River-tracing Hualien

We didn’t know a whole lot about river-tracing, which, for whatever reason, didn’t much bother me.  Not all shared my nonchalant attitude towards an itinerary and timeline.

The next morning we hit the road 5AM with the chase car, and drove into a bed of clouds looming in the lush mountain lulls.  It was just like the Oriental art I’ve seen my entire life.  Winding the diesel VW up and up, we stopped to marvel at the sun’s blinding shimmer on the Pacific.   It wasn’t until the accosting horns of a passing truck that I realized the extended shoulders were for big trucks to make wide-turns, not for me to angle-park my van and stand on the roof for optimal photo-sessing, as I had so happily assumed.    Long, dark, tunnels pierced through the mountains.   In a coastal village we had a rest and breakfast.   A fella with a betel nut stained grill snapped our photo with an Aboriginal Warrior of Yilan County.  Milk tea and stuffed sticky bread.

We’d soon be chucked on the side of a Mountain.  We were set to trek, boulder, and swim our way up Three Levels River, into the Golden Gorge.   This is not often traversed.   I challenge you to find much record of it.   Lead by the descendants of aboriginals, we moved swiftly with our essentials up through the current, leaping from one boulder to the next.   The rain came and provided some relief from the stifling August swelters.

After three hours of forging deeper into the tropical forests, we made camp along the river in a relatively flat bed of sand.  We pitched tents and scoured the surroundings for firewood.    It was mostly the Z crew who’d supply the fire’s fuel.  Well, it was entirely the aboriginals, but as runner-ups.

Up the river, down the hatch.  Those who started drinking hard early, passed out hard early, and all for the best.  Survivor-like opinions and alliances formed.  It was natural western behavior, and I was not exempt from it.  We’re a strategic lot, we want to get what we want. Amazing how it’s all the same in the end.  We bathed in the river, shat in woods.   The aboriginals hosted a ritualistic thanking to the mountain Gods.   Nature’s nuances, a rising moon, a flowing river, it was all very zen.

The fire took nearly two hours to get roasting, we were limited to the soaked wood of wilderness.   Typhoon season just ended.   But, to our guide’s credit, succeed on to BBQ’d pork, that had a tantalizingly melty taste, seducing my tongue in a dumb-happy stupor, like a drunkard in an empty street on his way home to his love.   The meat tendered by the boar’s freedom to roam the mountains.   We passed a bottle Johnny Walker Black about and anxiously awaited the sausage.  At this point, I wasn’t hungry, so either the mind-bending deliciousness was a real, or a result of time/place.  Probably both.

The night narrowed.


Timeless Corridors of Good, Evil & Legendary.

Ahh, Istanbul, I really connected with the city of Istanbul, but it’s my type of city.   It was surprisingly similar to New York, the hustle, the edge, the camaraderie and esprit de corps, but not without caution.   Let’s face it, in this big, buzzing city, we’ve all different dreams.  Here, in the bul, a variety of cultures root so deep through hiatory that budding above the concrete surface is the remnants of ages welded, spliced and entwined. A city of historic mystique and harrowing mystery connected to all of human time.

Different than Rome or from Athens, because Istanbul, the Bosporus passage, the districts, changed rule, power, religion, century after century.  The keeper of many secrets, not in a Godfatherly way, but like that Grandfather whos lived through it all, and only share with you the stories you’re old enough to understand.

I was to scout the city.   Most especially, I was to plan a New Years celebration.   The perfect missions for me!

That overly eager night concierge.  His help was so endearing it was fake.  And, in return, I pretended I was very important to this world.  I think we both knew I wasn’t.  Or maybe, he doesn’t care and acts as if everyone is important because that is his job.

Reconnaissance 101, I mapped the terrain.  Two laps around home-base, then onward and upward.  Aimed at landmark: Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower, 1348.   Originally, Christea Turris (Tower of Christ) The Galata Tower has a Romanesque style, and stands 220 feet tall.  You can spot most the historic center from the top.  The Byzantines were replacing the Great Tower, which was destroyed during the Fourth Crusade.  Cats galloped about.  I shot a photo-sesh with the prancing kitties.

The Pera Palace: Timeless glamour and elegance with genuine Turkish hospitality, retains its unique heritage combined with a modern touch.    Cosmopolitan Istanbul.   that’s how the Pera Palace describes itself. All I felt was the darkness of it humming 1892- Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock among others.   Ghosts singing, maybe screaming.  Here, I’m deff to the difference.  Mystique memorizing like an open flame, relentlessly roaring.  The ignited will of eternity.   Consider the Tower of Terror, but instead of a thrill ride through the twilight zone, it’s a palpable surrender to history. I drank whisky in the lobby, enamored by it all. Senses teamed, ghosts lurked and I pretended not to be spooked while in these timeless corridors of good, evil and legendary.

I walked across the Galata Bridge.  It reeked of fish.   Fare or foul weather the fishermen fished.  Today had cold horizontal rains and whipping winds.  Istanbul had no hesitations in washing itself clean of 2014.   I trudged, soaked, and happy to be bringing in the New Year here.

The sights and sounds of Indian Mayhem

The moment we walked through the airport exit into the sun soaking humidity, the pace of our surroundings jumped to a Fast Forward. Men, shades of every brown, approached us wearing thin button downs spotted with sweat patches. The men swarmed towards us, like a school of hungry fish to bread dropped into the sea.

Every one of the men wanted to “help” us. They were insistent, to the point of being imposing, as they asked for our business. We politely rejected and an uncomfortable silence followed with a dumb loiter.

Soon enough, we chose a taxi + driver. We were riding with Raj.

We rode in the back of a compact car, our nostrils ambushed by an acrid combination of what I best assume to be animal BO, sun-rotting bacterias and pinch of our own fear. Annie and I watched for the first time a 3rd world country pass by. While driving, Raj showed us phone-photos of his white friends. This was supposed to be comforting, and it was.

These first sites of the city were bleak. Visiting India, we expected poverty, yet it was still utterly shocking.

The Indian people flash flooded Delhi’s dirt streets, bopping and bumbling in every direction like thousands of worker bees all on the same honeycomb. The day was muggy and the air had a thickness you might expect to swelter a tropical jungle. As the afternoon faded New Delhi proved to be its own jungle, over grown with a chao, people and pollution. Vibrant colors tangled with the shuffling mess of the un-educated masses. It was a jungle there is no Disney or Pixar movie about. A Jungle with strong stenches and frail futures. A jungle…..

When it rained, it down-poured a furious drenching. However, the sun would quickly break open the clouds, dry up all the rain and rats ran about again.

Seemingly, there were no rules to govern the people. Animals lived everywhere and their piles of shit were more common then children wearing a pair of shoes. There were men with large guns by the subway. I wondered if they knew how to use it properly or if it even mattered.

We, in our white skin and our meaty bodies, were obvious outsiders. The Indian people all wanted to bargain with us foreigners, even when they had nothing to offer. They begged, deceived and stole from the tourists because it was what they knew, so I assume. Young children, maybe of 2 years in age, asked for money, often provoking guilt with their pleas. They had nothing to lose, only to gain as they approached us white and relatively wealthy again and again.

Imagine the 70-man frat house bathroom after a long weekend of Grand Prix parties, no pledges to clean. That is what every city we visited looked and smelled like in our 1,021 mile excursion across Rajasthan, Northwestern India. (Further than Chicago – New York.)

We saw monkeys, goats, cows, and children layed asleep along the highway. Preteens were picked through trash piles in alleys for food. We were in disbeief when we saw a family of 4, including a toddler, riding on a mo-ped through the congested roads. This was common, and they were the fortunate families for their father was providing a ride. There were piles of cow crap the girth of a keg on every street. You can bet your bottom rupee on it. (worth 2 US cents)

We were dumbfounded by what we were finding. The locals however were accustomed to the destitution. Flies buzzed everywhere. Repulsive is rude, but accurate in describing the hygiene. It stunk a combination of corrosion and death, poverty and viol pity which reeked around every filth covered corner.

Shopkeepers were extremely kind and interested in getting to know us. For the first time, we felt genuinely welcomed, like we were unique individuals that inspired them. It was nice, but we knew the act was to make a sale, and that was perfectly fine; every man has to eat. However, their last ditch effort to sell was usually anger. I don’t know if it was feigned or for real, but I didn’t like it either way.

The street traffic was more bedlam than anywhere else I’ve been before. They didn’t use blinkers, painted lines or road signs. The cars had mirrors, but were flipped-in for leaner maneuvering. Horns constantly sounded as an indication of lateral movement, frustration or salutation. I never did decipher the difference. It as a never-ending symphony of rhythmless clamor. Throughout the day, the shotty vehicles funneled through the streets spewing grey coughs of exhaust into the air and continually blared sharp, high pitched horns that made your blood cringe.

We were vulnerable everywhere we went. There was no real safety net to fall back on in disaster or confusion. The comfort of knowing you can go to a hospital or a police station, maybe phone a friend for advice or just to have a chat simply wasn’t going to happen. If something bad happened, there was no way to even know, nothing could be done and no one near would have even cared. They already had too many of their own half dead with hunger and disease- why would we e of concern?

The haggling was intense. Each day we got better at being less and less ripped off.

Our driver’s name was Raj. It was a common name. He looked like a big dirty gummy bear. He was always appearing out of nowhere anytime we needed him or even more strangely, merely thought of him. Often Raj, and others similar to him, were overzealous when trying to be helpful. This caused them to hover, severly violating our western social norms. It made for many awkward moments.

Everyday we choked on air pollution that made me resent industrialization as it festered each of the cities. I wish I had packed a gas mask. I don’t care how ridiculous I’d have looked, I would have wore it everywhere and it’d definitely not more ridiculous than homelessness as a majority .

The stellar beauty of what was once a gorgeous nation of temples and royalty has been degraded to a trash dump of packaged plastics that mar and stain the landscape the way businesses have social media.

The place was very cheap but you get what you pay for. The best reason to go to India is to gain appreciation for all the simple amenities in life that you don’t realize you have. Clean water? Nope. Drainage? Nah. Toilet seat? Toilet paper? Don’t count on it. I’m suddenly not so upset by taxes being removed from my pay. I truly respect their value now.

There is a lot of love among the people to be able to live with such little personal space. The temples and monuments were beautiful and stirred my imagination as we spent the better part of the days touring their magnificence and history.

We rode elephants, hung out with snake charmers, and took tens of pictures with random Indians astonished by Annie’s arian features. We crashed a Hindu wedding with some German boys, their western world experience and Euro-traveller attitude was refreshing. For the first two days we ate but were too repulsed to have an appetite the following as we satiated our stomachs with bottled water and the occasional packet of biscuits. I lost 11 pounds. I was still nauseous 7 days after my return to the US.

We should have made it to Goa, I think we missed out on some places we would have really enjoyed. Or maybe these places too were like the succulent Burger King burgers in their TV ads, but when you get there you’re handed a wax-paper-wrapped pile of bullshit.

India was life changing. I was ready to see poor people and homeless desperation, but I was not prepared for the amount of filth that literally casted over every city seen. Knowing about such a place is completely different from spending time in the poverty. Talk about not being able to save the world, we could hardly save ourselves from that vacuum of humanitarian justice.

Green to Blue : Free to Fall

I stood at the edge of the wooden roof deck impatiently waiting for my turn to jump off into the not-so-clear green water of Ha Long Bay. Two stories of Junk boat was below me. A few of my new friends splashed and laughed beneath, occasionally tossing words of encouragement up into the air like frisbees waiting to be caught. “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “Do a back flip mate,” were the only sentences I could comprehend. Moving my toes to the edge of the brown planks, I reached back for the white peeling railing that looked less than trustworthy.

I had been struggling with sea sickness from the reckless combination of a hangover, rocking salt water waves and cigarette smoke for over an hour now. Despite the height, jumping was the closest cure and there was nothing I wanted to do more.

My big toes nakedly hung off the edge. I released the security of the railing, now my right hand wrapped around my musty, brown, tube-top bathing suit and my left plugged my nose. An incredibly dorky, yet practical position for jumping. I could feel the heat of the sun radiating off my back and shoulders. Taking in one last deep breath I closed my eyes, trusted the words of encouragement, caught that frisbee and jumped, off the boat and into the warm Vietnamese air.

Ha Long Bay was a place my sister and I had been anticipating for about a year. For eleven months we worked as nannies and stayed in on weekends waiting to splurge on a summer of backpacking Southeast Asia. The bay in the city of Ha Long, known as the “descending dragon bay” was the icon of our trip. Images of sharp, sporadic, limestone cliffs became the desktop to our computers, the backgrounds of our phones and the photo representing our count-down until May 27, 2013, the day we took flight from JFK airport. It showed the freedom that crept closer to our reach as the months faded by.

When you jump, life as you understand it changes. Your senses are enhanced, you become more alert. The sun becomes brighter. You can taste the salt evaporated in the air, you can see the bright lime-green moss, the noise of buzzing crickets surrounds you. You are aware of the 2,000 islets in the distance that stand proud after 500 million years of formation. The mucky screen that has been obstructing your point of view is lifted and it’s like you are now looking through a freshly Windexed window.

You’re free, in the moment, the shackles you didn’t realize you wore vanish and you gracefully fly through the sky, weightless, over the sea that looks like a million diamonds strewn across a blue blanket.

Friends encourage you to take that leap, but wait below to ensure your safety. In this moment, I’m happy, I’m myself, loving life without fear of death. I know who I am and I am confident in my abilities. I have fallen in love, with the people, with myself, with the world I am in.

Then before you know it the free-fall is over, and your feet kick through the sheet of clear water, the same water that was a not-so-clear green color seconds before. You are submerged by the cool, blue refreshing wash of the ocean. The marine world, one completely different from your own, a place you cannot stay forever but is a surreal gift while you are there.

You know it is quickly approaching, it is romantically mesmerizing but over too fast.

My cousin asked me if she should go backpacking through South America on her own for 2 months this summer. I told her that when I was in Vietnam, I stood at the edge of a wooden roof deck. Don’t look down, just jump.

The answer to why we travel is different for everyone.

According to Pico Iyer, “We travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.”

My sister and I thought we were traveling to see the world but we quickly realized that our trip was about how we interpret the world and how our souls fit in it. In mid jump we came to realize how little possessions matter and how much more there is to life.

For anyone planning on backpacking through Southeast Asia, I would recommend bringing nothing but an empty backpack and possibly a few toilet paper rolls. Anything you need you can buy there and the less you have the more free your fall is.


$99 Trip to Paradise


We were unsure about what $99 and a group of strangers could really get us, but there probably isn’t one thing that could have gone better. We signed up for a boat trip to Halong Bay at the front desk of our hostel, Central Backpacker’s Hostel ( by the way, awesome hostel- free beer during happy hour, sharpies to write on the wall, and people from around the world with one common goal- to have fun). The five of us were hooked right away with the trip, but then five became eight and eight became eighteen within an hour and we ended up with a 10% discount and the best group ever. Six Americans, some Londoners, a few Australians, New Zealanders, one Canadian, two Dutch girls, and a Swedish guy were thrown together and it clicked.

Photo credit: Austin Banks

Photo credit: Austin banks

There was no wifi on the traditional junk boat, but there was a lot of drinking, a decent amount of good food, a few poor attempts at squid fishing, and a whole lot of people looking to have fun, play games, and sing along to the music of a ukulele.



We kayaked , swam, and explored limestone caves in the bay during the daytime and at night, the stars came out and so did a woman in a small boat to secretly sell cheap beer to us through our cabin windows.

Photo credit: Austin Banks


Photo credit: Austin Banks

Photo credit: Austin Banks

The morning after our stay on the boat, we transferred to a smaller, rockier vessel. Maybe the foreshadowing of what would turn up later on, or maybe just some ordinarily large waves, but as our new Aussie friends would put it, Christiana and I were “spewing” overboard in no time. Okay, I guess not everything went perfectly. Given the choice to either continue boating to Monkey Island, or begin swimming, we quickly stripped down to our bikinis and jumped off the deck; it’s funny how seasickness can be cured by jumping into the sea.


Photo credit: Austin Banks

Another boat trip accompanied by one more bout of seasickness brought us to a tiny beach resort on Cat Ba Island, closed in by rocks and dotted with wooden bungalows.

Photo credit: Austin Banks

Another fun-filled day of kayaking , volleyball- well, I watched and took pictures while everyone else played- swimming, eating every variation of seafood, and sunbathing, turned in to another night of drinking and good conversation, backed by the sounds of waves and the Red Hot Chili Peppers coming through portable iPhone speakers. No cell service, no wifi, no connection to the world and it’s worries.

Photo credit: Austin Banks

3 AM brought typhoon winds and rain, thunder that sounded as close as our front porch, one very scared younger sister, a loss of power, and uneasy half-sleep. The cove’s water drained enough to give us thoughts of a tsunami, but the locals showed no signs of distress. Morning came, breakfast was served, and the group of eighteen new-found friends loaded the boat. It seems that all good things do come to an end, but the memories (and photos) make it worthwhile.


The Killing Fields


It was fitting that the day was grey. The place is called the “Killing Fields” so I guess you go into it with a pretty good idea of what you are going to see. You travel the same roads out of Phom Penh that the thousands of victims traveled from S-21 Prison, where they were tortured and beaten because of crimes they didn’t commit, except you’re riding in an open-air tuk-tuk in broad daylight, not blindfolded in the back of a crowded truck during the night. You get out of the vehicle and listen on your headset for the story of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and what went down at this remote and eery location only three and a half decades ago.

Here’s a clip from this website – http://worldgenocides.wikispaces.com/Summary+of+the+Cambodian+Genocide -to give some background:

The Cambodian genocide resulted from the years of 1975-1979, in which a great number of people lost their lives and it was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. The genocide was an attempt by Khmer Rouge army leader Pol Pot to form a Communist peasant farming society resulting in a great number of deaths by starvation, overwork and executions. Cambodia was once ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Later the country was taken over and controlled by Pol Pot, his army of Khmer Rouge, and teenage peasant guerrillas forming the Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia beginning in the capital city of Phnom Penh. His ideas were similar to Maozedong’s, a Chinese communist ruler in that Western culture, religion, foreign influences should be extinguished to form an extreme peasant communism. Foreigners would be expelled, embassies closed, foreign economic or medical assistance was refused, use of foreign languages banned, TV and newspapers were shut down, even money was forbidden, education halted, and thus Cambodia was sealed off from the rest of the world. Pol pot eliminated the old society which included the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Cambodians who were accustomed to city life were forced to work in the fields while many died of overworking long hours, malnutrition and disease. Anyone who was suspected to be disloyal to Pol Pot was killed. The vast majority of the victims included in the mass slaughtering and torturing are from Cambodia but also include people from Vietnam, Laos, India, Pakistan, UK, France, U.S.A, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and Muslims and Christians. Eventually In 2002 Australia, France, Japan, and the US passed a resolution calling for a tribunal of the senior members of the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity.


Over the course of three years, it is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed 3,300,000 people.


So by now, there is hopefully a point of reference and recognition coming from a high school or college class. I know I owe my knowledge to 10th grade genocide class and Mr. Boyde. A textbook chapter and an accompanying video don’t quite do the trick, though. One minute you are in a dark classroom watching a ton of people blind-folded in a single file line being led to their end and you’re definitely feeling pretty sad and beginning to hate mankind, but then the bell rings, the light switch turns up and you remember how hungry you are and thank god it’s lunch period. You may sit at the table picturing the looks on the faces of the Cambodian children as you eat, but by the time lacrosse practice rolls around, those images are wiped clean. Not much of a lasting impression.

There really is no way to give the full effect of an event to an outsider, but the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center does a good job of bringing you close to the stories and memories. When you arrive, you receive headphones and an audio device to walk you through the site. You begin where the prisoners began, at the truck stop, then move through the detainment space and the check-in area (the Khmer Rouge made sure to double check the whereabouts of each victim- there would be no escaping) and into the huge area of mass graves. Roped off are a few that still churn up bone fragments, teeth, and cloth. Other graves are indicated by divots in the earth.

All along, the audio is telling the story. For some reason, hearing the words from Cambodian accents directly into your ears makes it more real and personal. The marked-off mass graves are lined with bamboo fencing and thousands of bracelets hang on the posts as little symbols of respect and remembrance of the dead. It’s just the traveler finding a way to leave a piece of him/herself behind.

You then walk around the lake listening to stories of survivors, not of the killing fields, but of the S-21 prison. There were no survivors of the killing fields because if whatever murder tool the Khmer Rouge guards used for slaughtering (usually farming tools or hammers) didn’t accomplish its goal, DDT would finish the job. Individuals would kneel in front of the hole, blindfolded and forced to sing songs of the regime, before being hacked/beaten/stabbed to death and falling into their grave.

Children had another story. Yes, children. Pol Pot believed that in order to be successful in offing a “traitor,” the accused person’s whole family must also be killed, or else there would be someone left to seek revenge.

That’s where the “Killing Tree” comes in. This picture says more than a thousand words. After the tree, the infants, toddlers, and small children were thrown into the mass grave with their mothers. I placed my string bracelet on a piece of bark and walked away.




Well I think that’s about all I can handle writing about the Killing Fields. It wasn’t easy to see but it was well worth the experience. Not only did I gain knowledge of Cambodia’s history, but also endless respect for the people who lived through it.


Putting the World of Religion Above Your Own World

People give so much to religion…

A few days ago now, we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia by minivan after a six hour-reckless ride. For our group at that time, Phnom Penh was not the ideal place to be but it was a necessary stop along the way back to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

With a lack of ideas and only a couple of suggestions from the guide book we decided to wander around the city in search of cheap food and entertainment. We walked over to Wat Phnom, a highly recommended Buddhist temple in the middle of a park on an island surrounded by flying cars.

After paying “$1 for foreigners, “walking up about thirty steep stairs and taking off our shoes, we walked inside.

The temple on top of the hill was small but vibrated with color. Vibrating from one mural filled wall to the next. Not a spec on the wall was empty. Designs danced from corner to corner. The piled statues glistened as people kneeled before them in prayer. The amount of effort put into building even this small holy-structure was unmeasurable.

Rumor has it this landmark, dating back to 1373, was discovered and designed by a wealthy widow, Daun Penh. Inside a Koki Tree, on the river, Penh found four small bronze Buddha statues. To honor her finds she built a shrine on top of an artificial hill, with help from the local village people. That shrine grew over the years into the delicate, colorful, holy-place it is today.

After driving through Cambodia and Vietnam I have seen a little of how much the people put into religion. Each house, restaurant and shop has a small shrine. The shrine is a place to pray and give offerings such as coffee and fruit every morning and evening. The temple shines above the slums, with fluorescent towers reaching high up into the sky while brown, tin-roof huts act as homes below.

It’s not only in Southeast Asia but all over the world that I am beginning to recognize how much people dedicate to religion, whatever religion that may be. From human sacrifices dating all the way back to the Aztec tribes to the deaths resulting from over 100 years given to the building of Angkor Wat. The most incredible buildings in the world such as Hagia Sophia, the Vatican, Taj Mahal and the entire city of Mecca are all religious. These structures are engineered with intelligence and grace because they were not just for the people but something they felt was greater, deserving of the best.

While these building stand proud and tall I can’t help but notice the trash on the streets below them in Cambodia. Men toss plastic bags across the street so that they won’t be in front of their own home. Kids kick cans and woman toss garbage over their shoulders onto the floor. It’s hard for me to understand how they could be comfortable with keeping their own world so dirty when they are capable of creating so much beauty. Every morning households offer soft drinks and food to the Buddhist statue in their kitchen, store, backyard, or place of work. If everyone spent an equal amount of time picking up the garbage from below their feet, the streets could glisten with color as well.