September 16, 2011

Edinburgh, Scotland

A toast I learned from a guy in a kilt over a plate of Wee Haggis with a shot of Deanston Scotch in my hand at a pub called Dirty Dick's:

"Here's tae us
And wah's like us
There's gie few
And they're all died"

September 15, 2011

Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

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Performing on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theater. I aint doing Macbeth, though.

September 10, 2011

London, England

My second-favorite novelist, after the great Anusleak Fartwhistle.

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March 22, 2007

London, England
English Food and the Vh1 Thing

I'm on a brief layover in London. As is my habit, I am ranting mid-journey on my way to Istanbul.

I'm a huge fan of London. It's one of my favorite places to visit. Fantastic mix of cultures. Some of the best museums in the world. Every street and alley soaked through with history. But my God, the food is still terrible.

I'm stunned. Every time I come here I expect it will have changed. I mean, it's not that hard to get a decent meal these days. Ingredients you used to have to seek out like kalamata olives and feta cheese are now readily available at 3 in the morning in the dank corners of your local 7-11. I'm embarrassed to admit how good the food is at tacky mall chains like Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's. I even enjoy airplane food. Evidently, fine dining can now be cheaply and reliably mass produced. So how come everything I eat in London tastes like paper?

Don't hate me for saying so, oh loyal subjects of Her Majesty, the Queen. The truth is, I adore you. I'd trade my annoying accent in a heartbeat for any one of yours (except Yorkshire -- that's rubbish). I just don't understand why you're stuck in the culinary dark ages. Is it a curse from some old imperialist transgression? If I snuck a panini through customs, would it magically come out dry and flavorless? Or is that just how folks here like food to taste? Even Australia's gotten their act together.

What gives?

The Vh1 thing airs tomorrow. It turned out surprisingly bearable. They were merciful with the interview footage they used. I come off seeming like less of a dork than usual. I just wish they'd been able to spring for the right music:

I'm on my way to Istanbul to shoot a television commercial for a Swedish travel agency. As far as I know, my obligation is pretty much limited to dancing badly from time to time over the course of two days. There's worse ways to make a living.

This is a quick refresher before I leave to start the new Stride video in 10 days. It's a chance to test out my new luggage -- Salomon laptop backpack and Osprey Porter 90-liter main bag -- a revelation. I'll be back home in time for trivia on Monday...I hate missing trivia.

The trip over today went all pear-shaped very quickly. I wasn't even supposed to be here in London. Bad weather in Chicago delayed my flight from Seattle and the connection to Istanbul had left before I even landed. The airline desk was abandoned and their 800 number was closed for the night. The Istanbul flight only goes every other day, so it was looking like the whole trip might have to be scrapped, until an angelic American Airlines agent rerouted me on a red-eye to London that involved some running and panting.

I thought I had a pretty good sob story, and then I realized every other person in the airport had gotten screwed worse than me. This seems to happen a lot at O'Hare. Bad weather makes everything go to hell. Apparently one sixth of all US flight cancellations happen at that one airport. Maybe our nation's second-busiest transportation hub shouldn't be in a quasi-arctic climate.

May 29, 2006

London, England
As Terrifying as it is Unpronounceable

I'm on a transoceanic jump from London to New York; the 75th and penultimate flight of my trip.

Virgin. Business class.

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The flight was provided by my kind benefactors to get me into town a day earlier than originally planned. The reason for the date change: can't quite say yet. Hopefully tomorrow.

This is it. All but done. My laptop is crammed full of dancing footage. I have but to dust it off and assemble it into something presentable.

I'm right at this moment transitioning from unwashed, penny-scraping backpacker to pampered media anomaly.

A flight attendant just gave me a relaxation kit with a sleeping mask, toothbrush, and socks.

19 days ago I was being kicked awake by a port officer on the floor of a Greek ferryboat.

My seat has a built-in inflatable back cushion and folds into a bed.

27 days ago I was watching Iraqis fire Kalashnikovs in a secured training facility.

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I just ordered a spring herb salad with Scottish loch fyne salmon, smoke roasted in a hot kiln and then lightly chilled to give an oak-smoked flavor.

39 days ago I was stranded in the Namib desert with a broken down Isuzu, a spare tire, and a family of nine.

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The "flight therapist" came by offering back and scalp massages while a stewardess took my order from the bar.

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50 days ago I was trying to sleep amidst the noises of a Dubai brothel.

You get the idea.

The word is: adaptable.

Copenhagen has more sex shops than people. At least it seems that way. Walking the spotless, quiet streets around the train station reveals a panoply of raunch and salacity (Ding! Vocab quota reached).

We spent a night in town before continuing onward. I found a bar offering free wi-fi and exploited their generosity for eight hours.

Forgot to photograph the sex shops, but here are some pretty fields of flax.

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Train to Hjorring, another train to Hirtshals, ferry across the Skagerrak strait to Norway. Finally, one last train to Stavanger.

Paid $17 for a burger with fries and soda. Norway is expensive.

We were met at the station by Joachim (pronounced like country singer Dwight). Joachim is a friend of Sophie's. She told him of my quest while he visited her in Amsterdam. He said I needed to visit Norway and dance on the Kjeragbolten. He showed her this picture.

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I get a lot of dance recommendations. The vast majority are peoples' homes or backyards. Sometimes it's a town center or church. On occasion I'm shown a location that's actually unique and interesting, but rarely does it suit the particular constraints necessary for a really nifty dancing clip.

Reluctantly clicking on the picture link, I was struck dumb. Kjeragbolten is one such location. I didn't know how I was going to fit it in, but I knew I had to get there.

Having made the initial suggestion, Joachim also offered to take Matt and I to the spot and let us stay at his place. This worked out well.

The morning after we arrived, we set off on the two hour drive into the fjords.

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Once there, it's another two hours on foot to Kjeragbolten.

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The walk is difficult, but not a killer. Matt insisted on doing it in shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt.

Boys...

Joachim worried intensely about Matt's warmth. I explained that he wouldn't hear a word of complaint even if Matt's fingers were blue and snapping off.

"Well, as long as he isn't complaining."

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Joachim and Matt were way out front the entire time. See, aside from not being in marathon-shape, I'm just not very good at traversing up rocks. And dancing on them, well...

Believe it or not, I actually never considered whether I'd be physically and mentally capable of dancing on the Kjeragbolten -- at least not until it was too late. I saw the picture and knew I had to do it. Only later did I recall that I'm not great with heights and I have terrible balance.

Joachim and Matt would turn around from time to time and think but not say. Even they were reluctant to stand on the rock, much less dance on it. And they are far manlier men than I.

We reached the sheer face of the fjord.

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1000 meters straight down.

A little bit further and we came upon the bolt.

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By this point I had myself worked up into a quiet panic.

What am I thinking? I'm going to die here.

Matt shared his cousin's philosophy that it's okay to die as long as you don't die doing something stupid. Death is natural, just don't let it --

"Stop talking, Matt."
"Sorry."

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Around the back side is a sneaky little trail that makes the rock slightly easier to get onto.

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You edge along that little patch of dirt. When you get close, there's no other option but to leap.

And then a funny thing happened. I just got on. Surge of adrenaline, momentary lapse of reason -- I don't know what caused it. But I jumped and I was okay.

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And then I danced.

It's no fooling around on that thing. The rock is maybe six feet in diameter and by no means flat. There's minimal room to stand and rapidly shifting winds cut through the chasm. The drop is real. If you fall, you fall.

But there I was, dancing.

I couldn't lift my feet very high. The movement is stiff and forced, which is, I think, forgivable. The point is I got the shot. And it's incredible.

As Matt held the camera, he pondered his course of action should something happen. Release the footage? Give it to my family? Sell it?

"Dancing guy plummets to his death." Helluva viral video. It's what everyone's been waiting to see, isn't it? That or me getting mauled by a bear.

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In the last few minutes of the descent, with the car nearly in sight, I slid on a rock and fell. You know when you fall wrong and you feel the stuff inside your knee or ankle bend in a way it's not supposed to bend? I got right to the threshold where my leg said "I'm about to snap in three different ways and give you pain that will stay with you until you die."

And in my mind I thought, "fair enough."

Didn't quite cross the threshold, though. Stood up and kept walking.

For the last six months I've felt protected. It was suggested to me in Japan that something wants to see this video get made -- that it's helping me along, whatever it is. Clearing a path.

And I worry what happens when this thing gets its precious video and has no further need of me. Am I on my own?

Spent Friday stealing wi-fi from Joachim's neighbor. Went out briefly to tour Stavanger.

Best name for a hair salon ever.

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Went out drinking with Joachim and his friends.

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Learned a bit about Norway. They found massive amounts of oil in the 60s, hence all the money.

"In Norway we have fish and we have oil...I prefer the fish."

Oil is also a lot of the reason why everyone in Norway speaks perfect English. It opened them up to the world market and created lots of jet-setting jobs. English has been mandatory in schools for generations.

Norway is a sharp contrast from other oil-rich nations in that the wealth really is spread around to all levels of society. There is virtually no poverty. The only folks living on the street are simply too strung out on drugs to get it together.

Granted, having a population under 5 million makes this less of an accomplishment.

The pitfalls of abundant natural resources are evident, however, in the lack of diversity in Norway's economy. Sweden makes cars and furniture, Finland is known for cell phones -- all profitable industries requiring a great deal of expertise -- whereas Norway is like the kid with the rich parents, just sitting at home flipping channels, buying crap off eBay.

Eventually, as we all know, the wells run dry.

Hopped a flight to London on RyanAir. When bought well in advance, tickets on RyanAir can cost about $30 to anywhere in Europe. Subtracting various taxes, that comes to something like $2 per ticket. I don't know how this is possible. It has something to do with selling lottery tickets in-flight and using ancient planes that are barely holding together.

The plan in London was to dance next to a guard at Buckingham Palace. Obvious, I know. Cliche, I know. But come on. It had to be done.

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Turns out you can't get anywhere near the guards at Buckingham Palace. They actually have guards protecting the guards.

I inquired with one of the guard guards if there was anywhere else I could go, struggling to avoid mention of the red jackets and tall, silly hats. He directed me to St. James' Palace.

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We walked by this guy the next morning and I had another sudden panic assault.

He's got a big gun. He's not wearing the silly hat and he doesn't look friendly. He's going to kill me.

I hid around the corner of the building gathering my nerves, then walked over, explained what I was about to do and that there was no harm or insult intended.

And then I danced.

He kept a stiff upper lip. All went well.

[Almost finished. More later.]

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August 14, 2004

London, England
Blessed, Once Again, by the Travel Gods

So I'm on my way to Africa.

I woke up at 5 this morning with a lot of things to do. I left Melissa's place in Seattle and raced across the bridge to clear out the remnants of my erstwhile Kirkland apartment. Ever notice how moving out gets harder toward the end? It's like that old math class thing where you walk half the length of a room, then half the remaining distance, then half again and so on, never reaching the other side. You think youre over the hump once you move the big stuff, but friends, the hump is the little crap at the end.

Loading up the car took an hour longer than it should have and left me with at least a car load of junk still in the living room. I had an 8am doctor's appointment to get shots and drugs for my trip, so I only had time to drop the one load off in my luxurious new apartment -- a 7x10 storage locker -- then head back across the bridge to Seattle.

The doctor asked when I was leaving. "Four hours," I said. She seemed unimpressed.

It turned out I had almost all the shots I needed from my trip last year -- India is the vaccination equivalent of a full house to East Africa's royal flush. We settled on some malaria pills, stuff for altitude sickness, a polio booster, tetanus shot, and one more just for the sake of stabbing another needle in my arm. I paid and got out a couple hours later, then raced back across the bridge again to clear out my apartment.

This just in: English food is still terrible.

By the time I had everything loaded in the car, my flight was leaving in 90 minutes. No time to drop the load off in storage. I had to leave my crap as it was in my sister's driveway until I get back from my trip. On my fourth trip across the bridge, things very nearly came to an abrupt halt: I have a bad habit of making cell phone calls while driving. This is worsened by the fact that I'm a very bad driver, and compounded even further in this circumstance as my car was packed to the ceiling with furniture. But I had 10 minutes of phone use left before giving it up for the next two months and I had to straighten out the final payments for the job I just finished.

So here's the equation: 2 hands, minus 1 hand spinning the steering wheel for a sharp right turn, minus 1 hand holding furniture from falling on my head from the force of the turn, minus 1 hand holding a cell phone, equals a very stupid near-catastrophe.

I got to my sister's house, where Melissa was waiting to drive me to the airport. We raced over, said goodbye, and I ran inside with less than 30 minutes before my flight to Amsterdam.

So of course, I missed it. They close check-in an hour before departure on international flights.

Missing this flight, I suddenly realized, had launched a chain reaction. If I didn't get to Amsterdam, I couldn't get to London. If I didn't get to London, I couldn't catch my flight to Nairobi, and then on to the Seychelles. If I didn't get to the Seychelles on the day I was scheduled to, I would miss the departure of the eight day liveaboard dive cruise I'd already paid a small fortune for.

After some begging and pleading, I was told I had an inflexible outbound ticket and would have to purchase an entirely new flight to London at a cost of well over $1000.

My fate was then handed over to Jim, the friendly homosexual. With a wink and a smile, he told me everything was going to be alright. A few magical keystrokes later, I was switched over to a flight out of Minneapolis that was leaving in an hour at no extra cost. Jim mentioned that he's always wanted to go to the Seychelles.

Someday, and I dread even thinking about this, the fickle travel Gods will not see fit to bless my journey. I will find myself subject to the real consequences of my ineptitude. But not this day. No, not this day.

Airlines running trans-oceanic flights are now obligated by the FAA to play an air travel aerobics video at the start of each trip. This video is titled, "Things You Couldn't Possibly Do With Your Body in Coach." It features three multi-ethnic dwarves in double-wide seats, stretching their arms in all directions while you sit with your shoulders pinned between your neighbors. In my favorite segment, they stick their legs straight out in front of them and wiggle them in circles defiantly. I didn't have my headphones on, but I'm pretty sure they were saying, "Try this exercise, you gangly Caucasians! What's that? You can't? Your knees are pressed up against tray tables? Oh, too bad for you! You look like Kentucky Fried Chicken!"

For the eight-hour flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, I was scrunched in the middle of a row of five seats. To my left was a pair of frat boys, who I will call Chad and Doug. On the runway, Chad and Doug vocally discussed the terrible body odor coming from my direction. We all, the three of us, knew it was me. I'd been frantically moving boxes for several hours before getting on the plane and I hadn't had a chance to shower. I had, fortunately, thought to bring deodorant in my carry-on, but I couldn't get up to use it until we were in the air. So I got to enjoy the elaborate pointing and pillow-fanning for a good half hour. I also got to enjoy a great deal of their public ball-adjusting.

When the drink cart came by, Chad and Doug both asked for Bud Heavies. Bud Heavies, they explained, are like Bud Lights, only opposite. Chad was particularly excited to be drinking, and asked how many he could get. The flight attendant explained that she is only allowed to supply one beer every three hours. Chad gave her a look that said, "How can you deny my winning smile and irreverent, man-child antics?" She gave him a look that said, "With very little difficulty." Chad then engaged Doug in a spirited discussion of the best outdoor beer-drinking locations in Minneapolis.

Amsterdam airport was nice, but here's my problem: Their country is called the Netherlands, it is also sometimes called Holland, but as a people they are called Dutch.

Get it together, folks. There's a war on.

I'm in the air now, watching a lightning storm over the Sudan. This is my fourth of five consecutive flights. I will have traveled over 10,000 miles, almost the entire equatorial circumference of the Earth.

I had a very good year. I got to write the script for a videogame based on an upcoming film, which is itself based on a series of children's books.

I met a nice lady named Melissa who likes wearing fleeces and hiking with her dog. She also seems to enjoy reading my comic books, which I still can't quite comprehend.

I put on a lot of weight. I fought valiantly to keep it off, but ample portion sizes, an appetite that knows no bounds, and a job chained to a computer are difficult factors to overcome. I'm hoping the backpacker diet will work its magic once again.

Aside from the occasional work trip to LA, I haven't gotten out much since last year. There was the one incident getting caught sneaking into Area 51, but that's a whole long story.

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So I've been planning this trip for a while. My contract job lasted nine months. Now that I'm done, I'm heading over to wander around Africa for two months -- or until I run out of money, whichever comes first.

The first leg is the aforementioned dive trip through the Seychelles. I'm going to be counting whale sharks for the Shark Research Institute. The story there is that whale sharks are being slaughtered in enormous numbers throughout the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific. In one region along the coast of India, 1000 were killed in a single year. This is because of the sudden, massive demand for their meat in Asian markets, where they have become a fad food. As a result, the whale shark population in the region has plummeted by 80%. There's an effort underway to get them globally protected, but it's hindered because no one has any idea how many there are.

The whale shark is the largest fish in the world, growing to about 18 meters. It has an enormous mouth, but no sharp teeth. It feeds mostly on plankton and other small organisms. Given their scarcity and penchant for the open ocean, not much is known about them. The project I'm participating in involves tagging them to get an estimate of their numbers and, more importantly, to learn about their migrating habits.

It's not currently known whether there is one worldwide, inter-breeding population of whale sharks, or several discrete groups that inhabit different regions and don't ever mix. If it's the former, the hunting in the Indian Ocean could severely interfere with their breeding and quickly wipe out the species. If it's the latter, then the sharks living in other regions can continue once the Indian Ocean population has dried up.

This is what I know right now, and much of it may be wrong. I imagine I'll learn a lot more in the next few days.

After the dive trip, I've got three more days of relaxing and dwindling my bank account on the Seychelles islands. I wish I could've done this part at the end of my trip so I'd have some pampering to look forward to, but the whale sharks only pass through in August and I couldn't get them to reschedule.

After the Seychelles, I'm flying back to Nairobi and making my way to the coastal Kenyan city of Mombassa, where I'll be meeting up with Andy, my friend and former coworker from Australia, and Sangeeta, his college buddy, a marine biologist living in Mombassa. We're going to spend a few weeks kicking around Kenya and Tanzania, hopefully with a stop on the island of Zanzibar. In mid-September, we're planning an eight day climb up Mount Kilimanjaro to the highest point in Africa. At 19,300-some feet, it's the tallest non-technical climb in the world. I've been preparing for it for six months, but I honestly don't know if I can do it. We'll give it our best shot.

Andy and I will part ways after the Kilimanjaro climb, and I've got a few more weeks here to play around with. I've got some ideas of what to do, but financial woes will probably obligate me to find somewhere safe and quiet to lay low. Preferably an island with bad television, slow internet, shoddy phone service, and no qualities that would make it a targeted travel destination.

"With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote."
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I am suddenly terrified to visit the Seychelles, as I have just read about something called the palm spider, which grows to 6 inches long. Worse still, coastal Kenya, which is home to a creature named -- I'm not making this up -- the golden starburst baboon spider. My understanding was there would not be any large arachnids in this region. Clearly, I was mistaken.

The plane is landing soon. Gotta turn my laptop off.