Travel Insight

The Best Part of Angkor Isn’t the Wat

It was the right kind of quiet. Not quiet as in to say there was no noise. There was plenty of noise. The chorus of any number of species of birds pierced the air; chirping, singing, warbling, and calling. The cries of monkeys, the rustling of leaves, the snapping of branches, the buzzing of insects. The jungle was alive with all the natural ambient noise that one would expect to come from it.

The humidity hung in the air like a weight. You could taste it on your tongue. You could feel it on your shoulders. I sat down, perching myself atop one of the many crumbling stone blocks. The rock was rough and cold to the touch. A beetle, as yellow and spotted as a jungle cat scurried over my fingers just before spreading its tiny wings and taking flight.

I was sitting in the middle of the ancient Khmer city of Angkor. The massive complex consisted of hundreds of temples constructed over centuries and through generations of rulers. People flocked from all over the world to visit Angkor. Most of them coming for the main attraction, the famous Angkor Wat. The Wat is the single largest religious structure in the world and arguably the most architecturally pleasing out of all the Angkor temples. Contested as a wonder of the world it is the only existing man made structure to be featured on a country’s national flag (spoiler it’s on Cambodia’s), its name can be easily uttered in the same breathe alongside the other global marvels such as the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Petra.

 

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Me and my two travel companions decided to spend the day exploring the hundreds of other ruins that made up Angkor and save the iconic Angkor Wat for last, going to see it just around sunset. As we walked through the winding dirt paths, we veered off at the first sight of dilapidated ruins. When we neared the site we each broke away from one another without preamble, letting our heightened senses lead us. That was how I happened upon my stony seat.

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The small temple, which I later learned was called Prei Prasat was a wonder in its own right. Staring up at the stone blocks around me it was like something out of a movie. Something out of my dreams. The aged and weathered rock looked fragile in some places and stout in others. Twisted vines, gnarled roots, and crooked trees jutted their way through the crevices. It was impossible to decipher whether the jungle was a part of the temple or the temple part of the jungle.

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“There you are.” Jessica said, poking her head out from around a corner.

“C’mon lets go.” she added with a wave of her hand.

We explored the ruins of Angkor in a similar fashion. Breaking off and enjoying the moments of solitude and exploration the different sites invoked. Each temple seemed more intriguing than the last. Ancient trees that grew from ancient stone, pillared corridors that led to cracked Buddhas, Hindu gods smiling back from etched walls.

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As we neared the famous Angkor Wat and grand finale there was a different sort of noise. The ambient jungle sounds were replaced with the bustle and clamor of people. Throngs of them herding across the causeway towards the rising towers of the Wat. Shouting, calling, laughing. Children crying, peddlers yelling, thousands of shuffling feet.

We weaved our way through the crowd, abruptly having to stop every so often so people could take that stereotypical posed shot in front of the temple. Single file with the masses we climbed the stone steps into the heart of the temple, passing security checkpoints and filtering out into the structure’s corridors.

Trying not to pay attention to the chaos around me I focused on the beautifully detailed bas-relief walls. The entire hallway depicted a carved recreation of the Khmer army in action. Speared warriors, rampaging elephants, and raining arrows covered every inch of the hall. The detail, down to the horror on each soldier’s face was remarkable.

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“Erhm.” It was the sound of a man clearing his throat.

“Excuse me.” a man said.

I turned towards the French accent. The source of the voice was a large man in a white buttoned down shirt. Sweat gleamed over his bushy eyebrows, his armpits were dark blotches, and his ample stomach protruded out from his waist. He was precariously balancing a camera tripod on top of the chipped remains of an elephant statue pointing it towards the carved wall. His two compatriots, a fanny packed woman and another man, tall and skinny, his own camera dangling from his neck stood off to the side with their arms folded.

His eyes hardened when I met his gaze.

“Move along.” he said with a swift shooing motion towards the corridor’s exit.

Aghast I didn’t know how to respond. Who does this guy think he is? I thought. His tone was uttered with such annoyance and bombast it was as if we had stumbled into the man’s home during a family dinner.

“Lets get out of here.” Jessica whispered.

“Just a minute.” Elliot said, loud enough for both parties to hear.

He then took out his own camera, snapping pictures of the relief and making a show of photographing the wall, taking his time.

The overweight French fellow grumbled to himself as we leisurely took our leave.

We exited out back of the temple. Getting away from the bustling crowds until their noise was nothing but a dull chatter. Sitting ourselves atop a stone wall we sat and waited to watch the sunset.

I tried not to let the vast crowds get to me. To have them take away from my experience. It seemed so many people were there just for that bucket list tally mark. Piling out of busses and tour shuttles, frantically snapping a bunch of pictures, piling back in, “Quick, next stop the Great Wall!”

These sites are world renown for a reason. Was anyone really taking the time to stop and take it all in? To experience it, learn from it, and try to understand it? It reminded me of a book by Paul Theroux, novelist and travel writer. Stuck next to a man on a plane he is subjected to listening to the man’s world tripping exploits. With each listed destination the man is corrected by his wife, incorrectly naming cities, mispronouncing countries, confusing islands like Tahiti with Haiti. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.” Theroux writes, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

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The horror struck me that I might be just as bad. After all was I not bent on globe tripping, hoping to see all the things and places I possibly can in one lifetime. I told myself I wouldn’t let it devolve to the point where it would just be something to brag about. I wanted to learn and grow from each awesome thing I saw. I wanted to savor the experience while I was there.

As the sun descended behind the temple taking away its light and drawing out that iconic silhouette I made my personal vow. I thought on how glad I was that we chose to wander around all of Angkor and not only hit the big hotspot. Those moments of jungle solitude would be the most memorable, they were what made Angkor a part of me.

The sun dipped lower. Angkor Wat rose high. The towers pierced the evening sky.

Of course I took a picture.

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Categories: Cambodia, Travel Insight | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

What the Mongols Taught Me

The tiny microbus honks a third time as I exit my friend’s apartment and head across the street to my waiting ride back to Omnodelger. Sitting under a street light flurries sparkle like falling jewels in the van’s headlights. Loaded up with my backpack and two baggies of purchased city goods I stride towards the microbus, walking through my own breath as it materializes in front of me. I clutch the handle with a gloved hand and yank open the sliding door.

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The microbus. A staple of virtually any long distance Mongolian travel.

The tiny bus is packed floor to ceiling with all manner of goods and items. House paneling, stacks of foam insulation, towers of baby diapers, a disassembled bed frame, wooden crates of fresh vegetables, piles of plastic bags full of every eclectic item imaginable. To say the tiny space left for passengers was overcrowded is an understatement. Seven people were packed into a space that looked like it might uncomfortably hold three. To make room for the influx of goods the seat was slightly inclined forward causing the people on it to lean forward into a spine stiffening position. Men crushed and crammed onto one another. A woman and her baby sat leaning against piles of bags, the arm not being used to hold the child was raised above her to keep goods from collapsing onto her head.

As I pushed the door open all the way a bag rolled out and onto the ground the man closest to me flailed an arm and checked himself to keep from cartwheeling out of the microbus.

I blinked twice at the sight before me.

No way, absolutely not.” I said aloud to no one in particular.

Mongolia taught me a great many things but patience is at the top of the list. It was no gentle lesson, either. For over two years the central Asian nation tried, tested, and shoved every impatient inducing scenario down my throat. All of this pretty much from the get-go.

My first couple of months in Mongolia were spent in the sleepy town of Orkhon. I lived with a Mongolian family who taught me all the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of Mongolian culture.

One Saturday morning I got up early and hurriedly began packing a day bag. Last night my host brother had promised that today would be the day he would take me to the neighboring town of Khutul. To me Khutul was like the Land of Milk and Honey. In more populated Khutul, there were commodities such as a working post office, sit down restaurants, larger grocery stores, and best of all the coveted internet cafe. All these things were unavailable in Orkhon.

Orkhon
Orkhon

Excitedly I stuffed my laptop into my bag and slung the pack onto my shoulder. Shutting the door behind me, I ducked through the entryway of my family’s house out into the sunshine and usual noisy racket of the surrounding yard. As my eyes adjusted to the summer Mongolian sun the sight before me instantly soured my mood and wiped the smile from my face.

There, in the middle of the yard our family’s car lay dismantled. It sat in a pathetic heap, its two front tires removed, the whole front end was propped atop tiny pyramid stacks of red brick. The fenders were missing, laying in a plastic pile off to the side. The hood was open, revealing near emptiness underneath. Spread out on an oil stained tarp was a collection of parts that I could only assume used to make up the space under the car’s hood. All manner of gaskets, fuses, tubes, metal casings, and twisted wires sat sprawled out before me. This was my family’s only mode of transportation. With the current state of the family car it didn’t look like my anticipated Khutul visit was happening anytime soon.

In the middle of this mess sat my older host brother, Moojig. Holding up two unrecognizable parts, his arms were black from fingers to elbows in oil and grease. He held the pieces in front of his face slowly trying to fit them together.

Good morning, Justin!” he said with a smile, apparently missing my dumbfounded expression.

He got up from the tarp with the two parts in hand. I let the bag fall from my shoulder and followed him across the yard. As he knelt down with the two parts preparing to weld them together I searched my limited Mongolian word bank.

What are you doing?” I asked, trying to hide my disappointment.

He stood up and let out his signature high pitched laugh.

The car is broken.” He gestured towards the gutted hulk as if I had missed it.

I can damn well see that I thought, “Will we go to Khutul?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

Ah” he answered with a nod as if I had just reminded him of the trip.

We’ll go, we’ll go.” he picked up a welding mask. “Later.”

With a cheerful greasy pat on my shoulder he donned the mask and knelt before the metal pieces.

Moojig (left) ever the mechanic could repair anything from cars to the family tractor.
Moojig (left) ever the mechanic could repair anything from cars to the family tractor.

I did end up making it to Khutul. Though “later” turned out to be in a weeks time. I also climbed in that overcrowded microbus and endured the four hour neck kink. You see, Mongolia taught me the lesson of patience by forcing it on me. I got in that overcrowded microbus because if I didn’t I’d have no ride. I watched Moojig reassemble the family sedan like it was an adult LEGO model because it was my only option. I became patient because I was helpless to do anything but.

We as Americans are inherently impatient. Its ingrained into our society and nature. We tap our feet waiting in line for coffee, we want our pizza in thirty minutes or less, internet downloads must be instant, streaming TV must be seamless, we blast down highways and scream at traffic lights. Any hold up in our high speed lives is met with customer service tantrums and scathing online reviews (“I’d give it 0 stars if I could!”).

The moment when the patience light bulb turned on in my head happened during a particularly long drive back from the capital, Ulaanbaatar to my remote village of Omnodelger. In the dead of night our tiny car slowly bounced and crawled its way across the steppe. The spring thaw leaving the roads muddy and gouged.

Already eight hours into the ride, the time we should have been arriving in town, our driver halted at a river bank. The waters, swollen with freshly melted snow had widened the river making it deep and dangerous to ford. Up and down the bank we moved, searching for a safe place to cross. It was almost three in the morning and I wanted to be in my own bed, I had to teach early the next day.

Typical river in my home province of Khentii.  Water moves at a trickle or a torrent depending on the season.
Typical river in my home province of Khentii. Water moves at a trickle or a torrent depending on the season.

Finally, I resolved myself to the situation. It was all out of my hands anyways. We’ll get there when we get there I thought. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. This line of thought would soon become my mantra.

Another eight hours and a sketchy river crossing later we finally make it into town. I’m forced to rush right to school. After teaching a hastily thrown together lesson I sit down with a co-worker, Kherlen in the teacher’s room. Curious about my latest epiphany I ask her if Mongolians have a proverb similar to my patience mantra.

After a lot of thought she answered, “This proverb, maybe, we don’t have.”

This is life.” she added.

Her words rang true. During all my impatient scenarios the Mongolians around me never seemed to bat an eye. Here on the steppe things happened when they happened and no one ever minded or put up a fuss. To Mongolians things taking awhile was just part of their day to day existence.

Omnodelger
Omnodelger

Back home in America, my service in Mongolia at an end, I toss and turn in bed at night. Unemployed and living at home. Frustrated with people I no longer relate to and with a job market that doesn’t value me. My experiences reassured me more than ever about the person I am and the kind of life I want to lead. I’m still young. I’m eager. I’m ambitious. I wanted to move forward now. I knew I was at that pivotal stage in my existence where a new chapter was about to open, the page just wasn’t turning.

This is life.” Kherlen’s words echoed.

I relaxed my head on the pillow.  

Only one thought crossed my mind as I closed my eyes.

We’ll get there when we get there

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What sorts of lessons have people from other places taught you?

Categories: Mongolia, Travel Insight | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

That Time In Russia When No One Scammed Me

“Twenty thousand togrogs.” the Mongolian cabbie said reaching his open palm back over his shoulder without as much as a glance in my direction.

I gaped forward in flabbergasted awe, knowing full well I heard him correctly. His price was comically inflated, almost 300% more than the normal price for the short taxi ride.

“Why so much?” I asked putting as much stern tone into my Mongolian as I could muster.

He finally looked back at me, sizing me up with a stony glare. “Because you’re a foreigner.” he scoffed shaking his empty hand in front of me. “You’re different.”

With one hand on the door handle I slapped down the bill closest to what I thought was a fair price, staring down my dishonest cabbie as I did so, swinging open the door and slamming it behind me, moving quickly away from the car into the Ulaanbaatar night.

Downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Two years of living and moving abroad will teach you that not every national is welcome and open to you exploring their country. Some seek out your bright eyed optimism for a new place and a new culture, they take advantage of your open mind and unfamiliarity with the host country to get into your head and ultimately your wallet.

Hundreds of miles and a summer later, me and a travel companion, Jessica stood staring at a poster in a Beijing hostel. “Watch Out For These Scams” the poster toted. Everything from brazen pickpocketing to elaborate schemes were highlighted. One of the more convoluted being where mock college students approach you inviting you to practice English with them. They take you to a local tea house, rack up an enormous tab, you’re forced to pay the bill, leaving you broke and confused while the would be students and tea house owner cackle in the back room, divvying up your cash.

Later, not five blocks from our hostel we stood alone at a street corner waiting for the crosswalk to blink green.

“Hey there!”

We spun around to meet our greeters. A young Chinese couple had materialized right behind us.

“Where are you guys from?” the hip girl, in her denim skirt and slouched hat asked.

“America.” We both answered slowly.

“That’s cool.” The boy said with a smirk, his tone precise and practiced. He covered this up by burying his hands deep into his cargo short pockets and relaxing his posture. His laid back attitude suggesting he used the slang “cool” all the time.

“We study at university.” the girl chimed in, hoisting her purse up on her shoulder. “We would really like to improve our English.”

The boy nodded in agreement. “If you’re not busy would you come have a conversation with us?” He took his hands from his pockets and pointed across the street. “We could go have a cup of tea and just chat.”

Now it was mine and Jessica’s turn to smirk. AH HA! I wanted to scream, we’re on to you sneaky kids! Instead we politely declined and thankfully removed ourselves from the conversation as the light finally changed. Still, I felt as though I had just thwarted a world class high stakes heist.

Hours later, we stopped for a bite to eat at a street side restaurant. As we dug into our meat and rice Jessica let out a laugh and pointed out the window with a chopstick. “Look!” she said with a chuckle. Sure enough, there was our hip college couple, working a corner, hurriedly following every non-ethnic Chinese person down the sidewalk in hopes of “practicing” their English.

The streets of Beijing, China.
The streets of Beijing, China.

Hundreds of more miles and that same summer me and Jessica stood on Olkhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal in the far east of Russia. As we exited the mess hall after a dinner of fish and borsht we were cut off by two youths.

“Excuse me.” A tall dark haired boy said. “My name’s Peter, do you two speak English?”

We both admitted that we did.

“I help at a summer camp on the island. Students come to learn foreign languages.” His smaller brown haired and blue eyed companion just nodded, letting his older friend do the talking.

“Our assignment is to find foreigners to come and speak with us.”

Me and Jessica exchanged skeptical glances.

“If you aren’t busy could you meet with us later and help us practice our English?” He looked at us expectantly, his shorter friend just smiling up and listening.

Put on the spot I stumbled around in my head trying to think of an excuse why we couldn’t comply with the seemingly innocent request. As I struggled to think of a way out I eyed up Peter and his side kick. He brushed his black hair back with his hand, nervously waiting for us to answer. They seemed different. Innocent. Genuine. I glanced sidelong at my companion, pleading with my eyes for a valid excuse. She just shrugged at me.

“I guess we could go to your class.” I answered, defeated.

Peter’s face lit up and his short companion finally broke his silence with a smile, “Thank you very much!”

“Please meet us here at 8 o’clock.” Peter added, then with a wave they both trudged off down the path.

 

Guest House on Olkhon Island
Guest House on Olkhon Island

Between dinner and our 8 o’clock appointment me and Jessica wrestled with actually showing up. Was it all an elaborate ruse? We’d seen and heard of a lot of travel scams, were we about to fall prey to one? It all smelled too familiar, could it be a twist on the trick we averted in China? In the end we remained true to our word and showed up at 8 o’clock in front of the mess hall. Peter was there, nervously combing back his hair with his hand. When he saw us a smile cracked across his lips.

“Thank you for coming.” he said, relaxing his hand from his jet black hair. “Please follow me.”

I looked around. “Where are your students?” I asked warily.

“Hmmm” he put his finger to his lips, considering, choosing words. “We will go to them.” He nodded assuringly, “They are waiting.” He gestured forward with his hand, suggesting we begin walking.

Olkhon, Russia
Olkhon, Russia

Nervously I fell into step behind Peter, shooting Jessica a guarded look. We moved away from the guest house. Passed the outdoor gazebos and hangouts of the other visiting tourists. We weaved through the tiny wooden housed town of Olkhon. Finally, we funneled between derelict fences that separated the local people’s small yards. Onto a wooden foot path so narrow we were almost walking heel to toe. As Peter moved farther ahead I became more nervous. In the tight space between the fences I felt vulnerable. My imagination went wild, a trap door suddenly opening beneath us, swallowing us into the realm of “Two Missing American Tourists”. An enormous burly Russian man suddenly blocking my path, picking me up and shaking me by the ankles until all my Russian rubles, American check cards, and photo IDs came tumbling from my pockets.

Right when I was about to object to walking further we stepped out of the corridor into open ground. Along the cliff shores of Lake Baikal blankets were laid out upon the wild grass. Children of all ages crowded around the blue cloth, their eyes wide with curiosity as we approached.

The shore of Lake Baikal
The shore of Lake Baikal

As we knelt on the blankets the kids erupted with questions and chatter. “I’m Katya.” A little girl with long blond hair said. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Justin.” I introduced myself.

“What’s your favorite animal?” she asked, ruffling her checkered dress with her hands as she spoke.

“Hmmm..” I tapped my lips pretending to consider. “I like penguins.” I answered.

“Penguins!?!” she exclaimed with a laugh.

“Do you like action movies?” A little boy asked. Sitting cross legged in black parachute pants, his clothing rustled as he shifted on the blanket.

Trying to think of a likely movie we’d both seen I nodded. “I like the Lord of the Rings movies.”

His face lit up and he sprang from his sitting position into a crouched squat, his swishing pants announcing the theatrics.

“Precious! My precious!” he growled, holding up an unseen treasure. His Golum impression was startlingly convincing.

As the sun set behind us over the glassy sheen of Lake Baikal and into the eastern mountains of Siberia we talked with the students. Laughing, sharing interests and disinterests, talking about life in America and life in Russia, where we’ve traveled and where we want to travel. As darkness threatened, the children reluctantly said goodbye and crowded around us for a photo. Peter crouched with the camera, lining up the shot and brushing back his hair before snapping the picture.

Sunset, Lake Baikal
Sunset, Lake Baikal

The lesson all this has taught me is to have some faith in people while traveling. Negative experiences with no-do-gooders can drive us into paranoid reclusion. We end up trusting no one and labeling some of the most spectacular corners of our planet unsafe and unwelcoming for the foreign traveler. By no means am I saying to meander about throwing caution to the wind and jaunting across countries care free. Absolutely stay vigilant and be aware of what to look out for.

Traveling is inherently risky, it’s part of what makes it so liberating and fulfilling. Trusting only in yourself or your TripAdvisor approved tour guide could lead you to miss out on some of the most precious and rewarding experiences of exploring the world. Give people a chance to prove that they can be as genuine and hospitable as you want them to be. The small connections you make in this way could end up being the most memorable moments of your whole trip.

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Categories: Russia, Travel Insight, Travel Tips | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

How Skype Keeps Travel Alive

 

They were all there. Crowded around the laptop like kids around a campfire. Smiling faces, jostling left and right, trying to be the main focal point of the laptop’s limited camera. Munkhkherlen’s face, then Enkhtor’s, then Chimgee, the librarian’s. The camera spun. Saruul came into view. Smiling she made a clucking sound with her tongue shaking her head. “Oui! You look the same! Your hair is long! Shave your beard!” Whirling color. The camera shifted again. Munkhkherlen leaning in closer than necessary, speaking into the lens. “Justin aa! I had a dream about you. I dreamed you came into the teacher’s room. You were wearing your deel. You surprised us!”

I had been home from Mongolia for over five months but through the miracle of modern technology all those almost forgotten familiar things were back with stunning clarity. The white washed paint chipped walls of the school’s teacher’s room. The cracked window and thin curtains. The very benches I used to sit on everyday. Miss matched patterns and torn upholstery. Through Skype, the online video calling platform I was instantly transported from my New Jersey bedroom back into my former rural village in Mongolia. Ten years ago this would have been impossible.

More often than not the would be traveler uses this technological marvel to bridge the gap between where they are and where they call home. The study abroad student Skype’s home from Europe. The solo trekking backpacker video chats his girlfriend from East Asia. A volunteer in Central Africa laughs with her mom and dog thousands of miles away. We go to Skype to assure those we left behind we’re alive and well. We also us it to remedy homesickness, that inevitable symptom of long term travel.

The advances in modern communication are mind blowing. My small rural village in Mongolia, disconnected from running water or central heating was still able to connect with me instantly through the web. As the internet continues to cast its digital net further and further into the most remote places on Earth why not take advantage? Just like we use Skype to cure homesickness why not use it for the opposite, to cure those pangs of travel nostalgia?

We return back home and get back into our daily lives and old routines. We hark back to those days abroad, dwelling on where we’ve been, who we met and what we’d seen. With the marvel of Skype those places can be as unforgotten and tangible as they were when you left. Miss that home-stay family in South Africa? That flatmate in central London? Those locals that hosted you in Argentina? With programs like Skype, they’re all one click away.

As I stared passed the smiling faces of my former Mongolian coworkers I looked out the window in the small teacher’s room. Outside, the small village of Omnodelger was the same as when I left it. A horse was tethered outside the local market, birds dipped and fluttered through the blue Mongolian sky, the dirt road looked gritty, dusty and brown, the way it did every spring. It curved out of view, leading off to my former yard where my former ger used to rest.

Like most, I’m a sucker for old travel photos and journal scribblings. Taking them out and gazing in fondness at the memories they invoke. With Skype it brings on elements that photos and journals can’t provide. Here through my computer screen Omnodelger was a living breathing place. With all my happy chatting coworkers, the hustle and bustle of the town outside and the familiar aura of the teacher’s room, where I had traveled was right here alive in front of me.

Never had hanging up on a call been more difficult.

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The Travel Guide to Inside Your Beer Glass

Crack open a can, break off that bottle cap, and pour a pint of your favorite beer. Before you put it back and down the hatch take a gander at the label. Where is it from?

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On the outskirts of Burlington, Vermont rests the Magic Hat Brewery. From the outside it looks like a mishmash of Steampunk creations. All conical towers, rusty weathervanes, and spindly windmills.

Entering the self proclaimed “Artifactory” the interior of the brewery is awash with bursting colors and zany decorations. Going on the free walking tour you’ll encounter Magic Hat’s unorthodox take on beer brewing. Whimsical signs point your way through the factory as you encounter labeled containers, belts, and machinery. With equipment colorfully labeled, names like “The Uncanny and Monumental Bottlemabob” and “The Stupendous Sticker Licker” gives one the impression that they are touring a business run by Dr. Seuss rather than one of the state’s largest beer distributers. At any turn I expected to encounter an inebriated Willy Wonka-esque character that would guide me the rest of the way.

Filtering out into the brewery’s tasting room you are invited to sample the signature and seasonal brews on tap. With interesting names like “Circus Boy” “Hocus Pocus” and “Wacko” you’re more driven to try the beer out of pure curiosity rather than learning what is actually in the bottle first. Experimenting with ingredients like beets, dandelions, and honey you never know what you’ll get in each glass.

Like the quintessential Vermonter, Magic Hat drives home the clear message that brewing beer is fun and never dull. That laid back, its all good, life’s a garden Vermonter attitude shouts out from every bottle. Whether the latest flavor craze works for you or it doesn’t there is no denying that everyone had a hell of a good time creating it.

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In the heart of Bavaria in downtown Munich, Germany I sat on a bench across from my uncle in the world famous Hofbräuhaus. The long benches and tables filled the hall giving the brew house a sense of communal camaraderie rather than individual private socialization.

The waitress lifted and placed our beers in front of us with a thud. The mugs were massive. Half liter monstrosities of tried and true Bavarian recipes. Robust lagers and refreshing pilsners graced the menu. Each massive glass screaming with that world renown German flavor. I flexed my arm to lift the giant mug and brought the brew to my lips as I observed my surroundings.

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The brewhouse seemed alive with all the boisterous jovial appeal of what one would expect from a south German pub. Coworkers, friends, and families laughing, shouting and raising their glasses, clanking them together in celebration of whatever struck their fancy on that particular day. Behind us a band blasted away on a small stage. The lederhosen clad quintet maintaining a romping tempo with brass instruments and percussion. The red faced tuba player bellowing with laughter between horn blasts as he reached for his own beer, sloshing on a small wooden stool next to him.

The noise was deafening, but it was the best kind of noise. The noise of people enjoying life. To me those big gulps of Hofbräuhaus pilsner were just like the German people that surrounded me. Loud, proud, and sure to put a smile on your face.

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Munich, Germany

If you travel out into the Asian Far East to the Pacific coast of China you may happen upon the old colonial city of Qingdao. The colonial influences of Qingdao are present in European architecture and cobblestoned streets. One of the city’s biggest claims to fame is the Tsingtao Brewery which churns out its one and only signature beer: Tsingtao.

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Walking into the halls of the massive brewery I prepared myself for China’s take on the ancient art of beer brewing. Huge chrome vats, shiny cylindrical holding tanks, snaking pipes and polished tubes lined the walls. I quick back stepped out of the way to make room for an employee pushing a squeegee in crisp white overalls. His footsteps echoed through the huge chamber of bare concrete walls and smooth tile.

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From the factory I was led into a rectangle hall. The walls were suddenly lined with framed pictures. Executives and CEO’s shaking hands and accepting rewards. I stood in front of a picture portraying a clean suited Chinese businessman, he cradled a golden star trophy in the crook of one arm while firmly shaking the hand of his counterpart. Both men smiling at the camera mid-shake. The translated plaque read, “Tsingtao brews beer for the glory of the People’s Republic of China.” The entire hall was dedicated to honors such as this. Framed ceremonies and glass cases of plaques, trophies and awards.

Exiting the big hall of credentials I took a seat at the tasting bar. I redeemed my ticket for one free glass of Tsingtao beer and in one fluid motion the bartender snatched up my ticket, poured a beer from the tap, and had it placed down in front of me before I could blink. In stark contrast of the fun tomfoolery of Magic Hat, brewing beer in Tsingtao was a very serious business. As I sipped the accredited brew I thought how like China, Tsingtao was no-nonsense, efficient, and a little bit intimidating. I shot glances around at the hundreds of Chinese redeeming their tickets and scooping up a glass of their national beer. If I didn’t like the taste, I sure wasn’t going to say so.

So I say to you beer enthusiast. You don’t have to be a world traveler to get yourself culture. Right there infused with all those hops, barley, and tasty goodness you’ve got a big ole’ helping of global insight. Every beer comes from somewhere and that somewhere speaks to you directly from your heady glass. So sit right down and pour yourself a pint.

Go ahead, drink up.

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Cheers!
Categories: China, Germany, Travel Insight, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why My Passport Never Leaves My Table

My nightstand is a lonely place. There isn’t much there. A simple alarm clock that blinks by miscalculated minutes. A small box to hold my watch and wallet at the end of the day. Atop the tiny box, out in the open, rests my passport. To lift the box lid, I must pick up my passport, withdraw or deposit contents into the box, shut the lid, and then place the passport back where it was. It has been this way for months.

Not long ago, as I was finishing a conversation with my mother, she turned to leave my room. As she walked out she spied my nightstand.

“Why don’t you put your passport away?”

The comment was meant to be harmless, but as her footsteps echoed down the steps I found myself sitting and staring at the little blue book. Why hadn’t I put the passport away? My room was not at want for drawers or shelves. Why did it sit out next to my bed as if on deck to be swept up at any second to catch some trans-hemisphere flight? Why burden myself with the tedious motions of repositioning the little book every time I used the small bedside box?

The answer was obvious.

To put my passport away. To stash it away in some drawer for safe keeping would mean the journey was over. The adventure at an end. Exploration and discovery had reached a finite conclusion.

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“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.” -Paul Theroux

There are a thousand and one cliches that describe wanderlust and its incurable symptoms, but instead of striving to understand it I take solace in knowing I’m not the only one. There is a world full of wanderlusters just like me.

We’re a different breed. We aren’t tourists. We don’t go just for the exotic notch on our belts. We travel for the journey that gets us there, even though we never actually arrive. We tramp about every damn town, city, mountain and desert on this planet for the precious ounce of personal growth they deliver. We discover more about the world, about humanity and about ourselves in those fleeting moments. Tangible times when we gaze out at panoramas that catch our breathes and interactions with the people we pass that steal our humility and make us smile at the beauty of the human race. We do what it takes to grab these moments. We’ll do anything. We sleep in crowded rooms. We sleep on floors if we have to. We hitchhike. We get lost. We’ve been beaten up and stolen from. We get lonely. We get frustrated. It’s not a vacation. It’s our way of life.

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

Nothing scares me more than the monotony. The thought that I’ll surrender to the expectations of my own culture.

I’m at a time in my life where I’m suffocated on all sides by new marriages, planned pregnancies, and new home ownership. I have to catch myself when the thoughts inevitably creep into my head. Is there something wrong with me? Am I immature? Maybe I should be doing all this, too?

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“Every man can transform the world from one of monotony and drabness to one of excitement and adventure.” – Irving Wallace

I think about falling into step. Swimming in bills, drowning in debt, turning off that simple alarm clock every morning to drag myself to my secure nine to five job. I’d do this day in and day out, crashing into that tired bed every night to watch those miscalculated minutes keep ticking away. Then expect my future wife and children to do the same? Is that the American dream? It isn’t mine.

That life. Those problems, aren’t for me. My mind is glued to problems that are beautifully simplistic. Will my backpack hold up? Are my boots worn out? Which direction should I go next? I never want to stop exploring. I never want to stop learning and growing, discovering new things in new places about new people. New experiences that make me proud to be me and be a part of all the things I’m lucky enough to see and do.

This is what I want to live for.

I want to be ready to go at a moments notice.

So until that unavoidable move into my pocket, it will stay on my nightstand.

Yes, my passport will stay right where it is.

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“You go away for a long time and return a different person–you never come all the way back.” Paul Theroux
Categories: Travel Insight | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Ode to the Train: Why You Should Travel By Rail

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Out the window lightening sizzled across the Asian sky. Lamps along the tracks sent long shadows dancing against the railcar as we accelerated away from Beijing. The clacking of the wheels sang verses with the thunder, the mid summer storm seemingly matching the rhythm of the train’s engine.

It was exhilarating and elating. As we chugged through the urban sprawl and out towards the mountainous region north of Beijing the anticipation of the journey ahead was reaching a crescendo. I was embarking on a journey over 6,000 miles in length. The three week trip in its entirety would take me from Beijing, China and up through the reaches of Manchuria. From there I would pass through the steppe of Inner Mongolia into the taiga of Siberia, all the way to the western Russian capital, Moscow. All of it overland, by rail.

I sat with my head pressed against the glass, rainy streaks scooting down the window in crystal trails. I was already falling under the spell of the ebb and flow of the railway car. That gentle rock and sway of inertia and momentum lulled me into taking in the outside panorama. Over the weeks that followed, railway travel would climb to my most preferred mode of transport.

Irkutsk Railway Station
Irkutsk Railway Station

Somewhere between Chita and Ulan Ude in far eastern Russia a young man with long black hair and hazel complexion poked his head into my open compartment. Spying my guitar case on the berth over my head he smirked, “Do you play?”

“Of course.” I answered, following his gaze to my small travel guitar.

“Come on over.” he gestured towards the hall with a wave of his hand.

“We’re one door away.”

Ducking into the compartment next to mine, with guitar in tow I was met by the sight of five young men crowded around a slew of instrument cases, taking up much of their berth’s little space.

“We’re in a band.” Sergei, the man with the long black hair explained.

“Play us something.” he added, clearing off space for me to sit down.

As I noodled away on the neck of my little guitar, Sergei and his bandmates began producing instruments and playing along with me. The man across from me passed up a guitar to the man on the bunk over him who immediately began strumming away rhythm. The man on the bottom bunk pulled two drum sticks from his bag and began thumping a beat into the corner of the mattress he was sitting on. Meanwhile Sergei, began singing along to our improvised tune. Producing sound from deep within his throat he sang in the traditional style of the people of Buryatia, the region we were currently chugging through. The resulting sound was hypnotic. Low guttural words mixed with interchanging whistles and shrills. They nodded and laughed as each of us added our own personal flare to the growing song. Slowly the train came to a rocking halt.

“Thats our stop.” Sergei said, as the band quickly gathered up their instruments.

“We have a concert tonight in Ulan Ude!” he said with excitement.

They shook my hand as they each passed out the door.

Four person berth
Four person berth

Encounters like this are only possible when traveling by train, far from the anxiety inducing time warp of air travel. Travel by plane is a nauseating bore. All of us disinterested with our fellow passengers. Diddling away on inflight touch screen pads or near comatose from dramamine and noise canceling headphones, we keep to ourselves whilst defying space and time. Travel by air is borderline teleportation. Departing and arriving without witnessing anything in between. High in the plane’s ascent looking out the window is usually only met with the same unchanging view of white fluff. Not so while traveling in the comfort of a train car. You traverse biomes; scaling mountains, charging over steppe, snaking through cities, and plunging through forests.

Manchuria
Manchuria

Late in the evening, halfway to Irkutsk I was delving into a paperback I had picked up in Beijing. On the benches sat a Russian family. A mother and her two daughters were working to prepare a small dinner. The mother gingerly laid down a white and red checkered handkerchief over the small table. She laid out slices of bread then proceeded to cut up a cucumber. The daughters pulled from a shopping bag little baggies of candy and jerky. Arranging the cucumber slices on a small dish the mother beckoned her daughters to eat.

Suddenly both girls were pressed against the glass window pointing out excitedly towards the setting sun. As our train burst out of the thick Siberian forest an expansive view opened up. The blue waters of Lake Baikal shimmered in the late evening sun as far as my eyes could decipher. The crystal shores expanded out and beyond to beaches rimmed with the untouched wilderness of the Siberian wild. I put my book down and joined them in gaping in awe. The train skirted the side of lake, the calm water so enticingly close I felt as I could leap from the train right into its chilly embrace.

The mother, too now had stopped and was taking in the view. She held out a bag of candy, offering I take one. I picked out a candy, thanking her. Smiling, she turned back to the window.

“Baikal.” she explained pointing out at the endless lake.

While every plane ride is identical, each traveler by train has a unique experience. One with the potential to enrich their travel with meaningful interaction and humbling scenery. Trains are not just a means of transportation. A vehicle for travel. They are part of the places they run through. They’re extensions of the country and its landscape. Moving by rail gives a person the most to gain with the smallest amount of anxiety and risk.

We should cease traveling by trains, and start traveling for trains.

Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal
Categories: Travel Insight | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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