Monday, December 12, 2011

Gone wild on wheels - Capranica to Civitavecchia

What do you do when the Italian government declared it too beautiful a day to be working in the office? You take your mountain bike and board the train. Seventy minutes later, I am in my happy place far far away from Rome. This is the hills of Capranica, where the 52-km bike tour starts. A few hours later, I will end up at Civitavecchia, a port city on the coast. The majority of the trail is an abandoned railway with the rails removed. There are eleven tunnels along the way, several of which are completely deprived of light, one of them as long as a mile. Aside from short sections of thick blackberry bush, occasional flooded tunnels, and muddy low crossings, the only real challenge that makes a solo trip difficult is the need to make a few portages over concrete walls. With the vow to make it all the way from the mountain to the sea, romantic scenery, and the rare privacy of total darkness, this is what I call a honeymoon trip – it all goes downhill from here.

After two pitch dark tunnels, a short detour takes you to the tiny medieval town of Barbarano Romano. Beneath the walled town are more than a hundred chambers of various sizes and functions dug into the hillside during the Middle Ages. Largely covered by vegetation nowadays, only about a dozen of them can be visited. Further hiking (about 2 hours) leads to caves with carvings of humans and animals, although a quick lunch with caffe corretto (corrected coffee - the Italian coffee is so strong that I have to dilute it with Baileys) and panino (sandwich) was more tempting in this lovely little town.

Abandoned train stations dot the trail. Many of them are choked by overgrown vines and are thus inaccessible. Except for one, Civitella Cesi. The stairs that lead to the upper floor, although missing a few steps here and there, are passable. Once up on the second floor, you are rewarded by the green vista of farmland and rolling hills. With a little imagination, you can almost hear the whistle of the approaching train in the wind and the golden waves it sets off in the alfalfa fields.

About mid-way, there is an abandoned water tower, empty of water but full of trash. The skeleton of a rusty ladder leads to the center of the tank. The 10-meter climb is far less scary than the mystifying eeriness of the vacant and seemingly bottomless water tank. Just a quick glimpse is enough to send me hurrying down the ladder like someone scampering out of a graveyard after seeing a ghost.

On the other side of the road is a path winding up a small rocky hill. Following the inconspicuous path, there are occasional steps dug into the rocks. At the top is an out-of-place white tent as big as a tennis court. Under the tent lies the excavation site of Luni sul Mignone, the oldest building found in central Italy: an Etruscan dwelling dated back to 12th century B. C. All the above-ground structures were long gone, but the steps, pillars and chambers dug into the rocks are still visible. An outcrop of the rocky cliff affords a panoramic view of the river valley a hundred meters below. For a rock climber, it is a delightful little playground, as handholds are already dug into the rock faces.

When there is half an hour of daylight and 25 more kilometers to go, I have to race against the waning sun. The last 18 km riding in the dark on the busy Aurelia highway is a little nerve-wracking but manageable. The biggest hills are encountered in the last few kilometers of the entire trip. Pumping up the last big hill pays off when I arrive at Civitavecchia Train Station three minutes before the train takes off. It is my regret not to explore the lively city of Civitavecchia, but that is just another reason to do this trip again.

This trip is also published in the Italian Notebook, where you can read about many other wonderful places and culture of Italy.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

I run, therefore I am

I run everywhere. Running fast lets me see more and do more.

The world in fast forward gives me a different prospective.

Running lifts me up and gets me over the low spots.

Life in fast pace makes bad feelings blow away quickly.

Every time I feel like it is the end of the world, I go running.
Then I realize there is no end to the road under my feet.

A new hope is just around the corner.
A new horizon is only a few steps away.

Running the way I am presents problems by itself.
Guys just can't keep up with me.

At times it looks like I am running from an accident to a disaster.
I guess I will just keep running.

There is no reason to stop now, is there?

To see more photos of Eva's little world in fast forward, go to Run Eva Run Album.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Eva on the rocks

Born free, climb free.

This is just another discipline of life I now follow.

It is mentally demanding as it is physically.

It takes balance, focus, strength, endurance, technique, patience, and impatience...

In the end, all you need is the will to hang on for dear life.

Every time I find a new way to defy gravity.

Every time I get a different view of the world beneath my feet.

To view more pictures of Eva on the rocks, go to my Rock Climbing Album.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Bosnia has a governor? The Republic of what? These were my responses when I first heard of the country’s name, “Bosnia and Herzegovina”, and within its territory, The Republic of Svrska. So how many countries are there?

Coming from Fort Stewart, I had known Bosnia as a war-torn country of brutal extremists, land mines and burnt down houses. As I crossed the border from southern Croatia into Bosnia, this impression was soon replaced by idyllic green fields and gently rolling hills . Aside from the fact that there are too many consonants and not enough vowels, what her people had to fight and kill each other for, year after year, generation over generation, is as incomprehensible to me as its miserable language. My incidental detour from Croatia into Bosnia had become a journey to explore humanity.

Everywhere I went, there were sleepy little villages nestled on foothills that seemed to have stood still for millennia. Is this really the land where fierce firefights, widespread air raids, and merciless genocides happened not that long ago?Beyond the green fields dotted with wild flowers, little red signs with a white skull mark mine fields and testify to the dreadful wars between the Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, Serbs, Croats, and other ethnic, political, and religious groups.

In Mostar, a cheery village, one of the oldest stone arch bridge in Europe was completely destroyed during the war in the 90’s. This beautiful old bridge used to span over a meandering river that divided the village: the Catholic side and the Islamic side. Today the bridge has been rebuilt, according to its original plan recovered from Istanbul, even with some original stones savaged from the rubbles, but the divided village is still split – churches on the east bank and mosques on the west. A piece of rock bearing the memento “Don’t forget 1993” was placed on the bridge. What lesson does the stone want the people not to forget? Did they really learn anything? In this hip little town I spent my first night in Bosnia. I strolled through narrow cobble stone streets lined with charming little shops selling local crafts and Turkish souvenirs; I had wine over dinner and watched a World Cup match on a 6-foot screen in a trendy bar. The next morning I walked down the same street and passed by that same bar. Daylight revealed the other side of the story: its exterior wall was peppered with bullet holes – a volatile history veiled by the country's seemingly tranquil atmosphere.

Further north in another old town called Jayce, I wandered around the ancient city wall and came across a neat little house. A perfectly contented mama cat was napping with her kitten at a wooden gate. I could not resist waking up the kitten and playing with him. Soon an old man came out of the house. Between I and this Bosnian man, we spoke no common language, but somehow we started talking. Twenty minutes later, I learned his name, his job, and the names of his cats and dogs and all the tricks that these animals could perform. In Georgia where I came from, if you stop at someone’s yard and a man comes out, you can expect the man cranking a shotgun and spitting fire. Here in Bosnia, the man came out with a smile, and then went back into his house to get me water and snack.
A woman who lost her husband and both of her sons during the war shared her personal reflections: An entire village that was destroyed could be rebuilt, but the damage of cultural heritage could never be replaced. Although the pain of losing a family member would never heal, at least the loved ones who were left behind could accept it as the nature of war and eventually find peace. It was the defeat of faith in the good human nature that was so fundamental and haunting that left the victim no answer or consolation. She was betrayed by friends and neighbors she had known all her life, even by relatives she had grown up with. She could never trust another human being. What kind of religion preaches faith in god but through their crusade instills no trust in man?

In the Republic of Srvska, meadows were brilliantly decorated with wild flowers. Along the roads, signs of “Sir Med” were often seen. Whoever Sir Med was, he must have been a great nobleman who rules this vast land with great popularity. At a high pass with a breathtaking view, I took a wine break. No sooner had I realized there were sheep on the meadow did two men walked towards me. Alerted, I pulled out my weapon of mass destruction – a big smile with a bling on my teeth of sparkles – and waved franticly. The men returned fire with big smiles showing brown and broken teeth. Only one of them spoke a few words in German and English, but both men proudly pointed out the boundaries of their land and excitedly talked about the sheep and cattle they owned. We strike up an enthusiastic conversation with occasional words, vivid facial expressions, exagerated hand gestures, and uproars of laughter when a point did get across. Soon I was invited to their house. In their yard, a small orthodox shrine stood among roaming chickens. I tried a syrup made from a wild flower and some very strong Turisk brew coffee. Eventually I was presented with “Sir”, which is the local word for cheese. To inquire whether it was cow cheese or goat cheese, “Mooooo? Mehhhh?” was the question. Later I realized “Med” is the local word for honey, and the people here sell home-made cheese and honey for a living. It sounds like the simple peaceful life in fairy tales. The next thing I learned, was that people here used to tend to their livestock and grow their crops in the summer, and fought the war in the winter. It was not that simple after all.

Outside of a small national park, I found lodging at a farm house. This was no fancy farm-house-converted B&B for the ecotourists. When I walked into this house, the stench of goat cheese was suffocating. I could touch the bed sheet and feel the tallow from the last time it was washed with soap made from animal fat. The "fresh air of the great outdoor" was a blend of cow manure and a shaggy sheep dog who had never bathed in his life. In the soft golden rays of the setting sun, this revolting smell was penetrated by the subtle scent of elm tree flowers as an elderly woman gingerly picked tiny flowers off the branches for making honey.

When I came into this land and saw the first house covered with bullet holes, I thought that was the coolest shit and heartlessly took pictures as souvenir. As I was leaving this country, I saw a house like that in a very different way. Each bullet hole is a dot; the dots connect to form a line; the lines stack up to become a picture. This picture comes to life in my mind. It is a story with characters who have touched me in their simple, remote, but powerful ways. This abandoned house was built, stone by stone, through generations and passed down from fathers to sons. Here once lived a family who laughed, cried, and died after an automatic weapon fired across it. I could faintly hear the prayers from a distance. I could almost smell the goat cheese in the air.

For more pictures of Bosnia, visit my Bosnia Album.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dive into the Galapagos

Ever since I took a course on Evolution in 1993, I dreamed of going to the Galapagos Islands. When I decided to go travel in South America in 2008, the Galapagos became my one and only MUST SEE site. I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up for this 8-day cruise onboard a power catamaran. In fact, I did not even know what a catamaran was. When I arrive at Puerto Ayora and saw the boat named “Queen of Galapagos” I realized the travel agent was not lying when he sold me the luxury-class cruise. Adrift the turquoise blue sea, each day the 16 passengers woke up to the view of a different volcanic island black with lava rocks covered with brilliantly colored sally light foot crabs, or fine white sand littered with marine iguanas, and the windows were like the HDTV section in Best Buy, all featuring the “frigate bird air show”. In the mornings we had a leisurely hike, and in the afternoon we snorkeled for as long as we could stay in the cold water. Snacks and cold drinks awaited onboard before we jumped into a hot shower. After watching sunset, a 5-course meal would be elegantly presented and served by a friendly staff. Until that day, I could not truly say I had treated myself right.
Only 1000 kilometers (600 miles) west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos feels like a different planet. The first afternoon we went to the highland of Santa Cruz Island to see the giant tortoises. We all know turtles are slow in general, but it takes extra long for these giants to do anything: one hour to walk 300 meters (1000 feet); 30 years to mature (still faster than men); and 250 years to die. However, when they did decide to move, their stubby elephant-like feet carried that boulder-sized shell like a soldier on steroid racing a tank down the tank trail. Over locally grown organic coffee, our nature guide told us many interesting but sad facts about the 14 subspecies of giant tortoises, three of which were already extinct due to human exploitation. Ironically, when Charles Darwin came to the Galapagos in 1835 on the HMS Beagle, sailors loaded up hundreds of giant tortoises as supply of fresh meat on their voyage, as many pirates or whaling ships that visited the islands had done for centuries.

Also known as Las Islas Encantadas, these enchanted islands are famous for the abundance, diversity, and tameness of their wildlife. Among all the iconic animals, the Galapagos sea lions are definitely the most interactive and captivating of all. Properly labeled “the welcoming committee of the Galapagos”, the bulbous-headed bulls busily declared territory of their harems by calling “Oha! Oha! Oha!", while the cows lazily nursed their pups on the lava field, creating a relaxing ambience for this paradise. The youngsters chased each other or played with driftwood or a seashell, much like kids who were stuck at home and desperately looking for something to mess with. I was taking pictures of the sea lions, not knowing a pup had come to investigate my sandals. Snorkeling with young sea lions usually involved shrimp kicks and staring contests. When I dove down, the playful young sea lions would follow and spin with me underwater. Then one of them swam away in a big circle, gained speed, charged straight at me, stopped right in front of my face, and looked me dead in the eye as if saying, “You are the ugliest sea lion I have ever seen.”

Another charismatic character on the Galapagos that no one should miss is the blue-footed bobbies. Their clown-like over-sized bright blue webbed-feet make a good focal point on any photograph, but it is their slow and clumsy movements that burn a permanent mental image in everyone who has observed these seriously dutiful parents and yet hopelessly comical seabirds. Sitting patiently on their nests right next to the designated trails, they ignored the stream of tourists’ feet that must have seemed hilarious to them. To them it was business as usual, whether it was sitting quietly on their eggs, feeding their fuzzy cotton-candy-looking chicks, or performing their mating dance. In this ritual that qualified to appear on the “World’s Funniest Animal Video” show, the male bird, with all his strength, erected his tail feathers, made a series of short whistles that sounded like a 3-year-old child playing a cracked plastic flute. After that he passionately raised one of his sexually-suggestive turquoise blue webbed-feet, held it in the air for a second to contemplate on his next move; then he slowly put it back down, and repeated several times with alternate feet. The grand finale was pointing his beak, wings, and tail to the sky in a most phallic display, asking for her approval. Which female booby could reject such charming love?

There was not a time when I turned around and not saw a marine iguana on the shore of these islands. These real-life miniature Godzillas in slow-motion put us in the set of “Jurassic Park”. They basked in the sun to raise their body temperature, sprayed a salty snot to remove excess salt from their diet, munched on seaweeds when they found a delicious little patch of green, then take a dip in the water when the sun gets too hot. I swam after a big boy to collect data on its ability to adapt to the marine lifestyle. I came to the conclusion that iguanas arrived on these islands long before humans did for a very logical reason.

It was early summer in the Galapagos and love was in the air. Male marine iguanas put on the brightest red and blue shirt. Male manta rays flipped into the air to broadcast their sperms. Male frigate birds proudly showed off their fire-alarm-red balloons. Blue-footed boobies whistled and danced. Turtle sex was everywhere on land with the giant tortoises and at sea with the Pacific green sea turtles. “Go get a room” became our way of greeting a turtle. In the end, it is the more subtle encounters that inspire the greatest awe: Flamingos leisurely left a cloudy trail behind as they skimmed the shallows of a lagoon for brine shrimps, red-billed tropicbirds gracefully glided over the jagged lava cliff with their long tail feathers trailing behind, or the rarely-spotted Galapagos hawk scouted atop a pinnacle rock with grand dignity. And then there were those endearing moments such as a Hood mocking bird seeking refuge from the scorching Equatorial sun in my shadow, and two baby sea lions kissing to make peace after a hearty play-fight.

What a splash! Dive into the Galapagos and have a fullly submerged experience with me in my Galapagos Album.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Eva in Monkeyland

Eva is a little girl in Georgia who never allows herself to be bored. One early spring morning she is sitting on the river bank, enjoying the sunshine and playing Sudoku. Suddenly a monkey jumps in front of her and then disappears into the river. She gets into her little kayak and follows the monkey into the narrow tidal creek that has tall marsh grass standing on both sides and feels like going down a rabbit hole. At the end of the creek, the water empties into a broad river as wide as the sea. Across the choppy river with swells twice as high as her little kayak lies an island of lush forest, and beyond that, the big open Atlantic Ocean. She hesitates for a second and when the call of the mysterious wilderness comes from the island, little Eva has no intention to turn back. She digs her paddle deep into the crests of the waves as her kayak cuts through them like a knife slicing a birthday cake. When she finally lands on the beach of the island, she climbs up to the top of the high bluff consisting of tiny pieces of broken oyster shells. Her eyes are met by a golden sea of waving marsh grass, to the end of which, a cozy little tidal pool flanked by a few palm trees. It looks like a perfect tropical paradise; little does Eva know she will soon find herself knee-deep in monkey poop.

Eva, who is always looking for an adventure or otherwise trouble of some sort, is hypnotized by the exotic beauty of the lush forest in front of her. She carries her Sudoku book in a bag and enters the forest. Several times she thinks she sees something glowing in the trees. Before her eyes can focus on anything, everything moves. Gigantic oaks are draped with Spanish moss that filters the sunlight and hangs like the long silver beard of some creepy old man. Although the occasional sounds of chattering leaves spook her, the soothing scents of cedar and pine lure her to walk deeper into the forest. The undergrowth of the woods gets thicker and thicker. Soon she has to negotiate her steps through the entanglement of small twigs and low branches. There is no time or space to look up or around her and she is about to face her greatest fear: getting lost in the jungle, with no internet access or cappuccino machine.

As abruptly as the forest closes in on little Eva, it opens up. Once she is able to stand upright again, she finds herself on the edge of a pond the size of a football field. The sight is bewildering. She has been to Disney Worlds of three different countries but has never seen any place as magical as this. On the bank of the pond, a neat line of palm trees lend their reflections to the mirror-like surface of the jade-colored pond. Behind the palms stands a tall oak tree on which roost a few dozen snow white great egrets. She sits down by the pond and enjoys this heavenly view for a few minutes. Then she takes her Sudoku book out of the bag and tries to solve the puzzle she was working on before she was interrupted by the monkey. Despite the serene surroundings, she feels an inexplicable uneasiness; kind of like the eerie feeling that someone is secretly watching you. Amid the dead silence, the leaves rattle. Eva looks up the trees and she can't believe what she sees! There must be a hundred anxious eyes looking back at her. There are monkeys everywhere, in the trees, on the ground, and across the pond. An opening among the palm trees that fringes the pond catches her eyes. "That is either the way to get into trouble or the way to get out of it." She thinks, and naturally she walks over there along the edge of the pond. Scattered under the bushes are monkey skulls, tortoise shells, and bones of various animals. The scene at the clearing is even more terrifying: a full skeleton of a big bird, perhaps a heron or great egret, wings and neck all folded up like a pretzel. A few steps away, the full skeleton of a small child, as if he has just collapsed and dropped dead. "Wow, this is cool!" She rushes over, only to find a long tail extending from the end of the vertebral column. There are other pieces of carcasses of unidentified victims in the vicinity. "Is this a witchcraft boot camp?" She looks up into the trees and there roost the answer: a flock of vultures contemplating when she may drop dead and become their first Chinese dinner.

The monkey carcass stinks a little too much to be added to her collection, so Eva says her fond goodbye, and sets off to find her way out of this jungle. Technically she is not lost - as long as she does set a fixed route or destination, she is merely taking a walk and enjoying the scenery. From time to time she sits down to do her Sudoku, while the monkeys settle down and resume their natural behaviors. Most are sitting around or walking about, doing their thing. Every once in a while, there will be a little curious monkey who comes near and wants to check out what is in her bag.

We all know monkeys are our close relatives. When you spend some time observing them, you will be surprised how much of our human society is reflected in the monkeys' behaviors. There are monkeys who sit around and scratch their heads. There are monkeys who jump up and down a tree and yell and scream at every little thing. There are monkeys that flip over every single leaf or stone looking for something they don't even know what it is. There is always that one little monkey who can't resist the simple joy of finding new trouble. I am that little monkey.

To view more pictures of this trip, go to my Morgan Island Album.
To view pictures of all my recent travels, go to All My Albums.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chile - Volcan Villarrica

As you are reading, you might think kayaking is the only thing I do. Let me justify my blog - backpack gone wild - by revisiting some of my good old days living out of the backpack. After Cotopaxi, Iguazu Falls, Machu Picchu, and even the Galapagos, I saw the most amazing landscape on Volcan Villarrica on the Chilean Andes. Under the white snow cover that looks as docile as a rabbit bunny, lies the most active volcano in South America and one of the only four lava lakes in the world. Its spectacular scenery was complimented with the breathtaking sulfur gag. If it was just snow everywhere it would have been boring. But there were icicles in all sorts of crystalline forms growing in the most unimaginable dimensions. The strenuous ascent was rewarded by stunning panoramic views of lakes, ice-capped peaks, blue sky and white clouds that extended all the way to the bulging horizon. This photo was taken 500m below the summit. Imagine seeing this 500m higher and 360 degrees around.

The climb started below the snow line at 1520m and the 1327m ascent took 6 hours to reach the summit at 2847m. The hard plastic boots provided by the alpine guides gave me bruises on my lower legs early on and soon it was painful with every step. I had to slow down considerably and was about 20 minutes behind the others.

When my leg was hurting so much and the climb seemed to have no end, I asked the guide how much longer it would take. 50 minutes, he said. I decided not to check my watch any more and not stopping until I got to the top. After what felt like 2 days, I met the fast climbers coming down. I resisted but finally asked, “How much longer until the summit?” A Dutch girl said without blinking an eye, “Five minutes.” It was like the atropine I needed to jump start my heart. With a new battery, I was marching up the icy slope like the Energizer Bunny. Fifteen minutes later, my guide turned around, shook my hand, and said, “Congratulations, welcome to the summit”. On the way back, I thanked the Dutch girl for lying to me. “If you had told me six minutes instead of five, I would have turned around and come down. I wasn’t going to take that punishment for longer than five minutes!”

Five and a half hours of climbing earned me less than 10 minutes at the summit. Getting too close the active volcano’s smoking crater had proven to be hazardous. A month before my climb a woman fell into the crater, landed on a rock outcrop, survived the fall, but was soon choked to death by the sulfur gas. With wind speed topping 20 miles an hour, the acidic gas was burning my eyes, nose and throat even when I was a few meters upwind from the crater. That was no place for picnic.

Coming down required bending the ankle forward and therefore was even more painful and awkward. To my delight, more than half of the way coming down, where the snow was packed, we could sit on our butts to slide down. That not only saved my agonizing legs but made it so thrilling and fun. On the steeper slopes it got really fast. At the beginning I was not good at balancing and rolled a few times and had to use the ice pick to stop the slide. Soon I got a hang of it and sliding down was like a breeze. The slide was better than any ride in Disney, and that's what backpack gone wild is all about!

This is an extract from my travel journal. To see more pictures of my travels in Chile, view my Chile Album.