Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Outdoor adventures’ Category

Ready to head to Africa in September!

You know you’ve made it as a travel writer when you’re headhunted to write about diarrhea.

 

 

Read Full Post »

The #OOTD

I woke up the other morning in the back seat of my car, which was parked on a side street in Idaho Springs, Colorado. Still bleary from the Xanax I’d taken to ensure a decent night’s sleep and clad in the above attire, I stumbled to a small park populated by resident tweakers and assorted vagrants, in dire need of the public restroom. I looked- and probably smelled- like their kin, so it seemed right I not get hoity-toity about the toilet situation.

A shirtless meth head, his wiry, tattooed body muscled like a fist, saw me and smiled. “I love your outfit,” he said cheerfully. When I snorted in surprise, he said, “Seriously. It looks really cozy!” Never underestimate the sartorial assessment of a guy who’s been awake for three days.

Indeed my ensemble was cozy, because I’d slept in it. I’d driven up to Idaho Springs from a food conference in Denver the night before, having engaged in a bit too much day-drinking with my publisher and colleagues (I’d had every intention of driving home after manning our booth, but then the Bloody Mary’s commenced, and there was nary an affordable room to be had).

After a sweaty car nap on a sketchy block downtown, I was sufficiently sober to drive the 30 minutes to Idaho Springs, but too exhausted and night vision-impaired to make it home. Even the dumpiest motels charge extortionist rates once you hit the mountains, and what the fuck, I’ve lived in my car before (see, Summer of ’94, San Diego). I’d just conk out and hit the road in the morning.

Photo love: YouTube

This very scenario is why I keep my car-sleeping essentials in the back seat at all times. In addition to a sleeping bag and blankets for padding/emergency blizzards, I have an LED headlamp (you don’t want to drain your car battery, nor draw attention to the fact that you’re, you know, sleeping in your car) extra batteries, baby wipes (No shower? No problem), reading material, a pair of sweats and a winter jacket, drinking water and a sleep aid. I’m an insomniac of epic proportions- there’s a reason this blog is dedicated to a certain pharmaceutical.

I know I’m not the only dirtbag/cheapskate out there who actually enjoys sleeping in my car, so I’ve provided the following tips to make your experience a little more comfortable and a whole lot safer. And fyi, Idaho Springs is adorable- it’s just off the I-70 corridor so it attracts some nefarious types at the fringes. Solo female travelers who sleep in their cars are attuned to these things.

Without further ado:

Do your research
If you’re somewhere urban, be sure to scope out signage so you don’t end up ticketed or towed, or arrested. It’s a fairly well known fact that most Walmarts allow overnight RV parking. It ain’t the Ritz, but it works in a pinch.

A large cup
How do I put this delicately? Sometimes, you’re just not parked in a place where it’s feasible, as a woman, to pop a squat. I learned this while “living” in San Diego. All of the homes in the cul-de-sac had motion sensor lights and a lack of shrubbery, making bladder relief extraordinarily complicated. After complaining to a fellow car-dweller, he told me, “Dude, you totally need to get a Big Gulp cup.” Dude, it totally solved the problem. Just remember to dump it down a storm drain, and not on someone’s landscaping- you’re not a fucking animal.

A shower plan of action
Depending upon your situation, you can often shower for free at the beach (skip the soap and shampoo or ask a ranger or lifeguard if biodegradable products are okay to use), or pay at a rec center, gym or campground. I confess I’ve snuck into campgrounds before and poached a shower but I try to avoid such shady behavior, mainly because I’m afraid of getting caught. Also, keep a towel in your car-  you’d be amazed by how useful it is (providing traction when you’re stuck in the snow, anyone? Anyone?).

Lock your doors, but crack your windows
Don’t compromise your safety, but you do need fresh air.

Be sure your cellphone is charged and within reach
This is useless if you’re in an area without service (if you have an inkling that’s going to be the case, call, text, or email a family member or friend with your approximate location for the night before you get out of range). A phone can prove invaluable if you run into trouble. Sweet dreams.

Sweet Idaho Springs. Photo love: Mille Fiori Favorti

Read Full Post »

When I was seven, my parents took me and my older brother on a ski trip to Vail. The thing I remember most vividly isn’t schussing the slopes, but rather, a restaurant named after a convicted cannibal. If you know anything about my childhood, this should come as no surprise.

In search of a place for dinner one evening, we stumbled upon a creekside eatery called Alfie Packer’s- I can recall my parents cracking up at the name. I think I had a mouthful of cheeseburger when they explained the story behind the restaurant’s moniker, thus instilling in me a lifelong obsession with cannibalism and a lust for fucked-up survival stories.

Just to clarify, it’s a happy memory.

Alferd Packer. Photo love: Lake County-Hinsdale County Chamber of Commerce

For the uninitiated, the “Colorado Cannibal,” Alferd (née Alfred) G. Packer, was a prospector convicted of murdering and eating his five companions while trapped at the base of Slumgullion Pass, outside of present-day Lake City, during the winter of 1875. (read the dirty details in my post for 5280 magazine).

Packer was eventually released on parole, and became a Colorado folk hero of sorts. The embodiment of pioneer badassery, gumption and fortitude, he’s been immortalized in everything from film and song to food service (the University of Colorado Boulder cafeteria is named the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill; when it opened in 1968, its catchphrase was, “Have a friend for lunch!”). My brother lives in Truckee, and I’m fond of pointing out that California could stand to get a sense of humor about the the whole Donner Party thing (note that both of us live in areas infamous for cannibalism: Coincidence? I think not).

“Downtown” Lake City. Photo love: LCHC-CCC

This Memorial Day weekend, Lake City is bringing its defunct Packer Days festival back from the dead (sorry, had to). It’s less a celebration of cannibalism than survivalism, featuring events like a Run for Your Life Survival 5k, a Mystery Meat Cook-off, and Scavenger Hunt.

Lake City is worth a visit even if you don’t consider cannibalism cool; it’s a bitch to get to, but the region’s alpine lakes, outdoor pursuits and scenery are worth the effort. The town itself is just as alluring, nestled as it is in a pocket of the San Juan Mountains. It’s a legitimate relic of the Old West, boasting well-preserved buildings, a dusty main drag, and a handful of saloons, restaurants and a truly excellent museum; just up the road is the famed Alferd Packer Massacre site and Cannibal Plateau.

Ready for a road trip? Hit up the Lake City Chamber’s site for details, and don’t forget to pack some snacks- you can never be too prepared.

When in Lake City…

Read Full Post »

villager

A year ago today, a 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. I missed the disaster by 24 hours. I’d been in Nepal for two weeks to trek, run the remote Tamur River, and research a feature for culture: the word on cheese, on Nepali cheesemaking. The story, which was slated to run last fall, was by necessity postponed to this spring; most of the cheesemakers I profiled were affected by the earthquake, but fortunately, they suffered only minor losses and no casualties.

Churrpi- dried yak cheese- air-dries in Gufa Pokari

Churrpi- dried yak cheese- air-dries in Gufa Pokari

On this, the anniversary of Nepal’s deadliest natural disaster, I’m sharing my culture feature in its entirety. It includes relief donation information (still critically needed), but it also it shows the beauty, generosity of spirit, and resilience of the Nepali people. It’s my dairy-centric love letter to the most incredible country I’ve ever visited.

“It’s perhaps the most unlikely spot on earth to taste locally made, French-style cheeses: the rooftop of an apartment building in the Lazimpat neighborhood of Kathmandu. It’s April 10, 2015, two weeks before a devastating earthquake will level much of the city and villages throughout this region of Nepal, causing an avalanche on Mount Everest and resulting in over 9,000 fatalities. An aftershock on May 12 will cause further devastation and increase the death toll.

 At the moment, however, I’m sitting with French cheesemaker François Driard in a high-rise urban oasis that seems a million miles from the smog and chaos below, watching the sun set and sipping Pastis between bites of his superb tomme. Driard owns Himalayan French Cheese and produces a diverse array of pasteurized cow’s and yak’s milk cheeses at his two creameries in the foothills of some of the highest mountains in the world.

 I’ve been fascinated with Nepali cheesemaking since researching my book, Cheese for Dummies, mostly because little has been written about it. Last spring I traveled there to explore both rural cheesemaking traditions and how Kathmandu-area producers such as Driard are modernizing their craft for a feature in the Autumn 2014 issue of culture. But nature had other plans. Now it’s also a story about how Nepal and the cheesemakers I met there are moving on, one year after the country’s deadliest natural disaster on record.”

Read the rest of the story here.

IMG_4059

Read Full Post »

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

If you’ve ever platonically loved and lost while on the road, don’t feel bad. Shared adventures and totally fucked up circumstances often make for great- if short-term- friendships (as well as strange bedfellows, but that’s a different post). It’s a common phenom that I explore in this post on Refinery29. Sometimes, it really isn’t you- it’s them. Or me.

Read Full Post »

Nepal, April, '15

Nepal, April, ’15

Backpackers are, as a species, short on money and space. We’re also often short on time, what with needing to make tight bus (see above), train, and janky plane connections, awakening still drunk at check-out time, or urgently needing a toilet (or bush, rock, or roadside) after eating dodgy street food.

Thus, things like showers, laundry, and basic hygiene often fall by the wayside. In my 15 years as a travel writer, I’ve oft found inspiration amongst fellow nomads- as well as come up with a few genius ideas myself- with regard to repurposing items or turning specific-use products into multitasking workhorses.

Presenting my top five travel hacks for dirtbags, tested and approved by yours truly. Happy holiday weekend!

Photo love: Elite Daily

Photo love: Elite Daily

1. Airline-size booze bottles for shampoo and body wash

While it’s shocking I didn’t come up with the idea myself, I recently discovered this hack after several dirtbag chef friends crashed at my apartment. I wasn’t remotely surprised to find a mini bottle of bourbon in my shower; what amazed me is that it was filled with castile soap (perhaps the most epic multitasking product on earth). Brilliant.

Photo love: Amateur Outdoorsman

Photo love: Amateur Outdoorsman

2. Carabiners to carry extra items on your pack

I draw the line at stuffing sweaty, smelly, muddy hiking boots in my pack. That’s why I like to clip ’em to my day pack for transit (because only fools entrust their pricey footwear to the random sketchballs who handle checked baggage). Does it piss off my seatmates, who are forced to huff the fumes (see Hack #5)? Of course. Tough shit. ‘Biners are also ideal for holding wet swimsuits, shopping bags, and other stuff.

Photo love: ToysR'Us

Photo love: ToysR’Us

3. Baby wipes

Not just any brand will do. It’s Pampers Sensitive Baby Wipes or nothing (especially if you have, you know, sensitive skin…or a vagina). It was my tentmate on the Inca Trail who turned me on to this basic travel hack. Not only ideal for an improved version of the so-called Mexican (insert minority slur of your region’s choice) shower, they’re also aces at removing road grime, makeup, sunblock, deodorant marks from the tank top you’ve been wearing almost daily for a month, degreasing hair, and blotting up the gallon of cooking oil (?) that exploded all over your pack while it was in the hold of a clapped-out Cambodian bus. Wiping the backsplash from your ass after using a fetid squat toilet? Priceless. If you travel with nothing else, make it these puppies.

There is a point to this photo. Keep reading.

There is a point to this photo. Keep reading.

4. Sarong

For a few bucks, you have a lightweight, non-bulky souvenir/beach towel/bath towel/blanket for over-AC’ed buses/sunshade/pillow/sling/tourniquet/face mask for choking developing nation pollution/on-the-fly changing room/padding for the hematoma on your tailbone from an ill-fitting pack. Bonus: It will last forfuckingever.

Your average Bolivian toilet

Your average Bolivian toilet

5. Free sample sizes of perfume/cologne

Beyond handy for travel hook-ups (carry in your pocket!) and destinking clothes, stanky hostel rooms, befouled restrooms, sweaty shoes, midewy backpack interiors, your hair and bod after one too many days on the road, and to use in place of deodorant when you run out, mid-trek.

Read Full Post »

IMG_4423

A. So a truck could run it over, enabling a guy with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth to scoop it up 30 seconds later and cook it for breakfast.

True story.

Read Full Post »

IMG_4245

Yes, this was necessary.

As a former cheesemonger, marketing director for a cheese company, trade show ho and educator, I’ve done my share of schlepping dairy products. While packing cheese into a cooler requires some organizational skills, it’s not exactly rocket science. This, of course, excludes the time I accidentally left an empty box from a shipment of washed rinds (read: stinky cheeses) in my car overnight during a heat wave. I spent nearly 15 minutes the following morning crawling underneath my car and peering into the fan belt and engine block trying to find the dead animal causing the unholy stench, before cluing in to my error.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to sit sort-of shotgun on a cheese delivery in the Kathmandu Valley. I was working on a Nepal cheese feature for culture: the word on cheese, and was on my way to Himalayan French Cheese (owned by entrepreneurial genius Frenchman Francois Driard). It’s located eight kilometers north of Kathmandu, epicenter of the quake. Accompanying me was Francois’ Nepali business partner and a driver, who was later going to drop me at Francois’s sister’s farmstay on the other side of Kathmandu.

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Suzuki Maruti?

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Maruti Suzuki?

Let me explain something about driving in Nepal (beside the fact it’s done on the left). It’s motherfucking terrifying. I had just come off of a 17-hour ride in a clapped-out Indian bus (I suspect Uttar Pradesh traded it to Nepal for a plate of dal bhat), returning to Kathmandu across the Terai (Eastern Plains) after a 12-day trek/whitewater trip on the Tamur River. Tip: Xanax is also essential for developing nation long-haul bus rides, especially in cultures where the main objective is to drive as fast as possible whilst playing chicken with oncoming semi’s and other buses on high-mountain passes with blind curves. Good times.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of rice on the floor which made for good sleeping.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of bagged rice on the floor which made for comfy sleeping.

I digress. The point is, when you have a car the size of a Maruti Suzuki- essentially a SPAM can on wheels- there’s not much room to spare. With three passengers, my 40-pound backpack,  a loaded daypack, and what turned out to be over 300 pounds of cheese (hefty wheels of lusty Belkot- Francois’ signature creation- as well as dozens of tommes, Reblochon, camembert, St. Marcellin, some trial bries, and buckets of yogurt, cream cheese, and ricotta- there wasn’t much room to spare). It was also hellishly hot and humid.

After the cranky driver tied my backpack to the roof of the car with a piece of twine, I folded myself and my daypack into the back seat (which was broken, so it flipped forward at every application of the brakes, which in Nepal, like the use of the horn, is constant). Behind me were two loaded coolers and boxes; beside me was a cooler and a weathered cardboard box of tommes that split at the corner seam the first time our driver slammed on the brakes to avoid an oncoming suicidal motocyclist.

Francois' lovely cheeses at rest

Francois’ lovely cheeses at rest

Thus, I spent the next 90 minutes with my left arm awkwardly bracing the torn box to prevent the pristine tommes from flying through the windshield, and having 175 pounds or so of Bellecotes slamming into my back and effectively bending me in half every time we braked. Because Kathmandu’s pollution (hello, inversion layer) is so epic, most locals wear face masks; I developed what I affectionately called KTM black lung on day two of my arrival. Thus, I was forced to wear a scarf around my nose and mouth to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning whilst holding down the dairy fort, so to speak.

Eventually, after bumping (shock absorbers? Hells no!) through back alleys and potholes big enough to swallow a water buffalo, we made it to the Kathmandu office of the cheese company, from which our precious cargo would be distributed to nearby restaurants and hotels.

All in a day’s work for an immgrant cheesemaker in Nepal, and a terrifically entertaining cultural experience for me. My thoughts are with all of my new Nepali friends and cheesemakers; thank you for an incredible trip and for showing me, in the words of churppi maker Mitra Kala Khanal, that, “In Nepal, cheese is life.”

Yak in the mist

Yak in the mist

Read Full Post »

Photo love: Penn Waggener, Flickr

Photo love: Penn Waggener, Flickr

I met The Eagle my first day of culinary school. It was June 4, 1995, and 32 of us milled outside the small admin office located beneath a popular pub in Lionshead. We were slated to become the 2nd graduating class from the Vail “campus” of Johnson & Wales University, and every single one of us was newly arrived in Colorado.

We eyed one another warily, the Class of 1996 being the typical group of food service miscreants, second careerists, and rich kids. Our ages ranged from early twenties to late 50s (that guy lasted less than a semester, having realized vocational cooking is the domain of the young). I was one of eight women- none of whom, it was quickly and unanimously decided by the male faction- “could cook our way out of a paper bag.” Douchey. But accurate.

I was the only student from the Western U.S. My classmates were nearly all from the Deep South or Northeast, and we were utterly foreign to one another. Although I became fast friends with a clutch of guys who ran the gamut from Jersey Guido to Fort Lauderdale player, they still lived to take the piss out of me. The first night, as we settled into the grotty employee housing that was to be our temporary home (the now-demolished Sunbird Lodge was affectionately known by all in Vail as the Scumbird), one of my friends-to-be, a hulking former postal worker from Pennsylvania, walked past my room and saw me gnawing on a vegetarian sushi roll. “What the hell is that?” he demanded with a look of contempt. Upon hearing my response, he snorted, “Fuckin’ hippie,” and stomped down the hall.

RIP, Scumbird. Make way for Plastic Bavaria. Photo credit: BringFido.com

RIP, Scumbird. Plastic Bavaria stands in its place. Photo credit: BringFido.com

The Eagle caught my attention for two reasons: He was hadndsome in a lanky, rockabilly way, and I detected a kindred spirit. Within minutes of meeting, we were sitting on the steps outside, chatting and laughing like old friends.

We quickly established our mutual love of alt indie bands, snarkiness, farming and foraging, tattoos, and meat (he was from Kansas City and a former steakhouse line cook; among his favorite childhood memories were the times his dad took him to the neighborhood butcher shop to buy top sirloin; once home, they’d lovingly grind the meat by hand to make hamburgers). Indeed, The Eagle knew more about food and cooking than anyone I’d met; he was fiercely intelligent and opinionated, with a sardonic wit that delighted me. He was an immensely talented cook, and in the years after graduation, he worked in some of the most nation’s most prestigious kitchens.

Our friendship was based as much on mutual attraction as commonality (we were both- pardon the pun- odd birds in a class full of them). Within 48 hours of meeting, we were making out on his twin bed- as fate would have it, he lived next door to me. Just as things heated up, however, he pulled away and admitted that he had a girlfriend. Things remained platonic for some years after that, but our friendship grew. After class or on weekends, we’d hike, listen to music in his room (he smoking an ever-present joint), or take spontaneous road trips in pursuit of good things to eat. We learned to snowboard.

Photo love: shutterstock.com

Photo love: shutterstock.com

This isn’t to say that The Eagle was perfect- far from it. He could be insufferably cocky, and as a result, insensitive. He was not infrequently an outright pain in the ass. He didn’t give a shit about what our more conservative peers thought of him, but I found a certain charm in his rogue ways. He was a loner, yet he took friendship seriously, and frequently gifted me with personalized mixed tapes decorated with elaborate artwork. He knew how to make a grand apology when I called him out for being a dick.

We’d sometimes attempt to cook dinner, although the Scumbird rooms were devoid of even the most basic kitchenettes. He had a hot pot and I a rice cooker; between us we owned a Tupperware container, a plate, and a few utensils. I’d listen to him bitch about his failing relationship and whoever of our classmates were being most annoying that week, and he’d murmur encouraging words when I wept after yet another day of getting my ass handed to me by one of our instructors.

Photo love: Tupperware School Fundraiser

Photo love: Tupperware School Fundraiser

The Eagle would uncomplainingly pick my drunk ass up from the bars when the other guys ditched me to hook up. I gave him foot and shoulder rubs because I was still working on my massage school certification hours (the previous year’s educational pursuit). He turned me on to bourbon, and let me sleep in his room when my chronic insomnia became unbearable. After I moved into an apartment with a couple of classmates, he’d come over and cook me more elaborate meals.

I at once adored and was infuriated by The Eagle in ways I didn’t then understand. His taste for mind-altering substances pissed me off, yet when he and his girlfriend pulled the plug in late fall, I had an inkling we might end up together. I suppose timing is everything, because soon after I met a guy who would become my boyfriend for the next four years.

The Eagle earned his moniker during one of our monotonous admin classes- cost control, probably. Most of us would nod off at some point, given the altitude, stuffy classroom, and dry subject matter. The Eagle, along with certain other classmates, could reliably be counted upon to be baked out of his gourd on these occasions. Unlike the others, he was usually silent, his disdain for the many douchebags amongst our peers such that he preferred to mind his own business.

One day, a dispute broke out after our long-suffering chef instructor- who was also the Dean- asked for feedback about the Vail program (J & W has four campuses nationwide; Vail was shuttered in 1998 and the school relocated to Denver. It took that long for the powers that be to admit that operating a culinary school at 8,150 feet was at best, highly impractical and ridiculously expensive, and at worst, required snowmobiling drunk students down from class when we inevitably missed the last chairlift of the day due to a scholastic wine-tasting or laggardly clean-up).

Photo love: ppoggio2, Flickr

Photo love: ppoggio2, Flickr

Amidst the chorus of squabbling, a gravelly voice rose from the back of the room. “You know what I think,” drawled The Eagle, his irritation at being awakened from his stony nap apparent to all. “The program is fine. It’s just hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.”

This hackneyed sentiment elicited a loud laugh from me, and baleful glares from everyone else. No one ever referred to The Eagle by his real name again after that. Still, he was a lot of fun. I could always bribe him into doing something obnoxiously entertaining for a dollar (I won’t elaborate, although a certain incident involving the glass-plated classroom door and a far too intimate view of his ass comes to mind).

One day, a couple of months after we’d met, The Eagle and I went for a hike. I was out of water and complaining. Annoyed, he asked why I didn’t drink from the creek running alongside us. I looked at him, appalled. “Um, because I’m not really a fan of Giardia?”

“Give me a break. You’re not going to get Giardia from that,” he scoffed, before kneeling and drinking deeply from the alpine stream.

Photo love: Adam Springer, Flickr

Photo love: Adam Springer, Flickr

A week later, The Eagle was MIA. I stopped by his room after class on the second day, and he answered the door looking pale and drawn. “What’s wrong?” I asked, and he explained that he had the flu. I loaned him my class notes, and he was back in the kitchen the next day. I was sure he was on the mend when he knocked on my door the following evening and asked if he could borrow my Tupperware. I handed it to him without comment.

Two days later, The Eagle asked if I could drive him to the hospital. He looked frail, and explained that after days of severe vomiting and diarrhea, he felt too weak to walk there. I obliged, and we soon learned that he had Giardia. I tried not to smirk as he filled his prescription for Flagyl.

Not long after, I cooked up too much rice for dinner, and couldn’t find my trusty Tupperware. Recalling I’d loaned it to The Eagle, I pounded on his door. Marijuana smoke, incense, and Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Diary” drifted into the hall when he opened it. “Can I please have my Tupperware back?” I asked.

He blinked. “Um, I don’t have it.”

“Whaddaya mean, you don’t have it?” I demanded.

“I threw it away.” The Eagle spoke calmly, as if to a special-needs child.

“Why the fuck did you do that?” I snapped. “I need it.”

“Trust me, you didn’t want it back,” he said genially.

I felt the beginnings of an Eagle-induced rage-spiral. “Why not?

“Because I shit in it,” he said with a smile, before closing the door gently in my face.

Later, The Eagle came over to explain that he’d made an appointment at the local Urgent Care clinic several days before his ER visit. After hearing his symptoms over the phone, the nurse had asked him to bring in a stool sample, and it seemed my Tupperware had proved the ideal vessel for this endeavor. Frankly, the only thing that surprised me about this story was that The Eagle didn’t just give it back to me, although I’m certain had I been anyone else in our class, that’s exactly what he would have done.

A week ago, I found out that The Eagle is dead. How, when, and why don’t matter; that I’ve expected this news for years is irrelevant, as is the fact that he’d been MIA for awhile, despite my best efforts to find him. For over a decade, he was always the one who made the effort to stay in touch, even turning up on my doorstep in California on one memorable occasion. More important is that my friends and I still crack up every time we see a plastic food storage container, and that I have 19 years’ worth of hilarious memories of my strange, maddening, amazingly talented, very dear friend.

Fly high, Eagle. I know you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Love.

Strange but true: this poem is on the hotel that replaced The Scumbird Lodge, right around the corner from The Eagle's former roost.

Strange but true: this poem is on the hotel that replaced The Scumbird Lodge, right around the corner from The Eagle’s former roost.

Read Full Post »

I’m just going to give it to you straight. The best way to incur a travel writer’s wrath is to use any of the following phrases when asking them about their occupation: “Dream job;” “Must be nice; “Always on vacation,” and “How’s it feel to not work for a living?”

This was taken an hour after a Good Samaritan thought I was homeless.

This was taken an hour after a Good Samaritan thought I was homeless. Where they got that impression, I know not.

Get a group of travel writers together, and one of the main topics of conversation will be how fucking annoying it is to always be told we have a “dream job,” when the general public has no understanding of what it is we actually do, and how damned hard and stressful it really is.

I had a therapeutic commiseration session of this sort a week ago, with my colleague K, who lives on Maui. I was passing through while on assignment in Hawaii, and we stopped for a round of drinks at my former place of employment (yes, yes, I sound like a hypocrite, but I’ve lived on Maui…twice. I resided in a gutted house sans electricity, and waited tables; I returned there to work as a line cook for my culinary school internship). Not to get off-topic, but what I love most about returning to Lahaina is that even 22 years later, I can walk into that restaurant and know exactly who will be occupying what seat at the bar. In the middle of the day.

Back to the subject at hand: The toughest part about discussing our occupation with laypeople is that we sound like jaded, ungrateful assholes (admittedly, many travel journalists are, and I, too, would like to give these people a swift kick in the windpipe).

Believe me, we know how fortunate we are. What people need to understand is that we’re also mutants, and our insatiable need to wander outweighs things that Maslow long ago identified as the Hierarchy of Needs. We willingly live a poverty-level existence in order to see the world, happily wallow in sub-human conditions to do so, and through this freakish existence, find inspiration, emotional sustenance, and the motivation to continue earning under a dollar a word in order to feed our habit.

We’re the craven junkies of writers, and yes, we have day jobs. Please note: I’m not referring to “travel writers” whose lifestyles are subsidized by a wealthy spouse, trust fund, or flat-out journo-whoring. I’m talking about pursuing actual travel journalism as a primary occupation. It’s our dream job as well; just don’t call it that. Here’s why:

Most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck. This is tough when you’ve always prided yourself on paying bills and rent in a timely manner, and maintaining a good credit rating–something I no longer possess, for reasons explained below. These values were drilled into my skull at an early age.

Camping on the beach after hiking the Kalalau Trail

Camping on the beach after hiking the Kalalau Trail

Fiscal responsibility is complicated by the fact that when you’re freelance, you usually get paid when the magazine or website decides you get paid. Auto-payments for bills are for people with real jobs. So are direct deposits. When we’re on the road, we’re sweating the paychecks that are (hopefully) awaiting us in our mailboxes, while at the same time wondering how the hell we’re going to pay rent or, in more extreme situations, make it home.

Think I’m exaggerating? The following is a snippet from an email I sent to K yesterday, after arriving in LA post-red-eye. He’d wanted me to stay in Hawaii a few extra days, so I could participate in the Maui launch of the Polynesian canoe Hōkūle‘a. I was all over it, until disaster struck in Honolulu.

…I so wanted to extend so I could do the canoe launch, but you’ll appreciate this: since I no longer have a credit card because I’m a deadbeat travel writer with monumental medical debt due to the crazy infectious disease I acquired in Ecuador while on assignment, I had to pay cash deposits on my rental cars, even though my host had prepaid.

So, I ran out of funds in Honolulu, and went two days without money for food. How’s that for irony? But the best part is that a bank employee at my credit union put $4.58 of his own money into my account yesterday so that I could withdraw $20 (i had $18 and some change left, and there was a $3 fee) and get a fucking bowl of ramen. Did I mention that during this time, it was my final night of a hosted stay at a five-star hotel in Waikiki, and that my last meal was an extravagant, 11-course dinner at _____ that I was invited to because I’m a friend of a friend of the chef?”

I was in a bit of a bind, because my mail was on hold, so I couldn’t ask my neighbor to deposit any accumulated paychecks for me. Being a holiday weekend, I was also guaranteed any cash infusions from my cheese consulting clients (aka “direct deposits”) or beleaguered family members wouldn’t be accessible immediately, Thus, I came up with a genius strategy that would actually net me a profit.

I decided, given Waikiki’s staggering homeless population, I would join the

Making poi at the Waipa Foundation (irony alert: for distribution to those in need).

Making poi at the Waipa Foundation (irony alert: for distribution to those in need).

ranks for a couple of nights, until some cash came through. Why not? I’ve slept on beaches before. And meth addicts love me. Why, just two days ago, one of them proposed to me as I walked up Kapahulu Ave.  Also, I’ve been mistaken for a homeless person twice in the last six weeks, most recently upon arrival in Hawaii. There’s something about a backpack and cut-offs that makes Good Samaritans see you as indigent.

As for meals, I would scrawl some witty spin  on “Out-of-work travel writer; need money to get home” on a piece of stained cardboard. And hey, I have no problems foraging in the trash for meals–I’ve eaten some scary shit. I’ve knowingly consumed mouse turd-tainted food on more than one occasion, and there was that horrendous dog noodle soup in Hanoi. I’ve lived in my car in San Diego and peed in a Big Gulp cup at night. I’m tough. I’d just kicked the Kalalau Trail’s ass, goddammit!

Hanoi Dog Pho. Not for the timid. Or those with tastebuds.

Hanoi Dog Pho. Not for the timid. Or those with tastebuds.

I was ready to call up one of my editors to ensure he’d take the story. But then my brother called and ruined everything by insisting I pay my bag check fees and airport shuttle with his credit card.

Reluctantly, I agreed, because to be honest, I had a lot of deadlines, the homeless of Waikiki are a rough lot, and after three weeks without laundry, my clothes were already festering in my pack. Also, I actually don’t take real homelessness lightly, and while I was really planning to write a story based on interviews and investigative reporting, I was genuinely concerned about my safety (I’d already decided I’d explain my predicament to a hotel security guard, and hope I could crash in a lighted area nearby).

So, now I’m back on the Mainland, and my Hawaiian idyll seems a distant dream. I have clean clothes again, but I confess: more than a small part of me would prefer to be kicking it on the beach using my sarong for a bed, and seeing what kind of treats could be pulled from Waikiki’s bountiful trash cans. There are worse ways to earn a living.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »