This was the first weekend where it actually felt like Spring in DC. The cherry blossoms had bloomed, the sun was out, and tourists had descended upon us. I decided to visit the Tidal Basin for the sunrise to kick off what felt like the real start of the season. In an attempt to add at least a little to my photos that would differentiate them from those of the throngs of photographers taking the same shots thousands of times, I brought along a friend. Later in the day I took a walk through Dumbarton Oaks with another friend (a human friend). The gardens hadn't totally blossomed, but the grass was still green and lush beneath our feat. Magnolias and tulips flowered and shed their sheath like petals along the paths. I'm looking forward to visiting again when it's in full bloom.
Jaco Island was one of the things on my list for Timor that I was not so sure I'd be able to check off. The entire time I was there I asked people I met whether or not they thought I should make the trip. Jaco is a tiny uninhabited island just off the eastern tip of Timor in the Tutuala district. It's considered sacred to the people, so no one is allowed to live there. I'd heard of how spectacularly beautiful and remote it was, but that the road there was treacherous during the rainy season. The final 10 kms down to the beach from Tutuala, I was told, was a nearly impassable slope of rocks and mud. The responses I'd gotten were pretty predictable. Older, more sensible people (including my manager) were wary and advised extreme caution or to avoid it altogether. Those younger told me I had to do it no matter what.
Fortunately, after the drive to Ramelau and gaining a new respect for 4WD trucks, I was convinced I could conquer any terrain. So my last weekend in Timor, I went back and reserved another Prado and set off along the coast toward Jaco. The drive east from Dili was nothing like the road south. Timor's other major town, Baucau, is about two hours down the coast, so the connecting road is well maintained. It's paved and flat and only took about two hours to drive the 100 or so kms.
I grabbed lunch in Baucau and kept on east. Driving along the coast was beautiful and vastly different from the mountainous interior. Often the road was just feet from the ocean. The road led over sparse rolling hills dotted with small patches of trees and rice paddies. Water buffalo strolled casually across the street. Towns grew smaller and less developed. The road was increasingly overgrown and traversed by chickens and pigs. Homes were constructed of flimsier and more primitive materials. It was like traveling back through time.
A number of times, I stopped to admire solitary Mangrove trees standing just beyond the waves in the water. That image is something so foreign to me that it feels almost alien. Defiant of the hostile ocean, rooted in salt and sand, the Mangrove seems an anomaly to me.
When I arrived in Tutuala, the last point before the descent to the beach, I got out of the Prado to stretch and survey what I was up against. The road didn't appear terribly daunting at first. When I headed down, it did get pretty rocky, but really nothing worse than what I was facing en route to Ramelau. I made it to the beach and unfazed at around 6 in the afternoon. I found my way to the guesthouse, which was comprised of a few thatched huts. The fishermen that would take me across to Jaco would only do so in the morning, so I spent the rest of the evening walking along the beach and drinking warm Tiger beer. There were also a few Timorese guys on holiday from Dili there. They spent the night fishing on the beach and grilling a giant fish that they brought with them. They welcomed me to join them and I sat with them by their fire. They insisted I fish, which of course ended with me hooking one of them with the rod. They offered me some of their grilled fish, which turned out to be delicious and copious amounts of more Tiger beer covered in sand. I was fishing grains of sand out of my teeth all the next day.
In the morning at about 7, I found the fishermen who were to ferry me across. I gave them $5 for the ride and we set out across the couple hundred meters of ocean to Jaco. They indicated that they'd have to pick me up at 11am because the water would be too rough after that. So for the next 4 hours I had Jaco Island to myself. White sand that felt like walking on flour, vivid turquoise water rivaled maybe only by the glacial lakes I saw in Banff, dark undulating clouds rolling down from the mainland mountains. It was unlike anywhere I'd ever been before. The most remote place I'd ever been. A week before I was to head back home, having spent nearly 2 months in Timor, I was at a weightless apex before being pulled back down to reality.
At 11, the boat came back to pick me up and they were right. The water was alarmingly rough. I wasn't concerned about getting thrown in the water so much as losing my camera. Priorities. Once back on the mainland, I got back in the Prado and powered back up the rocks to Tutuala. I will grant that that slope would be much worse had it rained. I headed back to Dili and spent my remaining week at a very leisurely pace. I'd taken weekend trips almost every weekend I'd been in Timor so I was exhausted. It was a fascinating couple of months and I'd done and seen things I hadn't before. I've been home for as long as I was away and it's amazing how experiences fade so quickly, but these are stories I'll carry with me for a long time.
Despite what my Instagram feed may have looked like while I was out there, the real reason I went to Timor was for work. The project I support there is an agriculture and food security program focused on developing supply chains for rural farmers and building technical capacity. My previous project was also an agricultural program in sub-Saharan Africa, but much more policy and high-level focused. Whatever results there were for the Africa project always seemed very abstract and far removed, so the Timor project was a refreshing change of pace. I spent a couple of days in the Aileu office to visit a number of participating farmers and conduct interviews and take photos for a report. I was able to see exactly how the project was helping these farmers and hear from their mouths (through an interpreter) how it was changing their lives. This project may not have as large a scope, but there are real changes in income and health as a direct result of what's going on there. That thought makes sitting in an office in Bethesda 10,000 miles away a little less excruciating.
Many of the farms are located on steep, irregular mountain slopes. The drive to the few sites we went to were pretty rough, but my boss told me these were actually the most accessible despite the driving including a portion requiring the fording of a flooded riverbed. The second morning, I was asked to take a photo of the roof of a greenhouse whose roof was damaged in a storm a couple of months prior. This ended up involving me climbing up a 100ft rusted, unstable water tower in the rain to get to a proper vantage point while the local farmers watched from below laughing. I don't think I'm afraid of heights, but I was definitely concerned that one of the rungs would give and I would fall to a wet, muddy death. And then I stepped into a giant puddle of and ruined my shoes.
I also spent one evening hanging out in the market at Aileu. It looked more or less like all the other markets in Timor. A raised concrete platform lined with concrete counters. Fruit and vegetables laid out on tarps. Men playing cards on the floor. Side shops with the same ubiquitous set of household paraphernalia, colorful woven cloths, and packaged food. I made my dinner out of some 25 cent chicken satay and strawberry Fanta (disgusting).
There's a mountain in Timor-Leste called Tatamailau or Mount Ramelau. It's the highest mountain in Timor at just shy of 10,000 ft. and the site of an annual pilgrimage celebrating the Virgin Mary. Hiking Ramelau is one of the first things I found as something to do in Timor in my research prior to flying out (it was also one of the only things). I had read several accounts of people making the harrowing mountain drive and hiking at 3am to summit just before sunrise. I immediately knew it was something I wanted to do.
Ramelau sits about 100km south of Dili. On Saturday, January 11, I went to a local car rental shop and rented a Toyota Prado (some variant of a Land Cruiser) because it was the only automatic 4WD they had (I can't drive stick, deduct man points). I needed a 4WD because that 100km drive was the most treacherous drive I've ever experienced. The road inland starts off fairly well maintained. Driving up the first mountains out of Dili it's mostly paved, but increasingly serpentine as it switchbacks up the slopes.
The first town after Dili is called Aileu (my project actually has an office here). It's about an hour in and past Aileu is where the road starts to get really rough. After Aileu there are frequent and massive gaps in the pavement and giant puddles from the nightly rains. A couple hours after Aileu is Maubisse and past this town it's basically just dirt, mud, and rocks. All of this is not easy driving, but I never felt particularly in danger. The final hour of the drive to the town at the base of Ramelau, Hato Builico, is where it was particularly terrifying. It was the same dirt, mud, and rocks, but now frequently above sheer drops and roads just barely wide enough for the Prado. It was on this road that I gained a newfound respect for 4WD cars.
On the bright side, the drive was beautiful. The interior of Timor is wild and exotic. Lush mountains and towering canopies for miles. And with every meter I ascended, the humidity and temperature fell. Around one bend along a slope I came to an impossibly green clearing as a small herd of horses grazed below. I got out of the Prado and sat on the slope for a moment to try and preserve how pristine that scene was. The mountain air was hushed save for the soft idling of the engine behind me. The horses seemed barely to move. I'm not sure how long I sat there.
Save for the few towns, there was hardly anyone else along the road. I did stop in Maubisse to walk around the town on what looked like a market day. I wandered the gravelly alleys while old shop women eyed me quizzically, children followed behind me, and an older man beckoned me over to take his picture.
In Hato Builico, a tiny village with a school and a few scattered houses, there is a guest house that I'd read about that travelers often overnight in. It's run by someone I knew only as Alex. When I arrived at about 5:30 in the evening, I was greeted by a younger man that I gathered was Alex's son. His English was poor and I never got his name, but we made our arrangement. I was shown to my room and told that dinner would be served at 7 and we would begin our hike at 3am. The guesthouse was quite large with what seemed like 15 or so dorms with several beds each. I was the only one there. Just down the road you can see Ramelau towering above the town.
I wandered a bit until I saw a group of kids playing on the soccer pitch below the guest house. I found my way down the hill and walked along the edge of the field with a mind to join them. When they noticed me as I drew closer, they all began running toward me yelling, "Malai, malai!", which basically just means "white person." They all wanted to pose for pictures. One kid kept pretending to shoot me with his toy Uzi. They all took turns kicking a dusty old volley ball to me and laughing hysterically when I missed the mark kicking it back. They were nice kids and it was oddly heartwarming.
As the light faded, I headed back to Alex's for dinner, which consisted of rice, potatoes, and fried bananas. At 8 when it was already pitch black, I just went to bed as there was nothing else to do. And I marveled at it being cool enough to need a blanket.
At 3, I woke up and met Alex's son, who was to be my guide up the mountain. The start of the trail is little ways up the road from the guesthouse, so we got into the Prado and it failed to start. My heart sunk, but I tried it a few more times and it did eventually roar to life as I gassed it desperately. The drive from Maubisse to Hato Builico was treacherous, but the drive in the dark to the Ramelau trailhead was the most afraid for my life I've ever been. Driving up rocky slopes that veered sharply not knowing if I was just about to gun it off of the side of a mountain was disconcerting, to say the least. We eventually got to a point where the road was so deteriorated, we decided to leave the car and walk the rest of the way.
The actual hike up Ramelau in the dark was very unremarkable. Mostly because I couldn't see anything. After about two-three hours (I couldn't say for sure), we arrived at the summit. Greeted by the statue of the Virgin Mary and rapidly deteriorating visibility, I hurried to unpack my camera and capture what little of the sunrise I could see before the clouds obscured everything. After that short glimpse of the sunrise, there was nothing but a gray haze. I lingered for a while and let the sharp, cold air blow through me as drops of condensation formed in my eyelashes and on my sleeves. I waited to see if the cloud might pass, but it didn't.
When we had descended enough to get below the clouds at the peak, visibility opened back up to reveal a view that was pretty spectacular. I was able to see all the way to the southern coast of the island. The way down was breathtaking. Daylight revealing the undulating mountains and valleys dotted by distant farms and villages.
When we got back to the guesthouse, I thanked my guide and gave him the $40 for my stay and his services and got back in the Prado. As I made by way back along the road, it occurred to me how amazing it felt when I reached portions of road that were consistently paved. I take a lot of things for granted.
There are roosters all over Dili. They wander the streets. They crow 24 hours a day. They are EVERYWHERE. So when someone told me that cock fighting was a major pastime in Timor, it suddenly all made sense. Everyday I'd pass certain stretches of road that were packed with bikes and cars. I'd see men carrying giant chickens under their arms toward these particular turnoffs. When I followed them one Friday afternoon, I found myself in a clearing with a giant crowd surrounding an elaborately constructed cock fighting arena.
I had arrived about 15 minutes prior to the start of the afternoon's matches. Men were milling about showing off their roosters. Small side fights broke out as they formed circles around the chickens. The few women I saw there were manning a small, blackened grill in the rear of the clearing firing corn on the cob. I was surprised not to see any drinking though. It was a hot Friday afternoon and men were watching sports. I thought there would be beer.
One jovial gentleman took an interest in me and cheerfully answered all of my questions: Betting can reach up to $5,000 on a match. There is often one particular trainer/chicken that dominates the matches. The fights are not always to the death. The favorite is not the largest or heaviest chicken, but the most skilled.
As I circled the crowd and arena taking photos, another man noticed my camera and beckoned me toward him. He took me by the arm and shepherded me toward the entrance to the arena and motioned inside. So as the fights began, I was inches away from the birds as they collided into clouds of feathers, blood, and dust. The trainers tie knives to the roosters' heels, so the fights do get rather bloody. I tried desperately not to get bled on.
As I went to leave, I noticed a tree along the path to the main road that had several chickens tied to it. I realized that these were the losers. Dead or alive, the losing chicken is tied by its feet to this tree and left to bleed out. One man gleefully plunged his fingers inside a white feathered cock's gaping, bloody wound to show me its still pulsating insides. I swallowed my grimace and smiled to thank him and took a few shots.
I left with mixed feelings. Still morally repulsed by the inherent cruelty of it all, but I probably wouldn't have minded if that rooster that crows outside my window at 3am got drafted. Nevertheless, it was still objectively a fascinating part of Timorese culture to see up close.
Atauro Island is a popular getaway about 30km north of Dili, ever visible from the town. It's a 45 minute speedboat ride away and I made the trip on New Year's Eve. Caught a ride with Compass Charter's in the morning. I rode in the stern of the boat, which is greatly superior to riding in the cab. The wind is a great salve for the heat. I was told that there are large pods of dolphins living in the water between Dili and Atauro, but we only saw three.
I met an Australian couple on the ride over. We went snorkeling when we arrived at Barry's Eco-Lodge, where we were all staying, at around 10am. Warm and unbelievably clear, it felt more like floating above an alien landscape than swimming. Barry's is a collection of wooden huts and cabins on the beach with little else. There's no electricity, which meant no air conditioning. This being only my second week incountry, I'd still not totally adjusted to the heat. I spent most of the afternoon sitting under a straw canopy sheltering from the sun nursing a heat induced migraine. The island is beautiful and I had considered hiking up into the headlands, but could barely bring myself to open my eyes.
Later in the afternoon though, I did force myself to get up and take a short walk up a nearby hill while guzzling water to ward off heat stroke. A couple of the local dogs began following me energetically. One of the mutts stayed with me the entire way up and back, save for a 15 minute absence after which he returned chasing a herd of goats down the hill slope towards me. Once at the top, a very subtle drizzle began falling bringing with it an immensely welcome cool. I headed back to Barry's and retired to a hammock by which my new found canine companion sat for another hour or so before running off.
The rest of the evening was spent dozing in and out of sleep, having dinner while a local band played for the guests, and sharing a warm bottle of champagne on the beach at about 10pm with the couple I had met earlier. There are bioluminescent microorganisms that light up if you disturb the water. Like fireflies in the sea. They were too small and fleeting for me to photograph though.
The hut I stayed in was little more than a thatched roof above a tent. It was basically a sauna. Unable to sleep, I spent the night walking up and down the beach where the air was coolest while tiny crabs invisible in the dark skittered away from my feet. I took a few photos of the stars when the clouds had cleared for about an hour. The lights of Dili and freight ships glowing along the horizon. I watched the sunrise on 2014 and it was one of the most vivid, dramatic sunrises I'd ever seen in my life. I had actually ended up falling asleep for about an hour on the beach while it was still dark. I opened my eyes to a deep red sky and tall undulating clouds that looked like sailboats floating just above the water. Spending New Year's about as far away from home as I could possibly get was a quieting experience. Friends and family were doing and experiencing things across the world in my absence. Technology notwithstanding, it was easy to feel disconnected from my life. Then I went back and Instagrammed everything.
Days in Dili were slow. I'd generally get back from the office around 5 and have evenings to myself. Most were spent walking up and down the beach road that my hotel sat on. The inland side of the road was lined with embassies, bars, restaurants, and dive shops. I hopped around a lot of these places. Dili Beach Hotel and Nautilus became regular stops. There was a Korean restaurant that was halfway decent. An Italian spot had edible pizza. As I'd walk along the road with a Tiger beer in hand, the sun would set. Dili faces north and the sun set behind the mountains to the south. The sun would disappear in the early evening, but would continue to paint the clouds with shades of red and purple for several more hours.
After about 6, the beach side of the road was filled with tables set up with tables covered in meat and fish satay. Each table was more or less identical. Old women sat in flimsy plastic chairs behind them waving plastic bags attached to sticks to ward off flies. Countless fire pits covered with makeshift grills (fan covers, sections of chain link fence, among others) were covered in skewers of indistinguishable meat and fish.
One of the weird things about Timor was the total lack of any sense of economy or price among most people. Case in point, you could go to five of these tables and get told five different prices for a skewer of chicken. Even stranger still, no one really tries to haggle. If you suggest a lower price and just hand them money, they will take it (unless it's unreasonably low). The same was true at shops and restaurants. I'd often buy my drinks and food separately to save myself a few dollars. And none of the locals really seem to understand why that's a problem. Nor do consumers really take advantage of it.
Once I had my plate of meats on sticks and a beer for a few dollars, I spent a good number of evenings sitting at a plastic dining set wedged into the sand looking out over the water and Atauro Island 30km away. The sky would burn out its color like a candle.
Prior to leaving, I'd been told that Timor-Leste had some of the best diving in the world and that getting my certification there would be much cheaper than it would be in the States. So I put it on my list. During my first couple of weeks over the holidays, I decided to spend some of my off days getting certified. My boss had recommended going to the Aquatica Dive Resort, which is where she goes to dive. The dive instructor, Desmond, was a Malay-Korean Australian living in Timor. I ended up hanging out with him and his girlfriend a few times. He actually ended up doing the pool dives with me on Christmas day.
To be perfectly honest, I strongly considered discontinuing the certification while doing the pool dives. It's just such an uncomfortable experience in the beginning. Breathing underwater is weird. I pushed through though and got fairly used to it. Once certified, we went diving at a few of the popular spots (Dili Rock, K41, Secret Garden) and it was a really cool experience. As it turns out, I suck air down way faster than everyone else in our group. I had to come back up way earlier. Rainy season isn't the best time to go as the sediment in the water decreases visibility, but still fascinating to swim down a wall of coral. But I'm certified now and will definitely try to dive again in my travels in the future.
(I am aware that "beach meat diving" sounds like some kind of bizarre sex act.)
I flew out of Dulles on December 15th to head for Timor-Leste. The project I work with there needed some finance and management coverage due to a bunch of people going on leave at once, so off I went. Typically, the DC to Dili flight routes through Tokyo and then Singapore. There are only a handful of flights to Dili a week, so when my Tokyo-Singapore connection got canceled on that Monday evening, it meant I was hanging out around Narita for two more days. After a lot of hours spent at the United counter and a two hour roundtrip into the city for a bowl of ramen at the Shibuya Ichiran (totally worth the delay), I managed to get to Singapore and on to Dili. Nearly five days of total transit time.
When I did finally arrive in Dili on the 19th, I was informed that the Parliament had convened the previous day to announce three additional days of holidays for Christmas and New Years. What that meant was that in the following two weeks I only went to the office four times. I spent a lot of time wandering around the town, getting my dive certification (more on that in a subsequent post), and visiting nearby beaches and islands. Since my boss was going on leave for several weeks, she left me her tiny Mitsubishi Pajero Jr. It looks and drives like a toy, but it made getting around in the first few weeks much more convenient.
Being a Catholic country, Christmas in Dili is a big deal. The palacio de governo features a massive tree in its courtyard. The locals erect countless nativity scenes on roadsides ranging from traditional depictions of Joseph and Mary, Jesus, and the three Kings to really bizarre scenes including Santa Claus and random celebrities. Locals shops stock all kinds of generic Christmas paraphernalia. Being such a new and undeveloped country, I came across a lot of really strange and unexpected things, the coolest of which was a classic Shelby GT500 Mustang parked nonchalantly on a beach one evening.
One of the remnants of the Indonesian regime is a 27m high statue of Jesus Christ atop the hills enclosing the eastern end of the bay above Dili. Known as Cristo Rei, it's something of a pilgrimage site with the 12 stations of the cross punctuating a set of steps leading up the headland. From the top you're treated to a fantastic view of Dili and a great vantage point from which to view sunsets. Rainy season made for some fantastic sunsets.
There's also a path down to the backside of the hill to a fairly deserted beach. I'm told it was once little more than a worn dirt path through the trees, but that path is now being bulldozed to make way for resort development. I had a lot of conversations with people in Dili on the potential pitfalls of tourism development.
In writing this I'm realizing that it's really difficult to condense all of the observations I've had of Dili and Timor-Leste in these events. It's such a strange place for a lot of reasons that I find myself having to comment on basically everything. Strange because it's basically a nation starting from scratch. The Indonesians decimated the people, culture, and physical history of the place on their way out, so it's fascinating to see the logic or lack thereof behind the fledgling systems being put into place.
I've omitted so much of what I wrote down those first couple of weeks, but I'll do my best to articulate them in my later posts. Today is actually the first day I've been awake enough to sit down and go through my photos. I'm mostly back to normal, but this is the worst jet lag I've ever had. Stay tuned for more island adventures.
A couple of weeks ago I switched over to the Asia group at work and was put on a project in Timor-Leste. As it happens, I got asked to go out to provide some coverage for the project office there. So, two weeks into the new project and I'm going out there. I'm getting on a plane in 8 hours and I'll be out of the country until February 1st (including four days of play in Singapore on the way back). I'm hoping to have a lot of island adventures and maybe check out Bali one weekend. I'll blow up the social media feeds with photo dumps of island life. I don't have strong feelings about being 10,000 miles away for the holidays, but we'll see how that actually plays out. Nevertheless, I hope everyone has a great holiday season. See everyone in 2014.
I'd seen a number of articles and photo essays on the abandoned Forest Haven asylum in the past few years (like this and this). So when the DCist ran another one a couple of weeks ago, I figured I'd drive up to Laurel and check it out for myself. I won't attempt to provide any sort of historical or journalistic context for my photos. That's been done before. It was enough to walk through the derelict and abandoned hallways and rooms and experience the supreme eeriness of the place.
Getting to Forest Haven turned out to be much easier than I had anticipated. Finding clear directions for getting to the complex was difficult (since you can't drive up to it due to security gates), but it was actually very straightforward. For the curious: park at the moose lodge on Fort Meade Road in Laurel and walk straight north through the woods following the power lines. After about 3/4 of a mile, you'll begin to see a number of the ancillary facilities. The main building is hard to miss once you emerge from the trees.
It was a frigid, windy day when I found myself at Forest Haven last weekend. From a distance the facility doesn't appear rundown or unusual in any way. As I drew nearer I began to see the broken windows and decades of accumulated debris. The road leading up to the main building was overgrown and potholed. The only sounds piercing the uneasy hush were my footsteps and breath ragged from the cold. As I entered the building and walked carefully through the wreckage of the asylum, I found myself trying to make as little noise as possible so as not to disturb the silence. When the wind would disturb something down the hall, I would pause lest I encounter one of the addicts that are said to inhabit the building.
Room after room of discarded medical equipment, books, clothes, and random miscellany give the impression that the former occupants picked up and left at a moments notice. Some rooms seemed blackened as if burned from the inside. Newspapers and magazines from the 80s and 90s reference events and products that have since faded from memory. Behind the main facility, a massive pile of weathered furniture and computer equipment bleached in the sun. A few yards away sat an upturned piano. Its keys so faded from exposure they were just molding pieces of wood. The rotting ribcage of a wooden carcass. From the outside, an open doorway to the basement was partially obscured by rubble, save for a metal door laid on its side like a bridge across the rocks into the murky inside that let out a loud metallic bong as I stepped across it. Just past the door and down a hallway to the right was a cluttered room with meager light from a small overhead window that looked as if it had been submerged under water for years. A solitary white roller skate sat on a rusted table. The room led to another, narrower space. It was the morgue. A stack of four body drawers occupied half of the room with what appeared to be a stained sheet or body bag hanging from the third space up. Caution or cowardice kept me from inspecting any closer.
As I made my way out of the facility and back toward the woods, a small herd of deer burst through the bushes and vanished into the trees. A startling and sudden display of life as I departed a place steeped in the memory of tragedy.
On a gray Saturday afternoon, sunlight diffuses through a canopy of a thick, cotton clouds. Shadows are faint and colors crackle against a drab canvas. Yellow leaves and red bricks accent the quiet, earthy expanse. Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown is one of those things in your hometown that you've always meant to see, but never have. It was an opportune time for a first visit. Crisp and Autumnal. An imperceptible mist painting a subtle sheen over stone surfaces. Paths wind through gardens that evoke inexplicable nostalgia. A stately, stoic manor stands watch from its perch atop the highest point in Georgetown. Looming wordlessly as a detached caretaker. A small Tolkienesque vegetable garden sits below at the base of a slope bordered by a pair of huts that would not look out of place in the Shire. A large tree's expansive and exposed systems of roots emanate wildly from the center echoing the branches above. Scattered roses cling to life, braced against the coming cold.
The gardens are otherworldly and dreamlike. I imagine I'll come back often as seasons change to capture its different moods.
One of my oldest and best friends recently got engaged. I've known D for nearly two decades and it's kind of amazing to see how things have changed in that time. D and I are really similar in a lot of ways, but just as different in others. It's been great to see how he and I have grown and changed (or not changed) over the years and having him meet and be able to start a life with someone is a happy thing. E is kind, spunky, and a great dancer. The wedding next year is going to be a lot of fun.
The above is from a small get together we had to celebrate the occasion and D and E told us all the story of how the proposal went down. Below is a few random shots of them in Washington Square Park when I went up to New York a couple of weekends ago.
D is actually the first male friend of mine to get engaged. It seems that the rest of my friends and I are unmarryable. Get it together, guys.
This past weekend I was invited to spend some time at a local whiskey distillery in Virginia. Less than an hour drive from DC, the Catcoctin Creek distillery is the first in VA since Prohibition out of which Scott and Becky Harris have been churning out small batch, organic gin, whisky, and brandy since 2009. A small group of DC food writers and I were treated to a four-course "still to table" dinner in Catoctin's tasting room. Converted from an old car dealership, the bar-cum-tasting room is gorgeous-all vaulted ceilings, huge windows, and exposed brick.
Dinner was courtesy of the local Bluewater Kitchen. Themed as a "Shenandoah Showcase," the meal was sourced almost entirely locally. A fall vegetable salad, hen of the woods and blue oyster mushroom soup, and a braised flat iron steak from the nearby Oakland Green Farm. Not only does Oakland Green supply beef to Bluewater and other local restaurants, Catoctin provides the spent barley used in the distilling process as cattle feed. It's a symbiotic relationship. Cocktail pairings included a superb Sazerac, of which I had two. Or three. Maybe more...
I've been to press dinners before and have received my share of parting favors, but one of the ones Scott snuck into the gift bags may have been my favorite to date. A flask of Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye. All dinners should end with complimentary flasks.
The next morning Scott gave us a tour of the distillery and a basic tutorial of how his spirits are distilled from the kettles to the fermenters to bottling. All while wearing an authentic Scottish kilt. The trip ended with a short drive through thick fog and a light drizzle to Oakland Green Farm to see where the beef from dinner the previous night came from and where Scott's mash goes.
It was a tasty and informative weekend. It's common knowledge that VA has an abundance of wineries. Next time I consider a drinking road trip (driving and drinking, mutually exclusive of course), I'll have to include distilleries as destinations.
Old Rag is a hike that I've done at least once a year for the past five or six years. Last night I went out to Old Rag for a sunrise hike for the fourth time with my friend N. I recently upgraded my camera for the first time since 2007, so I wanted to break it in. Yesterday was perfect for it. Mild, foliage bursting with color, and a mostly clear sky. One of the best parts of going out to Shenandoah at night is the blanket of stars visible overhead. There was no moon last night and the sky was sufficiently dark, save for the subtle orange glow of the sun two hours below the horizon. I took a few long exposures, but I still need get a hang of processing these kinds of shots.
One thing I realize every time I hike Old Rag is that it gets harder every year. My bum ankle starts bothering me earlier up the mountain and random cramps strike at a moments notice. My body is failing me.
Unrelated note: I'm switching to a project in Timor Leste at work soon. Despite flights taking over two days to get there, I think it would be really cool to spend some time over there and do some island hopping in Southeast Asia. Perfect opportunity to take advantage of having a current generation camera.
After a fitful few hours of sleep huddled in the cold in the back of the Jeep, I awoke to the metallic cacophony of a train speeding by just behind where I was parked. Rubbing the cold and sleep from my eyes and joints, I got back in the driver's seat and set off south back toward Banff. It was raining, but the forecast showed sun below Jasper. It looked like I had beat the rain up north and it had caught up with me. On my return journey on the Icefields Parkway, the scene was a different one. Instead of bright, sunlit peaks framed against a clear sky, the mountains were now shrouded in cold, low hanging clouds. I had intended to participate in a guided hike out onto a glacier about halfway down, but the rain dissuaded me.
As I drove further south, I began to see the sun breaking through the clouds on the horizon. The warm morning glow grew stronger until the clouds had dissipated and I was back in Banff. Before I reached the town, I decided to make my way back to Lake Louise and take advantage of the sun. I rented a canoe and paddled out onto the water and just sat in the center of that azure pool for a good hour.
I made it back to the town of Banff in the early evening. I ran up one of the bordering hills to catch one last sunset before concluding the trip in my mind. I spent the next couple of hours having a giant beer and ribs back at the Bear Street Tavern. The next morning I drove back to Calgary and finished off the last of the This American Life episodes I had loaded just minutes before getting to the airport. Perfectly planned.
Maligne Lake is about a 40 minute drive from Jasper. Through some winding mountain roads and around Medicine Lake, Maligne is quiet, secluded, and more serene, if not as surreally hued, as Lake Louise. I parked the Jeep and walked along the eastern shore to find a place to sit and watch the sunset. The shore was mostly devoid of any other people. I wound up at the Maligne Lake boathouse where some attendants were closing up for the day. When they had left, I hopped up on to dock where a row of jewel toned, upturned canoes rested like a pack of Skittles slowly melting into one solid glob in the sun.
I poked around a bit and discovered a weathered antique leather chair in the boathouse. I pulled it out on to the dock to watch the sunset in retro style. As I sat ensconced in the rust and teal colored leather and the sun crept closer to the trees across the lake, dark clouds rolled in over the mountains to the east. As they crested the mountains, they seemed to linger as if a black sheep with its wool snagged on the jagged peaks. A vivid rainbow, backdropped by a faint echo of itself, materialized and split the sky between light and dark like a meteorologic prism.
I feared it would rain and ruin the show, but the ominous clouds passed without incident. I spent the rest of the remaining daylight on the dock accompanied only by the sound of waves slapping against the metallic hulls of row boats and the creaking of wood. After the sun fell below the mountains, I drove back over to Medicine Lake to catch the dramatic colors of the last minutes of sun.
That evening, I found my way back to the town of Jasper and stopped by a local bar, the Whistle Stop Pub. I had only planned on having one drink before finding a place to sleep that night. I found myself speaking to a fellow named Ryan who told me he owned a trucking company and was on the way down to Vancouver from Great Plains, Alberta. Ryan decided it was too quiet that night decided to buy everyone in the bar two rounds of drinks. Oddly, he only finished one beer and left while everyone else drank on his tab (which ended up being ~$500 after his first credit card was declined). Random acts of kindness? Afterward, I slept in the back of the Jeep in a remote parking lot and prepared myself for the drive back to Banff the next day.
I headed north in the morning to outrun the rain. Emerging from the clouds on the Icefields Parkway I found myself surrounded on either side by towering peaks and more glacial lakes glimmering in the early morning sun. The Icefields Parkway is rightfully considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. I stopped almost every 15 minutes to step out of the car into the crisp, mountain air to just stand at the feet of geologic monoliths.
About an hour up from Lake Louise was Bow Summit. A short and easy trail up to a viewing platform over Peyto Lake. Bare faced rock reaching up above the tree line dotted with fat, low hanging clouds resembling sinking dirigibles rising up to frame another pristine aquamarine lake and a valley of evergreens. Breathtaking is an adjective I've used before, but none so aptly as when I was standing there.
Further north, just before reaching the divide between Banff and Jasper National Parks, I pulled over to a trailhead by the highway. Parker Ridge is a few miles up a seemingly featureless plateau. Switchbacks through a brief section of alpine foliage and then just a clearing for the last mile or so. At the top is a broad, flat headland that was backdropped by a thick veil of mist. As I approached the edge, the last wisps of cloud floated by and revealed a dramatic glacier hewn gorge in front of me. It's trails like this that make this place so satisfying. Short hikes with minimal effort yield such spectacular rewards. I sat in the grass and ate a granola bar while I watched the glacier drift in and out of view behind the swift clouds.
Nearby was a mound of loose shale framed in front of mountains that looked like it would make for an interesting photograph. In order to get the kind of perspective and depth of field I wanted, I set my camera up on a tripod about 20m away and zoomed at 70mm. I put it on a timer and hit the shutter. Bear in mind, that means that in 10 seconds, I have to run 20m and up a hill of loose shale (which is sharp) and stand in frame. It took several tries to actually get myself in the shot, including one attempt where I almost slipped off the other side down a very steep slope. Thankfully no one was around to see my ridiculous scrambling.
For the rest of the afternoon, I made my way slowly toward the town of Jasper as I meandered the different sights along the Icefields Parkway. Once there, my first stop was the gondola to a high peak with another dramatic view of mountain ranges and the town of Jasper below. It felt almost like cheating to get so high without actually hiking. The view was also not as dramatic being so far removed from the other formations.
Afterward, I made the drive to the nearby Maligne Lake for one of the most pleasant sunsets of my life.
All of my trips in the past year have mostly been to large cities. I've been looking for an opportunity to do the whole commune with nature thing for a while. A few weeks ago it looked like work would be slowing down for a bit and my boss was going on vacation, so I booked a flight to Calgary and set out a few days later. Before I get to the main point, I should comment that Calgary is the most obnoxious immigration checkpoint I've ever encountered. The officer grilled me on what I was doing in Canada and regarded me suspiciously when I informed him I was traveling alone. He took my phone and swiped away without showing me what he was looking at, ostensibly looking for evidence that I've been researching things to do in Canada. Unsatisfied, he then instructed me to retrieve my checked bag and show him my hiking shoes. I complied, but I've never been so dumbfounded at how ridiculous airport security can be. In Canada of all places!
When that ordeal was over, I went over to Hertz and picked up my ride for the weekend (a Jeep Compass). Loaded it up, dialed in the first episode of This American Life-I loaded the 20 most recent episodes (481-500)-and set off west toward Banff. It's a straight forward, 1-hour drive to Banff. I arrived in the early evening at around 5pm. I stocked up on supplies at the town's Safeway, found a cheap hostel (I hadn't made any reservations for the weekend before hand-another red flag for immigration it seemed), and then stopped in a local tavern for dinner. While at the bar, Ryan, the bartender, recommended I hike the nearby Tunnel Mountain trail and catch the sunset over the town of Banff. It was a great recommendation. An easy 3 mile hike up a local peak for a spectacular view of the valley. I headed back to the Bear Street Tavern for a beer afterward and discussed other activities with Ryan for my weekend. I also met a guy that had just finished biking from Jasper to Banff that morning with his father (who had fallen and broken two ribs the night before).
The next morning I headed north on the Trans-Canada Highway to Lake Louise. It's one of Banff's most famous attractions and it's easy to see why. Walking up from the parking lot, Lake Louise appears like a flash. An electric blue pool shrouded by clouds and dramatic peaks. The shockingly bright and mirror like surface of Lake Louise is really hard to describe. It's the cold, android blue of Daniel Craig's eyes in Casino Royale... er... It's the vibrant turquoise of a freshly cleaned and unspoiled toilet first thing in the morning... um... It's the artificial, Kool-Aid teal of the freezer packs your mom used to put in your lunch...
... OK, maybe none of those are artful analogies, but you get the point. The vibrant, perfectly still surface of glacial water kind of made me want to walk out onto it and let myself slowly sink at its center until I was encased in it like a giant marble.
There was a slight drizzle, but I zipped up my North Face and set off on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail. It's a 7-8 mile hike that leads around the lake and straight up to the glaciers that feed it. Walking along the valley carved over millions and millions of years by giant walls of ice, it's hard not to feel the enormity of time. Like looking out over the ocean. Or up into a dark, star filled sky.
It rained for the first few hours of the hike. By the time I got near the end, I was soaked and cold. Thankfully, there's a teahouse near the top. I spent an hour there enjoying one of the most welcome cups of coffee I've ever had. I waited out the rain and from there, there's another mile along a rocky, unmaintained path that takes you right up to the glaciers. It's not terrain I've ever encountered before. The valley is barren and desolate from glacial erosion. A stark, gray wasteland echoed by the oppressive clouds overhead.
Once I'd taken it in, I head back down the trail to Lake Louise. The rain hadn't started again, thankfully, until I got back to my car. For the rest of the evening it rained fairly heavily. So, I simply drove around Banff for a while. Saw a huge waterfall (Takkakaw Falls). Even overcast and drab, Banff is a sight to see. Nevertheless, I had a solid day of sunshine the next day as I headed further north to beat the rain and it's even more magnificent in the sun.
From Versailles, I headed back to the city to meet my friends by the Eiffel Tower for a picnic. I actually did not go up the tower and didn't really have any plans to. As it turns out, the workers were on strike for most of the week I was there, so I probably couldn't have gone up even if I had wanted to. We picked a spot a ways down the lawn and set about attending to a cobbled together spread of baguettes, wine, cheese, cookies, and a bag of Haribo gummies of The Smurfs that, in France, are Les Schtroumpfs. Peddlers carrying shopping bags full of alcohol sauntered by idly. Pockets of tourists posed ludicrously with forced perspective. Waves of dark clouds rolled by, but mercifully kept their contents to themselves.
After luxuriating on the grass for a time, we parted ways. A and K were headed to catch a train to London to attend Wimbledon the next day. G and I made our way to the ubiquitously recommended L'as Du Fallafel for dinner. The line wasn't bad, but I did not have much of an appetite at that point for some reason. It was good though. We strolled a bit along the Seine to Point Neuf before calling it a night. We walked west as it grew dark and the river lit with boats filled with river-going revelers and the Eiffel Tower shone it's rotating beacon across the city.
For my last full day in Paris, I did very little. I allowed myself a late morning before heading to Frenchie To Go for a superb pastrami sandwich. A bit different from what one might find in the States. Less fatty, but still flavorful. I then went to the Galeries Lafayette to wander and pick up some macarons from Pierre Hermé for folks back home. The Galeries were pretty obnoxious, over crowded shopping malls. Having not had anything else planned before dinner, I went to the 6th floor cafe and actually fell asleep on a table for a little while. I think I may have spent too much time in Paris asleep in random places.
For dinner, I made a point of going to Le Severo. A small corner shop that I'd found frequently referred to as the best steak frites in Paris. Not having had any other notable steak frites in the city I couldn't say for sure, but it was pretty amazing. The steak, a thick medallion cote de beouf, was prepared perfectly. A stellar piece of meat, to be sure. It was the fries, though, that were the most remarkable. The intensity of the potato flavor was just not something I'd ever had before. I don't really know why they were so good. I could have eaten a bucket of those. It was my favorite meal in Paris.
The next morning I made the trek back to CDG in the rain and concluded that CDG is the worst airport ever. But Paris was a nice wind down from a tiring couple of weeks in Nairobi. I deliberately left my itinerary pretty unstructured so I could just go about the city leisurely. There are a million things I didn't do or see, but Paris will always be there. Perhaps I will go back one day. There's a chance I may be traveling to Nairobi again in September or October. I think then I may try to swing through Italy.