30 August 2015

Kyrgyzy does it: Kochkor to San Kul Lake.

On a Monday morning in Tel Aviv, a two week detail over to Kazakhstan to help out an understaffed colleague office with some end-of-the-fiscal-year-headaches was cleared by my boss. It looked like I’d be on the road by that Sunday. Later that night though, I was leaving Gordon pool after evening laps when I received an email from friends who lived in Central Asia: 'We’re going hiking in the Tian Shan Mountains in the Kyrgyz Republic this weekend – can you fly in a few days early – and into Bishkek instead of Alamty?'

I was going to spend the three day Independence holiday weekend lounging on a beach on the Med, but I gathered that I could do that anytime. Spend the long weekend trekking in Central Asia, sleeping in a yurt. Sure, why not?

Off I went on Thursday night via Istanbul. After a maddening slow deplaning using STAIRS and BUSES (really? really?) I was left with mere moments to spare in sprinting through the familiar moving sidewalk maze of IST to catch my connection due east. The smooth descent into Bishkek revealed the wide, green steppe on both sides of the aircraft, gradually interspersed with steep brown hills, and then- snowcapped mountains.

The Kyrgyz Republic has a 60 day visa-free regime for many countries; a strong message of common sense to the outside world that your country is open for business, that you welcome tourists – their curiosity and their money and, that international borders should be magnets, not walls for ideas and opportunity.

The plane arrived a whole hour early and had to swat off some swarming taxi drivers with my rusting Russian, but soon enough my friends showed up and off we went into the Kyrgyz countryside.

In the first couple of hours, I could make out two distinct impressions: 1.) what is novel and exotic, 2.) what is known and familiar. As for the first point, the mountains of Central Asia had a unique texture. Also, after months in the sticky air of Tel Aviv, the Kyrgyz air was wonderfully arid. And what was with all of the old Audis on the road? Where did they all come from? As for the second point, I marveled at the fact that we had traveled nearly 3,000 miles from Ukraine, yet here proliferated the same or similar Slavo-Turkic comfort food that I feasted on in Crimea for two years, identically oppressive Soviet architecture (both old and new), similar summer clothing and even the same shade of bright blue used on the cottages and fences.

The road winded through canyons until high mountains appeared on our left, bordering Kazakhstan to the North as we made our way towards the heart of the nation. We had to locate a small building in the little town of Kochkor, where a local community-based tourism organization was headquartered and where we would hire guide and transfer need to undertake the three nights, three days trek. This took up a bit of time, as none of the streets were ostensibly named and few of the locals knew the name of the street we asked about, even though it was in the center of the municipality.

The hike would start on the road west from Kochkor, spending the night in a yurt just north of the A367 Road, then traveling the next day south, over the mountains to a yurt somewhere between the road and Song Kul Lake. Then on the final day traversing another mountain hurdle and down onto the plain surrounding Song Kul Lake and terminating at a settlement on the northeast side of the lake.

After paying little more than $100 each for the three day, three night hike inclusive of all meals, guide and transfers the four of us piled into an old, what else - Audi station wagon, and lighted out onto the highway West from Kochkor. By late afternoon, we arrived at the yurt chateau where we spent the first evening.

Night 1, schedule of events: First, enjoy tea, jam and bread, jam and bread. Take a scenic walk and pet the goats. Watch the cows watch you. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Try not to step on the chickens. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Eat a tremendous dinner of pasta, cabbage and cheese. Change into winter clothing and go to sleep, having traveled from the land of Moses to the Land of Genghis Khan with five time zones and with twenty minutes of slumber in between.

Morning 1, a hearty breakfast of eggs and bread fortified the company for what would be a fairly arduous 10km over one mountain, through a river valley and halfway up a second stair of foothills.

One can see what an average Kyrgyz nomadic camp looks like. Soviet trailer and vehicle seem to make most camps car-accesible, although after we encountered something like this in the middle of the Tian Shan Mountains, I would try to trace the tire tracks to see how within the current known laws of physics some guy got his car out here in the middle of no where. Not a few times I concluded that I was the object of an elaborate Kyrgyz practical joke involving a heavy lift helicopter and a hidden camera.

Over the mountains and through the, eh, treeless wilderness, we went to our next yurt. Except that we had to find it first.

This was the first time that I was ever on an expedition to locate our camp for the evening. It went something like this. Our guide would yell out to a family encampment. The inhabitants would emerge quizocally from their yurt. The guide would yell out something in Kyrgyz like - 'where are we?', or 'where is so-and-so family located?' Then the family would yell back a response - 'you're about here,' and 'I think the so-and-so family went a that a way...' It went like this for three or four times until we finally rolled into the correct establishment just as the sun was westerning.

Night 2, schedule of events: First, enjoy tea, jam and bread, jam and bread. Take a scenic walk and pet the goats. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Take a bath in a frigid mountain stream. Try not to step on the chickens. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Eat a tremendous dinner of goat meat and stew. Change into winter clothing and drink some wine I carried 10km to celebrate the Fourth of July and an independence long declared from anything approaching a life predictable.

Morning two began in a hurry because a storm was approaching and we had to, ah, get over that huge snow capped mountain over there before it started thundering and lighting. While the four of us foreigners were decked out in the latest REI and North Face gear with the requisite 3 liters a piece, our tiny Kyrgyz guide, a 20 year old college student, wore tennis shoes and carried a school backpack about the same size and weight as a soccer ball. She did not carry a drop of water whatsoever, beat us to the top of every pass and punctuated the end of every fleeting rest with "OK! Let's go!" It made us thirty somethings feel a bit old and overdressed.

Rain joined us just below the foot of the summit but did not linger. The rest of the day was a sunny walk in mountain meadows filled with flowers as we descended onto the north shore of the secluded San Kul Lake. At a hut for lunch (in a place known as 'Angry God') we encountered dozens of tourists on horseback, and I appreciated what a fascinating thing the Kyrgyz Republic has going for it in the vein of ecotourism. The lakeside huts were no longer principally used by nomadic people for herding goats or cattle. They were used for herding nomadic tourists. As we walked the final stretch to our last camp, I pondered what it meant to be a cash cow, staring unabashedly at everyone and everything with big wide eyes, my 20 year old guide and herder commanding me 'OK! Let's go!'.

The final night, a rainbow bloomed over camp at sunset after a violently icy dip in San Kul Lake. An attendant stuffed our stove with dried cow dung and we fell asleep to the sounds of Bishkekan urbanites celebrating the final evening of their lakeside weekend.

Monday was a long but fun travel day. A trusty Toyota station wagon arrived to take us back to Kochkor. As we departed San Kul Lake I began to further appreciate how secluded the place still is, despite the ecotourism. The vehicle had to cross a deep river stream and provided the condition of the road, the journey had to be impossible half to three quarters of the year.

After picking up the car in Kochkor, we drove north to the Kazakh border and onto the Great Steppe where I would spent the following two weeks working in Almaty, eating horse meat and satisfying long-standing cravings for Georgian food and shashlik.

08 August 2015

Italia Di Nuovo

Back in April 2000, I embarked on my first sojourn by backpack. In Wales, the university I was studying at closed for the entire month of April so all of us foreign students were released to scatter across the continent. As I walked down the park hill from the dorms to the catch the bus to the station, I donned a green nylon backpack I had purchased from a street vendor in London for just 20£. It would wind up accompanying me for almost 15 years over a hundred thousand of miles across four continents. There, at the foot of the threshold of the Shiresque, green carpeted castle lawns of my dorm, I remembered my Tolkien, “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

While so common an illness to the point of pandemic, that trip around Europe infected a malady of wanderlust from which I have never recovered. Starting in the World’s easiest place for an English-speaking foreigner to navigate and ramble, international travel thereafter only became exponentially more challenging and more fascinating. Now I find traveling Europe in some ways even easier than sojourning in my own country, absolutely safer and in some occasions, even duller. But now looking back to how it felt to be that first time international shoestring tourist, the fears, frustrations and awkward missteps were many. I dressed shabbily and failed to research, spoke too loudly and over packed. And, tragically, in a place like Italy, I have no recollection on that first trip, not even once, of having a decent meal. That, is as close one can get to being an innocent perpetrator of a crime against culture.

I first arrived in Rome early in the morning on an overnight train from Nice. Of my first trip to Italy, I distinctly remember sweating through my backpack as I went nervously door to door looking for an ostello or pensione at 7am where I could drop my bag and explore. I remember the attempted robbery of my wallet near the monument Vittorio Emanuele II by a roving group of children – twice on consecutive days in the same place. Among those memories, the Sistine Chapel stands out, despite the stifling crowds, attempting not to giggle at the tourists holding mirrors so they didn’t have to strain their necks to gaze up and physically behold one of the seven manmade wonders of this world. The Pantheon was so impressive that it cost me nearly two hours of pure serenity, watching the disc of the sun drift over Agrippa’s brilliant concrete. I left Rome after three days, and, as I arrived in Florence, experienced an epiphany that after weeks in France and Spain, I was completely overdosed on museums, churches and, cities in general. The best decision I made on that trip was to escape as quickly as possible to the Alps. I spent an afternoon in Venice changing trains before heading north to Austria and that was the last time I set foot in Italy, save transfer at FCO, for another 15 years.

Over the past two and a half years, I helped organize our first international family vacation. Italy was an obvious choice from the get-go. It was a place that held universal appeal to the practicing Catholics, the culinary aficionados, the wine enthusiasts, and the agnostics alike. So I flew in from Tel Aviv and the fam flew in from both coasts.

A few of us met in FCO, started out in Rome and stayed at a very nice hotel overlooking the north hills of Rome. The first meal in Italy was mediocre French bread pizza lunch, which wound up being the last forgettable meal I have had in the Boot. Due to exhaustion of the intercontinental travelers, dinner was in the hotel, but wound up setting the tone, opening the week-long salvo on the taste buds. Pasta of the freshest and most sublime consistency. Tomatoes. Sicilian wine. Simple – but unequivocally, undeniably – perfect.

Breakfast the next morning was a grandiose buffet; so decadent that we could not force our appetites for lunch more than a heaping cone of gelato for each us that probably had more calories than a Big Mac with fries anyway.

The Vatican Museums were just as I left them: every room like a crowded elevator wallpapered with thousands of oil paintings - of which a full quarter instigates recognition from a slide deck in my mandatory art history course back in undergrad. Leagues of Madonnas, nurseries of baby Saviors, cemeteries of fallen saints. It’s the humanist pieces of the Renaissance which really reach me though. Among my newfound favorite: The School of Athens by Raphael. If only the world were three scoops of a democratic graham-cracker waffle cone of pistachio-flavored meritocracy topped with whipped cream reason! Oh how quickly and how far forward we could go.

Evening was with Caccio-e-Pepe on a quiet sidewalk café in Rome. Artichokes. Wine. A mere blocks away from the imposing walls of the Vatican, but yet so far from the insanity of the museums and crowds. I need not had gone all the way to the meadows of Salzburg for respite.

Breakfast the next morning was a grandiose buffet - take II; once again so filling that we could not force our appetites for lunch more than coffee and pastries at a sidewalk café before hopping the fast train 90 minutes north to Florence. However, before I left Rome this time I went to church at St. Peter’s Basilica with my mother and step-father sincerely enjoying the fact that I could not understand anything at all as the service was conducted in Italian with a visiting school choir from Spain.

Arriving at the Santa Maria Novella Florence Train Station in 2015 was different than 15 years prior because this time, I had roller luggage and my brother and his wife collected us at the platform. Also, it was different this time as we sped away, or as quickly as one could, through narrow Medieval streets in a rented station wagon toward an 18th century villa in Chianti.

Two aunts and two uncles greeted us at this spectacular house perched ideally on a hill surrounded by vineyards in the Italian countryside. Swallows darted playfully in and out of their civilizations built into the eaves of the house, just like their ancestors had done for 300 years. A roaring fire crackled in a hearth cozy yet fully large enough to stand up in. The sweet scents of homemade tomato sauce filled the house, familiar because it was prepared by family.

Over the course of the week, we popped in to Florence, visited the walled cities of Radda am Chianti, Castellina in Chianti and Montepulciano, and toured the vineyards at Badia Coltibuono.

Here was one of the dishes of Pappardelle al Ragu Di Cinghiale (pasta with wild boar meat sauce) that I had for lunch that week. I think I tried this dish at two or three different restaurants in Tuscany - it varied in texture and flavor like barbeque born of respective houses in Kansas City and Charlotte.

Also on the menu; everything from roasted rabbit to lush green pizza, from sweet venison to fine, spreadable bone marrow on fresh baked bread. I’m a non-dessert kind of guy and I nearly fell over when I first tried a Cannoli Siciliani proffered from a vendor at a market stall. Everything, every dish was exquisite. It was the most-groans-per-moment, most pleasant and steadiest stream of local cuisine I had experienced since I lived in Japan.
Sometimes, one learns other home economics or life skills, even on these short trips. On this journey, my brother’s rented car blew a tire on its second day so by watching I learned how to change a tire. After 15 years free of car ownership, I discovered how tires don’t have inner tubes anymore so they can be mended by a roadside mechanic in less than 10 minutes for under 20€. Go figure! I also learned how to grab a parking space in the garage underneath Florence Station, by getting out of the car, using my body and some frantic waving movements with my arms to prevent capture of the space by a livid Italian Soccer Mom who was trailing our six. Mi Dispiace! Sono terribilmente spicente!

We being Americans could only spare a week for a holiday before we were all heading East, West and North West from Florence airport. Time was up on our time together before I could say “al dente” – but what a way to spend quality time with family. Grazie Italia, graze.

11 April 2015

Fresh Air February, Merry March - 2015

[Evening in Waikiki, Hawaii]

It would be nice to say that when granted a bonus thirty-day leave of absence stateside in February, I would show up at a log cabin somewhere in the forests of Northern New England, chop firewood and not leave until I had written a novel. It would be a pleasure to boast how I spent a month at a rented house in Monterrey, CA devouring 3,000 pages of John Steinbeck while learning how to surf in the frigid Pacific. Maybe I should have hired a flat in New York to rediscover old haunts and eat in great restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But I didn’t do those things. Instead I did the following.

Two weeks in late winter in DC are quite enough. I left Tel Aviv for home leave two weeks early so I could take some training for work, and thereby save my employer thousands on future required travel. But the Northeast is a miserable place in winter, outside the sweet, incandescent holiday cheer of December. By the first of January, the grey skies are oppression incarnate, and the feet of trudging down-coated commuters become as heavy as bitter cold concrete. I did what I always do when I pop in to DC – I called on a myriad of old friends and family, packing every vacant space in my schedule with catch-ups. Just like always I emerged exhausted. This time, in some gloomy foreshadowing of the aging process to come, I severely injured my back while packing - moving my suitcase from the stand to the bed. By the next morning – I could barely stand without my eyes filling with tears of extreme agony. I barely made it to my last day of testing before retiring to my undersized glass hovel of what was supposed to be a four star hotel room. The next morning, back patches and OTC painkillers applied, I was on my way to DCA, home leave bound, wincing with every pothole.

Flying South - fond memories of a four-day weekend are whiskey with stories with friends at a lakeside fire pit in Atlanta, bacon-oyster pizza with my nieces and the finest pork BBQ imaginable with my brother and sister-in law in Birmingham- all hard-to-come-by opportunities back in the land of Israel.

[Frosty river, shot somewhere above the fruited plain in Kentucky or southern Indiana.]

As an ice storm blew in to Birmingham, I blew out of Shuttlesworth airport’s spiffy new terminal (which still had that new carpet smell). It was a frigid Tuesday morning flight to Chicago in a frosty Canadair commuter jet warmed only by the Chik-Fil-A chicken and biscuit I had with my morning coffee. I switched aircraft in ORD for my flight to SFO, happy to not have to endure more than an hour in one of America’s most frenetic hubs.

I’ve spent three and a half of the last five years overseas and every time I return home I notice that something has changed in America. For example, I noticed that every man who can grow one sports a full-on bushy lumberjack beard, a fifties style haircut and tight pants. Slip-on canvas boat shoes are also in. And the airlines it seems have begun handing out Boarding Group 2 and Premier Status to everyone with a credit score of 650 or higher.

My point of stopping in SFO on my way to Hawaii was simple logistics – I didn’t want to spend an entire day traveling from Alabama to Hawaii only to arrive in Honolulu at midnight completely exhausted and having to return to the airport the following day to fly out on an interisland anyway. Spending two nights and a full day in SFO seemed to be a nice idea. I love being right.

Steeley Dan’s “Babylon Sister” played on my phone as the BART pulled out of SFO towards downtown. I stayed in an old hotel off of Market Street which kept the faith, in a tastefully renovated, modern sort of way, in the early 20th century style of tiny bedrooms with sinks with bathrooms down the hall.

The last time I was in San Francisco proper was in May 2001. I had just graduated from college and I was thinking about moving back to California. Travel west young man and all that jazz. Gifted a few nights worth of Marriot points by my aunt and uncle, and burning an airfare voucher gifted by guilt-plagued airline due from an unfortunate return trip from Costa Rica a few months earlier, I had come to scope out the area. My interviewer at a temp agency said, in the nicest way humanly possible, that I had no marketable skills and no immediate prospects for employment in tech-bubble-burst Bay Area. So I spent the balance walking miles and miles of the sidewalks of San Francisco, resound to the fact that I had no business being there.

Fast forward almost 14 years, and here I was burning a few nights layover on my own dime, albeit in a much cheaper place, decades wiser, a half million miles more on my odometer and not at all daunted by the prospect of making it in San Fran. It felt like a completely different place, maybe because I was in a completely different place.

My first stop was for something I had not yet developed a taste for in 2001, but today I am near insane with craving. The Pacific coast from Washington to British Columbia produces the best oysters in the entire world. No one should take that title lightly, and when bestowing it on this region, I certainly don’t. At Hog Island Oyster Co. in the Ferry Building, I had the best six oysters I have ever had. I will not tell you the name of the variety, lest frenzy break out and the world supply is exhausted. But they were small, but deep and had the flavor of the type of white chocolates found in the middle of an oyster, filled with sweet salty spring water at the bottom of the sea. Disappointingly I had a terrifically subpar dinner afterwards in Chinatown, but walking through that neighborhood at night was fine consolation.

For me, the only proper way to see a city is to get lost by foot. So next morning, the sun rose on one of my favorite days of home leave. I set out in search of a breakfast burrito. I walked up hill from Market st, into Nob Hill, ascending Polk Gulch through Russian Hill before descending into Cow Hollow where I finally discovered an old deli, the Marina Deli on Chestnut Street, where I wolfed down a respectful breakfast burrito and watched life cruise by. Newly fortified with egg and tortilla, waltzing through the Marina District, I stopped in to gawk at the weird yet magnificent Palace of Fine Arts, before once again ascending, this time hiking the hills adjoining the Presidio.

Through Presidio Heights, Lake Street and down into Richmond, I found the Victorian houses and steep streets to be a small straw short of paradise. Little wonder this place is so sought after. It’s a good thing that I hadn’t walked this way back in 2001, I thought. I probably would have found myself a few months later, destitute and dreaming of any way possible I could remain a resident of San Francisco. The comically built steep streets, the Pacific vistas – the late morning clouds burning off the tops of eucalyptus – the cast iron domes of 19th century shipping magnates and eccentric appetites of Victorian facades; who could not be impressed?

I finished my long day on foot with a circuit reminiscent of my 2001 trip – Golden Gate Park – one of the world’s finest large city-center parks- followed by a walk down Shakedown street – or Haight street, the least boring avenue in America. I almost ran late for a meet up for lunch with a friend at a dark pub in the Financial District to lament the gloomy state of European security over a few frosty Anchor Steams. Dinner with another old friend at a sushi joint in Japantown was superb – she had been there before once years ago for a wild bachelorette party. Gulp. Yelp. Heading to the airport the following morning, life was somber on the BART. I wish my layover had been a week at least …or several years. In this place in my life, I’d have been happy with either one.

Upgraded to first class, I boarded in Group 1. The plane was an old triple 7 with no entertainment or working wi-fi. It was like kind of like getting extra leg room on a Greyhound bus. But breakfast was decent, I had plenty of movies downloaded to my pad and I was traveling to Hawaii for two weeks, so who could really complain about anything?

The plane banked sharply into a low holding pattern just south of the Honolulu airport while we were awaiting clearance to land. I used to always sit in window seats before I started flying internationally. Nowadays, I flight at night and/or over featureless terrain so often, that I usually select an aisle set for the dual-use benefit of myself and my fellow passengers. But if I fly at daytime and if it’s a short hop or I can get up without bothering others, I purchase window real estate. Today that selection meant the jackpot to see far below - a pod of humpback whales happily making their way around the waters of the South Pacific, looking for a nice place to have lunch. Later as we descended on final approach, I spotted an impressive convocation of four F-22 Raptors taking off from a nearby air base. Perhaps “launch” is more apt.

Honolulu International Airport is a decrepit, sorry complex of scary concrete. Not at all what I’d expect from one the Pacific’s busiest air hubs of passenger and commerce, and certainly the State of Hawaii’s most important. The monitor said that I could pick up my baggage at the C12 belt. There was no C12 belt, but I did see that the belts were numbered instead of lettered. I found my belt by walking by and reading the inbounds manually. I asked a branded airport attendant standing by the belts where the interisland terminal was, and how far away it was. He gave me one vague answer and one wrong one – waving his hand in a general direction towards my back and stating that there was a shuttle, but that I could walk there in five minutes.

Twenty minutes of running later with all the worldly belongings one might need on a seven week trip, I finally found the interisland terminal, and was almost late for the bag drop deadline. The interisland terminal was in even more dire straits than the main terminal: no windows or doors donned whole sections of the pedestrian walkways, a depressing array of dining options and not enough seating in the waiting areas. Hawaiian airlines happily provided status in their premier program to all residents of Hawaii, or so it appeared. Well, I suppose I deserve some time at the bottom of the airline status ladder from time to time - healthy for a balanced perspective diet.

I flew into the tiny Hilo airport, rented a car and began the drive across the Big Island to Kona. The volcanic landscape was so bizarre - like driving on a paved two lane highway on the moon.

There was some difficulty in picking which island in Hawaii I wanted to visit. Of course I was eventually going to stay on Oahu – my sailing class was there. However, I labored over whether to pick Kauai or the Big Island to spend my run-up week. Kauai was the clear winner, but unfortunately the winds and the seas were not in my favor. I could not kayak the famed north shore of Kauai this time of year. What would be the point of going to a place I would certainly return to anyway? Better cross a place off my list and not return. Besides, I had never seen a volcano up close and personal before – they were always looming above me or off on the horizon.

The Big Island it was. This would be my first and likely last trip to the Extraterrestrial Island – a crispy and boiling moon anchored to the bottom of the Pacific.

In Kona, and in the Big Island itself, I took it easy. I’d been on the road for three weeks and was exhausted. I drove around the coast and went snorkeling. I checked in to a few nights in a cheap hotel in downtown Kona and drank Hawaiian beer and ate Hawaiian pizza which I shared with a unionized Minnesotan welder who lives in Anchorage and a local surfer who was attending community college but soon wanted ditch everything to go backpack Europe. A few days later I drove north along the coast to spend a few nights in a camp shelter on scenic Hapuna Beach. My first night at Hapuna Beach, I left to join a guided tour to summit the 13,000 foot Mt. Mauna Kea and do some star gazing. Curious that the highest places I have ever stood are the Himalayas and the South Pacific. Mt. Mauna Kea is actually the tallest mountain in the world, if you measure from its base on the ocean floor.

Tremendous sunset that evening high above the Pacific, but by the time it dropped below the horizon, I was light headed in the thin air.

Universities and foundations from all around the world have telescopes up here.

I had come to all the way to Hawaii because I thought it was one of the few places in the country that were acceptable in the month of February – yet I sought out and found the only place in the state where you need a winter coat.

Stargazing was quite clear that night. We looked at Jupiter, some jaw dropping supernovas and learned some helpful advice on navigation. Embarking on a useful hobby like sailing the following week, stargazing on the Big Island that night seemed the perfect time and place to learn about the night sky. After all, stars and sails brought man to Hawaii. Always a little sad to remember when looking up though – that all that light is history and where it comes from may already be long, long gone.

The following night I was aboard a diving boat off the Kona coast, heading out to sea. This was actually my first night dive and because of the experience, it most certainly will not be my last. The world famous spot to view giant manta rays is just next to Kona International Airport. The manta rays didn’t show up until the last ten minutes of the dive. I guess they were late getting off their shift at Cinnabun. Magestic bubbles lifted up from our regulators in the light of a firepit of lamps. Schools of fish danced between us in the twilight. Disturbing the peace was rafts full of uncertified snorkelers above, hovering over us like man-eating UFOs with waterproof cameras. In the heavy current, I imagined myself a naked, half-paralyzed Robert Downey Jr. squirming below a TMZ helicopter.

Long drives are part of the repatriating process. In fact, they are a required part. From Hapuna, I drove north from Hapuna as far as I could go without driving into the ocean. Then I back tracked a bit and ascended southeast into the breathtaking heights of Kohalo. The road then went through the crossroads of Waimea before I tracked it all along the north coast to the Akaka waterfalls.

Figuring I was on vacation and I should do pretty much what I wanted, I skipped my last night in Hapuna and checked into a hotel in Kona. This place, like so many adjoining establishments had gotten some sand stuck in its time gears somewhere 1974, and never really left. Paint peeled as sugary mai tais were still served in yellowing punch bowl shaped glasses on the pool patio. Floral-shirted pot-bellied husbands feign wide-mouthed zombie at some stateside sports event playing loudly on a box television suspended above the bar while the wife in her cover-up chats Iowan gossip to a bystander. Meanwhile the sun set a perfect scene to those who looked seawards and staff coolly lighted tiki torches for the $75-a-tikihead luau.

The luau I forwent and opted instead for a cheeseburger in paradise at a local joint nearby. Bar side, I met a veteran and his wife who were owners of a local construction company. Even though they were in their sixties, they were avid skydivers who had just returned from vacation in Los Angeles.

My last day on the Big I spent in a reverse traverse across Senator Inouye Highway back towards the east side of the island. Several false starts resulted from me being unable to locate a gas station on the west side of the island and there being no gas stations between the coasts - I had to fill up before the 70 mile traverse. Good thing I did too – would have run out in the middle of the moon.

Entering Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, I immediately regretted having only planned a few hours in this uncanny corner of the world. However, much of the park was closed anyway due to “high amounts of dangerous sulfur dioxide gas” and I dislike touring national parks from the cabin of a motor vehicle.

On the Illiahi Trail, one can feel the eerie heat radiated up from the ground, which formed the floor of the dripping rainforest corridor. Natural steam vents billowed across the flora in all directions like walking atop the vegetable roof, which conceals a massive underground factory. I hiked around the north rim of the Kilauea Caldera, mouth watering in lust for the Halema’uma’u Trail snaking towards the boiling crater. There it is – my reason to return to the Big if these poison gasses ever subside.

By late afternoon I was in Janus-faced Hilo; hideous from one angle (the shopping mall and parking lot lined thoroughfare) but absolutely spectacular from another [the harbor]. My 60’s style hotel room looked out onto the lively, yet tranquil harbor. Outrigger canoe clubs were departing for a late afternoon workout. Teenagers jumped off a rock in the city’s island park just offshore. It looked like fun, so I walked across the bridge to the park and decided to have a go at it. It was a lot higher than it looked from shore. “Uncle,” one boy said to me, “it is no problem. The water is deep enough.” This was the first time I had ever been called uncle by a stranger, but I instantly appreciated the novelty of respect that exists for one’s elders here in the Pacific. My trip to the Big ended with that brief, happy preview of a very Asian merit of hierarchy in relationships – a hint of the delicious Asian buffet to follow.

Back to Honolulu, where I checked into the Hyatt in Waikiki after an izakaya lunch of karayagi chicken, seaweed salad and rice with pickled vegetables. Soon I realized where I really was. I was in a Japanese resort with all the fixings. I was in heaven.

All of Waikiki is one sensational skyscrapered all-inclusive engineered for the well-deserved appetites and diversions of the beautiful people of the Land of the Rising Sun. This means a handsome dividend for the visiting American who once lived in Japan and hasn’t tasted an authentic miso ramen or even a passable tonkatsu since he left twelve years ago. My one week life on Oahu consisted of Japanese izakaya or sushi, ramen house or Korean BBQ - lunch and dinner, everyday. Breakfast in Hawaii is best served with a banana with blueberry scones and, of course Kona bean coffee.

My hotel upgraded me from “nice” to “fantastic.” My balcony had this view on the 23rd floor. I stocked my mini fridge with Longboard Lager and watched the world and the weather roll by, with only minor intermissions in the jacuzzi far down below.

One evening I pulled up to a sushi bar in Waikiki and met an attractive woman who had just moved to Honolulu. Naturally, she was married but we had a nice long chat anyway. It turns out we had something in common; we both drive resource-intensive, Mission-focused, USG-owned mechanisms in far corners of the world. She pilots Navy warships for a living. Wow.

Soon it was time for me to check out of my expensive perch in the skies above Waikiki, check my luggage with the bellhop and walk down to the harbor where I would live on a boat for three days and two nights while I learned how to sail.

Three quarters of the world is covered by water, and the wind blows over every inch of it. Sailing must be one of the most important skills of the human race, yet it is a skill that fewer and fewer of us are mastering.

Since I was a boy, I have daydreamed about sailing the world. As an adult, I realize the difficulty and danger of solo ocean-going. Even coastal cruising is fairly dangerous. Recently I read about a man who had been sailing his whole life on the fresh water tributaries and inter-coastal waterways of my old haunt of Conway, South Carolina. The first time he attempted to sail on the open ocean, he disappeared for two months and nearly lost his life before found floating on his capsized 35 foot sailboat, having barely survived on fish guts and rainwater. The ocean is no joke. If I longed to one day become a competent fifty something sailor frequenting the small ports and hidden coves of the South Pacific and Caribbean archipelagos, I better start to get some experience as soon as possible. As Fareed Zakaria would say, “Let’s get started.”

My instructor was a greying, salty, sarcastically ornery man of the sailcloth whose hold was filled to the brim with caustic ballast for the novice. Insults and seawater go together like gin and tonic, so it was the perfect way to learn how to sail.

The second night, he invited me to the Yacht Club where there was a special dinner hosted by the Commodore. The Yacht Club was not at all like a country club. There was certainly no dress code whatsoever (except for the Commodore, who was expected to dress the part). The average age was somewhere around seventy and the décor was also from the seventies. Given the surrounds, I assumed the fare would be something like Jimmy Buffet’s assessment of ‘warm onion bread, said to raise the dead’ which reminded him of ‘the menu at a Holiday Inn.’ The buffet, it turned out, was thankfully no cheeseburger in paradise either – it consisted of traditional Hawaiian pork and salads and it was of an absolutely astonishing quality. I chatted with “cruisers” – or boat people – those who lived in their sea craft on the harbor, calling on ports all over the world. Some of them, you could tell, were wealthy while others were just middle class blokes who used their modest craft like mobile homes on the waves – collecting drifting income wherever they could find it. In traveler sharing ecstasy, I listened to their sailing advice, and maritime tales of adventure and survival. One Scandinavian couple had guided their impressive sailboat all the way across the Atlantic, all the way through the Northwest Passage, south around Alaska into the Pacific and all the way to Hawaii. They were circumnavigating the globe – at a leisurely pace.

Fully accredited to take a sailboat out on day trips [but not on overnight excursions!] within sight of shore and in clear weather, I checked back into my hotel for two final nights in the islands.

On the last day, I went out to Pearl Harbor. I took a public bus from Waikiki and besides saving a metric ton of cash, I got to see more of Honolulu, which is unlike any other American city. I would compare it to New Orleans for two reasons: One that the Old Section has an exotic feeling to it. Like it was a house moved from a foreign land, root and tree, and plopped on American soil. Parts of it are quintessentially American – 19th century American Colonial or early 20th century Victorian Revival peppered with strange flowering trees or Asian shrubbery. Second comparison to New Orleans is that the new section of Honolulu consists of battered skyscrapers that show their age like tanned, working class chain-smokers.

At World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, one has many choices for site seeing. I chose the USS Arizona Memorial (a no-brainer really – like going to Gettysburg and not seeing Little Round Top) and the USS Bowfin submarine.

The USS Bowfin is a perfectly preserved WWII submarine. In the enlisted mess, I could still hear the Benny Goodman and smell the scrambled eggs and coffee.

There was one thing in particular I wanted to see in Pearl Harbor that had fascinated me since I heard about it years ago. It is the oil slick that is still, after more than 70 years, emanating from the USS Arizona after it was sunk by the Japanese.

I did not expect to be so enamored with the USS Arizona memorial. It has a specific, understated character of serene simplicity. Calm, proud patriotism. No gothic columns required to convey a sense of gratitude here. Although the surrounds are pretty, the focal points of the memorial are not situated out onto the harbor. Aside from the wall commemorated the fallen, the memorial urges the visitor to look up - at heaven, and our flag. And down, to the sea to the mighty ship herself. After all, the monument is the ship itself. The memorial on top, although remarkably wrought, is merely a dais from which makes it possible for all who desire, to fittingly mourn her.

It was crowded and noisy on the memorial, but leaning over the side, I had a quiet moment and saw what I had longed to see. Below, floating up to the surface from not far below but long ago were tiny impressions of 1940’s energy. Fading fast, yet indelible for all of time. I felt almost like I was witnessing a much more recent version of the stars - gazing out onto a colorful expanse streaming across an ocean void - it was history, living and breathing, that I was witnessing.

An indescribable feeling I vainly here try to inscribe.

At any rate, it was a wonderful way to end my time in Hawaii.

After a day of flying across the Pacific, I landed in a dusty valley in the Arizona desert to visit family.

One day we drove down to Tombstone, Arizona, home of the legend of the Shootout at the OK Corral. America must be one of the few places in the world where historical celebrities might be known as lawmen (Wyatt Earp), wandering scoundrels who befriend them (Doc Holliday) or murderous criminals (Billy the Kid). But that is the Old West: moral absolutism and relativism all in the same saddle. Again for the foreign tourists happening in on my blog – the Shootout at the OK Corral was one of the most famous legends in the Old West. Google it or watch the Kevin Costner film, Wyatt Earp.

A great thing about enduring legends, despite their veracity: they are pistol-carrying vigilantes for the cause of historical preservation of a place and time, albeit a degree of the sort demanded by commercial interest. In this case, little Tombstone would have been consumed by the desert like the Egyptian Tanis had it not been for the shootout in an alley behind the OK Corral. Curious that a famous gun fight would preserve an entire 19th century town in the middle of the desert.

Tombstone was even more interesting than I thought it would be. I never realized how wide the streets in an old West town were. It makes sense, though. Plenty of space to build, so why have cramped avenues when there was so much horse manure? One of the highlights of Tombstone was the Bird Cage Theater, a relic which used to be the center of town life and famous singers and performers from all over the Victorian world would pop in.

On the way back to Phoenix, I played my visitor trump card with the family and got them to stop over in Saguaro National Park on the outskirts of Tucson. Unusually, there are actually two distinct disconnected sections of this national park, and we dropped in to the eastern section. This National Park is gorgeous, but quite inhospitable – certainly an exception to my avoid viewing a national park from the car rule.

I've never heard of anything like a Renaissance Festival happening outside of the US. Well, they're probably considered historical reenactments in places like Europe, where the Renaissance actually took place. But in my country, Renaissance festivals are fully embraced as a treasured piece of Americana - like our county fairs or traveling carnivals. More like a mixture between the two, except with booze and costumes. Add even further novelty to the notion of 14th century knights and kings roaming America, is them roaming the Old West! I'd never seen knights joust before, so this was a real treat for a Saturday diversion in Phoenix.

Spring is the perfect time of year to visit Arizona: the weather is nice, what can be green usually is, and then there is the baseball. For the foreigner – half of America’s professional baseball teams descend on the Valley of the Sun for “spring training” a month long series of practice games against other teams. The games take place in small stadiums at much more reasonable prices than during the Season.

Either by the reins or the cow horns, one must seize any opportunity possible to explore the American West. I had a few more days of home leave to kill before heading back to the Holy Land. So I rented a car in Phoenix and set off north to Denver.

I hadn’t been back to the Grand Canyon in more than 20 years and it wasn’t too far off the beaten path northbound. Just northwest of Flagstaff, I hit a beautiful highway that snaked through a fine fir forest, then out into a wide open expanse. It was a bittersweet moment, thinking that it might be that last time I’d be driving West in the West for a while. But as soon as I reached a T in the road, I took a right and headed North, feeling fine with the fact I was heading back towards the flight home.

At the Grand Canyon Village, I rented a room in the Bright Angel Lodge - a legacy bunkroom almost a century old and only about 20 feet from the South Rim. Just like the old Bachelor’s hotel in San Fran, this one also was modestly apportioned with an in-room sink and toilet down the hall.

I took a long walk West along the South Rim and plodded along in quiet elation alongside my old dear friend, this chasm. While she listened, my mind wandered over the decades since I last visited, offering my regrets for the lateness of my return. Thousands of millennia and millions visited, so she took no particular offense.

Late at night, I could not sleep. I walked out of my room into the frigid air and peered down into the abyss. A Black Hole on Earth. Then, down below a single light emanated from a camper’s flashlight bivouacked down on a plateau above the canyon floor. A half-sleeping dragon the color of midnight with one eye open – it was warm and you could almost hear it breathing beneath the canopy of stars.

It was easy to get an early start precisely because I hadn’t slept. Driving due east along the South Rim, it was mighty easy to become distracted by the formidable views of the Canyon. Eventually, after an hour or so, the canyon fell away to my left and I began to descend along a gradual winding highway. My radio picked up a Navajo station and the songs and drums of the first Americans filled the car cabin as I entered the Painted Desert.

This is why I’d come all the way out here – open space therapy.

The Navajo station faded out of reception and the dial settled onto a public station playing folk from the 30’s.

Before saying farewell to the Southwest, I knew I wanted to see Monument Valley.
The famous American director John Ford filmed numerous Westerns here in the 40’s and 50’s, including the 1939 classic masterpiece, Stagecoach. Yet the veneration factor of seeing it up close makes the fact that it was used as a quintessential backdrop for movie sets a minor footnote. What is a wonder is why it was never designated a National Monument by the federal government. But it is on Navajo land, and it seems they treasure it even more than the National Park Service ever could.

I walked around the Wildcat Trail, a few mile loop around one of the closest “mittens”.

Continuing on further into Utah, North on 163 then heading east and then south east in a curve bending towards the border of Colorado I dropped in and out of differing flavors of desert every few dozen miles. I realized twenty five years ago when I first saw the West that the desert is anything but dull and barren. In fact, the desert of the American Southwest is the most colorful place on earth, even more brilliant then a mid-autumn day in a New England forest or a tropical island off the coast of Africa. But you forget the extent of that truth until you are out here.

Ever wonder why there is a town called “Mexican Hat” in Utah? Because there is a giant sombrero shaped rock carefully balanced by nature on a bluff overlooking the town. I didn’t take a picture, but laughed when I saw it. Natural history has such a great sense of humor.

I entered Colorado and drove to Cortez where I checked into a roadside motel. Yearning to stretch my legs, body thirsty for a swim and craving the smell of chlorine I drove to the nearby public rec center for some laps.

Colorado has been rated as either the healthiest, or one of the healthiest states in the Union by almost every online poll I see. This is due to several reasons; the weather is conducive to outdoor activity, it is an outdoor sports state and most social activity centers or is book marked by outdoor sports, and there are plenty of healthy options to eat out in many places in the state. However, twenty or so years ago, the state government did something highly important which altered the waistlines of its residents forever. It helped municipalities build recreation centers all over Colorado, so that there would never be an excuse not to stay fit in the cold, snowy months of the year.

So, my biggest complaint that afternoon was that they only had one lane open for lap swimming while the rest of the empty pool was reserved for open swim. Developed country problems.

I had dinner in a local diner, a true Mom and Pop operation as the sign was the name of the husband and wife proprietors. I ordered the chicken fried steak with fried okra and as hungry as it was after my two mile swim, I could barely finish 60 percent of the massive portions of fried goodness smothered in white gravy. American problems.

The chef came out to chat in the near empty diner. She was the Mom of the Mom and Pop operation. She asked where I was from and where I was going. She had a son in the USMC and was very proud that her daughter just bagged a massive Elk just down the road in the San Juan National Forest. She wished me happy trails, glowing contentment and I waddled back to my hotel room: fat and happy.

Continuing due east, I stopped into to see Mesa Verde National Park – my fifth National Park Service visit this home leave! I wondered if I get a free tote bag for my fifth visit in three weeks? No, that is PBS, not NPS I corrected myself.

Most of the park was unfortunately shuttered this time of year due to the weather, roads and leave schedule for the park. This time of year the park was definitely best toured by vehicle. Again, proving my foot bias wrong.

The Mesa itself was arduous to surmount, even by vehicle. It took what seemed like hours to ascend the winding road from the highway to the top.

Our native forefathers obviously chose the location of assembly of cliff dwellings wisely. It reminded me of a more extensive version of Mangup Kale in Crimea (see blog post in 2007), which curiously was also at its peak around the same time as Mesa Verde - 900-1000 A.D. Mangup Kale was intentionally established on mesa top for defensive reasons, but some archeologists have argued that Mesa Verdeans lived cliff side for climatic comfort, not really for defense until the end when things seemed to have been becoming dicey internally. But its all conjecture, really. No one knows why everyone mysteriously disappeared in the 1300s – maybe famine or internal strife.

Wanted to take a hike to get a feel for the ecosystem, but alas was wearing improper footwear for trudging in the snow.

By late afternoon, I was soaking in hot springs, which is pretty much what I spent the following three days doing. Pagosa Springs is like the Walt Disney World of Coloradan hot springs. It has 20 pools, some small and very hot, some large and cool, some with waterfalls and some within the gushing cold river itself. Like Disney World, it’s ridiculously crowded and feels like a small town carnival at night, but it’s well worth the money and the stopover. Most people gawked at me as I leapt from hot water into the freezing cold waters of the river. I convinced several to try it, extolling the virtues of the cold water therapy and insisting that they were only getting half the pleasure of the hot springs without the cold. I boasted few converts.

The following day, I woke early and headed east then north through a familiar, yet perpetually magnificent valley that stretches between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east and the Collegiate Peaks to the west. Exited only to buy some local honey and then to soak in the Princeton Hot Springs, duly deserved recognition for its in-river hot pools.

In Breckenridge, it just started to snow a bit as I arrived. This was the first snow of my entire trip, having narrowly missed storms in both DC and Alabama.

I spent the evening catching up with friends over pizza in downtown Breckenridge: meticulously constructed and care taken, whereby invading moneyed yuppies from the cities and young hipster ski bums were squatting on a Norman Rockwell painting of a quaint Coloradan mountain town.

A few whiskeys later, I awoke to find my rented Ford covered in four inches of powder and it was still coming down. I was pretty sure I hadn’t driven in snow since Bill Clinton was President. The 11,000 ft Loveland Pass on Highway 70 was going to be quite a challenge in a sedan.

On the upside west of the Pass, things looked golden. The snow wasn’t that severe and the highway surface was slick but somewhat clear. Then through that marvel of engineering, the Eisenhower Tunnel, I exited the east side and encountered the weather’s treachery. It was snowing very hard and the entire right lane had disappeared under a white blanket. Foolhardy idiots in SUVs or 18-wheeler freight trucks barreled down beside me at full speed. Their road luck or driving skill was sufficient, however, as I encountered no accidents on the 40 miles of downside. The sheer edge of the saddle between heading either to destruction or to destination in a motor vehicle has always impressed me. I stopped in the caves of Idaho Hot Springs for a soak to calm my nerves before continuing to Denver International airport to drop off the car.

The last couple of days of home leave were of course, over in the blink of an eye. I stopped in Denver to shop for clothes, have a few beers at My Brother’s Bar, swim laps in my old pool at the University of Denver, before flying to DC for a night out for St. Paddy's, a day of work and then back to the airport and over the Atlantic to Tel Aviv.

Unpacking from this trip, little need to say, took a while.