Monthly Archives: February 2011

And Nothing Happened…

I don’t know much about avalanches, but today’s TwT contributor, Tom H., came very close to learning a bit too much about them. As one of the last  (if not the last) guest contributors for February Contributor Month, let’s see if we can dodge a few avalanches with him.

By the way, I took the month of February off to see what a month might bring in terms of my future plans. During this month, more than I expected has come together. You’ll have to wait for the next post, written by ME, to finally learn more about that…

And Nothing Happened

By Tom Hazel.

On Sunday January 30th, 2011, I sat in a conference room at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. The avalanche awareness course I was taking was almost over. The last thing we did was watch a short documentary called, “A Dozen More Turns” (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which describes an avalanche that struck five experienced skiers on a hut trip in Montana. The avalanche danger was High, but the skiers stayed in the trees on a low angle slope, hoping to mitigate their risk. As Doug Chabot, says in the film, “they were doing a lot of things right,” but the risk was High, they still went skiing, and someone didn’t come home. In that moment I decided that I wouldn’t go skiing when the avalanche risk was Considerable or High. Easy decision.

Tom H. (red jacket, white goggles) and friends. Photo by John Davies.

Four weeks later I found myself on a similar trip in Eastern Oregon with an eclectic mix of friends hailing from New England, Texas, San Francisco and  the Pacific Northwest. We knew going in that the avalanche danger was Considerable-High because of an unstable snow layer about three feet below the surface. Here I was on my first trip after the avalanche awareness course, and already I was being tempted by great snow to break my own safety rules.

Just like the guys in “A Dozen More Turns,” we started out by playing it safe. On day one we decided to stick to some low angle terrain covered in trees. Both the angle and the trees make avalanches less likely.This was my first backcountry trip and I was nervous in the first place. The more experienced members of the group seemed cautious, but not worried. The only experience I had with this area was reading the avalanche forecasts before the trip. These guys knew what they were doing; they wouldn’t be putting themselves at risk, right?

Snow-covered mountain. Oregon. Photo by Tom H.

We picked out the lowest angle route up to the top of the ridge. Low angle was the theme for the day. Most avalanches occur on slopes between 35-45 degrees. Slopes under 30 degrees are considered pretty safe. The downside in our situation was that there was too much snow to ski on slopes much less than 30 degrees. With 20 inches of new snow, a 25 degree slope isn’t really steep enough to ski on; it ends up being more of a hike downhill. Any slope above 30 was potentially unsafe, anything below 30 was almost unskiable. We had a clinometer (a tool for determining slope), and the route up was just about 30 degrees.

On the way up we heard a loud WOOMPF. A “woompf” is a scary thing in the backcountry. Imagine you’re minding your business, hiking up a nice 30 degree slope, when all of a sudden you hear a loud sound from under you. Your skis drop an inch and all the snow on the surrounding trees falls off. We immediately looked for signs of an avalanche.

Tom's friends Sam and John examining layers in a snow pit. Oregon. Photo by Brian R.

In this case, nothing moved.  The sound is caused by a layer of snow collapsing somewhere beneath you. A woompf gives a skier two important pieces of information: First, there is indeed a weak snow layer somewhere beneath you; and second, your weight is enough to collapse that layer. Neither of these pieces of information bode well for a safe trip. A bit shaken, we pressed on being sure to stay away from open areas.

Another WOOMPF. Shit. Should we really be up here? I knew that we were on a slope angle that was supposed to be safe, but I sure didn’t feel safe. I tried to keep my heart rate down and not freak out. I was sweating, but not from the hiking. It was that nervous kind of sweat that you get when speaking in public or waking up from a bad dream. We backed down the slope a bit and changed course, hopefully in a safer direction.

Before too long, we made it to the top of the ridge. Our ideal route would have taken us down the steeper northwestern side of the ridge. We dug some snowpits on that side of the ridge to test stability. As it turns out, the northwest side of the ridge was not very stable, so we went back to the lower angle side. We skied each pitch one at a time, in case anything happened. I was pumped to start heading downhill and it was great to make a few turns. The snow was amazing, but the low angle meant slower skiing. Despite my apprehension at every turn, we all ended up at the bottom, safe and sound. We were happy and wanted more. We took a couple more laps along the same route, accompanied by the sound of a a few more WOOMPFS, but nothing else.

Slope in Oregon. Photo by John Davies.

I was worried. The “woompfing” really freaked me out. I wasn’t sure if it made sense to ski another day. The group made the choice to ski a bit steeper terrain the next day. Being cautious and remembering the documentary, I decided it wasn’t worth it and stayed back at camp. In the afternoon people started trickling back in. They spoke of an amazing day of skiing. Once again, everyone came back safe. Maybe I was being too cautious.

With a 10 am departure from camp, only the early risers had time to ski on the third day. Four of us woke up early that morning to try to get a last few turns in. We got our gear on and left around 6:30 am. We hiked up a southwestern slope right behind the camp — the steepest we’d skied all trip — but it was nearby and there hadn’t been any problems so far, so we thought there wouldn’t be too much more risk. I heard a couple big “woompfs” and a couple small ones on the way up. The trees were tightly packed, but we were hiking up right next to a more dangerous open area.

Trees are a mixed blessing in avalanche terrain. A group of tightly packed trees can make a slope more stable. The cumulative effect of many trees adds stability to the snowpack. However, trees by themselves can cause problems. Snow tends to be thinner and less cohesive around the base of trees. Especially conifers with their wide bases. When the snowpack is less cohesive, it is easier to break off and cause an avalanche. Areas that are completely devoid of trees make for some of the best skiing, but since there are no anchors to hold the snow in place, they are riskier.

We decided not to hike up to the top because we would’ve passed through an open area. We got ourselves ready to head down through a tight cluster of trees. I was the second to go and followed the first set of tracks pretty closely. There was an easy pitch at first, and I made some nice turns before rounding a corner into another slope. It was much steeper, just the sort of thing we were supposed to avoid. I can remember my brain splitting into two parts: One part of me knew it was some of the best skiing I’d ever experience, the other half was petrified about starting a slide. I made my first few turns and then…

Nothing happened. There was no slide. The snowpack felt solid below my skis. We were all fine.

Freeland (Tom and my friend) hauling a sled full of gear out from the huts on the last day. Photo by Tom H.

On the five mile hike back to the car I was swimming in thoughts about the experience. Was I a better skier now because I had experienced more difficult conditions? Or had I lost some of my fear and respect for what I was doing? Was I more likely to make bad choices because nothing happened? Did we just get lucky?

I guess there’s no way to know until the next time I head into the backcountry.

Tom Hazel is a software engineer by day who splits his time between Boston and Austin. He spent a year shoring up his skiing chops in Salt Lake City, but has since settled down on the ski hills of New England. Tom shares some Barcelona routes with the Tavel herself, but most of his recent travels have been centered around finding good snow. You can follow him @TheRealTHazel.

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Filed under Contributor, Natural Disasters, Travel, Uncategorized, USA, Winter

Incredible Crunchy TwT Flavor

Travel, food… Food, travel… The two go hand-in-hand. Ahhh, yes (that was a content sigh, not an AHHH!!!! — just for the record).

Oooh, TANGENT ALERT!

This reminds me of the first essay I ever wrote in college. It was for one of my favorite professors, Kidder S. (we just called him Kidder). I was a young, nervous freshman taking an Asian studies freshman seminar called Seekers Lives, which focused on different paths to enlightenment and Truth (capital T – just trust me: there’s a big difference between Truth and truth). I had no idea what to expect when I got my first essay back. The second Kidder handed it to me, I saw this written in big letters across the top: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Now, I wasn’t sure what to think. So, after class, I asked Kidder what he meant: “Is this an ‘AHHH!!’ [I made an extended, horrified AH sound] or is this an ‘ahhhhhh, yes’ [I made a pleased and calm ahhh sound].” He looked at me, concerned, and said “oh, Tavel!” (yes he called me Tavel, as did everyone in college),”That was definitely an ‘Aha!’ ahhhhh, as in ‘yes yes yes!’ ” And that is when I learned the difference between AHHHH! and ahhhh…

Well that was a sloppy segway… (Asian studies… Asian food… errr…)

ANYWAYS: Today, my TwT blog goes hand-in-hand with one of my favorite food bloggers. In case you weren’t hungry enough, lets take a trip to China on a sub…

General Tso’s Tofu Sub

By IncredibleCrunchyFlavor, (also secretly known as Katinka).

i saw this recipe and was totally intrigued instantly. i mean, i love general tso’s and since i’ve been eating a lot of vegetarian bahn mi sandwiches recently (from eden center in falls church, virginia), flavored tofu on a bun with toppings was especially appealing.

so i got all psyched to make it, but then i actually read the recipe, and i realized you had to fry.

deep frying has always been the third rail of my cooking – the thing i won’t touch. my mom was (is) terrified of frying and never did it at home. i have carried on the feeling that frying is dangerous and best left to the pros.

fortunately, there was a note in the comments section that someone had pan fried it, so i decided to give that a try instead. (deep frying = entire pot of boiling oil. pan fry = half an inch or so of hot oil in a pan). but we’re not there yet.

i started with the edamame puree, which didn’t turn out so well. you are supposed to put ¾ of a cup of frozen, shelled edamame in blender with “just enough water to make a smooth paste.”


i don’t know if it was because it was such a small volume in my big ol’ blender or what, but i ended up adding more than a ¼ cup of water and it still never got nice and smooth the way i wanted it.


(Above: edamame paste next to ginger, garlic and soy sauce for the general tso’s sauce)

it occurred to me later that since you’re supposed to mayo the bread too, maybe i should have blended up the edamame with the mayo and some water to make one creamy spread.

next, the sauce. ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, white vinegar, mirin, sesame oil, red dry chinese chilis (i omitted), salt, sugar and xanthan gum (optional. i opted out) in the blender.


i didn’t know what sweet soy sauce was, and clearly didn’t have any, so i used an extra tablespoon of regular soy sauce.

this was probably a mistake. i learned later that sweet soy sauce is thick like molasses, which – with the xanthan gum – would have made the texture more like the traditional sticky general tso’s of chinese take-out fame. perhaps one tablespoon (instead of the required two) of actual molasses would have helped the texture without messing too much with the flavor.

also, the blender had a hard time with the ginger fibers, so if you have a microplane, i recommend microplaning the ginger first.

leave it in the blender for a long time…

for the pickles, i didn’t even bother with the blender. i chopped the shallot, ginger and garlic, and ended up shredding the scallions by hand, which worked well.


although, you better believe i was missing my mandoline for this part:


mix well and let sit.


now that we’ve got the puree, the sauce and the pickles, it’s time for the tofu.

make sure you are using extra firm. i used firm and it wasn’t firm enough, breaking when i was trying to handle it.


this breading-frying-assembling process moves really fast, so it’s best to have everything set out and ready.


make sure the tofu is very dry when you season it.


dip in egg, coat in panko and drop carefully into the oil.


while it’s frying away, toast the rolls, slice and schmear up.


when the tofu is golden brown, remove it from the oil and dunk it into the sauce.


(i can’t believe i was frying AND taking pictures. phew!)

load onto sandwich and top with some sesame seeds and pickles.


so for all my complaining, i bet you’ll be surprised to hear that the finished product was a huge hit.

the bread, which i had toasted gently in the oven, was warm and flakey on the outside, the tofu was crispy from the panko and super creamy on the inside, the pickles were crunchy and cool, the sauce was tangy… even the (chunky) edamame puree added a nice contrast in flavors.


would i make this again? no. way too much work for a sandwich. would i eat it again if someone made it for me? you betcha.

Incrediblecrunchyflavor is the creative outlet of a disenchanted federal government worker in Washington, DC (her name – yes her real name – is Katinka). Other things Katinka does to keep herself sane are kayak, volunteer, watch a lot of “Man vs Food,” discover really authentic Asian restaurants in the DC suburbs, and celebrate Champagne Thursday. If she could go anywhere in the world at this moment, it would be Tuftonboro, New Hampshire; Antigua, Guatemala; somewhere in Italy; or Tokyo, Japan. Check out more recipes and food porn on http://incrediblecrunchyflavor.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter, @crunchyflavor.

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Filed under Asia, Contributor, Food

A Foggy Day in Galveston, Texas

Not all travel is glamorous. Not every trip seeks adventures and “the exotic.” Some trips are more rough around the edges — not because one stays at a hostel or camps in the woods. Not because we buy fancy outdoor gear for “roughing it” and take a guidebook along with us into the controlled unknown. Some places ruffle our feathers just enough to make one feel uncomfortable; it’s a welcome feeling, one that those eager to learn about the world actually seek out.

Today’s guest blogger shares her experience on an alternative spring break trip to Texas, post-Hurricane Ike, and explains what it feels like to go from an excited college kid ready to help, to a volunteer scraping mold and decay off of the walls of what was once someone’s home, sweet home.

A Foggy Day in Galveston, Texas

By Katie Woods.

It was a foggy day in Galveston, Texas, but the other student volunteers and I were smiling and laughing.  We were clad in hazmat suits, which made us feel like clunky spacemen on a mission.  But we weren’t headed to space.  We were about to gut a small house that had stewed untouched since Hurricane Ike hit Galveston about seven months prior.  Flood waters had ravaged the neighborhood we stood in, leaving it full of empty houses and overflowing dumpsters.  But my friends and I were taking photos of ourselves and goofing around.  For the time being, we felt good.

Overturned house in Galveston, Texas. Photo provided by Katie W.

We were in Galveston for Emerson College’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB). Rather than go on our own vacations, we decided to apply to build houses, feed the hungry, or clean beaches.  In 2008, a freshman, I went on my first ASB trip to Waveland, Mississippi, to work on Hurricane Katrina relief.  And then I was hooked.

Since then, I have journeyed to Galveston and Cedar Rapids, Iowa for flood relief.  This year, after months of working on the trip-planning, fundraising leadership team, I’m headed to Pensacola, Florida to work on wetland restoration, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  Each trip is a unique, perspective-altering journey that is incredible to experience but difficult to describe. But I’ll try.

House in Galveston, Texas. Photo by Katie W.

Let’s go back to that house in Galveston.  Before Hurricane Ike, it was inhabited by an elderly woman.  We volunteers didn’t know much about her, but on that monochromatic day, we took her personal belonging from her home and set them on the curb, turning this woman’s life – her photos, her fish tank, her little statuettes – into a pile of water-rotted garbage.  We’d all gutted houses before, but only when they had already been stripped.  Then it was fun – tearing into drywall, hammering toilets to pieces.  But this house had a personality. Soon into the job, we stopped goofing around.  We needed the hazmat suits to protect us from the extreme mold in the house.  Two students squeezed a soggy, stinking mattress through front door. Bugs scurried across the walls when we removed pictures from their nails.  The refrigerator – unopened for months – sloshed dangerously as we carefully lugged it outside.  Even through our masks, we could smell the decay.  We were utterly silent.  On the front lawn, I approached one of my friends who was standing totally still, looking stricken.  She pointed to the grass, where the body of a cat lay flattened and gray.   No one joked.

Debris in Galveston. Photo by Katie W.

I describe this day not because it was sad – which it was – but because it will never leave my memory.  I frequently imagine who this woman was, where she ended up living, what has become of her house now.  These are things I’ll probably never know.  This woman, or whoever lives on the property now, will never know me.   But we’re connected somehow.  And the other volunteers and I, while laughing about the frustration of a particular patch of drywall or while holding back tears to avoid steaming our goggles, all formed a bond of our own.  We grew closer to members of our college community while serving a community miles and miles away.  We experience a side of life and a type of work that was utterly different than what we – aspiring filmmakers, writers, and actors – did in our normal school-week.

Gutted house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Photo by Katie W.

There is no way to quantify the impact that service trips have.  Sure, this many houses are built, this many pieces of trash are cleared.  But the links formed between people cannot be measured.  When my Waveland group went out to dinner in a local restaurant one night, a middle-aged couple approached our table.  Teary eyed, the woman thanked us for being there, for not forgetting them, for helping though we didn’t know them.  Alternative Spring Break teaches people to care and reminds others that they are cared for.  It puts life into perspective.  And that’s something wonderful.

Photo of Katie Woods during ASB trip.

Katie Woods is a senior at Emerson College, earning her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing.  She is the Student Coordinator for Alternative Spring Break through the Office of Service Learning and Community Action.  Her favorite place to travel is the redwood forests of Northern California. You can help her and the other volunteers go on this year’s trip by donating here.

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Filed under Contributor, Life Stuff, Natural Disasters, Uncategorized, USA

Peru, Bolivia, and a Nonexistent Basement

Living in an Andean country has its challenges. Remember my little friend, Juan the Amoeba? Well, I just want to announce once and for all that he is 100% DEAD. I already suspected he had evacuated the premises, but now I know for sure. Juan, you and your family will NOT be missed!

Then there was the coup attempt, several attempted robberies, and the simple fact that living in a South American country — no matter how beautiful, no matter how sexy it sounds — isn’t always that easy. But sometimes the challenges have nothing to do with what’s happening on the “outside”; they spur from the personal choices we make, and the struggle to both give and take from these decisions.

Well, I’m not the only one who has tossed her hands up in the air, given up the comforts of home and taken on an adventure in the Andes. Today’s guest blogger, Julie, shares her honest mixed feelings about a deep-seated desire to uproot herself from both her American and Danish homes, while acknowledging that sometimes there’s nothing quite like watching a football (no, not soccer) game at a Massachusetts bar with old friends, and blueberry pancakes.

Contemplating Life and Moving into my Parent’s (nonexistent) Basement

By Julie.

In two weeks I’ll be finishing up a 7-month stay in South America, of which I’ve spent 3 months in Peru and 4 months in La Paz, Bolivia, working for a microfinance organization as part of my master’s studies. What a perfect time to do some REFLECTING! There’s a lot of stuff I could reflect about – the expectations I had before leaving and how the reality has matched up, what I’ve learned about the world of international development (and perhaps what role I want to play in it), how I’ve grown professionally or personally…

International dance festival a few hours outside Puno, Peru. Photo by Julie.

To provide some background – I grew up in the States, but a longtime fascination with my mother’s native Denmark lured me to the other side of the Atlantic at the age of 21. I have been based there ever since (approaching 5 years). On top of this, I am pursuing a career in international development, so naturally, I get these questions a lot: Where do you want to live when you grow up? Where are you going to settle down? Even if other people weren’t asking me, I wrestle with these questions on my own. And even if I told you right now where I thought I would end up, my answer would probably change tomorrow. Not only am I torn between the choice of living in the developed or developing world (where the work is naturally more interesting), but the Denmark vs. America choice also factors in.

These last 7 months have reminded me that there’s something truly special about being abroad, the people you meet and the friendships that develop (when I say being abroad, I am not including time spent in Denmark, though that is special too…in a different way). One of my all-time favorite social scenarios, one I encountered both when I backpacked through South America and again now, is being out to dinner with a huge group of people from all different countries, where I haven’t known anyone for longer than a few weeks or months (in the case of backpacking, it was more like hours).

Preparing Juanes (a traditional Amazonian dish) at a friend's grandmother's house in a small village down the river from Pucallpa, Peru. Photo provided by Julie.

That being said, a recent trip home to Boston for a friend’s wedding reminded me of a very different type of social interaction (or togetherness), one I definitely didn’t value enough during my angsty teenage years. I’m referring to the time spent with the people that were there to witness the sweatpants and matching turtlenecks, the mini-backpacks, and the braces and bushy eyebrows.

My “sheltered” upbringing in a small suburb of Boston always pushed me to seek opportunities away and abroad, but in my older (eh herm, wiser?) years, I’ve really come to appreciate the phenomenon of “this person has known me my entire life.” And holy crap there’s something comforting about spending a Sunday afternoon, tired and knowing you aren’t your most attractive nor coherent self thanks to the champagne in the bridal suite at 4 am, watching the Patriots game at a bar and realizing the people sitting in the booth with you know you better than anyone and don’t really care that you sort of look like crap. I’m not joking when I say that the week home left me thinking it was time to call it a day with all the traveling and move into my parents basement. (A decision slightly complicated by the fact that we don’t have a basement.)

Clients from the organization I was working with in Peru gather for all-day workshop. Photo by Julie.

After a week of battling snowstorms and catching up with friends, it was time to get back to my life in La Paz – the one that, during the previous week home, had felt like a distant dream. A distant dream that I questioned how badly I wanted to return to, knowing there were just a few weeks to go.  And on my first weekend back I managed to see every one of the handful of friends (I now realize) I’ve gotten so close to since getting here in early November.

That’s another thing about being abroad – these types of processes are mysteriously accelerated. I think it’s something about everyone being in the same position, strangers in a new country, and maybe we have more in common to begin with if we are in fact both drawn to living in La Paz.

Side note: There is something unsatisfying about writing a post about the friends I’ve met abroad and referring only to other foreigners (and mostly Americans). But unfortunately it can be difficult to meet and develop a relationship with the locals, especially if you are in a place for such a short time. And while I have met many Peruvians and Bolivians that I’ve gotten close to, this time around, the lasting friendships seem to be with Americans.

Coroico, Bolivia. Photo by Julie.

The underlying point about friendships old and new is simply that the existence of one reinforces the value and importance of the other and vice versa. I wouldn’t be happy if I only had friends I’d known short-term and I can’t imagine I’d be happy if I’d never met anyone new after my childhood. The same idea can be applied to the more general “being home” vs. “being abroad.”  I’m probably more capable of appreciating and enjoying time spent at home because I know that the abroad and the adventure is out there waiting for me, and I’ll be getting back to it soon enough. Likewise, I am better able to enjoy time spent away because I know there is a home (and delicious blueberry pancakes) waiting for me.

It reminds me of a very cruel and unreasonable ”would you rather…?” I once heard: Would you rather be in your home country and never be allowed to leave it or be outside it and never be allowed to return (but free to travel to every single other country in the world)? This presents a tradeoff that would make living a satisfying life very difficult for me… so I’m grateful that the chances of ever having to make this decision are very slim!

The view of the Illimani, taken from near Julie's office in El Alto, Bolivia. Photo by Julie.

So in the spirit of making grand statements about how the last 7 months have impacted me (in addition to the thing or two I’ve learned about microfinance), I’ve learned an important lesson about the life I want to live: Though I don’t know what country I’ll end up settling down in, I’ve identified the balance I’ll have to achieve if I want to be happy. So my next step? The simple and straightforward (ehrm?) task of achieving that balance.

Julie visiting with a borrower outside Cochabamba, Bolivia. Photo provided by Julie.

Julie is the sister of Tavel’s friend Erik from Bowdoin, and while the two have yet to meet in person, for years now they have enjoyed a Facebook friendship that has quietly blossomed into a blogging friendship. You can read more about Julie’s South American adventures on her blog, Julie’s Kiva Adventures.

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Filed under Bolivia, Contributor, Life Stuff, Peru, Travel

Love and The Journey

There is one day every year that forces many to look their love or lack thereof square in the eyes. This is a post about both a journey across the world, and the love that can come with it, or get left behind. Long-distance love is a journey in and of itself — one I know all too well.  It’s the kind of journey you don’t buy a ticket for; you stumble across it by accident, and it doesn’t say whether it’s going to be a one-way or a round-trip, but you inevitably find out at some point along the way because you just can’t resist its mysterious lure to an unknown place…

Sometimes you say goodbye to a person, you leave them behind for a journey on your own, but even after you’re gone you feel their invisible presence, like static electricity, like a good or bad ghost — it’s hard to really tell. But one thing’s for sure: no matter who gets left behind, no matter how far away you go, your heart — with all its beautiful stories and scars — well, it always comes with you. Sometimes it’s the only thing that does.

But I didn’t write this post.

I will let today’s TwT contributor, Mara, take it from here.

Love and The Journey

By Mara, with thanks to TwT for the space to share words from my journey!

Digging new potatoes while WWOOFING. Photo by Mara.

I am living in New Zealand. And I am here because of love. Not love that is sprinkled like fairy dust, but love that spoke to me when I was on the floor wondering how I’d ever get up. Or love that somehow found me, miraculously, one among the crowd.

My journey in New Zealand began last November in Auckland with my boyfriend (B.) and a car we bought and called Hermione—a name I later happily discovered means patron of travelers.

Bark Bay, Abel Tasman National Park. Southland, NZ. Photo by Mara.

Our trip started in Northland and by the time we covered ground in Southland and arrived to Christchurch, we drove 3,500 km. It sounds ordinary, writing it like that. But it was a journey that for me had begun years earlier.

And it was a journey designed with a fork in the road. When we booked our tickets, I knew B. would return to New York City after a few weeks. I’d stay in New Zealand for an undetermined amount of time. To write. To be. To find the space I needed and that eluded me in New York. To let me really soak in my life. And to maybe find direction towards work that really feels like “Yes!”

Crater Lake, Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Northland, NZ. Photo by Mara.

I still don’t know why that decision was so simple to make, because even what’s simple is not always easy. It was the start of something perhaps so predictable, but still unseen.

When B. and I met, love followed—as easy as breathing and as familiar as knowing.

But then, love always involves a leap, entrusting yourself to someone else. So, my faith was blind. Our love would stay strong. What distance would take away, love would transcend.

Mt. Cook reflection. Lake Matheson. Southland, NZ. Photo by Mara.

And then, recently, there was a moment just as I was waiting to turn in a line of traffic that it entered my mind—just one question. It was easy, the way doubt slipped in: would our love survive the journey?

One question to release the flood gates for all others. Is love transportable? Is love durable? Is love enough? Is love renewable?

If everything begins and ends with love, I had not considered finishing this journey with our love not still thriving. But how had I made that presumption? What had told me to take that chance?

Tongariro National Park. Northland, NZ. Photo by Mara.

You see, I had to first become the person who met B., because once I was lost and without love for myself. With work and in time, I became that person who loved herself strong enough to both choose love and leave a life in New York for the journey that would diverge in New Zealand and converge again in New York at some future point.

Mara sitting in a rock. Coromandel Peninsula. Northland, NZ. Photo provided by Mara.

Now my time in New Zealand is nearly over and soon I’m going to Indonesia. Though I’m getting closer to home, I’m leaving the last place our love physically touched the ground. What I must do out of love for myself, and what I must do out of love for B. are sometimes seemingly at odds, though I know the bigger picture blurs these relatively tiny movements, the daily decisions.

We speak and we write, and most days our love carries the vast ocean and time between us, but there are times when it feels strange to be so focused on me, and also a committed part of We. And that is where the faith, in all its obscurity, comes and takes my hand.

Faith inherently is blind, but in it I know that wherever the day or doubts might stray, love—transportable, durable, renewable love—is enough. Love has been my source and sustenance, and in it, anything is possible on my journey.

Mara jumping. Lake Matheson, Mt. Cook. Southland, NZ. Photo provided by Mara.

Mara worked with Wall Street investment analysts to incorporate environmental, social, governance issues into investment strategy, until she realized she needed to give her voice to the issues she cares about. Having deferred graduate journalism school, Mara now travels, writes and curates words in an eponymous blog–:mag:. Of all the magical places in the world, Mara loves to be anywhere where she could stay…just a while longer. For more from her journey, check out Mara’s blog, http://magwriter85.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter: @maragrbenick.

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Filed under Contributor, Life Stuff, Love, New Zealand, Travel

Kenya in the Philippines

Here’s a blog post that takes us to a place TwT has yet to visit: The Philippines. It is written by one of my fellow travel bloggers from the Twittosphere, so it might have a slightly different vibe to it than most of my posts. Just go with it: February is all about variety — in tone, style, material, and the guest blogger’s relationship to TwT. So here is another spoonful of something different. Eat up!

And yes, I promise it will be all about me again soon… (HA! Please tell me that my sarcasm comes through…) Trust me: I’ll put the Tavel back in Travels with Tavel once I’ve starved you all just enough to miss me and my rambles a little bit more.

Calauit Island: African Animals Deep in the Heart of the Philippines

By Raymond, AKA Man on the Lam

Man on the Lam in Philippines. Photo provided by Raymond.

Yes, you read that right.  Just about the last place you would expect to find African animals roaming freely would be on a sun-soaked island in Southeast Asia, but there they are.  Over 5,000 miles from their original home in Kenya live a mix of giraffes, gazelles, zebras and impalas among others.  Little-known and little-visited, the Calauit Island Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary is a curiosity indeed.

Entrance sign. Photo by Raymond.

The day that I went, I was one of four visitors.  That’s four for the entire day.  The day before, there were two.  The day before that, there was none.  There are no turnstyles or gift shops.  There are no crowds clamoring at the gates.  Well, there are no gates really.  The lack of crowds leads to its appeal, but it also makes you wonder how they manage to make a go of it at all.

Calauit Island lies on the Northwestern coast of Palawan in the Philippines.  In the 1970’s, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sent out an appeal to save endangered African animals.  Ferdinand Marcos, never one to turn down free stuff, and sensing a photo opp to boot, responded eagerly.  And are we glad he did. The park that resulted is nothing short of amazing.

Kenyan Zebras in the Philippines. Photo by Raymond.

Initially eight species of animals, 104 in total,  made the long exodus.  Today those numbers have swollen to well over 600.  The Kenyan animals now co-exist with other endangered animals endemic to the region.  Calamanian deer, mouse deer, bearcats, and others, not to mention thousands of birds, are all part of the new host family for the displaced Africans.  The project itself has been a resounding success. The marketing however, has not.  And that’s a pity.

Furry creatures in the Philippines. Photo by Raymond.

While the furry four-legged variety here thrives, the cash-carrying two-legged variety is a rarity. The lack of tourists here has a great deal to do with the location. Getting there is nothing short of a trek in itself. After a 45 minute flight to Busuanga from Manila, you can expect up to 3 hours over some of the bumpiest dirt roads around.  The final 15 minute boat ride is a welcome respite.

Those who do make the journey though will be rewarded with the chance to get up close and personal with some amazing wildlife.  The island itself is an oddity as well.  More African savannah than Asian island paradise, the landscape lends itself to stunning vistas more reminiscent of  game parks in South Africa.

Giraffe in the Philippines. Photo by Raymond.

While overexposure for any park is never good, supporting wildlife sanctuaries like this worldwide is essential to ensure their ongoing success.  So if you find yourself in Southeast Asia, and longing for a bit of adventure well removed from the normal tourist trail, check out the Calauit Island Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  And spread the word.  They need it.

Raymond is a man on the lam.  He runs a travel website at http://www.manonthelam.com with a focus on the upbeat, the offbeat, and the word on the street. His favorite place to visit is the Middle East (he is a self-described desert junkie). You can follow him on Twitter, @manonthelam1.

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Filed under Africa, Contributor, Philippines, Travel, Wildlife

Two Trips to Africa

Today’s post takes us to Africa… twice. It is written by my friend Geordie. Now, I went back and forth on whether or not I should keep the first paragraph in because I feel silly and maybe even a little embarrassed posting it (gah, thanks G!), but… Geordie wrote it (not me – I swear!) and he intended it to be posted, so I will just leave it there and say thank you, G, for your kind words. Sorry to anyone who reads it and rolls his/her eyes… Just pretend it’s not there I guess. Or, just know that I have some pretty amazing friends.

Wait! I just realized that the last time Geordie contributed to TwT, it was the exact same time last year… Here is his post, Gone to Dogon Country, from February 6, 2010. Cool.

My Two Trips to Africa

By Geordie

Tavel once saved my life. No, not in the literal sense (although that would have been pretty amazing) but in an extremely important figurative sense. I will not take up any more of your time than necessary with this totally sincere panegyric, nor will I spell out in painstaking detail the improvements in my life for which Ms. Tavel is responsible. Suffice it to say that her keen emotional intelligence, her compassion, and her uncanny knack for finding just the right way to say just the right thing (“Focus on people, not your thoughts”), has made her one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I shudder to think where I might be right now without Tavel, and that is only a slight exaggeration. But enough of this. On to the exploits.

I am going to try and do a difficult thing in this post. And that is to combine a very serious subject with one that is not quite as serious. I have my reasons for doing this, and I will trust you to trust me on this one. And I have faith it will work out, so perhaps I should just stop talking.

Mopti, Mali (December, 2003)

Picture, if you will, a young man of 20. He is spending the year in Africa on his junior year abroad. It is Christmas vacation, he is travelling in Mali, and he finds himself on Christmas day with scarcely a penny to his name (the only ATM machine in the town being broken). That evening he is boarding a boat to Timbuktu (yes, THE Timbuktu), for which he has bought a five dollar ticket which entitles him to a concrete bed under the stars. With his final few francs he purchases a thin blanket for himself and his platonic female travelling companion. The temperature that night is frigid. They are sleeping on the concrete upper deck of a ship. To have purchased a bed would have been more expensive and shamefully less adventurous. Still, it is very cold. He eventually abandons his companion (thus depriving her of his body warmth, only later does he realize) and eventually finds warmth on the floor of the second class bathroom with Ayn Rand’s The Fountain Head for a pillow. It is miserable to be sure, but what a story! That morning, he goes up on deck and sees the entire sunrise — total darkness, merging into streaks of pink and purple before finishing as a vault of brilliant blue sky. All of this while floating down a river that seems lost in time, surrounded by men in robes and turbans lounging on giant burlap sacks. Even as the sun is rising he scribbles frantically in his black moleskin notebook, trying to capture every moment of this glorious experience.

Kigali, Rwanda (January, 2011)

Picture, if you will again, this same young man, now a robust 27, standing in Kigali, Rwanda. The mission is different this time. He is not here for pleasure, nor is he here for adventure. Or if it is adventure it is certainly of a different sort. The young man is now a PhD candidate at a large Northeastern university. This  university has agreed to pay for this young man to travel to Rwanda in preparation for his future writing (dissertation, journal articles, books, who knows?).

Kigali Rwanda. Photo by Geordie.

Traveling to Rwanda is a difficult undertaking, and not just because it is far away and getting there is tremendously expensive, but because of what happened there. The more time the young man spends in Rwanda, the more he speaks to people about what happened, the more he visits the different sites where the massacres took place… He feels something changing, or rather something becoming more the same… Well what?… It’s hard to put into words. It’s just one of those things. One of those things that’s hard to explain. And one of those things that he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to explain. That is his job, he realizes, trying to explain, understand, that thing he feels that feels impossible to explain.

Dogon Country, Mali (January, 2004)

The adventure for this young man continues. Timbuktu is one and done. There was a camel ride, eating with his hands out of a communal bowl while squatting outside a hut in the desert. He met a group of other tourists on the ferry, and now they call themselves the “Timbukcrew.” He went on a camel ride wearing a blue turban.

 

Geordie in Tumuktu, as seen in previous post. Photo provided by Geordie.

But Timbuktu is done. Now they are in Dogon country, a beautiful part of Mali, except they are there with a lying, cheating Malian guide, who grows angry at us for not giving him more money. He flecks my face with spittle as he admonishes us for our lack of understanding. He is not a cheat, we are simply ignorant. Since no one else in our group speaks French, it is I, the French major, who gets shouted at the most. However, despite the yelling and its mind-numbing unpleasantness, we can’t deny that Dogon country is beautiful — simply gorgeous. Like the American southwest, except with whole villages built into these enormous hillsides, blending in seamlessly as if the huts had risen organically out of the earth.

Geordie in Dogon Country, as seen in previous post. Photo provided by Geordie.

I sit on a mountain ledge, our trip completed, looking out over this flat, endless plain. My god, I think, as I look out, My god. Life. Everything. Life is so complete right now. It is everything right now. I’m in the moment. I’m here. I’m in Africa. Incredible. Just simply f’in incredible. Sure, later, there’s a trip to the police station because half our group won’t pay the guide, and sure there’s a 50 hour train ride back to Senegal (my home during the year abroad) where enormous, loquacious women take up all the seats in our compartment and where I have no bed, a trip (the train ride) that feels less adventurous and more just plain shitty. And then when we get back to Senegal I get really sick, and eat almost nothing for a week. Did I mention during this whole trip I was missing a front tooth? But it was glorious. Simply, simply, simply glorious.

Nyamata, Rwanda (January, 2011)

Most of the memorials in Rwanda are sites where massacres occurred that the government has since converted into memorials. In Nyamata, around 10,000 people went into the local church, in the vain hope that the killers would balk at committing massacres in a sacred space. I am standing outside the church with my group, listening to a guide tell us what happened. The Tutsis hiding in the church barricaded the door from the inside, she explains. Unable to break down the sturdy  metal door, the Hutu militia then used a grenade to blow open the door of the church. I should clarify that the people hiding inside were civilians (ordinary men, women and children) not soldiers. They were the neighbors, and sometimes also the relatives of the people trying to kill them.

In the door of the church you can still see the large hole blown by the grenade. You can still see the holes from the shrapnel of the grenade on the ground by the entrance of the church. We move inside the church, and the guide points out that there are also holes in the ceiling of the church because they actually throw grenades inside before going in to finish people off with guns and machetes. Inside the church are dozens of wooden benches covered with clothes of the victims. Just rows and rows of dusty brown tee-shirts, pants, hats, dresses…The church had formally shown exposed bodies but they had since been removed. One body, that used to be prominently displayed, now has its special crypt beneath the floor of the church. There is another crypt nearby where you walk down a narrow flight of stairs into a small corridor where there are bones and skulls arranged on a wooden platforms that are ten feet high. The effect of all of this is at one powerful and surreal. What you find most moving often surprises you. I got choked up looking at the blown off bottom section of the door. At a “Cornell” sweatshirt taken from one of the victims.

It’s also so overwhelming and so awful that your mind sort of shuts off. It wasn’t until I got back to the States that I could really process everything I’d seen (as much as anyone can ever really “process” seeing something like that).

 

Geordie with Rwandan Friend. Photo provided by Geordie.

While the rest of our group was wrapping up the visit at the church, I noticed that one of our Rwandan chaperone’s was sitting in our group’s van by himself. He was about my age and we had gotten friendly the day before so I decided to go over and keep him company. As soon as I sat down he said:

“I was here, you know.”

I was stunned.  “Here in the church?”

“No, no,” he said. “But I came by after it happened. I saw the bodies and everything, it was awful.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that must have been awful.” (What else can you say?)

“Yes,” he said, “It was awful. The bodies, the blood, everything, it was awful”

Rwanda has made remarkable strides since the genocide happened. The government, which is unfortunately far from perfect, has nonetheless done a remarkable job of keeping the country stable while allowing it to grow economically. When you arrive in Kigali today, you are struck by how clean and orderly it is (one of the governments new initiatives was to ban plastic bags). It is also a beautiful country, (Rwandans calls it “The Land of a Thousand Hills”) where you are almost always in sight of a lush, green mountain tops.

View. Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by Geordie.

Ahh, but methinks this blog entry is drawing to a close. Perhaps you are asking, so what of this young man (now almost 28) with whom you have shared the last few moments of your life? Well, he is back in the northeast, reading massive piles of books in French, thinking about past adventures, and figuring out how to do good in the world from his tiny corner of academe.

There we have it my friends. Thus ends my contribution to this blog which I have been such a fan of for such a long time. Another tip of the cap to Mademoiselle Tavel, to whom my entry owes its very existence, on so many levels. Hasta luego, compadres…

Geordie is in the first year of a PhD program in French Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He attended Bowdoin with Tavel where he played squash, did improv, and watched ungodly amounts of French Canadian TV. His favorite place to travel is Africa, but he loves France as well.

If you want to learn more about the genocide, Geordie suggests Philip Gourevitch’s book “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families”, the Front-line documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda” (available on Youtube), and, as a feature film alternative to Hotel Rwanda, the movie “Sometimes in April” which is also available on youtube.

There is also a wonderful charitable organization that helps orphans of the genocide. It was started by Geordie’s former college professor who got him interested in Rwanda. If interested, you can learn more about it and/or donate here:  http://friendsoftubeho.org/.

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Filed under Africa, Contributor, Life Stuff, Travel