Repost: Karaoke Through The Andes: The Fun Side of Unpredictability

(Really) backstage before my "performance". Ollantaytambo, Peru
(Really) backstage before my “performance”. Ollantaytambo, Peru

Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.

Traveling is the best vehicle I know to generate scenarios that are 100% unscripted. Some may shudder at the wanton unpredictability of various elements combining to create circumstances that border on the absurd or beyond, but not me. I find those random occasions where you find yourself in a place you’d never imagined, with people you’ve never met, doing something you ordinarily would not do, some of the most delicious morsels of a traveling experience—which often make the best stories as well.

With the possibility of once again traveling freely around the globe glimmering on the horizon, this repost of a 2014 entry focuses on the unexpected fun and laughs that could be had on a journey even for those who aren’t opportunistic by nature. The key lies in 1) recognizing the opportunity when it presents itself, and 2) grabbing hold of it with both hands so that the experience doesn’t pass you by. My own favorite anecdote illustrating these two factors took place in February of 2010, high up in the Peruvian Andes. The story goes like this:

Due to some serious health troubles my father discovered only when we landed in the high-altitude city of Cuzco, my stay there in that enchanting city was understandably a bit distracted. (See my post The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cuzco & the Sacred Valley for more details). Once his situation was under control, the only option available was to wait for him to recuperate sufficiently for a flight back down to sea level. At my dad’s insistence I left his bedside and was rushed to a waiting bus on the outskirts of town to tour the Sacred Valley—a portion of the tour I’d had to skip earlier for obvious reasons. I remember the curious stares as I exited the taxi and boarded the waiting coach, trying to avoid eye contact as I made my way all the way to the back row. It was then that the guide continued her spiel in Spanish, and I suddenly realized that there wasn’t going to be any English on this trip. It turns out that my fellow bus-mates were mildly well-to-do tourists from a sizable sampling of South American nations, and I was the lone gringo.

If this were the U.S. and I was on a city bus in Queens, perhaps I’d feel uncomfortable being so far out of my element. But here, amidst this coalition of good-natured Latinos, the unpredictability factor first revealed itself, and instead of being an outcast, this group of strangers went out of their way to include me in the most interactive bus ride I’d ever been on.

Starting with our stop at Chinchero, continuing on into our so-so lunch at Urubamba, a vigorous walk up the ruins of Ollantaytambo, and final stop in Pisac, I found myself in the midst of a gaggle of genuinely friendly—and fun—people who disposed with the standoffishness so common in tour groups in North America & Europe. These were people who embraced everyone & everything with unflappable enthusiasm as part of the experience. Sufficiently disarmed, I was then primed for what happened next.

On what was going to be a two-hour ride back to Cuzco, the guide got on her microphone at the front of the bus and playfully chided some tour members who were a little late returning on board with the ‘punishment’ of having to come up front and sing a song from their home country. As a lifelong New York resident to that point, I could not conceive of a scenario in my hometown—or homeland—where such a request would fly, let alone be accepted. But then that unpredictability factor struck again. Not only did the latecomers belt out their favorite tunes, but the rest of the passengers couldn’t wait for their chance to perform, as if it were auditions for Peruvian Idol. As an added bonus, their fellow passengers were an enthusiastic audience, clapping, cheering and singing along—except for me, since I was limited to only clapping and cheering due to my ignorance of the Latin Top 40. This was fine with me. I was having a blast and at the same time managing to stay out of the spotlight—until about the 45 minute mark.

Thanks to some ‘friends’ sitting next to me, it was pointed out—quite emphatically I might add—that I had yet to perform for the group. This provoked a deafening chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” Buckling to the pressure as the chants reached a crescendo, I made my way up the aisle to the sound of applause and a sea of smiling faces brimming with anticipation.

In my simple yet passable Spanish, I explained the obvious: I was a gringo and I didn’t know any Latin songs. As an alternative, I was going to sing a song from my home city—Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. The crowd hushed as I readied myself, hearing only the drone of the tires and the creak of luggage swaying in the overhead bins. Stealing a glance out of the windows at the deep green of the majestic Andes passing by, I could not help but take a mental snapshot of the absurdity of my situation—and just how much fun it was to find myself in it! Nobody could make this stuff up and I was absolutely thrilled. With a burst of renewed enthusiasm, I held up the microphone.

“Start spreading the newwwwwwwws. I’m leaving todayyyyyyyy,” I crooned.

I should add that right from the get-go my adoring audience was swaying in unison and singing along the best they could. I continued warbling as we rounded one hairpin turn after another, and with each passing kilometer my confidence grew until I was fully ensconced in the moment, wailing out the words at the top of my lungs while my fans kept up an a capella rendering of the brass instrumentals (daht daht dah-dah-dah, daht daht dah-dah-dah). Upon my rousing conclusion—holding that last note until I couldn’t breathe in the already-thin air—I shouted out in my best British Rock Star accent: “Thank you, Peru! G’night!” and basked in their unabashed adulation all the way back to my seat at the rear of the bus. And as my fellow bus-mates continued singing for the remaining 1.25 hours of the trip (including a hysterical, accent-laden rendering of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, Part II) I laughed inwardly, delighting at how never in a million years would I ever have thought I’d be party to such a scene, and marveling at how such unscripted occasions are truly what makes life worth living.

So my advice is this: While traveling—whether in your home country, a far-off land, or even the back roads of Peru—keep an eye out for the unpredicted opportunities that could possibly be that story you’ll tell for the rest of your days. It just might be the experience you never thought you were waiting for.

Do you have a story of the unexpected delights that unfold while traveling? Share them with all of us by leaving a comment!

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Bite Size Destination Throwback: Brazil 2013

Cove on Ilha Grande, Brazil

Sometimes a trip is all about relaxation. While the majority of my adventures are a little too active to fall under that category, there are a precious few whose primary purpose was simply just to get away and decompress. My 2013 jitney to Brazil was just such a trip, and I’m happy to share and relive the highlights with you now.

Destination: Brazil (Rio de Janeiro and the Costa Verde)

Year: 2013

What Brought Me There

Paraty Bay, Brazil

The winter of 2013 was a rough one for my wife and I, culminating in my father-in-law’s passing away. Between the stress, loss and freezing cold, never was it more apparent that we needed a break. Fortunately, we were able to use airline miles to book flights to Rio, which was the perfect gateway for the relaxation that lay ahead.

We started with a brief two days touring the city’s main sites such as Sugarloaf Mountain and the amazing beaches, before moving on to the gorgeous, pedestrian-only island of Ilha Grande. Next it was the too-charming-for-words cultural town of Paraty, situated in a paradisaical nook of the Costa Verde coastline for a few days until the inevitable return to Rio, home and a New York winter.

What I Loved

Streets of Paraty, Brazil

I’m not a big fan of city living, but my time in Rio, with access to such incredible beaches, made it more appealing. But even better were the lush mountain landscapes that stretch down the coast toward Sao Paolo state, with emerald green bays, abundant waterfalls and beaches galore.

On Ilha Grande I loved the sandy streets, dining on the beach by candlelight and the shady lane through the jungle leading up to our pousada. In Paraty, the whitewashed buildings trimmed with bright colors and festive lighting made every night feel like a fiesta. The comfortable accommodations caught between the mountains and the sea was the perfect place to be for the aforementioned relaxation we had come for.

What I Would Do If I Went Back

My travels in Brazil were limited to one tiny region. That is way too little time and range for a country so richly blessed with so many natural and cultural treasures.

If I were to return, I’d love to expand my explorations, from seeing Iguazu Falls in the South, the picturesque adventure town of Bonito on the border with Bolivia, and most of all the remote Atlantic island of Fernando de Noronha.

Have you been to Brazil? Share your favorite moment in the comments below. And if you want a great Brazil souvenir, check out the Brazil Rugged Country Code Tee in the Custom Travel Art Shop.

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Bite-Size Destination Throwback: Zimbabwe 2014

Sometimes it’s a good idea to look back and reflect, unless of course, you’re driving. When it comes to travel, those glances into the rear-view mirror can do more than show you where you’ve been, they can bring back the feelings you experienced while you were there. In this first installment of my Bite-Size Destination Throwback series, I’ll be spotlighting my epic trip to Zimbabwe and Southern Africa in the summer of 2014. In it, I will follow a simple formula: what brought me there, what I loved, and what I would do if I ever went back. So let’s get started.

Destination: Zimbabwe

Year: 2014

What Brought Me There

Mukuvisi Woodlands in the middle of Harare

The primary reason for my visit was to attend an international convention being held in the capital, Harare. But there was no way I was going to miss out on seeing one of the seven natural wonders of the world (Victoria Falls) while I was in the ‘neighborhood’. As my plans solidified, after a week in and around Harare for the convention, we were off to Victoria Falls with excursions into Zambia, Botswana, and even just barely into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.

What I Loved

The people of Zimbabwe are the real national treasure
The people of Zimbabwe are the real national treasure

Foremost among the things I loved were the people. Despite abject poverty, political insecurity and little prospect for improvement, the Zimbabweans I met were welcoming, courteous and even outright generous. I’d be willing to say that most were actually happier than your average person in a developed land, which is saying a lot in view of the obstacles they face on a daily basis.

I also loved the African landscape, with its abundant wildlife, rugged interior and breathtaking sunsets evening after evening. Africa has an entrancing effect on me, and memories of sipping a sundowner while the sun sinks in a blazing orange sky to a symphony of insects while the stately silhouettes of elephants graze in the distance is truly a mental ‘happy place’ for me.

What I Would Do If I Went Back

Sunset on the Zambezi - No Filter Needed

My limited timeframe forced me to fly directly to Victoria Falls from Harare. Given another visit to the country, I would rather take the rails down to the Motobo Hills to enjoy the unique landscape of stacked boulders that characterize this corner of the world. I would then make my way back toward Victoria Falls via Hwange National Park, with its healthy elephant populations in full display.

Have you been to Zimbabwe? Share your thoughts by commenting. And if you want a great Zimbabwe souvenir, check out the Zimbabwe Rugged Country Code Collection unisex t-shirt by clicking here.

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5 Life Lessons from Climbing Adam’s Peak

Adam's Peak 4
Becoming the stair master on Adam’s Peak

Deep in the lush and rugged interior of Sri Lanka is a unique attraction that draws more than just tourists. Sri Pada, better known as Adam’s Peak,  is a conical mountain in the heart of tea country that is considered sacred by Buddhists and Hindus alike. It takes its name from the “sacred footprint” located near the summit, which Buddhists believe to be the footprint of the Buddha; Hindus believe was made by Shiva, and some Christians and Muslims hold to be that of Adam. Of course, it could have just been made by a clumsy ancient contractor, but my interest wasn’t in footprints or anything of the like. My intentions were twofold: accomplish a feat that would be the feather in any serious traveler’s cap, and be there to witness what is considered one of the most impressive views anywhere.

Guidebooks and websites touted the climb up Adam’s Peak as a thrilling experience, especially during its most popular season (December – May) or on full moons when a steady stream of pilgrims make the arduous trek to the top. Not having Adam’s Peak on my original itinerary, I hadn’t done much research on it, and when a group of friends suggested that we tackle the challenge by doing the traditional overnight climb, I got caught up in the whirlwind of testosterone and counted myself in. Once again, to my thighs and calves – I’m sorry.

I didn’t come during the popular time, nor on a full moon, so instead of finding a zig-zag trail of light gleaming like a beacon toward the summit, our party’s four hour drive from the outskirts of Colombo ended in a dark parking lot surrounded by black at the base of the mountain. We arrived a bit after midnight, and after purchasing a warm cap for the chill that awaited us up above, we set off on a path that passed through an active temple and began a gradual ascent that would not only test me physically, but on reflection, gave me some mental clarity as a result of the challenge. I now pass those lessons on to you in the hopes that it enriches your life, and maybe even saves you from a very (very!) steep climb.

A Few Facts & Our Band of Travelers

To give the lessons I’m about to list some context, I need to mention a few things. First, the trail was approximately 7 kilometers long (over 4 miles) one way, and that way was mostly up. Second, I’m in my early forties and a bit overweight. I wouldn’t say obese, but let’s just say that me and gravity aren’t the best of friends.

Our travel party consisted of myself, two other guys around forty – Jason and Ryan – the latter being someone who has lived in Sri Lanka for several years and made the climb before, as well as Jason’s two sons – Ethan and Ian – and their friends from the U.K., Harry and Zak, who all ranged in age between 16 and 21. Bear in mind that the climb was undertaken on no sleep and with no prior training. I say that so that I don’t look like a total wimp in what you’re about to read.

Lesson 1: Sometimes You Need To Go At Your Own Pace

Adam's Peak 3
The starting gate/finish line at Adam’s Peak

We were all excited and energized when we started our climb in the darkness. We had a brisk pace for the first half hour, laughing and joking all the while. But as the initial burst of enthusiasm wore off, it became glaringly clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to keep up for long. So the boys took off brimming with youthful vigor – which was quite a bit more vigor than I could muster at that time of night – while the “more mature” ones took things at a slower pace.

It was around the 1-hour mark that the steps, which at first came in intervals with stretches of flat ground in between, became a never-ending staircase that seemed intent on coming as close to 90 degrees vertical as possible. In addition, this was not a uniform set of stairs, measured and constructed according to building codes. One step would be 6 inches high; the next 12; the next 3, and so on. Plus, it was dark. Really dark. Like jungle on a mountain overnight dark.

So as I struggled and noticed how Jason and Ryan politely waited for me at each landing, I came across the first of the five primary lessons I learned from this experience – sometimes you just have to go at your own pace. Trying to keep up with those who were more fit than I was just wearing me out and holding others back. That principle can be applied in nearly every aspect of life, whether it’s professionally, emotionally, socially or any other kind of ‘-ally’ you can think of. Modesty is defined as knowing and keeping within one’s limits, and whether you’re looking to achieve balance in your life or climbing a Sri Lankan mountain in the dark, those words are proven to apply.

Lesson 2 – When Things Get Tough, Just Put One Foot In Front of the Other

Adam's Peak 6
A Portion of the Endless Stairs

Upon recognizing lesson number one, I told Jason and Ryan to go ahead without me. Ryan told me of a turnoff that was just past the halfway point up the mountain where we could meet again and watch the sunrise together without having to schlep it all the way to the top. Remember that point. It comes into play a bit later.

Fast forward to an hour and a half later and I find myself facing a endless series of stairs all by my lonesome with only my cell phone light – which I used sparingly – and the occasional fellow tourist racing by for company. I was beyond exhausted and my mind struggled to comprehend the existence of so many steps. I specifically remember hitting a wall of fatigue – both physical and mental – and thinking that I wanted to just give up.

Pausing to rest midway up an absurdly steep flight of stairs I took stock of my situation. My only illumination was ambient starlight filtering through the cloud cover. There were all sorts of noises coming from the jungle around me, none of which I could see. I was going on no sleep and my legs were beginning to shake from the workout. A light drizzle began to fall, making the chilly air even chillier. And to top it off, I discovered that the mild pinch I felt on my ankle was actually a leech that had helped itself to my bloodstream and had now gorged itself into a slimy black mass.

If the option of summoning a helicopter to take me away were available, I have no doubt that I would have chosen to. But in the absence of helicopters hanging around sacred mountains in the middle of the night, I realized that I had only two options: renounce the progress I had made to that point and give up the quest as a loss, or just keep plodding forward, one raggedly uneven step at a time. Too stubborn, proud and ashamed to concede the battle to my advancing age, I chose the latter, and with resigned determination, I slowly but steadily crept further up the mountain.

That’s when it struck me that when things in life get bad, those are really the same options we all face. We can give up, thereby renouncing the progress we’ve made, or we can keep going – even if it’s painfully slow. And the antidote to giving up, is to keep moving forward, even if you can’t see past the step in front of you. I put one foot in front of another until I reached my goal, and that made all the difference. It’s a lesson I hope to apply to other daunting tasks I might face, which may be more metaphorical than literal as in this case, but require the same decision and determination.

Lesson 3 – Sometime’s It’s Better Not to Know How Much Further There Is To Go

Adam's Peak 5
The boy band at the summit. I’m the token ‘guy that’s clearly out of his twenties’ on the right.

Cut back to me at 3.5 hours into my journey, and I was feeling some confusion. I distinctly remembered Ryan’s description of the turn-off just past the halfway point up the mountain, but of course, being in a darkened jungle on a steep slope, I had no idea of where the top was, much less where the halfway point would be. Now the sky began to lighten, and I was just hoping to get to a place where I could watch the sunrise and see the expected amazing panorama unfold. At the same time I shook my head at the idea that after 3.5 hours of climbing, I still didn’t see Jason or Ryan, concluding that if I hadn’t even made it halfway up, I was really in bad shape.

Then something interesting happened. From the direction of a near-vertical staircase looming above me, I thought I heard multiple voices. It had been awhile since another party blew by me on their way up, and more out of curiosity than anything else, I figured I’d just go up this one last flight of stairs before finding a spot to watch the morning show. To my surprise, the noise was from Ethan, Ian, Harry and Zak, who had been keeping themselves entertained for the past hour there at the summit. I had made it all the way to the top without even knowing it!

I’ll never forget the combination of amusement and surprise on the boys’ faces when they saw me emerge from the mist like some stubborn old horse who didn’t know when to call it quits. Apparently Jason and Ryan had turned off well before and I went right past them in the darkness (if you guys are reading this I forgive you. And also, I’m giving you the raspberries right now). As I sat down in triumph, giddy from exhaustion and simultaneously contemplating how best to remove a leech from my ankle, I reflected on how only by never seeing the top – i.e. how far was left to go – was I able to reach it. I felt certain that if a few hours before I were able to gauge my pitiful progress on the mountain, I would have given up on reaching the top, concluding that it just wasn’t possible. Clearly, I would have been wrong.

That lesson has played true several times in my life, most notably in 2009, when I found myself facing a bout of severe depression. Had I known ahead of time that it would be another 3+ years before I would emerge, and all the loss and pain that would occur during that time, I’m sure I would have given up in my heart. But with the hope and prospect of a positive change lingering just ahead on the horizon, I kept putting one foot in front of another (see lesson number two) and eventually came through stronger and wiser. Not knowing when the trial would end gave me the motivation to keep on pushing, because I thought that at any moment it might get better, and kept thinking that until the day finally arrived that it did. The lesson? Don’t worry if there’s no end in sight, it’s there, and may just be a lot closer than you think.

Lesson 4 – It Really Is All About The Journey, Not The Destination

Adam's Peak
View from the stairs of Adam’s Peak

So now it’s ten minutes after I reached the top; I’ve successfully removed the leech from my ankle and watched approvingly as either Harry or Zak squashed it with a satisfying splat. The sunrise was due to arrive in just a few minutes, but the sky, while lighter, showed no gradation in its hues of gray. That’s when I realized that the spectacular show that we came to see, was going to be obscured by clouds. To have come all this way at a cost of so much effort (and blood loss) would ordinarily have left me a bit bitter.

But as my breathing returned to normal, I realized that it was never about the view. It was successfully making the trip, pushing myself to (and beyond) the limit and feeling the subtle satisfaction that comes with accomplishment that I sought, and eventually achieved. So while I would have loved the views I subsequently saw in images taken from the top, I contented myself with my unlikely accomplishment and set about getting down the mountain on jelly-legs that were shaking so badly, Ethan stayed behind while the others went ahead just to make sure I didn’t get down by tumbling.

Just for the record, about halfway down – probably around where Jason and Ryan were supposed to wait for me (I couldn’t help getting that last dig in) – the cloud cover withdrew somewhat and we were treated to impressive views of the undulating patterns of terraced tea plantations bathed in brilliant green that characterize the region, which I would recommend to anyone visiting Sri Lanka.

Lesson 5 – Pain Is Temporary, Great Stories Are Forever

I was both annoyed and dismayed that even with gravity on my side, it took me a full three hours to get back to our starting point. Along the way I got some great photographs, had a nice conversation with Ethan, and apparently even picked up another leech (which I disposed of at the bottom). We met up with the others at a nearby hotel who were quite casually enjoying their breakfast. Feeling energized by a combination of pride and sleep deprivation, I gave my first account of the experience – a rough draft if you will – of the retelling that I knew would come. The fatigue and soreness have now passed, but I take comfort that I still have something to show for my efforts – a great story to go along with the life lessons I listed above. You can be certain that with the passing of time, the trail will get longer, the stairs will get steeper, and I will be covered head to toe in leeches. And the best part is knowing that this story is going to last as long as I do, which in my book, is well worth any climb.

Adam's Peak2
The lush scenery of Sri Lanka’s Tea Country

Did you have an adventure that taught you a valuable life lesson? Share it with your fellow travelers in the comment section below!

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