Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I'm Outta Here, again

A view of beautiful Kachemak Bay
I'm getting ready to depart Alaska for another winter of travel. I'm very much looking forward to that but I'm sad to be taking leave of old friends and my wonderful hometown so soon. But I'm very excited. I recall how nervous I was when it came time to leave last fall. I had no idea how anything was gonna turn out. Naturally, all my worries were for nothing. I'll rejoin Nut in Bangkok and we'll travel together for a while. She wants to go to Koh Tao, where I've not been before and where I could meet up with Naroa, and Nut might come along with me to Lao. Yep, Lao is in the plans, and Africa! (more below). Yeah, you could say I'm stoked!

It has been a terrible summer in Homer in terms of the weather -- lots of rain and chilly days. I left the cabin early one morning a little while ago and it felt like fall was in the air already. I can recall this type of weather from my first years here when we used to joke about the fact that it's "always cool in the shade" in Homer.  I've been living in a wool sweater most of the time since coming back in late April to five feet of snow. I keep my heat low or off during the summer. Force of habit I guess. That and a sincere wish to not use any more fuel oil than is absolutely necessary.

I'm feeling uncomfortably rootless these days. I ask myself, where do you really live? Where is your home? While it's nice to be totally free of entanglements, property and responsibilities, that freedom does not come without costs. I sit on the deck on the nicer days and look around in awe at the beautiful surroundings. I ask myself, how could you ever leave Homer? On the other hand, why should you continue to live in a place where you're only willing to stay for four or five months a year? Back and forth it goes. It is a dilemma that needn't be solved right away but I do think about it often these days.
Siting on the deck with a Hop Czar IPA on a rare sunny evening in August
Lush greenery in high summer

First fireweed blossoms
Here are a few scenes from around the neighborhood. The summer greenery is thick and lush in early August. Mostly what you see out front is pushkii (cow parsnip), fireweed, which in this photo isn't yet blooming, lupine, wild geranium, and chocolate lily. The pushkii plants are fully six feet tall by this time. The first fireweed blossoms signal the onset of autumn which, up here at least,  can be a very short season. I was watching the bees earlier tonight as they collected pollen from the just now emerging blossoms. In a few short weeks these blossoms will form seed pods whose gossamer spores will be scattered by the wind. The conventional wisdom around Homer has it that winter will arrive about six weeks from the time the fireweed "cotton" starts to blow around.

Pushkii in full bloom

I've been eating lots of great seafood all summer; sablefish, salmon and halibut. My absolute favorite way to cook fish is on the grill. I use my little gas grill on the deck 4 or 5 times a week. I cook everything on it: fish, burgers, the occasional steak and assorted vegetables, even bacon. Below is a dinner I made recently with some of that grilled sablefish. It's accompanied by sauteed fennel and carrots, and some sauteed mushrooms.

Grilled sablefish dinner
I've got the suitcase out and open on the floor of my tiny cabin. I'm gathering things to pack: books, camping gear, clothing, my computer necessaries, personal items, etc. I've many computer things to attend to: installing Windows 7 on my Netbook, getting all my favorite software installed and activated, copying my photos and music to its hard drive, again. (My Netbook suffered a hard disk failure last January, just as I was about to leave for Thailand.) This time I'll store all my travel work, Photoshop files, journal entries, etc., online in "the cloud" (via Dropbox), so if my computer goes T.U. again nothing will be lost. I received my Passport back from the Thai Consulate in LA the other day and so my Tourist Visa is all squared away (I got a triple entry Visa. And because Thailand is encouraging tourism after last spring's Red Shirt troubles, it was totally free.)  So things are slowly coming together. At the same time I've been selling (or tossing) things I no longer use or need in an effort to ready myself for the possibility of an eventual exodus from Alaska. I'm not ready to do that yet but it's something I think about more and more.

I had such a great time on the motorcycle trip in Thailand that I've decided to buy one next spring after I get back. I've been doing tons of research about what to buy. It'll be used of course and will probably be a BMW "airhead" twin but the Kawasaki KLR 650 has recently caught my attention as well. BMW's RT bikes have a full fairing and many are equipped with luggage cases for touring. I could buy a fairly nice one (1985-90) for about 4 or 5 thousand dollars. I rode a friend's 1986 R80RT the other day and it is indeed a fine bike, and noted for its longevity and low maintenance, except that for a guy my size, due to the limited space under the cylinder heads, I can barely get my feet onto the shifter and rear brake. Plus, all Beemer parts are super expensive. On the other hand, the Kawasaki is light and maneuverable, and cheap ( a 2008 model can be had for ~4,000). It has a solid reputation as a world tourer. A good friend of mine rode one all the way down to Chile, and his experience isn't unique.

I owned a couple of bikes many years ago (gads, it was back in 1970-75!); a Honda CL350 and then a CB750, which was stolen when I lived in a high crime area of Boston in 1975, but I've always liked motorcycling. I've never lusted after a bike up here because our climate is very difficult; it's simply too damn cold most of the time for enjoyable riding. The local folks wear full body suits equipped with heated vests and many bikes have heated hand grips. Warm windproof clothing is essential to be able to ride with comfort in our 40 degree summer evenings. I'll no doubt be leaving my bike in Eugene, at my son Tuli's. Maybe do some touring in the desert next spring. Depending on several factors, I reckon there's a small chance I'll even drive it up here.

These are the two bikes I'm interested in at this point
 As you can see, the two bikes are purposed quite differently. The Beemer is definitely a touring machine while the KLR is a dual purpose bike; it can be used for off-road travel as well as for touring. But is it comfortable enough for a 3,000 mile ride to Alaska? Ah well, spring is a long time from now. I'll keep doing research and make a decision later.

In the meantime some new possibilities have presented themselves. I recently got in touch through Facebook with an old friend from KBBI, the public radio station where I worked in the late 1980s, who has been living in Lao for the past six years. Scott owns property near Luang Prabang and invited me for a visit. From what I hear the country around Luang Prabang is over-the-top scenic and the town itself, with its French colonial architecture, has a reputation for beauty. Nut and I will probably spend a few weeks there sometime in November.

An even more exciting trip within a trip is in the works. My good friend Janice (aka Jambo), who was pivotal in my decision to visit Fiji back in 2009, a decision that indirectly resulted in my visit to Europe last fall, invited me to join her and partner Willy, and another mutual Homer friend, Elizabeth, on a safari in Africa in January. Jambo is among my oldest and closest friends here in Homer and is a seasoned world traveler. Her advice about Fiji as a travel destination led me to go there. Ultimately, I encountered some new life-long friends: Tea and Arnaud, along with dive masters Joe and Naroa, and Lisa, in the Yasawa Islands. Tea and Arnaud live in Paris and one night while we were partying at Manta Ray Resort they invited me to come and stay with them. I didn't give it serious thought at the time but after I got back to Homer it dawned on me that with a base to operate from, I could actually afford to visit Europe. For years I had dreamed about going to Europe to find my grandmother's birthplace in what was once East Prussia (but is now part of Poland. See my blog entries for Nov. and Dec. 2009 for more). I joined Couchsurfing.org (CS) and had a wonderful time in Paris with Tea and Arnaud, in Berlin with Jana (CS), in Poland with Ewa and Daniel (CS), in Spain with Naroa & Ainara, and with Rety & Bruce (CS) in Valencia. But the time I spent in Fiji was critical to the way my travels developed last season.

Okay, back to the Africa trip. We will travel with a touring outfit, the Africa Travel Company, and a bunch of other fellow travelers, folks as yet unknown to us. Considering my other travel experiences, this will probably work out well and we'll have made some new friends after spending three weeks in a Mercedes bus and visiting something like 5 African countries together. The trip begins in Nairobi and wends its way generally southwest, through the Serengeti and Ngonongoro Crater, then east to the island of Zanzibar, and then south again along Lake Malawi, and finally west through Zambia to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. See the full trip description here.  For an extra $100 you can take a day-long raft trip on the Zambezi River! How awesome is that? I'm very excited about this trip even though it will strain my budget to do it. While my partners will make a long multi-stop trip from Alaska, I'll simply fly from Bangkok to Nairobi. Simple but not short; it's still a long 13-hour flight with a stopover somewhere in India.

I went to see my doctor to get the appropriate shots: yellow fever (required), the first of two hepatitis shots, typhoid oral vaccine, and malaria pills. Hells bells, I packed most of this stuff up yesterday and it took two hours to get my drugs organized and repackaged. I have ibuprofen, Felxeril and percocet in case my back gets tweaked again. I have my 80 mg. aspirin tabs, and cholesterol meds, vitamin D, etc. On this trip, since there will be many opportunities to watch really interesting animals I'm taking my good, but heavy, binoculars and because we're camping, my Thermarest mattress and sleeping bag. And then there's computer gear, camera, my GPS, and the myriad cords, cables and chargers I'll need to keep everything running, blah, blah, blah.

As the time to depart nears my friends are wining and dining me. We had a special Friday get together at work after hours on Friday, and we're getting together for dinner at Fat Olive's Tuesday night (tomorrow), the day before I leave. Glenn made the tongue-in-cheek (I hope) comment that eventually having yet another Going Away Party for me might begin to get old. Yep, I can see how that might happen.

Three dull Men resting in the Fungus Lounge at Dull Men's Bend, Ninilchik, Alaska
Last Saturday I hiked down to our old fishing spot on Deep Creek with my buddies Kirk, Kevin, and Michael. We used to fish here all the time back a few years ago, before I discovered tennis. Things have changed down at the creekside as many big rains over the years have totally reworked the neighborhood but we managed to find some fish and a good spot for a campfire. We used to call ourselves the Dull Men's Club, (Northern Division, Alaska Branch), and this particular fishing spot is therefore known as Dull Men's Bend. The old trail down to the river from the road, a drop of 300 feet (they don't call it Deep Creek for nothing), was grown in with brush so we bushwhacked our way through alders and the smelly, foot-sucking swamp at the bottom. Here we are warming our feet after wading up and down the river in our sandals. (Thank you  Michael for  the photo.) We each caught several rainbows and I hooked a 10-12 lb silver salmon, the only fish I've caught this year. We released all of them because they are protected up here in the fish nursery. The trip back up was steep and ugly. But after an hour of creative cursing and heavy breathing we were in Kevin's van and heading back to Homer.

It's taken me a while to compose this entry. I started it back towards the beginning of August and today as I am finishing it, I find myself just 48 hours from my flight from Homer to Anchorage and the beginning of this winter's adventure. I'll be writing more as time and Internet access permits.