31 December, 2008

What's a Walla Walla?

"This is Walla Walla kiddo," Mr. Sapolil Cellars winemaker said as he commented on the eastern Washington State town's lack of nightlife. I was originally keen on visiting Cayuse, but a big SOLD OUT sign at the winery's tasting room redirected me to its neighbor.

It has been a bittersweet Christmas, a week of celebrating mother's return to the States but also my goodbye as I leave in January 2009 for my adventures in Argentina.

* * * *

We collected our rental car amidst a dull Oregon rain. It was already mid-morning but it felt early. Although it's already December 28th, most of Portland still slumbered in its post-Saturnalia food coma.

Portland International Airport, NE 181st Street, Gresham, and Troutdale . . . . One by one, mother, the sister, and I counted as we sped past Portland's eastern suburbs and into the Columbia River Gorge. Anticipating the majestic views of the river valley, we were instead greeted by a steady and increasingly energetic rain. It was as if mother nature desired no visitors and did its best to turn back the city slickers.

At the end of the last ice age, the Missoula Floods angrily rushed millions of tons of ice down the Columbia, cutting through the volcanic Cascade Mountains and creating the 80-miles long Gorge. Jagged bluffs, sometimes up to 4,000 feet/1,200 meters, now flank the mighty river's northern and southern banks.

Multnomah Falls

But on this wintry day, Mt. Hood and her shy sisters hid behind a thick white veil.

I cannot say exactly when the landscape changed, perhaps at the Dalles, the end of the Oregon Trail. The narrow and dramatic Gorge gave way to open sky and a high desert landscape befitting of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns.

* * * *

Although I am a Willamette Valley and Burgundy Pinot Noir man, my first bottle of L'Ecole No. 41 Estate Syrah filled my head with fanciful imagination. The Blue Mountains, the high deserts bordering Idaho, and very warm summer days and the cool nights welcome the migrants from the South of France to the new world. Merlot from Bordeaux and Syrah from the Rhône have found a happy home in Walla Walla.

Excitedly ejecting myself out of our rental car each time we pull up to a new winery, I sampled offerings from L'Ecole No. 41, Woodward Canyon, Bergevin Lane, and finally Sapolil Cellars. But while the Syrahs were definitely worth the four hours drive, what struck me the most is the contrast between the winemakers' connection to the land they farm*, and their commitment to produce creative and quality wines; some converted rocky family plots that were unsuitable for planting wheat or onions but are great for the vines, while others came from as far away as France because of Walla Walla's freewheeling wine making culture.

* * * *

Unlike our eastward drive two days ago, today's trip back to Portland was smooth and relatively free of nature's wrath. Although it was still cloudy, the sun occasionally came out to play.

Today, the Columbia River Gorge was a pensive grand old lady who cautiously permitted us into her realm.

* Many Walla Walla winemakers commented that they're 3rd or 5th generation Walla Walla residents.

For lodging we stayed at the Walla Walla Inns' downtown location.

23 December, 2008


I feel a bit like General John Burgoyne, the British commander who fought the Continental Army while refusing to part with his creature comforts. It's not like Buenos Aires is the wilderness of the Adirondacks, but . . .


Attempt # 1 - Stuff everything in the rucksacks and hope they fit. It didn't work.

Attempt #2 - Tidy up the tarp, lay out the gears in a somewhat orderly fashion, then repack the rucksacks. It was better, but not there yet.

Attempt #3 - Remove 20% of my clothes, then repack. Almost there.

I'll have to have another go at it. All this packing worked up an appetite for dinner and a few pints.

I am willing to turn down some of my clothes but refuse to slim down on my wet/cold weather gears and my books (which adds at least 20 lbs to my pack). We all have to make sacrifices for the revolution.

After - ish

11 December, 2008

Are you local?

As Grizzly Adams steered the raft down the New River (actually we paddled up the river since the New River flows south to north), I struggled with getting my head on right. The previous night had been rough. Camped out along the Shenandoah River, out tents got washed out by the inbound hurricane and we spent the whole night shivering under our improvised tarp city. Short of sleep, knee deep in mud, and wet and cold, we did what any sensible weekend warrior would do - we drank our entire weekend's supply of alcohol in one night.

Actually Grizzly Adams isn't our guide's name. But since I can't remember what he called himself and he was one towering, bearded, jolly and loquacious fella', Grizzly Adams it is.

"In West Virginia, a non-native only becomes local when the last person who knew you when you moved into town dies," Grizzie imparted upon us. "I arrived over 20-years ago and I'm still not local."

As much as I adore trekking and camping on the Appalachian Trail and rafting and rock climbing in the New River Gorge, I have no desire to pick up and move to the Mountain State.

But just now when I was laboring away at the gym, I got to thinking. How long must one live in a place before one becomes local? I have spent most of my life in three cities: Taipei, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

In the self-styled entertainment capital of the world, one earns the privilege of being an Angeleno as soon as one moves into town, find a trustworthy barman, bagel shop, burger drive through, and sort out one's favorite beach and roach coach (Southern Californian lingo for taco truck).

In Washington, very few I associate with are natives. Except for some generations-old Chevy Chase or Fairfax County families (which are outside the city limits anyway), many Washington residents are from somewhere else and go somewhere else for Christmas and Thanksgiving. After 16 years living in Washington, I hold a Brooklyn driver's license and still call myself a Californian.

Even in Taipei, most are from elsewhere in Taiwan or China. As a Japanese city originally designed for 600,000 residents, the City of Azaleas still works off the same 1895 grid but is now bulging with 2.6 million residents. Do the math and it's fairly obvious that most Taipeiers are from somewhere else. Around the time of the last big war, gramps moves the family to Taipei from Miaoli County, a quiet farming community 142 km south of Taipei.

I'm going to Buenos Aires soon. What am I going to be? I'm quite sure I won't be a Porteño. But am I going to be a traveler visiting Argentina or am I going to be a Buenos Aires resident?

04 December, 2008


“Mate, be back in a little while.”

We watched with our jaws to the floor as the kilted man hoisted his bagpipes and headed out the hostel. It was an unlikely gathering of strangers right before Christmas. The Argie, a Mexican, and I, all in our 20s, and then the 40-something Scot checked in. After playing his pipes for sometime in the cobblestone streets of altstadt Zürich, the Scotsman came back and we headed to a pub on Hauptbahnhof Straße to celebrate his earnings. Travelers make friends easily.

Street tag in Bern, Switzerland in December 2001

After my month-long sojourn in Chile and the south of Argentina, it was back to business on Capitol Hill. My unstructured and pleasurable life of a hobo was over.

“You gotta turn on CNN!” my friend screamed into the phone.

It was a perfect September morning in Washington. The day was sunny and warm and the sky was the bluest shade of blue. Having just returned from South America ten days ago, I was taking my time easing back to life in the rat race.

I watched in amazement as the news commentators debated about the gaping hole in the World Trade Center. Hours later, the Twin Towers tumbled to the ground and the Pentagon was ablaze. Mobile phones crashed and thousands of Capitol Hill staffers, members of Congress, lobbyists, police officers, and visitors wandered the grounds.

“A plane is heading for the Capitol!” some speculated.

Just then a sonic boom thundered across the southern sky. I dropped behind a metal file cabinet and thought it was my time - and I couldn’t even use the mobile to call mom. But it was an air force fighter climbing to intercept possible inbound airliners.

What followed was months of anger and confusion. The government had to act but anthrax chased us out of our Capitol Hill offices. We held meetings at cafes and I scribbled floor speeches and drafted legislation in hallways and on notebook paper. Those were uncertain times.

NOUS SOMMES TOUS AMÉRICAINS, declared France’s Le Monde.

We are all Americans indeed. Outside of my family, the first people to contact me about my safety were Marie and Xavier, a Parisian couple I met at San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Travelers make friends easily.

“It’s time to stop being scared,” I thought to myself. “It’s time to travel again.”

Three months after that day of days, I bought the first cheap ticket to the first attractive location I saw. It was Zürich.

02 December, 2008

To where others have gone

I stared into the frigid waters of the Strait of Magellan. The August wind was angrily sweeping across Seno Última Esperanza (Last Hope Sound) and the temperature was well below freezing. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the desperation of the Portuguese sailors who passed through the same spot on All Saints' Day in 1520.

"I should have my head examined for visiting the Patagonia at the height of winter," I muttered to myself as my escaping breaths were exhaled into the frosty air.

Situated at the southern extreme of the Chilean Patagonia, I imagined Punta Arenas to be the bottom of the Earth. Antarctica expeditions depart from here and penguins waddle its shores. The British-found port city (originally named Sandy Point) has a rich history as a penal colony whose first governor was executed by revolting prisoners. The town subsequently earned its keeps as arriving Germans, Croatians, and English and Welshmen got rich raising sheep and drilling for gushing black gold. But nobody told me the same rampaging prisoners also captured two visiting ships, marooned their passengers, got piss drunk on looted cognac, and were quickly recaptured.

Later day travelers, like Bruce Chatwin, imagined Patagonia to be the perfect nuclear bomb shelter because it isn't near anything worth bombing. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to the south of this continent to escape from pursuing sheriffs.

But overall, aside from visiting Austral Beer, the world's most southerly brewery, Punta Arenas in August is as Lady Florence Dixie said in 1881, "there may possibly be drearier places but I don't think it is probable."

Why do I travel?

Standing at the edge of where the famed Portuguese explorer once roamed, the same thoughts I had in Joshua Tree, Bangkok, Wadi Rum and Aqaba, and many other places raced through my mind. As Richard in Alex Garland's novel "The Beach" was motivated to have a go at the mysterious lagoon, I've been tempted as far as I can remember to strike out and travel to faraway places, where I would be free from guidebooks, gringo-priced cafes and pubs, and cheeky taxi drivers.

"Buscando una habitación?" the woman at the Puerto Natales bus station shouted at me.

Still groggy from the four hour bus ride from Punta Arenas and shocked by the icy Patagonian air, the only Spanish I can conjure up was a confused "permiso?"

"Oh you're American," she immediately switched to flawless English.

"Bugger! That obvious eh?" I thought to myself.

Pointing at the Chilean flag patch I used to repair my coat, "I thought you're South American," she said.

"Have a look at my place. No need to pay if you don't like it. I can organize tours to the Perito Moreno Glacier and the Torres del Paine National Park if you like."

So much for getting away from other gringos and Europeans.

Cecilia was a kind woman who ran a tight ship. Casa Cecelia in Puerto Natales was one of the best guesthouse I've stayed in. The shower pressure was strong, the water was hot, the kitchen and bedrooms were spotless (and heated!). She also sorted me out on treks to go on and rides to the parks.

The walk from where the bus let us off to the first warming hut with hot showers, food, and bunks was five hours. I made the hike with a Japanese girl on her gap year and a Maltese couple. The only way to get supplies in and out of Torres del Paine is on foot or mules. Fast-falling snow was a faithful companion during our whole trek to Refugio Pehoe.

We walked mostly in silence, each awed with the scenery and each with our own thoughts. Dampened by the wintry weather, not many trekkers are about the park. We've almost the entire mountain to ourselves, except for the hungry pumas.