Monthly Archives: July 2015

AtW Podcast, Episode 4: Kevin Lamb

Picture of Kevin.

Kevin has a new mustache friend.

I met Kevin Lamb a few years ago in Madison, Wisconsin. We've reconnected several times since then, usually at some random time and place. Thus, our last meeting was typical: by coincidence, we were both in Berlin, Germany at the same time. Since I last had seen Kevin, he had ridden his bicycle across the United States, using his curly mustache as his map. We sat down in Victoria Park to discuss “Mustache Across America,” as well as his future ambitions and philosophy on travel.

[Download] [iTunes] [Stitcher]

Show Notes (External Links):

Mustache Across America Website
Mustache Across America Facebook Page

The Spa Resort, Chiang Mai

Picture of Rucky.

Our faithful guide Rucky.

My girlfriend Katie and I recently had the opportunity to tour The Spa Resort, near Chiang Mai, Thailand. Early in the morning, one of the resort's drivers picked us up from the city. The highway leading out of Chiang Mai was wide, and clogged with motorbikes and tuk-tuks. We drove through several villages, where women were cooking breakfast on coals. The last part of the forty-minute journey was on a narrow gravel road in a lush green valley, where only a few small houses dotted the landscape.

When we reached the resort, we were led to the reception desk, where we met Rucky, our guide for the day. Relaxing music was playing from speakers hidden in the rafters of the open-air veranda. The three of us shared a cup of steaming green tea while Rucky explained the resort's facilities and goals. Every morning there were meditation and yoga classes. There was also a fasting program, with daily detox drinks and healthy broths. And of course, no resort would be complete without a massage therapy program. For those who wanted to be healthy in all aspects of life, there was a “boot camp.” The week-long seminar combined all of the resort's activities: exercise, healthy eating, meditation, yoga and massage.

Picture of room.

A basic hotel room.

The first hotel room Rucky showed us was spacious, with a comfortable bed and a patio leading to the pool. Next we saw a two-story villa suite, with a living room, kitchen and half-bathroom on the first floor, and three bedrooms with balconies on the second floor. Finally, for those looking to bring the whole family, we toured a premier four-bedroom villa suite. The villa had artsy furniture and a modern kitchen and dining room. Each bedroom came with its own bathroom and balcony. The villa was fully furnished, with an elegant design that lacked the tackiness of many high-end resorts. All of the accommodations we saw were harmonious; the only sounds were of the birds chirping outside. If you're looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of a big city, there are no bad options at The Spa Resort.

Picture of Katie.

Katie with her fresh greens.

The next stop on our tour was the garden. There were several rows of flowering dragon fruit plants; Rucky informed us that they would bear fruit in a few weeks. Pineapples, mangoes, papayas, coconuts and citrus fruits also grew on the property. And there was a large vegetable garden, where we picked some fresh greens to have with our lunch. Rucky informed us that eighty percent of the ingredients used at the resort were grown there.

Picture of yoga.

Yoga sessions are available here.

A large patio, covered in palm thatch, was on the hill above the garden. This was where the daily meditation and yoga sessions took place at dawn. A fire pit was nearby, perfect for a chat after a long day of healthy living. Further down the hill was a gazebo, where a few boot camp participants were chatting between their exercise sessions.

Picture of Katie.

A happy cooker.

After admiring our view of the emerald property and surrounding hills, we headed to a cooking class. Giant, the resort's chef, was waiting, with fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices arranged at the table. Our first dish was raw apple pie. Giant showed Katie how to chop the walnuts, pecans and figs for the crust, then the two of them pealed apples for the filling. The last step was to slice more figs as a garnishment. Then came the best part about raw apple pie – no cooking!

While I dug in and savored the delicious dessert, Giant and Katie chopped vegetables to make thom yum goong soup. Giant lit a single burner and boiled a broth. Katie added a few slices of spicy peppers, then she poured in a bit of coconut milk to balance the flavor. The great thing about Thai cooking is that you are free to combine flavors however you see fit. When the soup was almost ready, Giant added the key ingredient: a handful of shrimp. A minute later, we poured the steaming soup into a bowl and set it aside to cool. We thanked Giant for the lesson and walked to the restaurant.

The Radiance was an open-air restaurant, cooled by whooshing fans overhead. We sat down and chatted while the friendly staff brought out our lunch. Our first dish was an omelet of sorts, with rice and vegetables enclosed in an egg cocoon. Next we had a red dragon fruit curry, garnished with a sprig of basil. Dragon fruit by itself is sweet, but this curry was spicy and savory. I didn't know how they pulled it off, but it was delicious. We also each had a salad, made from the greens we had just picked. And of course, there was our thom yum goong soup. In the end, we were so stuffed, we didn't have room for the rest of the pie. Our waiter was happy to box it for us.

Picture of staff.

The friendly spa staff.

With stomachs bursting, we headed to the last stop on our tour: the Bamboo Spa. They offered many types of massage, including traditional Thai, foot, and back and neck. You could also choose from a number of natural scrubs and essential oils. The massage room was outside, and soothing music was playing in the background. I felt totally relaxed just looking at this place. I couldn't imagine what daily massages would do to me.

The Spa Resort is filled with high end luxury, available for less money than a regular hotel would cost in the United States. They even offer airport pickup, so you don't have to plan a thing. Whether you want a relaxing vacation, a thorough cleansing, a meditative experience or simply motivation to shed a few pounds, The Spa Resort is for you.

Ready to plan your next trip? Here's The Spa Resort's website.

Click here for more of my photos from the resort.

* I'd like to thank Rucky and The Spa Resort for providing Katie and me with a free tour and lunch. All opinions expressed in this article are my own.

The Indian Pacific Train to Perth

Picture of train.

The Indian Pacific train.

February 5 - 7, 2015
Days 203 - 205

The idea of riding a train across Australia might bore some people to tears, but it got me excited. I would have loved to have taken the Indian Pacific train all the way from Sydney to Perth, but with my flight to Cambodia quickly approaching, I didn't have the time. Luckily, I could still do a large portion of that trip. I would catch the train as it passed through Adelaide, and ride it all the way to Perth.

The Indian Pacific train was about thirty cars long, enormous for a passenger train. There was only one “Red Class” (non-sleeper) car, along with a dining car for the Red passengers. The vast majority of passengers paid big bucks for the luxury of a bed and all-inclusive service, but on this train, even the cheap seats were pretty nice. The seats folded town to about 45 degrees and there was plenty of legroom. The train didn't go 300 kilometers per hour like the bullet trains I had ridden in China. But if speed were my top priority, I would have flown to Perth. The main reason I was on the train was to see the nothingness of the Outback.

When we pulled away from Adelaide, our host came into our car to discuss the trip. The usual rules applied – no smoking, no sleeping in the aisle, etc. Tomorrow we would switch our clocks to “Train Time,” ninety minutes behind Adelaide. This unofficial time zone was needed because Australia's states were huge, and their time zones were synchronized with their biggest population centers. But tomorrow we would spend a good portion of our day crossing the nullarbor, the land with no trees (or anything else).

Picture of carriage.

The Red car.

It didn't take long to reach Adelaide's outer limits. Australia is roughly the size of the contiguous United States, with one-thirteenth the population. Yet it's also one of the most urbanized countries on Earth, with its cities concentrated along the coasts. Australia's interior is vast and largely unpopulated.

Sometime in the middle of the night, we stopped at Port Augusta. The town is a crossroads – where the country's main north-south and east-west routes meet. Historically, Port Augusta has had a reputation for attracting riffraff from all over the country, but tonight I didn't get to see it. As the train followed the track that would take us thousands of miles across one of the biggest countries on the planet, I was busy trying to fall asleep in my seat.

* * *

I didn't sleep much. The forty-five degree reclining seat wasn't the real issue; it was the jostling. Rather than a clickety-clack lulling me to sleep, the entire carriage jerked forward every five seconds or so. Luckily, I had the foresight to bring a box of coffee with me, because I was going to need it all on this trip.

Picture of sunrise.

Sunrise, Day 2

Plenty of interesting characters were with me in the Red carriage. There was an American man named Chris, who had bought an unlimited train ticket and planned to spend about five weeks riding trains around the country. An Australian man, also named Chris, was on his way home to Perth to attend university; someday he hoped to design artificial limbs. And I found out that our host was even getting into international travel: next year he'll head to Antarctica on a National Geographic expedition. The boat will only hold seventy passengers, so it should be far more personalized than the trip I took to the White Continent on a 500-passenger cruise ship.

But beyond anyone else, two young Australian men were making their mark on our carriage. One was really tall and skinny; the other was really short and pudgy. Both wore cowboy hats and flannel shirts. They were heading to work on separate sheep ranches, each over a million acres and more than 250 KM from the nearest town. They planned to work on the ranches for the next few years, but for now, they seemed to be getting their human interactions out of their systems. Unfortunately, most of these interactions were negative. Especially the short guy's – he attempted to flirt with the women, and he made obnoxious comments to the men. But I couldn't get mad. These two were going to endure living in a desolate and forlorn place for so long, I actually felt bad for them.

Picture of Cook.

The ghost town of Cook.

Around midday we stopped in Cook, one of the most isolated places on Earth, 800 KM from the nearest town or fuel station. Cook was built to support the trains coming through, but new technology and privatization later made this support unnecessary. Nowadays, Cook was empty, other than a caretaker and his wife who were rumored to be living there. The train still needed to refuel and stock up on water, though, so we stopped for thirty minutes.

Walking around Cook was creepy. Old signs served as reminders of residents past. Clothes hanging on a clothesline seemed to indicate that someone indeed still lived there. It was an oppressively hot day, and the only tree in sight provided little shade. Cook sounded like a dreadful place to live, and now I made sure to stay close to the train to avoid being left behind.

We spent the rest of the afternoon passing through the nullarbor. This was the longest stretch of straight railway in the world, at nearly 500 KM. Whenever I looked outside, I saw nothing but scrub brush and dirt, all the way to the horizon. The train made two stops in the afternoon, to drop off the ranchers. A pickup truck met them at their respective stops and drove away, seemingly toward nothing at all.

Picture of nullarbor.

The nullarbor.

Late in the afternoon, we started to see more vegetation. We were still in a desert, but the fact that we were leaving the nullarbor was exciting.

Early in the evening the train stopped for three hours in Calgoorlie, the first non-ghost town since Port Augusta. Calgoorlie was a mining town with a reputation for its rowdy strip clubs, brothels and taverns. The story was the same as every other mining town I had visited. Men worked in the mines all day, made a lot of money and had nothing to spend it on but booze and women of the night. Chris and I walked around the whole town twice in our first hour there. A bunch of the Gold and VIP passengers hit the bars, but Australia's ridiculously expensive alcohol (due to high taxes) kept us from imbibing. Instead, we returned to the train, along with a few of the other Red passengers. The heat and monotony of the day had gotten to me; I was asleep before the train had even started to move again.

* * *

At sunrise we were already seeing signs of life. We passed a few small towns with empty roads and playgrounds, interspersed with ranches and open fields. Then we entered suburbia and we knew we must be getting close to the coast. Before long, there was an announcement that we only had 15 minutes until our arrival.

After a mere forty hours, my time on one of the world's great train journeys was over. When we pulled into Perth's train station, everyone got out and stretched. The luggage car was all the way at the back of the train, about half a mile from us. This was a good chance for the passengers to stretch their legs and connect with loved ones. As for me, I still had to make plans for my last few days in Australia.

More photos from the Indian Pacific journey

External Websites:
Indian Pacific's Website, with a handy map

Couch Surfing Adelaide

Picture of Tristan and Maria.

CouchSurfing Adelaide.

January 31 - February 4, 2015
Days 198 - 202

It was time for me to leave Melbourne for good. My flight to Cambodia was coming up, and it left from Perth, on the opposite side of the country. Australia is huge, and there was still a lot for me to see and do. Maybe I'll come back one day and spend a year traveling around the country. But for now, I only had time to travel to Adelaide and figure out how to get to Perth.

My overnight bus to Adelaide lasted about eleven hours. We only had one driver, and we only took one fifteen-minute break. I was amazed at our driver's stamina. As for the passengers, we got to see “Young Guns,” the movie that inspired the song “Regulators” by Warren G and Nate Dogg. Every time I started to fall asleep, a gun fight broke out during the movie, and the explosions jarred me awake. It reminded me of so many bus rides in South America, where sadistic drivers played karate movies at full volume, apparently just to keep the passengers up all night.

A CouchSurfer named Tristan insisted on picking me up at the bus station at 6:30 AM. He had a badass 4WD camper van, complete with a bed and a solar-powered refrigerator. But his preferred method of long-distance transportation was his motorcycle, which he had driven across Europe and Asia. He was busy making plans for his next motorcycle trip across Asia, and into Europe.

Picture of car.

'47 MG.

I stayed with Tristan's dad Ian. He was a retired cop who had done his share of world travel. Ian was extremely welcoming and friendly, the kind of guy who made me regret that I hadn't used CouchSurfing more often in the last six months. The highlight of my time with Ian was our trip to the coast in his '47 MG, a real classic that he had babied for over four decades.

I found Adelaide, and the surrounding area, a pleasant surprise. Designed by Colonel William Light in 1836, downtown is one square mile, surrounded by parks and botanical gardens. It was easy for me to get around the city without a car, and there was plenty of greenery everywhere I looked. There was a forested national park nearby, and the Southern Ocean was accessible by tram. Overall it was a very livable place.

Picture of sunset.

The view from Mount Lofty.

One night Tristan and I got together with Maria, a CouchSurfer from Germany. My old friend Craig was also in town; he had just completed a two-day tour from Melbourne, and was getting ready to head back on another two-day trip. We all got together in “The Hills,” a neighborhood with some fantastic views of the city and coast. Tristan cooked a chicken-potato-lentil-vegetable soup that he had learned from a woman in the Czech Republic. It was a wonderful night, where I bid adieu to an old friend and made new ones. But all good things must come to and end; my trip to Perth was about to begin.

More photos from Adelaide.

A Ter-roo-fic Meal

Picture of folks.

Craig, Oksoo, Angus and James.

January 27 - 29, 2015
Days 194 - 196

I met up with Craig in downtown Melbourne and we headed to the airport to pick up his Korean friend Oksoo. She was visiting Australia for the first time, and Craig had some big plans for her. Instead of taking her on a tour of the city, he drove us a few hours inland, to his family's ranch.

When we arrived, we met Craig's cousin David and his sons James and Angus. They, along with a handful of workers, were tending to a few thousand head of sheep in a large barn. After a brief introduction, we left them to their work and headed outside. A huge mulberry tree was on the other side of the driveway. Craig told me that he had spent much of his youth picking berries from this very tree, and now it was chock-full. Craig and I spent over an hour picking the delicious berries and filling buckets to give to his family. We probably ended up eating half of the supply in the process.

At dusk, we all piled into David's truck for a kangaroo hunt. I was expecting a long walk through the forest in search of a kanga', but I was quickly proven wrong. David simply drove onto a field, aimed his rifle out of the window and shot a kangaroo through the neck, from about 300 meters away. The boys helped to retrieve and butcher the carcass. They were incredibly efficient; the whole process took less than half an hour.

Picture of folks.

Our yummy meal, thanks to David and the boys.

I wondered what Oksoo thought of all of this. One day earlier, she had been in a big city in Korea. Now, she was kneeling over a kangaroo carcass, clutching a high-powered rifle, hanging out with four Australian farmboys and one strange American. She hadn't seen any cities, or really anything at all in Australia, other than the ranch. It was hard to imagine a bigger cultural transition.

The following night we camped in the forest, near the ranch. The campground provided a grill, and we made good use of it. We cooked a bunch of potatoes, onions, capsicum (peppers) and tomatoes. But the main ingredient was fresh kangaroo meat. It has a reputation for being tough, but as I learned from Craig, that's because people tend to overcook it. We left it on the grill just long enough to brown the exterior and keep the middle bloody. That sure was a delicious meal.

Picture of food.

Food on the grill.

Before heading to the big city the next day, Craig wanted Oksoo and me to do a quick hike. The plan was for us to follow a trail to another campground, 1.6 KM away, and he would meet us there with his van. It was such a short hike, I didn't even think about taking extra water or food, or asking for exact directions. And of course, something went wrong. The trail split unexpectedly, and I wasn't sure which way we were supposed to go. I'll spare you the details (and don't ask, it's embarrassing) but it took us two and a half hours to find Craig in his van. He thought our little misadventure was hilarious. Oksoo wasn't so impressed. She was definitely ready to get back to the city life.

We drove to Melbourne, where we met with Louise and Ben for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. It was the first time Craig, Louise and I had gotten together in over eight years. We had a fun night of reminiscing about the good ole' days in Bolivia. Who knows where, when and under what circumstances we'll meet next?

More photos from the ranch

A New Backpack, a Dubious Contest and an Amazing Race

Picture of Ben, Dan, Louise.

Louise and Ben picked me up at the Geelong train station.

January 25 - 26, 2015
Days 192 - 193

I bought my Osprey backpack around five years ago. It was huge, and it served me well. Unfortunately, one of the metal stays from the frame snapped during my flight to Australia. I removed the frame and brought it to a local shop in Melbourne to look for a replacement, but they didn't have one. Then I exchanged a few emails with the manufacturer. The last thing they told me was that my backpack had been discontinued, and they were searching for a replacement frame. That was over a month ago.

I had to find a solution soon. My shin was still swollen, probably a direct result of trekking through Tasmania with a 30+ pound backpack, sans frame. I decided to stop looking for ways to fix my old backpack, and instead buy a new one as soon as I returned to the mainland. But a surprise email from Osprey changed everything. As it turned out, they had been searching the whole planet for a replacement frame, with no success. My backpack came with a lifetime warranty, so now they offered to exchange it for a brand new one. Score!

I flew from Hobart to Melbourne (half the price of the ferry) and found the Paddy Pallin supply shop downtown, where they introduced me to my new backpack. It was narrower than my old one, but still 85 liters, big enough to store all sorts of stuff I don't need. It felt far more comfortable than my old pack because of its sturdy frame. I spent over an hour getting everything organized, then caught a train out of town, feeling like a new man. Thanks, Osprey!

An hour later, I was back in Geelong. Craig was busy working, but another old friend also lived there. Louise (who I wrote about in my book, 1000 Days Between) and her husband Ben moved from England to Geelong, Australia a couple years ago. I met them at the train station and we got caught up at their apartment. I was really happy for Louise and Ben. They had crafted a terrific life in this beautiful town on Australia's southern coast.

Picture of Sandals.

The competition.

The next day was Australia Day, a holiday that celebrates the arrival of the British in 1788. Louise, Ben and I drove to Torquay to celebrate on the beach, Australia-style. Among the thousands of beach-goers, a huge group was attempting to break a world record: most giant, inflatable thongs (sandals) in the water at once. It looked like fun, but I found out that it costs $30 to enter, and they change the color of the thongs each year, so you can't even reuse one from the previous year. At least they raised a good chunk of change for the local surf club. In the end, a few thousand people participated in organized, slightly boring fashion. The record was broken, in a parallel competition on Bondi Beach.

After watching the challenge for a while, we left the beach and got a massive box of fish and chips, the perfect meal for this national holiday. While eating our feast, we ran into Miguel, whom I had met during my last trip to Torquay a month earlier. He was preparing to lead a support crew in the Race Across AMerica (RAAM), the world's toughest bicycle race. It starts in Oceanside, CA and finishes in Annapolis, MD, covering a distance of over 3000 miles. The record time for the race was less than eight days. This boggled my mind. Most people take more than eight days to drive across the USA, and someone did it on a bicycle.

Louise, Ben and I had hundreds of questions, and Miguel was happy to answer them all. Here are a few that barely scratch the surface of our conversation:

Q: Do the cyclists get any sleep?
A: Yes, but not much. Each day they get a few power naps and one “proper” sleep of around 75 minutes, or one sleep cycle. Years ago, they would sneak away from the road to sleep, so the other racers couldn't use the fact that they were resting to gain a competitive edge. Nowadays, all of the competitors have GPS, so they tend to sleep in their support vehicles.

Q: What do they eat?
A: If the cyclists ate solid food, their bodies wouldn't be able to digest it efficiently, so they survive on liquid diets. They still manage to consume over 8000 calories per day.

Q: Can they listen to music during the race?
A: The cyclists each have a support car that follows them for the entire race. On Miguel's team, they'll play music from loudspeakers attached to the car. The cyclist will be in radio contact with the team, so he can request songs or podcasts. Usually, the support crew will play whatever the racer wants to hear, but sometimes they'll refuse, in order to push him to go faster, or for a longer distance between breaks. When the racer really needs motivation, they'll play messages from family or friends to keep him going.

Q: Do they ever experience psychological issues during the race?
A: Most definitely. If you went over a week with almost no sleep, you'd likely experience hallucinations, even without riding a bicycle across America. Mental fitness is extremely important for this race, and the support team is constantly tweaking things to keep the cyclist motivated.

I had never heard of RAAM, so everything about it fascinated me. It was great to get to know someone who was involved with it.

More photos from Torquay

External Websites:
Osprey's Website
RAAM Website

What Do Automatic Seat Belts in Cars and iPods in Museums Have in Common?

Picture of Hobart.

Hobart, viewed from MONA.

January 23, 2015
Day 190

(I'm turning into a crotchety old man. Sorry in advance.)

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) was supposed to be the highlight of any trip to Hobart. Even before I walked inside, I could see why. The property looked like a wealthy person's playground, with a vineyard, a tennis court and a large patio overlooking the city. Actually, my assessment wasn't far off – Tasmanian millionaire David Walsh funded the museum on his own dime.

The architecture of MONA was stunning. From outside, it looked like a small, single-story building. But the majority of the museum was underground, accessible via a long spiral staircase. The layout made no attempt to disguise the fact that the museum was carved directly into the bedrock, like a nuclear bunker.

When I bought my ticket, I was given an iPod and a set of headphones. The reason for this quickly became obvious: there were no titles or captions on any of the art. Instead, the iPod had all of the museum's information. This sounded like a cool way to use new technology.

I quickly grew frustrated. I had to search for each piece of artwork on the iPod, even if I only wanted to see the title. I shifted my focus from the art to the screen, back and forth, over and over, comparing the tiny thumbnail images with the painting or sculpture to figure out what I was looking at. Quite often, I failed to find it and moved on, with zero knowledge of what I had just seen.

Admittedly, when I did find the information, it was more than enough to satisfy my curiosity. But then again, I usually wasn't looking for a painting's life story. A short explanation would have been plenty. For example, “Egyptian pottery, middle kingdom, 2000 BCE.” If they would just put this basic info on the wall, then they could use the iPod as a supplement for those who wanted more. The worst part about the experience was that everyone was constantly looking down at their iPods, rather than saying, “That painting looks pretty cool, what do you think?” to their friends.

The experience reminded me of the automatic seat belts that were en vogue in the '80s. At first they seemed like a great way to get people to buckle up. For a while, the US even had a law that required either automatic seat belts or air bags in cars. But soon we learned that new isn't always better. You still had to buckle the lap belt manually, so if you were going to use your seat belt anyway, you had to do the same amount of work. Even worse, if you didn't normally use a seat belt, you would be tempted to leave the lap belt unfastened, making yourself vulnerable to sliding under the chest belt in a collision. On top of that, you could hit your head on the retractable arm when you opened the door.

Whether it's automatic seat belts in cars or iPods in museums, you can't just say, “We have this new technology. Let's use it!” without thinking about whether it's actually better than the technology it's replacing. How many new cars still have automatic seat belts? And how long until MONA returns the captions to the walls?

Just as I was getting over the annoyance of the caption-free art, I walked up to a glass display case in the center of the room. It was about as tall as my chest, so I leaned over the top of it for a better look. Immediately, one of the museum's volunteers scolded me for touching the case. Normally I would have no problem with this rule, but leaning over the case was the only way to get a good look at the artwork inside. Continuing with the theme of the rest of the museum, there were no “do not touch” signs posted anywhere. Maybe this rule was buried somewhere in the iPod's rambling descriptions.

I backed up and observed my fellow musuem-goers, thinking that I was probably the only person dumb enough to touch the glass. But indeed, many others were leaning over the cases and getting yelled at. The volunteers were doing almost nothing but telling people to back off. I started to wonder if this was part of the show. Maybe the museum had set up a sneaky social experiment as a kind of “living exhibit.” If so, I was never let in on the joke.

There were some cool exhibits, like the head that was lying on its side, filled with rotating birds, fruits and hands, illuminated by a strobe light. That was a work of creative genius. There was plenty of other interesting artwork. I really wanted to enjoy MONA. The building's architecture alone was a masterpiece. But I just couldn't get into it, so I left after an hour.

More photos from Hobart