Kayaking in Vietnam

 
 

Jodi and I traveled to Vietnam and the Philippines last fall. Here's some of what we experienced. Jodi's words, my photos.

 
 

It was just before 7am when we hopped in wobbly kayaks and made our way through the islands of Halong Bay, pushing water out of the way and sleep from our minds. A UNESCO Heritage Site, Halong Bay sits east of Hanoi off the coastal town by the same name. Winding through the grottos and islands as the sun fought its way over the misty horizon, we set our own paths as if we were discovering the place for the first time.

 
 

Bicycles and Alleyways in Vietnam

 

Jodi and I traveled to Vietnam and the Philippines last fall. Here's some of what we experienced. Jodi's words, my photos.

In Vietnam, bicycles are more common than cars. Maybe it's the fact that they need to be able to skirt down alleyways, or maybe it's t bikes are more cost effective than cars. Either way, to capture this place without documenting bicycles would do it an injustice.

To give justice to a city, to its people, is an important part of traveling for us. Voluntarily surrendering control of how we take in and process a place matters, which is why when we travel, we get lost. Intentionally.

There was this moment in Hanoi when we had wandered down an alley and the winding nature of the alley confused our senses of direction. We were about to give up and retrace our steps when an older man gestured towards us to follow him. We weaved deeper into the maze of alleyways narrowing before us, and then, seemingly out of nowhere the man stopped, pointed in a direction and smiled. (I should note that the direction the man pointed in was definitely a dead end.) But not wanting to insult him, we followed his finger and saw the tiniest gap between buildings. After a few more twists the alley suddenly widened and we were in the middle of a busy intersection.

We had ourselves a treasure hunt. I was twelve again, so utterly gleeful at finding this hidden path. Zach and I smiled at each other, and then joined the fray, dodging in and out of traffic in search of a bite to eat.

We're used to space - wide aisles and wide roads. Alleys are typically the routes we avoid. But in Vietnam, the alleys are where life happens - where you grab groceries, where you find your barber or your lunch. They host a bevy of businesses, coffee shops, and boutiques. As a tourist, it's easy to keep to better lit thoroughfares, but if you want an authentic experience of Vietnam, you have to embrace the alleys.

 

Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

Jodi and I ventured out to Theodore Roosevelt National Park recently for some hiking and camping. Here's what went down, in Jodi's words:

 

The National Park Service is celebrating its Centennial this year, which meant that Zach and I had to plan at least one trip to what we call our “home park”, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s underrated as far as national parks go. It’s hard to trek through in winter, and North Dakota experiences long winters. Hopefully after seeing our photos, though, you’ll make the trip.

When we pitched our tent the first night, it was getting dark. Not dark like “your backyard” dark, but DARK like “thank goodness we have headlamps or we’d fall off this cliff” dark. We had (of course) planned to pitch it earlier, so we could eat dinner as the sun was setting, but we were looking for the perfect campsite — one on a bluff with a killer view, some place slightly out of the wind and free of cacti. No one manicures the backcountry of your National Park like golf courses, which is why we all want to go out there, but also why it took us an hour to pick a spot.

After making a supper of mashed potatoes and stuffing, a springtime thanksgiving, and we were certainly thankful to finally be eating, we hunkered down in the tent to read and wait for the clouds to unveil a starry sky. But before really any of this could happen, Zach’s eyes widened and he put his fingers over his lips. I quieted but assumed the wind had spooked him. A minute later, however, we heard sniffing, pawing… and then the tent sagged. And something pressed up against my body.

We went motionless and slowed our breathing, each of us cataloguing the types of wildlife in the park: bison, ok too big, not a bison, phew; prairie dogs, now that’s just wishful thinking; coyotes, there *was* howling in the distance; mountain lions, crap. For the next two hours our bodies began to cramp up as we huddled together as silently as possible. One of us would start to fall asleep but then the animal would move or start sniffing around again and we’d wake up from the other person grabbing onto our leg. Our bodies eventually couldn’t take the stress after a full day of hiking and gave into sleep.

We woke up a little after dawn. When we finally worked up the nerve to peek outside, we were greeted by an empty campsite and a beautiful view. A few unidentifiable tracks lay around the tent but we ate, packed up, and began the hike again. Despite joking about the night and our fear of being eaten, there wasn’t a night afterwards on the trail that a sound outside the tent didn’t cause us to flinch.Yet, if you gave a chance to go back, we’d both take it without a second thought, new animal friends and all.

Dashboard Photographer - PNW Roadtrip

Dashboard Photographer - PNW Roadtrip

Sometimes you just need to get away for a bit and hit the road, you know? A couple friends and I headed out to Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver last month. It was a wonderful trip filled with food trucks, beaches, campfires, great ice cream, Here's a random collection of photos from the adventure, mostly taken on the road and from the car.

Featured! - Hearth Magazine

Featured! - Hearth Magazine

Too often I get home from traveling and the photos I took while away end up sitting on a hard drive or are thrown on Facebook in a simple album and that's that. This was one of the big reasons my friend Steph and I made The Open Window Exchange a couple years back. We've put the site on hold at the moment but for months we collected and featured travel stories from amazing artists all over the world. Poetry, essays, films, photos, recipes. Our goal was to give people an outlet to share the kind of stories that can only happen while throwing yourself into a new culture.

That's why I can totally get behind others that are trying to do the same thing. Hearth is a wicked cool magazine out of Utah. I was pumped when I heard that they'd be publishing a story from Steph and I's trip to Turkey. A story about an evening we spent in a beautiful little wine village chasing after the sunset. Read it here. And then go buy a copy of Hearth, seriously.

A Teal Window

A Teal Window

(Yassas from Greece! My friend Steph Barnhart and I are currently traveling through Turkey and Greece and want to show you some of the awesome things we see and experience. The writing is Steph's. The photos are mine. Enjoy!)
-Zach

The worn, silver ring – purchased last year in Thailand – clinks slightly against the rusted metal as his right hand clutches the latch. Zach had passed his Sony to me so he could wriggle the tight bar from its hinge. No give. He pushes up on the window harder, dust floats off into air, abandoning its longtime resting place.

We were trying not to make noise; unsure, still, if we were allowed these trespassing privileges.

All we wanted to do was open the window.

Five minutes ago, we had been standing outside of this dilapidated building, our attention captured by the donkeys and their owners, selling rides to folks like us with backpacks and cameras. We followed the sound of the donkey’s bells around one of Thira’s narrow, curving streets to find eight men looking up at us.

“For you! Donkey ride, 20 Euro!” they said, standing in front of the Magic Sunset Pool Bar.

It was evident that the space hadn’t been a pool bar for some time. Now, it acts as the starting point for the donkey ride down to the Old Port. During high tourist season, the mules take 30 trips a day up and down more than 400 stairs – an “authentic Greek experience” for cruiseshippers and Santorini passer-throughs.

We shook our heads at the donkey tenders, dressed in purple button downs and jeans, a few of them lying down on the dirt in the shade of the Magic Sunset. Instead of snapping a few photos of the donkeys, decorated with colorful, beaded bridles and worn-in saddles, we lingered, distracted by our window.

For a few days, we’d been looking for it. Some window with a modest level of character and good color. We needed an icon for our latest project; THEE window that would serve as the centerpiece for a travel blog we wanted to start. And there, on the East side of the old pool bar, it was waiting for us. It’s teal shutters framed by a soft yellow trim stood out from the burnt orange building front. This was our window. But it was closed.

So we began to creep around the group of donkey herders, searching for the best way to get inside. Ignoring, now, the commotion of tourists getting off and on the donkeys, exchanging Euros for rides, the noise of the ships arriving at the port below, the strange looks from the lounging men.

After winding around the back of the building, we found an entrance and climbed some stairs to the room with the window. Yellow scaffolding and piles of rubble were stacked in corners, rusted hardware and old wooden frames strewn across the floor. Donkey bells, laughter, still audible.

And now, it wouldn’t budge. Zach brushes a spider web to the left. We didn’t want to break anything, feeling still a bit stealthy for being in there in the first place. The scaffolding made us believe that someone was renovating, maybe, or at least trying to sell the property.

With a final push using both hands, Zach released the latch. Slowly, he pressed the right pane out, gently, avoiding noise or sudden movement. We looked at each other, and went back out the way we got in.

Back in front of the building, a new group of donkeys had arrived. A friend of ours who had volunteered at Kamari’s dog and donkey shelter told us that, usually, donkeys live to age 60. But these ones are often exhausted at 30, well before normal, from their daily cascade. Most owners ditch the mules by tossing them off a remote cliff.  Dozens of the animals visible now from our vantage point above the stairs.

We spent 20 minutes photographing that small opening in a deserted building. It’s true: we might have chosen to ride a donkey, or watch others ride them, or photograph others riding them, or make friends with those men, or even just sit and experience the sea-salted air while gazing out at the Mediterranean. Zach might have chosen to aim his camera at handful of stunning subjects during that time at the Pool Bar, but we narrowed our attention, intimately focused on our teal, freshly opened window by the sea.

Searching for Sunlight in Sirince

Searching for Sunlight in Sirince

(Merhaba from Turkey! My friend Steph Barnhart and I are currently traveling through Turkey and Greece and want to show you some of the awesome things we see and experience. The writing is Steph's. The photos are mine. Enjoy!)
-Zach

Sirince, Turkey, is a small village town of 560 people. But in the summer, more than 2000 tourists filter through its cobblestone streets each day. Nestled in the hills of wine country, Sirince hosted us for five hours one afternoon. These are the two reasons why.

“Try the black mulberry?” the young man asked. I guessed he was 18, 19 at most. The black glass bottle he picked up left a condensation ring on the wooden counter top at the front of the store.

As he poured us samples of the fruit wine, we introduced ourselves to Hakan. His dark eyes looked older than the rest of him. He smiled when we said we were from the United States. Pomegranate, strawberry and blueberry, kiwi, melon and quince, peach, apricot, sour cherry, Hakan has us try them all. The region is known for its sweet fruit wines, made in the Mediterranean climate perfect for fruit harvest. Ten flavors later, we decided to buy a bottle of the peach.

We’d need it, we decided, since we would be in Sirince for a while. Despite the miniscule size of the town (we saw the whole thing in about 30 minutes) and the fact that the last shuttle bus back to our hostel would probably leave us, we stayed in Sirince all day for a few reasons.

First, it was because Hakan wasn’t the only one giving us free wine. Each shop on the village’s main street invited us in for samples. Thirty-one shot-sized samples each, to be exact. But this was just a side benefit of the afternoon. The real reason we hung around this tiny, tourist-laden town was because we were waiting on the sun.

We had seen a picture of Sirince at sunset and Zach thought it would be perfect camera weather if we stuck around for the low, soft light. I’ve learned, that when traveling with a photographer, sometimes supper plans and bus schedules matter less than the perfect sunlight. It was only 3 p.m. when we had purchased our bottle of peach and so we set out to kill time.

Armed with our wine, our recently purchased backgammon set, and patience, we started climbing up. This village is beautifully situated on a hill - old houses and quaint restaurants sit stacked on top of each other, their white walls, brown trim, and burnt red roof tops decorated by gardens. We planted ourselves on the ledge of someone’s roof, and waited.

Finally, with one bottle and three backgammon rounds finished, the light started to get softer. Sirince was quieter now, as if the city had used a sieve to separate everyone with a backpack out. We remained, and we ascended, Sonys out.

Up higher and higher on the slick stone streets, we passed two women selling doilies and crocheted dolls, a backyard farm with two horses and a foal tethered to a tree, a slow moving tractor and its driver in overalls. The streets turned to dirt roads as we paused to capture close-ups of red poppies, and then we rounded a switch back that put us in someone’s front yard. Two men sat in silence under a string of drying laundry.

They saw our cameras. The one on the left waved me over, pointing at Zach’s camera. We got it. He thought I should be in a picture with them. Quickly we learned they knew no English. I pointed at us and said, “America,” and then made a zero with my hand and said “Turkish.” They laughed, and repeated the same while saying “English.” We thanked them and kept walking.

For a reason I didn’t know, we kept going up. It didn’t look like anything was situated on top of the hill, and we were definitely already late for dinner back at the hostel. But the climb was so peaceful; we had no clue that when we reached the top, we’d find...nothing.

Besides a tree, a few rocks, and some fenced-in electrical boxes, there was truly nothing on top of this hill, except an incredible, vast view of wine country. Though it wasn’t necessarily breathtaking, the moment’s simplicity gave it significance.
We do things on occasion that don’t seem sensical. Missing a bus to climb a random hill to chase a sunset to take a few pictures, for example. But what we gain is perspective. We saw Sirince in a new way - from the top, just as the golden sun sank below the hill. Was it the Blue Mosque? No. Was it beautiful? Yes.

I hope that sometime soon, you’ll decide to miss the bus home to catch a sunset, too.

Fish Market

Fish Market

(Merhaba from Turkey! My friend Steph Barnhart and I are currently traveling through Turkey and Greece and want to show you some of the awesome things we see and experience. The writing is Steph's. The photos are mine. Enjoy!)
-Zach

In March, I ordered Lonely Planet’s copies of Turkey and Greece. But, due to the chaos of finishing an undergraduate degree, I didn’t read a single thing in them before Zach and I got on the plane on May 9. And even then, the only thing we knew for sure about this trip was that we’d start it in Istanbul. So I flipped briefly around that section in LP, but didn’t take any detailed notes or make a “Must See In Istanbul” list.

What we’ve found ourselves doing this month is discovering things while walking around, wondering what they are, and THEN looking up the city or the attraction in the guidebook, to learn about it. It’s more fun this way, we think.
 
Our experience at Fethiye’s fish market is the epitome of this travel strategy.
 
We went there for dinner last night because someone on our scuba diving boat said it was their favorite part about the town. Without a map, we wandered until we found it, asking only one shop keeper along the way to point us toward it.
 
Barricaded by four stone walls and a vine-laden, open-air roof, the quaint, bustling marketplace has restaurants on all sides and one centerpiece: the fish kiosk.
 
Aggressive fish purveyors vie for our attention each step we take around this pentagon-shaped stall. The smell of seafood is overpowering as we eye salmon and sea bass, calamari, prawns, white grouper, red snapper.
 
We chose a slab of salmon and a whole red snapper, and take it to restaurant number 43, because that’s where the scuba diver said he likes best. Run by chef Isa, and his wife, Canciger was a great choice. For 6 TL each (around $7.00 US total) they grilled our fish, let us watch it as it cooked. They provided endless baskets of bread, a delicious salad, and some decadent butter sauce for dipping.
 
At a corner table, an old man with wispy white hair sat peeling parsley sprigs from their stems. He kept stealing glances our way. I waved. He waved. I tried speaking with him but quickly learned he knew no English at all. Our limited Turkish vocabulary didn’t get us very far, so we communicated through smiles and gestures, somehow learning that he is the wife’s bapa, (father).
 
Feeling happy about our delicious meal and our new friends at Canciger, we left. Later that afternoon, I was paging through the Lonely Planet looking for a hostel option in the town we’d venture to next, when I came across their advice about the fish market. It was listed as a Top Choice for budget travelers, and I just read it and smiled, proud that we discovered it without any help.
 
Sometimes, you just don’t need a guidebook.