Vagabond Tales: How Traveling Helps You Realize You Look Weird

When I was 4 years old I had my picture taken by a large group of Japanese tourists.

While this in and of itself is slightly strange, the curious part of the story is where it happened. I was seated with my family – mom, dad, and infant baby sister – while casually enjoying a lunch of hot dogs on the lawn of the Washington Monument.

Having exhausted whatever amount of historical appreciation you can muster out of a scraggly-haired child, we had taken to more leisurely pursuits such as having a picnic on the grassy lawn. Ketchup packets were opened, a blanket was laid out, and mustard-stained fingertips clutched bright red Coke cans as we washed down the average hot dogs.

Nothing special about this situation at all. Just a family enjoying a casual lunch on a summer day in the nation’s capital.

For some, however, that scene evidently wasn’t so normal. To a gaggle of camera-toting Japanese tourists engaged in a tour of Washington D.C., we were apparently something more. Perhaps it was Yoshi who had the thought first, and he subsequently told Shigeki who told Yuuki that there was one more sight they still hadn’t photographed.

Lenses were pointed, flashbulbs popped, and a chorus of “oohs,” “aahs,” and “hai!” percolated through the curious mob. Eventually, the perplexed look on my father’s face prompted one of them to reveal their fascination.

With a nervous smile and an awkward half-bow, one of the tourists let us in on their sudden fixation:

“You are, American family, yes?”

Apparently, right there beneath the spire of the Washington Monument, our troupe of four civilians had been mistaken for an official exhibit of a hot dog-eating, Coke-drinking, blanket-sitting, American family. To us, this was a normal thing to do. To the Japanese tourists, however, this was worthy of six-dozen photos.When you think about what we take pictures of when we travel, oftentimes it’s of things, which are different than we’re used to, whether it be the landscapes, the sights, the food, or the people.

In fact, among international travelers, human beings who exhibit a foreign culture are often the fixation of many of our photos. We take pictures of Peruvian women in their little straw hats. We take pictures of women who stretch their necks with rings. We take photos of tribesmen in their traditional dress, photos of Europeans in their skimpy black Speedos, and photos of children whose tattered clothing speaks to their unspeakable poverty.

We take pictures of others because they look different than us, and then we go home and we show our friends.

To pull a page from Sir Isaac Newton, however, given that each action has an equal and opposite reaction, not only do people look different to us, but so do we to them.

Think about it. When you were photographing that farmer from the hill tribes of Laos, do you not think they must have wondered what a curious looking Westerner he had found? When you stand a head taller than everyone in Seoul, do children not giggle and the lanky white ostrich that somehow found its way into the city?

As any traveler to remote destinations has experienced, oftentimes we as the foreigner become an attraction unto ourselves. Whether it be the color of our skin, the loops on our pants, or the strange words coming out of our different shaped mouths, when we step into a foreign land we’re not just surrounded by those who look different to us – but we similarly stand out as looking different to them.

Although I’ve been hounded by school children from Slovenia to Korea, the first realization that I was truly an anomaly came at a roadside barber shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Nothing more than a chair on a sidewalk, for the grand total of $2 you can employ a local barber with a handheld mirror to give you a trim. There’s no sink, shampooing, or reading magazines in the waiting lounge. You simply walk down the sidewalk, decide you want a haircut, and plop yourself down in the rudimentary chair.

Easy, right?

If you have straight black hair, yes. If you have curly thick blonde hair, however, there are going to be some issues.

Apparently, although the street side barber had seen his fair share of Westerners running about town, he had never been confronted with the task of actually touching the blonde shag growing atop of their head. Tugging on a ringlet and watching it unfold, it held all the fascination of a child’s first Slinky.

Gathering the three other barbers, the four of them engaged in a street side summit of how exactly to go about shearing the foreign blonde mop. Nearly all native Cambodian hair is straight, and while I am no barber, I would assume it is easier and far less complex.

As the barbers discussed their plan of attack, a group of young children came over to join the party. Multiple little hands reached out to grab the hair, and upon making contact with the coarse blonde curls a number of them retracted their hands as if they’d just touched a hot burner.

“How?” their eyes seemed to ask, “How does that grow on your head and change into that color? Surely you must be radioactive.”

Grasping the complexity of the situation, my wife – who just happens to be a hair stylist – offered to pay the men $3 and cut the strange hair herself. With the same sense of relief as a man who’s just been read a not-guilty verdict, the barber was none too quick to hand over the scissors.

Over the next 20 minutes as she chopped at the mane, the Cambodian version of the barbershop quartet analyzed each move like a football team watching game tape. A finger pointed here, an observation lofted there, and guttural bouts of laughter when they thought about what they would have tried to do.

As the blond locks fell silently to the sidewalk, the same small children scooped them up with a fascination usually reserved for a new kind of toy. They examined them up close, they giggled and threw them on each other, and they placed them on each others heads and imagined what it would be like to be blonde.

Like a young lamb at the center of a sheep shearing show, I had somehow become an attraction in a foreign land.

So while one of the great aspects of traveling will always be experiencing cultures different than our own, the next time you take a picture of a local in his element, think for a second who might be photographing you decidedly misplaced from your own.

[Photo Credits: Heather Ellison]

Vagabond Tales: Welcome To Portland, Strip Club Capital USA

As I squeeze the last bits of orange garnish into my pint of Blue Moon, a man to my left is having his nostrils plugged by a gyrating set of female genitals.

Releasing him from the flesh cave, the attractive blonde stripper – to the immense enjoyment of the sophomoric and semi-erect set of friends he’s brought with him – suddenly doubles around and stiffly slaps a hand across his clean shaven face. This is my fourth strip club of the night, and even I didn’t see that coming. It’s all part of her shtick, however, and from the look of things the two are no more than 10 minutes from a trip to a private room.

No, this isn’t some testosterone fueled frat party, it’s just another night out in Portland, Oregon, strip club capital USA.

Despite the fact that this northwestern city is lauded for its microbrews, coffee and eco-friendly public transport, believe it or not, Portland is also home to more strip clubs per capita than any other city in America. Not Las Vegas. Not Detroit. Portland.

So just like the brilliant minds that put together Strip City, the documentary featured above, I, too, came to Portland on a mission to try and find out what it is that keeps the city so excessively nude.

“Well, the girls are definitely hotter than in Bangkok.” The woman making the observation is my wife, an oddly willing participant in the evening.

We’ve entered into Stars Cabaret in the suburb of Beaverton, and through info gleaned from local friends, the place is meant to be slightly more upscale. From the way a customer is strategically inserting a $10 bill, however, I question the level of class.

With dancers operating on four stages, to the far right of my table a dancer is removing her red thong with a tool called another man’s teeth. No expert on yoga or anatomy, it appears as if she’s tearing something potentially used in childbirth.

Like many other PDX establishments, Stars offers a fairly wide variety of food to accompany the cocktails and nipples, a service I haven’t encountered in the seedy strip joints of my past. Amongst the specials being advertised is free prime rib on Wednesday’s (a $20 value, apparently), and I question the morality of luring customers to a strip club by offering free chunks of meat. The promo seems to be a common one around town, however, so I figure it must be alright.

As the DJ switches into an up-tempo house beat, I ponder my own personal theories on why this Northwest city has such an affinity for poles and panties. Is it the weather? Are the 10 months of gray drizzle an excuse for erotic indoor fantasies? Perhaps it’s an extension of Portland’s well-known arts scene, an avenue for exercising freedom of expression and the beauty of the human form? Or, maybe it’s as simple as Portland is just full of a lot of really kinky people hopped up on microbrews and ready to get weird.

The answer I get from a woman named Diane who is working the entrance paints a far more logical picture:

“I think it’s simply because of the laws.”

Disappointed by its blandness, I’m amazed it’s a reasoning I hadn’t thought to explore.

“Yeah, Portland just has some really lenient laws when it comes to the ability to serve liquor and stay open late. Plus, the girls can be fully nude.”

Intrigued by the legal leniency, I decided to delve deeper into the issue and discovered that, yes, Portland does in fact have remarkably casual laws. I could give you the legal jargon that I discovered (which pertains to Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon constitution), or, I could simply allow you to ponder over the blunt quotation I found on the Portland Bar Fly site:

According to Mr. Bar Fly, “our laws kick ass in that strippers can show their beaver while you drink whiskey and eat steak. You’ll never, ever be alone”. Yeah. Pretty much sums it up.

I thanked Diane at Stars for their hospitality, and I decided to take the question downtown to where the Portland stripping scene all started: Mary’s.

Originally a piano bar owned by Mary Durst, new owner Roy Keller decided in 1965 to spice his shows up by having topless girls rile up the crowd between piano sets. When it became apparent that customers were far more interested in girls than the piano, Mary’s Club changed tacks to become Portland’s first official strip club, swapping to fully nude shows once the law allowed it in 1985.

Closer to a historical landmark than a glitzy new club, I enter the dimly lit room to find a buxom blonde requesting money for the jukebox in three different languages.
That’s right. A jukebox. I told you this place was old school.

I order a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a plate of fish tacos (which were phenomenal), and sit back to watch the show. Adorning the walls are the famous hand-painted murals that Roy used to attract customers prior to realizing a set of bare breasts would do the trick. Unlike Stars, where the cocktail waitresses prance about in neon excuses for clothing, the staff at Mary’s is conservatively dressed.

I speak with our waitress, a daughter of the family-owned and operated establishment, and she agrees on the theory that the laws simply allow a lot of, shall we say, flexibility in their ability to give people what they want.

A man in the front row tells the dancer she’s sexy and slides her a $20 bill. Ultimately, it seems they’re both getting what they want. More than just seduction, at the end of the night, this is still just business as usual. A standard case of supply and demand, for every man (or woman) out there who’s in need of some immediate nudity, there is a woman (or man) who is need of some hard earned cash.

According to “Rocket” of the “Rocket Report” column that appears in Exotic Magazine (yes, Portland has its own erotic magazine that features ads, maps, and directions to 52 different clubs), “in Portland, strippers can achieve a level of public status that rivals rock stardom. If you play your cards right, it can also equal big money.”

One of the cocktail girls at Stars tells me that the girls at Casa Diablo across town are making some real good money right now. She says it’s one of the current hotspots, and it’s got a reputation as being one of the “dirtiest” clubs in town. I find this to be ironic seeing as it’s also an all vegan establishment, which according to their site, is the first of its kind in the entire world.

I look up their ad in Exotic magazine and notice that they promise, amongst other things, live “girl on girl” shows.

Vegan food and lesbian fantasies, you ask? In a town with dozens of strip clubs I suppose it’s a constant battle to stand out from the crowd, a malleable science from which I am sure the patrons of Portland greatly benefit.

Unable to make it all the way across town to Casa Diablo, I instead walk down East Burnside to a club called Union Jack’s. Recommended by a friend with an intimate history of Portland strip clubs, he claims that the last time he visited “the place totally fired me up.”

I pay my $5 cover to the doorman and head inside, my expectations running high. Within 30 seconds I can tell the place is completely lawless, and it does, in fact, totally fire me up.

A dancer fresh off of her turn on the stage casually walks to the bar and orders a drink with the rest of the crowd, her completely naked body a stark contrast to the clothed pack of gentlemen conversing with her. As I head to the bathroom I’m bumped by a door I didn’t even notice was there. Again, a completely naked woman scurries out from a backroom, apparently in the middle of something and needing some assistance.

While some of the other clubs I’d visited had a semblance of professional separation between dancer and patron, this scene is little more than a souped-up frat party gone awry. You have the feeling that at any moment you might get lucky, an atmosphere, which I’m sure contributes to the place being packed.

And then, as I watch a man nearly suffocate while fully ensconced in a young girl’s breasts, everything suddenly begins to clear: the lenient laws may seem to be the reason for the explosion of fully nude clubs in Portland, but they are simply a catalyst for greater human tendencies.

To sell your body is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession (though by no means are strippers prostitutes), and for thousands of years humans have paid money to tickle their most primal urges. For those who are doing the disrobing, many times it’s more than simply the money, as many strippers I know have told me there’s also a sense of beauty, confidence, and empowerment that goes along with the job.

On both sides of the stage, these are all emotions in a human’s life that need addressing, and the laws simply allow the greater root cause to express itself in its overtly lustful form.

So here’s to you Portland, Oregon, for managing to keep an entire city sexually sated and passionately intrigued; when it comes to celebrating the beauty of the flesh, your frosty pint of microbrew decidedly runneth over.

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

[Photo Credits: Kyle Ellison]

Vagabond Tales: In Search Of Placerville’s Apples And Outlaws

When it comes to travel there are really only two forces that drive us to the destinations we visit.

Either we hear about them from somewhere else, or we stumble upon those we know nothing about.

In the case of the Nicaraguan rodeo, that was a stumble. For nearly anywhere else, however, either we have read about it in a book, learned about in school, watched a documentary about it on television, see it featured in a magazine, or heard from a friend that this place is amazing and you should go visit if you ever get a chance.

In the case of Placerville, California, however, I learned of it through somewhat of a unique channel … eavesdropping.

While working as crew on a sailboat in Hawaii, I once overheard the conversation of a visiting couple about their recent day spent in a place called Placerville.

“I don’t know about that place,” the rotund, slightly graying woman mentioned to her neighbor on the catamaran. “There was something eerie about it. It’s just so far removed from everything, and if I were a mass murderer on the run from the law that’s definitely where I would go. Placerville.”

For reasons unbeknownst to me, this conversation – which I wasn’t even a part of – stuck with me for the better part of a decade. I would see the name “Placerville” on a map and would immediately picture outlaws. Someone would mention the name Placerville and I would feel compelled to ask if they had seen any mass murderers.

Given this strange fascination, I was recently taken aback when my wife asked me if I wanted to go wine tasting and apple picking for the day.

“Sure”, I agreed. “Where are we going?”


%Gallery-171913%Now don’t get me wrong, the wine tasting in Placerville is a great reason to visit, but for some reason I was expecting to hang out in a town full of whiskey and gold as opposed to wine and apples. Something about the image of train robbers and prospectors sitting around a campfire sharing thinly sliced Fuji and decanting their zinfandel just doesn’t seem quite right.

Nevertheless, after driving an hour east from Sacramento into the brisk, autumn air of the Sierra Nevada foothills, something caught my eye that suggested a bit of lawlessness still permeated the town.

Right there on Main Street – an historic thoroughfare, which does indeed look like a Wild West throwback – was an effigy of some poor chap hanging from a noose for all the town to see. As I would come to find out, when gold was discovered in nearby Coloma in 1848, the area around Placerville would become ground zero for the California Gold Rush, and everyone from entrepreneurs to ne’er do wells set out West in the hope of striking it rich. For a short period of time, Placerville would actually become the third largest city in all of California.

None of which, however, explains why there is a dead man hanging from a noose smack in the middle of downtown.

As history has indicated, the West in the mid 1800s was somewhat of a lawless arena. Saloons and brothels were built upon the nugget-filled Earth and rough and tumble mountain-folk engaged in Darwinian survival. Despite the degree of lawlessness, however, occasionally criminals were still brought to justice.

And as it just so happens, the place where outlaws would meet their maker was right here in these foothills in an outpost known as Hangtown, their criminal corpses swinging from a tree, which once stood in the same place I find myself standing right now.

Turns out, from 1849-1854 the town of Placerville was officially known as “Hangtown,” due in large part to the copious amount of public hangings, which would take place right along Main Street. One Placerville legend speaks of some thieves who were tried in an impromptu, 30-minute trial and were hung within the hour.

Standing there across from the historic Cary House – a classic brick hotel built in 1857 where the elevator was purchased with a gold nugget found in the basement – I realized that this wasn’t just a place where outlaws went to hide, but this was also a place where outlaws went to die.

That was then, however, and this is now, and seeing as California did away with hanging in 1937, the town’s outlaw nature, it would seem, is something of the past.

While the gold rush history of Placerville is apparent (the hardware store is still proudly an authorized dealer of metal detectors), the main draw, I would find out, is exactly what we came here for in the first place: apples and wine.

Within a short driving distance from the historic downtown there are over 50 vineyards belonging to the El Dorado wine country, as well as over 55 ranchers who make up the Apple Hill Growers Association. The result of all the agricultural abundance is a day trip where you can spend hours meandering the simple backroads, casually sip on zinfandel and syrah, and shop through markets, which teem with fresh produce.

It’s about the most wholesome, least outlaw-laden environment imaginable.

So after half a decade of picturing a town overrun by Unabombers in hiding, I instead found a welcoming gold mining outpost with affable viticulturists and farmers. Granted, there is a hanging puppet swinging in the downtown corridor, but there is also a group of children in a pumpkin patch laughing as they climb a hay bale.

This, I suppose, is precisely the reason we travel; to either confirm the notions we hold of somewhere or dispel what myths we might have believed.

In the case of Placerville, I came to find hermits on the run from the law, and I left with a car full hot apple pies.

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

[Photo Credits: Kyle Ellison]

Vagabond Tales: Setting Sail For The Most Remote Place On Earth

There is a bit of contention with regards to where exactly the most remote place on Earth actually is.

Most lists you encounter will feature the usual suspects such as the island of Tristan da Cunha, the village of Ittoqqortoormiit (Greenland), the Svalbard archipelago (Norway) and McMurdo Station (Antarctica). Just last month we published one such list right here on Gadling.

Nevertheless, in every one of these lists there is one place, which is always conspicuously absent.

No, it’s not the town of La Rinconada, Peru, a mining outpost, which sits 17,000 feet up on the slopes of a permanent glacier. That’s usually on there too. Geographically speaking, the world’s most isolated landmass is a place known as…


Wait. What? Hawaii? There are over 4 million visitors a year to the island of Oahu alone. I can watch a bad movie on the airplane, take a nap, and I’m there. How is Hawaii remote?

While many of the places mentioned above may be unique in their inaccessibility, technically, the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated populated landmass found anywhere on the planet, with the closest point of continental land being 2,400 miles away (California).

Given the fact that Hawaii is accessible, I surmise, must be the reason it never makes the list of places, which are “remote.”

What if, however, you set out to experience one of the least accessible places in all of Hawaii. The foremost outpost in the world’s most isolated island chain? A place where there are no hotels, no roads, or really any trails. A place you cannot fly to, drive to, or barely even walk to. What sort of remoteness exists out there?

That was the question in everyone’s mind as we set sail for the north shore of Molokai on a catamaran loaded with surfboards, beer and a number of lingering unknowns.

To begin with, there are a number of factors, which contribute to Molokai’s north shore being so remote.

For one, most of the north shore is occupied by vertical slabs of foliage, which collectively form the tallest sea cliffs in the world. Created by the collapse of the eastern Moloka’i volcanic caldera, the force of the landslide was so strong that rubble from the seismic event was jettisoned 120 miles north along the ocean floor – the last 80 of which were actually uphill. Though geologists estimate this cataclysmic event to have occurred 1.4 million years ago, as recently as 1999 a massive avalanche of rubble cascaded down from 2,500 feet in elevation, which was strong enough to create six new acres of land.


Exploding over 3,600 vertical feet directly from the sea, the cliffs render the majority of the coastline inaccessible to human landfall. In fact, there are only three access points along the entire coastline, which could potentially provide places to land – Pelekunu, Wailau and Papalaua valleys.

One of these would hopefully provide a safe anchorage, but which, however, we still didn’t know.

The other issue with accessing the northern coastline of Moloka’i is that the waves are almost always too large to approach the island safely. During the winter months the surf can frequently be in excess of 30 feet, and in summer the 30-40 knot trade winds whip up wind swell, which reaches 12-15 feet and turns the shoreline into a cauldron of whitewater.

To put it simply, rarely is there a calm time to be back here.

Which is why when the weather forecast starts calling for light southerly winds and just enough surf to warrant packing boards, you find your closest friend with a boat, buy the grocery store out of beer and set sail for one of the most remote – and beautiful – places on Planet Earth.

To reach the north shore of Molokai from neighboring Maui you first must cross the 9-mile Pailolo Channel, a Hawaiian word, which means “crazy fisherman” and references those who are crazy enough to fish the channel in the throes of her roughest seas.

With the favorable weather on this particular trip, however, crossing the Pailolo is scarcely a challenge and the island looms larger with each passing moment.

The first indicator you’ve successfully crossed the Pailolo is when you round the backside of Moku Ho’oniki rock, an offshore promontory, which was actually used as a bombing range during World War II. Looming a mile offshore of mainland Moloka’i, “Moku” is now a seabird sanctuary above water and a popular scuba location due to the scalloped hammerheads, which circle below.

With fishing lines trolling the deep waters we adjust our heading to point towards Halawa Valley, a deep cut in the mountainside many historians believe was the site of original Moloka’i settlement sometime around 650 A.D.

Despite being the island’s first settlement, however, Halawa today is still sparsely inhabited. The handful of families living in the valley subsist mostly off of the land, and generators provide what little electricity is needed. For traditional visitors to Moloka’i Halawa Valley also marks the end of the paved highway; unless you have some boots or a boat, Halawa is going to be the end of the road.

Putting Halawa in the non-existent rear-view mirror we change tacks again and venture further into the little known. With each passing whitecap my excitement strengthens, the sound of waves slapping hulls being the only barrier to silence.

Onward we sail beneath towering promontories and past valleys, which open like gaping green time portals. Two of the valleys – Wailau and Pelekunu – feature lean-to shelters on the sandy shorelines where local families will occasionally spend entire summers.

Up until the early 1980s Pelekunu Valley was actually home to a handful of year-round residents. There are no quick jaunts to Costco back here, and no paying at Starbucks simply by swiping your iPhone. Living back here means living off the land. Pigs and crops provide nourishment on shore, and fish are gathered from the expansive blue sea. Flowing streams provide a source of fresh water, though rain is also gathered from showers, which pass on the breeze. A throwback to the ancient Hawaiian ahupua’a system of land division, all that is needed for survival is contained in this narrow segment of summit to sea.

The one thing missing, however, is modernity, a parallel reality, which now renders the valleys vacant.

With the sun disappearing behind the crest of the towering cliffs we set about searching for the evening’s safe anchorage, somewhat of an oxymoron given the area’s usual conditions. Blessed with southerly winds, which place us in a rare lee (the northeasterly trade winds in Hawaii blow 85% of the year), we find a patch of sand large enough to drop anchor and close enough to shore to surf the nearby break.

The anchor is set and one of us jumps in to ensure its dug in properly. The water is 50 feet deep and the sun is getting low. We joke that it feels sharky, with the only problem being that no one is joking. We didn’t come this far, however, to not enjoy the water. Boards are unlashed and a spear gun unsheathed, and the crew sets to work on enjoying the playground.

An hour later, with 30 waves surfed and a two-pound to’au (blacktail snapper) lying on the deck of the ship, more beers were cracked and the sun bade her final farewell over a western horizon rendered invisible by the height of the towering cliffs.

Behind us the 1,650-foot column of water known as Papalaua Falls kept a watchful eye over the campsite as sunrays were swapped for a ceiling of shooting stars.

Isolation historically has been used as a form of punishment, with authorities choosing to banish souls to the known fringes of the planet. From this vantage point, however, with favorable breezes and a gentle north swell, it’s my genuine hope to stay enveloped in the moment and never be forced to go elsewhere ever again.

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