Category Archives: Travel

Travel

how I spent my Sunday

After they cancelled my flight, they automatically booked me on one leaving Tuesday morning. Tuesday? There’s no way American can get me to Denver any sooner? Well, a couple phone calls later, I’m going to get back to Colorado today after all! Barely. Hopefully.

Sand Canyon

Getting There

Brooke and I drove to Durango for a long Memorial Day Weekend. We left Thursday afternoon and got back to Denver Monday evening. We had a lot of fun on the way and on the way back, but had an especially big day on Saturday May 25, 2019. That was the day we visited Sand Canyon, which I’m about to tell you about.

Sand Canyon is a canyon in the far southwest corner of Colorado, located in the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. It’s a tributary of McElmo Creek, which is a famous drainage containing hundreds of ruins where ancestral puebloans once lived, around 800 years ago. I’d never been there before, but Brooke’s father Whitey had hiked the canyon about 20 years ago and recommended it. So we made a day trip from Durango.

Ute Peak as seen from the Sand Canyon trail

The area where we hiked is just to the north of the small mountain range that make up what people generally call Sleeping Ute Mountain. In the photo above, the highest peak is Ute Peak (also sometimes called Ute Mountain, and also sometimes called Sleeping Ute Mountain). That makes up the shoulders of the sleeping Ute

Hiking

There is a trail that goes from one end of Sand Canyon to the other, and both an upper and a lower trailhead. The whole thing is about 6 miles each way, but I knew I didn’t have a 12 mile (round trip) hike in me, especially one with a big elevation gain at the end. So we parked at the lower trailhead, hiked about 2.5 miles in, had lunch, hiked back out, and then drove to the upper trailhead.

The lower trailhead is by far the most popular, and they’ve recently had to add a second parking area down the road some, but we got there early enough to get a parking space in the original parking area. The hike follows a bench along the rim of Sand Canyon where there are a number of ruins.

Whitey near the remains of Castle Rock Pueblo

The first ruins we saw was the high wall above. At the time, I just thought it was out there all by itself, but I later learned there’s much more to the story. This was just part of a small village that was abandoned all at once after its people were massacred.

After those ruins, it’s another mile or so before the next one, then there are several more tucked into alcoves on a bench that the trail follows.

Brooke and me, posing by a ruin in the shade (photo by Brooke Powers)
Lower Sand Canyon as seen from the canyon view overlook
I thought this was a strange alcove to build in
Whitey and Brooke relaxing on a rock – they like to rest in the sun, I like to rest in the shade
The last ruin we saw before turning around
Whitey and me under a very bright blue sky (photo by Brooke Powers)

That night, I did some reading online about where we’d just been, and I learned that there was once a pueblo where a few dozen people lived very near the lower trailhead. They call it Castle Rock Pueblo. It had even been excavated by the Crow Canyon Research Institute back in the 80s and 90s. We were right there and didn’t realize we were in the middle of a little village. Some photos from the 1890s still exist of the ruins, and you can see that in the 100 years between when the photos were taken and when the research started, most of the building blocks had disappeared. The researchers say they were used as easy building material by the early white farmers who settled in McElmo creek to build houses and other buildings from, and many of those buildings still exist today.

On the whole day hike, I didn’t hear a single canyon wren. That was weird, I thought. Where are they?

Geocaching

That afternoon, on the way to and from the Sand Canyon Pueblo site at the upper part of the canyon, we did some geocaching. It was Whitey’s first time.

Brooke found this one, I think
Whitey’s first geocache find
The geocache was a lovely margarine tub covered in camouflage duct tape, shown here near a pretty flower

Green River, Part 3

(continued from Green River, Part 2)

Sunday

Sunday morning we got up, enjoyed an even bigger free breakfast at the Tamarisk Restaurant, checked out, and headed east to a place called Sego Canyon. This is another place in the area that I’d never been. There’s a ghost town up in a canyon somewhere, but my real interest was the rock art.

The drive to the rock art was easy, even through snow and mud in my Honda Civic. There’s rock art of three different types here, not counting the modern American vandalism. One panel has Ute rock art, one panel has Fremont culture rock art, and one panel has Barrier Canyon style rock art. Those are the three main traditions or styles of rock art found in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah.

pictograph: an ancient or prehistoric drawing or painting on a rock wall

petroglyph: a carving or inscription on a rock

Fremont petroglyphs on top of Barrier Canyon pictographs
Ute rock art – notice the horses and bison
Me at the Barrier Canyon panel
Close up of some of the Barrier Canyon rock art

My personal favorite is Barrier Canyon rock art, because it has all these weird figures that look vaguely like scary, dark, faceless humans with aspects of what looks a lot like alien creatures – bug eyes, antennas, etc.

Years ago, I hiked into Horseshoe Canyon, the least-known district of Canyonlands National Park. It used to be called Barrier Canyon, and the rock art at Great Gallery there is the “type site” of Barrier Canyon style rock art found in a hundred mile radius of there.

Great Gallery photo from Wikipedia

Tangent

A “type specimen” is a common term for a specific sample or drawing scientists consider to have the definitive characteristics of a species. For example, according to Wikipedia, “the type specimen for the species Homo neanderthalensis was the specimen ‘Neanderthal-1’ discovered by Johann Karl Fuhlrott in 1856 at Feldhofer in the Neander Valley in Germany.”  

In geology, a lot of geological formations are named after a specific place where that formation was first seen or is most definitively seen. For example, in the desert southwest, there’s a type of rock called “Wingate sandstone” because it’s very prominent at Wingate, Arizona. Similarly, the “Chinle Formation” is prominent at Chinle, Arizona and the “Kayenta Formation” is prominent at Kayenta, Arizona. In geology these are called the “type locality”.

In archaeology, the same idea is called a “type site”. For example, there was a prehistoric culture in what’s now the western US called the “Clovis culture”. Maybe you’ve heard of “Clovis point” arrow heads. Well, this is named after Clovis, New Mexico just as the “Folsom Tradition” was first identified near modern day Folsom, New Mexico. Apparently, “type site” is also used to indicate the place where a particular style of rock art is most definitive.

According to the BCS Project website, “The Great Gallery is the type-site for the Barrier Canyon style and the largest of the Barrier Canyon style rock art gallery sites.” But the people who made it aren’t called Barrier Canyon people, they’re called Western Archaic people, which I think essentially means “they were here so long ago (6000 years ago) that nobody really knows which modern day Native Americans descended from them, if any”.

End of tangent

There is also some rock art across the road on private land. This one’s a mix of styles, with English signatures and other modern graffiti.

After walking around in the muddy snow to see all the art, we headed for Colorado. We stopped for gas in Fruita, and then drove over the Colorado National Monument, something I hadn’t done in decades.

Then we made a stop at the Grand Junction Memorial Gardens so I could say hi to my grandparents, all four of whom are there. And then we drove on to Glenwood Springs. After a small meal of Mexican food at Jilbertitos, we spent a couple hours soaking at Iron Mountain Hot Springs, and then called it a night.

Monday

Monday morning was just driving, for the most part. Fortunately, traffic was way better than it had been on the way west on Friday, and we got to Denver in time for a lunch of pho. And that marked the end of our long weekend away. 

It was a nice getaway. I got to see the Ken Sleight exhibit and the rest of the museum, some rock art, some beautiful geology, and a missile test site. All with good food and good company.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed my story and photos, put your email address in the box to get notified of future posts.

Green River, Part 2

(trust me, you really need to read Green River, Part 1 first)

Friday

We left Denver on Friday morning. Unfortunately, a million other people also wanted out of town for the long (Presidents’ Day) weekend, and traffic was the worst I can remember. It took about three hours just to get to Frisco, a distance of 80 miles. We picked up sandwiches for lunch there, and decided to just eat in the car since we still had another 275 miles to drive before supper.

I had found what looked to be a fun place to stay called the Skyfall Guestrooms. About three years ago, someone decided to build three hotel rooms downstairs from the Tamarisk Restaurant in Green River, Utah. Green River isn’t a big town, especially in the winter months. In the summer, there’s lots of tourism from river rafters and the nearby canyon country, and a famous watermelon farming business. But in the winter, it’s mainly just a town where people stop on their way through from California to Colorado. But Skyfall was cool way beyond what you’d expect for a truck stop town. Each of the three rooms has an artistic mural representing some nearby site. We got the Goblin Valley room, #2. The other two were for Crystal Geyser and for the Book Cliffs.

The Goblin Valley Room

I’d read how this was the nicest place to stay in town (an easy feat) but I still was impressed. If I ever remodel my condo, I want the interior designer responsible for the Skyfall Guestrooms to plan it. It was artistic, modern, efficient, just industrial enough, and comfortable. Anyhow, once we arrived, we checked in and then settled into our room.

Then we went up to the Tamarisk Restaurant for dinner, and I was impressed with the menu and the food, too, also something I didn’t expect for Green River.

Saturday

The next morning, we got up and had breakfast, again at the Tamarisk Restaurant. Oh, I just realized I forgot to tell you about one of the best things about the Skyfall Guestrooms. When you stay there, you get free breakfast at the restaurant. But it’s not like “Free Breakfast” at most hotels, where you help yourself to cold cereal and a bagel and some reconstituted scrambled eggs. Here, you can order anything off the regular breakfast menu, including drinks and extras. So I got a yummy omelet and Brooke had French Toast. They didn’t have a way to make a mocha latte, so she got a cup of hot chocolate and a cup of coffee and then just mixed them.

Anyhow after our overly-filling breakfast, the museum had opened and it was time to visit. It’s just across the main street, so we walked in the cold wind. Really cold.

Me outside the John Wesley Powell museum

The visit to the museum started with a 20-ish minute video on John Wesley Powell’s first expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. For those who haven’t read his book, the video was a good introduction to the topic. Of course I read his book a couple decades ago, and used to own it until The Great Downsizing of 2011.

Then we spent about an hour in the main part of the museum, learning about the Colorado River plateau, Powell’s two expeditions, other (non-Native) people who explored various other parts of the river system, the history and pre-history of the region, modern issues related to the river, and so on. There’s a lot to see there, including a few full size models of different types of boats early explorers used on the river before they eventually developed boats specifically for several-month journeys on whitewater rivers.

Once we got through the main part of the exhibit, we wandered through the temporary exhibit that was the main point of the trip: Glen Canyon: A River Guide Remembers. We spent another hour there, looking through some of Ken Sleight’s 60-years-old rafting gear and photos, and listening to interviews with people about their early experiences rafting Glen Canyon. Here is the museum’s excerpt describing the exhibit:

About the exhibit:

Iconic Utah outfitter Ken Sleight began his river-guiding career in Glen Canyon during the mid-1950s, just as the Glen Canyon Dam blueprints jumped from the drawing board to remote desert terrain. The pulse of the Colorado River through the canyon would soon be halted by a cement wall and Glen Canyon backfilled with water. Ken knew the condition of the canyon was terminal. He used every ray of daylight to memorize every detail of the canyon before inundation: to learn its 125 side canyons, to observe Native American ruins and mining relics, and to immerse himself in the lives of seminal guides who preceded him like Dave Rust, Bert Loper, and Moki Mac.

Now 88 years old, Ken and a team of Glen Canyon curators open the archives to create a museum exhibit: Glen Canyon: A River Guide Remembers. With historic landscape photographs, First American artifacts, boats and other gear, passenger portraits and journals, guides’ handwritten-packing lists, and more, this is an exhibit as simple, gritty, and rich as a trip through Glen Canyon with Ken. Within the walls of the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah in 2018, Glen Canyon lives again.

It was pretty somber, as it always is, hearing people talk about how beautiful Glen Canyon was before it was flooded to make Lake Powell. I’ve wished for years that I could somehow go back in time to see it. Or go forward to a time after the reservoir is gone and the canyon is restored to its natural state.

A little depressed, we went to get some lunch at a weird Mexican restaurant. It was a gas station that had gone out of business, and the new owners parked two food trucks in front where the gas pumps used to be. So you order outside and they make your food in the trucks, then you go inside to eat on one of the tables scattered around the old gas station. I ordered a plate of tacos and a Mexican Coca-Cola, both of which I shared with Brooke.

After that, we wandered around the city park, and saw the world’s largest watermelon slice and a big model of a Cold War rocket.

Brooke modeling next to the world’s largest watermelon slice
The missile and me

Why is there a rocket in the town park of Green River? Well, it turns out that back in the 60s, the government built an extension of the White Sands Missile Range way up near Green River. And they used to test launch these rockets from the facility they built south of town.

Wait, what? Yes, there was a missile test range in the 60s where they’d launch these rockets up and over Canyonlands, across southwestern Colorado (one went off-course and crash landed near Creede, I learned), to land in the desert of southern New Mexico at the White Sands Missile Range. Given my recurring dreams about a secret aircraft test facility near Moab, this was pretty weird news for me to learn. Was it just a coincidence? Did I hear something about the missile test range back in the 80s that I later consciously forgot but that my subconscious kept generating dreams from? I have no idea. Anyhow, the Green River launch facility was decommissioned in the 80s, and all that exists there now are remains of abandoned buildings, and a big pile of radioactive debris covered in black sand and surrounded by a fence.

Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks there’s something sci-fi about this missile test center. Google Maps labels the road leading to it the “New Area 51 Rd”. I don’t know if that’s what it’s officially called, but that’s what it’s called according to Google! Also, we saw some graffiti on the back of a billboard at the edge of the old base that said mysteriously “WE WERE ONCE HUMAN”.

There’s another weird thing in Green River. It’s a huge piece of art that is a representation of the Fibonacci sequence.

Then, it was time to leave town. I plotted a course for the Crystal Geyser, a geologic feature that’s also a bit strange. Growing up Wyoming, I loved visiting Yellowstone. Geysers and steam vents and mud pots were so cool to me as a boy. Well, unlike the geysers in Yellowstone, the geyser near Green River isn’t powered by magma in the earth heating up water that rises to the surface and then explodes out. Apparently, there’s a pocket of carbonated water near the Green River south of town, and when someone was drilling for oil in the 1930’s, they hit it.

So, excited to see a rare cold water geyser, I drove us out to the site, which is only a few miles down a gravel road from town. We waited a while, and went for a walk along an old road. And just when we came back, there was water spurting up about three feet from the ground. I assumed this was the beginning phase of the full geyser plume, but that’s all it did, and then over the next few minutes it spewed even less water up. We walked around the travertine formations, which reminded me of the ones in Yellowstone, but the geyser never did shoot up like you’d expect a geyser to do.

This is the pipe that created Crystal Geyser
Travertine next to the Green River
I love the patterns in the travertine

That night, back at the hotel, I dug deeper into the story of Crystal Geyser and learned that it stopped really erupting sometime between 2012 and 2014. Over the years, people started throwing stones into the pipe from this well until they finally plugged up the plumbing. Now, instead of erupting up thirty to a hundred feet in the air, the water just bubbles to the surface once in a while. Sadly, if you just read about Crystal Geyser in travel brochures and articles, almost none of them mention this. They talk about it as if it’s still a geyser in the present day. But it’s not. Here’s a local news report about the death of the geyser.

Once we gave up on the geyser actually erupting up in the air, we left the area of the Green River Launch Complex (via New Area 51 Road, of course) and headed for the San Rafael Reef.

We stopped at a few view points on both sides of the reef, but it was getting colder and windy, so we didn’t do any hiking. Plus, we were running out of daylight.

San Rafael Reef looking east, with the Book Cliffs and moon in the background

We got back to Green River right about supper time and ate once again at the Tamarisk Restaurant. And once again, it was good food.

(continued in Green River, Part 3)

Green River, Part 1

Ed and Me and Rivers and Dreams

In my teens I first read Edward Abbey, a fiery naturalist who wrote many books about the American desert southwest. His most famous two books are probably “Desert Solitaire” and “The Monkey Wrench Gang”. The books made a perfect one-two punch, with the first helping to cement my love of the canyon country of southeast Utah and the second swaying me to support the removal of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. I joined the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the Glen Canyon Institute in my twenties, all to help the cause of restoring the Colorado River to its natural state before the Glen Canyon Dam was built.

Later, I did some volunteer work for the Glen Canyon Institute, building them their first real website. In return, they arranged for me to get a free ride on a one week outfitted rafting trip down the San Juan River. And later, I was invited to the Glen Canyon Institute’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City in 2001. There, I met a folksinger/activist named Katie Lee, and an old river guide named Ken Sleight. Sleight had been close friends with Ed Abbey, and was supposedly the inspiration for the character Seldom Seen Smith in Abbey’s book “The Monkey Wrench Gang”.

Katie Lee, much younger and nuder than when I met her

So when I read in early 2019 that there was a special exhibit of Ken Sleight’s photos and souvenirs from the early rafting days, I immediately wanted to go. The exhibit was at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah.

Unfortunately, the exhibit was going to end in March, which didn’t leave much time. So I convinced my girlfriend Brooke to join me on a long Presidents’ Day weekend road trip.

But before I tell you that story, let me tell you something about me you probably don’t know.

I dream movies. That is, my dreams have characters, plot lines, dialogue (sometimes in foreign languages – only French or Spanish, the only other languages I understand well enough to make sense in a dream), and original music. The weirdest of this for me has always been the music thing. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone else whose subconscious dreams up original music in different styles for their dreams, but I have ever since I was a teen. I even tried to record one piece after a particularly long and vivid dream/movie called “Escape from Berlin” set during WWII. Anyhow, sometimes these movies I dream are serials. Basically, they’re recurring dreams. But the characters all know that we’re in a sequel and the story is often based on a previous instance of the recurring dream.

When I was in college, I had a recurring dream about finding a mathematical technique for counting the number of pipes stacked on a tractor trailer. A truck like this…

…would be driving down Broadway in Boulder, where I went to college, and as it passed I had to quickly count the pipes. I was struggling with Calculus for three semesters during this time, and I think there was some connection. My then-girlfriend Lisa, when I told her about these dreams, said that obviously they’re about sex. But I thought they were really frustration dreams about trying to learn Calculus from really bad professors.

Another recurring movie-style dream that I have had on and off since I was in my early 20s – that’s over 25 years ago now – is that there’s a secret US government base south of Moab, Utah. In my teens and early 20s, I visited the Moab area a lot, with my friend Mike (who mysteriously disappeared years later, though that’s a different story). We hiked in Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, the San Rafael Reef, etc.

Anyhow, in my dream, this secret base near Moab was for testing secret stealth aircraft. In these dreams, I’m the protagonist. And being in southeast Utah for hiking and also being interested in airplanes, I naturally want to sneak to the edge of the air field so I can watch these secret planes take off and land. I do that for a while, and then see weirder and weirder airplanes. These are airplanes so advanced that they are clearly not of human design. They must use technology stolen from aliens. Now keep in mind that I – in real life, as well as in this dream, apparently – have a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering, so I have a solid grasp of how human aircraft technology works. But one particular aircraft is this giant thing the size of an aircraft carrier, clearly way too big to be an airplane. And it moves really slowly. So it must use anti-gravity technology or some other science fiction thing to fly. That’s essentially the finale of the dream. The giant rectangular aircraft slowly flies over, making it clear that humanity has  technology we stole from aliens that the general public has no idea about.

And then five years or so later, I have a similar dream again. Sometimes I’m discovering the alien tech airplanes again, and sometimes I’m checking up on the secret air base south of Moab again to see if they’re still there. But it’s always south of Moab and west of the highway that goes from Moab to Monticello. I’ve seen the secret airfield so many times in my dreams, I’ll draw a picture of where it is. I’ve never been in this area in real life, despite having hiked to the north, south, and west.

(continued in Green River, Part 2)

hindsight and the end

TripIt

I used a service and software called TripIt for our entire trip. All along the way, I plugged in each flight, each hotel where we stayed, and most major activities. At one point in our journey, Beth had a little rebellion against TripIt, and was mad at me because I wanted all our plans to be organized, but she didn’t want to be organized. It turned out to be handy for a lot of things, though. Now I can go back after the fact and have it tell me some things about our trip, like the fact that we were gone 150 days and traveled roughly 110,000 miles.

Here’s a map showing the cities we visited along the way (not counting Frankfurt, which was a surprise due to airline snafu). From this perspective, it looks like we covered Southeast Asia pretty well. But of course we only saw a minuscule fraction of it, and almost all of that was cities.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 7.17.16 AM

Lessons Learned

Maybe this deserves a post of its own, but I’m not in the mood to go into great detail. So let me just throw out a bullet list, looking back on our journey the week after we got back to America.

  • Don’t take a laptop: Everyone says this, and I worked hard to keep my list of possessions light. But in hindsight, I sure wish I could’ve avoided the need to do any video editing on the trip. Then I could have left my laptop at home and only used my iPad.
  • Don’t take stuff for roughing it if you’re going to stay in hotels in cities: Too many of the things I packed were items that would be useful if we were sleeping on couches or in hostels – like a camp towel, a sleeping bag liner, a first aid kit – but weren’t relevant since we stayed in hotels in cities all the time. If we needed first aid, we were never far from a pharmacy or from someone who had first aid.
  • Don’t take a camera: This one sounds weird. One of my big goals for the trip was to get lots of good photos and especially 4K video. So I bought a nice camera and carted it all around. But it was a liability more than an asset a lot of the time. I didn’t have a long enough lens to get good wildlife photos anyhow, and a lot of the places we visited I didn’t want to take a big camera for fear of theft (or loss or damage). Plus, most of the things I got photos of are the same things that every tourist photographs; there are really good professional quality photos of all this stuff if I really want to show someone what it looks like.
  • Don’t visit Indonesia during burning season: It was dumb to go to Indonesia to see the orangutans during the “burning season” when visibility was so bad. Maybe I’d be complaining about the rain if we went another part of the year, though. But there are good times to visit and there are bad times and we mostly didn’t take the calendar into account.
  • Don’t visit Phuket if you want a relaxing trip to an unspoiled beach: We’d heard so many good things about Phuket that it didn’t occur to us that most of the island is really touristy unpleasant beach towns. Especially the one we chose (without adequate research), Patong Beach.
  • Don’t walk home after dark in Phnom Penh: It didn’t occur to either of us that a 1 km walk to our B&B from the cinema would be dangerous, but we almost got mugged by a motorcycle gang. The feedback from our B&B hostess: Duh, don’t you know you should never go out on foot after dark in this city? (no, we didn’t know that, obviously)
  • Travel insurance is a very good thing: At least in our situation, with Beth’s father in poor health, it was a very smart decision to get travel insurance. We got two insurance claim payouts worth about four times what we paid for the premium, and it allowed us to continue our journey after Bill’s death. If not for that, the trip would’ve been over because we ran out of money.
  • Everything costs more than you think it will: We had this fantasy that we’d find decent hotels in some developing countries in the $15 a night range. Almost all the time it was twice that. Now fifteen bucks doesn’t seem like a lot to an American on vacation, but if you’re living in hotels, that adds up. Our budget only allowed for $100 a day total, to cover lodging, food, entertainment, transportation, souvenirs, etc. The extra $15 a night we spent could easily pay for most or all of our food costs for a day.
  • Spend the extra money to hire a local guide: Before we left, I had this fantasy that I would hire local guides to help me explore and sample street food in cities. That turned out to be unnecessary. But having a professional guide when we visited the big sites like Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat made the visits so much more meaningful.
  • It’s a lot cheaper to visit fewer places for longer: People talk about how expensive it is to travel. The big expense on our journey wasn’t day-to-day things like food and lodging, it was airfare. Each time we flew from America to Asia or back, it was about $1000 each. And long flights within Asia, like from Delhi to Bangkok, were several hundred dollars. Short flights are amazingly cheap. You can fly from one city to another within India or Thailand or Indonesia for about $50. So considering we spent $100 per day on food, lodging, and everything else (that’s an average between expensive countries like Australia and inexpensive countries like Indonesia), it was much better to stay in one place for an extra week than to travel to a new country. So if you want to do something like we did…
    • …don’t bother taking a vacation to Asia if you can’t spend at least 3 or 4 weeks there; you’re better off waiting to save more money so you can go longer, and
    • …visit as few countries as possible for as many days each as possible.

Thanks for Reading

If you’re still tuned in to my writings about our travels in the Eastern Hemisphere, thanks. The biggest motivation was to think that my friends and family could read about what we saw through these posts. I never claimed to be a travel expert or an expert in any of the countries or cultures we visited. So the best I could do is write about where we went and what we saw.

If you want to see an entire list of all the posts about our big journey, they are listed on this web page. Including this final one, I wrote 75 total posts about the trip. Did you have a favorite? I’d love to hear your feedback.

easing back into “normal” life

Moving In

The day after we arrived back in Denver, I rented a car from Enterprise, loaded up my meager belongings, and moved into my new temporary home. I’m staying with a friend in Lakewood, who has a big house and several housemates. One of the bedrooms in her place opened up about the time I was starting to wonder where I was going to live at the end of the Asia journey, so it worked out perfectly.

But “moving in” consisted of just unpacking the few possessions I’ve been carrying around for the past five months. That didn’t take long. Most of the really useful stuff was in our storage unit in Aurora. So I picked up Beth at the AirBNB where she was staying, and we went out there. I went through some of the boxes in storage as best I could without totally unpacking them, and stuffed the most useful things into the car – warmer clothes, extra underwear, more shirts, etc.

Meanwhile, Beth surveyed her stuff to size it up. She planned for some time to return to Kansas City, and had to decide between driving a U-Haul truck with all her stuff now, or just taking the bare essentials and coming back to Denver later for the rest. After that I took her back to the AirBNB and I went back to Lakewood.

The Car

That night I didn’t sleep well, so I did several hours of research online about cars. I knew I needed a car as part of being back in the US. My original plan was to buy a used car for the near term just to get by and then buy something nicer later. But I decided instead to just buy a new car.

Buying a car is so electronic these days. In the middle of the night, I filled out an online loan application with USAA, and their computer approved me for a bunch of money (way more than I wanted to spend on a car). They also have a car buying service, so I entered the info for what I wanted, and it told me about the dealers in the area who had either a perfect match or a near match. Then it sent messages to all of them that I was interested. The prices were pre-negotiated through the car buying service, so I knew exactly how much I was going to pay.

A little after 8:00am Saturday morning, I got a call from one of those dealerships and set up a time to go test drive the car. After some breakfast and much-needed coffee, I went in about 9:30. Four hours later, I drove my new car off the lot. It’s a dark blue 2016 Honda Civic EX-T.

If Honda wanted to compete with BMW’s entry level models, their 2016 Accord and Civic would be the competition. The Civic looks sharp and sporty. It has every comfort and safety feature I’ve ever heard of, and several that I hadn’t. The seats are very comfortable, way better than our last car, the 2010 Prius. And the handling is nicely responsive. Plus, it’s got a ridiculous amount of acceleration that I’ll probably never use except when passing. In fact, this “compact” car’s 4-cylinder engine with turbocharger generates almost as much horsepower as the big V-8 that my Dodge Dakota had. And it gets twice the mileage, 42 mpg highway. That’s not as good as the 45 to 50 that the Prius could get, but better than most cars on the road. Overall, it’s a good combination of comfort, practicality, and performance.
IMG_1169

Next up, I guess I need to start looking for a place of my own to live, preferably in central Denver. But that’s going to be a big task, and I’m not ready for it yet.

I need more time to ease back into American life.

Transitions

The night I bought the car, I had been invited to a birthday party at Casa Bonita. After seeing all kinds of weird stuff and cultural attractions in Asia, Casa Bonita seemed perfect.

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Of course the food isn’t great. Of course the entertainment is cheesy. But it’s very American. Perfect.

The next day, I finally dug deeper into the boxes of clothes I got from our storage unit. I found all kinds of joyous surprises. Lots of warm socks, just in time for the snowstorm that was blowing in, for example.

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The next day, Beth and I went to visit Bob and Diane, who were our downstairs neighbors at the apartment where we lived for a year and a half in Capitol Hill. They’re nice people.

Bob is in his 90s and is a pretty well respected artist with galleries of his works in a couple cities in the midwest. He was in the US Navy in World War II, and remembers sailing around in the south Pacific near many of the places we visited 70 years later. Beth showed them some of her photos from our trip, and Bob pointed out which ones had the most artistic merit. He encouraged her to choose the best 20 and put together a gallery exhibition of them. Diane is a retiree from the big business world who was more interested in what we saw than how Beth composed photos of it.

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It’s sad to think about, but I wonder if we’ll ever see them again.

Getting Used to America and Americans

The first few days after we got back to America were pretty strange. I’m sure I’ll get re-acclimated faster than I expect. But here are some things that struck me as strange after being in India for a month and then Thailand for a month.

  • There are so many white people here! Everywhere I turn, there’s more white people. I’d gotten pretty used to Beth and I being the only Caucasians most places we went. We’d see more when we went to tourist traps and the beach, of course, but in India especially we’d go for days without seeing another white person.
  • People drive on the right side of the road here! Walking around in Denver the first night we were back, I stopped at a crosswalk and looked both ways before crossing. But of course I looked right first, assuming that’s where oncoming traffic would be. No, traffic will be coming from the left here! In the past five months, I only spent two weeks in places where people drive on the right instead of the left.
  • Everyone speaks English here! I have to admit, toward the end I was getting pretty fatigued by living in Asia, even though it was just a short time. And the main reason was that all the interesting local people I met were difficult to talk to due to language. A lot of people in India and Thailand can speak English to some degree, but it got old having to use short words and simple sentence construction all the time. It’s almost like a miracle to just go around in Denver and every single person you run into – even immigrants – speaks English.
  • Milk and bread. Have you ever talked to a French person and had them tell you how croissants in America don’t really taste like “real” croissants? There’s some essential difference, like our American flour is different or the butter is different or something. Well, in Asia most people don’t drink very much milk. And the western bread products they make are off a bit in a way that’s hard to explain. And I imagine that my reaction to having Thai pastries is the same as a Frenchman’s reaction to having American croissants.
  • Snow. As I write this, we’re having a big snowstorm. The snow is piled up several inches outside, the roads are all snow packed, and I’m not even sure I could get my new low-to-the-ground car out of the driveway and subdivision to a road that’s been plowed. Five days ago I was in Bangkok wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt, with the air conditioning on. The snow is beautiful, but it’s just so weird.

Back to Work

I told my boss I’d be back at work on the Friday after we got back, leaving me one week to get some things in order, acclimatize, etc. That seems about right. I still have a few days of vacation left, but after that it’s back to the office for me. And I’m sure that’ll take some getting used to.

For much of the past month, my schedule has been totally my own. Some days I’d do maybe two or three hours of writing, and then a couple hours devoted to seeking out and eating food, an hour or two of lifestyle maintenance stuff like laundry, and then the rest was just reading or listening to audiobooks or whatever I felt like. My free time is going to be shrinking a lot, and fast. I hope I can cope. Wish me luck.

the journey home

Sam: “All right, we don’t have that much left. We have to be careful, or we’re goin’ to run out. You go ahead and eat that, Mister Frodo. I’ve rationed it. There should be enough.”

Frodo: “For what?”

Sam: “The journey home.”

— Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Our last few days in Bangkok were spent going to a symphony concert in the park, seeing the Grand Palace, and then saying goodbye to the Bangrak neighborhood.

On the final day in Bangkok, January 27, we tried to do all the things we liked most. We ate street food, I had duck noodle soup, we had massages, and I saw the neighborhood turkey.

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The next day, we got up early and finished packing our bags. We had breakfast in the hotel, tipped all the hotel staff, and then took a taxi to the airport. We had a long day of travel ahead of us – three flights over about 25 hours. We flew from Bangkok to Beijing on a 747, but not before Beth did some stretches to limber up.

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The Beijing airport was the only time I’d ever been in China, so I had to take this selfie in front of a Chinese garden they built inside our concourse. We ate a meal there, supposedly Malaysian food.

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The next segment was Beijing to Vancouver. That was the longest flight of the three, at about 10.5 hours. We left late and arrived late, but fortunately we were still able to make our connection. From Vancouver we had a quick flight to Denver.

At long last, we were back in the city where we started from, 150 days earlier.

Looking back, it was a pretty bizarre day. We left on Thursday January 28, flew for about 25 hours, saw the sun set twice, and still landed on Thursday January 28. The International Date Line is weird that way.

Beth and I were both relieved and happy that all our bags arrived safely, unlike our trip from Kansas City to Delhi. Later, I found that the Chinese government had searched my suitcase, and confiscated one rechargeable camera battery. Oh well, that’s a small price to pay in the context of this huge journey.

We ate some supper in the Denver airport, since we didn’t get any on the United flight from Vancouver, and didn’t have enough time in the Vancouver airport to buy anything. Then we caught an Uber to an AirBNB that Beth reserved. That bed felt so good after sitting in economy class airplane seats all day. I hate long distance flying like that, but love getting to a bed at the end.

The Grand Palace of Bangkok

Dateline: January 25, 2016 / Location: Bangkok

The last tourist attraction we visited during our month in Bangkok was The Grand Palace. It’s probably one of the first places most tourists visit, and for us it was the last. Maybe that tells you something about our time in Bangkok overall. We put a lot higher priority on exploring different parts of the city than we did hitting the big sightseeing locations.

What’s the Grand Palace?

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is a complex built by one of the previous kings of Thailand, after the capital moved from the west side of the river to the east. It includes a temple (which houses the Emerald Buddha), palaces, and governmental buildings. It started with just a few buildings, but they just kept filling in the empty space in the area with more and more buildings until it was very crowded. The king wasn’t happy because the breeze that used to exist here was now blocked by all the buildings. So the king started spending more time in a city to the north that wasn’t so crowded.

Realizing this was kind of a dumb approach, since Bangkok is the capital after all, the king had another palace built in a new location in the city. At that point, the royal family moved there. And then later, the monarchy’s absolute rule was replaced by a democracy. At that point, the king was no longer the head of government, so the government moved all the government functions out of the Grand Palace area as well.

That left the complex with a palace that the king no longer lived in, and a bunch of government buildings that were no longer used by the government. So now it’s mainly a place for tourists to visit.

Getting There

I had read lots of advice online that you need to get to the Grand Palace really early to avoid the crowds and the heat. Fortunately, there was a cold snap while we were there, so the heat wasn’t an issue. But still we wanted to beat the busloads of Chinese tourists, so we set out as early as we could by express boat, headed north.

After the second or third stop of the express boat (a water bus), it was clear something was wrong. I don’t know whether the boat had serious mechanical problems or if the driver was really bad, but it took him several tries to dock correctly with the pier to let people off. And black smoke was pouring out of the back of the boat. A couple stops in a row, the driver hit the pier with such force that the passengers all were shaken around and I was afraid the boat might break or bend or something. By the second time this happened, Beth was getting really nervous, and so we hopped off the boat prematurely. We went to a Starbucks, I had a cappuccino, and we used the restrooms. After regaining our will, we got back on the next northbound express boat.

This one worked fine, and we were soon at the right place. A short walk from the pier led us to the entrance. We didn’t get hassled by tuktuk drivers or any other scam artists. We bought our tickets (500 baht each), rented two audio tour players, and were soon on our way.

Camera Choice

A funny thing happened over the course of our several month trip, and I guess I might as well talk about it now. I took my new Panasonic GH4 camera on this trip, with a couple of microphones, a couple lenses, and related basic accessories. My original plan was to shoot some 4K video and get as many nice still photos as I could. The camera is smaller than almost all DSLRs, as it uses what’s called a Micro Four Thirds format lens system. But with all the stuff – and even without – it still weighed a fair amount, and meant that whenever we went somewhere I had to take my backpack to put it in with all the stuff.

But I realized once we got to Agra, India, that the people who were tuned into these blog posts liked the photos I was taking from my iPhone 6s just as much as the photos from my GH4. So I started alternating them. Some outings I’d take the GH4, some outings I’d just take my mobile phone. And then toward the end I was just taking my phone. That’s why these pictures of the Grand Palace are from my phone. In fact, all the photos I took in Bangkok were from my phone. My expensive camera just sat in the camera bag in our hotel room the whole time.

In hindsight, I might have saved the hassle and weight on this journey by not even taking a “real” camera with me. Maybe I’ll do a “lessons learned” post later and touch on that.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Most of the time we spent at the Grand Palace was what they call the “Temple of the Emerald Buddha“. The Thai name is Wat Phra Kaew, and it is the most sacred Buddhist temple in all of Thailand. I guess that’s because the Emerald Buddha is the most sacred object in Thailand.

There’s a lot to see in the temple area. Here are my photos.

 

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Here, Beth and I stand in front of the golden stupa called Phra Sri Ratana Chedi. It is said to contain some of Buddha ashes.

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Here is a miniature model of Angkor Wat that the king had made. I guess having a model of the real thing makes it so the Thais don’t feel compelled to go to Cambodia (a long time enemy) to see the real thing.

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I loved these two statues of giants that guard the entrance to the temple area. There are several of these giants all around the grounds, and there are a pair of giant statues like this at the Bangkok airport.

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Buddha is for respecting. Not furniture. Not tattoo. Here you can make offerings, but I took the photo to show the message on the umbrellas. A lot of tourists visiting Thailand take home tattoos of Buddha or furniture or other trinkets, not realizing that it’s disrespectful. The Thais look at Buddha tattoos sort of how you might expect the Italians to look at Jesus Christ g-strings.

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Here’s where we took our shoes off before entering the temple. Unlike the Sikh gurdwaras we’d visited in India, there was no attendant to guard your shoes. But nobody took mine.

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This is the outside of the main temple. The people are lined up outside to get inside and have a chance to see the Emerald Buddha.

I didn’t actually take a photo of the Emerald Buddha. Nobody is allowed to. A very stern security guard will stop you, grab your camera, and yell at you if you try. I know, because a Chinese tourist near me tried. It doesn’t really matter, though, because you can’t get close enough to it to get a good photo anyhow.

Here is a photo from Wikipedia, so you can see what it looks like.

The Emerald Buddha isn’t actually made of emerald. “Emerald” in this case just means that it’s green. It’s actually made of jade.

The Rest of the Palace

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This great building was designed in European style at the time when Thailand first started to become modernized. The architects originally designed it with three European style domes, but advisors to the king suggested they be replaced with something of a distinctive Thai style, and that’s what you see here. So the building is a nice mix of Western and Thai architecture. It’s used for big state functions still. Most is off-limits to tourists, though there’s a weapons museum in the lowest level.

After seeing the Buddha, we left the temple to see the rest of the Grand Palace area. There are a few of the government buildings to see.

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In this photo, the big European style building is on the left, and to the right is one of the king’s palace buildings. Like I said earlier, no king has lived here since the royal residence was moved to a different palace in 1925.

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Close-up showing the Thai style roof. Look closely at the corner where the two parts of the roof come together. There is a statue up there. I think it’s a deva.

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And that’s all she wrote, as the saying goes. You can see from the crowd of people leaving that even though we beat the worst of the rush, it was very crowded there. No, the exit isn’t down from the sign. For whatever reason, the downward pointing arrow means “keep walking in this direction”.

After leaving the palace complex, we stopped for some much deserved lunch, and then caught an express boat back to the Central Pier near our hotel. Though the excursion took about six hours total, we were only on the Grand Palace grounds about two hours of that.

 

Bangkok Folk Museum

You probably know how I’m interested in human geography, in particular how cities are born,  grow, and change over time. So I was psyched to learn that Bang Rak, the part of Bangkok where we’ve been staying, has its own little history museum. It was a bit confusing at first, because I found three different names for this museum: the Bangkok Folk Museum, the Bangrak Museum, and the Bangkokian Museum. It turns out those refer to slightly different things. The Bangkokian Museum is another name for the Bangkok Folk Museum. And one floor of one of the buildings of the museum is the Bangrak Museum. They all have free admission, are in the same location, and apparently share the same volunteer staff.

Getting There is One Third of the Fun

My knee has been hurting since I twisted it getting onto the long tail boat to go see James Bond Island the week before, so Beth and I were trying to minimize the amount of walking I did. To that end, we took the river bus (what they often erroneously call a “river taxi” around here) north a couple of stops and got off there, to shorten our walk.

On the way out of the pier area, we passed the Portuguese embassy, and then walked through this area of really expensive art stores. That included a statuary, and one of the statues caught my eye in particular. Most of them were things that looked like some rich Bangkok family might have in front of their house – a religious or historical figure, or a fountain, or a Greek god or something.

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But this one was definitely a Native American on horseback. I guess there must be some market for this sort of thing in Thailand, which for some reason surprised me.

We walked a ways farther and found underneath the elevated expressway is a sort of holding facility for all kinds of stuff related to garbage removal. There were dozens of garbage trucks, mostly in new or near new condition. There were piles and piles of garbage bins and recycling bins. We even found some piles of large wicker baskets that I think are for collecting and removing recyclables.

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In the photo above, you can see they have a big pile of those long fluorescent bulbs, hopefully being stored here until they can be properly disposed of. Beth loved it and took about six thousand photos.

Once we continued on, it wasn’t much farther to the museum. I spotted the gate leading to the museum and soon encountered the security guard. As soon as he could see us coming down the street, the guard came out to the gate and started waving me on, like “You found us! Come in!” This museum is way off the beaten path for tourists. He proudly displayed the guest book, which I signed. We were only the sixth group of visitors for the day, and the only from the USA.

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Just in case the security guard excitedly waving us in wasn’t enough of a clue, this sign made it clear we found the museum.

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I read somewhere the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), which is the city government of Bangkok, had a problem to encourage this sort of small museum in various districts around the city. In fact, this museum may have been the first one of the BMA Local Museum program. Here is the faded sign.

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A volunteer greeted us, gave us a brochure in English, explained briefly that there are three buildings here, and made it clear that we are to remove our shoes as we enter each one.

I’m not going to go into detail about everything we saw. You can check out these two great web pages that describe the museums in detail:

But I’ll say that we saw art, and lots of furniture and other home items that were in common use in the first half of the 19th century. The theme of the museum is sort of a slice of life of what it was like for a middle class Bangkok family in the Bangrak district from the 1920s to the 1950s (and in some cases a little beyond).

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A lot of the stuff, like this furniture, reminded me of my grandparents’ furniture in the western United States.

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But the kitchen and cooking stuff was definitely different, like these tiffins. I’d known tiffins were an Indian thing, but I guess they were (are?) used in Thailand, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with one of these in Bangkok.

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These coconut shells are actually low tech kitchen shells. If you put one in a bowl of water, it sinks at a given rate depending on how many holes it has. when the shell is totally submerged, then the time is up.

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Before gas or electric, here’s what Thai kitchen stoves looked like.

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Light was provided by what I’d call a “Coleman” lantern.

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Interspersed in the old stuff in the museum were some art exhibits, including one of these Japanese style paintings that use “tadpole writing”. If you could read Japanese, I don’t know if this would mean any more than it means to me, which is almost nothing.

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Bangrak Museum

The Bangrak Museum, which was the main thing that I wanted to see, was probably the least impressive. There were a lot of photos and some written descriptions, but almost all of it was in Thai, with no English translations. So we just had to guess at what we were seeing.

I can tell you some of the photos were showing how the Bangrak streets looked 50 years ago and now in modern times. Some of them showed the old canals and farmland that was back then.

Most of the photos hadn’t been enhanced in any way, and many were printed on colored card stock. So that made them even harder to understand, and almost pointless to photograph. So I didn’t take any pictures of this museum. I’m sad to say this part was a let down. The greatest praise I can give is that it’s in the one building that has air conditioning.

Once we finished the Bangrak Museum, we used the restroom, made a hefty donation to go to the maintenance of the museum, and then walked back to our hotel. This part of town is now heavily Muslim, so we found and ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant. I was too busy enjoying the delicious hummus to take any photos. Sorry. Oh, and the kebabs were outstanding.