to be.

In Innsbruck I did what one comes to Innsbruck to do. I strapped on my big boy boots and went for a hike high up into the mountains that surround this energetic provincial city. My goal was to reach a little tavern perched at 1,487 meters, high above the Inn River. It was a picture perfect spring day.  After a 10-kilometer ascent, sweat pouring down my face, I reached my destination and settled into one of the outdoor tables with a view of the Alps and the valley below. (Everyone sat on just one side of each table — the side with the view.)

I glanced at the menu and couldn’t make heads of tails of half of it. Fortunately, a kind local sitting beside me instructed me on what to order. The result was my favorite meal of the entire trip!

It was called kaspressknodelsuppe — a Tyrolian alpine cheese dumpling served in a rich broth. And it was marvelous! The perfect meal for the midway point of a long, arduous hike. Hearty and filling enough to give me the energy to complete the lengthy descent, yet light enough to not weigh me down. And the perfect accompaniment? A radler (beer mixed lemonade). A little alcohol… but not so much that I’d be rolling down the hill.

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Postcards from Yangon

I didn’t get to spend as much time in Yangon as I would have liked. (A snafu with an internal flight — not at all uncommon in Burma — cut our time in the former capital short.) But I loved what I saw of this once great city that still conjures up nostalgic notions of a bygone colonial era, and which is simultaneously decaying and thriving again. The city center is a mix of British colonial and Burmese architecture. Power and phone lines criss cross narrow streets laid out in a perfect grid radiating from Sule Paya, a 2,500-year-old pagoda perched in the middle of the city’s busiest traffic circle (it’s a rather jarring paradox). Of course the undisputed highlight of the city is Schwedagon Paya… more on that another day!

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Early morning over Yangon

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Dusk at Shwedagon Paya

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Looking south toward the Yangon River

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Central Yangon approaching Sule Paya

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Colonial architecture

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The decay

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A typical street in central Yangon

Burma

Burma hit that sweet spot.

To appreciate why, it’s important to understand what led me there in the first place. The decision was about as spontaneous as any I’ve ever had — borne out of my two prior trips to the region (Thailand in 2008 and Vietnam a year ago). I had come away mesmerized by the way of life in southeast Asia and by its beautiful people. Yet as eye-opening as those trips were, I couldn’t quite shake the notion that I was a little late to the party.

Southeast Asia had always evoked in me romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era. But Vietnam and Thailand are modernizing rapidly, and while villages and rice paddies still dot the countryside, they aren’t the quintessential Indochinese experiences they were just 20 years ago. I still wanted to see a nation untouched, unspoiled, as close as possible to the state in which it had existed for decades and maybe even centuries. 

Burma offered me that opportunity. Considered until very recently the second most closed society in the world, the military junta that ruled this nation with an iron first had only dissolved itself in March of 2011. Visitors that year numbered a scant 800,000. (By comparison, nearly 20 million people visited neighboring Thailand that year. Another six million traveled to Vietnam.)

I felt that if I waited even a few years, Burma would be just another Asian nation I got to too late. So I packed my bags and hopped a plane to Yangon.

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From the moment you set foot in Burma, you are stepping back in time. Sadly, the country has made scarce strides in the past half century. Yangon is a colonial city thriving, yet simultaneously in a state of physical decay. Up north in Shan State, ox-driven carts rule the road, and the motor vehicles reminded me of the jalopies from a Steinbeck novel. Everything is still done by hand, from field work to road work and everything in between. (When we came across new road construction, what we saw were upwards of 50 people — men and women alike — crushing stone and laying pavement. Machinery was virtually nonexistent.)

What made Burma even more special was its people. It’s not simply that they were amongst the kindest and friendliest I’d ever encountered, though that alone would have likely been enough. It’s that they went out of their way to welcome us. These are people who, with few exceptions, hadn’t encountered foreigners during their lifetimes. We felt like ambassadors… and so did they. They were incredibly proud of their nation and were pleased to see it finally reopening itself to the world. Our job, it oftentimes felt, was to embrace them and let them know the world hadn’t forgotten them. “Welcome back, Burma.” “Glad to be back, world.”

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There were sad moments, too. Nothing broke my heart more than stopping at a roadside tea house and being served by the owner’s 8-year-old daughter. Everywhere we went, we saw too many kids who should have been in school but weren’t. (Unfortunately primary education isn’t free and, in a country with an average wage of just a dollar a day, is out of reach for many poor people.) There were the riverside slums in Mandalay, about which I wrote last month. There was corruption and vast cronyism, which is keeping most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a few elites and stifling the entrepreneurial spirit needed for real, sustained growth.

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Of course I haven’t even mentioned the intense beauty of Burma. The pagodas, from the shimmering, golden Shwedagon Paya in Yangon to the thousands of temples that dot the dusty plain of Bagan. Inle Lake and its floating villages. Mount Popa and U Bein Bridge.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, take one glance at sunrise over Bagan… and pack your bags.

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Water World

Last year, as the Reunification Express slowly chugged past the endless rice paddies that dot Vietnam’s central coast, I recall contemplating about the importance of water to that country. This, of course, barely registered as a noteworthy revelation — water is essential to developing and wealthy nations alike (or so my friends in California insist). Then I got to Burma, a nation that lacks so many modern conveniences that running water is still a luxury outside the major cities.

As we rode through Burma, we saw people washing, well, everything. In rivers and streams, lakes and ponds. Their food, their clothes, themselves — even their scooters!

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