Cafe Sol Naciente

I met Arturo at the Cafe Expo Tarrazu 2018. The first thing he said to me, “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu,” went completely over my head. I was still rather new in Costa Rica, and getting adjusted to hearing Spanish all the time that the Japanese didn’t even register. It wasn’t until my wife, who knows a little Japanese, replied in Japanese that my mind finally picked up on the language shift.

IMG_9193

The son of a rather large coffee farm owner (obviously the farm is large…the father is in great shape), Arturo dedicates his free time to helping around the farm. Whether that means harvesting, processing, or giving tours, it seems like he’s all over the place and is obviously very knowledgable about Cafe Sol Naciente’s operations. When he’s not helping his father produce quality coffee, Arturo spends his time at his 9-5 as an accountant for the local electric company, coaching professional woman’s soccer, teaching himself Japanese, or, supporting his wife at her professional hand-ball games. Fortunately for us, Arturo was able to set aside some time and give a tour of his father’s coffee farm, Finca Sol Naciente.

Cafe Sol Naciente literally translated comes out to Coffee Rising Sun. It’s no surprise then that Japan, Land of the Rising Sun, is this farm’s target consumer, and, fortunately enough, their leading importer.

IMG_9281

The farm itself sits just outside of the small town of San Marcos, Costa Rica. After a nerve-wracking 20 minute drive through near vertical mountain “roads” (I will never take a FWD sedan again), we arrived at the entrance to the Finca, where a welcoming sign in Spanish, English, and Japanese invited us to the farm.

IMG_9195

The day we arrived, even though towards the end of season, Arturo and his family were in the middle of processing some recently harvested coffee fruit.

IMG_9192

The coffee fruit is picked, boxed, and driven to the processing plant, where, depending on the finish, it is stripped of its outer layer, dried, and finally bagged.

934D8498-D0CE-4629-B420-014EDAA237EC
Arturo Senior, owner of Cafe Sol Naciente (middle) and two workers from Nicaragua
IMG_9194
Picked fruit are placed here, rinsed, and sent down the chute to be processed
IMG_9184
Arturo Sr. performing QA
IMG_9179
As the cylinder spins, the brushes strip the fruit of its outer layer

IMG_9187

Since some fruit sneaks by with its outer layer still intact, as seen above, the selection is sent through again, sometimes three times to ensure uniformity. It is absolutely crucial, when coffee farms are producing a certain wash, or aspiring for a certain taste, that there is uniformity among the beans. One bean picked too early, not processed enough, or dried too little, can completely change the taste of a cup of coffee. Although some coffee defects, such as Shells or Floaters, are nearly impossible to prevent, and even harder to detect, specialty coffee farmers must go above and beyond to prevent and detect what they can, in order to provide a quality cup.

IMG_9183
Stripped outer layer of fruit

IMG_9175

Cafe Sol Naciente has a goal of repurposing 100% of their waste. As a result, they dry  the stripped outer skin, and re-purpose it as fertilizer on the farm.

IMG_9191
African Drying Beds
IMG_9188
Natural Finish

Natural finish coffee, as seen above, is dried with the outer layer still attached to the coffee. This gives the cup a much fruitier taste, compared to other processes.

IMG_9170
Coffee Flower

IMG_9168

“Honey” processed coffee, what Costa Rica is known for in the coffee industry, is dried with its mucilage still intact, as opposed to “washed” or “full wash” coffee where the mucilage is removed. The coffee dried with the mucilage still attached provides a much sweeter cup. To make matters even more complicated, there are varying levels of “honey” finish, with gold honey, red honey, and black honey. As the level of honey intensifies or “darkens,” so does the sweetness of the cup. However, black honey, dried slower using more shade to leave more mucilage intact than gold and red honey, requires much more maintenance and care as the risk of “souring” or undesired fermentation increases drastically.

IMG_9165
Coffee ready to be shipped
IMG_9161
This is how I imagine Okinawa roasting spaces look like
IMG_9160
Eucalyptus tree providing natural shade

IMG_9157

Cafe Sol Naciente experiments with different fruit planted next to coffee plants. The fruit, in this case, banana, mango, or lemon trees provide natural shade for the coffee. Arturo Sr., also wants to see if the byproducts of the fruit trees will have any effect on the taste of the coffee. Very excited to try the results.

IMG_9154
Banana Tree
IMG_9149
Eucalyptus Tree

IMG_9141

C98ECB40-CA4A-44E7-ACD1-F0EC63804B9E
Chris performing some QA

As the tour winded down, Chris, Arturo’s nephew who accompanied us on the tour, was our saving grace as he asked all the questions I hadn’t even thought of. My personal favorite, “Why does coffee taste so good?” has stayed with me to this day. Some people say it’s the phenolic lipids in the coffee, but I’m more interested in what Chris has to say on the matter the next time we visit.

We couldn’t be more thankful for the tour. Hopefully one of these days, I’ll be able to taste the results of the “fruit tree” experimentation or, equally as enticing, see my first professional handball game. Until then, I wish Cafe Sol Naciente and family the best of luck.

FD0D2164-BC78-4D25-8CBA-37915CBC323F

Advertisements

On Colombia

Ah Colombia. The country I caught the travel bug from. When I was about 10 years old, my Father and I would go for 3-4 week long trips to Bogota during the summer. A child, armed with the knowledge that such a different culture exists, in such a different part of the world, will become immediately and immensely more curious about what else the world has to offer. Now, at 28, having been so deeply affected by a country that I never really called home, I was finally able to go back and visit, thanks of course, to the amazing hospitality of the Jordan-Cetina family. From the little knowledge I had when I was 10 years old in 1999, it seems that the country has come a long, long way. A modern, internationally in-tune youth, a promising Democracy, a well established economy, and, not to mention the all too efficient public transportation system, El TransMilenio, Colombia has effectively transformed itself into a 21st century nation.

Of note, Bogota is situated at an altitude of 2640 m (8660 ft). Some travelers may experience some soroche, or altitude sickness as I did my first night back in town. Symptoms could include headache, upset stomach, dehydration, loss of appetite, slight depression, insomnia, difficulty breathing, and/or nose bleeds. To combat this, hydrate heavily, don’t train or workout for the first 3-4 days, carb up, and realize that symptoms will probably dissipate soon.

Processed with VSCO with nc preset
Overlooking the beautiful Capital, Bogota, Colombia
1F1A2461-5E5B-4BFF-8626-A9AE8DA29E06
At the top of Monserrate 
Processed with VSCO with a10 preset
Capital town square
90856FA7-8580-4B36-9435-6ED91B78E639
Su banera y su gente

D65DF2A2-A02C-4229-8027-F88644F12C0F

3769F57B-D9CA-4D55-8358-6554DFB208F5
“Woman in Red,” my favorite picture ever taken.
F536AD8E-5DCF-414D-B10C-2F1D05917AFE
The Great Simon Bolivar (South American liberator from Spain, also known as the George Washington of Latin America) Estate
D9165802-3EB2-42B7-B3C6-FBFED59B9533
Marketplace at 3,152 meters on top of Monserrate
699455AE-0739-48F2-9867-E123131CBDF1
Bogota’s Art Museum

E947C39B-8522-4E2C-9195-DA04FA983BAA

9AFF4057-DD8C-491A-8DF4-C6CCFC1AA4EF
A play on Juan Valdez, an icon in Colombia that was used by the Coffee Industry in 1958 to represent the work of the Colombian Farmer, bring recognition to their work, and the superiority of Colombia Coffee (Last argument is debatable).
80FE32C9-9533-4BA8-BEEF-0C775525FCB4
What a way to be greeted at Santa Marta (Colombia’s Northern Caribbean Coast Town) Airport

384E28E1-FA15-4783-A16A-19B33E82186F

CA6745DF-A9D4-4DAF-A50B-64E49EC2CF05
Santa Marta, The Town where famous singer Carlos Vives is from.
672C849C-F363-4B15-9383-C6D2C166953C
Kobe Briant? 16? I was confused daily by this piece of art.
A35D0053-7CF8-4EFD-8551-6660A88A35AC
Hidden Caribbean Beaches

D62FF237-9E00-47DD-9512-B7C9B4788AF2

1853C10F-384B-4122-8815-DB1BE89A1AB2
Tayrona Beach

4B82F45C-77D7-472A-8856-E7D2ECB432C1

6A3B4E98-CDF4-4845-AEB0-537D0F545945

8188963B-3A40-47C2-93A9-85009AED43E2

02176FCB-50D5-49E2-9436-BBE2E9DB5345
First and Last Time White Water Rafting
993A48DB-4221-4975-8917-471F8E869325
Our last night in Bogota, greeted with an amazing sunset

 

Mt. Kayagatake (茅ケ岳) 

茅 – miscanthus reed

岳 – peak, mountain

A good friend of mine had just gotten back from deployment and contacted me. “I’ve been around people 24/7 for the last few months, I just need to get away from people for a few hours.” I knew the perfect solution. My recently newfound hobby, hiking.

“You got any hiking gear? Boots, pants, packs?” I asked. Andrew responded, “Nah, but I should be fine with my running shoes. You think there will be a lot of snow?” The next two sentences would stick with us throughout the entire hike.

“Shouldn’t be that much, I went hiking last week, not that much snow. Plus its a whole ten degrees warmer this weekend, I’m willing to bet it’s all melted by now.”And with that, I convinced him that running shoes would be perfectly suitable for a spring hike.

We set off by car the next morning at 0600 en route to Mt. Kinpu. After about two hours of good conversation and empty (yet still expensive) highways, my buddy looked off into the distance and made an alarming observation.

“Are those mountains ahead of us where we’re headed?” I looked at my phone, “Yeah, they have to be…”

Silence.

“There’s umm…it looks like there’s quite a bit of snow on those mountains…”

Silence.

“Yeah…I guess we’ll see a little snow after all. You think your running shoes will be able to hold up?”

Silence.

“Meh…not much I can do about it now I suppose.”

As we got closer to the mountains and left the city behind us we felt what must have been a ten degree drop in temperature. The car took its first wind up the side of the mountain, and just as it did, we saw just how much snow there really was. “There shouldn’t be that much snow” had quickly turned into “Will my car be able to make it out of here with these abysmal tires?” I looked over at my friend and I could tell he was of the same opinion as me “We drove out this far, there’s really no turning back” although I sensed his level of thrill was not quite as high as mine, given the running shoes situation.

I followed the course on my phone that the lovely British voice was directing me towards and we came to an unexpected stop. Before us was a small white truck with an older Japanese man, in what appeared to be his maintenance uniform, closing a large yellow gate that blocked the road. I knew I was in for some exhausting and confusing Japanese.

“すみません、 あの、 行けませんか?” Now, this guy, was either a complete asshole or gave me too much of a benefit of the doubt. He replied, in full blown, fast paced Japanese. The only part I caught was 4PM. So of course I replied, “ああ、そうですか。えとね、いつに入られますか?” His next set of actions led me to believe he was leaning more towards being an asshole than the alternative. He looked at my friend, then back at me, then simply replied “明日.” And with that, he turned towards the gate and proceeded to close it as if we had simply vanished into thin air.

“Sweet. Whelp, I guess we’re not going up that hike today…” My buddy, being the sharp Naval Officer that he is, responded without hesitation, “I bet if we can find a visitor’s center around here, we can make our way to a good hike. In less than a minute, he had one pulled up in his phone and we made our way, set back but undefeated.



After thirty minutes in the tourist information center, the employee there kindly recommended we check out a trail just south of there, Mt. Kayagatake. “But,” he warned, “It will be dangerous for your friend because of his shoes.”  I looked Andrew inquisitively and as he gave a thumbs up saying, “Lets get this show on the road.”

We drove off and found ourselves at the start of the trail within the hour. Stepping out of the safety of our car into the cold forest with its makeshift parking lot, we could not see any snow and were both slightly relieved. That sense of relief lasted all of thirty minutes until we left the parking lot and saw nothing suffocating, blinding white snow in every direction. In fact, the only indicator of where the trail went was the absence of trees and slight indentation into the earth.

Processed with VSCO with a8 preset

I have to admit I began to feel bad for my buddy that was about to hike this entire mountain overtaken by snow, in Nike running shoes. Even though it was fairly warm outside for April, every step had us shin deep in snow. And a wrong placement of the foot, could easily mean slipping and falling over onto the snow, or worse, a hidden rock.

IMG_1005

The tempo of our conversations were timed by the focus, or lack thereof, on our foot placement. “This would be right around the time bears would be waking up,” Andrew pointed out, “I bet they’re going to be rather hungry.” Both lacking a bear bell, we attempted to keep a steady conversation, only when the snow was thinner and the ground, relatively flat. We did this to not inadvertently sneak up on any bears, and to try to keep our thoughts away from the subject of bears; however, that seems to be all we talked about. “What does bear piss smell like? Can you smell if a bear was recently in the area? Can you accidentally wake one up early from a hibernation?”

IMG_1004

Pushing on with our bear talk, we came through this beautiful snow covered valley of trees, with an incline at the end. The bright white snow and thin white trees for hundreds of feet in every direction really made you feel like you were on another planet. It was absolutely stunning to see, but, you could only see so much of it as you made sure you didn’t slip and fall off of the trail.

IMG_0977

The more we ascended, the more the snow seemed to thin out. We could feel earth beneath our footwear and the stress of foot placement eased tremendously. You’d be surprised how much brain power making sure your foot steps in the exact spot takes. We were both pretty relieved to be able to concern ourselves with other things. Like taking pictures, stopping to hydrate, and bears of course.

IMG_0976

IMG_0973

IMG_1002

The rest of the hike was rather straightforward and uneventful, although challenging. The last 1/3 of this mountain saw the greatest amount of elevation change. Although the snow never died away, it did become small enough of a problem that we stopped paying attention to it. My buddy fell a few times of course, but that was mostly on the descent. Mostly.

IMG_1003

IMG_0981
That’s Fuji-san in the background. I can never get a picture of him without some cloud coverage…

IMG_0998

IMG_0979

I’m sure he will hate me for bringing this up, but during the descent, we decided to “run” down the mountain. Looking back it wasn’t the greatest idea, in fact it was more of a slide, but it was pretty entertaining. During one leg of this “run” I was leading and all of the sudden I stop hearing the sound of Andrew’s foot steps behind me. I assumed perhaps he was in the middle of a really long, quiet slide so I didn’t think much of it. After a good minute or two of silence behind me, I turn around to find, Andrew, laying flat on his back about 200 feet away. I double back and find him sitting in the snow, with a dirt streak all along his left pant leg. I stupidly remember asking him “What happened?” Even a West Point graduate could have pieced this one together. “Are you alright?” I asked, trying to deliver more purposeful questions. As soon as I realized he was ok, I was dying with laughter. He had, not even five minutes prior, bet me that he would slip fewer times than I would, running shoes and all.

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

Processed with VSCO with nc preset

Mt. Echizengatake (越前岳)

越 -Surpass, Exceed

前 – In Front, Before

岳 – Peak, Mountain

I had just gotten back to Japan from Christmas vacation in the United States, and I was bored out of my mind. I had regrettably finished all of my Netflix shows on the 22 hour commute to and from home, and I couldn’t find many people that wanted to go surfing in negative degree water (myself included).

Deciding to get off the couch and sweep away my suffocating boredom, I put my morning cup of coffee down and picked up my iPhone. I opened Google Maps (highly recommended app for living in Japan) and looked for a mountain within driving range. I found one just south of Fuji-san, three hours away. Afraid of losing any more daylight, I threw on my favorite pair of hiking pants and was out the door within a matter of minutes.

Absolutely nothing remarkable or exciting happened on my drive to the mountain. I listened to a few podcasts from SYSK (highly recommended podcast, great content, outstanding presentation) and safely arrived about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I parked my car, grabbed my gear (camera and backpack full of one rice snack due to poor planning) and I was off.

About 100 steps up the trail, I kept getting this nagging feeling to turn around. I knew Fuji was close, but even from the parking lot, I had somehow missed the fact that it was this close, and this visible.

IMG_0673

I turned back around, and continued on with my hike. You can see all of the cars in the parking lot in the picture above, but I had yet to see any hikers on the trail. It could just be me, but I’m always a little unsettled when I don’t see at least a few souls enjoying the hike. I use a similar rule when visiting foreign bodies of water. “If none of the locals are swimming, there is no way I’m getting in the water.” Well, I didn’t have that option here after a 3 hour drive so I tried to just put that thought away.

IMG_0717
This small patch of leafless trees wasn’t the most comforting either

IMG_0720

About halfway through the ascent, I finally came across another human being, a group on their way back down the mountain. Solo hikes are fun because you don’t have to worry about too much talking, too little talking, pace, or burdens of injuries, but, too much silence is rather unsettling. Overcome with excitement, I had failed to realize that it was too early for anyone to be making a descent.

As I passed by and greeted them, the leader of the pack stated “Be careful, its dangerous.” I asked why in Japanese and I’m not sure what startled him more. The fact that I understood his comment, or replied in Japanese, but shock and confusion was well written all over his face. “There’s too much snow ahead, you need (word in Japanese that I did not know).” “Eh” I replied “what is it that I need?”

His face shifted back to calm and collected. As if me not being fluent and able to understand Japanese completely put his world back in order. “Cramp-onzu.” “Cramp-ons,” I thought, “Hmmm….that is definitely a thing that I do not possess.” Slightly defeated, I asked if he thought I could still continue. Unsure whether to use English or Japanese he replied “Ah….maybe ok because…..” The words had escaped them. “強いので、その大丈夫です,” he proudly stated, “気を付けてね,” waved, and continued his descent.

I thought to myself. “I’ll be ok because I’m strong?….What does my strength have to do with the snow?….It must be pretty bad if they all decided to turn around….I wonder if this is going to be one of those situations where I wish I made THE OTHER choice….Well, no turning back.”

IMG_0713

It took me at least another 20 minutes of hiking before I even saw snow. I had started to think maybe that guy was just messing with me. When I finally did see the snow, I was naively unimpressed. I distinctly remember thinking “Locals here always over-prepare and err too much on the side of caution.”

IMG_0711

And then I was alone again. Not a single soul. “Where are all of those parking lot car owners?” I thought to myself. The snow on the trail began picking up, but nothing worth worrying about. It was so thin that I could “feel” the dirt beneath each step. I told myself I was really glad I didn’t quit.

IMG_0704
Trees could save a fall

Processed with VSCO with a8 preset

And that’s when the snow reared her subtly irritating head. It wasn’t so much the thickness of the snow, but the “challenging” aspect to it. I now found myself on angled trails, with no real grip on my boots and no cramp-ons of course. I alternated between trying to shimmy up this trail, not fall off, and grab trees to pull myself through when I could. I, hated, myself. Why was I so stubborn? Why did I decide to swim when none of the locals were swimming?

Processed with VSCO with nc preset

The snow never gave way to dirt, it was always ice. Ice, ice and more ice. My boots couldn’t grip to save my life. If I wasn’t holding on to a tree, I was sliding, or on hands and knees, digging into the snow with my shivering hands, and planting my legs to prevent myself from sliding backwards. I was slightly comforted in the fact that there were so many trees all around me that if I fell, it would be a short “slide” into a tree nearby. However, I would lose all sense of direction and would be in some serious trouble.

IMG_0701

I had decided by now two things. 1. There was no way I was going to let this snow defeat me. And 2. I need to invest in some hiking gloves. Sliding up the mountain, I found a new drive to not let this mountain beat me. I would allow my hands to go temporarily numb to the point where I could no longer grip the trees and then curse myself as I warmed them back up. I’m sure, if you could have been there with me, you would have died of laughter. The funniest part, I think, was in the thickest part of the snow. There was a small gap where no trees could be reached. My hands were numb and my legs were killing me at this point from digging so deep into the earth. I tried to “hop” in between the gap of trees in order to grab the next tree. Well, I successfully “hopped” in between, but when I went to grab the tree, my hand was too numb to even feel for anything, let alone grip it. I lost my balance and fell hard on my right knee. I was livid. This damn snow. I went to stand up, but I realized, that any significant shift in my center of gravity would have me back on the ice. So, I slid back, using my hands to shuffle me along to the last tree. My “weather resistant” (read: non-waterproof) camera had snow all over it like it was about to be in an Old Navy Christmas Display. I finally reached the previous tree, hands burning, and I just sat there, trying to wash away my frustration.

IMG_0699

About five minutes later, I finally got back up and attempted to “hop” again. This time, I wrapped my fleece around my hands for added grip. Successful, I continued my ascent and was graced with a marvelous sign. No, more, snow. I’m not really sure the science behind it. I had always assumed that, the higher the altitude, the stronger the snow, but I wasn’t complaining, neither were my hands.

IMG_0698

IMG_0696

IMG_0695

I finished out the hike energetic but grumpy. Once I got the top, I finally saw another person. A friendly lady that asked me to take her picture. I did of course, and in return she offered me a Japanese snack. I was deeply embarrassed as all I had to offer in return was a rice snack that had, without a doubt, been crushed from all of my falls on the trail. I thanked her and realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I laugh at it now, but all of my irritation, frustration, and pain suddenly made sense. I ate her delicious snack and began my descent. My first thought, “I’m going to have to get to that damn point again, and I’m really going to lose it.” Fortunately, gravity would be on my side this time.

CAD82557-E062-44CB-8D32-630693C4E267

But seriously, where were all those people who parked their cars in the parking lot? I’m still pretty creeped out by that to this day.

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

Beijing (北京)

Beijing

北 – North

京 – Capital

map_china

If you know absolutely noting about China and her history, you’ve probably at least heard of Beijing. If you haven’t, no worries, I’ve got you covered.

Beijing, meaning quite literally, northern capital, was given that name in the 15th century to distinguish it from Nanjing (南京), Southern Capital. With a population of 19 million, it comes in 8th place for Most Populated Cities, just behind Osaka, Japan and ahead of New York, New York. Popular attractions include The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.

BF8D9103-5B8E-4919-A385-2E95E0CBDDFB

“The air is so terrible in Beijing.” When I told people I was headed to Beijing to visit a family friend, this was their response 75% of the time. And 10% of the time it was “Oh nice, The Great Wall.” Not to forget the 5% of the time where it was simply “Ha, Communism.” As I boarded the plane headed East, I really had no idea what to expect from China. As an American, and more importantly, an American in the military, I was raised to fear China, to distrust anything Chinese, and to view anything they touched as inferior. I can honestly say that in the “Chinese Visa Acquisition Process” I definitely held these views. The number of times I was told simply “not today” or “this isn’t good enough” when just last week, the SAME LADY at the Chinese Embassy had said “this is all you will need next week,” was very trying on my open mind. When asked to surrender my passport for a week so they could “process it” I naturally assumed that it was now being shipped off to some black market or a tracking device was being added so they could “watch me.” I had heard of stories of cameras hidden in hotel rooms in China, and of people just disappearing after their visit.

As the plane took off I remember thinking “Welp, no turning back” as I mentally increased my personal vigilance and security posture. All around me there was nothing but a strange Asian dialect my ears had not yet been accustomed to after a year in Japan. After 4 very quick hours, the plane landed and we debarked, grabbing our luggage and heading to customs.

My first official interaction with China went smooth enough. “Passport!” The stern looking Chinese customs official barked as I fumbled through my bags. “How long are you here!” He ever so gently screamed. “Just 5 days,” I replied, trying to speak gently enough to calm the situation that seemed to be getting out of hand. There was the awkward pause that I always seem to find myself in at international airports where, they’ve already scanned my passport, but continue searching. Leaning against the counter, bags at my feet in disarray, and fearing that they will somehow find out, that one time, when I was 11, I once thought of grabbing an extra packet of BBQ sauce from Chic-Fil-A even though they said the limit was 2, and throw me in jail. Luckily, that didn’t happen this time and he gently ushered me through, “Ok, go!” Maybe it was just when he spoke English, but I really hope, for the sake of his family, that his Chinese Bedside Manner was better than his English…

As I successfully walked through customs, I approached a line that scanned everyone’s bags. I waited, patiently, as the line proceeded. There were two airport officials, both Chinese of course, and about, 40 or 50 passengers that had already made it through customs. They were there, working the line through, and randomly inspecting passports. “China doesn’t play around,” I thought. The longer I waited in line, the more I started to notice. “Hmm…they are only asking a particular demographic for their passports…” I thought. There were three African men a few people in front of me, and almost systematically, when they got to the scanner “Passports!…” “Maybe they’re asking more people and I’m just not realizing it…” I continued to optimistically tell myself. I kept watching. A family of Argentinians went through, speaking their Argentinian Spanish loud and proud as they are known to do (much love) and no passport check. A Chinese man went through. No check. A Japanese couple just ahead of me went through. No. Check. Finally it was my turn. I almost bet myself $50 that they would check mine, due to, you know, security reasons. I should have taken myself up on that. “Passport!” The “extremely friendly” Chinese security woman barked. I smiled, looked behind searching for some support in how ridiculous this was, handed her my passport, and she shoved it back like she had been on this shift for too long now.

Ignoring the “passport selection process,” and trying to remain optimistic about the People’s Republic, I marched on through the airport, finally being picked up by the family friend around midnight. We drove through the night, passing utterly insane drivers, enormous skyscrapers, and people on the side of the road, offering to wash the insane amount of dirt off of your car that every single car on the road had.

D7AFF8C1-DFE7-48C6-AEE2-2731D3EDDF05

The next morning I awoke to an absolutely gorgeous view of the city. The sun was just rising, and this panoramic view made for the perfect addition to my morning cup of local tea. Without skipping a beat, we left for The Great Wall. Everything about Beijing seemed normal enough. The people were there. The buildings were there. Sure it was a little dirty, but what major city isn’t?

This is right about when Beijing’s charm started to hit me. The locals, for the most part, had no idea what I was saying, and I, of course, returned the favor. But communication is always more than words, and I could tell that these people weren’t the cold barbarians I had been made to believe. Our driver, a Chinese man whose name I will NEVER be able to pronounce, kept making sure that we were at our highest levels of comfort. Every time we almost got in an accident, which happened more than a handful times, he looked back and gave a thumbs up with questioning eyebrows. The men and women at the produce and meat stands gave free samples, and said something in Chinese which I translated via body language and intonation as, “These are great, you are great, you deserve these.” And when we declined to buy, “Have a marvelous day!” I’m guessing of course.

7D9152DD-DDC9-48FF-A314-9A3B8BF2FFDD
Maobama

Finally arriving to The Great Wall, we purchased our tickets, took the cable car up and saw, with our own eyes, one of the great wonders of the world. I was pretty taken aback. My friend had probably been here numerous times and was probably tired of bringing every visitor here, but you can’t go to Beijing and not see it at least once. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of graffiti on the wall, along with stolen breaks and general decay.

B8102904-91D5-4753-8136-C8E065254370

Processed with VSCO with a9 preset
We were in front of this couple here on the left just about the entire time, and, although in Chinese, they appeared to be having an argument, the entire time.

After The Wall, our hosts took us to a local grocery store. There was a VERY STRANGE smell that permeated throughout the store. If you took a plastic water jug, heated it, and added raw chicken to it, you could possibly mimic the smell. If that isn’t enough to make you uncomfortable, there was, so, much, raw, meat, just hanging out.

A9C56990-A49C-433F-A30C-E40FEE8C4DEF
Raw Poultry
DA6874AD-E4C2-4D54-8778-F057CB1DA8A9
No gloves

E19F27B9-7991-4459-89B0-91019824FDE6

824F248B-2AA6-46CD-947A-5C1432256D6E

D46F8D21-55E5-4FC2-847E-FF4EBEEAE7FE

If you’re a savvy reader, or are irritated by mistakes, as I am, even though I make them myself, you probably noticed the percentages in the beginning did not add up to 100%. If you didn’t catch that, no worries. The remaining 5% of people, when made aware of my trip to Beijing, commented “They have amazing food there.” These wise 5%, were absolutely correct.

After getting back to the house, resting up, showering, and heading back out, we made it to a authentic Chinese restaurant. American me expected to see, Kung Pao Chicken, General Tsao Chicken, or any other popular Chinese food item. I was, blown away. Our host ordered this fried duck for us. I have no idea what part of the duck it was, but, the way this meat literally melted in your mouth, as the sugar coating broke apart and gave you a caramel sensation followed by succulent protein made me completely fall in love with China. There was this spicy chicken dish, seasoned with all kinds of herbs and spices. I not only ate my serving, but I had the audacity to ask my host “How hungry are you reaaaallllly?……” It was that good. If you ever get the chance to travel in Asia, go to China, find yourself in Beijing, and try real Chinese food. You will be blown away, or discover that you really don’t have any taste buds.

The next day we were arranged to meet with a Chinese tour guide that would take us around the famous Square, and forbidden city. She was a nice enough women, late 20’s with great English and a great depth of knowledge about China. She pointed out almost every building and gave its history. Right around now, I looked around and noticed the air looked quite odd. I thought it was just the way the sun was rising, but the “filter” didn’t leave once the sun had completely risen. “This is the smog we are famous for,” our tour guide explained. I honestly cant remember if she said that the fog was worse in the winter because everyone was using their heaters and increasing energy consumption…or better in the winter because the air was less humid and thin (if you know please inform me, I’m pretty irritated with myself that I can’t remember).

7CB87981-AC7C-4B1B-B122-9C521E500C8F

A38465C2-4339-47BE-A214-D751354A7AAC
Apparently there were no clouds. This is the smog, that is the sun.

After arriving at all the tourist traps, she started getting pretty political. Really all I care to say about that, but I was worried a passing guard would hear her rhetoric and throw us all in jail. I was happy when she switched from politics and current events to history. Did you know the Emperor of China had a whole city of concubines for him and him alone? I hadn’t. I looked at my girlfriend and made the facial expression for “That would be pretty cool huh?” She wasn’t as amused by this fact, and even less so by my stupidity.

676D1FBE-B02F-4FE1-AAF8-2585B386F0F3
I HATED standing watch in uniform. I empathized with this guy. Pretty sure we had a moment.

I was really pleasantly surprised by Beijing and China as a whole. They weren’t these savage monsters that knew nothing but how to be rude and untrustworthy. I’m sure they have that, hell, name a country that doesn’t. And although their customer service may not be as crisp as Japan’s, there certainly is something to be said about Chinese hospitality. Of course, I got strange looks in certain places. This really old guy just came up to my face and looked at me. I looked at my tour guide searching for an explanation, and she just shrugged. But people, for the most part, were just as friendly as I had been experiencing back “home” in Japan. Hell, the customer service of these “rude and backwards people” definitely beat some of the restaurants I frequented back in the States.

Right after this “old guy incident,” my tour guide gasped as she looked at her phone. “Trump just won…” she let out in despair. I chuckled as I realized I found out about who my next President was from a Chinese woman in Beijing.

Death Valley (デスヴァレー国立公園)

The Hike that Started it All

First and foremost, let me apologize for the pictures. The quality is terrible, the creativity is minimal, if existent at all. At the time, I was sporting an iPhone4. That is not a typo. As a result, I hope these will be the poorest images on this site; however, they are the only ones I have of a very significant hike for me.




I had been in San Diego for about a month now. A friend decided they wanted to come out to visit, and had also decided that it would be a great time to hike the Mojave. I knew absolutely nothing about hiking. I knew nothing about trails, gear, conditioning, but I knew I was interested. After hours spent watching videos of people getting lost in deserts, mountains, and jungles, I knew I would love it, I just didn’t know how to start.

I went to the local REI and asked the poor guy working there probably close to a thousand questions. “What kind of boots should I use? Do type of socks matter? How much food should I bring? Do I really need these water purifying tablets?” After 3 or 4 trips, of lengthy question and answer sessions I had my gear. I had previously purchased a Mountaineering Book so I had somewhat of a baseline level of knowledge, but book knowledge is quite different from experience. Luckily, the staff at REI could provide that.

With my boots, socks, pants, backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and recommended food (and water of course) I was ready to go. I picked my friend up from the airport in a rental car and we immediately set off. The trip to the desert wasn’t bad. We only encountered one minor scare. I decided to chance it on the gas and just get some when we got there. Dumbest idea I’ve had. A gas station in the desert. No idea why that sounded like a good idea. After pulling up to the “Mojave Desert Information Center” and not seeing a gas station, we realized this could be a problem. I asked the information guy where the nearest gas station was. 15 miles?!?!? I had 8 in the tank. An ever re-occurring mixture of fear and excitement met me when I got back in the car. “Well, this could either end up in one of two ways,” I thought. The sun was pounding onto the gravel road. Unfortunately, we saw no tumbleweeds, as would have been indicative of even a slight breeze. All we were met with was the wavy haze of an overheated road far off in the distance.

“Just let the car coast,” I kept thinking. I kept checking the gas, and kept looking at my friend, who did not seem as worried as I did. We crept forward, looking at our phones every few minutes praying we would come across some cellular phone signal in case the worst happened. “Well, we do have enough food and water for a few days, worst comes to worst…” I was the only one that laughed. We spent the next 30 minutes, going just under the speed limit, killing daylight and our adventure, creeping towards the gas station. We finally arrived, somehow, with no gas. I popped open the tank, and it let out a breathe of air, almost as if it was exhausted, giving us all the fumes of gas it could muster up to get us to the gas station.

We filled up, let out a sigh of relief, and got back on the road, racing back towards the parking lot trying to save daylight. After finally arriving, we hopped out of the car, excited to have a full tank of gas, and, although a shortened one, a whole day of adventure ahead.

B7F7281D-85DE-494E-8FE3-58C9CFBCD3D1

The trail was absolutely beautiful. It was hot, very hot. Temperatures here can get up to 49C (120F) incredibly enough. But the further away from the visitor center we got, the more breeze we were able to catch. We saw small rodents, rabbits, and even cows grazing and I kept thinking “How awesome is this!” And then of course, as if perfectly times to ruin my carefree, adventurous mood, we saw “Caution: Mountain Lions. Don’t hike with small children, don’t hike alone, be cautious of your surrounding.” Ha….well wow. “I doubt this pocket knife will do much to this mountain lion. Umm…was anyone going to mention these vicious killers to me before we decided to go on this hike?” Silence. I quickly learned that it was better to not speak of the potential danger, and just enjoy the journey, whether it be a bear, a lion, or a shark. You can’t control when and where you see them, you can just better prepare yourself.

41158028-84EE-4159-9063-60EDE5B1B233

Tough chance. The entire hike, the thought of a mountain lion leaping 60 feet in the air and pouncing down on my lingered in the back of my head. Fortunately, the further along we went, and the less energy I had, the quieter this thought was, although never silenced.

F75A76EC-7532-4E14-A7FA-FEB5D97CA4E9

The hike up to the site where we decided to set up camp was pretty fun. Between wild animals, rocks to climb over, and jaw-dropping views, I was having the time of my life. I felt so disconnected with the city and the rest of the world. In that instance I felt alive, free, and refreshed.

B1B265F1-42E5-401C-8E01-9CFF222AB780

It was right around when we decided to set the tent up that we noticed two things. Its starting to get really cold. And. Where did all of this wind come from? As the sun went down, the wind picked up, almost as if it was the very thing pushing the sun back behind the mountains. If you’ve never set up a tent in 20-30 knot wind, I’m pretty envious of you. Setting up one side of the tent, only to have a piece on the other side blow up, or an item roll down the hill was by far my least part of the hike. But looking back, it made it that much more memorable.

The sun finally set and it. was. freezing. I knew from high school that it can get cold in the desert at night, but I had not anticipated needing a jacket inside my sleeping back inside my tent. The same tent that was constantly at risk of being blown to pieces by the howling wind that was determined to not let me get any sleep. On top of that, in my head, I envisioned a mountain lion just circling our tent, waiting for one of us to step out and go to the bathroom or peak out for a view. Fortunately, the wind did its best, but did not damage to my tent, and the mountain lion, if she came, never bothered us.

6D7C9A49-BBB9-40C8-8B3A-F4CC3EB4E5DA

We awoke, with little sleep, and started our journey back to the car. I was completely exhausted. The views were amazing, I could recharge away from the city, and really turn inward to my thoughts and where life was going. However….my joints were killing me, and I was tired of eating jerky and trail mix, I wanted real food. Still, with all the self-induced suffering caused by a weak frame of mind and no conditioning, I caught the hiking bug. It was quick, it was easy, I hadn’t even noticed it. On the car ride back I thought “That was cool, but I’m not really sure I’ll do it again…” And here we are…

CE010A1F-2F4B-4D32-855B-1923A11C78F0