Monthly Archives: October 2012

Bumming Around New Zealand

Heading south to Fiordland and Milford Sound.

As you can probably deduce from the title of this blog, one of the things I love to do most is roam around. You could probably go as far as saying I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to a good ol’ fashioned road trip. No matter if it’s a simple overnighter somewhere around home or a larger undertaking like going internationally, I love hitting the road with an open slate as an itinerary. As a matter of fact, as of this very moment, I’m lounging about here on a rainy night in a campervan on the the South Island of New Zealand in a tiny seaside hamlet called Portabello.

Once again, we’ve opted to get out and do some exploring on our own and not plunk ourselves too much into the mainstream of tourist haunts and hotels. Granted, New Zealand is an island, a rather small one, so it’s not like we’re breaking new ground on some untapped territory. However, as we’ve been cavorting around in our self contained turbo diesel campervan, it “seems” like a big adventure even though we’re on paved roads…for the most part anyhow (shhhhhh, don’t tell Britz!).

Most of the places we’ve been camping have been quaint family owned holiday parks overlooking alpine lakes, the southern alps, the fiords and like today, here on the beaches of the east coast. The beauty of this style of travel has been that before we left to fly half way round the world, the only reservation we had to make outside of airline tickets was for this campervan. When we landed in Christchurch we had absolutely no idea where we’d go, how far we’d go or how long we’d stay at a given spot. Pretty easy to “plan” for a trip like that!

The first order of business after leaving the campervan hire place in Christchurch was figuring out how to drive on the left hand side of the road — in a  fair sized campervan no less. The other key part of driving was getting used to the steering wheel being on the right side of the car, instead of on the left like back in Colorado. Oh, and lest I forget to mention that all the driver’s controls are positioned completely backward from what I’m accustomed to.

My first test with all this driving newness came straight away in the form of a busy roundabout, about one kilometer in. We have lots of roundabouts in Colorado, but they go anti-clockwise, not clockwise — and we drive on the right hand side of the road —- and our steering wheel is on the left. Anxious, but not about to let this get the better of me, I employed the dive in head first methodology like I do most everything in life and just went for it.

I did manage to look right instead of left as I merged into the busy roundabout so things started off well enough. It seemed to be going well until I read one of the signs that indicated I needed to bail out at the 3/4 around mark. I flipped the turning indicator, ooops, nope, that was the windscreen wiper…oh shit, my exit point was coming up fast…found the turn indicator but the windscreen wipers were still going at full tilt….oh shit, which mirror should I look out?!?!?….cars coming at me from every direction….whew, windscreen wipers back under control…THERE’S MY evac point…get the correct turn indicator on and make a move…made it.

After we got through I thought about a friend of ours from London who says to never use your turning indicators in busy roundabouts because that’ll let the bastards know what you’re up to! I think I used both indicators in my effort, but in random fashion so essentially it was the same as not using them at all since I’m sure nobody knew where I was going at any time!

Before I patted myself on the back too much, I figured all the kind Kiwis who were in the roundabout saw the Britz Campervan Hire decals emblazoned on the side of our van and just got the hell out of the way. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the real key to my first successful soiree into the clockwise direction roundabouts.

The lady at the campervan hire place also told us that we should stop at a supermarket there in Christchurch to get our staple food items because we’d find them far more expensive once we were out in the country. She gave us good directions but she failed to mention the supermarket shared a car park with New Zealand’s equivalent of Home Deport. It was a complete zoo in the car park and I was still reeling from the harrowing roundabout adventure just a few blocks prior. We did escape the supermarket without hitting another vehicle while maneuvering our van’s massif around those tight quarters so that was a another success. Fortunately it wasn’t long after that until we cleared the city and hit the motorway where we were somewhat free of busy intersections, roundabouts and car parks.

It took a few kilometers after leaving the business of Christchurch before my butt cheeks released the upholstery on the driver’s seat, but once it did we could finally start thinking about which direction we wanted to go. One option was to go straight down the coast and try and make Dunedin on our first night.  However, the nice girl on reception at the campervan place said it’d definitely be a “less amazing” place to start so we should head west into the Alps as soon as possible. Being a mountain boy at heart, I liked that option, a lot. We consulted our road map, located what looked to be a small country road heading directly into the mountains and headed west.

Our first night in the van was along the shores of Lake Tekapo. We had the broad overview of how all the systems worked in the van before we left, but implementing those things wasn’t quite as seamless as the representative made it look. We seemed clunky trying to cook, move around inside the van, figuring out how to stow this and that and how to switch from “living arrangements” to “sleeping arrangements”. Couple that up with the exhaustion from the stress of driving in a new system and it didn’t take long after having one beer before we were nestled away and fast asleep.

From there we got further into the Alps and we started finding ourselves in places like Lake Pukaki, Wanaka, Twizel and various others incredibly scenic areas as we headed south down toward Queenstown. To be such a small island, New Zealand simply seems larger than life. We’re from Colorado and are very accustomed to seeing gigantic, snowcapped mountains and vast plains stretching as far as the eye can see, but the landscape here is so lush, so big, so, so mind bogglingly beautiful that it almost strangles our ability to process it. I know this sounds cliche, but every time we’d round a corner the scenery would change. I honestly can’t ever remember using the word “wow” more in my life!

From our camp overlooking Lake Pukaki and Mt Cook.

Thinking that we had fallen into some dreamland where everything is perfect, we continued south on down to Queenstown. Our original thought was that we’d stay there for a while and do some exploring, hiking, paddling or whatever struck our fancy. So many people had chatted up how amazing it was and how we were going to “love it” that we actually allocated more time in our travels to make sure we gave it it’s due. Well, it didn’t quite pan out that way.

Queenstown is indeed one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth, there is no argument about that at all. Queenstown is also a tourist mecca where people come to jump off bridges, race around pristine glacial lakes in 1,000-horsepower jet boats, climb higher, go faster, blah, blah, blah then sit around in the evening and have penis and bicep measuring contests with all their friends to make sure they’re up to standard with everyone else. This also happens in Colorado during tourist season but it didn’t soften the blow of arriving there and finding the same thing half way around the globe. Silly and a bit disappointing to be honest, for us anyhow.

And of course Queenstown, like any other respectable tourist destination, has any number of fashionable boutique hotels and  spendy restaurants to take your money…all your money. One night we were walking back to our campervan parked just outside of the main town centre and we passed one of those little boutique hotels along the way. It was super cute for sure but you could just tell that it wouldn’t take much to drop some serious coin for a night’s stay there. As we walked by, we both thought about Chris Farley and his old Saturday Live skit when he played the out of work motivational speaker and had the tag line, “I’m livin’ in a van, down by the river“. Well guess what, we were “livin’ in a van, down by the river“! If you haven’t seen it, YouTube it!

Later that night, as we sat in our van, down by the river (seriously), we decided we’d seen quite enough of Queenstown after only a few hours and we’d leave first thing the next morning in search of quieter, less testosterone laced places. By 09:00 the next day, we were headed further south to check out a range of mountains called the Remarkables, then on down to Fiordlands and Milford Sound.

The longer we’ve stayed on the road, the more efficient we’ve become with setting up and taking down our campervan. We found the systems of “living” that’ve worked and kept those, and conversely, figured out which systems didn’t work and abandoned those. We’re living very comfortably now with very little. We’ve kept our “plans” simple and never gotten too far ahead with thinking out too many days forward — just live in the day and figure out tomorrow when it gets here. Essentially we’ve gone from living in a 350 square metre home back in Colorado to living in a 14 square metre “home” here in New Zealand. Despite that precipitous drop in living space, there was ironically no drop in happiness, wants or needs.

I just thought about a quote I once found that said something like “I can’t think of anything more sad than becoming accustomed to living a life of luxury“. I have to agree.

Yeah, I love road trips of all kinds, especially international road trips, for the very reason of simplicity. They don’t require much planning per se, they are generally quite cheap and you get to meet amazingly fun (i.e. genuine) and like minded people along the way. I sometimes dream of going out on a perpetual road trip in order to maintain this level of simplicity forever. My friends Brenda and CeCe bought an Airstream http://www.greenrvlife.com/ kitted it out with environmentally friendly products and are driving all over the US and Canada to show just how easy it is to live a nomadic life in an eco-friendly way. My friends down here in Australia who bought and Airstream http://airstreamfamily.com.au/ packed up their entire family and are roaming around for a while. What an education for those kids! I even met a couple from England last year when I was bumming around Nepal who were taking two years off and are traveling the world (they were currently in a beat up old Land Cruiser) — homeschooling their two kids as they went. And of course there’s my good friend Kevin back in Albuquerque who has spent his entire life roaming the American West looking for whitewater, fresh powder and sweet singletrack in a tricked out 1987 VW Vanagon. Oh, the stories I could tell about camping at ski resort car parks in Kevin’s Vanagon!

I love roaming around, I love living simply and I love becoming part of where I go…and letting where I go become part of me. I love waking up in places that even Donald Trump can’t afford to buy like National Parks and remote lakes with towering peaks reflecting off glass smooth water. I love cooking amazing meals on a tiny gas stove. I love sitting in a camp chair drinking Nescafe out of travel cup while I ponder a map and figure out what to do next. EVen on a smaller scale back home, I love skiing hard in the backcountry with my friends then coming back to cook fajitas on the tailgate of my truck. I love having all my possessions and all my needs contained in one tidy little van or truck. Less is definitely more and it’s why I love living simply.

Today we drove close to 350 kilometers from the Fiordlands of the west coast over to the east coast and then up to the Otago Peninsula. We spent the afternoon walking along the beach looking for blue penguins, spotting a few Royal Albatross’, taking photos of gulls and seals and now here we are in a secluded little valley, again, listening to it rain while we drink hot tea and coffee in the confines of our little van.

Tomorrow I think we’ll move up the coast toward Oamaru with hopes of finding some yellow eyed penguins. Or maybe we’ll find something else on the map and go there.

Moeraki Boulders near Moeraki, New Zealand

I can’t think of a better way to explore a new country than to simply buy a road map, hire a campervan and set off on our own with no plan whatsoever. I love being on the road. I love New Zealand. I love being on the road in New Zealand.

Ski fast. Pedal hard. Climb high. Run far. Live big.

Advertisements

Investments, Balance, Compound Interest

Some shrewd businessmen ready to negotiate some future interest payments in Landruk, Nepal.

My first paying gig was probably for something like mowing the lawn at my family’s house or helping my grandparents feed cows on their farm. I’m pretty sure I was paid some exorbitant amount like $0.50 USD for a day’s worth of work. But regardless of the remuneration received, I’d save part of it. I’ve always been a saver.  Funny, just this very second I thought back about that paper savings “passbook” I had when I was a kid. The bank teller would hand write my hefty deposits in the appropriate column then hand it back to me where I’d oooooh and ahhhh over the official-ness of the document. And then, on the day when I’d see the word “interest earned”, well, let’s just say for a fervent saver, seeing an extra $0.25 USD for  doing absolutely NOTHING was nothing short of euphoric!

When I got to university my path of study took a dizzyingly circuitous route, but eventually I was able to focus long enough to settle on two degrees and two minors (started in architecture but settled on finance, accounting — minors in mathematics and interior design). The truth of the matter is that I first gutted out accounting classes long enough to accumulate sufficient credits to graduate. That route seemed the path of least resistance at the time, but soon the thought of scribbling numbers in little boxes for the rest of my life made me want to stab my eyes out.

By dumb luck, I’d accumulated quite a few credit hours in finance and that seemed to have more outside-the-box concepts and thinking attached to it. Therefore, I stayed an extra semester and wrapped up that degree too. Maybe it was still the thought of all that magical compound interest on investments that lured me onto the rocks like a siren of the sea and I changed career aspirations…or the fact I ran out of tuition money and needed to graduate, pronto…or just decided I needed to quit eating boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese so much.

My favourite finance professor’s name was Dr. Oris Odom. Stodgy and finance-esque on the outside, but uber cool dude at heart. Wicked smart too. On our last day of classes, I, along with a few fellow students invited Dr. Odom to the local pub to have a beer and thank him for being what I still consider the most influential academic educators I’ve ever had, ever. In those final conversations I eventually asked Dr. Odom if he has any sage investment advice for us aspiring financiers as we headed out into the cold, cruel world. His response was just as succinct and prophetic as his lectures. He said, “Yes. Never invest in anything you have to feed or put gasoline in”.

And with that, I entered life after university.

Now, almost three decades later, the path through my work career has been just about as circuitous as my journey through university was. Initially, I jumped right into the finance world, made some solid dinero, drove the “right car”, lived in the “right” neighbourhood, invested diligently (just like I always had), prostituted myself to The Man and clawed my way up the corporate ladder and not surprisingly…was miserable as hell.

It didn’t take long before my Libra, ENFP (Myers-Briggs) personality started rebelling against this lopsided, unbalanced life and we decided to make a huge leap of faith. We quit our jobs, sold everything and moved to Colorado. We took massive pay cuts (but we still invested and saved a portion of what we made!), knew absolutely no one out here other than ourselves and had no clue what the outcome of the adventure would be. It was the perfect scenario for making a new start on investing in life, not just in the financial accounts.

It didn’t take long to realize that when it comes to the important things in life, less is really more. Colorado fit our lifestyle and philosophies and soon we had more true friends than we’d ever had. We actually enjoyed our jobs since our employers professed and practiced the principle of work/life balance. We eventually caught back up to the salaries we left behind but this time it was different…we’d found the life balance so making the money didn’t seem as though it was bowing to The Man anymore.

We’ve always been travelers and we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunities to go gallivanting all over the globe as we have. I guess you could say we’ve “invested” a lot of time doing this. Granted, our style of travel isn’t suited to everyone since we eschew “tour” or “group” type things and strike off on our own with not much more than a passport, a handful of plane tickets and a backpack. We feel comfortable being uncomfortable, so it works. The other nice thing we’ve found about our travel style has been we spend very, very little money. Some people feel it reckless and awful, I say efficient and adventurous. Small investment with huge payoff potential. For you finance geek types, this probably has a beta of 1.5+ with high, short term volatility potential.

So, just like the money I sock away each payday, I also invest heavily in the world of world travel and in experiences and the interaction with different cultures and people. My passport is now my paper “savings passbook” of old. Every stamp in my passport is another investment in my life account. The most amazing thing about investing in travel off the beaten path is the enormous amount of compound interest I earn. I have a “life”investment account bulging with DNA changing experiences, friends all over the world, multiple languages, crazy foods, silly stories, etc. etc.  The payoffs for the small dollar travel investments have been staggeringly high.

I check in on my financial things from time to time to make sure I’m still on the right track, but there’s not a day goes by where I don’t think about my investments in the places I’ve seen and the things I’ve experienced in my travels. I use those experiences in my everyday life. When I think things seem hectic or chaotic at work, I think no further than about how chaotic it was wading through the throngs of shouting people in Kathmandu as we tried to buy a ticket for a “locals bus” when I didn’t speak the language and had not a clue how the process worked. You just figure stuff out and not get all lathered up over shit you don’t immediately have the answer to or likely can’t control.

I also like getting those travel interest payments when I least expect them. Sometimes when I’m in an Asian or Mexican supermarket here in Colorado I’ll see or hear something that will take me back to a specific place in my travels and the memory will be just as vivid as the day it happened.  My favourite place is still Pacific Ocean Market. The strange letters and symbols on all the products, the smells, the languages….ah, it takes me back to Asia every single time. I could, and do, spend hours in the there just walking around collecting interest payments on prior travel investments.

What made me think about all this was last week when I was at work and everyone in our department was having a lunch to celebrate the retirement of a lady who’d been employed there for almost 20 years. Yikes, that’s like me — 20 years! The good thing is everyone in my department is pretty awesome and I actually like going to work most days and hanging out with them. Again, I vowed back in the day to never to be miserable in a job, ever again, and I’ve held to that.

My boss’s boss, Rob, is a very, very smart dude and I assume has done very well for himself in his career (I’ll just bet he’s a saver too). I’ve worked for lots of smart people in my life but unfortunately some of them have been so snooty about their book intelligence they failed in the interpersonal and life skills arena. Maybe they walked the same path I did right out of university, clawing their way up the ladder, but weren’t able to jump off before they got too high to turn back. Fortunately, Rob is not one of these people. He’s someone who from the first day I interviewed with him I knew there was something groovy about him. I just had that feeling in my gut. And we’ve talked off and on over the years about all kinds of stuff but it wasn’t until this retirement luncheon where I finally knew where that gut feeling about him came from.

Rob and I were sitting next to each other while we ate and were talking about a couple of friends of mine who are currently cycling around the world investing in their own life experience accounts (Emily Chappell, http://thatemilychappell.com and Eleanor Moseman, www.wandercyclist.com). Check them out, seriously. Anyhow, he then told me about a family member of his who was planning a cycling trip from here in North America down to the tip of South America. Super cool adventure and naturally my mind drifted off to scheming something like that for myself, but I digress. All of a sudden, he got this deep, contemplative look in his eyes, a look that maybe something he hadn’t thought about in a while was paying some interest on his experience account. Maybe the teller had written in his “experience savings passbook” and handed it back to him!

After he humourously contemplated whether the statute of limitations had sufficiently passed and it was now safe to talk, he proceeded to tell me this amazing story about how back in the day he and a friend had once bought a Datsun B210 for $500 USD, packed it with beer and fly rods and drove from Colorado out to California, up the coast all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska…and back. As he recounted many of the stories from this adventure, I could see the fire in his eyes burning hotter and hotter with every word as he obviously took himself back to the trip. Man, I just love seeing the payoff of those experiences continue years after the initial adventure was made, still earning enormous interest on that small investment in simplicity. It’s like digging through a forgotten chest in the attic and discovering some old, dusty war bonds your grandma had bought a hundred years ago and are now worth a fortune.

I like Rob. I knew there was something about him all along and I was stoked I got to share in that unexpected interest payment.

On Dr Odom’s advice, we’ve generally not invested in things that require gasoline or need to be fed and things have turned out quite well. More importantly though, we’ve managed to invest heavily in travel and kept our life portfolio well diversified and can now reap some valuable dividends — compounded daily.

I think it’s about time to open a new account and invest in some more far away travel.

Roam around. Ski fast. Pedal hard. Climb high. Live big.

Wax On, Wax Off

Me at Vail Pass late last season.

It was definitely on the chilly side of things here this past weekend. Snow showers, freezing drizzle, low clouds, brilliantly yellow and pumpkin coloured leaves, frost in the mornings…quintessential Colorado in autumn. With this distinct feel of fall firmly in the air, my official transition from thinking solely about riding singletrack on my mountain bike into thinking about backcountry powder turns on my teles has begun.

My buddy Jason returned a week or so ago from Alaska, where for the past couple of summer climbing seasons he’s been a mountain guide in the Wrangell-St Elias Range. We’ve now spent some quality time catching up from each other’s summer activities and it’s been great to hear all about climbing in Alaska and his newest projects related to his return to grad school to pursue a master’s degree in art. But most exciting was when he said he had a strong desire to spend more time in the backcountry this winter…on teles! I think I may have actually teared up when he said it. Sniff, sniff.

With the seeds of potential adventures blossoming before they’d even been properly planted and watered, we got to the business of researching gear and getting him outfitted. No, there’s not enough snow to ski just yet, but that’s beside the point — it was cold, there was talk of backcountry tele turns, there was beer, there was more talk of gear — ample reason enough to start daydreaming.

The plan was he would look for some good used gear for this season so he could make sure he would like it before investing a ton of money. I appreciate his logical and responsible thought process, but I know from my own telemark addict point of view that that’s like saying, “Yes, I would like a sample of chocolate ice cream served on that impossibly miniature spoon and I will make a responsible and well thought out caloric minded decision later whether to buy the three gallon tub and a ladle with which to eat it”. In my world, getting a free sample is essentially a cheap way to get EXTRA ice cream before the commitment you know is coming forthwith. Same with getting six or eight “tasters” at the local pub before making a decision on the 16oz size, Just sayin….but I digress. Basically this would be Jason’s first sip of the Telemark Kool-Aid.

One afternoon shortly after this big news from Jason, we scoured Craigslist and a few other local telemark forums looking for just the right deal. Being Colorado and being full of good skiers with good gear, there are generally always a lot of options out there. However, after exhausting every ad post in a three state region, nothing eye-popping was jumping out.

Disappointed but not deterred, we quit looking for a while and decided to watch some ski porn (Flakes by Powderwhore Productions) to keep the stoke up and the spirits high. Just as the movie ended and we’d decided to go over to Big Choice Brewing http://www.bigchoicebrewing.com/ for a sample of their newly tapped Double IPA, we checked Craiglist one more time and viola!, there was a brand new listing with a lot of promise to be just what Jason was looking for. We knew it must be a good sign given that the skis were aptly named Work Stynx AND given the universal understanding that the worst day on skis is better than the best day at work. But again, I digress.

Jason shot the guy a response as we left for Big Choice. Within one sip, he got a text back from the guy who was selling the skis and we agreed to meet within the hour to take a look. Long story short, the skis worked out, the deal was done and we had them (along with climbing skins included!) in my truck in short order.

The skis were indeed used and showed a little wear, especially given the fact that last season was miserably awful and most everyone’s skis took a beating on the thin snowpack. Still, there was nothing overwhelmingly tragic about the scratches on the bases or nicks on the edges. The Black Diamond O2 bindings looked relatively new so that was a bonus. I swear, the feeling of getting that first pair of teles is equivalent to getting your first, elementary school kiss from the popular girl. I still have my first tele setup (K2 Public Enemy skis mounted with the classic red G3 Targa bindings) and love them just as much as I did when I brought them home. They too were used when I acquired them but are still in the quiver as my marginal snow condition skis (read:rock skis) — and still going strong.

Anyhow, during a chilly mountain bike ride yesterday morning, where I thought about skiing constantly as I looked out over the snowcapped high peaks, I decided when I got back home I’d take a closer look at Jason’s newly purchased skis and form a plan of action for getting them in top form and ready for the season.

As I mentioned before, they were a little scratched and well used but nothing too serious at all. Well, before I knew it, I’d poured myself a travel mug full of strong coffee and had my entire tuning system set up in the garage.

I spent the next couple of hours in heaven. I love having gear and love knowing how to properly take care of it even more. You get personally invested when you can build and/or take care of your own stuff. Just like building my mountain bike last winter. I’ve never had so much fun riding until I actually built my own bike. Its part of me and every pedal stroke is personal. I turned every bolt and tightened every nut so it’s now part of my soul. Same with my skis. I tune them and take care of them with the same care I would a Bonsai Tree, carefully minding every detail. I’ve always had a long standing agreement with my gear — I take care of them, they take care of me.

I know the original plan was to wait until Jason came over in the next couple of weeks so he could start the process of learning all the fun stuff about ski maintenance and start to build his relationship with his new skis, but I got caught up in the moment and subsequently got carried away. I wound up doing it all.

Again, I love this first rush of ski stoke in the fall. Perhaps when he comes over we can strip off all the wax and start over. Maybe it can be like the process Mr. Miyagi developed in Karate Kid…wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off. Perfection through mindful repetition and visualisation. Zen skiing.

What may have been the best thing about getting in that first ski tuning sesh of the year was when I walked out into the garage this morning and got in my truck. It still smelled of melted ski wax! It still smelled that way when I got to work! I love it! I’ll rank that sensation right up there with smelling freshly roasted green chiles in my truck for days after we buy three or four bushels from our local chile vendor and transport them home.

Ah yes, the 2012-2013 winter season is loading and I simply cannot wait. I can’t wait for the first day I turn up at a car park somewhere in the backcountry and feel that stinging bite of cold on my cheeks and hear that first crunch of snow under my skis as we set off to climb our way up some ridge.

But alas, for now there’s still some dry singletrack to be ridden and some travel to faraway places to be done.

Wax on, wax off……..free your heel, free your mind.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal Hard. Travel far. Live big.

Books, The Real Ones

I love to read and I read constantly. Every single day I’ll try at the very least to read the headlines and maybe a few stories from my staple sources such as Al Jazeera (English version), BBC, NY Times and The Bangkok Post. Oh, and sometimes I might look at CNN if I’m curious what front page headline worthy story there is about Lindsey Lohan’s latest social escapades — you know, real world news. Of course I would be burdened with 10 kilos of paper every morning if I actually subscribed to and had these delivered to my home, so unfortunately most of my daily reading is done online. However, I do actually have a physical copy of the NY Times with me most days thanks to my employer’s subscription. Yes, I do the crosswords. No, I can’t always finish them, but sometimes I do.

One of my favourite things when traveling is to grab a local newspaper from the city I’m in and start from the first word on page one and read through to the last word on the last page. I’ll occasionally even grab newspapers printed in Korean, Spanish, Italian, Thai, Nepali or Hindi if I see them just to look at the different symbols and languages, especially Asian languages. Silly? Maybe. But I like it so I do it. At least the Spanish ones I can read through for the most part. I love different perspectives on familiar stories and hopefully I never find myself thinking in the horribly narrow views as seen through the filtered eyes of US news sources.

So yes, I love to read and yes, a lot of what I read is online simply because I cannot get my hands on the physical publications of the things I like to read. I unfortunately haven’t seen too many Al Jazeera newspaper boxes outside of Starbucks or Amante Coffee here in Colorado.

The one place I haven’t compromised the physical element of my reading materials is with books, especially when traveling. As cutting edge and convenient as friends and advertisers make it out to be, I just can’t acquiesce and procure a Kindle, iPad or Tablet (or whatever the gadget de jour is), even with the knowledge that it can store hundreds, if not thousands of books in one tidy little place. Efficient? Yes. Almost cost effective? Possibly. Appealing? No.

Now, as I’m making ready to set off for more far away travel in the coming weeks, I find myself looking for books to help me while away the hours during the mind numbing hours of flight time. As such, I’ve been collecting a few books to take along. I know some people can turn up at the airport fifteen minutes before departure and dash into an overpriced newsstand and grab a crappy novel with Fabio on the cover and a stack of those excessively cerebral celebrity gossip magazines and  be satisfied.

I’m not one of those people. I have to put thought into my reading materials and I’ll honestly spend weeks thinking about what I want to read during my travel time. I’ll spend hours querying my friends from all over the world, researching topics and endlessly perusing the shelves of my local bookstore (non-chain store, thank you Boulder Bookstore). The hunt for the perfect book is just as gratifying to me as reading it.

When my friend Jason and I were cavorting about Southeast and South Asia last year, we’d invariably find our way into bookstores regardless of city, languages offered or size of shop. The more off the beaten path, the better. We both love bookstores for the same reasons and the ones with international offerings are preferable.

I know for a fact there was never a day in two months where we didn’t have at least two paperback books in our backpacks. Similarly, there was never a day that passed where we weren’t sitting late into an evening writing in our journals or reading a book by headtorch or candle. One of the best of those memories came from high in the Himalaya when we were lying in our sleeping bags in our tiny, sparsely furnished teahouse room, eating dark chocolate KitKat, reading by headtorch with the silhouette of some impossibly huge, moonlit peak just outside our window.

Some of the best shops were in obscure villages in rural Nepal or less trafficked neighbourhoods in big cities such as Bangkok or Kathmandu where the shop owners would take great measure to help us find suitable books and even better, would ply us with masala tea and engage us in fun, broken language conversations about our respective lives.

One of our favourite little shops was in Kathmandu and was called The Little Tibet Bookstore. Sure, just down the way in Thamel there was a big bookstore called Pilgrim Books which offered an endless selection of books from all over the world and a lifetime supply of cheap trinkets (think gawdy images of Buddha or Ganesh). Despite its relative rusticity and popular location in the heart of filthy Thamel, it still felt like a Nepali version of Barnes & Noble. Okay, I’ll admit it was pretty rad that you could browse books, drink masala tea and have a plate of momos all under one roof, but it still felt like a stale Barnes & Noble — also probably due in part to the fact that tour busses barfed out people in front of it every half hour or so.

The Little Tibet Bookstore was fortunately located on the outer edge of Thamel on a quiet little side street, near the eastern part of the ring road, and was owned by this lovely Tibetan lady, who I regret never asking her name. The shop was clean, well organized and conveniently located just down the way from one of the only places in South Asia that served a decent cup of drip coffee instead of the omnipresent Nescafe with chemical based creamer and a minimum of three tablespoons of sugar per 6 oz. serving. Seriously, we’d ask for “black coffee” and the aghast response from every proprietor was basically equivalent to asking him if he would urinate in our cups. Black coffee?….What?…Absurd!…It’s unheard of! Silly Americans. Sometimes despite our early morning, desperate pleas for black coffee, we’d still get the creamer and sugar. Things just work that way in Nepal.

A funny story about coffee is that after we’d been gone from Kathmandu for over a month, we returned to this same little coffee place and the owner immediately recognized us, vigorously shook our hands and said, “Yes, yes, black coffee! I bring! “. Nothing like becoming a legend based off the love of legal stimulants. Truly one of the most heartwarming highlights of all our travels.

Anyhow, The Little Tibet Bookstore was probably no more than 80 square metres in size, maybe three head-height, two-sided shelves in the middle and the walls shelved to the ceiling. About a quarter of the shop was dedicated to English language books, probably half to Nepali and Hindi language and another quarter to various languages such as German, French, Spanish and Eastern Asian languages. When we’d come in, which was often when we were in or around Kathmandu, the owner  would always recognize us, always respectfully greet us with her hands gently pressed together, a slight bow, and softly say, “Tashi Delek”, to which we would return the pleasantry.

The shop was seldom crowded, meaning no more than four or five people at a time, and the owner would go to great lengths to be of help to everyone. There were various niches around the shop with the ubiquitous photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as burning incense and a freshly snipped marigold nearby. It was a comfortable place and Jason and I spent countless hours in there. Oh, and just outside the door to the shop, the same ancient lady was always there, sitting on the cold concrete, selling masala tea brewed in a battered aluminum pan on a tiny, grimy little propane stove. She always smiled, pressed her hands together and simply said, “namaste” as we’d go in. I miss that so much.

I think all told, we read close to eight or nine books each during our two months of travel. As I mentioned before, we’d usually have a couple of books with us at any given time. Sometimes we’d exchange with each other if we finished them quickly. Sometimes we’d exchange them with other travelers we’d meet in hostels and sometimes we’d simply leave them at our guesthouse or hostel for others to enjoy. In fact, some of the best books I read were found at hostels, monasteries  or teahouses where we’d stay — free if we’d leave one in exchange! We’d also exchange them at local bookstores when we’d stay in one place for more than a few days.

If available, we’d almost always buy used books, something I always do here in the States too — or at the very least buy from the clearance table. I like to imagine used books have a life and I’m just part of their journey. One book I brought back from Asia was purchased in Kolkata, India. I read it on the flight back to the States and not too long after returning took it to a bookstore and exchanged it for something else. Inside the front cover was a small sticker with the name of the bookstore there in Kolkata. I’ve often wondered if whoever bought it will see that sticker and will stop and think about where that book came from and imagine the story of how it traveled half way around the world and ended up here in Boulder, Colorado. Perhaps it will add something to their reading experience? I want to think it would. It would for me.

I don’t know, for me there’s still something intrinsically comforting about the interaction and relationship with a physical book and a local bookstore that just won’t let me jump over to the Kindle-iPad obsession. I love the smell of books, rifling through pages, having a favourite bookmark (usually a boarding pass), looking through all the titles in a certain section in a shop and the inevitable out-of-the-blue discovery of a book that hits the mark for being “travel worthy”. Spending time in a bookstore is much like travel itself, if you’re willing to go exploring on your own, with an open mind, and are patient enough to let the experiences come to you, you can usually wind up going on journeys you never even dreamed of.

As of now, this is my reading list for our coming travels:

·         Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh (okay, I’ve kind of already started this one so I’ll probably have to get another before I leave)

·         Lessons From the Road, by Alastair Humphreys

·         Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich

·         In Patagonia,  by Bruce Chatwin, (if I finish Road to Pakistan, which is likely)

I’ll likely get two of these read on the long, 20+ hour flight over. Then, ideally, within 24 hours of landing I’ll have located a little independent bookstore, exchanged the books for others and be ready to read my way through another country or two. If I finish those, maybe I’ll leave them at a coffee shop along the way and pick up another in like kind exchange. Since we’ll be driving a campervan in a circuit and will return to that same town in the end, it would be great fun to return to the first shop and exchange those books acquired from the road for another couple for the long flight home.

Books are cool.

Ski fast. Pedal hard. Climb high. Travel far. Live big.