Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

10 days in Haiti

January 13, 2010

In December of 2007, I spent 10 days in Haiti. Most of my time was spent up in the Central Plateau in a town called Thomonde, near Hinche. I spent a day or two on either end in Port-Au-Prince. I was working on a solar power project with the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, which had paired each church in Diocese with a church in Haiti. Watching the images pour in today from Haiti, my mind keeps returning to the intense ten days I spent there.

It’s less than a two hour flight from Miami to Port-Au-Prince. How could one of the world’s poorest countries be in the same time zone as Washington DC? I grew up around the world, in Africa and Asia, and I have seen exceptional poverty. But the gritty, intense poverty of Haiti was brutal and beyond my previous experience. The country had a hopeless, desperate feel to it — even as the people of Haiti opened their hearts and homes to me. The generosity and spirit of the Haitian people was an inspiration and remains to this day a reminder of grace.

Even the landscape was desolate. It seemed as if every single tree had been cut down — not so far from the truth, it turns out — and when we attempted to visit the beach, we discovered that the deforestation had led to severe erosion that had destroyed the coral reefs.

But the most striking thing was what appeared to be an almost total absence of government. Once we left Port-Au-Prince, it was hard to discern any institutions at all — other than the Catholic Church. Roads, banks, hospitals, courts – really any kind of systemic institutions seemed absent.

Today, watching and listening to the news of the earthquake, I feel my heart breaking for Haiti. How much more heartache does Haiti deserve? Please do what you can, and keep Haiti close to your heart.

Cross-posted to

Africa Reading

April 4, 2009

My friend and colleague Chris is headed to Africa next week for a long, well-deserved vacation. I was trying to think of what reading I could recommend on Africa — good vacation reading, good travel reading — and realized how little I have read about the continent of my birth. I immediately thought of Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, a stunning novel about going to Africa, although not particularly African. It is an astonishing ode to Living and strikes me as fine vacation reading.

I only recently read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Walker; it is a very different book from Henderson the Rain King — a memoir about growing up in Rhodesia / ZImbabwe. It is a very dark book in some ways — but she is such a terrific writer that it is unstoppable. The smells and sounds, the very feeling of the tropics comes through with enormous intensity.

The final two books were not Africa related but were good reading for a long traveling vacation. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters by Annie Dillard is serious, thoughful, artful, and just plain beautiful. The first thing you should do is read the chapter “Living like Weasels”. Nothing else in the book matters. I’m not even sure I can remember anything else in the book – but that one essay burns brightly in my memory, and I return to it often. It is rocket fuel – perfect for rejuvenating the mind and the spirit while away from home.

Finally, all travel requires poems. Still Life with Waterfall: Poems by Eamon Grennan is my regular companion. This book has my favorite all-time break-up poem and my favorite all-time love poem. The break up poem is called “To Grasp the Nettle” and it is on page 20. The Love poem is called “White Water” and it is on page 42. Fantods are butterflies in the stomach.

I made one small request of Chris. I asked him to find one night in Africa when the moon is high and full and brilliant. Step outside and read out loud, speaking to the sky, the poem “Full Moon” on page 54 of “Still Life with Waterfall”… “and start breathing.”

Next week’s 332 mile bike ride: Am I Crazy?

July 3, 2008

Bob Perkowitz is my Biking Jedi Master. In an effort to lose weight and inspired by Bob and other biking efforts (including Rob Ross’ bike tour of the Camino in Spain), I decided to take up biking a couple months ago. Bob has been an incredible guide and mentor in this sport, helping me to pick and outfit my Trek 520. So when Bob called and invited me on a four day bike ride through North Carolina’s Outer Banks, how could I turn him down? Never mind that I’ve never biked more than 45 consecutive miles in my life and I’m pretty sure my entire lifetime biking mileage to date is less than 300 miles. But here we go – a great adventure. Any advice? The plan is:

  • Tuesday, July 8: Warm up ride
  • Wednesday, July 9: Ride from Virginia Beach, VA to Nags Head, NC – 71 miles
  • Thursday, July 10 : Ride Nags Head, NC to Ocracoke, NC – 86 mi. + ferry
  • Friday, July 11: Ride from Ocracoke, NC to Emerald Isle, NC, – 50 miles
  • Saturday, July 12: Ride from Emerald Isle, NC to Wrightsville Beach, NC – 98 miles
  • Sunday, July 13: Home to see my dog!

I will be taking my Flip Video and my camera with me (thanks, Dave!) and there is always Twitter – so presumably you’ll see some updates from the road next week. My long suffering wife is one of the people driving the support van, so at least I’ll have someone to help me get out of bed on the last day. If anyone has any tips, send ’em my way. I’m hoping this will be a radical shock to drive me into a more regular exercise routine and a lower body mass index. Pray for me and my butt.

The Empty Quarter

November 5, 2006

My grandfather spent a number of years working in Saudi Arabia, and consequently both my mother and my uncle spent a good chunk of their childhood there. My uncle returned in adulthood and has lived there a couple of decades now, working for Aramco. He recently sent me this email referencing an incredible National Geographic web feature you should check out, a documentary on the Empty Quarter – the world’s largest sea of sand. But my uncle’s memory of the Empty Quarter is pretty haunting:

Some years ago I was in the Rhub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) doing reconnaissance work for the Transportation Department of Aramco, hopping around from drilling rig to drilling rig by small plane to see how unhappy everyone was with the supply chain. I asked one Texas foreman how he was doing and he said “without”. One day we flew over one of our convoys, and I asked the pilot to drop me off in the next subka (salt flat between the dunes) and that I would hitch hike from there. We were flying a Twin Otter that can land anywhere, so he did, and I waited for the convoy. It was actually very unnerving to stand out there after the plane took off in complete nothing, no sound, no insects, no nothing for what seemed like a long time, but probably only 30 minutes before I heard the sound of the Kenworth truck approaching, and then a red dot came over the faraway dune. I waved, and I waved, and he drove right by, ghuttra wrapped around his head in complete tunnel vision. The next truck, same thing, he drove right by. Finally I placed myself in the path of the next truck and he stopped and said “Mr. Jim, what are you doing out here?” Good question…

Junglecasts Forever!

December 28, 2005

Last March I visited Chiapas, Mexico (photos here) on the invitation of my friend Dave Pentecost. While there, we recorded several podcasts while romping around the jungle with Dr. Ed Barnhart, founded of the Mayan Exploration Center. We put these podcasts up on EchoRadio as the Junglecasts – and they have gathered quite a following. Most recently, Wired News featured them as part of “Beyond Porno: Free iPod Content”, a collection of cool free content for your iPod. The junglecasts have also appeared on and a number of other places, but far and away my favorite was this email Dave received:

Just letting you know these Jungle Podcasts are great and they are being heard as far away as Antarctica! Keep up the good work, cheers.

Christopher R. Clarke
Casey 2005 Expeditioner
Wilkes Land, East Antarctica

The Nomadic Bug

December 28, 2005

I’m in Bellingham, Washington State for the holidays with my parents and grandparents. Today I was over at my grandparents’, and I used my grandfather’s bathroom. And there, in the bathroom, was this book… what exactly is my grandfather up to? He’s always scheming away on his latest project, and this time the book is a dead give-away.

Tonight my parents and my grandparents and I went out to dinner to celebrate my brother’s birthday. He’s in New York City with his family, so we celebrated without him. But we did count up the number of countries we’ve visited. My grandfather was quite a traveler during his career, and so was my father – so between the three generations it turns out we covered 72 countries. Airport lay-overs were excluded – you had to actually have stayed in the country and be able to describe it. So, 72 countries was the final talley. My father had Asia pretty well-covered, and my grandfather had Europe and the Middle East well-covered. They shared Africa equally, and South America was touched but was the least visited. I think Haiti was the only country I had stayed in that nobody else in my family had visited – otherwise most of my visits were pre-empted by an earlier visit from my father or grandfather. My grandparents visited Jerusalem when it was still part of Jordan, so the question was: could you count it separately from Jordan (which they had also visited)? Verdict: yes. 72 countries in almost as many years. Amazing.

Off to India

June 15, 2005

The Radio Silence has ended. The last month has found me overwhelmed by my life, from every angle, and managed not to blog. Travel was big – North Carolina, California, New Orleans, Memphis, New York – but mostly I’ve been pretty bone-tired. And now I am blogging to you from an airplane — I kid you not, Harish is here with me and he just blogged — on my way to India. Bangalore, India. I have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into, but we were so late to the airport we got a free upgrade to business class. I guess it pays to be late…

Junglecast 4: Could This Be It?

April 12, 2005

I admit, I sound a little giddy in this particular podcast. But you have to imagine the scene: we’ve just spent several hours in a truck and then in a boat down the Usumacinta River. Now we’re hiking through the rainforest, up a ridge, and we stumble on to some Maya ruins on the top of the ridge, as if they just hacked off the top of the hill to create a plateau and then built this big complex of buildings there — part of a complex called the Acropolis at Yaxchilan. It is a glorious day, just amazing — the sun, the temperature, the howler monkeys, the buzzing alive-ness of the insects and plants of the rainforest, and the sheer wonder at the immensity of these ruins buried in the jungle — when, out of the simple beauty of the moment, I just start singing. Fly Me To The Moon, no less. And a little farther down, hiking in the jungle, I’m reflecting on the clarity and glory of the one moment we just had at the top of the Maya Acropolis on this high hill a long way from anything, and it was downright poetic. The ancients, the history, nature, the solitude — and suddenly a poem I had memorized many years earlier came to mind and I shared it with Dave. In fact, it occurred to me that the recitation of that particular poem at the particular minute in that particular location — well, it seemed obvious that it had all been pre-ordained, that the only reason I memorized that poem nine or ten years ago was to recite it right there and then. Of course, Dave managed to record the whole thing for your podcasting pleasure [listen here]:


Transfiguration. Consider it from where you stand.
Overnight the cold, cloudy wet spell was lifted, and
you wake beneath a Byzantine blue dome of glass:
golden birds–red hearts in their musical breasts–
overflow the oak leaves with echoes, a frenzy
of possession that fractures into small squabbles as
two redbreasted nuthatches struggle for dominion
in a sapling oak — its leaves emerald tesserae in which
sunlight glows. Suddenly, the leaves look back at you
looking up at their broad, light-lapping faces, morning
riding your shoulders like a pet monkey, and all is pause
for a cracked moment of amazement, mutuality, until
you walk on into woodshade, flapping mosquitoes away.

by Eamon Grennan

Junglecast 3: Collapse

April 10, 2005

The podcasts from the jungles of Chiapas continue. Episodes One and Two are available, but now we’re on to Episode Three where we discuss the Collapse of the Maya Civilization with Dr. Ed Barnhart of the Maya Exploration Center. It’s one of the great mysteries of the Maya, and a topic covered in many books, including Jared Diamond’s recent bestseller, Collapse.

Dr. Ed Barnhart was kind enough to share his time with us for the podcasts. He’s also doing some of the most exciting work out there, the sort of gritty field work that is far afield from classroom academics. Take a second to support a true explorer by making a contribution to support Dr. Ed’s work.

Junglecast 2: Math & the Maya

April 5, 2005

Installation two of the Junglecasts from the Gringo Collapse Tour, podcasts with Dr. Ed Barnhart of the Maya Exploration Center right from the heart of Palenque, is now available for download here via EchoRadio. Dr. Ed ran a 3-year project to map the entire site of Palenque, discovering hundreds of structures and leaving the total number of mapped buildings at well over 1,200. This podcast covers some of the amazing mathematical concepts embedded in ancient Maya architecture. It’s truly stunning stuff.

These Junglecasts are the result of a trip I took with Dave Pentecost, at his insistence, to discover the wonders buried in Chiapas, Mexico. The First Junglecast Ever is available here at EchoRadio. As always, if you’re gripped by that excitement that comes with discovery of the unknown, then I’d suggest making a contribution to support Dr. Ed’s work.

Photos that relate to the podcast: