While California holds many treasures, none are so precious as the Eastern Sierra. Every time I visit I come away wondering why I don’t spend more time here.
In the middle of May I joined a trip with friends that was intended to be a Death valley motorcycle tour. When we entered into the Eureka Valley from the North, a sand storm forced us back out to higher ground. A forecast of temperatures into the 100s made us reconsider our Death Valley tour, but this part of the world has much to offer, so we did not suffer.
First on tap was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forrest, a park I have desperately wanted to visit for a decade. Finally, the snow pack and other factors complied and my neighbor justin and I rode 12 miles of gorgeous dirt road to visit the Patriarch Grove where the oldest living trees on earth grow. The Bristlecone Pine Forrest is a unique ecosystem at an altitude of 11,000 ft. Conditions are dry and cold and the gnarly trunks of the trees tell the story of what it takes to reach 4,600 years of age.
We had planned for 100º weather so when snow started falling on our camp, much fire and whiskey was required to raise our spirits, but the natural beauty of the surrounding made up for it all.
To warm up a bit, we moved over to the Alabama Hills OHV area and set up camp. I usually try to avoid OHV areas like the plague, but, hey, we were the plague this time, so why not. In fact, we were the only OHV group in the park and enjoyed an amazing expanse of rock formations with the backdrop of Whitney Portal, gateway to the tallest mountain on the lower 48.
Being the only ones in the group with ADV bikes, Justin and I took a side trip on a tip from the gift store keeper at Whitney Portal (who also rides). We set out for the ghost town of Cerro Gordo, a former lead-silver mine in the White Mountains.
We climbed high above the Owens Valley to get to town. The unique thing about Cerro Gordo compared to other ghost towns (I am told), is that Cerro Gordo has a ground keeper so you can visit the inside of the buildings.
Our host, Robert, was the character you might expect to find at the end of a 7 mile dirt road, 8000 ft climb. Robert described being snowed in for six weeks two winters prior before he dug out. Author of three books on the mine, he knew the detailed history of the place, the gunfights, brothels, and, being a miner and certified blaster himself, the mechanics and hardships of the mining. This was the wild west for real.
Homeward bound over Sonora Pass, the Sierra views take our breath away. Over our first non-oatmeal breakfast in a week we all vow to return soon.
Your heart is racing as you run through the thick, thorny Acacia brush. The only indication of where the others are is the yelping of the dogs nearby. A clearing opens and there stands the lead hunter holding the dying body of a Vervet monkey breathing its last breaths, its entrails hanging out. The dogs are exhausted and while some are still excited by the smell of blood and the adrenaline rush of the kill others look dazed and are clearly injured from the death battle with the simian.
Another day, another hunt in the land of the Hadzabe, the last hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania.
I was fortunate to have a chance to live the life of our ancestors for less than a day: an exciting morning that started with a 4am wake-up call at our lodge.
We drove the rickety old Land Cruiser on loan from a co-worker through the rough roads, made even rougher by the torrential downpours the small rains bring. After many seemingly random left and rights through the overgrown landscape, we parked. Our guide led us through a crawling height crack in a rock that led into a large cave. Inside we were cast in a world back into time. The Hadza sat by the fire smoking their bangi and greeted us with great enthusiasm. I noticed a baboon skull on a stick in the fire, gently simmering the brains.
As dawn slowly turned the sky pink, the dogs became restless and started moaning with urgency knowing they would go out and hunt soon. We gathered and started on an unhurried, but high-paced walk through the hills of the Lake Eyasi region of Tanzania.
I’m in back in Cali after an amazing time in Brazil. I am backlogged about three posts, but just wanted to throw some fun photos of a recent trip I took to Mammoth. I particularly like this kitebus shot:
I played around with my NIK plug-in a bit to get the old-film look I wanted. Thank you Caitlin for the teamwork photo!!
It was great to be back on the snow after two years of Endless Summer, and spend time with old friends. I am already looking forward to next snow season!
I’m on my second trip to Brazil in just over a year, and I frequently get compliments on my Portuguese from Brazilians. My fellow foreign travelers just throw up their hands in disbelief that I have yet to take a class. Portuguese is not an easy language to learn, but with some applied effort and immersion it is possible to get quite fluent quickly. With a little autodidact spirit, and the help of the internet you’ll be jiving with some cariocas before you know it — here’s how I did it more or less in chronological order:
- Determination. Before I arrived in Brazil in the Spring of 2010, I decided I would learn Portuguese. This changed my mindset for the trip, and I started to look for Portuguese language before I left. Just make up your mind that you will learn.
- Music. I love Brazilian music (who doesn’t?), and I downloaded a few albums to start bobbing my head to while still in the States commuting to my job and back. I later found this website: http://letras.terra.com.br/that has excellent translation, and usually a linked video though it may not play in all countries depending the DRM.
- iPhone/iPod Touch. Any touch screen device with iOS or Android will do, but this is one of the primary tools I use dozens of times a day. Further below is a list of podcasts and apps I use/used below. This is a HUGE resource you must use. If you don’t have a fancy device, at least download some of the (free) podcasts.
- Translation websites. Of course Google translate is quite useful, but be careful, the translations usually are only an approximation, and verb conjugations are frequently entirely wrong. I recently found a website I quite like that has a database of actually translated documents (by humans): http://www.linguee.com.br This is a useful resource when you are writing business documents, and need to translate jargon. The fact that you see the translation in context beats Google translate by a mile. A useful verb conjugation website is http://www.verbix.com/languages/portuguese.shtml
- Movies and television. This one is kind of a no-brainer, but watching Brazilian movies with English (at first) and Portuguese (later) subtitles greatly speeds up learning. I loved A Mulher Invisível, and Tropa de Elite (1 and 2) has much acclaim over here as well.
- Brazilians! Last ingredient in the mix is of course the wonderful people of Brazil. You’ll never meet a more affable and inclusive crowd who will go out of their way to be helpful and hospitable. Don’t just hang out with your gringo friends! I see this frequently in hostels and think it’s really too bad. Meeting a Brazilian girlfriend/boyfriend can be a tremendous help as well, as long as they don’t speak too much English of course.
So let’s chat some more about the iOS apps and podcasts out there. The Podcasts work on any mp3 player. I’m not sure if the apps are available on Android as well.
- Podcast “Ta Falado”. This podcast is published by a professor of Portuguese at the University of Texas, Austin, and I think is extremely well done. It is titled as a Portuguese lessons for Spanish speakers, but even if you don’t have much Spanish this podcast will help you (and maybe you’ll learn some Spanish at the same time). it’s the only podcast I can recommend strongly. There are others out there, but they are usually to short, and spend half the podcast with some introduction you don’t care about promoting their website.
- App “Portuguese-English Dictionary by Ultralingua”. I actually wish I could recommend a different dictionary app like those by French publisher LaRousse which are excellent, but Ultralingua is in fact the best one out there, and they know it allowing them to charge $20 for this app (Larousse does not currently publish a pt-en dictionary though they have a pt-fr one). Of course you probably wouldn’t hesitate twice in the bookstore to spend that kind of money, so get it if you’re serious about learning Portuguese. The fact that you will always have your phone on you, means you also have a dictionary and full verb conjugations in your pocket at all times. This is a very powerful tool and a must-have!
- App “Byki Brazilian Portuguese”. This is a great app to get you going even back in the homeland with all kinds of survival phrases and words with pronunciation and flashcard test. This app really shows how language learning has changed through touch devices. It’s like a mini rosetta stone for much less money.
- App “Amazon Kindle”. I haven’t switched to iBooks, and they may offer this feature as well: Whenever you’re reading a book in the kindle app, if you hold down on the word, the app flashes a quick dictionary definition without editing the book. Here’s the kicker…it also does this with books in Portuguese! This is huge. Once you are at a level when you want to try to read a book in portuguese being able to look up words greatly reduces the pain of learning.
Hope that helps — comment with any questions and boa sorte!
Rio de Janeiro — a Cidade Maravilhosa — a city without comparison, and with a draw so strong that anyone who leaves is full of saudades and wants to return. I returned here one more time, just to double check if I really liked this place that much, and the answer is a resounding yes. It’s also almost February and that means one thing for Rio: Carnival! This year, the official carnival starts on the 17th of February and lasts until Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras) on the 21st. If you’re going, you should plan on getting there a week early or so to enjoy the bloco practices, where each neighborhood has its own carnival parade with its own song and practices on a regular basis to make sure to put on a good show during the four days of the actual carnival (starting February 17 this year).
In preparation for carnival, I have been reading a book recommended to me by a Brazilian friend. It’s called Carnival no Fogo or Carnival under Fire in English by Ruy Castro. Castro’s writing is witty and funny and gives the reader a history of Rio from the years of the first discovery by the western world until today, as well as the historical and cultural background of the famous carnival. I highly recommend it for any Riophiles or anyone planning on going there.
On a recent trip to Mexico, I had a unique opportunity to spend time with Huichol indians and partake in their Fiesta del Tambor — a festival and religious ceremony celebrating the new corn harvest, and bringing offerings to the Huichol gods as well as initiating the Huichol children into their religion.
The trip came together out of pure serendipity, as I was visiting my friends Rafe and Laura in Mexico, when I had an opportunity to tag along with Laura, who was tagging along with the parents of a childhood friend of Rafe’s — Jack and Sandy — long time friends of a Huichol family. Laura and I met up with Jack and Sandy at night in the Guadalajara airport and from there we drove to the town of Tepíc, capital of the state of Nayarit just north of Jalisco. This is Mexico-central where the landscape alternates from rugged canyons and sierras to soft rolling fields with endless rows of blue agave — the plant that produces the heralded Tequila. The Huichols don’t live in Tepíc, but do come down from their villages in the sierra to buy goods in the local hardware stores and supermarkets, and also sell their artwork — a mixture of textile and bead work that is very colorful and quite pretty to look at. Mid day we left Tepíc for our host family’s settlement set back 10km or so off the main road. After a bumpy ride in our capable front wheel drive rental car we pulled into the village. Instantly the car was surrounded with kids, but after they all came and said hello to Jack and Sandy and met us they went back to their business of playing and hanging out. A little girl called Brisa proudly showed Laura and I the family pets, a pair of falcons found as babies. The male bird, obviously was used to Brisa, cooing gently when she walked up and not really paying too much attention when she yanked on his tail a few times, as if he were the family Labrador. Brisa’s mom yelled out from the kitchen to leave the bird alone, and later she came over to feed these impressive predators their daily meal of raw meat. Eagles (same as falcons to the indians) have important symbolical meaning in Huichol religion as they reside in the sky and their feathers impart special powers to the shaman.
Preparations for the festival were already under way when we arrived, and at night, the first ceremony kicked off and we met Joaquin, patriarch and budding shaman of the family. This was Joaquin’s first year solely conducting the Fiesta del Tambor, and his powers as a shaman and confidence of the family had yet to be garnered. The ceremony had been complicated as well by a family strife between Joaquin and his brother (who lives 20 yards away) much to his mother’s discontent. Notwithstanding his internal stresses Joaquin welcomed Laura and I and expressed his joy at us sharing the ceremony with his family. Chanting and some early offerings occurred, and the beating of the drum and the stoking of the sacred fire commenced. We were invited to participate and made offerings of corn and chocolate to the altar. We also placed corn in the fire, an important symbol for the Huichols, and throughout the night, shaman Joaquin would shake his feather-clad prayer wand called a muwieri from the fire to the heavens and back while mumbling prayers and apparently having deep exchanges of some sort. A young bull had been brought out during the day and was tied on a string nearby quietly grazing whatever he could reach. Jack clued us in that the bull was to be slaughtered by knife at some point late in the night. At one point the whole party got up and gathered around the bull, now a little spooked by the sudden attention and probably wondering what we wanted from him. As Joaquin chanted the group passed around the ceremonial knife that we all flashed to the chosen bovine. As I showed this animal its tool of imminent death, I couldn’t help but notice the knife seemed kind of shiny and cheap, more of decoration quality, but I guessed it would have to do the job. The group moved back to the fire and the drum, and the bull went back to grazing. Laura and I vowed to try to stay awake for the slaughter, but I went to bed not a 100% convinced I wanted to watch. I, in fact, did not get up, but was awakened in the night by a long protesting mooing – a swift death it was not.
The following day was marked by a ceremony involving the young children of the settlement. The children perform this spiritual voyage the first seven years by shaking their prayer rattlers for hours while the Shaman goes around and performs some rituals on them. I was impressed how these young children sat still on a chair in the sun for so long without much protest. The night held some more chanting, and fire, and drumbeating though the energy level wasn’t quite what it had been the day before. The heat of the daytime ceremony and the continuous praying and ceremony leading had left the shaman and his troupe exhausted.
The final day, a Sunday, made me think of Christmas. It was a day where the extended family and village friends gathered and exchanged offerings and gifts. Joaquin’s brother also came, and it was clear this was an emotional healing for both of them. Everybody received a portion food offerings and took them to be blessed by Joaquin. The food we ate consisted of squash, elote (corn), and jerked bull. the corn was dry and chewy but very tasty, and the squash tasted delicious. The woman had also been brewing a corn beer called tesguino, a wild-fermentation, acidic, and mildly alcoholic beverage that looks like café con leche. Most of it was hard to get down, but all the women came around with their bucket (as in the plastic rubbermaid kind) and spooned out a teacup’s worth expecting you to down it. I was sure I would have some dire intestinal effects following this force feeding, but all turned out all right in the end.
At the end of the weekend, I felt truly privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with such a gracious group in their special time, and felt very grateful for our new friends Jack and Sandy’s who shared so freely their garnered knowledge of the Huichols. Thank you both, and Laura for letting me tag along!
You can read more about Huichols here:
From Moab, we made a quick stop in Grand Junction Colorado to drop Scott off at the airport, and then continued on headed toward Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. The road to Zion is beautiful and takes you along beautiful parts of Utah where the desert gives way to the forrest, and then turns into desert once more. We happened to roll through the Escalante National Monument area whilst the Aspen where dressed in booming yellow fall colors — a gorgeous sight.
Chris and I spent a rainy night in Bryce Canyon, but were rewarded with sunshine the next morning. We proceeded to walk down into the canyon along the Queen’s Garden trail — an easy path with quite a few hikers on it, but we found it well worth our while. Bryce Canyon is so unique, there really isn’t a bad photo to take. In just about any light condition the colors really pop. I tried to shoot some lightning at sunset, but alas, that is a tough proposition and I did not get a capture. I found it a fun activity though much akin to fishing, and I will try again in the future.
On we rolled to Zion National Park, where the rain let up initially, and we enjoyed a sunset hike to Angel’s Landing — a somewhat perilous hike with rewarding views looking down the majestic Zion Valley. The park’s names nearly all are biblical and Mormon references, and that seemed apropos as the place feels heavenly. The following day we had several options on the table, but Chris had a hankering to hike The Narrows — a famous slot canyon hike popular in summer (it was now fall), and I was certainly interested in checking it out as well. To tackle the hike, we were recommended to rent drysuits and some special canyoneering boots, as most of the hike is spent wading through the river that formed the slot canyon. The only hitch in our plan was that there was rain in the forecast for the afternoon, and flash floods are a real threat in slot canyons. The lovely girl at the shop assured us we would be fine as long as we got out of the canyon by 1pm. That seemed doable enough, so of we went. The hike was marvelous,and very unique. The dry suits turned out to be a smart decision, particularly in case something were to go wrong, and we were forced to spend some extended time in the canyon. All turned out fine even though the rain did show up creating a dozen waterfalls on our way out of the canyon. By the time we were covering the final quarter mile or so, the water level had risen noticeable and we had to swim some parts we walked before. I can imagine if we had stayed in much longer things might had gotten sporty.
When you’re cruising through the desert, you come across some interesting pieces of Americana — Ghost towns, lone structures in the middle of nowhere. They seem kinda creepy at times — cars parked, but no one around — gently bubbling meth labs, but no cooks in the kitchen…
This trailer reminded me of the one in Kill Bill 2 where Uma and Daryl Hannah duke it out, until someone loses an eye.
So, basically, the original motivation for getting the bus was to go explore southern Utah and environs with the underlying ambition to eventually take the bus to Baja for kitexplorations. It took a while to get there, but at the beginning of October I finally made it to the colorful south of Utah. The area holds a slew of national parks, national monuments, and various other classifications protecting this incredibly interesting and geographically varied part of the US.
My friends Chris and Scott joined me for this part of the trip, and we picked the city of Moab as our base of operations, planning on visiting Arches NP, Dead Horse Pt. SP, and whatever else we had time for before we had to drop Scott back at the Grand Junction airport. We ended up having a blast in this veritable outdoor playground. We hiked up to Delicate Arch, got lost in the Fiery Furnace, and engaged in various other adventures in Arches. Outside the park we amused ourselves with stand up paddling the Colorado River (even some Class .5 rapids), and mountain biking the fabled Slickrock trail above Moab — a global classic in mtb trails. We managed to finish all these treacherous feats without personal injury or loss of limb though I’m afraid my rear wheel will never quite be true again…If you go to rent a bike for Slickrock, I would recommend a full-suspension bike with 26″ wheels — not a 29’er hardtail, but anyways.
Having these guys on board was the a great testament to German RV design, as we camped for five days with three adult males fitting inside a 34 year-old, 15 ft vehicle. I think everybody was comfortable (especially me in the penthouse) though longer than this would become a challenge. We had a fantastic time all together, and I was excited to share some of the kitebus chronicles with my friends.
Here’s a video of Chris showing us the ropes on Slickrock:
It is a given that at least once in his or her lifetime every American aspires to visit Yellowstone National Park — the oldest of all National Parks signed into to law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. The draw to come here are all the animals that move through and live in this large area as well as the interesting landscape and features formed by geothermal activity. The holy relic is of course Old Faithful, the geyser of all geysers. There are in fact many geysers in Yellowstone as well as various sorts of holes in the ground bubbling steam, hot water and noxious fumes. It’s kind of a marvelous mystery land, in particular for a certain breed of microbiologist who study thermophiles or organisms that love hot environments. I know this because while waiting for the “Vixen” geyser to erupt two German travelers sat down, one being a microbiologist who had been at a recent thermophile convention nearby (nerd!). Susi taught me some basic stuff about these fascinating organisms, and we hope she will be able to characterize some hypothetical samples that may or may not have been collected after an eruption.
The park was quite cold while I was there with temperatures dropping down to 28ºF (-2ºC). Campfires kept us warm, but sleeping definitely required proper gear. Every morning the water in my glass would be frozen as well as my olive oil….brrr