Thursday, November 3, 2016

#19: Portugal. The Mariners.

Portugal is a proud country. At the westernmost expanse of the European continent, the Portuguese were among the first to look out at the Atlantic in wonder and build ships to weather the seas and sail west and south into the unknown. They discovered Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde, islands all to which it took days to sail, in a time when most of the world believed sailing west from Europe was a trip to your doom: either into an impossibly long voyage toward Asia, or even off of an abrupt end to a flat and finite earth.

The Portuguese challenged this idea, they began making ships designed to sail for months into the sea, taking men where no one had gone before, exploring places which were believed to contain only savages or were too harsh for humans to endure. For this curiosity in defying common beliefs of the day, men like Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco de Gama sailed into the southern sea and made voyages thought to be impossible. They proved that the world possessed a southern hemisphere which an adept sailor could venture down into and go east to the land of spices, gold, and silk. To the chagrin of wealthy Venetian merchants, the Portuguese proved that the Silk Road was an unnecessary venture when ships could sail around the Cape of Good Hope to ports of call like Mumbai, Calcutta, and Shanghai.

Today, Portugal is a far cry from its former self. Not that its people have changed. That spirit of the Portuguesa, the one that inspired the likes of de Gama, Magellan, and Dias, you can still see it in the them. It was in the voice of the girl working at Quinto de Crasto, who explained that Portugal is retaking their wine industry from the old days of the British dominated port trade, and how in just a few decades Portuguese wine will be among the best in the world; it was in the eyes of the Rodrigo the guy who led us around Lisbon, who took so much pride in everything Portuguese, but had not one positive thing to say of his government; or the bartender who politely informed me that you shouldn't ever lead with Spanish when speaking to a Portuguesa, after all, they have a language of their own. Over and over again, I heard a Portuguesa lament over their ineffective leaders. How their economy is in stagnation, unemployment staggeringly high, and how decent hardworking people nearly starve on the streets. Today Portugal joins its once mighty neighbor Spain as one of the most languishing economies of Europe. If nothing else, it was all sad to me. I remember standing in the Plaça de Comercio in Lisbon, to this day one of the largest public squares in all of Europe with one long side on the banks of the Rio Tejo, and an enormous bronze statue of King Jose I on horseback in its center. I stood there looking out at the water picturing massive caravels moored at the docks, unloading nutmeg, pepper, cardamom, and cloves - just grocery store commodities today, but were luxuries that made the Portuguese the most privileged people of Europe in the 16th century. This plaza was converted to a parking lot in the 1950's and has only recently been reclaimed as a monument to Portugal's past. Today tourists buzz around the square and it has the same feel of any other big European plaza, if not for the conspicuously empty side facing the water which once drove Portugal's economy.

I left Portugal with a sense that its people had a bad case of 'small dog syndrome,' overshadowed by its much larger Iberian neighbor which despite its own economic woes seems to dominate it these days in every way. But I've realized that this is oversimplified. In a country which has played such a dominant part in world history, it must be ashamedly humbling to make headlines these days only for being the 'P' in PIGS (the convenient porcine mnemonic device referring to the worst economies of Europe). The golden age of Portugal is long in its past, but when you stand on its western cliffs and look out on the ocean, when you consider the innovations its people brought to this world which are taken for granted today - ships that could sail across oceans and into the wind, maritime devices which could pinpoint your location simply by looking at the sun - it's easy to picture the time in which it was great.

I'll admit, I'm much more taken by Spain than Portugal. We even escaped to Spain for one night when we were close as if to take a breath of fresh air away from the unfamiliar accents and weird 'ç' and 'x' pronunciations on road signs we didn't understand and often got us (me) lost. But I've never met a person that went to Portugal or has Portuguese roots that didn't just spill out this Portuguese pride in every word they spoke about the place - and it's worth the trip because you can feel it when you're there. It's no longer dominating the world economy like it was centuries ago, but in many ways its people still live like they do... even so, they manage to maintain a laid back demeanor which is enviable in today's world. No, you won't find a Portuguesa donning a cap demanding that Portugal be made great again, I think they are at peace that those days are over, but what you will find is a sense of nationalism, pride and unity which was borne out of necessity over the centuries as its people stood cut off from Europe, looking west out into the ocean.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

#18: Canada.The Layover; Second Edition.

My journey is now winding down to an end. The countries that remain on my list to which I’ve ventured (excluding those other countries in which I didn’t leave the airport such as Taiwan, the UK, and Texas, for example) are few. The next is one which I can barely count, but since I have a passport stamp, I will. Layovers are interesting birds. Do I bother exploring? Should I just rest in the airport? Should it be as short as possible? An extended stop; even a destination in and of itself?

Just as it would be unheard of to live in a neighborhood your whole life and not bother to pay a visit to the family next door, our decision as to this matter on this particular trip was equally as obligatory (and influenced slightly by Air Canada’s offering the cheapest flights to Portugal). Las Vegas to Lisbon. By way of Vancouver, Glasgow and London. Yes. We truly do hold out for the absolutely cheapest flight. But hey, free(ish) trip to Vancouver! So Canada, here we come!

Yes, I’ve marveled at the Discovery Channel specials about the Canadian Rockies. I’ve spent many an hour veg-ing out watching Ice Road Truckers… and a good bit of my childhood prospecting for gold in the Yukon Territory in one of the few computer games available to me from the tiny shelf dedicated to Mac users of the 90’s (problems of your mom being a graphic designer) – oh and yes, you heard me right, I had a Macintosh before it was cool... But I digress. While I did all these things, Canada has always remained to me as… well quite frankly… just the leftovers for the British of what didn’t fall within the purview of USA’s “Manifest Destiny.” Stuff that we could have had if we wanted, but it was just too damn cold so we didn’t bother. This is how Canada lived in my mind for most of my life. And as I considered the prospect an extended layover in Vancouver, my main thought was “I’ve been to Seattle, so what could be the big deal about Vancouver?” A typical American superiority complex, I admit. And so with this in mind, our short trip began.

But as this fabulous election season has reminded me… sometimes, you just need a break from the ‘ol US of A. No, not the Alec Baldwin, “I’m moving to Canada if so and so wins” break, but just a break from the assumptions and judgments we as Americans tend to pass on our fellow citizens; from the constant concern over what this politician is doing, or how this policy is affecting my city. To put it bluntly, walking around Vancouver was great because I didn’t care about any of this here, because hey, I got no skin in the game. You want to legalize crack Canada? Super! I’ll be gone before the crackheads wake up for the day! You want the government deliver your Pizza Hut? Maybe I’ll just steer clear of pizza the next few hours! You want to require citizens to pay tribute to the Vancouver Canucks? Imma just get back on this plane!

As was the case with my brief Amsterdam layover a few years back (and those of my avid followers will remember from a former poetic blog post), not much can be said of an entire country from only a few hours. Stereotypes can be confirmed or shattered, first impressions can be made, and a few snapshots can be taken to help pause the blur if only for 1/1000th of a second at a time. In Amsterdam, this indeed was a time of confirmed stereotypes; not long after I had got off train, the sweet, skunky smell of Mary Jane was drifting up my nostrils, and I was passing wooden shoe shops by the dozen while munching on my fresh pickled herring sandwich and dodging the bikers who dominated all the streets. All that I had imagined about Amsterdam was confirmed in the course of my first hour. True? I don’t know. But it sure seemed like it in the first few minutes. Vancouver in a way was no different. No, I didn’t encounter mounties eating gravy fries, or a hockey player offering free healthcare, but it was about the people themselves: they are freaking nice. Like a whole difference category of nice. Awkward nice.

We got off the subway in downtown Vancouver with that slight look of perplexion which I suppose evident in every first time tourist’s face. Where should we go next? I wonder what’s cool to see around here? Well, no sooner than these thought danced in our heads for the first time than they were met with:

“Hey! What are you folks looking to see?” Oh great, I thought, I wonder what he wants.

Begrudgingly I said something like, “Oh I don’t know”, and started to move along and with a Pavlov’s Dog like reflex reached out my hand for the flier I was surely about to be handed. But it didn’t come.

A big smile came across his face, “Vancouver’s such a great place! You folks just looking to walk around? Eat? Go to a museum?” he asked like an eager dog.

I was a little taken aback. “Well, all that seems nice, and we are hungry, but we’re only here for a few hours, so…”

He cut me off. “OK, in a few hours, here’s what you can do...” As if reading off the introductory section to a Rick Steve’s guidebook, he rattled off several possible itineraries which would work within our time constraints, complete with restaurant recommendations, suggestions of parks, even bicycle rentals.

I was still slightly worried that he had some ulterior motive. I’ve been to too many places where someone won’t give you the time of day except for a buck or two.

“Well, Joey’s sounds good,” referring to one of his several restaurant recommendations, “and then we could walk around and watch the seaplanes, I guess.”

“Excellent choices!” He said like a waiter satisfied with some solid meal recommendation he’d made. “Well have a good one, eh?”

He must have been a tour guide, or at least obviously somebody in the hospitality industry, I thought. One of those guys who is just wired to behave that way even when they’re off duty. Nope. A few strides to the side and he got into a UPS truck. Curious, I thought.

We got on our way toward Joey’s but after about a block, heard a shouting behind us.

“Hey, Hey!” Up was running UPS guy. OK. Here it comes, the flyer, the solicitation… whatever.

“So… I forgot…” He said, out of breath, “Joey’s. You see that white tower down there? The one with the curvy top?” he said, pointing down the street to the west.


“Joey’s in just off of the lobby of that building, just wanted to be sure you’d be OK finding it!” He said with a wink. Then he ran back to his truck and was on his way.

My wife and I looked at each other, and couldn’t help but just laugh.

We didn’t do much in Vancouver. We watched seaplanes take off and land in the harbor, strolled down the sea wall and napped in the shade of a maple tree in Stanley Park, and of course, Joey’s (all per UPS guy’s itinerary). In three hours we were headed back to our plane. Out of YVR, over the Canadian Rockies (startlingly close beneath us on our ascent, I might add), and on our way to Scotland, then England, then Portugal. A short stay, but not one without memories.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

#17b: Vietnam. The South.

And so, we went south. We boarded a plane and landed just outside of Hue, the old capital of Vietnam. In many ways, Hue turned out to be forgettable city. Its urban center non-existent. Many historical landmarks barely recognizable as anything more than piles of old rocks. But Hue does have a story to tell. American soldiers once held this city against a furious North Vietnamese (NVA) attack. In hopes to protect their positions, both American and NVA forces ordered artillery to fall indiscriminately over the entire city, leaving nothing but rubble and corpses afterwards.

As we walked the streets of Hue, this was still very evident. Green grass gives way to piles of rubble and stone... women dance in long blue dresses in front of the partially destroyed ancient temples, pirouetting around the dark recent past of Hue, the massacres of epic proportions from which the defending Americans eventually had to flee.

Most tourists do not come to Hue to relive these memories. They come because it has a vibrant history as the romantic capital of Vietnam's past. It is built along an ancient river and the Vietnamese have revered it for hundreds of years before the recent war made it notorious. Unfortunately one who arrives now arrives as a witness to destruction... A place undergoing a rebirth which is not complete. Hue is not a beautiful city, although one can imagine a time in which it was.... It is a testament to war. A war which has left visible scars which Americans should see.... Not because it is our fault, but because our fathers lived through it. Our uncles, our brothers fought here for a cause they probably did not understand, but died for nonetheless. Hue is a memory of this tragic past.

On our final day, we got into a car which drove south. The driver was friendly, and told us stories of the Vietnam countryside as we moved. He was proud of his country, except when we were pulled over at what seemed like a pointless checkpoint. The car slowed, and the driver got out at an officer's demand. This went on for several minutes while my wife and I waited confused in back of the car. Finally the driver came back.

"Thank god this happened in the south" he said, "In the north, we may have been in real trouble!"

I wasn't sure was he was implying, but I smiled and said something stupid like "Oh, I know!" and we got on our way.

He told us that when cops see you have tourists in your car, you get pulled over and have to pay money. Simple as that. "It's a tax." He said. I felt bad, was confused, but decided I'd tip him nicely. Maybe it was a tactic of his. And if it was, it worked.

When we finally arrived in Hoi An we were tired from the long drive and the whole ordeal and settled into our hotel. I guess we'd taken a liking to Vietnam's French history by this time, and Hoi An was no exception. The Ha Na hotel was an old French colonial house. We strode through grassy courtyard, the hammocks and the ivy covered walls and the Vietnamese woman at the front told us to have a vieux carré while we waited for our room.

On the way in, I'd seen that the shop across the street sold Vietnamese wine for only a few bucks. Impressed, I slipped across as we waited and got their finest bottle in anticipation of having something special with my wife as we lounged on the hammocks in the courtyard later that evening. Ill bet you didn't even know that Vietnam made wine... neither did I! That evening I learned why. My wife refused to drink it after half of one glass, and after mine I decided I'd rather stick with French wine.

The next day we finally got out into Hoi An. It was hot. Sweat ran down my face and we walked down the streets dodging the sunlight as if it was poisonous (which I suppose it actually is). I bought a children's shirt in a store as a handkerchief to dry off as we walked. But amidst the heat, we found that Hoi An knows its place when it comes to tourism during any time of year. Shops boast custom made suits, dresses, shoes, ties. Anything. If you are in the mood for spending money, Hoi An will take it - which we learned the hard way. My advice to travelers: if you NEED a new suit, by all means go to Hoi An and get one. But if not. Flee. This city will convince you that you need one one in short order. The guide books tell you. The pretty ladies that make them are friendly and convincing and verbose about their families that need the money. And the shops are nice looking and on every block.

But the beaches which are a 20 minute ride away are a piece of heaven. We spent two days in the city before going to the beach. The room was spartan. It had a bed, a hammock in a small yard in front and a sandy path which led to the South China Sea. But there was a peace which one rarely finds anywhere in the world. After a day of tiger beers and beach time, we walked to dinner down the beach to an expat bar with nice drinks and Europeans lounging on couches looking out to the sea.

We had a nice meal, and just before we paid, I felt my pockets and realized I'd left my wallet in the room. Oh no. The only solution was to go get it.... Maybe a mile back down the beach. I told my wife I'd go and let her wait there. The road though town was quicker than the beach so I made my way back on the pavement in the night. The first few houses were clearly those of the expats, large and with porches overlooking the sea; laughter and conversation echoed in the hot evening air, lit by their spirits and their floodlights pointing towards the beach... It was a life which I admit that I began to envy as I walked. To live a live of luxury in a foreign and beautiful place at such a reasonable price! (These Vietnamese palatial houses on the beach went for about the price of a mid-size two bedroom home outside of Denver. Yes. I checked.) But then by the hundreds: small cinder block squares with large open rectangles as front doors and thatched palm roofs; whole families lying down on uncarpeted cement floors with no furniture watching a tiny TV. House after house I passed this after the few opulent expat mansions by the bar. This was the real Hoi An. Not the shops, the fancy hotels - the restaurants which served Phó in many different varieties. This was Vietnam. Where the per capita GDP is less than $2,000. But finally, I arrived at the hotel.

I opened the safe, retrieved my credit card, and decided I'd head back to the bar via the beach in the dark instead of witnessing all that again. Because after all... What could I do?

Saturday, August 13, 2016


I'll take a brief pause here. A pause to paint picture of perspective. It's one informed, admittedly, by blatant North Vietnamese communist propaganda, but one which should be experienced nonetheless.

There is a museum in Hanoi known now as the "War Remnants Museum" which we visited on our visit to the city in 2014. But just a few years before it was known affectionately as "The Museum of French and American War Crimes." A few meetings with the tourism board and the American ambassador and bingo! We've got a name that as an American I can enter feeling nice and welcome like I was just going into any old history museum! But as one enters... it's clear that this is still the intended name. I felt as though a German entering a Holocaust museum. We passed a group kids on a school trip, gazing at photographs of young children fleeing terrified from US napalm attacks... An entire floor of the building dedicated to photos of communities afflicted by agent orange, a terrible chemical bomb released by the US as a way to deforest the jungle to uncover NVA and VC hiding places. I found myself ashamed. I found myself avoiding the groups of children, looking at the pictures hung of LBJ and thinking "why?", at what cost?

I left the war remnants museum with a whole new perspective. All of my history books had told me that the Vietnam war was fought to prevent the expansion of the USSR. To prevent the terrifying domino effect of Communism from taking hold in Eastern Asia. But in Hanoi... It was about defending your home. It wasn't about global diplomacy and geopolitics... It was about the defending your mom's rice paddy, regardless of if she was communist or capitalist or completely apolitical. This is something as Americans we would never come to understand, and it would be our downfall... We came to defeat the hearts and minds of communists under the thumb of Kruschev and Brezhnev, but what we ended up fighting was the hearts and kinds of Vietnamese who just wanted their families and way of life preserved. The war was lost when we began, and it is a shame that American history books don't teach our country's great successes along with our failures. Yes that's right folks, we lost the Vietnam war. And not only that, we left with our tail between our legs and a severely damaged international reputation. Was it worth it? It's really hard to say, given that if there were dominos falling, not many fell, and the impact of their falling did not result in the doomsday scenario predicted at the time. Yes, it easy to sit back and say these things in hindsight, but the beauty and curse of history is that it repeats itself and we can carry the wisdom of the past into the present. Thank goodness we'll never make the same mistakes twice.

Seeing the faces of the Vietnamese in that museum gave me perspective. Perspective that it is possible that a country can do wrong. That maybe it's not a given that we're always the good guy. That war is terrible. That I've been blessed to have never been anywhere remotely near a war zone.

We left the War Remnants Museum back into the bright summer heat of Hanoi. We walked in silence for a while, not sure how to take it all in. I wanted to be offended by the propaganda. I wanted to tell those little kids that JFK and LBJ were not evil men (despite their being Democrats). I wanted to tell them that America was just trying to help if they only had the wisdom to accept our benevolent outstretched hand. But somehow I knew that what we'd done to their country was something unforgivable. The fire bombs and chemical weapons. The buried land mines unexploded to this day making it dangerous to walk through the countryside in many places. The unspeakable tragedy of My Lai. Not to say we were the only wrong doers, but I definitely left the place not proud of the role that my country played. Those children had a right to grieve the war and ask "why?" To look at those photographs of kids their age being burnt alive after a napalm attack and to be angry.

In a world were we all want to believe we're always right, it's good to get a heathy dose being wrong sometimes. So no. I didn't leave offended. And I didn't blame them for telling their story just the way they did. In fact, I think they had the right to leave the museum with its former name. It's a tragic story they have to tell - just as tragic as the one I've experienced many times walking down the Washington D.C. Mall past the tens of thousands of names of Americans who gave their lives in the war etched onto that somber black wall. It was a tragedy worth remembering from both sides, and one which any American should experience if they go to Vietnam... Just remember this handy Vietnamese phrase: tôi đến từ Canada.

Friday, July 15, 2016

#17a: Vietnam. The North.

I'll be completely honest: I never wanted to go to Vietnam. Well... in a way. It's not like I was drugged, blindfolded, and brought here against my will, but this place just never seemed near the top of mind when I imagined the world and what to experience. I'd heard from friends that it was nice, seen beautiful glossy photos in travel magazines and all that, but this never stirred up any real desire in me the way the Louvre, the fjords of Norway, or the pyramids of Egypt did. Its rain forests just didn't seem all that different than those I'd seen in Latin America; its cities seemed overcrowded and probably not all that interesting; its beaches nothing more special than those in the Caribbean which was practically my backyard (relatively speaking). There are times in life (frequently for me) where a man needs to learn how wrong he's been: this was one of them for me. Our time in Vietnam was perhaps the most memorable few weeks I've ever had.

We arrived in Hanoi after having read horror stories about the town. No rule of law. Crossing a street is suicide. Everyone is out to scam you. Not all of this turned out to be completely untrue, but this really did not diminish the visit. We checked into the Sofitel Metropol, a very decent hotel in Hanoi's French Quarter, and were greeted by French speaking Vietnamese women (even though I speak nether French nor Vietnamese, this gave a sense of opulence to the place that I can't properly explain). The pool was clean and quaint and the waiters brought fresh fruit and cocktails out quickly. This hotel was an oasis in the middle of the most hectic city we’d ever been. Hanoi is insane, but was also somehow charming. But after a few days, we were happy to leave.

Next, we boarded the train and settled into our beds for the night. The whistle blew, and the cars lurched forward as the engine began to pull us north towards Sapa. This was not a fast train. It crept up the river valley slowly and carefully resulting in the 150 mile journey taking up the entire night. And in the morning we were in Sapa. The day before in an urban spider web of scooters, telephone wires and pushy street vendors; and now surrounded by mountains, rice paddies, and Hmong village people – Sapa is a bona fide Asian paradise: the hillsides are all segmented into terraces paddied with rice, cows wonder around seemingly aimless through villages and fields alike, the family pet and milk source one day, a feast the next. Although Sapa seems among the most popular excursions out of Hanoi (based on it being plastered all over every tourism office we saw in the city), it is still peaceful and a welcome escape after having braved Hanoi.

And then there was the boat. Ha Long Bay. The place where the legends say dragons descended and formed this endless expanse of peaks protruding from the foggy waters. If you've ever seen a National Geographic about Vietnam, this is the front page. I'm not sure what I make of the dragons story, but dragons or no dragons, it was a sight to see. We had a berth for two on our “junk” which we shared with a few Brits, some Aussies and couple with whom I never spoke. The Aussies as it turned out were to be engaged one night - so I bought them all whiskeys and we moved to the top of the boat. Squid fishing is best done at night under the lights, so we took turns at this as the night progressed into quite a memorable one as we anchored under the stars in the bay. The stars began to move about the sky a little faster and the ship seemed to leave its anchor as I went drink for drink with an Aussie. I found this to be inadvisable.

In the morning I made my way down the narrow ship’s hall to breakfast from our cabin and I was greeted by my newfound Aussie and Brit friends with a jovial "good morning director!" Slightly confused, I looked at Mrs Grimes, who reminded me of my foot thumping on the deck of the boat (unfortunately right over our cabin where she slept) the night before. It then came back to me that among other things, I had been directing the group in song the night before (I believe this to "In The Jungle" from the Lion King, which I can't rightly explain). I’m not sure it’s anatomically possible, but I could swear that I was sweating whisky on our hike the next day with a 500 ft elevation gain under sweltering heat and humidity. Such is the cost of making Australian friends, I guess.

After Ha Long Bay, we returned to Hanoi for a flight down south to continue our Vietnamese adventure, which after all this, was only just beginning.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

#16: Germany. The Fatherland.

In the fall of 1941, William McCready, an Irishman from East Orange, New Jersey, wed a young German girl named Marian Heidrich at a small church in Montclair. This couple went on to produce three children: Ellen Elizabeth, John Harold, and Karen Diana, my mother.

I have always been fascinated by my family's history. In the small sleepy cemetery up the lane from my farmhouse in Bretzville, Indiana lays a good portion of that young German girl's family, and I can remember as a child my mom taking me from headstone to headstone, explaining the links I had with these ancient people who were at eternal rest under those graves, sharing stories which have been passed down for generations about each of them. Marian's Aunt Meta Partenhemer, the beautiful daughter of Philip and Wilhelmina, who died tragically young from tuberculosis in an upstairs bedroom of the old family farmhouse just down the lane. Or her great grandpa, Jacob Bretz, son of Phillip and Annie, the pioneering German farmer who put down roots in a small Indiana town which now bears his name. These stories always made an impression on me. The fact that these men and women who existed to me only as eerie black and white photographs on our farmhouse wall were real people that led their own lives was a truth that for some reason set in for me only after seeing their names on that stone, walking around the places where they walked, hearing their stories from those that were a few generations less removed from them than I.

In the early 1800's my German ancestors, like thousands of others like them, began sailing to America on ships from Europe to make new lives for themselves. They embarked from ports like Rotterdam, Le Havre and Antwerp, likely the most giant cities they'd ever laid eyes on until their few weeks long journey across the ocean brought them into the harbor of New York City  (this one being the ship manifest of the steamer which the Bretzes rode across the Atlantic in 1840... go ahead, try to find them in there). I'd like to picture my ancestors on the deck of that steamship being greeted by the Statue of Liberty, but they arrived 40 years before it was complete and were met instead by smog and long queues at the Port of New York's immigration office (Ellis Island had not yet opened its gates). The land they left behind them was a disjointed one: a lose confederation of sovereign states making up the German confederation (my family being from the Dukedom of Hesse), but revolution was afoot in Europe after the American and French ones inspired the peasant classes of Europe that they need not be forever tied to their land and ruled over by Lords, Dukes and Kings. Their own plot of land in the young state of Indiana on the American frontier was enough to entice them to pack their bags and leave. To finally return to the land that these brave men and women up and left so many years ago was something that I'd imagined for years. I have often pictured what the fields of Indiana may have looked like during their time; what those now overgrown ruts in our forest looked like when they served as roads for their horse drawn buggies. But what I never was able to picture was the country they decided to leave. And why.

Having roots in western and central Germany, my family of several generations back likely never made it to the Bavarian towns which were on our itinerary. But with each small town we passed in the southern German countryside, its buildings all like the gingerbread houses I'd developed in my mind from German fairy tales, I couldn't help but imagine it one the ones that the German Partenheimers, Bretzes and Heidrichs knew centuries ago. For me, the attraction of Germany was not what makes it a major player in the world today: its powerful economic centers, its modern and culturally avant garde cities, its strong and dominant place in the European system. It was the countryside of Bavaria. The hard work ethic evident by the farmers in the fields we passed which has no doubt contributed to its success to this day. I got to soak this in as we drove from town to town north into Germany from Innsbruck. As we neared Munich, this slow cruise through the countryside came to an end. Believe it or not, although our VW Polo topped out at 110 MPH, flying down the Autobahn did not afford one much opportunity to slowly take in the sights; most of my time now was spent with my eyes fixed on the rear view mirror, making sure a BMW was not approaching at my 6 and colliding with me like I was stopped even though I was cruising along above 100.

But the beauty of Germany. Its mountains. The farms. The green everywhere (which is quite the sight when coming from Denver or Vegas) - it all made me feel proud that I knew this is where my family once called home. It made me marvel at what a dreamland America must have seemed for them to board ships and leave the place in search for a new life somewhere else. One thing that struck me though was that these rolling green hills were not altogether unlike those of southern Indiana. It comforted me to know that they must have in some small way felt at home in Indiana, just as the drive through Bavaria now felt a little like home to me.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

#15. Austria. Zell am See.

As a young guy growing up, I was completely taken away by the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. It's incredibly filmed and written, and based on the true story of one of the most courageous groups of men this world may ever know. I can remember watching it week after week as it aired, wondering where the men of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne in World War II would end up: Normandy, Belgium, Bastogne, Berchtesgaden. Eastward they moved as they fought back the German army by hard fought attrition. After 11 long months, spent in the frozen woods of Bastogne, or storming Nazi occupied towns like Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Eindhoven, and Foy, these men finally saw their tour of duty come to a close in the southeast corner of Bavaria in the German alps. The final episode of the series was called Zell am See... After those 11 hard fought months, they found that the end of their long road was in this small Austrian town on a mountain lake in northern Austria. Swimming in a clear blue water, living life as normal people, all under the shadow of the Austrian alps in a land where there was finally peace was the way these men were to end their European tour of duty. I remember thinking.... what an incredible end to this epic story. To fight within an inch of your life for an entire year and then wind up here. This vision of Austria became ingrained in my mind: Rest. Peace. Overwhelming mountains and rolling green countrysides.

When we arrived in Austria, I can't say that this was at all my first impression. Unlike Easy Company who arrived by truck in the foothills over the Bavarian alps, we popped up in the middle of downtown Vienna at the Wien Rennweg metro station. With the wind in our face and a map ripped out of the guidebook, we made our way around the city in search of a place to stay.

"Wir haben eine Reservierung unter dem Namen Grimes" I said to the front desk lady, intent to show off all I could remember from my two week crash course in German.

"Welcome to Vienna, Herr Grimes," she said with a smile, "Not to worry, we all speak English here."

And so ended my attempts at German for the trip. Vienna was just as picturesque and romantic as one may expect: horse drawn carriages, palatial Habsburg estates, crowds gathered to watch opera on the street. Mile after mile we explored the city until our (ok... my) feet would allow no more. The next morning we grabbed our Volkswagen Polo and headed up the Danube River valley.

Each town we passed had its own story to tell. First Dürnstein, the barely noticeable riverside medieval village whose hilltop castle imprisoned Richard the Lionheart, the kidnapped King of England in 1192. Then there was Melk, a small an otherwise unimpressive little town, but home to the largest Benedictine Abbey in the entire world. Town after town we passed, stopping at some, others no. I barely noticed a sign as it flew by along the road as we headed further up river: the concentration camp of Mauthausen; the chapters all of the World War II history books I'd read started to become tangible as I saw where these stories unfolded. Linz: the birthplace of the man himself whose perverted mind first dreamt up the Final Solution in Lansberg Prison. Then Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart, idyllic in every way except for the inability to find a parking spot anywhere near your intended destination. I mean it was sixteen, going on seventeen minutes until we even had a clue, and when we did find a place where the car fit it was really far, a long long way to park.

And so further west we went up and into the Bavarian alps. Our chosen route was well out of the way and added more than a few hours to the journey towards our final destination of Munich, but there was a reason. As we finally exited the highway and saw the signs, I imagined us not in our tiny Polo, but in the back of deuce-and-a-half with the men of Easy Company. As Zell am See unfolded in front of us I imagined not the ritzy resort town which wealthy Austrians spend their summers in fancy modern condos, but a sleepy old town, newly enjoying the prospect of peace over Europe, probably apprehensive to welcome American soldiers who'd freshly declared victory over the soldiers who were their husbands, their sons, their fathers.

I could picture Dick Winters diving into the lake, Shifty Powers bagging a deer up in the surrounding woods, Doc Roe staring up at mountainside trying to forget what he'd seen in Bastonge. Our time in Zell am See was very brief, just a stop along the way to our next destination, but to me it was in a way the end of a long journey; this journey I'd pictured in my head for years. Even though they'd been gone for 70 years, I finally got to share that moment with Easy Company. I pulled back the flap and jumped into the back of the deuce-and-a-half, its diesel engine rumbling to a start as it began to make its way out of town. Before long it again became that little white Volkswagen Polo, and just like that... we were back to reality.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

#14. Montenegro. The Bay.

Under the benevolent (most would say) dictatorship of Josip Tito, the former Soviet Republic of Yugoslavia remained intact and in domination of most of the landmass in the Balkan peninsula in the years following World War II; the victors of the war had drawn an arbitrary political boundary around this huge area, and in so doing joined several races, religions, and ethnicites under the umbrella of one homeland. This was not the first time in history this happened, nor would it be the last, but the result was an area of the world doomed to conflict in the years to come. One by one, after the dissolution of this large state in 1992, the various ethnic peoples of the Balkans exercised their right to national self-determination, and borders began to be redrawn: Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina all broke away from Yugoslavia, which today remains as the Republic of Serbia. In the mid 2000's the last to separate were Montenegro and Kosovo, the former being the destination of our next bus trip around the Balkans.

Montenegro, or "Black Mountain" (I'll what for a sec while you have your, "oh, yeah... duh" moment), is the beautiful tiny country lying just to the south and east of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. How lucky we are these days to have Google image search: after about two seconds of looking at photographs of this place, we decided we'd be out of our minds to miss this. Although all of the countries are tightly packed together in the former Yugoslavia, traveling to a few of them revealed just how different their people were; differences at times so intense which led to conflict, but to a casual traveler provided an opportunity to glimpse people who are worlds apart but neighbors in the course of only a few days. Croatia had offered serene islands rich in wineries and proud in their local culture; incredible port cities teeming in tourists and fully embracing the new century. Bosnia a little further behind, still showing scars from war, and having a tension which was palatable. Montenegro? Maybe the younger brother of its two western neighbors, not in the limelight, but also free of the turmoil which you can still be felt in some places. The residents of Korcula boasted of their wines, claiming them to be among the first grapes planted in Europe, a proud history not to be forgotten and to be respected by the world. Montenegrins? The waiter at a tiny restaurant on our first night brought out a bottle of their national wine along with sparkling water.

"What do we do with that?" we asked.

"Mix it with the wine," he said with a smile, "you do not want to drink this wine by itself."

Immediately I appreciated the honesty of these people. Their laid back and accommodating way of life. While I will remember the Adriatic for its calm and endless expanse to the horizon, I will remember Montenegro for the embrace of its mountains and its seclusion. As you enter the bay of Kotor by a narrow inlet, it opens up into a body of water 20 miles across, surrounded by mountains on all sides. You expect to pass under the legs of some giant bronze colossus of the ancient past guarding the bay as you enter. No wonder the Balkan coast was chosen as the filming location for the fictional land of Westeros in HBO's Game of Thrones. The town of Kotor itself was not large, and everything about it seemed ancient. No pavement to be seen, just cobblestone. Even the ice cream shops and liquor stores occupied buildings that made you feel as if you were traveling in time to the middle ages, there to buy honey meade or have horseshoes made.

This small town marked the end of our Balkan adventure. Our brief trip here was a reminder of an incredibly troubled and not so distant past, of the tenuous peace which has been made only in the last decade or so. This land has been known for centuries as the 'power keg' of Europe, the spark which ignited the first World War; you can certainly ignore this darker side, get off your cruise ship in Dubrovnik, go on your Game of Thrones tour, and be on to Santorini... but it's a past which deserves remembering. Not only to remember the stories of those that have lived through the wars, the bombs, the genocides, but because as the saying goes, those that forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

#13: Bosnia. The Bridge

The following is a repost from May 20, 2012, shortly after this trip took place. 

Ivanka was pleasant enough. She smiled a lot and made sure to explain the aging relics of the Ottoman Empire as the van rolled northwards into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ride was long, and I could not help as the van sat peacefully at the border crossing to think of the 600,000 Bosnians who for fear of their lives and in search of a new home had crossed in the opposite direction only 15 years before. What Ivanka did not explain were the burned out buildings which dotted the countryside, still standing as a reminder of the recent war. Our destination of Mostar derived it name from the phrase "keepers of the bridge", referring to the Stari Most, or "old bridge", which spans the Nerveta River in the city's center. The bridge was built in the 16th century, and survived long enough to support Panzers during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia - only to be destroyed in 1993 by Bosnian Croat artillery fire.

As we walked though Mostar, I felt that there was some tension which pervaded the city that was very real, yet carefully hidden. Ivanka, herself a Bonsian Croat refugee, mentioned that she would not be surprised if there was war again here in the next decade - yet walking though the city, with its touristy shops and pleasant exterior, one would never guess. Looking closer, there was something different about this city than any other I had been to: the dust on a life and death struggle between two groups of people who still live there today has barely settled. Yes, every tourist shop had copper Turkish coffee pots of all sizes as our tour guide was sure to explain, but I couldn't help but notice that every shop also sold little trinkets - airplanes, belts, cars, jewelry - all made out of AK-47 shells. As if embracing the sad reality that war is what now makes Bosnia famous, locals who still bear the scars of bombshells and shrapnel try to sell what once made them afraid to go into the streets as knick-knacks for tourists to take home with them - the same tourists from countries whose governments did not have the courage to lift a finger as the Serbian army began to give meaning to the term ethnic-cleansing.

We crossed the Stari Most, the beautifully rebuilt replica of the bridge which now stands over the rubble of its older brother at the bottom of the Nerveta River, and came to a vantage point so that the group could take photos. Looming above the city was a ridge which served as the high ground from which the Croats  bombarded the bridge and the Muslim side of town. Our Croat tour guide paused and pointed in the direction of the ridge.

"Finally..." I thought, "He is going address the sad reality of what happened here."

I wondered how he was going to explain the shelling of the bridge, given that it was his people that were responsible for its destruction - for some reason I felt that would require a fair bit of tact.

Instead, he told a joke about the ridge and we moved on for lunch. You have to pay a little extra to get the whole story, I guess. 

It's not surprising that, especially in front of tourists, those that lived here portray a sense of optimism, and a desire to move beyond the past. People do not take vacations to be reminded that humans, from time to time, pick up arms and do their best to kill their each other. I didn't expect to get a full history lesson on a war which only recently ended from a tour guide whose people were the aggressors, but it was chilling to hear Ivanka say, "yesterday, we were fighting in the streets.... today, we are fighting in the parliament.... tomorrow, who knows."

As I write, the trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb General who was tasked with ridding his country of Muslims and became infamous for directing the Srebrenica massacre, has just gotten underway. It's hard not to think that it's possible to be sub-human, or something of the sort, when one watches this man chuckle and beam with pride as he watches videos of himself congratulating his men after they have just murdered thousands of men and boys for the crime of being born the wrong race.

Walking out of  the city, we passed some graffiti which would have seemed normal if not for one thing: the language in which it was written. On the Bosniak side of the river, inconspicuously tucked behind a table of souvenirs, was a rock that read, "Don't Forget" in English. Written in the language not of the locals who assuredly do not need this reminder, but of the passersby and tourists, who see the blown out buildings and after their quick tour which pretended they weren't there wonder... "What happened here?" The graveyard at the corner of town in which nearly all the tombstones are marked with a burial date of 1995, and nearly none with a birth date before 1975, stands as a reminder of what they don't want us to forget.

My wife and I arrived back to our apartment in Dubrovnik before sundown - plenty of time to freshen up from the long day and find a nice seafood restaurant overlooking the Adriatic in time for dinner. The town which felt so foreign just a few days ago strangely felt like home after having been to Mostar. At dinner, we watched as the lights in the harbor began to come on and fishermen tied down their boats for the night.  I thought of the bullet holes, AK-47 shells, and cemetery of teenagers. But inevitably I found my mind wondering to wineries and the beaches on Korcula Island, tomorrow's destination. One cannot dwell on such horrors when they are on vacation.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

#12: Croatia. Lejos.

The bus rumbled on northwest up the Dalmatian coast. Although completely sleep deprived, I struggled to keep my eyes open to glimpse the coastline of the Adriatic Sea. First we passed Trsteno, a small fisherman's village not very notable other than it being home to two huge old trees which the bus slowed down for as we passed. I watched as we rode through the town which ended almost as soon as it began, passing the trees which provided shade to the crowd which had gathered to escape the midday sun.

And then there was Ston. This town's name was not a coincidence. I had begun to nod off by now, and as we passed Ston I thought I was still in a dream: a wall. A massive stone wall. So large you could not see where it ended; up into the mountains it went; in an earlier time it must have prevented the incursion into this seemingly small and unimportant town from the mightiest of invaders. As the bus swept by I felt as if we were speeding by the the Taj Mahal or Great Pyramids without the thought of even slowing down. I looked around as if to ask "is any one else seeing this?!" only to find disinterested and sleepy locals and tourists already planning their visit to Korčula. As we passed Ston I grabbed for the guidebook. Surely there was something to these walls. Consequently, there was. These were known as the Great Wall of Europe. Dubrovnik, the indescribably beautiful medieval port city from which we had just departed, derived much of its wealth from this small city of Ston centuries ago. While the Great Wall of China and Hadrian's wall in Britain were meant to protect great empires from barbarian hordes to the north, the walls of Ston had quite a difference purpose: keep your hands off my salt. The Pelješac peninsula was home to a lucrative operation of salt cultivation which raked in the dough that made the independent Republic of Dubrovnik so wealthy. We passed the wall and before this history geek had time to catch his breath, the salt fields still in operation to this day began to fly by the window. Nothing is new under the sun, as they say.

But as most bus rides go, there was a destination in mind, and this was not Ston. We made our way up the east coast of the peninsula whose interior was made up of seemingly impassable mountains; but finally the bus tuned west. Winding higher and higher, I could see a pass we seemed to be making for. Sure enough we finally reached the center of the peninsula, broke through the pass, and all at once the Adriatic opened up in front of us. I again had one of those "are you seeing this??" moments, but looking around saw that most around me were asleep. I guess my "you can sleep when you're dead mentality" is not so popular among the general public. The bus finally pulled into the town of Orebić and we waited to board a ferry to take us to our final destination: the island of Korčula.

We finally stumbled off the bus into the village of Korčula, where we were immediately greeted by some lady whose sister at the Dubrovnik bus station had guaranteed a great deal on a room in her apartment once we arrived in Korčula. I'd half expected this to be a made up story, but sure enough, there she was, and she led us to the room. We didn't get the "I feel like I'm soon to be killed vibe" so we just went with it. After setting into the room, we set out to explore the town before sunset. Korčula's claim to fame was being the birthplace of Marco Polo, the merchant traveler of antiquity (and of course, more famously, the progenitor of the popular pool game) and the town was sure you would not overlook this: first, the Marco Polo souvenir shop, then there was the Marco Polo church, and afterwards was Marco's spaghetti restaurant (all the while of course, walking down the Avenue of Marco Polo). From end to end, you could walk through Korčula in 10 minutes. Having arrived in the evening, we walked by as shopkeepers were beginning to close down for the night and the town started to become sleepy. We worked our way to the water's edge and found a restaurant which served fish and pizza: The perfect combination for my Jenn and I. A bottle of Croatian white wine, hot pizza, fresh seafood and a view on the Adriatic Sea... the stuff dreams are made of. Luckily, we had a few days before we had to wake up.

Bikes took us around the island the next day. Here a beach, there a winery - how we ever ended up leaving, I'm not sure. Korčula was the best of what I imagined it could be. Serene, silent, sitting just far enough off the mainland to be unspoiled by the pace of the 21st century. The only hint of disruption of the relaxed atmosphere of the island was maybe the sailboats which moored in the harbor each evening. They flew flags of the Barbados, the Virgin Islands, UK and the USA.... we could not have been so lucky to be the only tourists there on those nights, but surely our visit remained one unspoiled by distraction or even time. Korčula still lives in my dreams as only a place so far away can.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

#11: Belize. The Honeymoon.

There are moments in life that define who you are. For me, one of them was on a frozen mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early winter months of 2011: this is when I asked my wife Jenn to marry me. So began a new era.... and to kick it off, we hadn't gotten 100 feet from that lake before we'd started planning our honeymoon. Some may call that a little extreme, but I guess that's what you get when your pair up two people struck with a bad case of wanderlust like Jenn and I.

And the ideas began to flow: I suggested a rustic lodge-to-lodge trek into Machu Picchu; she suggested a luxurious over-water bungalow in Bora bora. I suggested an adventurous tour across the cities of Western Europe, she suggested the near deserted solitude of the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. And so started a new dimension to traveling (and life) I'd yet to experience on this level: compromise. If there were only some tool available at the time that would have helped us consider every option given our differing tastes, we may have resolved this quicker.

But alas, the compromising began. I accepted that I probably wasnt going to see the inside of a tent on our honeymoon, and she came to grips that there may have to be more to do than simply watching the tide come in as the sun set. After some extensive research and tips from friends, we finally agreed on a place. Heading towards the equator became an obvious choice given this was December, and it also turns out there are places with both mountains and beaches. So Belize it was. What also became clear was this trip should have some element of relaxation - meaning there was to be no long waits at bus stops where we weren't entirely sure we'd even be picked up, no crossing our fingers and hoping the last night train of the evening hadn't left before we made it to the station, and certainly no strolling into a city without a plan and trying to identify the least shady looking hostel that wasn't already booked up.

So here I was again, after thinking the Dominican Republic was going to be my last: we booked an all inclusive resort package with Coppola resorts, half in the mountains, half on the beach. Compromise. After learning that Renee Zellweger had taken the same trip with Coppola Resorts a few months back, our choice was confirmed: what's good enough for Bridget Jones was good enough for us.

We left the reception of our wedding early in the evening for our flight out to Belize City the next morning. Maybe this was a good choice, as by all accounts if I'd partied half as hard as most did that night I'd have been boarding the plane with a Gatorade, a splitting headache, and a motion sickness bag close at hand; not the ideal way to start one's honeymoon. In Belize City we quickly transferred to a van which drove us west past the capital Belmopan and deep into the Belizean mountains. By the time we were nearing the Blancaneax Lodge it was dark, and as we neared our destination, the driver was kind enough to stop and allow us to admire some of the fauna of the jungle under the headlights of the van: a tarantula crossing the road about 20 feet ahead. Unfortunately he wasn't aware of one of my new bride's cardinal rules in life: any spider that can be seen from 20 feet away warrants turning around and going home immediately. Luckily for me, we were way too far into the jungle and had too much sunk into this trip for us to turn around now, so on we went (after the hairy guy had finished crossing the road of course).

We passed a small airstrip (the one that Renee no doubt utilized, allowing her to bypass any jungle creatures which may spoil her trip), turned down the long driveway to the lodge which weaved through the think jungle, and were led to our bungalow whose back porch overlooked the Blancaneax river. Reportedly, Francis Ford Coppola had picked this spot for his lodge because it had reminded him of his days filming Apocalypse Now along the Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In hopes of avoiding nightmares I had intentionally failed to mention this to Jenn, but I couldn't resist sitting on the patio and squinting into the darkness imagining VC looking back at me from the jungle across the river. I popped open the duty free tequila, learned my new bride did not care for tequila, and began to very thoroughly enjoy life, realizing the next several days would be filled with the sound of rushing water, the peace of being far from civilization with the one I loved, and lots of margaritas that I didn't have to share.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Other 96%

"Traveling enables us to see the world through the eyes of someone else... to understand their aspirations and assumptions. It’s about empathy, which is not only important to the work of our diplomats but to all of us as we seek to understand different cultures as well as our own." - John Kerry.

Yes, that's right folks. I just opened with a John Kerry quote. For those of you that know me, you can now get back into your chair. Let's just say I think the guy is better at being a diplomat than he is at picking presidential running mates. In any case, there is a lot of wisdom in those few words. If you are keeping track at home, it was now 2011 and I've passed country number ten in my travels. At this point, traveling had begun to shape who I was. Yes, it's fun. It gets you miles away from the stress of everyday life both physically and mentally. It's like a giant weekend where Mondays blur with Wednesdays and Saturdays are the same as Tuesdays. But greater than all that: it's an education. It's a glimpse into how beautiful this world is. The Andes have stories to tell, but so does Argelia, the banana farmer whose entire life has revolved within the 10 mile radius of her modest mountain home. St Peter's basilica in Rome provides an education unmatched anywhere else in art, architecture and church history - but so does Davíd, the sophomore at La Sapienza who never realized that God was more than an impressive building and a tradition to follow.

A time or two when on my travels I've forgotten what a privilege I've had. I've foolishly asked a local in small town in making small talk "So, where have you traveled?" only to be met by a polite but revealing chuckle and smile followed by a response of "I don't travel," or even "we don't travel," "we" meaning everyone they know or will ever know in their small village. Every once in a while I'd meet someone that with a radiant smile on their face would claim they had plans one day to go to university in America, or that they had a friend of a friend that told them stories once of what it was like to look at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Usually after this I'd become slightly embarrassed, begin to connect the dots, and realize that the money I was spending on my trip was the per capita income of their country. Do they travel? Of course not. They survive... They live. But many of them live well - existing in a world where money is not an idol, it's just something that keeps the lights on and food on the table. It was in times like these that the statistics you hear become tangible: according to the Global Rich List and, anyone that makes more than $32,400 annually is in the top 1% of the world's wage earners. Let me do that math for you: that's $15.52 an hour. I'm not going to get political here, but that is presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' proposal for a federal minimum wage standard. Yes, that's right: that means that by federal mandate, the entire USA would be among the top 1% of the wage earners of the world. Just food for thought.

In any case, The privilege that we have here is really nothing short of stunning. It's one we easily forget or choose to ignore...and it's exactly this ignorance that causes many to lose sight of some really basic and important things. I don't want to be the one to tell the girl in Sapa, Vietnam that she should forget about university in the USA, because by the time the paperwork clears (if it ever does) she'll be too old anyway. And I certainly don't want to tell the boy in the market in Morocco that if he ever wanted to find a better life in America that there's a chance he may be turned away because of the religion he follows. That's not America.

John Kerry was right: if we keep our eyes open, we can in some small way glimpse the lives of others while traveling abroad. If you really stop to listen, they have lessons to teach. They have stories to tell. They represent the other 96% of the human experience, and to ignore their voices is to ignore the reality of what it is to be a citizen of this planet.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Vida Colorado

A brief pause in our regularly scheduled programming:

This blog is now six years old and has evolved much over this time. Luckily, unlike a six year old child (unless you are cruel), you can change a six year old blog's name, right? So that's what I'm doing.

I'll be brief here and not bore you with an overly dramatic or verbose mission statement of this blog rebirth. But it has become ever convincingly clear that the title "What You Can't Talk About at the Dinner Table" is no longer fitting. Basically, the 23 year old unemployed guy that wanted to shout out controversy to the mountaintops is not who I am today nor related to any recent content on this blog; I resisted renaming for a while (even just throwing a "2.0" at the end of the title for a brief period of time to indicate that the original name and intent no longer necessarily applied), as that's just bad practice in the blogosphere: you lose followers, you confuse people, etc, etc...

But it's time. As I gave thought to what a fitting new name should be, I realized that it had been right in front of my eyes the whole time: the URL of the blog. I had created it only because was painfully long and cumbersome: Vida Colorado. The colorful life. Those Spanish speakers out there will note the impreciseness here given the gender forms do not properly match. But aha! You've failed to realize my punniness. Colorado means "colorful," but is also the name of my adoptive home state of four years and where I lived when I began this blog. Use of the phrase "vida colorada," while grammatically correct, is decidedly less punny. And I love my puns. Plus the URL "vidacolorada" was taken. Win, win.

So hopefully this title has legs for the next six years, as much as "Dinner Table" had for the first six. So a new era has begun for the "dinner table blog." May the old links break and the champagne run freely, welcome to Vida Colorado, stories, photos, and things (I think) worth sharing from my colorful life (with proper credit to the Centennial State, the place of my original inspiration).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

#10.2: Czech Republic. The Old Fortress.

In the spring of 1939, the city of Prague had a Jewish population of over 90,000. Today less than 2,000 remain. Most of these 90,000 saw their way through Terezín at some point in the early and mid 1940's and from there met their fates after being shipped to places like Auschwitz or Mauthausen.

While conditions in Terezín were "good" by comparison to the extermination camps of the east, what set this place apart from all others was its use in Nazi propaganda as a "model" camp where conditions were made to appear great and art and creativity were encouraged. Self government was allowed; there were cafes, shops, parks and circulated money. Artwork was permitted and even encouraged. Children's choirs performed operas and jazz musicians filled the streets with cheerful music.

There was a deception happening in Terezín unknown anywhere else. This "spa town," as it was referred to in Nazi literature, was where aging Jews could go to retire and live out their days in peace while the rest of Europe had to writhe in the agony of ongoing war. It was where artists could spend time refining their craft and performing for their fellow Jewish brethren. Red Cross inspectors of the camp were treated to performances by the children's opera, kids playing in the park, and the local government in action, with town meetings and all. It was as if all of Terezín's inhabitants were playing the part in a movie that they knew would have to end eventually; maybe some wanted to believe so much that it was true that they actually did; and those who refused to play the part? Welcome to Auschwitz.

Terezín today is an actual inhabited city; when we arrived there was little sign of life, though. Snow was falling and perhaps the cold was keeping its inhabitants inside and any other visitors away. The silence which follows newly falling snow; the lack of movement or signs of life; the drab paint on the old buildings; this all gave Terezín a somber if not eerie feel. It's a city caught in a struggle of commemorating its past and in establishing a sustainable modern economy. The struggle is a strange one: on one hand you can visit the crematorium which incinerated the bodies of the victims of Nazism and see Stars of David erected in memory of the mass murder going on here; but you can also sit down and order a goulash dinner in a restaurant occupying the former SS Officers' quarters; you can stay overnight in a hotel that used to quarter Nazi guards that advertises itself to be "a romantic getaway" (the silence of one particular era on its "history" page speaks much louder than words could).

Frankly, I left Terezín a little bit confused. As a WWII history nerd for years, I had lots of ideas and pictures in my mind of what a "concentration camp" should look like, and although this was not exactly of that same category, the old fortress of Terezín simply did not fit this mold at all. New life has blurred with old, and in a some small but odd way, just as in 1944, the town feels like it's still hiding something to this day.

The Jewish population of the Czech Republic after the war was virtually eliminated. Of those that did survive, many found a new start in Israel preferable to trying to rebuild a life in the same homes whose walls now told stories of horror and sadness. Their story is one we all should remember; a visit to Terezín is just an hour's bus ride out of Prague, and it's one you should take if you're there.

Monday, April 4, 2016

#10.1: Czech Republic. The Spared City.

Not many of us over the course of our lives are forced with a decision like Czechoslovak president Emil Hácha had in the spring of 1939. After much of his country had been dismantled piece by piece by his own allies in Britain and France during what has become known as Mnichovská zrada, or the "Munich Betrayal," he was now face-to-face in Berlin with a emboldened Adolf Hitler and presented with the most sinister ultimatum that a lover of one's country could be faced with: he was told that Nazi troops were already on the march, and to have his countrymen lay down their arms or Prague would bombed into oblivion. Upon this news the deceived and stunned Hácha, who thought himself on a diplomatic mission to the German capital, saw himself with no choice and signed the papers which reduced his nation to a Nazi protectorate for the remainder of the war, but not before the poor man literally had a heart attack from the whole ordeal, having to be revived by Hitler's personal doctor.

Hácha no doubt saved his countrymen from almost certain annihilation by the Wermacht and in capitulating also spared Prague from the destruction of the Luftwaffe. As a result, unlike many cities in Europe, Prague stands to this day intact as a city untouched for centuries. For my final spring break of college, I set out on my fourth trip with my two step-brothers to this incredible place. In a way, everything in Prague seems familiar: I'm convinced that every fairy-tale imagined by Disney was in some way designed after Prague with its towering hilltop castle, old stone bridges and fancy clock-tower. I kept waiting to discover the grungier side of Prague: like the graffiti covered Franco era tenements which I'd seen tower over the outskirts of Madrid, or the unlit alleys of downtown Lima which overflowed with trash and feral dogs. But it didn't come. The city was spotless on every corner.

You may think it odd for three 20 something guys, in a city known for its nightlife and "caution to the wind" type culture, but our days in Prague were in search of only a few simple things: good Czech beer and Don Giovanni. And not just any Don Giovanni... I'm talking Don Giovanni performed by nothing other than tiny marionette dolls hung on strings from above. To this day, I'm not sure if it was just a huge joke we were witnessing, or some very authentic glimpse of Moravian culture. In any case, we found the Don Giovanni and we found the good Czech beer we were looking for (at Restaurace U Dvou Koček. The top review is particularly insightful, I thought. And also perhaps somewhat telling: to actually find the good reviews to this place, you have to filter by only Czech ones. Americans apparently hate the place... but that makes me like it all the more).

On the second or third night in the city, snow began falling. The red rooftops slowly began to disappear under sheets of white, and the cobblestone plazas became slick and shiny. The next day we made our way across the iconic Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle, which the Czechs claim is the largest one in the world and upon not much inspection this is completely believable. From its hilltop perch, it completely dominates the city, which perhaps out of respect for its rich history has not produced a modern building anywhere near able to rival its imposing stone spires. After taking this giant structure all in, we made our way back down the hill with some hot mulled Czech wine and headed for bus 16 into the Czech countryside towards the city of Terezin. Though untouched by the bombs of World War II, Terezin reminds that Czechs were by no means spared the horrors of Naziism; underneath the beautiful castles, Rococo architecture and silly marionette shows lies a much more sinister story.

Monday, March 28, 2016

#9: Argentina. The "Class."

I'm not sure why I never took the chance to study abroad in college. I've always been skeptical of the actual academic value of doing so (beyond the simple fact that living in a foreign country brings about inevitable "cultural" education), but nonetheless it's an opportunity which in retrospect I'm surprised I passed up. But all this made me jump at the opportunity for this next adventure: an overseas "class" in Patagonia on "outdoor leadership." I use the quoties with as much facetiousness as possible, as the "class" simply meant I had to keep a travel journal and plan out and pack a meal for twenty people in the backcountry. Well the travel journal was actually something I probably would have done anyways.... And as for the meal? Let's just say each bag of rice I packed in was worth about one credit hour.

Not since Spain had I been on a large guided group trip like this one to Argentina. Through Miami's Outdoor Pursuit Center, a group of twenty Miamians, my girlfriend and me made our way down south for a trip divided between Buenos Aires and Patagonia. The freedom provided by being out on my own has always seemed a much preferable alternative, but this trip was a nice change of pace, and if nothing else forced me to spend time in Buenos Aires which I imagine on my own I would not have considered. We took a few Spanish lessons, which were just enough to educate the girls in the group what to yell at the Portenos if they were groped in the subway and we got a fun two hour crash course in Argentine Tango, the dance I'd already spent an entire semester in college attempting to understand but still appeared as some sort of injured praying mantis when I attempted it. Yes, all of this probably falls into the category of "typical touristy things to do in Buenos Aires," but one does not simply come to this city to just enjoy the weather (which in January is incredible by the way). On account of its vibrant cultural life and trendy urban vibe, Buenos Aires is often called the "Paris of Latin America" - I can't much comment on whether this is true, but I'll just say if I ever make it to France, I hope Paris is enjoyable enough that it may live up to the name "the Buenos Aires of Europe," because as far as cities go, up to this point in my life it was certainly near the top.

After a memorable few days in Buenos Aires topped off (no pun intended) by a rooftop New Year's eve sendoff complete with champagne and Argentine tapas, the group boarded a plane for Calafate for the second half of the trip: Patagonia. A few hours in the air and we were deep in the south of the country. At 50° S, Calafate is about 1,000 miles from Antarctica (think L.A. to Denver) and at this time of year the sun didn't begin to set until 10:00 PM. Thankfully being there in the middle of their summer saved us most of the extreme conditions which can go along with being this close to the end of the world. We settled into a backpacker's hostel in the nearby small town of El Chalten and got ready for our few days in the backcountry of Los Glaciares National Park.

Though these were the same Andes I'd seen a few months before in Peru, the Patagonian version was of an entirely different variety. These were not like the Peruvian Andes: impressive mountains covered in jungle and rising from lush river valleys dotted with small villages and the occasional road or trail beneath them. Nor were they like the mountains of Colorado: the towering but slowly rising alpine giants that build out of the foothills to form the impressive but inviting range that is the Rockies. These were altogether different: they are as uninviting and inhospitable at their bases as they are at their peaks. Unlike anywhere else where one can approach a mountain gradually, these ones stand towering above you and forbid all but the most determined to even approach. They are guarded at their bases to the east by massive slowly moving glaciers and to their west by a barely passable expanse of frozen tundra. I couldn't help but draw the comparison between a mighty peak like Pikes in Colorado which has been emasculated by a road which takes anyone with a car to its summit and Cerro Torre, which on the other hand demands respect: to reach its summit you must endure a week long vertical climb up an exposed rock face after traversing across a crevasse filled glacier to simply reach its base. Climbing Magazine likened the journey to being mauled by a rabid dog, "unpredictably violent and outrageously inevitable." If Pikes Peak is the Kim Kardashian of mountains, then Cerro Torre is Mother Teresa, you're going to have to work at it if you want to seal the deal... she aint havin' just anyone. The last few nights of our time in the backcountry we spent in the climbers' camp near the mountain where those planning on making the trip up spent sometimes weeks just waiting for a brief clearing of the clouds to hurry to the rocks and begin their climb.

My time in Argentina was memorable for many reasons. First being that it was my last guided group tour. While I don't like the lack of freedom and privacy this affords, it provided for a great template when I inevitably began planning more on my own (in fact I've planned entire trips completely stolen from REI's group travel itineraries). It also was the first trip I'd taken with my girlfriend Jenn, a key test along the way of our compatibility as travel companions. If we failed this one, I'm honestly not entirely sure we didn't have a deal-breaker on our hands. Luckily we turned out to not just survive, but really enjoy each other's company (even earning the nickname "Jurt" from our hilarious group of friends... doesn't quite have the ring of "Brangelina," but probably beats "Kenn," I guess.) and from here on out, the "we" in almost all these stories will mean "we" as in my wife and I (things didn't turn out so bad as it happens).

At this point I had developed somewhat of a theme in my travels if you had not picked up on it: everywhere I'd been (with the exception of Amsterdam), was a place where Spanish was either primarily spoken or of much use (as in the case with Italy, where Italian is basically close enough to enable at least basic communication). I used to think that being well versed in the spoken words of the country to which you are traveling was a hugely important thing. After my Argentina trip, I began breaking myself of this notion, and have not been back to a Spanish Speaking country since with the exception of a few hours in Spain last year. As is the case with many aspects of American citizenship, there are perks to holding that blue passport and of being an English speaker: we speak the de-facto language of the world... and I've been to few places where knowing "please," "thank-you," and having a certain skill in the game of Guesstures did not provide for all one needs in the way of communication. So good-bye Argentina and Latin America. Don't cry for me.

Sorry. I had to.

P.S. Please bear in mind in the photos that follow: If you asked an Argentine they would tell you that to dance the Tango one must exercise as much passion as doing "the deed" itself. In the most PG-13 way possible I tried to capture such emotion in a few of these photos. Think "culture" not "creepy," but I'll let you be the judge.

P.P.S. My apologies for potentially offending any Coloradan - or maybe anyone at all who appreciates the outdoors - for comparing Pikes Peak to Kim Kardashian. There's also a joke in there somewhere about Pikes being the most prominent peak in Colorado and a certain Kim body part .. but I didn't want to overdo it here. I'm absolutely not too classy for that, though.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

#8: Peru. The Sacred Valley.

Quick housekeeping note: They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, if that's true these posts just got several thousand words longer. Or if you are like me, have just given you an excuse to skip to the pictures and be done with it rather than doing any reading. Whichever you prefer, from here on out rather than attempting to attach tiny thumbnails of pictures to these posts, you'll see embedded links to my photo-site. Eat your heart out. 

In the general theme of this whole series of 'the bucket list', Peru had absolutely been on the top of mine for several years. Throughout my childhood we had this ethereal photograph taken by one of my dad's friends hanging on the wall that always gave me wonder. It was not those crystal clear wide angle shots of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu that you will find on the cover of National Geographic (or to an extent, in the photos below), rather it was a simple shot of a mist covered stone circle erected by the Inca, off to the side in an area of the ruins that tourists don't even venture as nothing seems very special about it. It was in an area that the Inca used to hew the massive stones for the building of the city, but these stones are so perfectly placed in a circle they seem to indicate that there was a ceremonial purpose to these particular ones. This was my impression of Machu Picchu growing up: not the Disney World of impressive ruins and panoramic vistas of the Andes that most envision when they picture the place... but one shrouded in mystery and of unanswered questions about the native culture that seemed to have suddenly abandoned it hundreds of years ago. Why was almost no gold discovered at this site that was purported to be the luxurious home of Incan royals; they being of an empire that we know forfeited countless galleons full of it to the Spanish when they were conquered?  Why have only bones of women been uncovered upon its discovery? Did the men all go off to war to never return? What exactly took place on the (coincidentally human size) altars which seem to be designed and placed in such a way as to pay tribute to the sun and the surrounding mountains?

As a kid, I'd ask my mom about the picture. She'd tell me there was a mighty culture that was once there; kind of like the 'Indians' of North America, but bigger and grander and more mysterious. She'd tell me my dad often spoke of wanting to go but never did. He was always one who was enamored by native American culture: he could spend hours walking around a freshly tilled up field in Indiana just looking for arrowheads or any trace of the tribes that once lived in the area. He'd make his own tools in the way they would have been made hundreds of years ago out of rawhide strips, wood and stone in attempt to recreate the lives of the men and women who lived in America before we did. Everything about their culture absolutely fascinated him, and now myself as well. It was for him that I was now making the trip here and finally coming face-to-face with this mystery which I'd seen hanging on my living room wall since I was a child.

In telling the story of the trip, I'll let one of my older blog posts (which by complete coincidence, I wrote five years ago almost to the day) speak for me. It is the story of coming across road construction in the middle of the otherwise uninterrupted jungle landscape in the Santa Teresa river valley right outside of Machu Picchu. My thoughts of the whole experience haven't changed much since then, so I figured I'd just post a link rather than retelling it all. But I can't help but note if my dad were there he may have had more appreciation for how changing times can be bittersweet and that development can often spoil Mother Nature in irreversible ways; how there was a time when men behaved as if we and Earth were dependent on each other as we realized our fates were inescapably intertwined. This all may be putting words in his mouth, but I do know this for sure: at the very least he'd have certainly been walking through that construction site looking for Incan arrowheads.

What preferences put Peru at or near the top of my bucket list? That one's easy:

Affordability: 100/100
Architecture: 50/100
Cities 50/100
Culture: 50/100
Food: 50/100
History: 50/100
Nature: 100/100
Outdoor Adventure: 100/100
Relaxation: 1/100
Safety: 50/100

(spoiler alert: a few countries down the list are soon upcoming)