The Underground Table: America’s Camino

2010. Being a practical nation, Americans turn to pilgrimage to seek salvation of their bodies. Freedom not from sin, but from antibiotics, pesticides, and the absurdity of the Industrial Diet. Instead of walking church to church, pilgrims walk from sustainable farm to farm.

In return for a donation, pilgrims receive a place to sleep or to stake their tent, a shower and toilet, a dinner and breakfast (either prepared or something they can cook themselves). For now, a small tent and camping stove are recommended.

It’s unclear whether the pilgrimage has an endpoint or not. Most often it’s self-defined by time constraints, often circular. The waypoints are non-linear, just a smattering of farms across the country. The route is formed by making 20 or 50 phone calls before heading out, asking and explaining. Bring your own map, leave markers if you’re so inclined. Where you choose to walk is up to you.

For now, pilgrims have to accept large stretches of road walking. The upside is raised awareness of the fact that you don’t need much.

At times, the pilgrimage has a work-trade element built in. Farmers budget tasks and funds for anticipated pilgrims — painting, cleaning, stacking, and so forth. It’s a good idea to ask in advance. The issues of work legality, taxes, and insurance coverage are beyond me — ideas?

Americans are always looking for the next best weight loss and/or fitness program. This is it, but it’s also so much more.

Photo by ilovebutter via Flickr.

Letting go and going places

“Susan Block and her father had the conversation that we all need to have when the chemotherapy stops working, when we start needing oxygen at home, when we face high-risk surgery, when the liver failure keeps progressing, when we become unable to dress ourselves. I’ve heard Swedish doctors call it a “breakpoint discussion,” a systematic series of conversations to sort out when they need to switch from fighting for time to fighting for the other things that people value—being with family or traveling or enjoying chocolate ice cream.”

Palliative travel? The intersection of hospice and hospitality? Might be onto something here…

From “Letting Go” by Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, 8/2/2010

Choosing a city the LeBron James way

Big hoopla tonight over LeBron James choosing a city. Will he stay in his hometown? Where will he go? Cities and teams smushed into one entity. All the speculation about his travel plans is over now. With the words, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” LeBron’s Miami-bound.

“I never wanted to leave Cleveland, and my heart will always be around that area,” LeBron said. “But I also feel like this is the greatest challenge for me, to move on.”

Know how you feel, LBJ.

So much of sports is travel, and rightly so. As you get better and better, you have to travel farther and farther to find people good enough to compete with. From lowly in-house soccer, to the middle school travel team, to an hour bus ride for high school sports, to a four-hour ride in college. Professionals are jetting somewhere new at least every week. At the very pinnacle of world competition, it becomes more practical to pool the talent in a single country (or continent) and duke it out: The English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the European Champion’s League, the Olympics, the World Cup.

(There’s a strange parallel here with the world of socialites, which has plenty of competition of its own. The more sophisticated you are, the further you “have to” fly to find company that’s not dreadful.)

But back to LeBron. Some people say he went to be with his friends, or where the parties are, or where the income taxes are lowest.

“I think I was attracted to a lot of cities, and that’s why I brought the six teams in that I was attracted to most,” he said. “It came down to where I felt I could win the most.”

The travel serves LeBron’s higher goal. He’s not headed to South Beach to find himself, or for a change of scenery, or for the bikinis, or even the taxes. For a competitor at this level, I doubt those consciously factored in much at all. Sure, he wants a new experience — an NBA championship — but he wants the championship because, fundamentally, he wants to win.

Winning isn’t a new experience to King James. And if he, Wade, Bosh, and the rest can become the team that’s most familiar with the familiar experience of winning, they’ll be champions.

Goal first, city second.

Now that’s probably an oversimplification. How to explain LeBron’s mentioning South Beach before mentioning the Heat? OK, maybe somebody wrote the line for him. But here are two other possibilities:

One, the South Beach party n’ thong scene factored plenty into his decision, but you can’t go to the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club and say that. It’d be like a Bangkok Lifestyle Design-preneur admitting why he really loves Bangkok. Not good for business.

Two, LBJ was able to make The Decision from the pure perspective of competition. Once he made it, though, the fringe benefits of the chosen city started to creep into his thoughts. The temptations reserved for Star Athletes in Miami will continue to, presumably, and it remains to be seen how King James navigates South Beach.


Been thinking about how many Facebook status updates are location-based. Quick peeks into places, snapshots of travel big and small.

Here are a few from last week:

  • says that there is a tornado warning for Stoneham this evening…I’m not sure I believe that!
  • Yay I have something to do tonight. Going to The Albany Roller Derby at 6.
  • Leaving my house now….W I L D Y A K S at Union Pool free show 4pm. Come have a taco and beer with me suckaaaaaas
  • Newport, RI for Matty’s big day!
  • Memorial Day at the Camp – Burlington – Montreal – Ottawa – Colgate Reunion – Mountain Jam. Hell of a week.
  • Going to classes be back later tonight.
  • Anyone around in dc?
  • London Dreams. . . . . coming true!!!
  • just said hi and shook hands with Noel Fielding of the Mighty Boosh while he was dining around the corner from where i live aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
  • Two tickets to Machu Picchu burning a hole in my pocket. We’ll be there Thursday! Woot!
  • Outdoor jacuzzi looking at misty white mountains… I missed NH
  • Oslo.

My cheesy little adventure

Walked a kilometer south to Lanka today, looking for a market. Found a market. Saw a big gate, turned left off the main road and under the gate’s arch. Walked 500m, saw nothing promising, turned around, and returned to the main road.

Found a sandal tent and bought a pair of sandals. Went into two photo studios and noted their capabilities and printing prices in my notebook. Found an underwear store and bought a 90cm-chest tank top after 15 minutes of looking at bewildering options.

Went into a technical bookshop. Bought Fractional-Horsepower Electrical Machines, printed by Mir Publishers, U.S.S.R. They thought I was a visiting professor at B.H.U.

Saw a shop across the street called FUNK and made the obligatory visit. Tried on three shirts, none fit. They tried to sell me a women’s Ed Hardy tee.

Priced the net cafe next door. Half the price of Assi Ghat.

Crossed the street and looked into a restaurant called Hot Spice. No toilet, walked out. Saw a sign for “Heritage Hospital Main Entrance”. Followed the arrow.

Went into Heritage Hospital. In the lobby, saw an old woman on a stretcher. Asked about the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine — no dice. Used the toilet.

Checked out another internet cafe. A treehouse-type spot on a roof, accessed by a narrow, no-railing staircase. Surprisingly jam packed like the first treehouse on the block. Left.

Bought a water from the pharmacy next door, considered buying fruit.

Walked onto the B.H.U. campus through the big B.H.U. gate. Studied a massive map in the massive sun. Tried to negotiate a rickshaw tour, failed. A B.H.U. student came over and helped me get a loop ride for twenty rupees.

Saw a fraction of the campus on the loop. Took some bad photos from the moving rickshaw. Back at the B.H.U. gate I paid twenty as agreed, despite protest for thirty.

Crossed the street to retrace my steps. Hit my head while ducking under a low sign.

Got used by the internet for an hour.

Rode a rickshaw back to Assi Ghat. Think I spotted a mall en route, might be a spot to bask in A/C.

Back at Assi, picked up my sole button-down from the laundry. Went to my room to eat an orange, find out the tank top doesn’t fit, lie under the dust-collecting, electric-starved fan and sweat and record these details.

The midnight train to sweatville

It’s noon on one of those double days created by an overnight train ride in sleeper class — a paranoid ride where the cop with the HK submachine gun calls you out the first time he sees you. “You — where is your luggage?” You point beneath the seat. “ALERT!”

He urges you to take it upstairs, so you press the pack to the top bunk and lock it to the support beam. You strap your money belt around your right upper thigh (and to do so, go pants around your ankles in the bathroom) and safety pin your wallet into your right pocket.

Return to the bunk through the darkened car and notice the officer has chosen to sleep on the bunk below you. No problem, no contraband here. You climb up and position your loafers atop the fan where suction can keep an eye on them.

Get fetal, clip your day pack — an overgrown purse, really — to your main pack, entwine your forearm in a shoulder strap and lay your head down to rest on an empty water bottle. Twist the cap to let out just enough air for the bottle to mold to the shape of your skull.

Bathroom breaks at 12, 2, and 4 — that’s what you get for playing Chug n’ Rehydrate — and wake at 4:57 a.m. to an empty car at Varanasi.

Paper-cup chai on the platform, a bit of energy because who knows what’s next.  Find a rickshaw and don’t argue too hard, hotel arrival is the priority. Ride through the dark streets wearing your sunglasses as dust goggles, south to Assi Ghat.

The rickshaw drops you at Hotel Palace on Ganges, which, despite the French tourists coming down the stairs oohing and ahhing at the Ganges, is not Hotel Temple on Ganges. Find Hotel Temple by turning and looking directly behind you.

Give the rickshaw man 48 for a 40 rupee fare — a serious overpay — and inquire about a room. 350 and 550. 450 for the room with a view? Got it. Balcony, fan, and more mosquitoes than you’ve ever seen in your life.

Realize too late that the southeast window setup means you’re going to bake through the entire 104 degree day, that you’re going to call the place a hell station before you leave — but no matter. It’s simple enough and clean, ten bucks a day, and it has a desk, man, a desk!

A desk which now, at about 12:30 p.m., you’re neglecting in favor of lying naked on the bed, under the fan, with curtains drawn and lights off, the room lit Oz emerald by the sun through stained glass.

No room in the inn


Ashish the Seatmate’s recommended Hotel Sharma (“with a huge sign on top”) never materialized, so I ended up booking a room at Hotel Samrat, whose rooftop sign I can see from my current address.

I didn’t choose it so much as walk into a decent-looking lobby on railroad flophouse row, find out there weren’t any rooms, ask about Hotel Sharma, get sloppy directions, and ask the burly checking-in Kerala man with the bright yellow Polo, “Could you just come point it out to me?” The linebacker and I walked twenty meters down the street and for once the touts stayed silent.

The hotel didn’t have a sign (in English), so I went in, said the token room melega?, followed the houseboy to the top floor up turret stairs, glanced at the room, dingy but with a big enough bed and a lock on the door, and went back down to try for a good price.

Took the room for a couple dollars, threw my stuff down, and only then noticed the crunched-up chips in the bed, the pan wrappers and cigarette butts behind the headboard, and the likely presence of bugs and seed throughout the mattress. In response, I hit the streets in search of Lucknow’s famous dried-fruit ice cream.

Found the ice cream — lassi, actually — and got force-fed further sweets by a curious sweet dealer.

Returned to Samrat to find a crowd in the lobby awaiting my arrival. “I don’t serve to foreigners,” the owner said. “You must leave.” Right now, fast. Half of the crowd seemed to be representatives of another hotel which had agreed to take me in.

Went upstairs with the houseboy who monitored the  re-packing of the mosquito net and soap bar. I locked the door at one point which he immediately protested — he had more fear than I did, I guess.

The clerk returned my rent and tried to point me to the other hotel, but, “Nah, you guys are kicking me out. I’ll take it from here, thanks.”

Sought information from the cook at the thali joint across the street, who dispatched a 12 year-old boy to guide me to the originally intended Hotel Sharma. No luck — “This hotel not for you. You go to Mohan Hotel.”

The clerk drew a crude map and I set off via rickshaw, too tired to insist in Hindi that the ride would be worth only 11 cents, not 22.

I found and skipped the Mohan — amenities overkill — and continued up the road on foot. Just beyond, found a hotel recommended by the sweet dealer — Hotel Indore Regency. A guard, a cramped but air conditioned lobby, a bed (also top floor, last door), a bathroom with a lightbulb — I’ll take it. Negotiated a 15% discount and filled out carbon copy forms.

Freddie Mercury carried my bag to the room. I tipped him five rupees, popped a heartburn pill, took a cold shower and collapsed.

Lucknow – the name is true

Everything went so smoothly over the first month here in India until about 30 minutes ago. A combination of the heat, the heavy hot kathi roll in my stomach, and the sight of my train coach flying toward the other end of the platform conspired to put me on my intended train’s doppelganger, headed in the opposite direction of my destination.

It surprised me that I made such a simple mistake. What with the familiar north-south corridor between Bhadohi and Mirzapur and the ever-present Ganges, I thought I had myself oriented. Until I got onto the Kashi Vishwanath Express headed east for Varanasi instead of west for Lucknow.

Why did I choose to climb into the luggage car? Was that really the best place to ask about the location of the AC car? And if I really only wanted to ask one question, wouldn’t it have been better to confirm the destination?

When I asked about the AC car, a luggage man in an orange reflector vest pointed toward the back of the train. I made a run for it, and when the whistle blew, I jumped into the closest door, a random sleeper car. I remember seeing the time on the digital station clock just before jumping in the door: 2:25. A full, clear 12 minutes before the scheduled departure listed on my ticket, but somehow this slipped by.

It was lucky to have picked not only that sleeper car, but also a seat with two guys who spoke enough English to inform me that the train was bound for Varanasi. But not to worry: In two hours it would reverse course and head back to Lucknow.

Even more clutch, when the train I held a ticket for and the train I was riding stopped next to each other in some forsaken railroad wilderness, the guys urged me to put away my camera, hurry, and switch trains. Zipping my bag, whipping on the frame pack, and shaking hands like a politician, I ran to the door, down the steps (so much farther without a platform), across two sets of tracks (I think I looked both ways), and to the door of an AC car. Locked.

Devoted maybe five seconds to banging on it with a flat palm, then ran alongside the train, loafers having trouble with the fist-sized stones underfoot. Next car sleeper class, also locked. Found the door at the car’s far end locked as well. Started putting together contingency plans in case either train started moving. Which door on the Varanasi-bound could I get back to? Any?

The next car had an open door — phew — and a woman with a basket of carrots about to make the ascent. I decided I’d rather be rude than left on the tracks, so I gave a “Hey–” and cut in front. What? I doubt she had a ticket.

This time I entered the car asking “Lucknow? Lucknow?” like I’m the one selling snacks. A few nods confirmed the destination, so I plopped down and chugged all of the water in my bottle.

That problem sorted out, it was time to start playing catch-up internally.

A carpetman loses his mobile in India

The Jaipur Vodafone store has a line like the Bronx DMV. And why am I here? Because my phone disappeared somehow — not on Holi, mind you, but innocently the day before. Just up and left. Pulled a Houdini.

I had it at the PJ Exports office, maybe in the car, not when I got home. Or did I? Did I absently misplace it? Will I find it somewhere in my accumulated junk when I pack up tonight at the Sneh Deep guesthouse? Doubtful, because I didn’t hear a vibration when I tried calling it with the houseboy’s loaned phone, lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling.

After a last-ditch call to the guy whose office I thought I’d left it in didn’t yield success — “I’ve had my men looking all morning,” he said — I accepted the $22 Nokia as gone forever.

Talked with Manoj the guesthouse owner about options. He drew a map to the shop that would suspend the SIM card, maybe sell me a used phone. A buddy, apparently, who doesn’t speak much English.

Walked down, found the mobile man, and attempted to converse in Hindi. “Phone hoagie-yah.” He eventually convinced me that I needed to visit the Vodafone store in Raja Park. He explained the same to the autorickshaw driver, and we quickly agreed on half of his quoted transit price. Made our way down a crumbling road in the direction of the mobile man’s point.

Eventually a major intersection. Driver turned right, I glanced left and saw the Vodafone store.

And here I am, still waiting on a DMV line to get a new SIM card.

I’m a carpetman, people. Can’t be in India without a mobile.

The sunniest place I’ve ever been

The desert salt flat and bright blue sky met far away at foot-level. Massive trains crept by on twelve sets of tracks, their red and black and white bodies sharp against the imposing sky.

Every picture snapped became the best picture I’d ever taken.

A crowd of backpackers milled about, complete with keffiyehs. Are you catching the train to New York with us? they asked.

I’m from New York, I said.

Scrapwood littered the ground, part of a set of tracks being pulled up. I stacked it on a wide woodpile. Time had warped two pieces beyond value. Placed one atop the pile and tossed the other aside.

Found an underground workshop and climbed inside, down the ladder. In the back, a man leaned his torso through a curtain and worked atop a shrouded workbench. Even after reaching my camera through the curtain and clicking the shutter, I couldn’t see what he was up to.

The trains rumbled overhead. Figured my camera must have dirt on the sensor.

Photo by Mallix via Flickr.

Tips for walking out of Machu Picchu

UPDATE:, which knows this area way better than I do, DOES NOT recommend trying to walk out. Just sayin’. (Plus I guess the airlifts are almost over.)

Seriously — this is a repost of the instructions given by Cole Gainer to a friend on Facebook. Pass it on to anybody in there who might benefit:

If you decide to walk:

Leave early, bring water.

Walk down the rails until they disappear. Then just look left and follow the path up that’s been created. It goes by the hotel and is pretty easy to follow. (Look for my awesome Uruguay hat, I may have dropped it there.)

Take the low path and then head back on the rails. Some tricky parts come up where there are waves and stones to jump around but this bit is relatively easy and exciting.

Walk for about 20/30 minutes and then you will hit another area of washed out rail. WHEREVER THERE IS RAIL WITH NO GROUND UNDERNEATH – DO NOT CROSS IT!! Already made that mistake and it was no fun. By now the Peruvians should have established signs where to head into the jungle. We tried to leave stones and paper but they may be gone from new rains. Anyway, always look at least 100-200 feet before a washed out rail and you will see the path into the jungle that gets around it.

After this second crossing you walk for awhile with the regular astounding scenery and a couple land bridge crossings you need to run past one at a time so that they don’t slide beneath you. Who knows what differences there are now two days later but I’m sure the locals have found a new way around – and if they haven’t, then it’s your time to shine!

Keep walking, cross a rockslide on the rail, keep going. About 3 hours in you will get to a big long blue/white house. An old woman there will feed you all for a couple soles. At the end of her house the road is completely gone. Rest there then head into the jungle at the end of her house right before where the road drops off.

Follow the path, twist around some rock. Cross a creek, be wary of an angry dog, pass some houses, and get back on the rail. From here you can manage for awhile or at least make it up as you go. The first two jungle entrances I mentioned are the biggest pointers so far. Later, there are two more ones. One is marked by a log and some paper on it. If you tried to keep going you would cross rail with no land and just river underneath it. I did this. DON’T DO THIS! Go around in the jungle. Any time you think you can’t go any farther, just pull out the Boy Scout smarts and look for the path that I/we/someone has made around.

The last key jungle turn comes around marker 87. You’ll see sticks and rocks showing you where to head up into the cliffs. I made an arrow in the dirt but I bet it’s gone now. Go up in the cliffs and don’t come back down. Even when you see the rail somewhere around where marker 85-83 should be – don’t go to the rail. Another mistake I made. Stay on the high road, look at the mountains, pretend you’re on LOST, see how beautiful it is, pass the cemetery, keep going. Past the cemetery you’ll see ruins in the distance that people are working on, you can get on the rail there but then you go right back up through the ruins.

You start to see towns now but you need to avoid the rails even though you’ll see them. You’ll also start to die here. This is where my limp kicked in. Hopefully you’ll have rested much more than I did. For some reason I thought it was a race. When you hit the towns keep on the high roads – forget the rails, they are decieving and washed out every few hundred meters. If youre lucky you can maybe catch a ride into town now, the only problem is some of the town roads are flooded, but at least you’re out of the sticks.

You can do it, especially if you take it easy and don’t have that sinking feeling that your on your own and no one will know if you fall into the river and die. I’m sure the paths are well trodden now. The American embassy chick said they were expecting a few hundred people (mostly locals) to walk out in the following days. Unfortunately when I went she said there were less than 50 that had come out. The trail should be well blazed and it’s beautiful.

A goodbye at the Bethlehem lookout

Climbed through the woods, up the steep face to the lookout. On the way up heard a parked car blaring the latest autotune, expected to find some homeboy and his girlfriend. Instead, a circle of people, lots of leather jackets, heads bowed, arms around each other. Big man in a suit saying a prayer in Spanish.

Crossed the road, made myself scarce, continued up the trail a ways, then stopped and looked down to the lookout. Just in time to see the big man in the suit dump an urn of tan ashes into the wind. The ashes didn’t plaster onto anyone’s face, just swarmed in the air through the crowd.

Nobody seemed to mind a final taste.

Hondros on Haiti: The scale is unimaginable

“Dazed people walking the streets of Port au Prince keep saying the same thing: “Haiti is dead.” And on one level that’s true — this small country has just endured one of the most searing natural disasters in history, and death is everywhere.  Death is on sidewalks, on the roads, in rivers, buried in rubble and noticeable only by its smell.  The scale is so unimaginable that the usual human traditions and courtesies for the dead have been suspended: many thousands of bodies have been collected by backhoe and dumped into mass graves with no more ceremony than the rubble that goes into the same pits.

But admidst the carnage and chaos there have been remarkable glimmers of hope and strength, of heroism and selflessness. I’m sleeping in my truck in the parking lot of a hotel; outside the walls thousands of Haitians, with nowhere else to go, are camping out on the streets.  But as night descends the singing starts, jumping voices sounding through the darkness, spirituals and ancient songs sung from those streets late into the night. I listen to this from inside the truck as I drift to sleep; its jarring and achingly beautiful.”

Chris Hondros, via Foreign Policy.

Photo Chris Hondros/Getty Images