Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bootleg Beef

There I was. Sweating in a claustrophobic bathroom stall of Mexico’s Cancun airport. Fluorescent lights buzzing harshly overhead. My and Reece’s bags spread open on the dirty floor in front of me as I hastily searched for good hiding places. Having watched enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad, I reasoned that if we got caught, I might get into less trouble if I had fewer packages on me. So with sweaty palms, I rushed open each plastic baggie and condensed my contraband into fewer packages. Glancing up occasionally to make sure there weren’t any cameras on me. As a seasoned traveler, this is a position I never thought I’d find myself in. And I surely couldn’t have expected that the contents I’d be smuggling, would be beef jerky.

Not just any beef jerky, you see. My mom’s special, home made, better than any you’ve ever tasted beef jerky. The kind she lovingly prepares for me before every trip, for as long as I’ve been taking them. We’ve shared it with strangers at Burning Man. A mouse chewed through my backpack to get a taste of it in Paris. It’s held us over in between meals on the Inca Trail. No journey is complete without it.

While prepping for our most recent adventure, we were told that snacks are hard to come by in Cuba. To bring as many dry goods as you can squeeze into your bag, for nourishment in a land lacking convenience stores. For this uncharted territory, we’d need EXTRA beef jerky. And granola bars, dark chocolate and peanut butter. Our tiny carry on luggage was stuffed to the brim with rations for the next six weeks. For this trip, we would be prepared.

Imagine my horror as our flight from LA began its final descent, and the attendant announced, “Make sure to dispose of ALL FOOD before you de-plane. Eat everything you have now, as you CANNOT take food into Mexico. If you try, you WILL get in trouble. I repeat, DO NOT TAKE ANY FOOD OFF THE PLANE.”

Um. Excuse me? WHAT?! I shot a panicked look at Reece. What do we do??

“Well, I guess we’ll show it to the customs official and ask if we can keep it,” he suggested.


This stash was far too valuable. Visions of my mom’s hard work in the garbage flashed in my head. $20 worth of Cliff bars, trashed. It was too much to bear. Customs officials be damned. I wasn’t going to say a word.

Reece had already ticked the “no” box on the declaration form asking if we had any “animal products”. See, it’s easy to accidentally overlook some innocent snacks! I’m sorry officer! I thought it was referring to fresh meat, not dried! I was thinking of perishable food products! My bad! How many borders have I crossed in the world with food on me, I rationalized. Most of the time they just wave you through without even looking at your bag. I read that in Cancun you simply push a button as you pass – green light go ahead, red light stop for a search – what are they chances we’d even get stopped?? Reece was clearly less comfortable with this plan than I was, so I moved everything into my bag and was prepared to take the fall. Anyway, I’m better at playing dumb than he is.

So I’m confidently strolling up to the customs line. I got this. Until I notice… They are putting every single bag through an X-ray machine. This, I was not expecting. SHIT. I glance around for an exit strategy but we’ve come too far. Too many eyes are on us. We're surrounded. There is no way to go but ahead. I place my precious pack carefully on the conveyor belt, heart pounding as I watch it disappear into the dreaded machine. And then. It stops. Along with my heart. The customs agent leans into the screen to take a closer look. This is it. I’m sorry Reece. Tell my family I loved them!

We continue a few steps forward and I do my best impression of “calm” as time creeps by in slow motion. Then suddenly – whrrrr – the machine kicks back into gear. My bag reappears triumphantly out the other side. I avoid eye contact as I snatch it from the belt and keep walking, head down, towards freedom. And that’s when we met THE BUTTON. We’ve come this far. Good Lord don’t stop us now!

Each person in line gives it a whack. Green. Green. Green. Green. Green. I watch in agony as our changes of hitting a red grow stronger. Green. Green. Green. We approach, Reece hold his arm out and I hold my breath… GREEN! I couldn’t have gotten through those sliding glass doors quick enough. WE MADE IT.

Outside and securely in our hotel shuttle, the hunger kicked in, and Reece asked for a piece of the goods. “But wait,” he cautioned, “until we pull away.”

“Haha. What, do you think customs is gonna rush out and surround the car, guns drawn, and take our beef??” I laughed at his paranoia. Don’t worry my dear. You’re with a professional.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


170 square feet. Two bed. One bath. Open floorplan. Location. Location. Location.

Way back in November, we had an idea. And today, we took the first step towards making that idea a reality. Stay tuned for some serious US adventures!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

We’re starting to seriously panic about the price of entry to return to the US. Cell phone plans. Health insurance. A computer. A car?? Hair appointments. Dentist appointments. Clothes and shoes that haven’t been worn every day for ten months. Living in the US, California especially, is freaking EXPENSIVE!!

Our perspective on finances changes so much whenever we travel. We’ve grown accustomed to spending no more than $2 on a meal. To not having any bills. To paying someone $3 to do all of our laundry for us. I was reading the menu of a new restaurant I want to try in LA, and noticed that not a single glass of wine was under $15. FIFTEEN DOLLARS!! That would pay for a hotel room in Vietnam. A nice one!

People often ask how we afford to travel like this. And the short answer is, we save aggressively and spend prudently. We travel to really affordable places where our monthly budget is a fraction of what it is at home. We think carefully about every purchase and make sure it’s meaningful and worth it before we splurge. We stick to our guns and don’t make exceptions for every special circumstance (cause trust me, there are lots of them!)

But somehow, within weeks of living in LA, I know that a $15 glass of wine will feel normal again. Phone bills will be paid without a second thought. Appointments and shopping trips just a swipe of a little piece of plastic.

As our arrival in the states grows closer, we are really hoping to carry a little more of this mindfulness home with us. That we’ll seek out and appreciate the cheap and free things to do in LA, just like we would if we were travelers there. That the line between wants and needs will be almost as clear as it is on the road. After I buy my new iPhone, that is.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Batad, Philippines

The spectacular rice terraces of Batad aren’t easy to get to. But they are SO worth it.

I’ve visited lush jungles and pristine beaches. Swam in volcano-studded lakes and ascended mountain peaks above the clouds. But never in my life have I been anywhere that felt more like walking around inside of a painting than Batad. A village so unlike any place I’d seen before, it was difficult to believe it was real. Colors almost incomprehensible to the human eye, brilliant brush strokes all around.  These stone terraces carved out of the mountains by hand 2,000 years ago are often dubbed the “Eight Wonder of the World”, and I can see why. Rumor has it, if the countless steps were placed end-to-end, they would reach halfway around the globe. Which is about how far we’d traveled to experience them.

We ambled for hours across the narrow rocks, careful not to fall into the pools of growing rice. We shooed away the odd rooster and stopped to greet the occasional pig. We listened to the sounds of village life echoing across the vast amphitheater. 

It was a day that stands out so sharply from any other, I remember each detail like a vivid dream from which I've just been awakened. And the scene becomes even more dream-like when you make it across the valley, and descend from its highest rim down the back side of this enchanting place. Dense foliage. A steep path. Wet heat and buzzing pests and blazing sunshine. 

Then this.

Tappiya waterfall is a favorite local swimming hole, and the dazzling icing on the rice terrace cake. Just when I thought my day couldn't get any better, I kicked off my heavy sneakers, peeled off my sticky clothes, and went for an ice cold swim. 

Then a boisterous group of local folks insisted that we pose in their family photo. Naturally.

Our luck lasted just long enough for us to make the grueling hike back up the hillside, across the terraces, through the small village, and a few miles out over what will one day be a paved road to this secluded paradise. But before we reached our tricycle ride home, the morning's rain returned and we sat, stranded by the storm. 


Eventually it let up just barely enough for us to not die on the precarious three-wheeled trip down the mountain and back to Banaue. And I mean barely. There were times when the wet road and gravity proved stronger than the motorbike, and we'd slide recklessly backwards towards our demise. On a few occasions, Reece had to jump out and help push the tiny vehicle over a stubborn hill, or both of us would vacate around a particularly hairy bend. Reece may tell you that I cried, and threatened to walk the treacherous distance all the way back to town. But I think he may have been dreaming ;)

For photos of our entire Batad experience, click HERE.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Journey to Batad

The journey to the incredible rice terraces of Batad is not for the faint of heart. Start by negotiating with a tricycle driver in the small village of Banaue… Actually, let me back up a bit.

Start in Manila. Because that is most likely where your flight to the Philippines landed from wherever you came from. Spend an entire day tracking down the correct bus station (it’s really far) to buy tickets out of Manila as quickly as possible. Because for lack of a better word, Manila sucks.

The following evening, try to hail a taxi to the (really far) bus station in time for your scheduled 9pm departure. Learn that every cab driver in Manila is a scammer who refuses to use his meter and won’t let you into his car until you agree to quadruple the actual fare. Argue. Panic. Curse the Philippines. Repeat. Acknowledge that you are going to miss your bus. Throw a temper tantrum. If you’re lucky, the security guard at your hotel (in the red light district) will take pity on you and help find an honest old man who switches the meter to ‘on’.

Arrive at the bus station (by ‘station’ I mean packed, fluorescently lit compound surrounded by a chain link fence and teeming with rats and cockroaches). Wait. Watch as they put a new tire on the bus. Hope that scrawny kid is screwing those lug nuts on tight. Get crammed onto the musty monster of a vehicle like sardines (who knew the aisle has fold-down seats?!) Get laughed at when you ask for the password that accompanies the “free wifi” sticker in the window.

Depart into the dark, gloomy night. Drift into a troubled sleep. Halfway through the journey, wake up to realize you’re at a dead stop on a two-lane road. Your husband is angry with the obnoxious, restless guy next to (nearly on) him. There is no explanation as to why there are bumper-to-bumper semi trucks for miles in the middle of a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Trade seats with husband. Try to fall asleep again (unsuccessfully).

Watch the sun rise. Stop for (terrible) food. Get off the bus when it pulls over on the side of the road and the driver tells you he’s not going any further. Recognize the name of your lodge on the sign in a small woman’s hands. Follow her to the back of a pick-up truck. Miraculously, arrive safely in Banaue.

All you want to do is sleep, but you quickly realize your courtesy ride was not free. You will pay. With being stalked for two days straight by this woman, trying to sell you tours of the nearby villages. She’ll be at the restaurant when you eat dinner. Outside of your door when you wake up. In the lobby when you charge your phone (cause there are no electrical outlets in your room).

Screw that. You’re an independent traveler. You don’t take tours.

After a little research (VERY little, cause internet doesn’t really work in the Philippines) and some asking around, you find a guy who offers to take you as far as he can towards the village of Batad, in the miniature sidecar of his motorbike (affectionately known in the ‘Pines as a tricycle). “As far as he can”, because the road ends a few miles short of the village, and you must hike the rest of the way in. And off you go.

Or shall I say, UP you go. Up the slick from recent rains, winding mountain road. Higher and higher and higher as the jungle dips vertiginously below. You swerve to avoid fresh landslides, while peering straight down at your worst fears over the rail-less edge. At times when the ascent becomes too steep, your husband has to get out of the sidecar and hop on the back of the motorbike to re-distribute the weight, leaving you alone to contemplate your imminent death-by-plummet. But these rice patties are reputed to be SO beautiful. You heard there was a waterfall there. It will be WORTH IT!

Forty-five minutes later (nobody told you it would take 45 minutes) you arrive at the edge of a construction zone. Someday, this remote village will be connected to town by paved road. Until then, trepidatious folks amble past excavators and bulldozers, and continue an hour down a narrow, rocky path, the sound of their own footsteps occasionally interrupted by nearby blasts of road-clearing dynamite.

You will be SO relieved when you finally arrive. You'll be met by a makeshift “tourist information center” where you pay a few bucks for permission to wander around these farmers’ land unattended. And when you catch your first glimpse of what you traveled so far for, your jaw will drop. You’ve never seen anything like it, anywhere else you’ve traveled. The colors are unreal. The amphitheater surrounding you, perfection. You’ve made it.

What follows, will be even more of an adventure. Stay tuned...