Browsed by
Author: Scott

12 Hours in Kuala Lumpur

12 Hours in Kuala Lumpur

Occasionally plans are made, wheels are set in motion and plane tickets are purchased that later make you stop and wonder ‘what the hell were we thinking?’. Granted, this doesn’t happen very often, but we’ve certainly come to realize the tendency to overestimate our travel stamina is very real.

A few weeks of bouncing through English speaking countries, complete with all of the accoutrements of life back home, left us feeling refreshed and a bit overly confident. India was our next big destination and everything we’d heard made it sound like New Delhi would stand as a significant contrast to the winding mountain roads of New Zealand and the laid-back vibe of Australia.

Maybe it was the cheap New Zealand wine or the fresh mountain air but somewhere along the side of the road in Queenstown we figured that the best plan of attack for India was to arrive on the heels of a twelve hour layover in Malaysia and a redeye flight. These plans must have been forgotten shortly after they were made because Shelby seemed just as surprised as I was when we pulled up the itinerary on our second to last day in Melbourne

Me: ‘Oh shit, did you remember that we’ve got a redeye flight and a 12 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur?’
Shelby: ‘What?!’

I suppose ‘buy the ticket, take the ride’ holds true regardless of whether or not you remember buying the ticket.

Overnight flights always sound great in theory. The rationalization usually goes something like this: “It’s the cheapest flight and we’ll save money on a nights accommodations. On top of that, we’ll sleep the entire flight and wake up ready to go. We’re brilliant!”

And like most plans that sound great in theory, reality has a peculiar habit of getting in the way: “Wow! Look at all of these onboard movies! Free booze?! Don’t mind if I do – I’ll have seven please. Hmm, I should really get some sleep instead of watching a third movie.” Finally, follow seven glasses of cheap red wine with an acrobatic effort that would make a professional contortionist take notice in an attempt to find the minimum level of sleep inducing comfort.

Reality’s grasp was as tight as ever on this flight. Throw in a mild bout of Burger King induced food poisoning for Shelby and we stumbled in the Kuala Lumpur airport looking like we might have arrived on camelback.

Fortunately for us, the war against fatigue and stomach pain in Malaysia is best waged with a healthy dose of Nasi Lamak and Roti. Served up at street stalls along the outskirts of the highly developed metropolis people typically associate with Kuala Lumpur, these local dishes are a sure fire way to jump start the body. And, in a testament to how far we’ve come as travelers, two cups of absurdly bitter Malaysian coffee was all it took to get us out of the airport terminal and onto the express train to Kuala Lumpur’s street food mecca of Kampung Baru.

The Kampung Baru neighborhood on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur
The Kampung Baru neighborhood on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur

Kampung Baru is a hold out neighborhood – a reminant of the past that’s turned a cold shoulder on the land hungry developers eager to sell studio apartments by the dozen. The people of this small enclave seem to have fought hard to retain their culture against the backdrop of ‘modern progress’ and if a vibrant street food scene is any indication then they’re fighting a winning battle.

A four minute walk from the Kampung Baru KLI station and we found ourselves chasing down the smell of sizzling meat and simmering curries. First on our menu for the day was Nasi Lamak. Nasi, as we first discovered in Indonesia, roughly translates to mixed rice. With Nasi Lamak the rice is cooked in coconut milk and served on a banana leaf with a variety of toppings that you choose by pointing to various heaps of meat and pots of boiling stews. For our personalized rendition of the dish we choose a mixture of chicken rendang, dried anchovies, and sambal topped with a few slices of fresh tomato and cucumber. Smiles were beginning to break through the fatigue.

Nassi
Nasi Lamak

 

Starting to get into that happy place
Starting to find that happy place

Next up on the breakfast menu was Roti Canai which is a flat bread, cooked on the spot and mixed with a variety fresh veggies or meat. This dish also comes with a side of traditional curries for dipping. We choose two Roti Canai’s – one with onion and cheese and another with peppers, onions and egg. A strong start considering it was only 9:00 AM.

This dude slings a mean Rotti
This dude slings a mean Rotti

 

"Sauce me"
“Sauce me”

 

Rotti Cannai
Rotti Cannai

We spent the better part of the next hour wandering through the surrounding tents and street stalls, sampling small bites and taking in the sites and smells of a street that still clings to Malaysian village life of the early 1900’s.

A short one stop metro ride is all it takes to find yourself in a downtown that feels as though it should be much further removed from the tranquil, tree lined streets of Kampung Baru. Now filled with suit donning businessmen (and ladies), Kuala Lumpur’s main streets have been transformed over the last 150 years from small village to modern, bustling city. Our second stop for the day was one of the cities most defining features – the Petronas Towers.

Petronas Towers
The Petronas Towers

The Petronas Towers were completed in 1996 and, for a short period of time, stood as the two tallest buildings in the world. At this point in our travels we’d laid eyes on two of the former tallest buildings in the world (Shanghai Tower and Taipei 101) so it seemed fitting that we cross another one of these superstructures off the list. Unfortunately, like most of these impressive buildings, the cost of an elevator ride to the top is the equivalent of two nice meals, so we decided that a tour of the lobby would have to suffice.

While impressive from the outside, the lobby of the Petronas Towers proved to be somewhat of a disappointment and we were quickly on our way toward Merdeka Square and Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown.

Merdeka Square
Merdeka Square

The buildings of Merdeka Square were originally constructed in the 1880’s by the British and were used as government offices during their occupation. In 1957, when Malaysia declared independence from the British, the square saw the Malaysian flag hoisted for the first time. At the square we read a bit about the history of Malaysian independence, I took a few quick photos of the surrounding skyline and Shelby did an on camera interview for a few Malaysian college kids before we retreated to the shaded city streets leading to Chinatown.

Shelby getting interviewed
Shelby getting interviewed

Malaysian cuisine seems to barrow heavily from both the Indian and Chinese influences. We’d experienced some of the Indian influence for breakfast so our goal in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown was to seek out a few dishes rumored to be modern Malay classics with strong Chinese roots.

A few Malaysian food blogs pointed us toward Kim Lian Kee as the spot for two of these dishes – Claypot Loh Shu Fun and Hokkien Mee. Kim Lian Kee is perched on the second floor of an old building above a sea of fake Rolex and Gucci handbag vendors . The restaurant itself and the cast of characters in the dinning room seemed to resonate with a unique mix of grunge and age that led us to believe we’d just found a hidden gem. Unfortunately, killer ambiance doesn’t always translate to stellar food.

Malaysian Black Hokkien Mee is a noodle dish with thick long noodles and seafood in a dark gelatinous sauce. Claypot Loh Shu Fun is served in a similar sauce but with shorter rolled noodles known as rat tail noodles and a raw egg cracked on top. On the surface, both of these dishes look like you’re in for a kick to the face of flavor – an umami explosion. But, to our surprise, these two dishes were surprisingly bland. A healthy dose of soy sauce and Chinese hot sauces came to the rescue and added a bit of depth the mostly flavorless dish. You win some, you lose some.

Black Hokkien Mee
Black Hokkien Mee

 

Claypot Loh Shu Fun
Claypot Loh Shu Fun

With a belly full of rat tail noodles, we weaved our way back through the crowded Chinatown streets toward the metro station. Kuala Lumpur’s metro system is surprisingly effiecient and we were only one long express stop away from the airport. We were a long way out from the days finish line – another flight stood between us and the chaotic streets of New Dehli – but as we watched the city’s skyline disappear in the distance, I couldn’t help but think we’d made the right call in stopping in Kuala Lumpur.

Headed back to the airport
Headed back to the airport. So tired.

The city of Kuala Lumpur is alive with character. We found a unique mix of culture, both new and old, a healthy dose of great food and some very friendly people. All of this and we barely scratched the surface during our twelve hour stop in Malaysia.

The Supreme Taipei Food Court

The Supreme Taipei Food Court

In America, the term ‘food court’ is synonymous with shitty fast food, Orange Julius, and middle schoolers. How far from the truth this is when it comes to Taipei. We quickly found out that food courts in Taipei are nothing like what we think of back home. They’re filled with a dizzying array of every Asian cuisine imaginable, and all of it very high quality. To the uninitiated, it may be hard to believe, but the food courts of Taipei are not to be missed.

We spent our first few days in Taipei sampling various dumpling and noodle spots we’d picked out from an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover, but it wasn’t long before we’d exhausted his list and found ourselves wandering the streets, looking for a quick food fix. Since we were only a few days into our trip, our guard was still up when it came to food and we were probably a bit overly cautions when it came to sampling the various street foods or anything that didn’t come from a TV show or TripAdvisor. Since then, that fear has fallen by the wayside, but, at the time, our reluctance actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, leading us straight to the glorious Taiwanese food court.

The first time we entered one of these food courts was out of sheer desperation – we were starving, sweaty, and tired. We saw a mall, noticed a sign for a food court, and our bellies collectively said ‘fuck it, lets go’. Our jaws dropped when found row after row of shops hawking ramen, dumplings, pho, sushi, tempura, bibimbap, hotpot – you name it, it was all there.

For our first Taiwanese food court experience, we did a few laps around the halls and decided on a shop selling bibimbap. Bibimbap is a Korean rice dish served in a large, piping hot, iron bowl with various toppings mixed in like egg, kimchi, fermented veggies and meats. Typically, you get to pick out a few side dishes to accompany the bowl such as pickled seaweeds, fish cakes or more kimchi. At the time, this was my first experience with bibimbap and I had nothing to compare it to. But as someone with a deep love for food, I knew this place killed it. It was fantastic. Were all food courts in Taipei this good? We needed to find out. And we certainly tried to over the course of the next few weeks.

We found a food court in the base of Taipei 101 – once that tallest building in the world – that made the first food court look like child’s play. This one was three times as large with even more variety of food. Every Asian cuisine was represented, many times over in some cases. They had bakeries serving frosting topped waffles, stands serving exotic teas and sushi conveyer belts. We had another sampling of Korean food here. This time a Korean kimchi soup. Fantastic, once again.

During our final week in Taipei, we found what we would come to realize as the mother of all food courts: The Breeze Food Court at the Taipei Main Station. Now this place quite possibly the greatest food court in the entire world and that’s no exaggeration. This food court takes up the entire top floor of the main train station in Taipei. Each section of this food court is divided up based on cuisine. There’s an entire section devoted to beef noodle, a section for Indian food, a Chinese food section with Sichuan, Cantonese, or Hunan shops, a ramen isle, a hotpot row – the options go on and on. The hallways between the pods of regionally centric shops are filled with sit-down restaurants – everything from German food to coffee shops to hibachi. Incredibly, many of these sit-down restaurants have lines, out the door, of locals waiting to eat. The size of this place and the number of options is truly overwhelming. Deciding on a place to eat here is a time consuming task in it of itself.

We ate there twice over our last week in Taipei, having a Thai noodle soup one time and an Indian curry the next. The Indian curry, served with some sort of milk soup and miscellaneous fried chicken parts, was nothing special. With that many options there’s bound to be a few disappointments. On the other hand, the Thai soup that I’ve since come to recognize as Khao Soi was phenomenal. Khao Soi is a coconut curry-like broth with a mixture of soft egg noodles, some sort of protein (often times pork) and a garnish of fried, crispy egg noodles. The flavors are vibrant with strong hints of chili oil, lime and pepper. This particular soup substituted the fried egg noodle garnish for fried Japanese Enoki mushrooms. I ordered mine with fried pork while Shelby had the one with a chicken drumstick. Seeing Shelby make quick work of a drumstick with only a spoon and chopsticks made me realize how far our chopstick skills had come over the past few weeks.

Chopstick master
Chopstick master

 

The quality and variety of food we found in these mass collectives of fast-casual styled, culinary talent is truly remarkable from the perspective of an American. The only General Tao’s chicken we saw being served here was at a fine-dining, sit-down restaurant with white linen table cloths – an establishment that I once would have thought to be entirely out of place in a food court, serving a dish that seemed to be as equally out of place in it’s current environment. No McDonalds. No Panda Express. No Orange Julius.

img_4369
A+ presentation. No greasy McDonalds bags at this food court

If you had asked me for my thoughts on food courts before Taiwan, I wouldn’t have had much to say that was positive. But we’ve now seen the light. What once evoked images of adolescence, greasy fried food and scenes from Fast Times At Ridgemont High now holds a special place in our hearts and bellies. If you ever find yourself in Taiwan, do yourself a favor and find the Breeze Food Court.

Off the Beaten Path in Hualien

Off the Beaten Path in Hualien

I first came across Taiwan’s Muyumugi Gorge last spring in a short article that was linked to in a Reddit post. The author described an off-the-beaten-path swimming hole, just a short bus ride outside of Hualien, with water so clear you could see straight through to the rocks on the river bed. The pictures looked awesome and it sounded like not many tourists made it there so I promptly clipped the article to Evernote. Like most of the random tidbits that wind up in my notebooks, this article was on it’s way to being forgotten about until long after we left Taiwan, had it not been for a former coworker who overheard me talking about our upcoming trip. As it turned out, he had just come back from Taiwan a few days earlier and one of his highlights was the Muyumugi Gorge. Sure enough, the short article I had nearly forgotten about and his Taiwan highlight were one and the same, instantly bumping the Muyumugi Gorge up to the top of my list of things to see in Taiwan.

The big draw of Hualien for most people is undoubtably the Taroko Gorge, making it overrun with tourist year-round. And while the Taroko Gorge certainly factored into our decision to visit Hualien, the Muyumugi Gorge was the spot that I’d been talking about nonstop. So, on our first full day in Hualien, we set off via bus to find the lesser-known gorge.  The bus we boarded zigzagged back and forth through Hualien’s busy streets before heading off, into the hills just west of the city.

The little research we’d done prior to our excursion made it sound like you needed a permit in order to hike into the hills of the aboriginal village where the gorge was, and that the local police limited the number of permits to 600 a day. When the bus let us off at the final stop, we headed across the street to the police station, hoping that we hadn’t arrived too late to make the days allotment of visitors. To our surprise, we found that the ‘permit’ was just a sign-in sheet with only a few dozen signatures. On our way to the police station, we’d befriended another traveler, a Polish girl volunteering in Taiwan, and after few signatures, the three of us were on our way, hiking up the dirt road toward the gorge.

An old bridge alongside the trial
An old bridge, alongside the trial

 

A few vendors setup shot along the trail leading to the gorge
A few vendors setup shop along the trail leading to the gorge

 

Tunnels on the trail cut through the hills leading up to the gorge
Tunnels on the trail cut through the hills leading up to the gorge

For the first time on our trip, we’d left the large city and found ourselves in a lush, jungle-like setting. About three miles in, we started to see smaller trails leading down toward crystal clear waters that snaked through the hills. Even from fifty feet above you could tell how incredibly clear the water was. We headed a bit further down the main trail, leaving the small crowds of Taiwanese locals and tourists behind, and found a nice secluded area.

We spent the next few hours swimming and jumping off the surrounding rocks into the chilly water. You could see groups of small fish swim right up to the edge of the rocks that dotted the bank. The marble walls that surrounded the gorge, at points rising high into the hills, were lined with incredibly intricate patterns that seemed to have been polished smooth by the flowing water.

 

Crystal clear water
Crystal clear water

The entire scene was perfect – exactly what we needed after a solid week of trekking through city streets in ninety degree weather. It was also an unexpected and welcome surprise to find another Westerner. We’d been on the road for a little over a week at this point and it was refreshing to hear from someone else also navigating their way through Taiwan.

Crystal clear water
Crystal clear water

 

Cutting right through the hills
Cutting right through the hills

With only a few buses making the trip back into the main town, we made our way back down the trail, stopping along the way for a passion fruit popsicle from one of the local aboriginal vendors. We waited at the village’s one bus stop, an old tree in a parking lot behind the police station, feeling refreshed and totally relaxed.

Often times it’s a crap shoot when you hear about a ‘must see’ attraction. If the spot lives up to the hype then it’s often overrun with tourists. If the endorsement is the product of circumstances beyond the destination itself, then you’ll scratch your head and wonder what the person who made the suggestion saw in the place to begin with. The Muyumugi Gorge is one of the rare gems that exists in the magical grey area between tourist hotspot and disappointing dud. The natural beauty of the marble walls, the refreshing pools and the hike out of the aboriginal village and into the hills, combined with very few tourists make our day at the Muyumugi Gorge a clear favorite so far.

One Day We Should…

One Day We Should…

“One day we should…” – this little phrase seems to follow me around every where I go. Or maybe I’m the one following, collecting little bits of inspiration scattered along the trail of not enough time. In a sense, our entire upcoming trip is all about the ‘one day we shoulds’ and trying to ensure that the pages off our story are filled with what we’ve done and few regrets. And what better way to start off this chapter than with some much overdue family time? After spending a week in Cleveland with Shelby’s parents it was off to Connecticut to see my family, have some fun and cross a few of these ‘one day we should’ items off of our Connecticut list.

DSC_0101Trips back East since Shelby has come into my life have always taken place under the guise of a holiday or quick weekend trip. Each trip routinely includes me ranting about some sweet hiking spot or adventure that I wished we had time for. This trip would be different. For the first time together, we drove through the scenic back roads of southern Massachusetts, arriving in Connecticut with no real commitments. Ready to take advantage ample chill time and the hot, humid summer weather that’s never around over the holidays.

Pulling into my parent’s driveway, it struck me that this was the first time in nearly a decade that I had driven ‘home’. Almost ten years have passed since I left 52 Blue Ridge Drive as a shaggy haired, naive, twenty-two year old. I was headed west, ready to explore the United States and ready to find a new home. Now, having found that new home and the love of my life, it felt oddly fitting to return – just days away from setting off once again, from this same driveway, on a new adventure.

Aside from our unorthodox means of arrival, our stop at my parent’s house started just as every trip to my parent’s house starts – with food. Very little in life can compare to a hot pizza and a cold beer – especially after a solid nine hours in the car – and that’s exactly what my Mom had waiting for us. Food usually takes center stage when we visit our families and this trip already looked to be no exception (all you can eat crab legs with Shelby’s parents had set the bar pretty high).

Our love for Colorado runs deep but one draw back that comes with living in a land locked state is that fresh seafood, specifically shellfish, is hard to come by. We’ve done a good job at keeping an annual lobster boil on the list of traditions back in Denver but the lobsters we scrounge for at the Chinese market can’t compete with what you find in Connecticut.

Day two started off strong with my Mom’s suggestion that we find some lobsters for dinner. An idea so brilliant that it could only be met with a resounding ‘hell yea’ from everyone. Shelby, in particularly, had been looking forward to a good ol’ New England lobster ever since missing out on the last lobster feast I had with my parents a few years back. No way would we be leaving Connecticut this time without cracking a few claws.

An added bonuses of being in a place with an abundance of lobster is that you can usually find a market that will let you pick up your lobsters, already steamed and ready to go. Much easier than dealing with the fifteen gallon pot of boiling water. So my Dad and I headed over to a local market to pick up dinner. That night we feasted on lobster and enough melted butter to float a small boat. I can feel my arteries thanking me already.

Fukashima monsta lobsta
Monsta lobsta

Every time we make it back East I always have the best intentions of seeing old friends but more often than not, this never happens. Our third day in Connecticut allowed us to cross off a ‘one day we should’ item that had been lingering for years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Old friends, good times

Hayes and Michelle are two of my best friends from college and as crazy as it seems to me – or anyone that knows them from college – they now have a real, live child. After a few years of saying we’d carve out the time to see them and meet their son, Evan, we finally did. We headed down to a Mexican restaurant on the Long Island Sound for a few beers. It was awesome to finally meet Evan and to spend some quality time catching up.

We high tailed it back to my parents house for a barbecue that my Mom was putting together. Marcie and Randy – some of my parents oldest friends who I consider to be like family – were also coming over to see us and get down on the steaks my Mom was grilling up.

Of all of the elder folk we have in our life, Randy has been particular supportive of our plans to go travel. He’s made it a point to hammer on the fact that life is short and the ‘path’ that most people blindly follow should be questioned more often. He’s told us a number of times that, in retrospect, he wished he had done what we’re doing. Words of encouragement are always welcome when you’re about to stray from the heard and head half way across the world. It was awesome to see them and the steaks were also top notch.

Talcott Mountain Trail Head
Talcott Mountain Trail Head

Connecticut at this time of year is usually pretty hot and steamy. This week was no exception with temperatures well into the nineties. Regardless, there was one hike around my childhood hometown that needed to be crushed. After telling Shelby about the Hublien Tower and the Talcott Mountain trail for years, it was finally time to take her there.

As a kid, Talcott Mountain was the closest thing I knew to a mountain and one of the first hikes I remember doing. The mountain itself – which is more of a large hill relative to what we have back in Colorado – overlooks most of my home town and is one of the first things you see heading east out of my parents driveway.

The trail leading up to the top is pretty short but once you reach the ‘summit’ theres an old tower built in the early 1900’s. The Heublein Tower as it’s known, was once owned by food tycoon Gilbert Heublein who we can thank for introducing America to A1 Steak Sauce and Smirnoff Vodka. The living room on the ground floor of the tower is also where Dwight Eisenhower was asked to run for president. The tower itself is nothing special but you can see it from nearly everywhere in town which makes the experience quintessential to any hiker that’s spent even just a few days in Simsbury.

We tried rounding up some company for our hike but both my Mom and Sister seemed more focused on the possiblity of melting in the heat as opposed the prospect of going on a sweet hike with us. Slightly disappointed that we were on on own – and to discover that in nearly thirty years of living in Simsbury my Mom had never actually done the hike – we set off for the trail head. The heat wasn’t much of factor since the dense foliage of the Connecticut woods acted as shade. We saw a few frogs on the way up and made pretty good time getting to the tower.

The Hublein Tower
The Hublein Tower

The tower was open so we were able to take the stairs up to the top where there’s a sweet observation station. You can see for at least a hundred miles in any direction on a clear day. On that day it was slightly overcast but the view was still awesome.

While we certainly love sampling local restaurants whenever we’re traveling, nothing quite beats a home cooked meal from your Mom. When we got back from our hike, my Mom cooked up some salmon filets and a few side dishes that could certainly rival any local eatery. Considering that our next quality home cooked meal might be a year away, this meal was much appreciated.

In between all of the food and small daytime adventures, our time in Connecticut was mainly spent running around taking care of last minute errands. Random odds and ends that needed to be wrapped up kept us on the move so it was really awesome to find out that my Aunt Amy and Uncle Rich, along with my Cousin Lauren and her Boyfriend Alex, were headed up from New Jersey to spend the weekend with us.

When they arrived Friday evening, my Mom put together some hors d’oeuvre for everyone to snack on including my favorite – her clam dip. After we polished off the appetizers and a few drinks, we all headed over to a local restaurant for an epic late night happy hour. Everything on the menu was half priced. Get at me lobster mac n’ cheese. This dish was loaded with full on lobster claws. You’re doing alright any time you have lobster twice in one week.

No trip to my parents house would be complete without a typical Berke style brunch. I’m pretty sure it was at one of these brunches that Shelby was first introduced to the glorious combination of lox, bagels and cream cheese. Now, I doubt that she loves lox – the bacon of the sea – quite as much as I do, but there’s no escaping it when you get my family together.

To add to the momentous occasion of brunch, my Grandmother – despite not having much of a clue who any of us were – was able to make an appearance. It was awesome to have her there, but damn, Alzheimers is one hell of a disease.

Before leaving Colorado, Shelby and I had gotten back into the swing of things and started making an appearance on the tennis court. Our tennis racquets came along on the road trip and we had been on the look out for a tennis court since arriving in Cleveland. No such luck so far. Imagine our surprise when we found out that Lauren and Alex also like a good volley from time to time. On top of that, Alex also happens to drive around with a tennis racquet in his trunk. Game on.

The top-seeded Berke’s took home court advantage at my old high school trying to complete a dominating week against the soon-to-be Lieberman’s in straight sets. Shelby came out strong, chasing down shots and placing her own with pinpoint accuracy. We took an early 3-0 lead but the visiting team rallied, breaking back to go up 6-5 eventually winning the set 7-6. They’re from Jersey so I’m just going to assume there had to be some cheating going on.

My sister, Emalie, showed up while we were playing but by the end of our first set everyone was about ready to melt into puddles on the court. Running low on water and high on perspiration, I called an audible and herded everyone into the car with promises of a sweet swimming hole.

We drove about fifteen minutes to a spot that had become a favorite of mine as a teenage – Enders Falls. I had told Shelby about this spot many times in the past but it had always been too cold to go. I would have been excited to finally show it to just her but now I had a real crew along for the ride. I’m not saying that I had planned to get everyone to the point of near heat exhaustion and follow it up with swimming under a waterfall but if I had, the plan was working.

Waterfall rock slide
Waterfall rock slide

My guess is that everyone was a little skeptical when we pulled off the side of the road and into a small dirt parking lot that looked a lot like a trail head and very little like a place to go swimming. I could tell that people were starting to get a little grumbly – the combination of heat and hunger was starting to take it’s toll – but I insisted and we took off into the woods. Barely twenty feet in and we started to see people in bathing suites emerge from just beyond the tree line. We were close.

Another fifty feet down the trail and there it was – water fall after glorious water fall, cascading into deep swimming pools. Even though it looked sweet, no one decided to take the plunge down the natural rock slide that emerged from one of the falls. For Shelby and I, having no health insurance makes hurling yourself off a twenty foot waterfall slide seem a bit risky but we all enjoyed a good swim. Leaving Enders Falls feeling refreshed, we headed home for some pizza. There’s no such thing as too much pizza.

After grabbing some brunch with one of my best friends, Kevin, and his girlfriend Eileen, we spent the following day paring down our gear into it’s final configuration. Deciding what goes in a forty liter bag for the next year of your life certainly sparks a twinge of anxiety. But, after months of searching and far too many hours spent at REI, we were feeling semi confident that we had all our bases covered gear wise.

All the things for the next year
All the things for the next year

When Monday morning came around we said our goodbyes’ to my family and headed down to New Jersey. Our flight to Taiwan left first thing the next morning out of Newark airport so it made sense to meet up with my Aunt and Uncle once again and spend the night at their house. As we tried to fall asleep and get a few hours of rest that night, I all I could think was that this leg of the trip seemed to fly by.

All to often, spending quality time with family remains on the ‘one day we should’ list. Holidays are always awesome but they usually include a strong element of chaos and never enough time to relax and really enjoy just being together. If anything, these stops to see Shelby’s parents and my family reinforce the notion that the moments we’ll look back at and really remember will be these moments. Not the forty plus hours a week spent at the office or the hours watching tv each night. Sure, prioritizing these moments in life means making the time and often that comes at the sacrifice of the all mighty dollar or the seemingly important responsibilities we’ve burned ourselves with. But it’s moments like these that you would trade all of the money in the world for as you take your last breath. If I can take anything away from the start of this journey, it’s that each breath should be treated like currency and one should spend them wisely.

Off The Grid

Off The Grid

                              “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.” – Paulo Coelho

 

001 (2)I quit my job today. It was a good job; I was paid well, I learned a lot, I worked with cool people on challenging problems, I grew as a person, as a software developer and, for the most part, I had the freedom to come into work and do whatever interested me. The perks were also first-rate. We took a yearly trip to Mexico. There were free meals at the restaurant downstairs and catered lunches every Wednesday. They paid for a cell phone, a gym membership, health insurance.  All in all, it was the best professional job I’ve ever had.

 

Admittedly, I’ve had gripes with my position, as most people do, but all of these benefits make it really hard for me to justify why I just did what I did. I did what I needed to do though and I hope that in a year’s time I can look back and say to myself that today was an inflection point – the first material step taken down a path decorated with experience that far outweighs the comfort of free lunches, a desk by a window and three days at a Mexican resort.

Over the past few months a unique situation had developed at work. Along with another co-worker, I had become a rogue software developer, straddling two, sometimes three departments, wearing many hats and answering the call of anyone with a problem not important enough to be prioritized by another engineering team yet still solvable by code. To some extent this role meant freedom from the rigid structure of a company trying to grow up. At the same time this role also carried a persona non grata vibe and it certainly seemed as if a mutual understanding had developed between myself and the people keeping me on the company roster that the corner I had carved out for myself needed resolution.

On some level it’s relieving to know that the actual conversation, the ‘quitting’, is over and done with. I’ve been wracked with anxiety for the past few days and nights over the thought of mustering the words “Hey, can I talk to you for a second” to my manager. I’m an anxious person in general but the idea of quitting a job without another lined up, that’s a solid recipe for a shitty nights sleep.

The conversation itself went better than I could have imagined. When I asked my manager if he had time to talk, he countered and asked if I was about to make him sad. It was as if he expected that this conversation was overdue, as if he knew that the aimless freedom I’d been extended over the past few months had reached a tipping point. I responded with an honest ‘maybe’, genuinely unsure if the ambiguity behind my current role with the company was an undue burden on those higher in the ranks than me and if the ensuing conversation would be a relief to both parties.

I laid out the course that Shelby and I had put in motion: we were headed out on the adventure of a lifetime – the better part of a year on the road – traveling to foreign places with little in the way of commitments. Plane tickets already booked. No turning back now. To my surprise, my boss responded with candor. “What you’re about to do, my wife did that before we were married. She traveled for nine months and it’s a big regret of mine that I haven’t done something like that. Of all the reasons I’ve heard for leaving a job, I’m happy this is what you’re telling me”, he said.

 I think he was relieved that he hadn’t failed as manager while succeeding at ushering me into the arms of another company. At the same time, I was relieved that ‘quitting’ wasn’t met with criticism. The coupling between one’s work and one’s identity or purpose has grown into this sort of truism in my mind over the past few years and bucking the social norm of the nine to five, even just for a year, seemed like it could only be met with disapproval. Maybe the candid response confirmed that he didn’t know what my future with the company looked like but I believe his response was that of genuine respect and excitement for us.

 

The weight of the anxiety I’d been carrying for the past few days lifted. Victory. Triumph. The long dreaded moment was over. But alas, the true reality has just started to sink in. No more pay check. No more health insurance. No more free lunches. No more job. Hell, prior to that moment, I could keep myself fed just by showing up to work but now that safety net is cut. Into the great wide open we go. Uncharted territory, for me at least.

2016-07-15_1457

When Shelby quit her job a couple months ago, it seemed to come out of the blue. I think she had let the anxious feeling that I had become familiar with build up to a point where action was the only option. Part of me was struck with sheer admiration when she came home and dropped the bombshell of what she had done that day. Another part terrified that she had actually done it – we were going on this trip and suddenly it had become real with real life consequences.

 

Now, having followed her down the path of nine to five freedom, liberated from the burden of…a paycheck, I can only strap myself in and enjoy the ride. At the same time I can take comfort in knowing that the fear of losing what you already have is usually a stronger motivator for not taking a given action than the prospect of finding happiness is for actually taking action and finding what hides ahead, just out of sight.

I still have two more weeks of work left but I anticipate that they’ll fly by. There are loose ends to tie up, projects to document and knowledge that needs to be relinquished to my teammate who now leads a team of one.  Beyond being my co-worker, this particular individual is also a friend and I do feel genuinely guilty that my responsibilities now fall on him and that our weekly on-call rotation isn’t much of a rotation anymore. Hopefully it won’t be too rough on him.

There’s a mixed sense of excitement and disappointment after today. I had worked hard to put myself in a position where a spot on another engineering team was within reach. And while I think that I was close to getting the call up to the big leagues, I have to imagine that the life of a mercenary is more desirable to that of a infantry man. I had the freedom to accept and turn away projects on my own volition, something that wouldn’t have been a possibility as part of a larger team. I had the liberty to re-write the same five lines of code until they felt just right, as opposed to the get shit done approach that comes with commitments and deadlines.

Maybe this realization that I was on the verge of acquiring structure and a well defined role makes quitting oddly satisfying. Maybe quitting is actually what you do when you can’t take the stress of a situation anymore and leaving is the only option and maybe what I just did is simply moving on to the next cool thing in life, the next adventure. Jobs will come and go, perks can be negotiated, paychecks will be had again but time and experience are elusive. In the end, time is the only resource we can’t get more of and most people go through life trading their time for money. We’ve chosen, for the time being at least, a different path and underneath all of the mixed emotions that surround today, I feel confident that actions Shelby and I have taken – the course we’ve set in motion – emphasize the high regard that both time and experience are due yet rarely receive.

When someone joins the company that I just left, they get up in front of everyone at the weekly company meeting and they give an interesting fact – something for people to remember them by, a softball for the tenured employee to strike up that water cooler conversation about. I don’t recall what my interesting fact was two and a half years ago but I’m sure that the trip Shelby and I are about to embark on will leave me with no shortage of things to talk about should the situation ever arise in the future and that’s fucking exciting.