The Kalalau Trail, an unforgettable experience! – Nov. 8-12, 2011

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The day before I arrived in Kauai, my uncle’s friend, Jason, suggested that I hike the “Kalalau trail.”  Upon my arrival in Kauai, I was delayed for a few days due to weather conditions.  Eventually, I grew weary of hanging out at the hostel and decided to take my chances – rain or no rain.
November 8, 2011.  The sea cave at Hanakapi’ai beach.
Just as I was about to head out on the morning of Nov. 8, 2011, I met another traveler named Karine, from Canada, who was about to go camping on her own up at Anini beach.  We decided to join forces and do the Kalalau Trail together since it was also on her to-do list while on Kauai island.
We made our way north by bus to the end of the bus route at Hanalei beach.  From there, we hitched a ride in a pick-up truck to Ke’e beach.  By this time, it was already about 3 pm and we only had 2 miles to hike to our first campsite at Hanakapi’ai beach.  The hike was very beautiful since the trail meandered high up in the cliffs overlooking the wide ocean blue below.  I indulged in the cool, offshore seabreeze while taking in the spectacular view.

Let’s go!

The trail was muddy and had the consistency of peanut butter, or what Karine more accurately described as Nutella.  She enjoyed walking through it much more than I did.  I only wore running shoes and did my best to keep them dry.
Several days of rain had delayed the hike because I was warned of high water levels at the Hanakapi’ai river which would have made crossing it impossible.  When we finally made it to the river, it was an easy crossing through knee-high water.
As soon as we arrived at the beach, we took off our heavy backpacks and wet shoes to walk in the sand and explore.  We discovered a sea cave off towards the left-hand side of the beach.  The roof was like that of a wide, spacious cathedral.  From within, we could watch the waves crash against large rocks in front of the cave.  It was like a scene out of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean.

Hanakaipi’ai beach.

Karine loved this cave.

The next order of business was to find a suitable location to set up camp.  It would’ve been nice to sleep right on the beach, or even inside the cave, but I was very wary of the inundating effects of the incoming tide or a flash flood coming from the river behind us.  The last thing I wanted was to wake up in the dark and covered in water.  The other option was to sleep in the designate campground back in the jungle.  We scouted it out.  The air felt muggy and stifling, and there were mosquitoes and guava flies everywhere.  We opted instead to camp just inside the treeline which afforded us an ocean breeze to keep bugs at bay.  On high, we would be safe from the incoming tide and the danger of a flash flood.
Karine did a excellent job setting up the tent and tarp, which kept us dry when it rained later that night.  Meanwhile, I walked to the sea cave to start preparing the Spanish rice and Portuguese sausage that we had brought with us for dinner.  The cave offered shelter from the heavy wind coming from the ocean and it was very comfortable.  I lit candles and placed them in the sand around us inside the cave.  It glowed a lovely, orange light.  Between the sound of the waves crashing just outside the cave, the candlelight inside, the comfort of sitting on cool, dry sand, the lack of insects, crabs and mice, and more food than we could eat, we probably had the best first night in the entire history of first nights on the Kalalau Trail.
That night, I did not sleep well because it rained.  I didn’t pack a sleeping pad or sleeping bag, opting instead to use a chrome-colored emergency blanket.  Warm though I was, comfortable I was not.   Four years of the Virginia Military Institute and two years of living in the African bush as a Peace Corps Volunteer taught me to be content with very little.  Comfort is nice, but it’s not necessary.
November 9, 2011. It only gets better.

We started a little bit later than I would’ve liked.  We ate our oatmeal for breakfast on the beach, struck camp and then promptly started our 9 mile hike to Kalalau beach.  We encountered intermittent rain during the first few miles.  The trail was wet and slippery.  At one point, we took cover underneath a tree, where Karine wrapped her rainfly around her backpack.  I didn’t want to waste our precious daylight hours sitting underneath a tree and my feet were already wet, so we continued on into the rain, which -thankfully- didn’t last very long.

Karine is all smiles having just slipped and fallen on the trail. 🙂

The trail went through wide valleys and smaller draws where we enjoyed the cool shade of the trees.  At the beginning and end of each valley, the trail became more exposed as we walked towards the ocean.  Here, we were treated with spectacular views of the wide ocean blue and greeted by very strong gusts of wind.  This type of terrain was much more exciting to walk through than the woods.

Ready to hike into the valley.

There were guava trees alongside the trail.  I made sure to inspect each one and grab the ripe guavas off of the tree.  How cool it was to hike through the woods and have trail food growing within arms-length!

Fresh guava!

Just before the 6-mile mark, we stopped at the river where we sat on rocks in the shade and filled up on water.  Karine had bought a delicious mix of crackers and seaweed, called “arabe mix,” which we snacked on.
Nearby we came across a small shelter with a picnic table.  We stopped for a moment and  ate more food.  I cut open a passion fruit and shared the other half with Karine.  It had a sweet and tart taste.  But what I remember most about this shelter was the graffiti written on the inside of the wall.  I was mesmerized by the profound words of a poet, personifying the beach at Kalalau.  The prose was simply beautiful.  The fact that I had not yet been to Kalalau beach only added to the mystique of what was to come.

“Oh and let me tell you that/ I love you, that I think about you/ all the time/ Kalalau you’re calling me/ and now I’m going home.” – writer unknown

Karine left our mark for all posterity to know that we, too, were there. 🙂

Someone had abandoned a sleeping bag at the shelter.  Upon closer inspection, it looked brand new.  I figured we could use it so I packed it up and carried it with me.  As much as I like packing light and moving fast, I won’t deny that I also like to be insulated from the cold ground.  The original plan was to rough it using a pair of jeans, a sweater and a space blanket, but that was subject to change – as all plans are.
Soon after the 6-mile mark, we lost the trail.  We wandered a bit trying to find our way, until we randomly met up with Danielle, a German girl who had also stayed at the Honu’ea hostel in Kapa’a.  She made the same mistake we did, but together, we finally found the trail.  We probably lost about half an hour of daylight.  My instinct was to hike a little bit faster to make up for lost time, but at the same time I didn’t want to hike so fast that I didn’t get to enjoy the hike or increase the risk of spraining an ankle.  As I’ve learned over the years, “Don’t run when you can walk.”

A few miles closer to Kalalau beach, the valleys became much smaller and the trail became a rocky path above a steep cliff.  This was the most enjoyable part of the hike- it also contained what many consider to be the most dangerous, or scariest, part of the Kalalau trail.  At one point, my backpack brushed up against a large rock, dislodging my new sleeping bag, which fell down a steep, rocky ravine.  I didn’t know this was happening until a few seconds later when Karine got my attention.  I watched as the sleeping bag fell… and fell… and continued to fall until it finally stopped against a small tree growing in the ravine.  I thought to myself, “Well, that’s lost.”  It was quite an eyesore from the trail above.  I looked closer at the steep slopes lining the ravine and it looked like I could safely make my way along the bottom of it to rescue my sleeping bag.
I left my backpack with Karine and began my descent.  The rocks beneath my feet felt stable and it wasn’t very long before I finally reached the sleeping bag.  Triumphantly, I raised it above my head and showed Karine.  I rushed back up to the trail where Karine was, packed up the sleeping bag, and we began our precarious walk on “Crawler’s ledge.”

Crawler’s ledge. See the hikers?

Crawler’s ledge appears to be more dangerous than it really is because of the long drop to the ocean below and the exposure to very strong gusts of wind.  For these very reasons, I absolutely LOVED it!  Later, when I first saw the video of Karine and I crossing the ledge, I said, “Whoa, that’s scary.”  Immediately afterwards in the video, it showed me with a big grin on my face saying, “It’s not that scary!”  This was my favorite part of the trail.  I can still feel the force of the wind and can hear the pounding of the surf below.

The trail continued along very steep mountain slopes and cliffs.  It was beginning to get late in the afternoon and Karine and I were both visibly tired.  Eventually we came to an area where the earth became red.  A sign said that we were in the Kalalau Valley.  We were almost there!

“Hey, Karine! Are we there yet?”

We descended the red hill to a treeline where we stopped to rest.  We were exhausted at this point.  I cut open the last passion fruit that I was carrying and shared the other half with Karine.  We savored the juicy pulp, which boosted our morale tremendously.  We made our way through a wooded area and passed a few campsites until we came to the Kalalau River.  We topped off our water and then crossed the stream.  Karine walked right through it, while I hopped precariously across on large rocks.
As we walked the last half mile to the campsite, a hippie girl with a buzzcut caught up to us.  She introduced herself as Anna and said that she was meeting some of the other full-time campers for a potluck and a meditation session.  She carried a salad, which she had picked from a local garden, and some passion fruit which she kindly gave to us.  We walked with her to her friends who were all very friendly.  They invited us to their meditation session, but we had to decline since it was getting late and we still needed to set up our camp.
We found a spot in the woods near the center of the beach.  Karine set up the tent and tarp while I collected firewood.  It didn’t take long before I had the fire going.  I boiled water to add to the instant mash potatoes and beef jerky that we were having that night for dinner.
After dinner, we needed water for our camp so we set off in the dark to try to find a our water source, which we heard was only about a 15-minute walk away.  We stumbled upon another camper who was headed in the same direction so we followed him there.
Our water source was a picturesque waterfall on the far end of Kalalau beach, where the beach meets a steep wall of rock.  The full moon provided ample light to walk down to the base of the falls and collect water.  After filling up our water bottles and washing our dishes, it was time for a bath.
I stripped down and went first.  The water was very brisk, but it felt great to wash off two days’ worth of sweat and dirt.  There was a plastic tube left behind so that people could place one end against the waterfall and direct water out of the other end more effectively on them.  I used the same methods I’d employed all over the world when taking cold showers: wash extremities first, then torso, head last and remember to breath.  I took a mental step outside of myself for a moment to see the surreal situation that I was in.  There I was, bathing in a waterfall on a remote beach in Hawaii underneath a full moon.
Karine bathed next in her bathing suit.  Then we went back to camp to put away our water and clean dishes.
We walked to the beach and hung out there for a little while.  It was so bright out with the light of the full moon.  The only other signs of life out there were the headlamps of a random person or two who’d be walking along the trail parallel to the beach and there were very few of them, adding to the feeling of remoteness and isolation.  Thank goodness Karine was there, otherwise, I wouldn’t have anyone to talk to and to say, “Look around!  Isn’t this cool!?”
November 10, 2011.  Exploring the Kalalau Valley
I woke up before Karine and started collecting firewood.  Once Karine woke up, I boiled water for our brown sugar and maple syrup-flavored oatmeal.  Neither of us normally like oatmeal, but the oatmeal packets I served up hit the spot.  I had two packets while Karine had only wanted one.  To supplement breakfast, I had a few handfuls of ranch Wheat Thins and some beef jerky.
We went to the beach after breakfast and walked to the far end past the waterfall.  We encountered a large sea cave, one of which had a couple of sea kayaks, a few mice scurrying about, and a camp inside it.  We explored the cave and talked to its inhabitants, Robert and Chris, and learned a little bit about their lifestyle.

The sea cave camp

Chris is a professional beach bum.  He does odd jobs in Kauai when he needs money and then lives at Kalalau beach until the money runs out.  It’s not a bad life that he lives either.  He catches fish right out of the surf, hangs out with his friends, and soaks in the beauty that is Kalalau beach.

Chris, the self-proclaimed “Professional beach bum”

We walked as far as we possibly could down the beach until it met an impassable sea cliff at the ocean and we could walk no further.  There was another sea cave which we explored.  The entrance was littered with fallen rocks, which we were warned by the locals to beware of.  Karine and I stepped around the rocks as best as we could and quickly walked through the debris field.  All it would’ve taken was one strong gust of wind, one large falling rock and it would’ve been game over for either of us.
This one dripped water from the ceiling and the floor was damp.  Aside from that, there wasn’t much to it.

The other sea cave at Kalalau Beach

Leaving the cave, we walked back to our camp.  There was an industrial-grade, plastic bag that littered the beach.  Our consciences made us pick it up and carry it with us back to camp to preserve the beaches pristine appearance.
Once at camp, I restoked the fire and boiled water for our lunch.  This was no easy task.  It took several attempts at balancing the pot on rocks that lined the fire ring, on hot coals, or what eventually became the best way to do it – the rock-stick-pot-fire method.

The rock-stick-pot-fire cooking method

The boiled water was for our ramen noodle lunch.  I like to boil most of the water off leaving the noodles soft and salty.  Karine likes hers ramen noodles raw and crunchy.
After lunch, I left Karine to forage for fruit in the Kalalau Valley.  Karine stayed behind in camp and hung out at the beach while I went exploring.  I carried a light gym bag, a bottle of water, a knife and a granola bar.
Going into the woods is so much fun for me.  As a child, I built forts, climbed trees, and crafted bows and arrows in the woods behind my neighborhood.  Being in the woods takes me back to those days.  I always loved exploring in the woods and my attitude towards walking off alone into the Kalalau Valley was no different.
I met a local by the name of “Uncle T” on the way out.  I asked him about all of the edible plants that could be found in the forest.  Armed with local knowledge, I was able to find passion fruit trees on the bluff near the entrance to Kalalau beach.  I picked the ripe ones right off the ground.  Every once in a while, I’d cut one in half and suck the seeds and pulp out.  The rest I saved for Karine and myself.  I envisioned myself returning to camp and proudly showing off my bounty of fresh fruits to Karine – perhaps an instinctual vestige from our ancestral days when men hunted and gathered for their survival and the survival of their families.  I would’ve roamed the forest for miles before returning back to camp empty-handed.  This was a mission in which I could not fail.
I wandered into a camp inhabited by some long-term campers, more hippie-types.  I sat with them and chatted for awhile.  Their camp was known as the “Sanctuary,” a safe place for “wild” humans.  It was also known as a “community kitchen,” where anyone could just drop in if they needed anything, like a cup of sugar, extra camping fuel, etc.  Like everyone else that Karine and I met on the Kalalau trail, these people were incredibly warm and hospitable.  I was invited to come by anytime to hang out.  I was very much impressed by their choice of lifestyle- a subsistence living in a veritable Garden of Eden.
Onward, I trekked deep into the Kalalau Valley, along a path known as “hippie highway” and moving along the banks of the Kalalau River.  I was on the lookout for guava, oranges, passion fruit, mango, banana and anything else edible.  It wasn’t easy.  The trees were difficult to find and, of the ones that I did find, they were nearly picked clean of ripe fruit.
Walking off the beaten path, I discovered hidden camps, a maze in a bamboo forest, but not too many fruit trees.  I rummaged through the supplies of one abandoned camp, but took nothing since the food was at least 2 years old according to the expiration dates on some of the dry goods.  Fortunately, Karine and I weren’t desperate or hungry.  I did take a mental note on the camp’s location, just in case.
The only fruit I took out of the Kalalau Valley were a couple of oranges.  I climbed very high into the tree and shook it forcefully to get the ripe oranges, just as Uncle T told me to do.  Though the pickings were slim, I was happy to know that I wasn’t going to return to camp empty-handed.
On the way back, I met Red, one of the locals.  He showed me the location of wild mint and ginger plants growing near the river.  I was happy to acquire this knowledge.  It felt like living in Zambia, where I learned to live like Zambian villagers in the bush.  I took a few leaves from the mint and cut some ginger root to make tea later on.  I also ate a ginger flower.  Sure enough, it tasted like ginger.
Back at the camp, I showed Karine the fruit I had gathered out of the valley – minus one orange, which I had to eat to stave off hunger.  I like to think she was impressed.

Behold, the bounty of oranges and passion fruit from my afternoon foray into the Kalalau Valley!

Since it was already late in the afternoon, I started the campfire and started boiling water again for dinner.  We ate and then hung out at the beach before going to sleep.
November 11, 2011.  A day at the most beautiful beach in the world!
The day began with a healthy dose of oatmeal for breakfast, followed by a trip to the waterfall to shower, wash dishes and refill our water bottles.  We spent the rest of the day around camp and on the beach.

The second best part of my day. Living the dream and bathing underneath a waterfall!

Since it was the winter season, the trade winds were blowing, which created heavy surf on the beach.  Thus, we weren’t able to go swimming or diving for shellfish and lobster as planned.  Instead, Karine and I grabbed our books, cameras, water bottles and her beach blanket and headed out to the beach.  It was windy and sand was blown all over us.  I took cover underneath the blanket while Karine played in the sand.

The far end of Kalalau beach

The other end of Kalalau beach. The trailhead is 11 miles in this direction.

The view behind us

Karine showing off her sand turtle!  I was impressed.

Playing in the wind

La fleur du Montreal. Karine is a flower.

Karine and I

Cruise ship. If given the choice between a fancy, cruise ship and camping on Kalalau beach, I’d choose Kalalau beach 10 times out of 10. Kalalau is magic. Kalalau is surreal. Kalalau has soul.

Here we have a nice combination between a beach vacation and mountain vacation. We have the best of both!

I’ve seen hundreds of sunsets, but only one at Kalalau beach.

Great shot, Karine!

I left right after sunset to get the fire going again to make dinner.  We had Knorr’s creamy garlic shells for dinner.  I placed the pan on top of hot coals to avoid the risk of spilling water and food.  In a little over half an hour, dinner was served.  We had Macadamia nut cookies that Autumn from the Honu’ea hostel gave us before we left.  I savored every bite.

Dinner! Yum! Menoum!

What Karine doesn’t know is that she is about to partake in the best Knorr’s creamy garlic shells that she will ever have in her entire life. We later had Macadamia nut cookies and those were the best I’ve ever had!

It’s remarkable the extent to which our circumstances have an impact on our perception of the world.  Kalalau beach has that effect on people.  The aloha spirit is indeed palpable all over Kauai island.  There is an ambiance that radiates peace and love for others and for nature.  As a stranger to the island, I initially shrugged it off as local psychobabble, but as I became more acquainted with the island, I totally bought into it.
After dinner, we gathered our sleeping bag and beach blanket and headed out to the beach.  The plan was to meet up with some of the locals and other campers who were going to light bonfires that night.
Once we got to the beach, we met Uncle T.  He was telling us about sea turtle eggs that were due to hatch.  He was waking up at 4 in the morning every night waiting for the eggs to hatch.  I was motivated to join him, except I had neither an alarm clock nor a watch.  He thought for sure that tonight would be the night the baby sea turtles would hatch out of their shells and march into the sea.
Since none of the bonfires were lit, Karine and I just laid on the beach, taking in all the beauty around us.  Everything around us slowly lit up in a pale light as the full moon rose.  I could see the jagged peaks of the mountains behind us.  Only the brightest stars could be seen in the sky.  We could see the white outlines of every wave that neared shore.  We could see up and down the length of the beach.  It was like daytime.
Karine fell fast asleep.  I laid next to her, incredulous at everything she and I had seen and done since we started the hike.  The mystique of Kalalau beach had revealed itself to us.  I could now empathize with what that poet had written on the cooking shelter back at mile 6 on the trail. Oh and let me tell you that I love you, that I think about you all the time.  Kalalau, you’re calling me and now I’m going home. I, too, had fallen head-over-heels in love with this place.  And how could I resist?  The beauty was intoxicating.
I walked to one of the bonfires once it was lit, but I didn’t stay long.  I made the excuse that I wanted to go check on Karine and promptly left.  Once I returned to Karine, we packed up our sleeping bag and beach blanket and called it a night.
November 12, 2011.  Moving on.
Karine and I were up early in the morning.  While she packed up the tent and tarp and refilled our water bottles at the waterfall, I gathered firewood, lit the fire, boiled water, and served us oatmeal for breakfast.  I don’t normally eat oatmeal – in fact, I detest it!  In this case however, I savored every flavorful bite.  Perhaps it was the ambiance from being in the most beautiful beach in the world that enhanced my sense of taste, or maybe I was just hungry.  I licked my plate clean.  I would’ve licked Karine’s plate, too, but civility prevailed.
We left Kalalau beach in the morning shade of the mountain towering above us.  The trail took us past the camping area, down to the Kalalau River, up onto the bluff and then onto the red hill that overlooks the beach.  We stopped to take our last look behind us at the lonely beach that had captured our hearts.  So long, Kalalau beach, and thanks for the memories!

Our last look at Kalalau valley and beach from on top of the red hill

We continued past the hill and along the same spectacular part of the trail that we had walked days before.  I wanted to walk more slowly to make it last longer.  Conditions were less windy and there wasn’t any threat of rain like before.  I took pictures until my camera battery died and then relied on Karine to take photos for the rest of the trail.

The trail is as wide as the length of Karine’s foot and that slope she is standing next to is very steep! One misstep and you’re done!

Without the wind, we didn’t have to worry about getting blown off the rocks and pulverized by the surf down below.

We stopped at the picnic shelter at mile 6 for lunch.  I ate light snacks while Karine ate a pack of raw ramen noodles.  I thought that was weird until I tried it.  It was pretty good!
I took a moment to read all the graffiti in the shelter once again, mesmerized by its profound character.

The picnic shelter at mile 6

From the lunch shelter it was four more miles to Hanakapi’ai beach.  We took more pictures along the way, but still managed to move faster than when we first walked the trail.

We seemed to walk for a very long time.  I had neither a watch nor a topographic map, and I wasn’t keeping a pace count so I kept wondering when we’d reach Hanakapi’ai beach.  I asked all the hikers walking in the opposite direction where they were coming from and how long they’d been walking in order to get my bearings.
Karine and I talked about how nice it would be to sleep in a warm bed and have a real meal in town.  Hanakapi’ai was only 2 miles from the trailhead and civilization.  We planned to wait and see how we felt once we arrived at Hanakapi’ai beach before making the decision to either stay one more night at the beach or head back to Kapa’a.
Eventually, we saw the beach below us.  It was only about 3 pm in the day and the beach was full of day-hikers.  It did not appeal to me in the slightest.  Part of the allure behind this trail lay in the perception of being far removed from the rest of the world.  We decided to hike the rest of the way to trailhead at Ke’e beach.
We crossed the Hanakapi’ai river and hiked up a long hill.  The ground was a lot less muddy than before and it was covered in a carpet of ants.  We didn’t stop that much, lest the ants crawl up onto our shoes and bodies.
We saw many day-hikers on this part of the trail, which is the most highly-trafficked part and, therefore, much wider than the rest of the trail.  It was easy hiking.  One woman admired that Karine had carried a large, heavy backpack all the way to the end of the trail and back.
As we neared the trailhead, we saw a parking lot with cars through an opening in the trees.  I told Karine it was nice to see civilization again.  Inside, I was a little sad that our Kalalau adventure was coming to an end.
Once we arrived to the end, I moved to hug her in gratitude for everything and she went straight for a kiss!  I wasn’t expecting it so that was a very pleasant surprise.

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill.

We left our walking sticks for others to use against the wooden sign, exactly where we found them when we first started our hike.  Their value to the safe completion of our hike was immeasurable and cannot be overstated.  Like when I had to ditch my old boots in the Patagonia, the same boots that have seen more of the world than most Americans, I was sad to leave those walking sticks behind.  Nonetheless, it was an unceremonious act.
The next order of business was to find a ride back to Kapa’a.  We walked past the parking lot for about 20 minutes before we were picked up by a guy in pick-up truck.  He only took us as far as Hanalei.  From there, a guy from New Jersey and a Swedish girl brought us to the bus stop at Princeville.
It was close to sunset when we arrived at Princeville.  I knew it was important to get a ride soon because our odds of finding one would significantly worsen at night.  Since Karine had the advantage of being female and much better looking than I, which definitely helps in getting free rides, I left her with the responsibility of sticking out her thumb alongside the road.  I only had enough time to toss the trash in my backpack into the garbage can next to the bus stop when, moments later, a woman picked us up in her car and drove us all the way to our hostel in Kapa’a!  Everything always works out!
Karine and I took hot showers, went out for dinner, and got to sleep in comfortable dorm beds that night.  It was a welcome change from sleeping in the bush.  The next day, Karine left the hostel to camp at the northern beaches for a few days on her own.  It wouldn’t be the last time that I saw her.
Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quiestest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy



Landing in Kauai – Nov. 5-7, 2011

I arrived in Kauai island on Saturday after an hour-long flight from Honolulu.  The taxi ride to the Kauai International Hostel set me back a painful $28.  I went through the usual motions of settling in, familiarizing myself with the management and other travelers, and then I went the thrift store to equip myself for the Kalalau trail on the Na Pali coast, which is on the northern end of Kauai island.
All I’ve been thinking about is acquiring the right equipment and other provisions for my hike ever since I arrived.  The weather has been rainy and I’ve been advised to wait a few days before going out so that trail and river crossings won’t be as treacherous.  I’m ok with adopting the whole island laid-back mentality, but I’m pretty confident in my ability to hike safely and I know my limits so I’ll probably head out today.
I spent yesterday at Poipu beach with some other travelers that I met, two American guys, a German girl, and a French girl.  We spent the entire day on the beach, snorkeling, swimming, and laying out.  I wish I’d brought something to read because I got bored; I’m not much of a sitting-on-the-beach kind of person.

Sunset at Poipu beach

We went to Wal-mart afterwards, where I was able to acquire a tent, instant potatoes, mac and cheese, oatmeal, ramen noodles, an emergency poncho, an emergency blanket, camp fuel, bleach and some lighters.  It’s a shame that all the backpacking equipment that I need is sitting in my closet back home.  All this stuff set me back about $50, but I figure it would be ok since merely sleeping at this hostel costs me $25 a night.  $25/night is still relatively cheap, but not when you’ve been sleeping in South America for as little as $3/night in Bolivia, or $8/night in Colombia.
Aside from being on the verge of being what others might consider to be under-equipped (no cooking stove, sleeping pad, sleeping bag and water filter, for example) my backpack is the lightest it’s ever been!  Whatever I lack, I will make-do with a little bit of creativity and resourcefulness.

My backpacking stuff


First week in Hawaii – Nov. 1-5, 2011

I spent last week with my Aunt Grace, Uncle Jondi, and their friend, Tiana, at the Westin Moana Surfrider hotel in Honolulu.  We went out for drinks every night and I could barely keep up due to a combination of the 6-hour time difference between the east coast and Hawaii and the fact that sharing a room with three other people isn’t very conducive to sleeping in.

Going out for drinks in Waikiki!

Me with Uncle Jondi and Aunt Grace

Waikiki beach at night

The days were spent enjoying the beautiful weather and the beach.  Wednesday, was spent recovering from a late night drinking session.  On Thursday morning, we ran for about an hour; later, we went snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.  On Friday morning, we went paddleboarding.  I didn’t like it so I traded my paddleboard in for a regular surfboard.  Waves in Waikiki are gentle and they break over a much wider section than they do in Virginia Beach.  I really enjoyed surfing in Waikiki.  Later that day, we drove to the North Shore for lunch and little bit of sightseeing.

Uncle Jondi, Tiana and I at Hanauma Bay after we went snorkeling

Oahu's north shore

Our last night out (From left to right: me, Tiana, Uncle Jondi, Kat, Mario, Kris, Jason and Aunt Grace)

Aunt Grace, Uncle Jondi and Tiana left for the airport at 5 am on Saturday to return to San Diego, where they live.  I had one last surf session with their friends Mario, Kat, Jason and Kris, right before gorging myself at the breakfast buffet and then flying out to Kauai.

Here we go again! – Nov. 1, 2011

At Bellingham International Airport in Washington state.

I’m at the airport again.
Last Friday, I was having dinner and drinks at the Arlington Tap House with my Uncle Jondi and Aunt Grace, along with their two friends, Diedre and Tiana, my Aunt Noelle, and my sister Rosalina and her boyfriend, Scott, all of whom were in town for the the Marine Corps Marathon and 10K run.  They suggested that I come out and run on Sunday.
Mind you that I am probably in the worst shape of my entire life right now having not done any real physical training during the six months that I was traveling in South America.  I ended up keeping pace with Tiana during the 10K run and, aside from some minor pain in my knees which I imagine is normal for my poor physical state, it was a piece of cake.  It’s nice to be able to do a 10k on a whim!
The other part of this story involves Aunt Grace inviting me to come out to Hawaii with them on Tuesday.  Immediately, the following flashed through my head when I heard this:

  • The benefits of modern technology afford me the ability to make cheap phone calls and apply for jobs from anywhere in the world.  I can be productive in my job search, pay my bills, communicate, and access information; all thanks to the internet.
  • I would benefit from a reduced cost of accommodation by sharing rooms with Tiana, Aunt Grace, and Uncle Jondi.  I slept in far worse conditions in other remote parts of the world, e.g. a filthy, fetid hotel room in New Delhi, India, a flea-infested bed in Lalibela, Ethiopia, on the floor of a cooking hut with malaria-carrying mosquitos in Zambia, and the freezing overnight bus from the salt flats of Uyuni to Cochabamba, Bolivia while keeled over from altitude sickness.
  • My first week back from S. America was really uneventful.  I went salsa dancing several times that week and that wasn’t nearly as fun as salsa dancing in Colombia.  It was a really big bummer for me, and if I don’t like something, I feel empowered to change it.  Everybody has that ability; they just need to have the courage to actually do it.
  • My financial situation is sound thanks to years of living beneath my means and being called “cheap” by virtually all the girls I’ve dated.  Live like no one else so later you can live like no one else.  These are words by finance guru Dave Ramsey that I’ve tried to live by.  At the same time, aside from socking away into retirement almost every penny that I’ve earned, I get a great deal more satisfaction in the profound experiences, relationships and personal growth that come as a result of being well-traveled than from buying stupid stuff that becomes obsolete over time.  Even though my travels might only last a few weeks, the things I learn will benefit me for the rest of my life, along with the relationships that I build.  My stories will be around long after I’m gone when I pass my journals to my grandkids.  The idea of making an impact like that is really attractive to me.  For that reason, I still don’t own a TV, iPod, or iPad.  I wear the same clothes that I bought years ago.  And I’ll drive my 2000 Camry until it no longer runs.
  • I will find a job eventually and inevitably, what’s the significance of another 2 weeks of learning, exploring, and experiencing the world in the grand scheme of things?
  • My gut instinct said, “Yes.  Hell yes.”

And so now I’m at the airport at Bellingham, Washington, typing this out while waiting for my flight to Honolulu to meet Uncle Jondi, Aunt Grace, and Tiana later tonight, 21.5 hours after leaving my house at 5:30 this morning.
I bought a one-way ticket so that I could have the strategic flexibility of going anywhere and doing anything I wanted after they leave on Saturday.  I have no idea what’s in store for me and no concrete plans, and that’s exactly how I like it.

Reverse culture shock – Oct. 26, 2011

I left Bogota at 11:18 PM on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011, had a quick layover in New York, and then arrived at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at 10:30 am. From there, it's a 15-minute train ride and a 7-minute walk to my house.

I’ve been home for 6 days now. It was nice to come home and visit with my parents and brother over the weekend. We saw Les Miserables at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts in D.C. In addition, I am excited to be able to brush my teeth with my Sonic Care toothbrush and to be able to flush toilet paper down the toilet once again.
However, there is a stark contrast between how I viewed home before and how I do now. It is said that the mind once stretched never returns fully to its original dimensions, and I have never been so affected by my experiences abroad as I am now. This is what is known as “reverse culture shock.”
I used to shrug this off because – let’s face it – I’ve been living in the U.S. nearly my entire life. This is my home. Yet, having traveled I feel that I demand more from this environment than before. Suddenly, my expectations in the U.S. are no longer met.
Here’s an example, on Saturday morning, my parents and I went out to an IHOP for breakfast. I ordered what I always used to order when I went to IHOP, corn beef hash, eggs and a tall, cold glass of orange juice. I expected to be excited about eating what I had considered in my mind to be a “proper” American breakfast. Yet when I tried the food, it tasted bland and it was very unappetizing. I wonder why I felt this way. I think it’s because I had become accustomed to eating fresh food in Colombia. For breakfast, I’d eat steak and eggs with rice and I’d wash it down with a cool, refreshing glass of either fresh-squeezed lemonade or maracuya (passionfruit) juice. And no longer can I eat meals for $2 or $2.50. I have to either cook myself or spend a small fortune eating out.
The other thing that really disappoints me in the U.S. is the style of salsa danced here. I went to a salsa club on Monday for my birthday to see how compatible salsa caleña is with the local style. I learned that no one can dance like I do here. The Colombian steps I use are too fast and confusing to the gringas, and they all expect to dance in a very regimented, slow form of salsa. Even the music was slow!
Most women were confused at how I danced, but there were also a few who were interested. I even had the opportunity to teach one girl a few of the Colombian steps. I figure that it’ll take some time, but salsa caleña will gain popularity in the DC metro salsa scene. I will teach them one gringa at a time. Honestly, if more Americans saw how they dance salsa in Cali, they would be converted in an instant, just as I was.
When coming back from an extended period of time spent abroad, it’s perfectly normal to feel as I do now about the home country.  As time moves on and I settle back into a normal routine, I’ll get better.  I have changed and it’s for the best.  After all, when is life experience ever a bad thing?
I miss Colombia dearly, but my life is in America. I am determined to make the most of it. I’ve always been able to find happiness where ever I am and there’s no reason why I can’t do that here at home. I figure that as long as I’m not stagnant, I’ll be fine. I’ve got plans to find a new job, keep my skills sharp, reconnect with people back home and stay active in general. Slowly but surely, life will return to normal for me. It just takes a little readjustment and adaptation on my part. I’ve done this before and I’ll do it again.  Viva America!
***(But I will still refuse to drink coffee unless it has panela (sugarcane) in it!  You just cannot find that in the USA, and it’s a shame because coffee with panela is a god-send!)

Done!- Oct. 20, 2011

View South America: May to Oct 2011 in a larger map
This is it- my last day in Colombia, which brings  nearly 6 months of traveling in South America to an end!  I have been to Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.
Each country was unique in its own way.  The most exceptional experiences included:

  • Exploring the Easter Island and seeing the ancient Rapa Nui statues on horseback
  • Backpacking on the W-trek to the Torres del Paine in the Chilean Patagonia
  • Hiking in Los Glaciares National Park in the Argentinian Patagonia
  • Walking right up to the Perrito Moreno glacier and watching chunks of ice fell off and crashed into the water below
  • Visiting Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro
  • Swimming with sea lions and observing the lack of fear towards humans that the animals displayed on the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
  • Spending a month in Cali, Colombia, taking salsa lessons and attending Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011, Cali’s world salsa festival

Along the way, I met many strangers who became dear friends.  I improved my Spanish language skills, spent hours blogging on my experiences, read more than a few books on my Kindle and learned about the different cultures that I have encountered in each country.
Everything I have learned and experienced during my travels will benefit me for the rest of my life.  Not only will I cherish the memories, but also the personal understanding of S. American culture and the acquisition of Spanish language skills will serve me well on a more practical level, especially as the demographics of the United States becomes more Hispanic and as globalization links people from other nations closer together.

Cali es Cali! Lo demas es loma! Sept. 20 – Oct. 18, 2011.

Cali.  I’m still in Cali.  It’s been 28 days since I first arrived on Sept. 21st and took my first private salsa class with Vanessa, my instructor.  I had no idea that I would like salsa as much as I dd.  And after a great deal of soul searching and cost-benefit analysis, I even paid the fee to change my return flight home so that I could stay two weeks longer than I had originally planned.  It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Vanessa and me

What can I say about Cali other than I am content learning salsa, practicing my Spanish, and really happy about how the last 6 months on the road and my life in general has been going.
Of all the wonderful places I’ve visited, Cali is the one place where I could see myself living- and I really mean living and being happy.  The next time I retire, I think I’d like to live in Cali.  It’s not the prettiest of cities, but it has become my favorite in all of Colombia.
Cali has been one of those places whose novelty hasn’t worn off on me and probably never will.  The style of salsa, salsa caleña, is unique and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.  It’s a lot faster than the salsa that we are accustomed to in the United States.  Here’s a video that I took during the first night of the Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011:

See how fast they move their feet?  I think it’s incredible.
Here’s another cool one that I found on YouTube:

Salsa is the dominant form of music and dance in Cali, hence its moniker as the “Salsa Capital of the World.”  The entire city is about salsa.  You hear it in every taxi, in every restaurant, in every dance club and on every street.  It is everywhere and everyone listens to it.  Young people listen to and dance with the same enthusiasm to the same music that their elders listened to when they themselves were young.
Fortunately, I arrived around the time for the Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011, Cali’s World Salsa Festival.  What’s interesting is the few couples and groups who are here from other cities within Colombia and even from the United States have noticeably less spectacular dance routines compared to the Caleña groups.

At the Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011

That's my adopted, Colombian sister Francy dancing front and center. She is indeed a world-class dancer!

Francy and me. She and her group Fiebre Latina won third place in the Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011, or World Salsa Festival in Cali! Congrats, Francy!

Several times a week, travelers from the hostel go out with local friends to go salsa dancing.  In the beginning, I’d mostly watch in awe as the locals did their turns and pasos Caleños. It took awhile, but, thanks to the patience of all the dance partners I’ve practiced with, both Colombianas and fellow travelers from the hostel alike, I was finally able to put everything I learned in class reasonably well out in public.  I am especially thankful for all the Colombian girls, like Monica and Francy in the picture below, who would ask me to dance when I was still a beginner.  I always enjoyed dancing with them because they would lead me since I didn’t know what I was doing.

With two local friends, Monica and Francy, at Tintindeo salsa club

At the World Salsa Festival with friends

So, I’m leaving Cali and a really great group of Colombian and international friends behind tonight.  After spending nearly a month here, I’ve learned how to dance salsa and I’m really looking forward to trying my new moves back home in the U.S.A!
I’ve had so much fun in Cali.  Thank you to all my friends here.  You made my visit unforgettable and one of the highlights of my entire 6  months in South America.  I’ll never forget you.  I love you all.
Me diverte mucho en Cali.  Gracias a todos mis amigos los que encontre aca.  Lo hiciste mi viaje en Cali inolvidable y uno de lo mejores de mis enteros 6 meses en S. America. Nunca te olvidare.  Los quiero mucho.
Cali es Cali.  Lo demas es loma. (Cali is Cali.  The rest is hills.)

I ended up changing my plan in order to stay an extra night in Cali!  Tonight, we are all going dancing at a salsa club named Siboney for my last hurrah.  I love Cali!

Quito, Ecuador – Sept. 17-20, 2011

On Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, Anna and I returned to Quito from the Galapagos Islands.  I accompanied her as she bought some last minute gifts to bring back home and then we had dinner at a Mexican restaurant right before she flew out that evening.
The next two days, I hung out with Rich Imamura, an old friend from Peace Corps Zambia.  I probably should’ve gone out and seen more of the city, but I was content with just eating, playing foosball and drinking beer at night.  I don’t excited about seeing another plaza, museum or church because I’ve already seen plenty throughout S. America.
At 9:50 am on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, I hopped on a bus to the Ecuador-Colombia border to make my way back to Cali, Colombia.  I arrived in Cali late at 2:45 am.  My goal in Cali was to spend the next two weeks learning salsa until my planned flight home to the United States on Oct. 4, 2011.

The Galapagos Islands – SCUBA diving at North Seymour Island – Sept. 16, 2011

The SCUBA diving at North Seymour Island was just ok.  We were expecting to see hammerhead sharks, but we saw not one.
Still, Anna and I considered the trip a success in that we were competent enough to safely complete the dive.  Anna hadn’t dived in about 4 years and she probably should’ve had a refresher course, but we thought she’d be ok if we winged it.
I, on the other hand, had only 5 dives under my belt.  We had inquired about diving at North Seymour Island with another dive company and they turned me down saying that the dive was only for people who had done at least 25 dives.  I might have been a beginner, but I felt I could wing it, too.
We did see some cool fish, including a moray eel.  Unfortunately, neither of us had an underwater camera so I don’t have pictures from that dive.  All of my pictures from this trip are from the dive boat.
All the other tourists hung out in the shadow deck where the benches were.  I thought it’d be cool if I walked along the rail of the boat towards the sun deck, where I could take in the pleasant breeze, the sun and get a better view of everything.  It was perfectly safe and I wondered why no one else was out there.  In fact, I was glad no one else was there.  I persuaded Anna to come join me and we indulged in the beauty of the Galapagos Islands all around us without any other tourists.  We felt like kings of the world.
This was yet another moment when I was glad Anna was there so I could turn to her and express myself, “Hey, Anna!  Isn’t this cool?!”

Living the dream!

Anna with her pimp pose

Back in Puerto Ayora, we walked a past the fish market.  There a sea lion and several pelicans waited for scraps of fish.

The fish market at Puerto Ayora

Anna wasn’t feeling well so she took a nap as soon as we got back from SCUBA diving.  When she woke up, we went to dinner and took a walk afterwards at the public pier where we spotted a bunch of rays in the spotlights.


We didn’t party that night as originally planned.  Anna went to bed early, while I lingered around the hostel until I finally decided to go to bed.  The next morning, we flew to back to Quito, on mainland Ecuador.

The Galapagos Islands – Charles Darwin Research Center & Tortuga Bay – Sept. 15, 2011 (Day 5 of 5)

We had spent the night in the harbor at Puerto Ayora.  Our anchored boat was surrounded by other tour boats.  I spotted a blacktip shark in the water.

Blacktip shark

Other boats in port

We boarded a dinghy which took us to the Charles Darwin Research Station.  There, we saw many giant land tortoises, the most famous of which is Lonesome George.  Somewhere between the age of 90 to 100 years old, George is the last of his species and efforts to get him to breed with other turtles have failed.  When he dies, so will his species.
Charles Darwin Research Station

Lonesome George and me

Lonesome George

Other Galagagos tortoises

After the Charles Darwin Research Center, Anna and I checked into a hotel in Puerto Ayora, scheduled our SCUBA trip for the next day, and then we relaxed on the beach at Tortuga Bay.

Anna and me at Tortuga Bay