Vagabond Tales: Averting Death In A French Field

You don’t need to have traveled to France to be familiar with the French concept of laissez-faire.

A phrase, which translates to “let it be” amongst economic scholars, references the way in which governments should, in theory, let an economy take care of itself. “Hands off,” essentially.

Despite being an academic term rooted in economics, many travelers to France might argue that this laissez-faire mentality has permeated everyday French culture in that sometimes it seems the French people simply can’t be bothered with petty concerns.

“Do what you want, I don’t care, it will take care of itself.” That sort of feeling.

Often times American travelers, in turn, wrongly label this as laziness. While the French versus American culture debate will have to wait for a different day, there simply are aspects of French culture that Americans will never understand.

Of course, there are also things that us Americans do that the French view as curious and weird. For example, many French people I know find it inconceivably odd how casually American’s drop the word “love” (as in “OMG I love U” to a casual acquaintance or saying how you “love” someone’s new shirt).

Regardless, I, for one, am a fan of the French laissez-faire. One place I often notice this “couldn’t care less” mentality is whenever I am wine tasting in France. Unlike California’s Napa Valley where wineries have the audacity to ask for $20/person for a tasting, many times at French vineyards there isn’t even a tasting fee at all.On at least four separate occasions I have called into a rural French vineyard where the tasting room attendant had to come in from the fields to offer us a sample of their recent vintages. Despite the obvious added effort of catering to us, the mentality surrounding the free tasting was always the same:

“If you like my wine, you buy it, if you don’t, then leave. I don’t care.”

While this is all well and good with relation to wine tasting, I didn’t realize that this same mentality also applied to wildfires, namely in that they, too, should just take care of themselves. Though I’m sure this is not the actual case with all French wildfires, it sure seemed to be the case one April outside the southern city of Nîmes.

Cruising the rural hinterlands in an aging, red, four-door sedan, the vineyards and fields streaked by against a hazy blue sky as my wife, her expat friend whose car we were driving, and I meandered our way across the southern French countryside.

Not having passed another vehicle for at least 15 minutes, the emptiness of the two-lane road was a welcome relief from the congested and narrow streets of nearby Nîmes. The sun was shining, two bottles of red had already been acquired for evening consumption, and what I can assume were French road trip tunes casually streamed from the stereo.

Life, it seemed, was pretty darn good.

That was, of course, until we happened upon what appeared to be a small wildfire. Burning off to the right of the road, brisk winds whipped the flames into a choking and thick gray smoke. Nevertheless, despite the visible flames on the roadside the smoke appeared to stretch only for 10 yards or so.

Not really sure what to make of the fire burning uncontrolled and unnoticed in the roadside ditch, the decision was made to simply keep driving and get past it before things got out of control.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

Having crawled at 10 mph through the beginnings of the smoke the visibility was suddenly reduced to zero. Without the ability to even see the hood of the car it was impossible to tell if we were driving into oncoming traffic, off the side of the road, or directly into some oncoming flames. A brisk crack to the right side of the road quickly answered the question for us: we had driven into the flames and they were about three feet from the car.

Quick decision. What do you do? Do you:

A: Keep driving
B: Reverse
C: Act like a fool and jump out of the car without your shoes and leave the car to burn, yourself choking violently from the heavy smoke inhalation.

After obviously choosing option C, (I was forced to jump out the back window due to the rear door not working any more), three road-trippers, who 30 seconds ago were on a casual drive, now found themselves standing in an empty French field having parked their car directly in the middle of a fire.

With feet aching from walking barefoot on the hard, plowed earth of the field, my thoughts drifted to whether or not the tires might be melting. I couldn’t tell, of course, because the car was completely consumed by the smoke.

In a moment of snap decision it was decided that I couldn’t just let my friend’s car burn. Grabbing the keys from her I decided I would run down through the field and approach the car from upwind so as to avoid the prolonged smoke inhalation. One hundred yards down the field, however, I encountered a huge irrigation ditch and was forced to turn around.

Just to complicate matters, with the car completely invisible behind the curtain of gray smoke, I turned back to see an enormous agriculture truck driving down the highway in the same lane our car was in – increasing in speed in an apparent effort to shoot through the smoke.

Knowing there was a two-ton metal obstacle in the middle of the smoke, which they couldn’t see, I again took off running across the plowed earth, this time waving my hands and screaming anything and everything that might possibly get the truck’s attention.

Luckily, they saw me and stopped just short of the increasing smoke screen. Amazingly, these words managed to come out of my mouth.

Il y a une voiture à l’intérieur de la fumée!

Whoa. I speak French. Thanks Rosetta Stone!

With the truck drivers now aware that there was a car in the middle of the smoke, they acted in a much more rational manner than we originally did. They rolled up their windows, drove slowly through the smoke (managing to not hit our car, which may or may not have melted tires), and safely emerged on the other side.

Following their lead I raced barefoot and shirtless over the hot asphalt, my T-shirt covering my nose and mouth in the hope I wouldn’t inhale multiple plumes of smoke. I opened the driver’s side door, found that the engine still started, and slowly rolled the car forward on tires, which thankfully had not yet melted.

The entire ordeal took no more than five minutes, but for some reason I felt like we had cheated death at least three times.

With the girls having managed to navigate a way around the irrigation ditch on the far side of the field, we piled everyone back in the sedan, snapped a quick photo to document the moment, and continued on to the nearest village a bit shaken but happy to be on the road again.

Pulling into the first winery that we saw, I alerted the tasting room girl that about three kilometers down the road there was a fire burning in a field with nobody there to put it out.

“Hmm,” she shrugged with a slight glance to the horizon.

“Would you like to try some of the white? I am sure someone will take care of it soon.”

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Vagabond Tales: Shady Back-Room Deals With Questionable Thai Gangsters

There is a Nikon camera lens on the ocean floor between the Thai islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi.

No, I didn’t see it while scuba diving with leopard sharks in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea (I swear they sneak right up on you). I know it’s there because I put it there – with my foot.

Despite my knack for getting off the beaten path, the ferry ride from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi is not one of those moments. In fact, it’s about one of the most heavily trafficked tourist routes in all of Thailand. When boarding the overcrowded ferry between Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, it seems as if every alcohol loving, sex-searching, half-dreadlocked backpacker from Melbourne to Montreal is crammed on board right next to you.

For those not familiar with the Thai islands, if you’re looking for isolation and relaxation, go to an island like Koh Mak. If you find yourself heading for Koh Phi Phi, there’s a good chance you’re looking to get weird.

Crammed onto the small ferry with about 150 other backpackers, my wife and I were squeezed over to the port side of the vessel where we were forced to sit on the outside of the boat with our legs dangling over the side – questionable seating at best, yet strangely romantic.

Leaving the resort-lined shores of Phuket behind, we marveled as Thai long-tail boats darted through the turquoise waters. A little over halfway into the two-hour crossing, the lush, limestone formations, which provide the backdrop of Koh Phi Phi, began to become visible on the tropical horizon.

“Hand me the wide-angle lens,” chimed my wife, the ever-talented photographer of us two. “I want to get some shots as we come around the corner of the island.”Reaching for the camera bag, which houses our various lenses, I handed my wife the wide-angle and watched as she removed the 18-55mm lens and placed it in her lap. Then, in a moment of horror, I watched as that same lens decided to roll down her legs and fresh off the side of the vessel.

Instead of opting to reach down with my hand to try and catch the lens, I opted instead to try and trap it against the side of the boat with my bare foot. All I accomplished, however, was managing to catch the lens with the top of my foot and punt it 25 feet into the rolling blue water below.

Goodnight, sweet prince. May you rest peacefully in your watery grave.

For the next two weeks we were forced to take photos of the southern Thai islands with either an ultra-wide angle lens or a 200mm zoom, because as you might imagine, there aren’t many places selling Nikon lenses in the Thai islands. If we wanted to take photos, we could still do so, but only from about a half mile away.

“Great photo. Stay right there. I’m just going to go and perch myself in that tree across the ravine. Be back in 45.” That sort of thing. Since we still had two months left on the trip, which would take us across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, this camera situation simply wasn’t going to do.

This is why we were so enthralled to find a cheap lens advertised online at an obscure camera store up in Bangkok. We would be passing through Bangkok in a few weeks, and the owner, Alak, had actually responded to our email and said that he had the exact lens that we needed. Furthermore, since it was a part of a floor set, he could offer it to us at a steep discount.

Under the table, if you will.

Which is how we ended up in an odd corner of Chinatown in a remote corner of Bangkok searching for a hole-in-the-wall camera shop and a mysterious Thai man named Alak. After about four failed attempts at asking for directions we sauntered sweaty and starving into a camera store that sold everything from tripods to lens cleaners to fancy looking surveillance systems.

From the look of things, if there was anywhere this deal was going to go down, it was here.

Eying the shifty man behind the counter, and not knowing whether to verbally strike with Thai or Mandarin, I opted for the former.

Sa-wa-tee-kraup,” I offered, completely butchering the language in the process, “Ummm… Alak? Nikon? Email? Kyle?” Apparently, in addition to my poor Thai, I had also managed to butcher my own language.

A tense three seconds of silence passed in which the thinly bearded gentleman appeared to stare into my soul. I immediately felt uncomfortable, which is strange, because I was only in a camera shop.

Finally, he spoke.

“You come with me,” he hastily barked in English as we walked towards the back of the store. “You see Alak.”

Peeling back a blanket, which covered a clandestine exit from the shop, we followed the clerk into a backroom with chicken wire over the windows and shelves filled with various curios.

There was something weird about this, but I didn’t know why. All I knew was I was in the back room of a shady store in Bangkok in a neighborhood where I had the funny feeling that laws were merely guidelines.

Finally, Alak entered. He was tall, dark haired and had an intimidating presence about him. Another smaller man accompanied him in the backroom. There were now three of them to the two of us. Why did this feel so strange?

“Hi, Alak,” I nervously stammered. “I’m Kyle, we had emailed about a Nikon lens that you could get us for a good price. A special price.”

Without saying anything Alak turned around and rifled through the shelves. In the distance I could hear a siren. Looking to my left, a child had silently materialized in the blanket-covered entryway. He looked at us but made no noise. I smiled. He stared.

Eventually Alak placed a brown cardboard box on the table and mimicked for me to remove the lens. I did, and it was the exact one we wanted. I checked the size, I checked the glass for scratches, and I wondered why he was selling it for so cheap.

“You like?” Alak finally sneered, the lone hair on his chin quivering from the breeze coming through the far window.

“I want to make sure it works,” I replied. Then, to my wife, “hand me the bag.”

Reaching for our camera bag – which is specially designed to look just like a backpack – I unzipped the casing and removed our Nikon camera body. Breathing deeply, one of Alak’s cronies loudly cracked his knuckles.

Stroking the lens and attaching it to the camera body, I listened as it clicked into place without a hitch.

I suddenly knew why I felt so weird. This had all the makings of a backroom arms deal going down in a misty, backroom den in the Orient. I played the part of the undercover CIA operative and Alak the unsuspecting dealer who used his camera store in Chinatown as a front.

The stock lens was now my silencer, the camera body my automatic weapon. I suddenly felt the urge to have a briefcase full of money and a drinking problem. It was all too surreal.

“3,000 baht,” Alak suddenly declared. It was a price higher than what we’d discussed.

“That’s not the price we agreed upon, Alak. You said you could get this to us for 2,000. Remember, special price.”

Squinting his eyes and conversing with his cronies, Alak returned with his counter offer of 2,400. What he didn’t know was that he had us in his hands. This was the cheapest – and only – lens that we could find in all of Thailand at this price.

“2,250 or we leave right now.” This operative was playing hardball.

Exchanging cash in the backroom we pocketed our lens and got out of there as quickly as possible.

“Did that feel weird to you?” I asked my wife.

“No, why?”

“You didn’t feel like we were undercover operatives during the Cold War purchasing a black market silencer that was recently smuggled out of Iran?”

I was met only with a blank and curious stare. “It was a camera store with a sweet little old man,” she finally reasoned. “You’re weird.”

Hailing a pedicab in a narrow alleyway beneath a sky of swinging red lanterns, I couldn’t shake the feeling we’d just mingled with shady Thai gangsters. Sliding into a two-seated tuk-tuk, we honked our way out of Chinatown and into the pulsing Thai night.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Vagabond Tales: Why Is There A Monkey In My Sleeping Bag?

Santa Teresa Hot Springs Peru

There are few moments more startling than waking up to a jungle primate seeking refuge in the warm recesses of your crotch. Consider the fact you’re sleeping in an abandoned, open-air, concrete nightclub in the middle of a Peruvian cloud forest, and the entire ordeal takes on a new aura of peculiarity.

This, however, was exactly how I started my morning in the rural village of Santa Teresa in the 6,000-foot highlands of southern Peru. One of the stopping points along Peru’s Salkantay Trek – the budget friendly and more adventurous alternative to the famous Inca Trail – is Santa Teresa, a remote little village that modernity seems to have forgotten.

Level of development aside, the real draw of Santa Teresa is undoubtedly the muscle-soothing hot spring, which percolates on the outskirts of town. From the confines of a massive thermal swimming pool set on the banks of a raging river, local women wade waist deep in the tepid waters and sell baskets of cold beer while attempting to simultaneously bathe. A surefire way to dehydrate yourself and welcome a morning hangover, the entire scene takes place alongside torrid waters hell-bent on draining into the Amazon Basin as part of a muddy, eventful journey to the Atlantic.

Completely unregulated and awash with the stench of freedom, in a word, it’s utterly perfect.

A welcome respite for the weary, Santa Teresa is the first real town Salkantay trekkers will encounter after having crossed over the 15,200-foot Salkantay Pass the day before.

In the actual town there are a handful of small restaurants, children playing in the town’s only square and shop owners willing to place a cot in their kitchen and firmly call it a hotel. Oh, and there’s also a communal concrete slab for slaughtering livestock, a daily affair which doesn’t seem to turn that many heads except for, perhaps, mine.

Camped out with an adventure tour company in what can best be described as a friend of a friend’s backyard, the last thing I expected to see from the window of my tent flap was a hapless cow on its way to being slaughtered.

Nevertheless, a militia of young boys wielding saws and machetes systematically took to slaughtering the bovine directly in front of our cheerless campsite. With the same level of excitement of someone brushing their teeth before bed, the young troop of butchers dismantled the cow in such a routine fashion their nonchalance spoke volumes towards the realities of rural Peruvian life.

Succumbing to a growing sense of nausea birthed from the morbid entertainment, I swapped the damp board shorts of the hot springs for a dry t-shirt and my trusty thermal underwear. Blissfully ensconced in the comfort of a two-person tent and pulling the edges of my North Face sleeping bag to just beneath my armpits, I settled in for what I deemed to be a much needed slumber.

The strengthening pitter-patter of precipitation, however, ensured that this would be far from a restful night. With drops morphing into rivulets atop the overstretched nylon dome above, it wasn’t long before the skies would open completely and turn what was once a modest campsite into a soggy and swampy mess. With the rain actually forming streams beneath the bottom of the tent, my soporific sanctuary was transformed into a dripping den of misery.

With the downpour causing my wife and I problems enough, the introduction of a violent bout of flatulence really wasn’t helping matters.

Mistaking my nausea as a product of watching the cow slaughter, it was beginning to become apparent the mystery meat from dinner was having an adverse effect on the welcoming atmosphere of our tent. As my sleeping bag finally relinquished its attempt at keeping my body dry, so too did my ability to keep us from perishing in a cloud of high-altitude methane.

Frustrated, cold and weary from days of trekking, I contemplated the few options remaining and finally decided to do the chivalrous thing and preemptively remove myself from the tent. It simply had to be done.

With zero places to turn, however, and the prospect of sleeping beneath the stars vanquished long ago, I grabbed my half-soaked sleeping bag and sprinted for an abandoned concrete building, which once housed the town’s only discotheque.

Slinking into the soggy bag and cringing at the state of my current affairs, I was eventually able to fashion a remedial pillow out of a plastic bag and a dirty towel found languishing in the corner of the shelter. Frigid, bloated and with nowhere else to turn, my vacant stare rested on a dangling disco ball awash in a sea of dripping, wet wires. This, I reckoned, was my Peruvian chateau.

Finally, amidst a fitful bout of thrashing and copious amounts of internal dialogue, I Monkey in my sleeping bageventually drifted off into an impressively deep sleep. Falling ever deeper into the realm of mental exhaustion, amidst a gastrointestinal meltdown and a torrential tropical downpour, I somehow welcomed a restful and purposeful slumber.

Waking to clearing skies, the first rays of lights were beginning to penetrate the high clouds and twist their way through the verdant valleys above. With the introduction of sunlight, I could tell that the concrete shelter I had chosen had all the charm of sleeping in a construction site.

Feeling an itch against my inner thigh and still searching for an exit from my early morning daze, with much difficulty and little coordination I fumbled with the ability to unzip my still damp bag. Just as the first teeth of the zipper began to chatter, however, in an explosion, which can be described only as mammalian fury, a rambunctious young monkey exploded from the dark nether regions of my sleeping bag.

Nearly climbing over my face in his hasty exit, he too was simply seeking emergency shelter from the sky-opening downpour and brisk evening air. As I would later find out after recounting the story to my guide, the monkey was actually a pet of the property owner and not some wild primate.

Nevertheless, there are few things more startling, scary or downright confusing than waking to a face full of monkey – an unwelcome visitor from the depths of your loins just trying to stay out of the rain.

Want more stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” here

Airport advertising reaches new heights, literally

air traffic control towerLiterally everywhere you look, from the media to public transportation to city sidewalks, you will find companies heavily advertising. Apparently, no place is safe from billboards, not even air traffic control towers.

Yes, you read that right. In Medford, Oregon, Jaunted reports that the city council has just approved 25×25 foot signs that will be added to every side of the air traffic control tower. The tower itself is about 100 feet tall, so the enormous ads should be quite a sight to see. But, I guess that’s the point.

The reasoning behind this new advertising plan is to raise enough money to counteract some airport costs, for example, landing fees, that could help make the airport more desirable to new airlines and flight routes. Right now, officials are projecting that the ads will bring in an extra $3,000 per month.

While the Medford, Oregon, airport is the only one that we’ve heard of implementing this new advertising plan, we’re wondering if this will become the norm at airports. Of course, making extra money is nice. However, it would be nice if some structures retained their actual purpose, like keeping passengers safe, instead of becoming gigantic advertisements.

What are your thoughts on this new form of advertising?

Air France knows how to treat customers right: Tips for other airlines

There’s plenty to kvetch about when it comes to flying. Every time I book a flight, I continue to look at the arrival and departure times as merely suggestions–a rough idea. I plan to be late. I plan for problems. In generally, I am pleasantly surprised and achieve a warm glowing feeling when flights land on time. In all the times I’ve flown, I’ve never lost baggage. Baggage has never been my gripe.

In general, my horror tales of flights that have gone awry are few. The ones I do have remind me about how I like to be treated. This summer’s trip on Air France from Venice to Detroit via Paris reminded me of what an airline should do to keep passengers pleased and coming back when problems occur. If what I experienced is any indication of how Air France usually treats customers, I’d say the airline’s customer service is one area where the airline works well–even when the airplanes have issues.

If other airlines consistently followed these tips I noted, flying would be more pleasant for everyone, including the staff.

Tip 1: Go above and beyond whenever possible: Although, the customer service person for Air France was not able to switch my 16-year-old daughter’s flight from KLM to Air France so that she could be on the same flight with my 7-year-old-son and me, the agent offered to check my daughter in on the KLM flight as she helped me navigate Air France’s check-in system.

The agent’s extra effort helped make all of us feel less anxious about my daughter’s first foray into flying by herself, particularly since her connecting flight was through Amsterdam. Because of the agent’s extra effort, my daughter, son and I were able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, a smooth transition through security, and time to find my daughter’s gate before my son and I took off. Good for you, Air France.

Tip 2: Tell passengers right away if there is a problem with the plane and what will happen next: As our flight was to board, a mechanical problem with the plane was discovered. Air France announced over the Charles de Gaulle International Airport’s speaker system that boarding was being halted due to an aircraft issue and that we would find out more details as possible. In the meantime, we would be taken care of. We were also told that seat assignments would stay the same and that we would probably be changing gates. We were to stay at the gate where we were because that is where information would be given to us.

This set the tone that even though we would be delayed, the problem would be rectified as quickly as possible. It also gave us a job to do. Stay tuned for more information and stay where we are.

Tip 3: When there’s a problem, make amends with food. Once it was determined we’d be at the airport longer than expected, Air France gave all passengers a choice of one of three or four types of sandwiches and a choice of a can of soda or a bottle of water. The food was brought to us.

Tip 4: Give out phone cards if needed. One of the Air France agents gave me a phone card so I could call my husband so he could call my daughter when she landed in Detroit to tell her not wait for us. We were to meet up in Detroit to fly to Columbus on the same Delta flight. Originally, my son and I would have arrived in Detroit before her and had planned to wait for her at her gate. I was concerned that my daughter wouldn’t know what to do next and miss the Delta flight herself.

Because my concern was taken seriously, I was able to relax for the rest of the trip.

Tip 5: If the passenger is having problems using the phone card, help. Gladly. When using a phone in France, the recorded messages are in French. The phone call I tried to make to my husband wouldn’t go through. Because I couldn’t understand the message, I had no idea why not. An agent stepped from behind the desk, went to the pay phone with me, tried to use the card, found out what the message said and helped me rectify the problem which required finding out another access number. It’s complicated. The point is, the agent offered help and didn’t let me become more frustrated. Eventually, I was able to make the call I needed.

Tip 6: When the in-flight entertainment stops working properly mid-flight, apologize and do your best: The in-flight entertainment stopped working when I was in the middle of watching “I Love You Man.” There was an announcement that the crew was aware that the in-flight entertainment system had stopped working and that they were trying to fix it. In the meantime, we should please be patient. Part of the extensive system was fixed in a few minutes. The entire system was fixed in about 20.

Tip 7: Offer food that’s more than just palatable. The meals were terrific. There’s not much else to say about this tip. We all know good food when we see it and taste it. Rich Moffit who snapped the food picture echoed my sentiment with his photo labeled: “This is why you fly Air France.”

Tip 8: At the end of the flight, thank passengers for the flight and again apologize for the problems along the way: When we landed, the pilot again apologized for the delay and thanked us for our understanding. The smiling flight attendants did the same.

I smiled back and said, “Thank you for your efforts to get us here safely and for making the flight pleasant.”

**My daughter’s solo flight went swimmingly well. She did receive the phone call from her dad and knew just what to do. Thanks, Air France.