Haida Gwaii

Off the coast of British Colombia, right up close to Alaska but still a solid 100 miles off the coast is an comma shaped grouping of islands. For several millennia the only inhabitants were a fearsome nation who were known to canoe across that wide expanse of water to raid the coast.

Their home was a beautiful and temperate expanse of ageless trees, salmon-full rivers, beaches of shellfish and kelp. Their companions were eagles, ravens, bears and the teeming life of the northern rainforest. The Haida's were wealthy enough to have slaves - to be able to feed, cloth, protect not only themselves but the young men and women they would bring back from the mainland. 

First contact with what too predictably would be the destructive forces of Western European expansion happened quietly at first. A Spanish boat may have been the first contact and it wasn't till several decades later that real established contact happened. Traders and fisherman initially worked with the Haida's. Even to violent and well armed Europeans the Haida's were a fierce opponent. It was really until a catastrophic epedemic of smallpox decimated the nation in the early 18 hundreds that the Haida's were fully subjugated. From a population of 10,000 the Haida's were reduced to 600. Imagine a town, a small city really loosing over 90% of its inhabitants. 

What the Haida lost though was more rare and valuable than just their lives, their culture and their hold on the island was pushed to the margins, waiting to die out. For a long time, the British and then the Canadians, acted out brutal and dehumanizing policies that banned the Haida's and other First Nations from speaking their language, practicing their culture. The Haida's went underground with their potlatches. Potlatches had traditionally run for days or weeks, members of the nation would come from all over to demonstrate their wealth and connections through a complex system of giving and receiving. Resembling more a political convention than a simple get together. Potlatches became church get together or country fairs. They hid under the semblance of allocated civilization and managed to preserve through more than a 100 years the essentials of being Haida. 

Today the Haida's are reclaiming their home. Starting in 1985 with a stand against a plan to log parts of their island the Haida's have claimed the Queen Charlotte Islands back, starting with the name. It was their home and it is now again as Haida Gwaii - the people's land. 

To spend even a few days there is to get a glimpse at a beautiful land on the edge of the world. Meet people who are friendly, open, generous and proud of their home. I have no way of knowing if the Haida's and other people of Haida Gwaii were always so friendly but I can't help wondering if claiming back your home and giving pride of place to your history and culture brings about this openness and friendliness. 

Today the island's population stands at just under 5000. The main attraction is the Gwaii Haanas national park that takes up most of the large southern island of Moresby. Gwaii Haanas is only accessible by boat or by float plane. It is the first and I think still the only natural preserve that goes from the top of its tallest mountain to the bottom of the ocean floor. The Canadian government recognizing finally what the Haida's always knew, that land and water are intrinsically linked.

I didn't get a chance to visit Gwaii Hanas. That will have to be for another trip, but staying on the northern island and in Sandspit, the biggest town in the southern island, was a treat in and of itself. 

We arrived mid day at Sandspit Marina via boat. I was spending a week on my father's boat. This was just a short stop over in a two month long trip up and down the coast to Alaska and back to Seattle.  After a few hours of clean up and set up - getting power, refilling on water, washing down the decks to rinse off the salt, we rented a car to explore a little. On our way off the dock I chatted up a couple fisherman prepping their haul of Dungeness crabs. 

They'd come back from a "regular day" of fishing with several large ling cods, rock fish and salmon and 18 crabs. None of these catches are small fry. The king cod was easily 10 to 12 lbs, the rock fish close to 10 and Dungeness crabs are about the size of a grown man's head. 

A few minutes later they came over to us and handed over 3 of the crabs as a welcome to Haida Gwaii type gift. Dinner from strangers never tasted so good. 

This was the kick off to 4 days on the islands. We spent most of it exploring the coast line, the northern island, hiking in the temperate rainforest, and fishing for salmon. Running on well paved, un-traffic-ed roads from the marina to what feels like a beach at the end of the world is a nice reminder that life isn't all concrete and glass (well, hello New York). 

When you are that far from anything too man made, the air is unbelievably clear and sweet-smelling. Haida Gwaii must be a tough place in the dead of winter. They don't get a lot of snow, its too temperate, but the light must go down to just a few hours a day, and the seas get rough. The only outside links are the two small airports and the huge ferry that brings cars, food and fuel to the islands.

That first day, we went for a short walk down the a moss covered path through the old forest to a rocky outcrop. Stepping out into streaming sun after the grey and drizzle of the road, with a brilliant sun high in the sky at 8pm at night. The outcrop looked out over the beginning of the narrows, the thin body of water between Moresby (south) and Graham (north) islands. In the distance we could just see town of Skidegate but the view was of shimmering calm waters and the mountains beyond. 

A few links:

National Geographic says its the place to visit

More about Gwaii Haanas

Mid-Summer travels

View from the train towards NYC from Boston

View from the train towards NYC from Boston

Being a real human being with a real job means I can't be as spur of the moment when it comes to traveling as I was in 2013. And well, that kind of sucks but hey, real life has its benefits. I'm going to continue my if-I-could-go-anywhere and what-inspires-me posts. This one deals with films, immigration, food, wine and something interesting to read. 

A couple of films about life in and then out of the Philippines. A theme I like to stick to is that travel isn't all glossy magazines and lovely hotels. We go to these countries and skim the top. Its good to be reminded that survival in the countries with beautiful beaches is often very tough. The first film is the documentary made by Jose Antonio Vargas who wrote a wrenching piece in the New York Times magazine a few years ago coming out as an 'accidental' illegal immigrant.

The second film, Norte, portrays the brutal life of choice, poverty and violence in northern Philippines. I haven't seen it yet, waiting for it to come out in NYC.

Love Grain pancakes - and I'm pushing these because I honestly like them.

The next recommendation is a food, specifically pancakes. Love Grain pancake mix is gluten-free and made from tef, an Ethiopian grain. As you probably suspect its one of those grains that is super good for us and makes eating white bread made from bleached and process wheat flour feel like an act of self-harm. I love me some bleached flour, my baguette needs to be white and fluffy on the inside and I can eat gluten till the end of days, but that doesn't mean these pancakes aren't delicious. Try it out. On top of that its a B-Corp with a specific social mission to work with and help conditions for tef producers in Ethiopia. 

My attempt at Baklava. Courtesy of Talinn D. 

My attempt at Baklava. Courtesy of Talinn D. 

And now for a little detour to Turkey. The New York Times has a terrific article about the town most famous in Turkey for baklava. I grew up thinking only the Greek had baklava, a hold over of the first 3 years of my life living in a suburb of Athens, and it blew my mind when I learned that it was a food common throughout the levant and Middle East. The more the merrier was my thought. I feel the same way about the variations on Tabouleh and Pita (or any puffed up flat bread). A few months ago I attempted, and succeeded to a certain degree, in making my own. Big deal for me as baklava had always seemed daunting with all its layers of philo. My take came from a recipe given to me by an Armenian friend.

Ah nostalgia, and its kissing cousin homesickness. Both are curses and inspirations, and both are the strongest plumb lines of my life. I'm reading a terrific novel called In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman about the lasting impact of exile on the soul. Its a bit of a doorstop so it covers a lot more than just the fate of the exile. It ranges in geography and in subject matter -mathematics, finance, love to name a few. At its core, it is about a man and the lessons drawn from a complicated, self-examined life that starts in poverty in Bangladesh, weaves in and out of Oxford, finance, the law, England, New York and Afghanistan. I'm only a third of the way through so I can't tell you more than that. The writing is a touch victorian, with long complicated sentences, but the structure and style allows the erudition of the writer to come through, somehow, without pomposity. 

Thats it for this month. Next one will be about Seattle and all the fun things one can do up in that north west outpost.

 

 

World Cup day dreaming and more

Pão de Azucar

The World Cup is here in full force and I'm a fairly hard core fan. I've cried when my team has won, and I've cried during their victory parade. Its a bit pathetic but, hey, I own it. Besides obsessing over football, this quadrennial event always makes me dream of more travel. The location of this year's edition is particularly fascinating. Above is a shot I took (on a disposable camera no-less) of the Pão de Azucar in beautiful Rio de Janeiro on a visit in 2008. 

In honor of this phenomenal global sports event, here are some of my favorite reads on the subject, all with a travel tint.

Roads & Kingdom's Instagram feed is very Copa do Mundo focused.

If you are lucky enough to be in Brazil for the Cup, and find yourself in huge, cosmopolitain, intense São Paolo, then go discover the food. I would. 

A really awesome animated illustration from the New York Times on the curse of Maracanã

 

Some other interesting reads this week.

How Millennials are changing travel. Basically, why wait when we should live now. (I can obviously relate)

My next travel plan is going to involve at least a part of this ancient Inca road. Fascinating glimpse into the scale and scope of the Incan Empire. 

This article is a throw back to one my favorite cities to eat in, Saigon; also a great travel blog to keep tabs on.

If I lived in London, I'd go see this exhibit. Photography is another way to travel and this exhibit and competition remind us its not all luxury hotels, delicious street food, and smiling locals. We are damaging the place we call home. 

Modern ruins, a road trip and Mexico. Oh and trains, and I love trains and travel.

Read, dream, and travel. 

Trekler Launch Page

Finally, we got our launch page up. Go sign up if you want to be one of our early beta users (i realize thats repetitive). We are still very much in the development stage and there likely wont be much we ask of you for a while, but its still exciting. 

Life is an adventure and whether we are traveling around the world or exploring our own backyards, capturing our experiences and sharing them makes our lives richer and more connected. Lots of apps exist that let us share a one off picture, location or comment. A trip, or an afternoon out with friends is not just one distinct moment in time - we move around, we discover, we take lots of pictures. We at Trekler decided that what was missing was a clean, easy way to combine all of these in to tell a fuller, richer story of the adventures we live.

With Trekler’s upcoming iOS7 mobile app, users use pictures, geolocation and captions to create a Trekle. Pictures are linked in a scrollable horizontal band of tiles, each linked to an interactive map. Users will be able to share, discover, follow and grow their Trekler community to discover their friends adventures.
— www.trekler.com

Photographic travel

A friend of mine pointed me in the direction of National Geographic's 'new online photography experience', Proof. The column gives light to the storytelling process at National Geographic and the intersection of art, journalism and photography as part of that process. I happen to enjoy that kind of dialogue around the representation of place and the experience of travel. 

The entry I was sent and enjoyed the most was Musings: Gabriele Galimberti’s Couch Surfing. I didn't do any couch surfing during my travels, in part because I was a little daunted by the experience of living with total strangers. I regret it now. I think I missed out on something big by not putting myself in those situations. Who knows what terrific weirdness I could have experienced?

The irony is now that I'm in New York, I seem to have been doing pretty much only that, with friends and unknowns (who have become fast friends as a result). My favorite is probably Olga the naturalist vegetarian living in Kiev. Check it out.

Proof. Musings: Gabriel Galimberti's Couch Surfing

Olga, 22—Kiev, Ukraine. Olga is a vegetarian naturist who gives out free hugs in public.
— Gabriele Galimberti

Thank you Biggest Fan.

Travel apps... and then, Penguins

As some of you know I've been working on a travel concept app for the last few months. Obviously our app will revolutionize the way we travel (!)*. Its called Trekler and if you are so inclined you can sign up for our upcoming Beta run at www.trekler.com

In the meantime I thought I'd share my favorite travel-experience app to date. It comes, obviously, from the Japanese, purveyors of all things cool, techy and quirky. When you combine those three descriptors what you really come up with is this:

Check out the article by clicking here.

Now, we aren't bringing Penguins to life to guide you down a busy street in central Tokyo, but Trekler will still be cool, so go sign up.

* No promises on the "revolutionize" aspect. 

Good luck Horse

Gong Hei Fat Choi.png

Chinese New Year is almost upon us and it is one of my favorite times of year. From memory, I believe I celebrated my first experience of Lunar New Year eating Japanese Mochi and Philippino Lumpia while at a Pan-Asian cultural club party. Not exactly accurate but it started me down the right road.

Then my parents moved to the Bay Area and I absorbed the full sensory experience of Chinese New Year. 10 years later, several of them spent in California, Hawaii and Washington State, and I'm surprised that I find myself missing the pageantry of a holiday that culturally doesn't belong to me at all. I know SF's Chinatown is all tarted up in red and lanterns, stores selling plush little horses and all the red and lucky items one goes out to buy this time of year, but New York seems completely unawares. 

Its a reminder that immigration patterns are not the same everywhere in this country. Strangely, I also realized that Chinese New Year has become part of my cultural lexicon. I feel a little like the college kid who is in Europe in November and doesn't get to celebrate Thanksgiving. You know its happening but none of the visual clues abound to remind you that this day is going to be a special one. 

Not to fear, Friday will be spent eating what I hope is spicy southern food at Yunnan Kitchen. 

Its a bit cliche but I'm going to say it anyhow. Events like the Lunar New Year are a great time to go "traveling local". Go out and explore a different culture and food and then come home and sleep in your own bed. No passport or TSA pat down needed, great food and a bit of adventure. 

In that spirit here I recommend a read of this great New York times article by Bonnie Tsui on what to look for when you go out to discover your local Chinatown. 

Ann Johansson for The New York Times; Julia Robinson for The New York Times; Kirsten Luce for The New York Times; Emily Berl for The New York Times. Chinatown Revisited by Bonnie Tsui.

Ann Johansson for The New York Times; Julia Robinson for The New York Times; Kirsten Luce for The New York Times; Emily Berl for The New York Times. Chinatown Revisited by Bonnie Tsui.

A little bit of additional information

This year is the Year of the Horse and according to the internet, and more precisely The Epoch Times this means the following for those born in the years 1918, 30, 42, 55, 66, 78, 90, 02 and obviously 2014. Bottom line, its not a bad year to be born:

The horse ranks seventh among the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. People born in the Year of the Horse are highly animated, active, and energetic. They are typically very elegant, independent, gentle, and hardworking. 

Their most striking characteristic is their strong self-confidence. Thus the Year of the Horse is a time for all people to go forward confidently in the direction of their goals and dreams, just as the horse gallops at top speed toward its destination.

And finally, via The Huffington Post, here is some information on what to eat while you wander around your local Chinatown. The treat to really go for is Nian Gao (Nin Go in Cantonese), which roughly translated seems to mean Sticky Cake or even Chinese New Years Cake. Whatever it is called, I can't seem to find a very appetizing picture of it on the web. That is rarely an indication of taste so fear not, go out and find some to eat. I certainly will be interesting.  I'll also try and get a good picture of some.

Linora Low via The Huffington Post 

Linora Low via The Huffington Post 

Gong Hei Fat Choi!

Inspiration and Travel

Travel as inspiration is not a new concept, but there seems to be a heavy emphasis on the travel experience as a source of inspiration for us Millennials. (I'm just on the cut off so work with me here). 

We grew us as the generation who could be anything and should do whatever we wanted to do. This travel obsession has taken on a big role in the theatre of "live a life you love" dynamic. I read an interesting riposte to the "Do what you love, love what you do" ethos of my generation yesterday. Maybe because I spent some formative years in the ever-so practical midwest or because I have an engineer father, I never quite understood how the world was going to function if everyone did what they loved. There are too many necessary jobs out there that no one dreams about doing, and certainly very few love.

Slate's article on the subject highlights the inherent contradiction of idolizing some work as fulfilling and exciting to the detriment of the every day jobs we all fundamentally rely on. We think we are elevating the act of working by stating that you must love what you do, but like all things shiny and pretty, the underbelly (there is always an underbelly) is an active undermining of the hard, slog of unglamorous jobs most people do. 

So I say all this but I'm not a grinch. I clearly love travel. I also very much want to be one of those Millennials who manages to make it a part of my life and work. In that spirit, thanks to a link from Fathom (a great curated travel site) here is a video from a new travel/design/inspiration magazine, Collective Quarterly.

Really, I don't think you can ever have too much aspirational experiential travel in your life.

Suggested Reading

Reading about the places I travel too or wish to travel too is a particular favorite pastime of mine. Sometimes when I'm without the time or money or inclination (temporary) to travel, I seek out the a few books on a place in question. It's mostly fiction, though I do go for well written historical non-fiction. Reading about the time and place in the present, for me at least, takes away from the magic of discovering it for myself.

I rarely pick up pure travel writing, in the vein of Patrick Leigh Fermor, or more recently Paul Thoreaux, but a friend sent me this article written by Thomas Swick, a self professed (and published) travel writer. He captures the loneliness and sensitivity of traveling on your own, and why it's so important to aim for the places less visited. I particularly liked this passage: 

It was in Lisbon that I discovered the secret of travel writing, which is also the secret of memorable travel: You approximate, as best you can, in the short time allotted you, the life of a local. Once back home and writing, I stumbled upon another secret: The best trips make the best stories. 

I recommend you read the article, The Moving Experience, in its entirety. Click here and the link will take you to The Morning News website where it is published. Enjoy.

Nashville pie

From Memphis I drove to Nashville for a somewhat unexpected detour. I had a day between leaving the capital of dry rub BBQ and a promise of a very comfortable stay in Atlanta. Memphis to Atlanta isn't very far, a short day's drive, and my original plan was to stop over for the night in Birmingham which lies equidistant between the two places. After the music of Memphis, I was drawn to see what the other dominate music culture of the South was like. Nashville is obviously the home of Country (capital "C") and right now it seems to be having its cultural moment. Its also not that much of a detour from Atlanta and I thought, why not giving a try.

The city is having its cultural moment and is buzzing with the young, creative, anti-corporate set which is busy reviving small cities all over the country with startups and culture. Nashville, like Austin and Portland before it, seems to have captured this zeitgeist with its strong local identity, cheaper cost of living, decent weather and appetite for good food. The city even has its own eponymous TV show, a sort of Dallas for the Country set. (I seriously recommend you check it out - its trashy, its soapy, the music is great, and its a wonderful way to go through a couple of glasses of wine). It also seems amazing to me that such a small state as Tennessee is home to two very strong, sometimes related, but really distinct musical identities. With all that in mind I thought I should check out this Austin-of-the-South.

I stayed in a B&B in Historic Edgefield, a neighborhood full of beautiful craftsman style houses, and, as I discovered later, one of the hip newly rejuvenated neighborhoods. There aren't many other options for places to stay in this part of town (though I suspect that will change) but I came across the Big Bungalow B&B on accident. (Not on Trip Advisor - what? right?) and I recommend it. It's cozy, the rooms are clean, and the owner is friendly. The breakfast leaves a little to be desired but if you don't like it, go out and buy yourself a coffee and pastry from the myriad of cool places nearby (Bongo Java Cafe is a nice spot).

The next day, before leaving for Atlanta, I headed to an early lunch at Arnold's. It came highly recommended from a local I had met the night before. I could go on another tangent here and tell you how lovely the people in Nashville are but I think I'd be at it for an entire blog post. I'll only say that I'm not a huge fan of being chatted up, but in Nashville, and really most of the South that I've experienced, its inevitable and strangely wonderful. 

Arnold's was the culinary highlight of my entire trip in Tennessee. The food is good but, let's be clear, this isn't some esoterically cool joint, or a 3 star restaurant, it is simply a lovely, packed, friendly, delicious place to eat Southern food. The place is in the up and coming old warehouse district, just a little south of Downtown. Inside a brightly painted red and yellow one story building, are a bunch of cafeteria style tables and a buffet line. You stand and wait, grab a tray, and are then faced with a dizzying amount of southern dishes. Confusingly, your first choice is dessert. This may be the strangest way to organize a buffet or the smartest. If your first food item is a lovely display of different pies you can't help but grab one - I went for the Hot Pepper Chocolate Pie. It was a very good decision.

I was very clearly the only person in that line who hadn't eaten at Arnold's before and any hope I had of not being noticed was quickly dashed when the first person to serve me said loudly, "you aren't from here, are you?". He'd just spent 10 minutes shaking hands with the people in front of me and inquiring after their families, thanksgiving plans, weekends and here I was, a camera strapped to my chest and a very confused look on my face. That definitely made me blush, but after debating with the owners the best things to eat that day and why, a chat about Seattle and the greatness of Nashville, I sat down to enjoy the food piled high on my tray (including, importantly, pie).

The locals I sat next where told by the owner to be nice to me, they came to eat at Arnold's often, and after a nice chat, they recommended a wonderful coffee spot I could stop at on my way out of town. It was lovely but best of all they sold chocolate from a famous local chocolatier that I'd been looking for all day. If you go, make sure to get your hands on some Oliver and Sinclair Chocolate.

There is a lot more to do and see in Nashville than I had a chance to discover, so a visit back is definitely in the books. Next stop on the trip and this blog though, Atlanta and Asheville, NC.

Finally. I'm trying out a little experiment - click here if you want to access my google map of the sights, sounds, and tastes of Nashville that I shared above. 

A mural. A good sign a Millennial is nearby.

A mural. A good sign a Millennial is nearby.

The pie in question.

The pie in question.

Southern food from Arnold's

Southern food from Arnold's

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Memphis, or discovering dry rubbed BBQ

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Music, food, and the Lorraine Motel were our priorities for our visit to Memphis. We start off with a half day before our drive out to Little Rock, and decided to fit in as much BBQ and Elvis as two people and 4 hours can. Our first stop was a visit to Sun Studio located in Memphis but a bit of a ways off from the center. The studios offer tours throughout the day, but they fill up easily. I recommend getting there early and buying tickets for your preferred time. We missed our first opportunity, so instead of waiting around we rushed back into the center for what I can only call Brunch BBQ. 

The place to eat BBQ is Rendezvous BBQ. It is, as I've come to learn is common for these kind of places, an institution and homage to BBQ. In Memphis, its dry rub or go home. None of the West of the Mississippi sauce dripping ribs, and I may be a convert. Charlotte and I managed to each clean off our own personal rack of ribs in 25 minutes, just in time to make it back to Sun Studios for our tour of the place Elvis was discovered.  

After our visits to Little Rock and Clarksdale we had one more day and night in Memphis. Our first stop on the road back was.... Graceland! (obviously). Elvis and Memphis, Memphis and Elvis. The two are forever linked and frankly a visit to this city without a stopover at Graceland is a travesty. This is probably the right time to let you know that we were very close to not doing the whole Graceland thing. I know, I know, but we are not huge Elvis fans. I never thought he was still alive and I grew up to Britney and Madonna shaking a whole lot more than just her hips on the Ed Sullivan show. All that said, it was worth a stop. We opted for the least expensive tour which was still upwards of $30. The one positive of traveling completely off season was the total lack of lines which I have heard can be a pain during the summer. An hour or so later and a tour of the house, I have gained a whole new appreciation for Elvis the phenomenon and cultural icon, and for the amazing decorative beauty of floor to ceiling green shag. 

Later that Monday evening we arrived back in town. The main drag of downtown Memphis, its Bourbon Street in effect, is Beale Street. We discovered that it is open and loud every day of the week, even on a chilly Monday night in October. We started off with a recommendation and two delicious matching bowls of Gumbo and Étouffée at The King's Palace. I tend to stir clear of place that combine food and tourist attractions, but I promise you this was good. Our recommendation came from a very chatty local (well all the locals are chatty in this part of the country, but you get my point). Our evening was spent sampling some of the weird and wonderful of an off-season evening on Beale Street. Even though the places where mostly empty and the night was chilly all the music was good. I guess this is Memphis after all, and though the culture is packaged and lit with neon lights, these people take their food and music seriously. 

Before leaving the next morning we walked down to the old warehouse district. 'Walk the Line' was filmed here and you can see the imprint of local hipsters doing their hipster thing. Before breakfast at the Arcade Diner (I recommend the sweet potato pancakes) we went to see The Lorraine Motel. This is the spot where MLK Jr. was shot and killed in April 1968. Though the National Museum of Civil Rights is closed, the balcony where MLK Jr. died is right in front of any visitor who stops by. The motel is on a slope, and the 2nd floor balcony is almost at eye level from where you stand. A powerful and sad reminder of the murder of arguably the most important American historical figure of the 20th century.

Memphis itself is still caught in the collapse of the manufacturing and cotton industries. The downtown is really a shell of a city but there are some tendrils of growth. You can see civic investment and the very modern wave of young creatives looking for cheap but inspiring places to live. The upside is that the destruction of old buildings for newer, but definitely less pleasing to the eye, modern ones has not been rampant as in other cities. Though the pyramid that sits on the banks of the Mississippi and overlooks the downtown is an eye sore. 

Memphis was the anchor of our trip to the Delta. The first night we stayed at the Holiday Inn in downtown Memphis, across from the much more expensive Peabody Hotel. The next morning we obviously went to see the ducks, and so should you. When we returned we stayed at the much cozier and more personal Talbot Heirs Guesthouse, and that was a treat (especially after the share cropper shacks at the Shack Up Inn). I would say go. Memphis is strangely enchanting. I has been a few weeks since my visit and I keep thinking about the BBQ and history of the place. 

Sun Studio

Sun Studio

Charlotte and the most important meal of the trip

Charlotte and the most important meal of the trip

A shot of the inside of Graceland. Just a sample of the wonders of the house.

A shot of the inside of Graceland. Just a sample of the wonders of the house.

A view of the warehouse district in Memphis.

A view of the warehouse district in Memphis.

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Home of the Blues, or getting spooked in the Delta

This year of travel hasn't quite stopped yet. I got home, went to Canada, and have now headed as far away from Seattle as one can get while staying in the lower 48, a detour to the South and the Mississippi Delta. 

Mural under work in Clarksdale.

Mural under work in Clarksdale.

This trip started as a visit to Little Rock to see a friend perform at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Little Rock holds little interest other than as the location of Central High (the first integrated high school) and part of the Clintons' origin story. To compensate we expanded the trip outwards from Arkansas to include the city of Memphis and a detour to Clarksdale, MS, home to the Delta Blues. 

All these places are part of the world where you can still smoke in bars, where people engage in conversation with you with disarming genuineness, where Kudzu is a real thing, and cotton is still a cash crop. Driving through the countryside, and stopping in odd little dinners and towns, this tiny slice of the South had the unmistakable aura of being of the now and somehow very removed from it all. 

In Little Rock, the Clinton library anchors a new revitalization effort in the center of town, but most of the downtown is a depressing mix of empty buildings, too-wide streets and little life. We did have drinks at the Flying Saucer, on (you guessed it) President Clinton Avenue. 

The next day we left sharpish and drove a couple of hours back east to the home of the blues, Clarksdale, MS. Clarksdale came to be because of, and during, the cotton boom, in a corner of the state famous for the fertility of the earth and the deep poverty of the people. Something about all that created the right mix for the birth of the Blues and a whole cohort of famous musicians. Artists that are associated with more northern cities, starting with Memphis but going all the way to Chicago and Detroit, have their roots in this tiny, flat, cotton-farmed corner of land on the east side of the Mississippi. 

This "crossroads of the blues" is a small, very ramshackle town clinging on for dear life to the new economy. Most surprising for a place with so much American cultural history is the very real destitution of the downtown. The two main streets, about 4 blocks of mid century buildings very en vogue in hipster cities are 90% derelict, and not because of the recent downturn. This town of some 20,000 people felt, on the grey foggy Sunday evening we arrived, sadly spooky and forgotten.

That enduring state of being forgotten has acted as a preservation agent for much of the town. Ranging from small shotgun shacks to the ruins of the Alcazar hotel where an 8 year old Ike Turner worked. Bisecting the town are abandoned rail tracks, overgrown and forgotten. The old train station has been turned into the Delta Blues museum, an homage not so much to the history of the blues as to the musicians who made the music. Muddy Waters' childhood home, taken from the nearby Hopson Plantation, sits reconstructed inside. 

We stayed at the Shack Up Inn, just a couple of miles down the road from Clarksdale center. The hotel is a series of old sharecropper cabins located on the old Hopson Plantation which have been barely brought up to modern standards.

The shacks are esoteric and on a cold gray day with low lying fog, pretty damn eerie. Some reviews accuse it of making nostalgia chic out of a hard part of American history, but for me the experience was a way to imagine how tough life must have been. The writing of past guests on the wall isn't a plus, but I could easily imagine a few friends, a hot evening, some cold beers and the place coming to life. The beds were comfortable and the shack we rented was clean if bare boned.

Before we headed out towards Memphis, we ate at Abe's BBQ, tasted delta tamales at Larry's Tamales and listen to a very pickled old blues man play his slide guitar with soul and booze and red lights at Red's, the only blues place open on a Sunday night in October.

Clarksdale was strange but even with the sadness of the place very evocative of a certain time and a particular slice of American culture. If you love the blues, want to see some of the real south and not the Bourbon Street version, then come and visit. Stay a night or two, but be prepared for the ghosts of a few sharecroppers to remind you of what has happened here. 

Next up Memphis! Graceland! more BBQ! 

Central High School - site of the first integrated high school. 

Central High School - site of the first integrated high school. 

Cotton is king

Cotton is king

Our shack at the Shack Up Inn

Our shack at the Shack Up Inn

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What next?

When I started this adventure I told myself I'd travel for 5 months, head home and get back on the treadmill. Turns out though that once you make travel the central reason of your day to day life it takes on a life of its own. If you were paying attention, 5 months was about 2 months ago, sometime in mid-July. I'm glad I didn't stop. I made it to Scandinavia, lac d'Annecy, saw friends in Belgium and Holland, and spent some quality time remapping my own version of London. 

Now what? Well there will be some serious updating of the website. Links will be activated, recommendations refined, and I'll keep posting.

The point is - stay tuned. I'll be posting new content on the blog even if I'm not trundling a suitcase behind me. 

 

The Inside Passage

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A week on a boat, bobbing in the cold pacific waters of the Inside Passage off the coast of British Columbia, in late September, did not originally sound very appealing to me. I had visions of myself tying up a rope, heavy with sea water, dressed in all the fleece, gore-tex, and galoshes I own in a futile effort to stay warm. I acquiesced to this trip in large part because my wonderful father was the main organizer, we were going to be on his boat, and, well, I didn't have much of a choice. 

Boy was I wrong to think this would just be a week of tortured but well fed (see: father's boat and father being French) boat cruising.  For starters the weather was glorious the entire week, with multicoloured sunsets, no tourists, lots of Orcas and the lovely people of Canada (possibly the nicest people on earth).

I joined my father in a place called Campbell River after 12 hours of bad weather and canceled flights. Obviously that didn't bode well but after a sputtering start, the weather gods cooperating beautifully. Campbell River is located on Vancouver Island facing the Inside Passage. This is the body of water that lies between the coast of British Columbia (BC) and the Island of Vancouver, running up the coast from Seattle to Alaska. Nautically speaking its a pretty wonderful spot as doing any sort of sailing or boating in the Pacific is a feat of human endurance. The Pacific is marked by big currents, big waves, big storms, and lots of big animals (see: whales of all kinds). The Inside Passage was designed by nature in such a way as to provide boats a way to sail from Seattle almost the whole way to the southern tip of Alaska protected from all that "big" stuff. On top of that its strikingly beautiful, and because its Canada, a country with a population density of 3.75 people per km2, its empty and wild*. (Compare that to say, India, where the population density is 411.89 people/km2).

Lots of interesting people have sailed up this body of water (Vancouver, Juan de Fuca, Cook) but the one we will deal with here is Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de Laperouse. Who, you may be asking yourself, is that? He was the man who discovered the world for France, our James Cook if you will. He had the unfortunate luck of sailing for Louis XVI (he who got his head chopped off by the Jacobins) and, a bit like Cook, died somewhere in the south Pacific (the island of Vanikoro to be specific - good luck finding that on a map). He spent a lot of time in the Inside Passage, mapping and making initial contacts for the French with the local nations. He is, all in all, a rather fascinating man and the namesake of the boat I found myself on. I highly suggest you click on his name above, its hyperlinked to his google page - hours of dorky reading. The name of our boat served both as a way to trip up any English speaker and give them a little lesson in French history - two of my father's favourite activities (oh okay, and mine too). 

I should probably get to the trip portion of this post, since this is a travel blog after all. We headed east from Campbell River and into Desolation Sound. The name is a bit misleading as it makes it sound like some sort of terrible catastrophe took place here when really no such thing has. The name comes from Captain Vancouver, he of the British Navy and namesake to the island and biggest city in BC, because the bay is ringed by very tall mountains that fall straight into the water, leaving little room for any possible human habitation. The 18th century was a time of human expansion, and these scientist-sailors where not just making that century's version of National Geographic television specials, they were also looking for places humans could settle and expand the reach, in this case, of the British crown. Desolation Sound is so named because it is too desolate for any British subject to settle (get it?), those slopes are essentially too steep. He wasn't so off on that observation, still today its relatively unmarked, with many areas accessible only from the ocean.

This was also where we spotted a pod of Orcas bobbing about. I learned that there are three kinds of Orcas - locals, and two types of transient Orcas. Basically, one kind stays put year round and enjoys the local salmon. The other two types will go after seals, and well, you if you happen to be swimming around. One of them goes north to Alaska and the other swims out into the Pacific. Its cliche, but whales inspire, even in the most cynical, a sense of wonder that is rarely matched. That is certainly what happened on our boat. 

After a night in a lovely spot called Cortes Bay, we headed further south slowly making our way back to Seattle over the remaining 5 days. The boat had been out for two months, and my leg was the last leg of the trip back to home base. Most days were spent gawping at the rather majestic landscape of the coast of BC -- all big trees covering big mountains disappearing into the horizon. Spotting more wildlife - another Orca, several golden eagles, and fishing for dinner (Ling Cod and Dungeness Crab) . We took the Kayaks out for a few short trips around different bays and inlets. On the whole we were one of very few boats plying our way through the waters south. A highlight was a stop over in Ganges on Salt Spring Island where I had a chance of engaging in my favourite travel activity which is to rent a scooter and putting my life in danger by zipping around a foreign country (okay, Canada isn't quite Thailand). This time though I roped my father and uncle in and put their lives in danger too. Though that was fun, the highlight was the little French patisserie run by a lovely lady from Arcachon who made perfect, delicious, flaky, i.e. proper croissants. She's located here (go!).

The conclusion? Beautiful weather is a must but even without that there is nothing desolating about Desolation Sound and the Inside Passage. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Northwest sunrise seen from a porthole

Northwest sunrise seen from a porthole

Sea stars, or non-earth life forms?

Sea stars, or non-earth life forms?

Couldn't be helped

Couldn't be helped

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Swedish late nights

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In between the visits to Copenhagen and the adventures on ferries in Norway, I also went to Stockholm and visited the Stockholm archipelago which extends from the city far into the Baltic.  

Stockholm is, as we are told by the cool people in the cool magazines, the coolest city in Europe (and not as a description of the weather). The people are all young and absurdly good looking, the coffee is perfect*, the fashion is hip**, and the food is a delicious, usually esoteric take, on local under appreciated home cooking. And though I take what all the magazines say with a grain of salt, Stockholm is actually a very cool city. 

I was naively surprised by the scale of the city. Its location on the water, spread out over several hilly islands of the Stockholm Archipelago, lends it an air of sophistication and majesty. Take the imperial buildings of Paris, the water of Amsterdam, and a touch of the east European aesthetic of Berlin, shake them up and you've got Stockholm. After Copenhagen which is really a rather small, flat, and contained city, without a lot of flashy architecture (from any period), Stockholm felt like an exciting urban jolt. 

My friend and I stayed in Sodermalm, which is the Brooklyn of Stockholm. For the first time in my trip, I felt very underdressed (I'm traveling with a small suitcase so I can be forgiven the constant wearing of jeans all the time). Stockholm is a city where people make an effort to look their best and it only helps that most of them are tall and slim. It all made for some rather amazing people watching. 

The food was delicious. Like in Copenhagen where there is a focus on updating and improving the basic tenets of local cuisine, I found it very much to my liking though if you struggle with seafood, cream, mustard, or new potatoes you might run out of things to eat. I certainly didn't. That said, like all cosmopolitan European cities there is a good variety of other foods. I just prefer to eat local. 

My first visit was spent enjoying a music festival located right in the middle of the city, on the centrally located island of Skeppsholmen. The music festival felt like our own private concert smack in the center of town. We could walk around and look at the city and the boats bobbing in their moorings all the while listening to Prince jam for 3 hours. Pretty nice.

 The rest of the week, upon a friend's recommendation, we escaped the city to enjoy the late summer sun on an island in the archipelago. We took a ferry out of town (and you all know how much I love ferries) and landed a couple of hours later at the jetty of Grinda Island. We rented a tiny cabin, bought a lot of wine, and spent 3 days discovering the tiny island and swimming in the bracing waters of the archipelago. We were treated to three gorgeous scandinavian orange and pink summer sunsets reflecting in the waters of the baltic. It was all rather magical. Just a pity that when the summer is over, a very long, and very cold winter settles in.  

I went onwards from this first stop to Norway and the fjords, but came back for an afternoon of sailing with some friends. Another glorious day (the weather really cooperated) and a beautiful afternoon on the water, and I think I may have fallen in love with Sweden in the summer. There is a lot more to see and do, which means more trips for the future.  

My trip in the north ended with a very long 24 hour train from Stockholm to Den Haag (The Hague). I will write about that in the next post.  

 

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* Have you noticed that no city can be deemed "cool" without having a corresponding great coffee scene? I suspect its because the journalists who are sent out to find the "cool" spend a lot of time in coffee shops and wont approve of a city until it has a sufficiently dynamic and esoteric coffee scene for them to enjoy while writing their articles. Just a thought.

** Mostly unwearable (because I'm not tall or slim) or unaffordable (even if you adjust for Scandinavian purchasing power). But I think thats how one defines "hip".

 

The fjords of Norway, or public transportation adventures in Scandinavia

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I met someone in Copenhagen who compared Norway to the Qatar of Scandinavia. I thought that was a fairly silly idea but after almost two weeks in between Denmark and Sweden, this idea popped right back into my head after a few hours in Oslo. Lets me be clear here - Oslo has nothing to do with Qatar. For starters, weather wise the Norwegians consider themselves lucky if the sun shines and I'm sure Fifa would have no issues hosting the World Cup here during a Norwegian summer (probably give them more opportunity to sell useless swag such as blankets and wooly hats emblazoned with some Fifa approved and copyrighted symbol). Lets not even discuss their views on women and economic equality.

What is odd after so much time in places where the bicycle is king is the amount of very nice German made luxury cars and a lack, in comparison, of two wheeled self-powered transportation. Norway is after all an oil and gas state. Lucky them. I subscribe to the theory that sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a country is the discovery of vast hydrocarbon resources. Norway seems to be one of the few to have dodged the bullets of corruption, oligarchy, environmental catastrophes (helps that the gas fields are in the ocean) and all the other nasties often associated with your average OPEC country. (Though I need to have a chat with my more informed friends, they do seem to suffer from a particularly expensive form of Dutch Disease). That said, it does have a very different feel to egalitarian and New York Times-darling Denmark.

I arrived in Oslo with a plan to hit up all the museums but instead spent a lot of Norwegian Kroner and time persuading Norwegian Airlines to hurry up and return to me my misplaced suitcase. That put a damper on things, but I did manage to have a moment of zen and go the Nobel Peace Prize museum. The Nobel prizes are handed out in both Stockholm and Oslo (confusing right?). Well, all the prizes save for the big one are handed out in Stockholm. Alfred Nobel was Swedish after all, but at the time of his death Norway was part of Sweden, and in an act of "can we please stop arguing guys" he decreed that the peace prize should be handed out in Oslo (or Christiania at the time). For such a small country - 6 million or so people - Norway has a busy and old history. Two things I happen to enjoy tremendously.

The winner last year was the European Union and the museum is dedicate to the winner of each year's prize. I definitely had a little moment of emotion going through the exhibit, it may have been a reaction to how powerful an act the initial idea of the EU was or just being upset at loosing my damn bag.

The next day, suitcase in hand (returned at 10 pm) I was on a plane to the town of Ålesund. My plan was to rent a car and drive the 100km or so to the tiny non-village of Øye. Located in the non-village is a historic hotel where Kaiser Wilhelm (he of the Great War), Karen Blixen (she of Out of Africa) and Norway's greatest playwright Ibsen stayed. I found most of that out after arriving, so don't think so highly of me. My initial reasoning was to get away from cities, people, noise and see some mountains that end in the ocean, otherwise known as fjords.

What I overlooked in my planning was the difficulty of securing an automatic transmission car in northwestern Norway. Yep, you have deduced correctly, I can not drive manual. It's a bit embarrassing considering my history and my family's ability. I just never really saw the need, until, well, arriving in Ålesund and being faced with an array of cars none of which I could drive. (I should add that I have driven manual I just have never enjoyed it enough to practice and didn't feel like taking a risk on vertiginous Norwegian fjord roads. Safety never takes a day off). My only options, because this was a Sunday and everything shuts down in rural Norway on a Sunday, was to take two buses, two ferries, and a cab to the hotel. I had only one moment of panic, when I arrived in sad-looking Ørsta in the pouring gray rain, disembarked from the bus and realized there were no taxis in sight. I love the Internet and Norwegian Telecom.

I made it thankfully, five hours after arriving at the airport and astoundingly having made no savings whatsoever in 'choosing' public transportation over a rental car.

The hotel was a bizarre little Victorian time warp staffed by the most charming and good looking young Norwegians. I spent the first day going for a long walk in the rain and starring up at massive waterfalls that seemed to start in the clouds ringing the mountains. The second day I combined a bus with a bicycle to go see the world famous Geriangerfjord. We seemed to be all alone in the world on the ferry from Hellsylt to Gerianger until we got to the end of the fjord and half of the world's cruise ship fleet was anchored there. It was a jarring sight after the isolation you feel everywhere else in the area. A hot chocolate, a ferry ride back to the other side, an hour and half bike ride through freezing rain, dodging cows, and I made it back to the hotel.

This morning to make my first of two buses back to the airport (so much simpler on a work day), a lovely young man from the hotel named Magnus (yep) who, on his day off was off to literally jump off a mountain with a flight suit (seriously) dropped me off at the bus station. It was a fitting farewell to this interesting country. I plan to come back and explore these mountains more, this time though I'll either book my car way in advance of maybe learn to properly drive a manual car.

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København, or the start of my Nordic tripping

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When I set off on this trip I had a few places on my list that were must sees. Darjeeling was one, Burma another, Patagonia and finally, Scandinavia.

I had in my mind a vision of small colourful wooden houses, lots of big pine trees, beautiful combinations of water and land, awesome design and lots of cured/salted/pickled/marinated fish and dill. All of that it turns out is true and obviously a bit simplistic. I've already discovered more than that of course. I also think, and I'm digressing here, that I clearly have a thing for places of extreme weather. I really like the idea of tough winters, they seem to shape places and people in ways I find interesting. Long winters also make for glorious, if short, summers and I hope to take advantage of this one.

I arrived in Copenhagen to a fantastic welcome from Camilla who I had last seen in Pyin oo Lwin, Burma. Camilla had volunteered to show me around her home town back then and I took her up on her offer because we all know the best way to discover a place is through the eyes of a local. The first thing you notice in Danemark, unsurprisingly, is how well everything is designed and, less inspiring, the cost. Holy mackerel are things expensive, and this is the cheapest country in Scandinavia.

After the initial price shock had past, we took the wonderful public transport to the apartment a friend had kindly lent us for the week. Guess what we did then? We did as the locals do and got ourselves some bicycles. Copenhagen is as bike friendly as the New York Times likes to remind its readers of every three months or so. This may just be me, but I feel like the Gray Lady takes every chance it gets to tell us all that the Danes are better at, well, basically everything. The somewhat unfortunate truth is this may actually be true. Their bike lanes are wide and ubiquitous, their city is elegant and manageable, the people are kind and direct (which I like), everyone speaks more or less perfect English, they are all absurdly good looking, pay high taxes happily, and are socialist to boot. This is catnip to the Times.

Camilla lead me around on our big, unmissable orange bikes for a tour of the city which culminated in a smorbord (rye bread with all sorts of Nordic goodies piled on top), chocolate, and a beer on the dock at Nyhaven. In another sign of their possible superiority, the Danish have what looks like the only socially responsible and well behaved street drinking culture in the world. We hit up every single design museum in town, enjoyed the public good of free cinema in a park, and drank a lot of tasty Danish microbrews (400 or so in this tiny country)  while checking out the good-looking Danish men.

I enjoyed Copenhagen enormously, though I can't help thinking about how long and dreary the winters must be. It amazes me that people bike year round, through the cold, snow, and bitter Baltic wind. I'm curious enough about the differences in lifestyle to consider coming back and visit in the winter.

Next stop Stockholm.

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Interlude: Brussels and Geneva

I know its been a couple of weeks since I updated but that's only because I've been busy visiting family and friends, and though fun and fascinating to me, it may be less so to my legion of readers. Just so you don't think I did nothing - here is a short recap.

First stop was in Belgium to visit my adorable godson (I'm contractually obliged to say that). Brussels in mid-summer is a lovely place indeed. Long dinners on big urban decks while the sky very slowly fades to black will make you forget you are in Northern Europe, and especially that the sun is never supposed to shine north of the Loire.

Geneva came next. I hadn't realized until this trip how much Geneva and Brussels have in common. Francophone cities in bilingual (trilingual) countries full of people who are not natives and both make a claim to the best chocolate. Geneva is way better run though. I'll take Swiss efficiency over Belgium chaos any day. The highlight of Geneva was jumping off a bridge into the Rhone and being carried by the not so gentle current - and then doing it again. A small side trip to Montreux to see how the other-half retires and a day trip to Annecy and Talloires were wonderful additions.

Now off to Scandinavia. Finally!

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Irish Adventures: Dingle and the Coast

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Dingle, Dingle, Dingle. What a strange and frankly silly name for a place. It sticks though. I imagine myself ten years from now telling the story of my 6 months adventure and I know the name Dingle will come right back to me.

Though Harpreet and I didn't aim to spend our week doing a lot of driving, we ended up with a healthy bit of Irish road tripping. Our favorite stop over was on the road to Roscommon on the way from Dublin to Galway. We bought strawberries, carrots, some bread, and the most amazing Raspberry-Baileys jam made by an Irish grandmother called Francis. Yep, Raspberry-Baileys jam, divine.

Dingle Harbor is a little town which has been transformed, though not completely altered, from its old fishing past into a place for tourists and the Irish to come and eat delicious seafood, buy well made local arts (seriously), and enjoy some live music in a pub. It's not the most unspoiled place I've been too, but some great food, a fantastic cheese shop and the best sea-kayaking trip of my life redeem the town entirely. We'd figured it would be a bit overrun so I picked a B&B a little ways out of town in the village of Bailie na nGall, or Ballydavid in English. Im going with Ballydavid from now on, cause I can't even pronounce the Irish version correctly. The B&B came highly recommended by my favourite tool TripAdvisor (see my opinion on this in Travel Resources), famous for its jolly owner and scones.

We arrived in Dingle Harbor just in time for dinner. We lucked out and scored a table purely by chance at the best place in town, Out Of The Blue. Their white table wine was a Picpoul, big plus, and their food was the best meal of my entire trip. After a nice stopover to listen to lovely  music at O'Sullivans pub, we finally made our way out of Dingle at 10 at night to find our B&B. 

Driving out into the countryside of the Dingle Peninsula, we realized that neither our GPS not the directions really gave us much of idea of where this B&B was. After looking aimlessly for a pink house in the rather under populated area of Ballydavid, we stopped in the local pub and asked for help. Good thing we did. A kind man volunteered to show us the way and after weaving behind him down tiny one lane roads we finally arrived at our B&B to tea and tiny, delicious scones!

This was the most active part of the trip, I think because both Harpreet and I had spent the first few days catching up on much needed sleep. We rented bicycles, more in the style of my old friends Marcel and Hippolyte (i.e. big clunkers), and cycled around Slea Head. Our most adventurous came when we decided to shortcut our way back and ended up in a field full of hay. We went back to the main road and powered up a long and steep climb to be rewarded by a lovely descent into town going from fog to bright sunlight.

The next day we were even more adventurous and incredible fun. We sea kayaked out of Dingle Harbor into the sea on a glorious sunny day. We paddled into caves underneath the huge sandstone cliffs of Dingle. The caves where beautiful, the sides encrusted with muscles, barnacles and tiny jewel-like red and green sea anemones which opened up as soon as they went under the shifting water. The experience of passing into and through the caves, with the bright sunlight streaming through the entrances reflected on the wet walls, spying starfish in the waters below, the mix of unexpected colors, will remain a favorite moment in my life for a long time. It was magical being out on the ocean, so close to the water line, seeing the sea life up close. On our way back we spotted the dolphin that helped make Dingle famous - Fungi - splashing about in the opening of the harbor. (Sidebar on Fungi: we had heard there was a bottle-nosed dolphin that had made the Dingle Harbor his home for the past 28 years. Neither of us much believed it, but there he was a few 100 feet from us, splashing about.)

That afternoon Harpreet and I headed to our first step by to reality. We had one more night before our destination of Cork in the town of Killarney. We enjoyed ourselves but I'm not sure I recommend the town much - too many hen parties for my taste. The next day was our final drive into Cork, were this lovely Irish adventure came to a close.

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