Random Observations

Life and the Pursuit of the Authentic Experience

We all crave authentic experiences. Something new, something different, something unique, something uplifting and emotionally valuable.

Those authentic experiences — they’re what potentially make our day-to-day realities exciting, invigorating even. They give meaning to the nagging, unanswered questions we pursue. They interrupt our routines to remind us that, yeah, life is pretty damn cool sometimes.

Problem is, the concept of the “authentic experience” is somewhat of a myth. Where can you find those authentic experiences in a world overly saturated with guidebook friendly tours and prepackaged cultural gimmicks? These days, with the “best kept secrets” on everyone’s to-do list, how are you to discover the unheard of, or explore the uncharted?

While this may have been a new experience for me, it was by no means authentic. Fishy foot pedicure in Cambodia. Hey, it came with a free beer as advertised.

While this may have been a new experience for me, it was by no means authentic. Fishy foot pedicure in Cambodia. Hey, it came with a free beer as advertised.

The path has been beaten to a pulp, my friend. Those authentic experiences have already been had. Just about everyone has camped with the Bedouin, or paid to have a school of hungry fish strip dead skin off their feet, or tipped back a few too many jars of homemade chicha.

So the fringe experience seekers push on, desperately hoping to encounter what little authenticity remains.

Those authentic experiences, though — maybe they’re abundant, maybe they’re right there in front of us just waiting to happen. Maybe it’s just a matter of absorbing what the world gives you and saying, yeah, life is pretty damn cool sometimes. Even if this experience I’m having has been reenacted a million times.

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How to Cross the Street in Southeast Asia

Spend any amount of time in Southeast Asia, and eventually you’ll have to cross the street. Sounds easy enough, but wait until you see your first impenetrable, tangled mass of traffic traveling full speed ahead, coughing up exhaust and dust and soot and all the other nasty concoctions the road throws at you. You’re in for a wild ride. I’m no pro, admittedly, but I have crossed quite a few streets in Asia lately. Here’s several tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Motorbikes good, cars bad: Ah, the motorbike with its constant purr advancing on you from all angles. These champion two-wheeled Asian workhorses are highly maneuverable, even when fully loaded with 5 passengers and a 50-pound bag of rice. You shouldn’t worry too much about motorbikes. Cars and trucks…well, those are a different story. Fortunately they are far outnumbered by motorbikes, giving you a fighting chance of successfully crossing the road. But it’s probably safe to say that no car in the history of Southeast Asia has ever politely stopped or slowed down for a pedestrian. The driver may even speed up to avoid having to wait for you to get by. It’s best not to get pancaked, so wait for a small gap in car/truck traffic before crossing.

This might be the best look you'll get.

This might be the best look you’ll get.

Cross slowly: Your first instinct upon encountering a busy Southeast Asian intersection may be to wait for a sizable gap in traffic (which won’t happen), sprint and weave (which will probably get you killed), or stand paralyzed on the corner while a nice doughnut lady incessantly demands that you purchase her goods (which you should probably consider).  No, do not trust your instincts here. Cross as if the street is littered with dog turds, placing one cautious but confident foot in front of the other as you needle your way to safety. Do not succumb to the frightened urge to alter your speed or adjust your course. Slight hiccups in your step will throw a motorbike driver off, potentially causing a chain reaction. Pick a line. Stick to it. Buy another doughnut on the other side.

Respect the traffic hierarchy: You, the lowly pedestrian, have little to no traffic clout on the street or even the sidewalk, for that matter. The bigger the vehicle, the more respect it earns. It goes like this: a bus trumps a truck, which trumps a car, which trumps a motorbike. The pedestrian simply gets squashed by all of the above. The bus can basically swerve all over the road at will, just as long as the driver blasts his horn every half second. Trucks, cars, and motorbikes can do the same, just as long as they stick to the hierarchy. Make sense? Listen carefully for those horns. I was spacing out dreaming of bun cha when I got mirrored pretty hard by a car trying to pass me on a narrow street. Hey, he gave me fair warning. My bad.

Keep you head on a swivel: Look left. Look right. Look straight ahead. Look behind you. Look a few degrees more to the left. More to the right. You get the idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if a motorbike peeled out of an elevator. Be ready for anything.

Traffic lights are merely suggestions: In fact, all traffic signs and laws are merely suggestions. If a red light doesn’t suit a motorbike driver’s schedule in Southeast Asia, he or she pays it no attention and proceeds through the intersection with very little caution. I was sitting shotgun in a taxi in Hanoi just the other day as an old woman blew a light that had turned red 5 seconds earlier resulting in a t-bone collision with another motorbike.

Really, crossing the street is not all that bad once you get the hang of doing it a few times. Good luck out there.

How to Make a Backcountry Sauna

Today’s topic is backcountry sauna construction. Buckle in.

First, make sure you physically victimize yourself over terrain like this:

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That’s me in the front, scanning the lay of the land for a proper sauna location.

Then, after you’re done feeding the troops tacos and instant refried beans, effectively putting an end to the bitchin’ and moanin’, you’ll want to get a fire going. Break out the whiskey, because things are about to get weird.

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Where’d that dog come from?

When you’re about a quarter of the way through your whiskey stash, ask your buddy if you can borrow his tarp. Your wife might roll her eyes and say something like “what are you doing with that thing?” Never mind the skepticism. Just wait until your sauna is steaming and they’re fighting for space. You’ll get the last laugh, trust me.

Start heating a few large rocks in the fire. I read somewhere that you’re not supposed to heat river rocks because they’ll explode in your face. So don’t do that. You should be fine with a few dry rocks.

As your rocks are heating, you’ll want to choose a proper sauna location, preferably near the fire. Here I am, a self-proclaimed backcountry sauna genius, using what the good Earth gave me:

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Hey, it’s all that was available.

By now, your fellow campers are at least curious. They might even get in on the construction phase. Which is good, because up to this point this was a one-man sauna (boring). High five your friends for letting their sauna guard down.

Now on to the minor details. Figure out a way to transport your super hot rocks. Load up on icy cold snowmelt from the nearby stream. And then hop in, robe or no robe. Doesn’t matter. You’re in backcountry sauna mode, dude!

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Sauna sesh in progress.

Slowly pour water over the rocks. Magical steam will appear. Nature is so mysterious like that.

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That’s a pretty crappy set-up, I’d say. But come on. It works. Not bad for a fist timer. I’d use a bigger tarp, and maybe heat my rocks a little longer next time. And kick all those bums out.

How to camp in bear country

A food chain demotion does not always make for a comfortable camping experience.

Face it, bears are big, strong, fast and wild creatures. And they live in the woods, where people typically do the majority of their backpacking.

Have no fear. With a little preparation and know-how, you can camp (somewhat) comfortably in bear country. Read on for a few tips.

Tip 1: Buy a bear canister.

You’ll spend more time playing camp food Tetris with your bear canister than actually using it on the trail. Sure, these things are kind of a pain in the butt to organize and load in your pack, but they’re designed to keep bears out of your food stash.

A bear might investigate your canister by stomping on it, nudging it it off a cliff, juggling it, or gnawing it like a chew toy. He might even use it as an ottomon. Who knows with bears sometimes.

Try as he might, he won’t even come close to cracking the seal. Bad for him. Good for you.

Tip 2: Smelly stuff is a no-no.

All your smelly stuff needs to go in the bear canister before you turn in for the night. Yeah, the already-brimming-with-food canister. I told you they’re a pain in the butt sometimes. So good luck with that.

Sunscreen, chap stick, hand sanitizer, scented condoms—these items need to go in the canister. Be vigilant. Double check your campsite for the not-so-obvious.

Bears have completely destroyed tents and cars to slurp down a tube of SPF 30. Weirdos, those bears.

Tip 3: Don’t cook anywhere near your campsite.

Because if you do, Mr. Bear will be mad you didn’t invite him to the diner party. And you don’t want Mr. Bear mad and feeling left out.

My suggestion: Cook somewhere along the trail, then continue hiking a ways until you reach your campsite. It’s certainly not the most convenient option, but at least your tent won’t smell like bacon. Bears love bacon.

If you do set up camp and then cook, be sure to do so downwind a few hundred yards. Bears have an uncanny sense of smell. They can smell those tasty camp enchiladas you’re cooking up. Bears love enchiladas, too.

Tip 4: Strip.

Get naked. Well, at least take off those smelly clothes once you’re done cooking. Put on your jammies and break out those s’mores. Which will go right back into the bear canister post-s’more session.

I don’t think bears are interested in crazy naked people dancing and chanting around the fire. Something to consider.

Tip 5: Scared of the dark? Wear earplugs.

Thank my wife for this one. She’s not so much scared of the dark as she is slightly worried about being dragged out of her sleeping bag at 3 in the morning by a bear with a tube of sunscreen hanging from his tooth.

She doesn’t hear a thing all night. I don’t wear earplugs and I hear pretty much everything. I’ve freaked myself out once or twice, too. She’s smarter than me. By a lot.

Tip 6: Chill out!

Sleeping in what basically amounts to a bear’s guesthouse can be an unnerving experience. Relax. Bear attacks are relatively rare, especially if you’re aware of your surroundings.

Bottom line: Don’t be a slob. Don’t smell like bacon.

On Tattoos and Stupid Decisions

Remember when you were 18 and you thought to your self, “Self, now would be  an awesome time to get the biggest, baddest tattoo ever since I am of a sound, reasonable, and now legal mind”?

Then maybe you thought what the hell, let’s get another tattoo, and another. Before you know it, you have several tattoos, all in perfectly placed spots on your body.

Good work. Those are permanent, you know. Your 30-year-old self wishes that wasn’t the case. Stupid 18-year-old self, always up to no good.

Do you have regretful tattoos? When did you get them, and where are they located on your body? What’s the story behind them? Go on. Do share.

The Fun Is Over: You Want This Trip To End, Now!

Have you ever been midway through a long journey when that all-too familiar feeling creeps in? You know which one I’m talking about: the very moment when you ask yourself “what am I doing here?”

You’re exhausted, frustrated, hungry, dirty, uncomfortable. The trip you’re on—the one which cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars, the one you’ve anticipated for months—well, that trip now feels like a tedious, mind-numbing slog.

You daydream of clean showers with hot water and strong pressure. Your own bed, miles and miles away, calls to you with its soft, clean linens. The few wrinkled, tattered clothes in your pack reek of the road’s pungent concoction. There will be no washing machine. There will be no dryer. The food, bland and tasteless, has left you crippled and in pain at times.

The fun is over. You just want to go home. And now.

Can a traveler experience a more depressing feeling? Doubtful. But you’re not alone. Millions of travelers have been there, myself included. You’ll see them at the bus station, the airport, the hotel lobby, ready to go home. Blurry eyes, defeated postures, unkempt appearances, bad attitudes—they all look the same.

Don’t join them. You’ve put too much time, money, and effort into this process to let a few mind games dictate whether or not your trip is a success. If you get to this point, seek out the most comfortable and enjoyable activity possible. Splurge a little if necessary.

A hot tub, a slice of pizza, and a beer is typically all I need to get over myself and get back to enjoying my journey.

What about you?

The Top 11 Most Amazing Airline Passengers

Last week, I painstakingly compiled a list of The Top 11 Most Annoying Airline Passengers. This week, a tip of the hat to The Top 11 Most Amazing Airline passengers.

1. The Full Passport Passenger of Mystery

When TFPPOM nonchalantly reaches for their tattered passport in the check-in line, you take notice. Stamps of every hue cover what little passport real estate remains—a kaleidoscope of international swashbuckling on full display.

You have never felt passport envy until now. Where have they been? Where are they going?

2. The Well-Traveled Child

Wise beyond their years, this kid has toured 72 countries extensively by the time they’re 7. What’s that you’re working on, Lil’ Johnny? A coloring book? Oh, a draft United Nations agreement for peace in the Middle East? Carry on. Might you pass the coloring book then?

3. The Former Flight Attendant

Order them a scotch. Sit back and listen. Everything you ever wanted to know about the business of flying is locked up in The Former Flight Attendant. Fancy gossip? They have plenty of that to go around, too.

4. The Seat Sacrificer

Airlines will occasionally entice a willing passenger with overnight hotel stays and other perks if they sacrifice their seat for whatever reason. This is where The Seat Sacrificer becomes somewhat of a god. Most passengers are nowhere near as flexible with their iteneries, or even concerned with the airline’s dilemma for that matter. The Seat Sacrificer is a true team player free from the chains of schedules and priorities.

5. The Returning Military Personnel

Always a heartwarming story despite your personal opinion on war. Especially if you’re lucky enough to witness the actual reunion at the terminal with their loved ones—man, powerful stuff.

6. The First Time Flyer

I can board a plane here in California and be in New York later today. Big deal. This means nothing to me. Not so for The First Time Flyer. Everything about flying is equally mind-blowing and frightening. Take offs, turbulence, landings—each event is a notch in The First Timers belt.They even pay attention to the mandatory safety presentation.

If you’re sitting window, offer them your seat. Point out the Grand Canyon. Even if you’re over Tennessee.

7. The Book Reader

The Book Reader has a certain Zen like quality to him/her. So engrossed in the details of their book, they’ll rarely participate in lengthy conversation, if at all. No chaos, no drama, no attitude. Just a good book and a long flight. Do not disturb The Book Reader.

8. The Eye to Eye

You don’t know The Eye to Eye, but you two share something special, be it callous comments directed towards a Top 11 Most Annoying Airline Passenger or inside jokes on an event you both witnessed. You’re not friends. Not even acquaintances. Just kindred Eye to Eye spirits.

You’ll go hours without saying a word, but by the end of the flight, you exchange well-wishes and a few more subtle jabs at annoying passengers.

9. The Million Mile Business Flyer

The very definition of efficiency, these folks know how to fly. Given that a significant portion of their time is spent in airports and on planes, one would be wise to study their habits and techniques. Note the lack of oversized carry-ons. Ready for business. Precise. Calculated. Always calm.

One minor gripe, though, Million Mile Business Flyer: Lose the smug look on your face while cutting in front of us common folk en route to your short business class boarding line.

10. The Middle Seat Saver

Ever flown Southwest?  Then you know this trick. If the flight is not full, you and The Middle Seat Saver have an unspoken agreement to pile your stuff between you. Avoid eye contact with boarding passengers. The games we play.

11. The Roadblock

You’re about to miss your connecting flight. And nobody cares. Except for The Roadblock, who senses your desperate urgency. They’ll block traffic in the aisle to give you a jump on those few precious seconds. Good flying karma is coming your way Roadblock.

The Top 11 Most Annoying Airline Passengers

The joys of flying are often exacerbated by these 11 knuckleheads.

1. The Chair Kicker

A gentle bump here and there, no big deal. Every 30 seconds? I’m about to flip out. Adjusting my seatback in a violent manner and rolling my eyes at you are completely ineffective. One of these days I’ll wait until your tray is full of liquids and electronics, when I will then crank my seat back and forth 40 times.

You’ll never kick another seat again. Mark my words.

2. The Climb Over You To Grab Their Bags In The Overhead

The race is on. Once it’s safe to unfasten our seat belts, let’s see who can grab their bags the fastest. Be sure you put your crotch in everyone’s face as you climb over them. And then stand uncomfortably in the aisle for 15 minutes waiting for an entire plane load of people in front of you to disembark.

3. The Non-Attentive Parent

Got a crying, whining kid who won’t shut up? No problem. Slip on those headphones and let every other adult around you suffer. Baby poo-poo their diaper? Don’t worry about it. Take a nap. Little runt putting their greasy, dirty hands all over everyone’s stuff? Oh well. Somebody has to entertain this child.

Hey, just a quick FYI: You’re the worst parent in the world.

4. The Me Me Me!

Ding. Flight attendant. Yes, I’m quite cold. Fetch me a blanket. Ding. Flight attendant. Yes, I’m awfully thirsty. Water, right away. Ding. Flight attendant. Yes, I would like a pillow. Ding. Flight attendant. More water please, and perhaps a little orange juice. Ding. Flight attendant. Any idea when we’ll land? Ding. Flight attendant. This pillow isn’t soft enough.

Ding. Annoying passenger. We hate you. Ding. A lot.

5. The Use Your Shoulder As A Pillow

Here’s a  tip: Purchase one of those U-shaped pillow things they sell in every airport gift shop around the world. This should keep your giant, drooling head in your own cramped space. If you emerge from your deep slumber covered in obscene Shapie decorations, don’t look at me. You earned it.

6. The Sickie

You look like you have the plague. Throw in a metal tube with closed air circulation, and you and your fellow passengers are sure to have a quality flight. So be sure not to cover your mouth while coughing and sneezing all over the place. Breathe really heavy in my general direction, too. I really appreciate that. Tissue?

7. The Stand Up To Stretch With Their Ass In Your Face

I prefer aisle seats, but immediately regret the decision the moment I realize I’m parked next to people who can’t sit still longer than 10 minutes. Better stretch those legs and stand with your ass 3 inches from my face. No, that’s not awkward at all.

8. The Talker

Easy to spot, difficult to avoid. They were in the terminal chatting with the wall when nobody else would listen. Alone time is a thing of the past should you unfortunately be seated next to this guy. Hey, where you from? What do you do? Oh, where you traveling? Very nice, I went there once with my family. My sister’s husband’s brother’s uncle worked near there once and blah blah blah blah.

Your life story. So interesting. Shoot me.

9. The Fart Machine

Sly as a smelly fox, The Fart Machine acts like he’s not dropping noxious fumes every few seconds. You know it’s him. He knows you know, too. But he’ll avoid eye contact at all costs. And keep on rippin’ em.

I am pointing my vent at you full blast for a reason, pal.

10. The Will Not Check Enormous Bags

Your carry-on is the size of a rhinoceros. But there is no chance in hell you’re checking it. So we’ll wait a half hour as you struggle to jam that thing into the overhead. Make sure everyone gets involved in your carry-on tribulation while you’re at. Still doesn’t fit? Rearrange the small, reasonable carry-ons. Maybe even drop a few bags on our heads. Spend the half hour apologizing profusely. Insincerely, of course.

See my small backpack there? Yeah, the one under the seat. Jackass.

11. The Stand In Line At The Restroom

The flight crew has already instructed you 20 times to please be seated until the restroom is available. Yet there you go again, hoping to secure your spot in line. Somehow you are always a window seat. Why does this happen?

How about you not drink 5 gallons of beer before boarding the plane next time? Just a thought.

Socioeconomic Adventure Gaps: What’s the Solution?

Adventure is a state of mind, you could argue. Available to anyone, anywhere, with the right amount of determination and imagination, adventure is abundant in its infinite forms.

Let’s face it, though. Adventure is oftentimes cost prohibitive. Mountain biking, backpacking, traveling internationally, skydiving, whitewater rafting — you name it, certain components necessary to achieve adventure are simply not an option for many people.

The socioeconomic adventure gap exists, and it’s quite large.

This got me to thinking. What if the barrier to entry were easier? What if cost prohibitive adventures were accessible to everyone?

Let’s crunch a few numbers first. I’ll work within the confines of an activity which has given me countless hours of satisfaction and happiness at a particularly high cost: snowboarding.

General Costs Associated with Snowboarding (give or take a few dollars):

  • Snowboard: $500
  • Boots: $200
  • Bindings: $200
  • Snow Pants: $150
  • Jacket: $100
  • Gloves: $50
  • Goggles: $100
  • Lift Ticket: $90

For a grand total of: $1,390

Note that I did not include the cost of transportation to and from the mountain, or the cost of food/beverages.

Is a family bringing in about the same amount per month going to pony up that kind of cash for their kid to go snowboarding? Absolutely not. They’d be out of their minds.

This is where those of us in a particular community come in — whether you’re a climber, kayaker, snowboarder, or whatever. If you’re anything like me, you have a bunch of extra gear collecting dust. What if we were to put our gear to good use by donating to somebody in need? What if we were then to provide our guidance and transportation and support and everything else associated with the activity?

So many of those barriers would be eliminated.

How this works, I haven’t a clue. Which is why I’d love to hear your ideas. Please do share.