Ancients peeps & narcosis in the deep

Breakfast With Rice And Fish - Bruce Willis Rocks All Films - BWRAF - Buoyancy Weights Releases Air Final check - I rehearse the pneumonic in my mind, checking and double checking my gear.  Pssshhhhhht, check, my buoyancy control device (BCD) is working.  Two, four, six kg weight around my waist and configured to quick release if necessary.  Releases clipped in and tightened, check.  Kshhhhht, pshhhhh, Darth Vader style inhalation of the familiar dry, oxygen heavy air - gauge reads 210 PSI, check.  Final check: dive computer, mask, flashlight, inflatable surface marker buoy, GoPro, check.

As I’m rubbing a thin layer of baby soap into my goggles to prevent fogging, a desperate attempt to prevent the fog infliction that struck during yesterday’s night dive, Mohamed, a former diver in the Egyptian Navy with an MMA fighter’s build and pro-fighter aspirations, takes me aside and says, “Cory! look… you and me, we’re going down to 40 meters today, I know an underwater canyon down there, but you can’t tell anyone.  I wan’t to show you what it’s like down there”  He flashes his well practiced, flirtatious smile and laughs at my furrowed eyes as I calculate just how much deeper this is then I had ever been before.  It was 12 meters (40 feet) deeper - narcosis depths. “It’s going to be fun… don’t worry” He adds.  Mohamed, like many professional divers, is a man in search of the extreme.  Tales of shark attacks, dangerously deep dives and out of air emergencies are a regular subject of our conversations.  His most recent anecdote about emergency breathing from his buoyancy device after running out of air deep underwater combined with my dive buddy Caroline’s diving stories that always seem to end in a near death experience for someone involved, do the opposite of instilling confidence in me.

As the sun rose this morning, we were briefed military style on the dive plan for today, the 20 or so divers crowded into the boat’s common area, sipping our instant coffee (or a dollar extra for espresso).  Various maps, depth charts, current readings, and anecdotes from our Egyptian dive masters play out in front of our waking minds as we warm up for the day underwater ahead of us.  Today, the dive is deep, down to a max depth of 30 meters, although Mohamed has other plans.  Current conditions are strong, during the ascent we will drift letting the fast current carry us to our pick up point. The water is colder than usual this time of year: 23º C, cold enough that after 30 minutes underwater, I’ll begin to shiver, taking precious energy away from the calm, deep and continuous breathing so important in the alien environment of the depths below. 

As we bounce over the swells in our inflatable zodiac boat, detached from the main vessel, the rapid fire Arabic of the captain is drowned out by the high surface winds and sputter of the motor.  I look around at the relaxed demeanor of the five other divers geared up in fitted wetsuits, compressed air tanks and professional grade underwater camera gear, thousands of dives logged between them.  My 20 dives - only a blip of their underwater experience.  I get the strange sensation that I’ve somehow stumbled into a Navy Seal training exercise.

The surface is too choppy for a normal entry Mohamed explains, so, on three, we roll backward off of the boat, buoyancy bladders fully deflated, exhaling as we hit the water, a “negative entry”, immediately falling into the calm, quiet of the underwater world.

As the sea floor rises beneath me, my depth gauge ticks deeper: 10…20…30 meters down.  As we reach the bottom, colors begin to fade, converging to a greenish blue.  Fish more alien than my wildest imagination of extraterrestrial life go about their day, navigating the rocks and coral that speckle the sea floor.

The crowd of divers is still too thick for our deep excursion, so Mohamed signals to Caroline, my dive buddy, and I to follow in a new direction.  As we swim away from the group, I check my dive computer - 7 minutes no decompression time remaining, a biological clock has started.

Aside - under pressure 

No decompression (no deco) time is the amount of time you can safely stay at a certain depth before ascending to the surface puts you at risk of decompression illness aka “the bends”.  Each breath of air you take under the extreme weight of the ocean above you is highly pressurized. At 40 meters below you’re consuming air from your tank 5 times as fast and each breath of air will contain 5 times the nitrogen you’re breathing at the surface.  In addition to the elated, confused, narcosis effect caused by breathing this dense nitrogen, you have about 5 minutes to stay at that depth before the rapid decrease in pressure from ascending to the surface will cause all of the nitrogen your body has absorbed to form bubbles in your tissues and blood stream, potentially killing you. 

To avoid this whole.. dying thing, when a diver has absorbed too much nitrogen to safely ascend, they perform a decompression stop, like waiting for 10 minutes at 20 meters below, to allow their body to off-gas nitrogen slowly under pressure, avoiding the bubbly nightmare scenario.  In most recreational dives, you don’t plan to make decompression stops, as they’re an easy way to run out of air underwater, quickly burning through dense air while waiting for you body to decompress.

If that sounds like a lot to remember, it is.  So instead of remembering, we use dive computers to calculate all of this for us.  Most importantly, the No Decompression Time should stay above 0, indicating it’s safe to ascend to the surface without stopping.

Now separated from the larger group, our trusty navy guide Mohamed, leads us deeper still.  We approach the “canyon”, which to my eyes seems to be more of a crevice.  Mohamed disappears, falling headfirst into the rocks.  Caroline follows, excited as always, for a potential near death experience story I presume, signaling first to check that all is ok.  My turn, I deflate my buoyancy bladder, position myself into a headfirst dive, and sink into the rocky crevice.

As we descend, the narcotic feeling intensifies and elation passes through me.  Lightheaded and sinking still, I begin to giggle, amused by the strange and dangerous situation I find myself in.  How, exactly, did I find myself in this crevice?  Ahead, Mohamed signals us to level out, then gives us the ok to continue call and response with his hand 👌.  Mostly out of habit, I reply with the ok signal, giggling through my air regulator, as I glance down and see my watch flashing max depth in bright red.

Distantly, I remember that this may be worrying.  As I try to decode what all of the signals on my wrist mean, the numbers slowly come into focus.  Depth: 40 meters below, No Decompression Time: 0 minutes remaining, ascend now.  My elation starts to sharpen into anxiety, as survival instinct rushes through me, further focusing what my dive computer is telling me: I’ve absorbed too much nitrogen and need to ascend - now.  If I don’t, I’ll have to make decompression stops on the way back to the surface, to avoid the bends, which may mean running out of air.  My breathing becomes more labored and panicked as I remember just how much air each breath at this depth is consuming, ironically accelerating my air consumption.

All I can seem to focus on now is the 0 blinking on my wrist - in my confused state, I can’t tell if it’s been blinking for seconds or minutes.  I get Mohamed’s attention by clinking my flashlight on my aluminum air tank, “all ok?” he signals?  "0 no deco time, I’m confused by narcosis, I need to ascend" I signal in response.  Without waiting for a reply, I begin to kick upwards, my breathing now near hyperventilation, my memory of the importance in not panicking underwater seemingly the only fragile barrier keeping the storm of panic at bay.  

The blinking 0 doesn’t change as I strengthen my kicks, depth: 38…35..30 meters, still 0. 28...27...26 meters - the 0 ticks to a 1, then increases to 7.  Seven minutes, seemingly an eternity.  It’s as if the sun has broken through a stormy cloud of narcotic fog in my mind.  Color begins to return to the world around me. I close my eyes and take a deep, long breath (much easier at this depth), all is ok, I am ok I tell myself.

I look down and see Mohamed and Caroline emerging from the crevice, “level out, stay calm, breathe slow, are you ok?” Mohamed signals.  “No deco ok; narcosis ok” I reply.

I let the strong current pull me along effortlessly, and roll over, facing toward the shimmering surface far above me.  Deeply breathing in, I exhale and watch as a school of bright yellow fish parts to swim by me, close enough to touch, curious about the explosion of bubbles racing to the surface.

Ancient Egypt

I arrived in Cairo, Egypt from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, fresh off the motorcycle and convinced that traffic couldn't possibly be more hectic than the Vietnam roads.  I was mistaken.  In Egypt, driving feels like you're in a scene from Mad Max.  Surrounded by the desert, shimmering in the hot sun, cars race, drivers yell in Arabic, honking as they swerve into narrow gaps in the traffic.  Lanes don't exist - just space.  

My plan: check out what the Pyramids are all about and then head to the Red Sea, famous for its clear water, healthy coral and wreck filled scuba diving.

Instead of blabbbbbering on about the bustling streets of Cairo and the Ancient Egyptians, I'll share a few of my favorite photos from the trip.

Sunset from Al-Azhar Park in Cairo

Pyramid (Cory for scale)

Boat burial - for all your transportation needs in the after life

Tomb hieroglyphs (light reading)

Burial chamber tunnel underneath pyramid

Ancient Egyptians experimenting with column architecture 

Big, scary, lion-man

Off-road motorbiking in Northern Vietnam

Edit of GoPro footage from trip feat. Number One Candidate - AntsLive

Learning the clutch in Hanoi Traffic

Each Summer growing up, my family would head to a lake cottage in Eastern Canada built by my grandfather (as in he literally constructed it, mostly by himself) to spend a month swimming, biking, and playing board games in the August sun.  My Canadian uncle Jim was the first to expose me to dirt bikes.  He'd bring small, automatic dirt bikes to the cottage.  My brother Tim, young cousin Krys and 11 year old me would spend hours riding back and forth on the bikes, down to the end of the cottage road.  I loved the feeling of riding fast - the concentration required.  But these were small, automatic dirt bikes.  Basically heavy bicycles with a throttle.

Fast forward 15 years 

26 year old Cory is now sweating in Hanoi traffic, sitting on Honda dirt bike that just stalled out, grasping the clutch, a half hours ride on busy city streets away from the open dirt 'practice area', as hundreds of motorcycles race past me through the red light ahead.  How did I get myself into this situation you might ask?

While traveling in the last few months, I've tried to center my trips around an activity that I'm interested in.  In Japan, I snowboarded in the powdery North, in Thailand, I became an advanced and rescue scuba diver, in Vietnam, I wanted to see the country while riding on a motorcycle.  After doing some research, I found a company to guide me on a motorbike adventure in the North of Vietnam.  I was looking for a trip that was mostly off road (dirt biking), didn't require a motorbike license (seems like a very important requirement, I know), and had a trip scheduled soon that I could join.  Vietnam Motorcycle Tours based in Hanoi had all of these, I highly recommend them if you're interested in doing a similar trip - they also have an awesome Instagram with > 3 million followers.

The planned trip was an 8 day loop out of Hanoi, riding Honda 250cc dirt bikes, mostly off road.

Map of 8 day route

While watching "How To Ride a Motorcycle For Beginners (Complete A-Z Tutorial)" on YouTube, I booked the 8 day off road dirt biking trip in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, no license, no problem.

To get a bit of mental and physical preparation in for the ride, I rented a Honda 150cc dirt bike from a warehouse in Hanoi.  My plan was to ride around a motocross course, in an open field, one without thousands of motorcycles, to get comfortable with using a clutch while riding a motorbike.  If you're reading this and haven't driven a manual transmission car or motorcycle, I'll let chat GPT explain, because I also barely know how to drive a manual transmission motorcycle, and strangely, we're now living in a time where it's often easier to let AI explain things.

Question: Briefly explain how to ride a motorcycle with a clutch.

Answer: To ride a motorcycle with a clutch, here's what you must do:
  1. Familiarize yourself with the controls, including the clutch lever.
  2. Start the engine and ensure the bike is in neutral.
  3. Pull in the clutch lever to disengage the power from the engine.
  4. Shift into first gear using the gear shifter.
  5. Slowly release the clutch lever while giving gentle throttle to start moving.
  6. Balance the bike by keeping your feet on the footrests and body centered.
  7. Shift to higher gears by rolling off the throttle, pulling in the clutch lever, shifting up with the gear shifter, and releasing the clutch lever gradually.
  8. To stop, squeeze both the front and rear brakes simultaneously.
  9. Practice in a safe area to gain confidence and improve clutch control.

So, naturally, I completely disregarded the AI's suggestion to practice in a safe area and jumped right into the deep end of street biking in the hectic Hanoi traffic.

After 30 nerve wracking minutes of riding through Hanoi, which included running out of fuel, stalling, thousands of scooters, a road pavement project in progress (the first of many on this trip) and the constant beep beep of the Vietnamese roads, I made it to the Dirt Town off roading area outside of Hanoi. I was greeted by two dudes smoking tobacco out of a bong, wearing full motocross armor.  They explained to me that I'd come at a good time, yesterday had been a motocross tournament, and the track was still set up.  There was a jump portion, enduro track (logs, steep dirt hills, boulders), and a race course still set up.  They looked at me, wearing street clothes and a helmet that was far too small and said go sloooooow man.   

Mentally and physically preparing for the off-roading

When I arrived at the meeting point for the trip, I met the guys I'd be riding with for the next eight days.  Ben, an Australian engineer, deeply interested in old motorcycles and an experienced rider, Spring our unfiltered tour guide, and Hoa a backup guide that Alan, the company owner had assigned to our trip, both for him to learn the off road routes, and as a backup in case it turned out that I couldn't handle the ride / crashed out my bike.  As we were gearing up with another group of riders heading out on a different tour, the guys were comparing their scorpion armor sets and armored boots they'd brought from home while talking about past motorcycle injuries.  Someone mentioned that a rider on the last tour had broken his leg - another rider replied with his broken leg story from riding.  As I had no gear, I was given armor equivalent to what you'd see a skater wearing, knee and elbow pads and leather racing boots.  Strapping on my meager armor, and mentally practicing clutch mechanics, I began to question the decisions that had led me to this moment.

To capture video from the trip, I mounted a Go Pro that I had picked up in Thailand to my motorcycle helmet.  Through the course of the trip, I made short edits, cut to music, of the many GBs of footage I captured.  I've been getting into video editing - short edits are a great way to share memories concisely, without wading through hours of footage.

Go Pro helmet mount setup

Out of Hanoi and into the mountains

The four of us started our engines and followed Spring in a line as he led us through narrow side streets and into the Hanoi traffic. I'd had one day of practice on the busy streets already, but you really can't prepare for the motorbike traffic in Hanoi.  At stop lights during rush hours, hundreds of motorbikes will swarm, nearly touching knee to knee, as the red light counts down, the bikes speed away criss-crossing and steadily flowing like a river.  Right out of the gate, Spring set the tempo - fast.  There were no bikes, cars or trucks that we didn't pass.  There was no speed limit.

Spring's Banana

A story based on observation - warning, this contains explicit and offensive content (I don't condone this behaviour)

Spring is a man of strong convictions.  For him, things are either 'bullshit' or 'not bullshit', China is the enemy, women, which he refers to as butterflies, are conquests, the bigger the better in Winter time he explains, in detail, and the state of his banana, is always on his mind.  He leads off-road motorbike trips in the North of Vietnam.  A dangerous job - racing every day.  Driving on steep, muddy, cliffside mountain tracks, up rocky gravel quarries, and through rainy mountainous highways.  He lives his life like a soldier on the brink of battle.  Convinced that this is his last day, he has little concern for feelings, danger, or manners of any kind.

Spring is like a villain from an old western movie.  Rolling into town covered in dirt, he speaks in rapid fire Vietnamese, ordering for the entire group, he takes off his shirt, walks to a nearby table to pluck food off of their plates, then yawning loud enough to wake a dead man, he sprawls out and lights up a thin cigarette - one of the 'healthy' ones he says.

Every women Spring sees takes his full, often offensive attention.  He honks his horn, swerves his motorbike dangerously close to get a better look, and later recounts the story of exactly how it affected his banana.  He’s conflicted.  His ex-wife, the mother of his children, is almost as bad as China in his mind, causing him to doubt the morality of all of her gender, but his banana has a mind of it’s own.

China, however is without out a doubt his mortal enemy.  COVID came from China, he reasons, which caused him to lose his apartment when the tourism industry fell off.  The connection is crystal clear in his mind.  Without prompt, 'f**k China' will blurt out of him at seemingly random intervals.  At the China-Vietnam border, he yells, at the top of his lungs, ‘f**************k China’ while flipping off the general direction of China with both his middle fingers.

Vietnam is developing fast.  New concrete roads are being built all through the North.  Many of these construction projects are minor obstacles in Springs mind.  Sometimes, he just drives right through the wet cement.  When he encounters, a mountain of rock chunks, in the early stages of a new road project, he doesn’t even consider turning back, instead, he leads the dirt bikes up the mountain of stone, sending baseball sized rock chunks flying, as the group behind, drenched in sweat, trying to push their dirt bikes up, considers the life decisions that led them to this moment.

Mountain of rock chunks

One day, Spring comes upon one of these minor obstacles in his chosen path.  The dirt road he’s leading the bikes through changes to fresh, wet cement.  The road crew is sitting next to the wet path, lounging and smoking cigarettes.  They signal for Spring to turn around.  Without a second thought, Spring revs his engine and pushes ahead into the narrow space on the side of the wet cement.  He nearly knocks over one of the crew as he kicks aside construction tools and forges ahead.  With no other option in sight, I follow.    

I'm far out of my comfort zone.  I swerve to avoid one of the crew and his wheelbarrow in my path, falling sideways and sinking my foot shin deep in the wet cement.  I look sideways to the construction crew who is torn between laughing and yelling at me as spring yells back, “it doesn’t matter!”  If this doesn’t matter, what does matter?  This isn’t even the first time I nearly fell head first into wet cement while trespassing through a fresh road project in the last few days.

Foot in wet cement

Because of the development, Spring needs to search farther and farther into the spider web of small roadways in the North of Vietnam to find dirt roads that are worthy.  One day, he decides to try an entirely new track, assuming we’re up to the task solely due to the fact that we haven’t died yet, I imagine.  We take wrong turn after wrong turn, turning our bikes around on thin single track roads.  Spring has loud, lengthy conversations with each local farmer we pass.  Shaking from the exhaustion of climbing steep rocky tracks that would barely qualify as hiking trails, we emerge onto a flat section where a group of locals, two or three to a scooter, are about to ride down the route that we just came from.  I stare in disbelief, wiping the sweat from my eyes as they casually drop their scooters into the path.  After passing through a number of cattle gates in the literal mountain tops our route takes us up a small but steep dirt hill.  I try to ride up the path, but fall over sideways out of sheer exhaustion, unable to keep my bike upright.  We finally rest, all tired to the bone, as Spring mutters “never again man”.  There’s a trial and error the pathfinding process.

On the final day of riding back into Hanoi, Spring leads the group through traffic as if we’re on the first lap of a formula 1 race.  We swerve through cars, trucks, and scooters in an attempt to beat the flowing traffic beast of Vietnam.  At one intersection, two scooters collide sending plastic flying, then both race off in different directions.  There's little time to stop and stare as we're all focused on avoiding that exact situation.

Friday April 21rd, 2023 - Journal Entry

Yên Bái - Northern Vietnam

Today I rode over 200kms on a Honda 250 CRF dirt bike.  About half of the ride was off road.  Portions were on single track trails through the winding mountains.  It was exhilarating and at times terrifying.  It was difficult, even on dirt bikes with full riding gear.  What's wild is a lot of these trails are used for farmers to transport goods on their scooters.  And here we are, geared up for extreme sports, hearts racing, dripping in sweat, passing locals on street scooters riding the same tracks.  

Our backup guide Hoa, in contrast to Spring, is the kindest and most laid back dude in the world.  I didn't realize the intensity of the off road tour I was signing up for.  It's now day two of eight on this trip.  Each day we ride for about eight hours, mostly on small, winding farm roads and trails that I can hardly believe are possible on a bike.  We always find a way to make it through.  

On day one, I dropped my bike at low speed while trying to cross a dirt ridge in the trail.  Both me and the bike were ok, but it made me realize the true weight of these bikes and the danger in what we're doing.  This is the most dangerous thing I've ever done.  I just need to stay at speeds I can control and keep laser focused on the road ahead.  

I'm riding with an older Australian dude named Ben.  He's a really cool guy.  He's much more experienced with motorcycles than me, but still fairly new to this type of off road riding.  We're in this crazy adventure together.

One of the coolest parts of the trip so far has been the bright smiles and waves of the local children in the small villages we've passed through.  I'm convinced that Vietnamese children are the cutest on the planet.  The most adorable little girl I've ever met is at the homestay we're staying at tonight.  She was very shy at first, judging us from a distance, but soon she was playing with her Vietnamese spin off lego blocks next to us.  Then she began climbing all over me and giggling in the most joyful laughter I've ever heard.  I tickled her to keep the laughter coming and joined in with her lego building.  When we were gearing up to leave early the next morning, her face was screwed up in a why are you leaving? expression, eyes wide and concerned.  She kept bringing me small plums as I was strapping padding on and just as we were about to start our engines, she brought a small, beautiful flower she had found and gave me a hug.  I tied the flower to my handle bars as a good luck charm, tears in my eyes from the kindness of the gesture.

New friend at a homestay in Yên Bái

Sunday April 23rd, 2023 - Journal Entry

Bắc Hà, Northern Vietnam

Day four of the motorbike trip done.  Just got to the homestay for tonight.  Had a tall Hanoi beer and showered off all of the dirt.  I feel like a new man.  Today was the most difficult riding, by far.  Our guide Spring, a man with no boundaries, took us on a 'new track' because he gauged Ben and I were good enough riders.  After about an hour of steep, rocky switchbacks, wrong turns, spinning tires and precarious bike stalls, we came out onto a slightly wider road.  A group of locals was passing by, all of which were riding at least two to a scooter.  A couple of the street scooters had a baby sandwiched in between the adults riding.  After an entirely too lengthy conversion with Spring in spitfire Vietnamese, while the group stared and giggled at our big red dirt bikes, goggles, pads and riding gear, the group proceeded to turn down the steep, rocky trail from which we'd just emerged.  I stared in disbelief after them, feeling like that trail had taken all of my ability with a single rider dirt bike.

Soon we were back on thin trails of rock and loose dirt.  It took absolutely all of my concentration and energy to keep the bike moving forward.  Momentum is key in off road riding.  I began to feel exhausted and kept mis-shifting into neutral rather than first gear at the start of steep inclines, slide-rolling backwards.  On one sharp corner, I lost traction and spun out my back tire.  Hoa, our trusty rear guide, came to my rescue, pushing me out of the trench I'd dug myself into.  Soon after, nearing complete exhaustion from the hours of intense off road riding, I misjudged a path up a steep hill and slowly fell off my bike and set it down, far too tired to resist the 320 lbs of metal.  After a second failed attempt at lifting the bike and freeing myself from the situation, I'd (with the help of our fearless leader) gotten myself into, Hoa again came to my rescue.  

April 23: ride through the mountains towards Bắc Hà feat. BagBak - Vince Staples

We were at the top of a mountain on a path that few mountain cattle ventured, with bikes blinking red with low fuel.  Fully exhausted, shaking from the effort and drenched in sweat, we collapsed onto the ground.  I ate an entire bag of Haribo gummy bears, refueling my shaking body with pure sugar.   

On the ride back down the mountain, I got in the groove of riding standing upright, butt back, like riding a downhill mountain bike.  On a section of fine, loose dirt near the bottom, my rear tire lost traction and I oversteered.  I slid and hopped off the bike as it skid to a stop on its side.  Hoa came to my rescue again - he'd also fallen in the rear a few minutes before and was sympathetic to my situation.

When we finally reached the homestay for the night, we were all covered in dirt and tired to the bone.  Ben fell asleep on the concrete driveway soon after we parked our bikes.

Tonight, at the homestay dinner, our host poured corn wine out of plastic water jugs.  The tradition seems to be as follows: when anyone gives a cheer, everyone drinks; when the host cheers you specifically, you shake his hand and both take a shot.  This means of course, that the host drinks a lot.  Ben, the engineer, informed us that the corn wine was ethanol - saying we could probably refuel our bikes with it.  It tasted strong enough.

During dinner, one of the three or four young boys of the family was playing chess on a table nearby.  I asked about it and the father explained, via Spring's translation as he spoke no english, that the boys play in school.  After eating, I sat down with the boy, maybe 7 years old, to play.  He played with extreme focus, castling early and beat me in the first game, after I missed that I was in check, moving a different piece instead of moving out of check - he took my king.  To be fair to me, he didn't say 'check' and full of corn wine, I missed it entirely.  To be fair to him, he was seven and spoke no english.  He won fair and square.  I was very impressed by him.

April 25: rainy ride off the beaten path of the Hà Giang loop feat. Ramen & OJ - Joyner Lucas, Lil Baby

Wednesday April 26th, 2023 - Journal Entry

Ba Bể, Northern Vietnam

Every wifi password in Vietnam seems to be either: 88888888 or 66668888... I'm not sure why they set the password at all.  I've guessed multiple passwords correctly by trying one of those two.  It's now day seven of this motorbike trip.  One more day.  Goal now is to ride back into Hanoi safely and get there without injury.  

Yesterday, Ben went down on concrete.  We were riding on a concrete path through rice fields when we came upon an old man walking in the middle of the small road.  Spring, in the lead, gapped the grass to his right onto another concrete patch to pass the man, I followed gapping the grass at a steep, nearly perpendicular angle, Ben, behind me, tried to follow, but hit the grass nearly parallel to his original direction.  His wheel went down into the trench hidden by the grass and he flew forward off his bike, landing shoulder first on the hard concrete.  Luckily he was wearing scorpion armor and hard plastic shoulder pads, as the concrete chewed almost all the way through the pad, but he still hit the ground hard and fast.  His arm was scraped up, but we thought he got away mostly unharmed, until we stopped for lunch shortly after.  He took off his shirt.  His right shoulder had a v shaped bump sticking out of it.  He could barely lift his arm.  At a clinic nearby he got an x-ray to check for broken bones.  Nothing was broken, but his shoulder was injured, maybe dislocated or torn.  Bravely, he got back on the bike and decided to continue the journey.

Ben's shoulder x-ray (no fracture, but something isn't right..)

Today, we loaded the bikes onto a bamboo raft to cross a river.  We finished the ride by loading the bikes onto a metal long tail boat and floating through Ba Bể National Park.  It's been a wild ride.

April 26: ride towards Ba Bể feat. - J. Cole, Lil Baby

Solo traveling in Thailand - the depths below

Phuket - land of the partying Russians

I arrived in Phuket straight from the Northern Japanese winter in Sapporo.  The hot, humid and busy beach was about as different an atmosphere from the dry, cold and snowy fields of mountainous powder in Hokkaido as I can imagine. 

Sandy beach in Phuket

I rented a motorbike worrying on the way over that my lack of motorbike license would make it impossible, like it would be, of course, in the US, but a license to drive seemed to be at the very bottom of list of worries for the dude filling empty water bottles with gasoline and fixing motorbikes in the open air outside his shop.  So I rented a bike and spent the days driving to different beaches on the west coast of the island.  

Phuket felt like a mini Moscow.  All the tourists seemed to be speaking Russian except me.  I assume it's due to the large number of Russian people who want to escape the nightmare invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s drafts right now, so they chose Phuket as their sandy safe-haven.  

One day, I made the questionable decision to join a hot yoga class with one of the worst sunburns of my life.  It was 100F outside and even hotter in the studio.  I felt like I was on the brink of losing consciousness for most of the session.  

I also tried an Muay Thai class.  Which brought me even closer to the feeling of total bodily failure.  The class was led by tattooed Muay Thai fighters with sparring pads who prompted you to punch, elbow, knee and kick them until you could barely stand.  Collapsing in exhaustion wasn’t allowed, so we just kept punching.  We finished the class by taking turns bowing to and shaking everyones hands.  It struck me how respectful and inclusive this fighting class was.  I noticed the same respect and camaraderie in the actual Muay Thai fights I watched.  Nothing but respect between the fighters, who always, unless knocked unconscious, hugged and congratulated each other at the end of the fight.

Phi Phi Island - feverish in the tropics

Heading to Phi Phi island was a mistake. It was very dirty, crowded, and gave me a serious fever.  I don’t know if Phi Phi got me sick, but I was sick on Phi Phi.  So same same, but different.  I managed to go for my first scuba dive in the 8 years since I was certified as an open water diver before coming down with a high fever and heading for the health clinic.  

The experience at the clinic was a wild contrast.  I was being eaten alive by mosquitos and sweating profusely from my fever and lack of AC in the building, but I also received the best 1-on-1 consultation with a doctor I’ve ever had and was taken care of like a wounded war hero.  This doctor had TV show level Doctoring knowledge.  I was transported by a golf cart fitted with a stretcher through the small winding streets of the tiny island while the driver audibly ‘beep beeped’ with his own voice.  I was then cared for by multiple nurses and talked with a doctor for over an hour, mostly just about questions unrelated to my illness.  

I spent the days confusedly wandering to pickup water and food wherever I could find it, shaking with the chills in the extreme heat and humidity.  The island smelled of poo and I couldn’t wait to get off it, but the speed boat there had been a survival challenge in good health. It was an extremely bumpy ride and everyone on board kept locking eyes to gauge if you were feeling as incredibly sea sick as they were, so I waited out my sickness.

Krabi - advanced scuba on a budget

I then headed to Ao Nang beach in Krabi where I also rented a motorbike and spent the days (10 of them) driving around to different beaches, programming at wifi cafes, watching Muay Thai fighters knock each other out, and on one occasion, rock climbing at Railay beach, to get a taste of what the Alex Honnold adrenaline is all about.

Rock climbing at Railay was one of the highlights of my trip to Thailand.  Like, the scuba community, rock climbers are incredibly positive and stoked about their craft.  One climber from the US who was climbing that day, confessed to the group nearby, myself included, that he had an extreme fear of heights.  He was physically shaking in fear, but still went for it.  Everyone was so kind and supportive of him.  It was a beautiful human moment to witness. 

Mission impossible style descent

I was climbing with a Dutch dude (kinda a theme on this trip) named Romeo and our Thai guide.  It was just the two of us climbing, so our guide brought us right to the tall climbs and belayed us as we took turns climbing higher, and higher.  I brought my Sony camera with me, so I began taking pictures of the climb.  The Dutch dude offered to take some pics of me on the rocks, so I gave him my camera and turned it to point and shoot.  About halfway up the rock, I looked down and saw him standing waist deep about 15 meters into the ocean.  He looked like a very dedicated wedding photographer - in search of the perfect shot.  It cracked me up.  I focused again on the rock, trying to hoist myself up the last few meter to the top anchor, my forearms were so tired I could barely hold my own weight.  By the end of 4 climbs, I could barely lift my arms.  They felt like spaghetti.

Epic climbing shot taken by Romeo

Each and every morning in Krabi, before the sun rose, there was a loud call to prayer from a Mosque directly next door.  Waking up to a dude singing in your ear is a strange sensation.  Human society is so strange for that matter.  My belief is that humans are just an amazing accident of randomness, a bunch of apes, who managed to create the internet, poorly evolved for the societies we've created, floating through space and hoping to enjoy those sweet, sweet last moments of sleep.  But over many generations, we as an ape-internet community developed the myth of gods, and in one case, the tradition of singing loudly before the sun rises, waking even the hopelessly lost for purpose apes like myself.  To each their own, I suppose.

My main goal in Krabi was to complete my advanced scuba diver certification.  So I found a local dive shop and scheduled the dives.  The experience was sketchy, to say the least, but it was scuba on budget, so I suppose it wasn’t unexpected.  To become certified as an advanced diver, you’re supposed to dive down to 30 meters below sea level, learn how to navigate underwater and select a few specialty dives to train in.

On the deep dive, we went down to 20 meters because, as the instructor explained, that’s as deep as it goes right here, man. My first thought, naturally, was that the ocean is SO big, couldn’t we find a spot a little deeper just over... there?  But we were breathing underwater in the Gulf of Thailand, so the details weren't too important.  On our drift dive, where the goal was to learn to flow with the ocean current, there was no current.  On a fish identification dive, the instructor dropped the ID book in the ocean, so we looked but didn’t identify.  On the underwater photography training dive, I took pictures with my go pro while the divemaster pointed at fish.  On the underwater navigation dive, we swam around a pinnacle clockwise with the instructor in lead, and then I took the lead and swam counter-clockwise around the pinnacle.  I began to get the slight impression that the instructors weren't very prepared for the situation we all found ourselves in.

One part of the course was very cool however.  My instructor brought a bottle of coke underwater to illustrate what happens to a coke bottle under pressure & to show how the color red fades the deeper you go.

March 14 - Krabi Thailand - Journal Entry

I just rode a motorbike 40 minutes to get my tourist visa extended in Thailand.  It was exhilarating and just a little terrifying.  Now I have a looooong time to hang in Thailand.  I’ve been sick the last week or so.  My energy still hasn’t recovered from Phi Phi, but I’m trying my best to feel productive and good about each day.  With this in mind, I’ve been focusing a lot of energy and time toward a mobile app I’m working on, codenamed NoBadDays.  The aim is to build a daily planner app that acts as an accountability partner and helps you prioritize working on your long term goals.  Hoping to get an MVP working ASAP so I can use it to plan my travels and work toward my goals each day.

Early NoBadDays prototype  

I’m planning on staying in Krabi for 10 days to get my advanced open water scuba certification.  Becoming an advanced diver has been on my bucket list for a while now.  I’ve been thinking about how important it is to consider all of the things I want to try / do and act on those feelings.  Often times, while living in Seattle, I felt so stagnant, trapped.  The warm, breezy air, fresh fruit, motorbike rides & sandy beaches are just my tempo right now.  Just gotta keep on living man.  We don’t know how long we have.

Koh Tao - baby shark attack with a couple of Dutch dudes

April 1 - Krabi & Koh Tao  Thailand - Journal Entry

It’s been a while since I journaled last.  A lot has happened since then.  I got certified as an advanced scuba diver.  I saw my instructor drink a coke at 20m below.  I saw the depth-pressure effect on a bag of chips and observed how colors fade in deep water.  I met a girl, while hugging elephants.  A flight attendant with a French accent.  After bathing the elephants in mud, we spent the day together, hiking to a secret beach, taking pictures of baby monkeys & riding together on my motorbike to a night market.  It was a really good day.  Note to self: motorbike rides with cute girls, nature & exercise makes for the best days.

Elephant showing off its trunk

Giving a little TLC to my new friend

Baby monkeys saying hello to each other

Skip this if you're not interested in a bit of in depth (pun intended) scuba diving information

After Krabi, I travelled to Koh Tao.  My friend Jaycee recommended it as her favorite spot in Thailand.  It turned out to be mine as well.  My first 3 days on the island were spent in Emergency First Responder training, e-learning study sessions on decompression sickness and emergency O2 use, and in-water rescue diver training.  I’m now rescue diver certified.  The course was a really cool experience.  I learned about emergency first aid and CPR.  I learned to perform underwater compass guided search patterns to find lost divers and then rescue them if unresponsive.  The lost diver was played diligently by a divemaster trainee named Emily who pretended to be lost, drowning and unconscious all day - I mean honestly Emily, if you can’t swim you probably should’t be a professional scuba diver. 

In the final in-water training activity, I planned out a search pattern in the direction of the last known location of the lost diver.  I then geared up and jumped off the boat to begin the compass guided search pattern.  Once I found the unreponsive diver on the ocean floor (Emily), I slowly inflated my BCD (buoyancy control device) to lift us both slowly to the surface.

Aside: decompression illness and safety stops while scuba diving

When diving in deep water, your body is subject to much higher pressure than on land.  There is a lot of heavy water pressing down on you.  This pressure causes the density of the gas you’re breathing, nitrogen being the important one here, to increase.  Breathing in this much concentrated nitrogen can become extremely dangerous if you follow it by a rapid pressure decrease, like quickly ascending to the surface.  If you do rapidly ascend to the surface after absorbing lots of nitrogen, this nitrogen may expand and form bubbles in your tissues which can be deadly.  The treatment for this is to hop back into an extreme pressure chamber called a hyperbaric or recompression chamber to breath super dense oxygen until your body chills out.  In addition to managing the pressure effect of breathing dense nitrogen, it's important to avoid ascending quickly while holding air in your lungs.  As you ascend, the pressure on your body decreases causing the compressed air in your lungs to expand.  If you're holding your breath, the air in your lungs may over-expand cause your lungs to rupture.

It’s so important to ascend slowly without holding your breath that it’s standard procedure on every dive to perform a safety stop for 3 minutes at a depth of 5 meters below the surface to help your body off-gas the nitrogen absorbed while diving.

So, anyways, now that we've covered the worst-case diving scenarios (I've probably scared you away from scuba diving.. sorry), once we were safely above water with our lungs intact and our nitrogen levels chilling, I stripped both myself and the 'unconscious' Emily of our scuba gear, tanks and BCDs and swam us back to the boat while performing simulated rescue breathing.  Once we reached the boat, I carried Emily up the ladder and began to administer CPR and apply emergency O2.  My instructors name was Olga.  She was kind and super knowledgeable.  The whole process had me considering staying on Koh Tao for a month to train as a divemaster myself… Hopefully someday soon I’ll be back.

In Koh Tao, I stayed at the best hostel of my life: The Dearly Koh Tao Hostel.  I got a private room to have my own space, but the inclusive, positive social energy was tangible.  At breakfast one morning, I met a Dutch dude named Bas, like the rapper (I let him know).   He was also on the island for scuba diving & we connected over that.  He had recently met another Dutch dude named Bram.  Bram had blonde tipped hair and was into Amsterdam clubbing and existentialism, currently reading "The Myth of Sisyphus".  He reminded me a bit of my cousin Danny, who has a tattoo of Sisyphus in his impossible task.  A dude with incredibly chill vibes on a quest to understand a deeper meaning in our existence.  I went snorkeling with the Dutch dudes @ Shark Bay on Koh Tao and followed a beautiful sea turtle as it snacked on the Coral.

Turtle snacking on the coral

While swimming over shallow coral, I felt a sting on my chest.  I looked down, thinking I had scraped Coral, but I was well above the Coral.  Then, I felt another prick on my stomach.  I looked over at the Bas who was swimming with me - he was pointing at something next to me and then began frantically swimming away.  Naturally, this freaked me out, big time.  So I looked where he was pointing and saw a creature about 2 feet long that looked to me like a baby shark.  The place was called Shark Bay after all.  So now I’m also terrified and began speed swimming after Bas, thinking I had just (barely) survived the worlds most minor shark attack.  

Back at the beach, gasping for air from the speedy escape, we told a dude nearby the story.  He laughed at us.  Saying it was probably a sucker fish just trying to clean me.  He was right, of course it wasn’t a shark attack.  I didn’t have a mark on me.  And sharks almost never attack humans.  Bas and were disappointed.  Mostly because we wanted to be survivors of a baby shark attack, but after googling baby sharks and shark attacks - I’m very glad that wasn’t the case.

Sucker fish, not a baby shark

After completing the rescue diver course, my elephant hugging friend came to hang with me on Koh Tao.  We spent the days exploring beaches, snorkeling and eating yummy food.  One local Thai food restaurant named Dee Dee had the spiciest, most delicious and cheapest food I ate in Thailand.  

One day, we took the motorbike to a secluded spot named Mango Bay.  The road there felt like a motocross track with steep declines, broken road, crevices and thin, winding, steep dirt trails.  After surviving the ride there with two people on a motorbike that barely qualified as a scooter, we came to the entrance to the bay.  To get to the beach, we had to climb through and over gigantic boulders hugging the ocean in our flip flops.  Once we finally got to the sand, we were greeted by a big dude who looked just as thankful to be alive as we were.  He was the only person on the beach.  He had fallen on the rocks during the climb in and was bleeding from his leg, but still in high spirits.  He was Israeli and had friends coming to meet him at the beach.  His friends started pouring in, wide-eyed, peaking their heads over the boulders.  They arrived to applause from the other survivors of the journey, half of which were bleeding from various extremities.  The bleeding members of the small beach gathering ended up waiting for boat to rescue them for the journey back.  Not to brag, but I made it in and out without a drop of blood on me.

Boulders of Mango Bay

Koh Phangan - the land of the big pants and moon parties

After Koh Tao, I journeyed to Koh Phangan.  If Koh Tao was land of the divers, Koh Phangan was land of the hippies with big pants perfecting their tantric crafts.  One day, I embraced the yogi culture and joined an acro yoga class.  I spent the afternoon practicing handstands, balancing and being balanced in the air by others.  It was a really cool experience and a lesson in trust.

Acro yoga in action

I spent my time in Koh Phangan working out at a wooden gym on the beach, celebrating the full-moon, and diving with a massive school of barracuda.

Bangkok - squirt gun warfare

After Koh Phangan, I took a flight north to Bangkok where I stayed for 8 nights.  In Bangkok, I explored some of the temples and museums before the craziness of Songkran - the Thai new year celebration began.

Chinatown in Bangkok

I made a new friend with a Thai girl named Furo in Bangkok and spent a few days exploring the city with her.  We joined an electric scooter tour, zooming around Chinatown at night and trying local street food spots.  

We sat gazing out from the 50th floor of a rooftop bar and drinking Aperol spritz.  We walked around the Van Gogh Alive exhibit in downtown and wandered around the biggest malls I’ve ever seen.  

Bangkok skyline from 50th floor

Van Gogh Alive exhibit in Bangkok

Most people I met described Bangkok as overwhelming, but I really liked the city.  Largely due to the brief relief from the loneliness of solo traveling and the insanity of the Songkran water festival, but my strategy to have a comfy private space to escape to worked.  Having a nice spot to just chill and program / read / sleep when I ran out of moving energy was so nice.  

When the Songkran festival came, I joined the Khao San road water fights.  I mounted my GoPro to a big squirt gun and wandered around the streets for hours soaking in the craziness and joining water fights.  The communal, positive vibe of the festival was something to experience.  Both tourists and locals came together and celebrated together in the biggest party I’ve ever been a part of.  It’s hard to imagine the same scene happening back home in the US.

Solo travelling in Japan - onsen & JAPOW

Why Japan?

COVID was rough for me.  Not the sickness part, but the isolation.  After two years working remotely as a software engineer in Seattle, I was feeling burnt out and ready for a change.  I'd spent what felt like my entire life in school then jumped into a professional software engineering job without really considering other options.  And don't get me wrong, I don't regret my recent work experience.  I met some amazing people, made enough money to fund a bit of world traveling, and became confident enough in my technical abilities to leave my job.  Taking a leap of faith,  I quit my job and committed to spending the year traveling in hopes of learning, growing, and connecting with others.

Why Japan?  Well, of every country in the world, the food, culture, hot springs and snowboarding in Japan seemed like a great place to start.  

I decided on Japan first because tickets to the Niseko mountain ski area in Northern Japan were covered by my Ikon snowboarding pass.  So, at the end of January 2023, I bought a one-way ticket to Osaka, Japan.

Osaka: culture shock & a chubby seal

I stepped into a packed Izakaya and asked, in English, if I could order food and a drink.  The man behind the bar stared at me blankly, but ushered me to the last open seat at the bar.  I ordered a beer (which I later found out was basically the same word in Japanese "biru").  Then, realizing that I didn't have any Japanese currency or in fact speak any Japanese, I tried to explain the the man that I needed to get money from an ATM.  I left the restaurant to regroup.  What seemed like a lifetime later, after getting Japanese Yen from an ATM, I couldn't find my way back to the Izakaya.

Chubby seal at Osaka aquarium

Post aquarium, I found a very local Onsen bath house in the outskirts of Osaka. The woman at the front desk spoke zero english. After speaking in foreign languages at each other, she wrote down a number and handed me a small tube of soap and two towels of different sizes. The instructions for what happened next were unclear, but I payed and bowed politely.  We already seemed to be in a changing room of sorts.  So, I proceeded to remove my clothes, all of them, and open the door to the next room. About 15 naked Japanese men looked up at me. The walls all around were covered in Japanese text, which to me, looked more like an abstract art form than a language system. Instructions still unclear. The first bath I tried was scalding. The sauna had a TV inside playing a Japanese show where a panel of people were watching and reacting to watching another TV show.  I didn't understand a word, but it was some of the most entertaining TV shows I've seen.  I couldn't take my eyes of it. The cold plunge felt amazing.  The Onsen culture in Japan is absolutely my pace.  Weeks later, I'm writing this having gone to an Onsen almost every day since.  Hopefully this culture will spread to the states someday.  Traveling in Japan, I'm by far the cleanest I've ever been.

At Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. The cute Japanese girls, in matching outfits and short skirts, in the freezing winter wind were very much present. Standing in the waiting room for a ride with an Asian family, the ride worker gave us a few minute rapid fire spiel on what I assume was the safety instructions for the roller coaster.  I was trying not to laugh at how long the presentation was, given I had no understanding of what she was saying, and it was seemed important for whatever lay on the other side of the doors we were about to pass through.  A boy about my age from the family turned to me and asked, ‘Do you speak Japanese?’ because we didn’t get any of that.  The doors to the ride opened.

Onomichi → Imabari: cycling 🚲 in Japan

My friend Josh recommended the Japanese Shimanami Kaido cycling route to me, saying it was the highlight of his trip to Japan.  So my FOMO kicked in, and I decided, mid-winter that a 100 mile bike trip I hadn't trained for was a good idea.  The route started in Onomichi a small coastal city south of Osaka and ended 50 miles south across a number of islands and suspension bridges.

I arrived just after noon to the bike rental shop in Onomichi.  The man working there was visibly concerned about my nonchalant attitude towards the ride. He was worried (rightfully so it turned out) I wouldn’t make it before the sun set.  He also could hardly believe that I had only planned one day in advance and hadn't yet booked a place to stay for my return journey.  This man was a planner.  

The route was beautiful. I crossed multiple massive suspension bridges, passed orange and lemon orchards, and small, seaside Japanese towns.  The path was clearly marked by a blue line the entire way and mostly clear of vehicle traffic.  The bike rental man was right.  By mile 40 the sun was getting very low in the sky.  I ran out of water and my right leg began cramping.  Then my right kneecap began hurting.  I made it to Imabari just as the sun was setting and ate what seemed like an entire cow at one of those fry your own beef spots.

The next morning, my legs were on fire and my knee was in pain.  I tried cycling out of the city but by the time I reached the outskirts I was grimacing from the pain.  I stopped at a drug store and picked up what, based on the completely foreign symbols, seemed to be ibuprofen and a knee support brace.  But after another few miles, I realized that I wasn't going to make it in this condition.  After a few failed attempts of explaining my need for a taxi that could carry a bike over the phone - which must not be in the phrasebook of basic english, I found myself talking to an incredibly helpful man from a hotel I wasn't staying at.  He coordinated a taxi pickup and drop off at a ferry port near the halfway point of the route, explaining that it would be far cheaper this way than taking a 50 mile taxi back to the starting point.  His kindness and helpfulness amazed me.  It's something I experienced multiple times while traveling in Japan.

My second mistake was deciding to finish the second half of the bike route after the taxi dropped me off near the halfway point.  By then, the pain in my knee was masked by the drugs I'd taken and I'd convinced myself I was fine.  Limping weeks later, that turned out not to be the case.

Kyoto: temples and cool bars

I made it to Kyoto.  At Buddhist temple, I lit a prayer candle for ‘success in love’. It was a close call between that and ‘find a good job’ or even more specifically, ‘traffic safety’.  Now, reflecting from Thailand while riding a rented motorcycle to explore the coastal beaches of Phuket, 'traffic safety' doesn't seem nearly as funny of a prayer candle as it seemed at the time.   

I met a super nice Japanese dude named Jin in this record themed bar. He barely spoke any English, and I speak no Japanese, so I started using the Google Translate app to facilitate the conversation. It worked surprisingly well. We talked about music. He likes hip-hop. His favorite song is ‘Just Wanna Rock’ - Lil Uzi Vert. He brought me to another spot that played loud hip hop music and was filled with smoke. We met some Australian dudes there. One of the guys was a photographer who couldn’t get over how popular he was on Bumble in Japan. The Japanese girls really dug his look. A different Kyoto local agreed - he looked very good.

At one bar, the bartenders wore monocles and top hats and were mixing drinks with fire, smoke and careful deliberation.  I asked the two Japanese girls next to me if they spoke any english.  One was an english teacher, the other did not.  The girl who spoke no english was a photographer and showed me some of here recent photos.  They were amazing.  The moments she captured were so clear and colorful and frozen in time.  Seeing her photos convinced me to search for a camera of my own once I got to Tokyo.

Of all the temples I visited in Kyoto.  The Fushimi Inari Taisha were the highlight. They seemed to go on forever.  More than anything, the sheer work that was required to erect the thousands of closely spaced shrines is astonishing.  If my knee was in better condition, I would've loved to have walked through the shrines for hours, but the incline and decline of the hike was painful, so my visit was short.

Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto

Tokyo: neon lights

Shinjuku City in Tokyo is wild. Neon lights up the nighttime streets.  Music blasts from LED billboards, even on compact Japanese semi trucks driving by.  Everything is designed to stimulate you and draw your attention.

Rainy night in Tokyo

I wanted to capture the lights, motion and spectacle of it all, so I began my search for a digital camera.  The first store I tried carried Sony cameras, which was the goal of my search. Both the Australian and the non-english speaking Japanese photographer I'd met in Kyoto had recommended Sony cameras as the best, specifically the alpha 7 models.  I trusted the Australians judgement.  He was, after all, very popular with the local girls.  The store clerk informed me that the Sony cameras they carried were 'only for native speakers', with the firmware hardcoded to Japanese.  Seeing as I barely knew how to operate a high-end digital camera in English, that wasn't going to work.  It turns out that 'only in Japanese' became a frequent pattern on this trip.

At a larger department store nearby, I finally found an employee who spoke some english. He was a photographer as well. Perfect. With Fuchigami as my guide, I purchased a Sony digital camera, a nice one, and some basic camera gear, so I spent the next 3 days wandering around Tokyo and taking pictures.   Here are some of my favorites.

Fuchigami, the world's best camera salesmen

City view from the Tokyo Skytree

Tsukiji Fish Market - Wagyu beef

Hakodate: taste of celebrity

Vending machines in Hakodate

After Tokyo, I started my journey to the snow country in the North.  On the bullet train, I made it most of the way across the country in a few hours.  The speed and stability of the Shinkansen is something to behold.  Before making my way to Sapporo, the capitol of the north, I stopped in the smaller city of Hakodate hoping that another couple days in the Onsen would help nurse my injured knee back into snowboarding condition.  

Because walking, which it turns out is a major part of traveling, was now difficult, I'd been spending a lot of time in internet cafes, reading, writing & brainstorming some new programming ideas.  Starbucks in Japan is like an oasis for the weary tourist.

At one of these lush watering holes, with a matcha donut and Cappuccino in hand, I had a funny experience.  The following is from my journal, remembering that day:

Sunday February 12 - Starbucks, Hakodate Japan - Journal Entry

The funniest thing just happened to me.  I found a spot on the second floor of the Starbucks in this town.  I took out my laptop and was doing some reading, browsing, and journaling.  Two Japanese girls sit down on the bench table next to me.  For the next hour, I get the sense that they're watching me very closely.  Each time I get up to get a coffee or use the bathroom, their whispering stops and they stare without staring.  At semi regular intervals, they switch sides of the bench they're sitting on, in what I assume in retrospect was an attempt to catch my attention, just from the sheer motion of it all.  

So at this point, I'm thinking, as you probably are, that I'm just over caffeinated and imaging this, or at least the intensity of it.  But then I sit down and look over at them and they're just full on staring at me.  So I say 'hi' and ask if they speak any English to diffuse the stare a little bit.  They shake their heads no and giggle.  And then, seeming to surprise herself, one of them asks in broken english if they can take a picture with me.  I say yes, of course - laughing, so they both take their phones out and take selfies with me.  The girl who asked to take the pictures was clearly embarrassed by the boldness of her question.  Her hand was shaking.  Totally messing with the selfie.  So I took her phone and got a selfie worthy of my newfound celebrity.  After the photo op, they both just stay crouched right next me.  Staring at me.

Celebrity level of admiration (without cause) mixed with a massive language barrier was very unfamiliar territory for me.  So, over caffeinated and unsure how to handle this situation I find myself in, I begin packing up my things.  While packing, I get the sense that the girls are also in uncharted waters, possibly realizing that I'm not actually a celebrity or maybe just frozen in hopes that the situation will diffuse on its own.  I smile, laugh at the strangeness of the situation and wave myself back into the desert.  The frozen winter that is.

Sapporo: post cold-plunge clarity

Intersection in Sapporo

In Sapporo, I stayed at a hotel with an Onsen occupying the entire 3rd floor.  My days were spent ordering gyoza, spicy ramen from the Ramen alley and Sapporo beer, then cycling between hot baths and cold plunges.  I feel like if there is a heaven, days would be similar up there.  On the last day in Sapporo, I rented a car to make the drive to the Niseko ski area.  Pulling out of the Toyota rental car lot into the snowy left lane with google maps narrating the Japanese directions was a driving experience I don't think I'll forget.

Snowy road to Niseko

Niseko: powder

Niseko Powder from the Summit

Tuesday February 21, Kutchan Japan - Journal Entry

Today was one of the best days I remember having in a while.  Kind of, almost, maybe a perfect day.  I woke up, cooked bacon & eggs for breakfast with fresh coffee in the lil' kitchenette in my place.  I got to the Hirafu gondola early and found a wild first run.  High speed, through the untouched powder and into the trees.  It felt like surfing.  Frictionless.  I was on a serious adrenaline high back at the lift line and struck up a conversation with another boarder, complimenting his snowboarding, saying it looked like a surf board - it did.  He was also riding solo, and after chatting for a bit, he offered to show me some of his favorite spots on the mountain.  For the next few hours, we took lifts up to their highest drop off points, then continued on foot uphill for another 20 minutes or so to different summits.  We rode insane powder run after insane powder run.  It was amazing and exhausting.  The best snowboarding of my life, so far.

We stopped for a meal on the mountain (I ordered my favorite gyoza, Sapporo, ramen combo).  After eating, a cute asian girl approached me as I was strapping back in.  She said she'd noticed me in the restaurant looking for a seat, and knowing how hard solo traveling can be, was trying to get my attention to offer me a place to sit at her table.  For some reason, I thought she was offering me her entire table, which I thought was strange, seeing as I was fully geared and about to ride down the hill, and no longer inside the restaurant.  But I soon realized, as an empath, that the details didn't matter, she was interested in me.  We exchanged numbers and she invited me to get ramen with her that night at her favorite spot in the ski town of Kutchan nearby.

After boarding, I went to an Onsen 30 minutes away from the mountain and bathed in an outdoor bath surrounded by snow.

So, little aside, I have social anxiety.  Especially when it comes to dating and planned socializing.  It's a strange thing.  Going to dinner with this girl is something I wanted to do, but the thought of it made me so anxious.  It's like a preemptive self sabotage I do, where instead of excitement I feel fear.  This is something I'm working on in my life both through therapy and just putting myself into these situations.  It was also a motivating factor for going solo traveling in the first place.  A jump into the deep end of sorts.

So, anyways, the ramen was amazing, the girl was super kind and it was a great experience.  C'mon @brain.  She had just traveled through Thailand and recommended some cool places to visit (that's where I'm heading next).

Overall, I feel like I connected with the world around me today in ways that I rarely do.  I felt very alive.  Do what you love and try your best to connect with people along the way.

A couple days later, I met up with the snowboarder riding a surfboard, the one who likes to hike.  So we did more hiking uphill, in the freezing cold wind far past where the highest lifts will take.  On one particularly back-country-esk route down, the dude fell into a crevice in the snow that was melted away by a hot spring running under the snow.  He was going fast and gapped the six or so feet before slamming into the far wall of the pit.  He twisted his leg, likely just a sprain of some kind, but it was scary and could've been much worse.  He was able to ride the rest of the way down so I gave him a ride back to his car.  After many apologies on his end for messing with my day of riding, we parted ways.  That was the end of his ski trip.  I was just glad his injury wasn't worse.  Careful out there 👀.

Japan: some thoughts

Some essential Japanese phrases I learned along the way:
"sumimasen, watashi wa nihongo o hanasemasen" - sorry I don't speak Japanese
“nama biru kudasai” - draft beer please
“domo arigato gozaimasu” - thank you very much
"taihen oishikattadesu" - it was delicous
"o kaikei onegai shi-masu" - the bill, please
"hai" - yes
"ohayo" - good morning
Everything is very exact in Japan from the bus and train times to the inventory of items required when sending a packing internationally.  I found out the latter after having to repack my souvenirs and winter gear multiple times to get the correct Yen values and item descriptions on the customs forms, and then having to remove any items with batteries once the box was taped up and ready to go. My package was then flagged by the x-ray machines in the post office for having a small packet inside which wasn't listed on the item descriptions.  This delayed the whole process significantly.  It turned out to be a packet of spices buried in the grocery store box I was using for the shipment.  The whole process took so long, that even the post office workers were laughing by the 4th or so time I was reopening the taped up box to restart the process again.  But it was just the way things worked there.

A psychotherapist I met while snowboarding in Niseko explained to me that Japanese people are very overworked, but productivity in the work is very low.  This, in her view, is because people in Japan don't ask for help.  The take their burden of work solely as their own because they don't want to bother others, even at their own detriment or when help is needed.  This is actually something that I can relate to.  I often find it hard to ask for help.  I think I'd fit into this part of the culture If I was ever to live in Japan.

The Japanese people I encountered were the kindest, most polite and respectful people I've ever met.  Refueling my car at a gas station, the well dressed attendant bowed and thanked me multiple times "arigato gozaimasu, arigato gozaimasu"  before walking behind my car to the exit and ensuring that I made it back onto the road safely.