Italy: Friends in unexpected places

As I sit here on my second beer that I literaly ordered by saying “Una Birra per favore” (I have no clue what kind it is) I am reminded of why we are on this trip…  Not just this trip, but why we are living this life.  There are two old Italian gentlemen trying to catch quick stares at me when I’m not looking wondering why the hell this American guy with long hair and a crazy looking bicycle is doing his laundry and drinking beer in their town.  To be honest, I had to look at google to see what the name of the town is.  It’s called Ostiglia, a place that wouldn’t be marked on any map you might find at the tourist bureau or on lonely planet.  These are the places we love the most and we only find them because we are on bicycles.  They are genuine towns with real people who are not dependent on tourists to make a living.  

We’re staying at one of two hotels in town and the short ride I took to find the laundromat led me down gorgeous cobblestone streets and buildings that pre-date anything you might find in North America by several centuries.  I tried google maps to find the laundromat but it failed miserably so I had to do it the old fashioned way.  I stopped in a shop and asked for directions.  The shopkeeper gave me directions in Italian which I tried to follow then said “Via Italia” (Italy street) and I was on my way.  It took me 20 minutes to find it as I rode in circles but I made it eventually.

I’m flying solo today, as Lauren is sick in the hotel room.  I’m out running errands, doing laundry and of course drinking beer.  It’s been close to a month on the road and it is setting in that this is a very different lifestyle from bumming around on a tropical island in Thailand scuba diving and partying all the time.  It is certainly more stressful day to day.  However, the problems we deal with on a daily basis are so basic it is almost primal.  Where are we going to sleep?  Where are we going to find food for the day?  Where are we heading next?  The last question is my favorite to answer.  I’ve stopped planning the route more than a day ahead becuase we are always hearing about a new awesome place that we should check out on the way and there is no reason not to.  The unexpected detours are what lead to the best stories.  

The first day in Italy started off as a standard day of bicycle travel.  The train we took out of Switzerland (We told ourselves we took the train less because of the alps and more because of our budget) was out of service for the last several stops.  We planned to arrive in Domodossola but instead were dropped off in some random town in the Alps across the border.  They were bussing people to the final stop but the Italian Customs agents suggested that we just ride our bikes.  We came to that conclusion on our own a few minutes prior when we saw how packed the busses were.  I can only imagine the reception we would have received loading our giant fully loaded bikes onto a bus full of people who had been on a train all day.  

We began riding towards Domodossola and after a harrowing experince in a high speed tunnel that ended with a U turn we ended up there eventually.  We stayed at a charming little hotel in town and started off the next morning.  Our first Italian meal was of course pizza.  After ordering, I sat in the shop wondering if the cook was actually making my pizza or just ignoring me.  Twenty minutes later he motioned for me to come to the counter, presented two gargantuan pizzas and smiled as he offered me two free beers.  We were off to a good start.

We had a destination of “maybe Venice” along with a planned stop in a random town I’d decided to send myself a package to.  Besides that, we had little in the way of plans.  The first few days were like something out of a storybook.  We passed through tiny hamlets with cobblestone streets and people sitting outdoors in patio furniture in the town square.  More than once we remarked to each other that this is exactly like you see Italy in the movies. We passed gorgeous mountain lakes and mixed in a bit of singletrack on our way as we randomly rode from town to town.  One afternoon we found ourselves leaving a castle and picking up a dirt doubletrack road where I wouldn’t have been surprised to run into Arya Stark and The Hound on horseback.  

There was a little cross on the Open Source map and we decided that a church in the middle of the forest would be a nice place for lunch.  Several wrong turns and a few hours later, we made it and it was worth every pedal stroke.  On the way we took a detour through a vineyard and ended up at San Michele.  It was a ruined church first built in the tenth century, but a site that had been used as highground since the Bronze Age!  It was a shame not to camp there, but our arrival was too early to stop for the day so we ate a picnic lunch and pressed on.  That evening we camped at a campground and watched the latest Star Wars movie at a theatre in Italian with no subtitles I think it was good?

We wild camped and stopped at campgrounds on the way until we hit a crossroads decision point…  To go to Milan or not to go to Milan?  We debated for a while and eventually decided to leave it up to fate.  We sent out a few warmshowers requests and got a reply from a longshot.  We camped in the woods that night and headed into the city the next day to meet our host.  Before this day, all I knew of Milan was that it was usually included with New York and Paris when discussing places that high fashion was important.  (Not exactly Evan and Lauren’s fortè)

We rolled into town and ate an awesome lunch at a restaurant which proved to be exactly what we wanted.  The proprietor was so proud to show off his food and hospitality to a couple foreigners.  We practiced our Italian and learned a new phrase or two as we enjoyed a simple lunch of fresh roast beef, bread, and delicious pasta which we justified because we are technically working out for 8-10 hours a day.  Next we killed some time by searching for a bookstore to trade in our spent supply for a little Keroac and Alice in Wonderland because, why not?  After that was a bike shop/bar where we had a beer that turned into three because of a rain shower.  We sampled local brews and answered questions about our bizarre bikes and our adventures.  It was a lovely afternoon.  

When the rain stopped we headed towards a spot on the map where all the currency exhcanges seemed to be concentrated.  As we rounded a corner we were hit right in the face with the most spectacular Cathedral either of us had ever seen in our lives.  We had hit the city center without realizing it.  In the eye of the storm in Milan we were surrounded by tourists and scammers.  A quiet square with patio furniture this was not…  We grabbed a few photos then got the fuck out of there as soon as we could!

We decided to head to the East side of town towards our host’s place to be a bit closer as we waited for him to get off work.  We waited at… wait for it… a bar!  We sampled some local craft brews which were quite good then rode a few blocks to meet Michele, a stranger who would soon become a friend.

We planned to do a bit of laundry, get a shower, enjoy a nice dinner and then be on the way in the morning.  Instead we stayed for three days!  Michele was a phenomenal host, he took time to get to know us and made us feel at home.  On the second night, he invited us to “Critical Mass”.  Something we had never heard of, but will never miss the opportunity to attend again.  It goes something like this.  Gather as many cyclists, and other crazy folks on weird human powerd vehicles as possible, meet at a predetermined location, then proceed to ride through the city at night blocking traffic, making noise and having as much fun as possible…  All with the ultimate goal of raising awareness for cyclists in the city.  We shared beers and smokes with our host and his friend Angelo as we rode along with a crowd of a few hundred other people on bikes for two hours.  Aside from chasing the clouds in a jet, this was the closest I’ve ever come to heaven!  There was a crazy man on roller skates blocking traffic and shouting at drivers explaining the situation to the upset folks we stopped and thanking the kind ones.  Also we had a fantastic lunatic on a giant adult sizes bigwheel powersliding around roundabouts, and endless bicycle bell ringing everytime someone had the audacity to honk at us.  We even saw a man on a skateboard skating in a crowd of people and rolling a joint at the same time, it was truly impressive.  It lasted for hours and by the end of it my face hurt from smiling so much.  If you live near a major city and have an old bike in the garage, do yourself a favor, check facebook to see if your town has “Critical Mass”, pump up your tires and go.  It was truly one of the greatest nights of my entire life!

Afterwards, we hit up a local craft brew pub where I was ecstatic to find Stone IPA on tap for one last brew before we headed home.  The next day, Michele showed us around a bit more as we looked at cache barns from the middle ages, watched bicycles on TV and generally had a beautiful effortless time.  In the morning Lauren cooked a proper Southern American breakfast including biscuits and gravy which we all loved.  We said our goodbyes and headed off like Willy on the road again.  

The next stop was a random bit of serendipitous chance.  While in Switzerland, I finally got around to ordering a replacement for my phone case which I ruined by swimming in pools and the ocean all day during the Songkran festival for the Thai New Year.  

We left Milan and passed through so many remarkable small towns on the way that you could spend a month in each getting to know the story of the people living there and the history.  Instead, we usually grabbed some food and a beer and were on our way.  I had the package sent to a random reasonably sized town that was along our route and that is what brought us to Cremona.  As we rolled into town, we commented on how the tower was pretty big, not knowing it was the largest brick bell tower in Europe.  We had a bit of a rest in the central square in front of the beautiful cathedral and sipped prosecco and ate paninis at a cafe.  Once our bellys were full and spirits lifted we headed off towards a campground on the south side of town.  We set up shop and then were delighted as cyclist after cyclist came in after us.  At the end of the day, there were 12 bicycle travellers who camped at the spot we chose at random.  We met a few of them and good times ensued.

There was the Swiss couple who gave us tons of suggestions of places to explore and new cycling apps we should try.  Then there was Graeme, the wild Scottsman who we ended up spending a few days with us exploring the city.  He had an interesting story and the most insane touring bike setup I’ve seen.  He must have had 100 lbs. of gear including a full Scottish formal kilt regalia piled up on the back of a carbon framed fatbike with bungee cords and rope everywhere.  It’s always interesting to compare and contrast how people can be doing the same activity and do it so differently.  It is kind of fun that bike touring is still in it’s corporate infancy and has not been standardized in any way.  We see recumbant bikes, panniers, bike packers, jerry rigged thrift shop bikes and everything in between.  We hung with Graeme and chatted over beers, and wine which turned into a wild midnight ride in sandals through a field of 3 ft. tall weeds into the town square where the ominous cathedral reigned supreme.  

We stood there in the square on our bikes and discussed our theories about it’s origins at length.  The grandiose Milan speciman this was not. It was clear that it was built and rebuilt several times and you could actually see the different ages of humanity in the construction.  There were pre-christian influences at the bottom, bricks of all different colors and you could actually see where the renaissance happened in the construciton!  The next day we met David who was Graeme’s waiter the night before and he took us inside where the art and craftsmanship was even more spectacular.  Also while waiting out a rainstorm at a cafe we met Derek from Liverpool who happened to be at the same spot on his tour of Italy.  We made a ragtag group and stuck together for the rest of the evening.  Maybe it’s the fact that everyone is traveling alone and longs for company, but I like to think that this hobby and/or lifestyle attracts a certain kind of person and it is easy to get along with folks who think the same as you…

We planned to leave the next day but my package was late and Lauren needed a dentist so we stayed one more day and meet up with David again and met his lovely girlfriend.  We shared a cup of wine sitting on the ground near our tent and felt like the hosts for once, albeit our furniture was made of good old fashioned terra firma and we had no roof.  

This lifestyle is wonderful, but it weighs heavy on the heart.  In the year since we said goodbye to our former existence, we’ve met some of the most extraordinary people you could ever hope to encounter.  Our circle of friends we had in Tucson was so hard to say goodbye to.  They were the first group of folks since leaving our families and childhood friends that we felt a connection with that can’t really be described.  Then on Koh Tao we formed relationships in a few months that felt like they had been forged a lifetime ago.  Now, on the road we continue to meet these incredibly amazing people who change our lives and have such an impact in such a short amount of time.  It is a catch 22 though.  You can’t expose yourself to enough likeminded people if you don’t travel, but you meet them when traveling so you can’t settle down to have them in your life permanently.  It’s almost like you go through the full friendship in a matter of days and come out the other side wondering how the hell you are going to go on without these amazing new people in your life.  I have a habit of always trying to find solutions to problems, but I don’t think this one is really a problem.  It’s just the way it is.  We’ve got a growing list of friends all over the world.  With a quick message, we’ve got a local contact and if they are not around, they can hook us up with the right kind of people.  If we ever decide to slow down for awhile, (unlikely) they’ve got the same!

 In the meantime, we’re going to continue this adventure and embrace every new place and experience because after all, being happy is the only thing that matters, and if you are not happy, is your own damn fault!

Swiss Family Reunion

“I want to see mountains again Gandalf, mountains!”

-Bilbo Baggins

If there is a polar opposite country to Thailand, it might just be Switzerland. Our first 5 minutes on the streets of Zurich were culture shock to say the least. It was best exemplified when we tried to cross the street the first time. We stood at a crosswalk on a relatively calm street when a Mercedes came speeding our way. We patiently waited for it to pass and were taken aback when the car abruptly stopped and waited for us to cross the crosswalk. Coming from nearly 6 months in Thailand, where crossing the street is up there on the danger meter with skydiving or the luge, we realized we were no longer in the land with no rules.

It might seem a bit strange that we decided to leave Thailand after the last post, as we were so happy. The circumstances for this trip were special though. Lauren’s family had planned a trip to Switzerland for vacation for their first trip outside the US. We agreed to meet them and decided since we were flying that far, we might as well get our plane ticket’s worth and stay in Europe for a few months.

We left Koh Tao kicking and screaming albeit excited to see family.  We had a wonderful sendoff and are looking forward to going back to the island in the fall. The turnout at Goodtime for our impromptu going away sunset was humbling as all of our friends gathered to send us off. We grabbed some dinner and then hit up the Beer Mason’s for some craft brews with those still standing. We said our goodbyes and woke up the next day to catch our ferry to Koh Samui.

Koh Tao means “Turtle Island” and describes not just the sea life, but also the pace of life for the people on land. After being used to this slow pace of a 13 sq. km island for so long, Koh Samui traffic was a circus! We rode the bikes from the pier to the hotel near the airport and then the scavenger hunt began. The packing tape had been no problem, but three bicycle sized cardboard boxes and bubble wrap were not easy things to track down at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon in Koh Samui! We rented a scooter and spent two days rounding up the necessary supplies. The island itself was a tourist trap to say the least so we were not sad to leave. We had trouble at the airport terminal when Lauren’s name was paged and we had to hitch a ride to the baggage terminal because you can not fly with power bank batteries in your checked luggage. We politely fished them out of our bags. As I plucked the third one out, I caught a glimpse of our fuel canister which most definitely was still at least half full of gasoline. It made it through security with no problem!

The flight to Bangkok was pleasant with fish and rice for breakfast on the plane. We transferred to Swiss air in Bangkok and had a lovely flight to Zurich. We finally watched “The Last Jedi”, relaxed and slept. As we flew over a part of the world full of so much turmoil, I couldn’t help but think about how good it felt to be on our way to see family and explore this amazing planet some more.

Which brings us back to Zurich. We landed and took a 30 minute cab from the airport to our hotel for the cost of 3 days living expenses in Thailand. Lauren cooked a delicious pork chop dinner, we assembled the bikes and set off on our journey into the alps. The first day was gorgeous. We got out of town and into the hills and were treated to beautiful deciduous trees, lovely weather and secluded roads. We pulled off on a path and set up our tent for a great night’s sleep.

Seriously… WTF?

The next day we awoke to freezing cold rain and snails everywhere along with the realization that we were not prepared for May in Switzerland. We literally had no pants! We froze our asses off the next day wet and cold and had a challenging day of constant climbs with little respite. At the end of the day, we were exhausted and had to resort to getting a hotel despite it being way out of our budget because we were soaked to the bone.

The next day we found a thrift store, bought some pants and more appropriate cold weather gear and continued on our way. Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve much for the next week and a half, but we made the best of it.

Switzerland is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in the world. The scenery is spectacular. After the second day, we literally ran out of adjectives to describe our surroundings. Also, it is one of the most bicycle friendly places we’ve ever seen. Everyone rides bicycles so the tiny cars are very courteous to cyclists.

As we progressed, I kept joking that Switzerland was the land of rules… and for some unknown reason, everyone there actually follows them… All of them! One of my big issues in the military was having to follow rules that I deemed stupid so this obviously presented a slight problem for me. I coped with little rebellions like jumping curbs and blasting through roundabouts the wrong way when no one was around just to make myself feel better. I was constantly humming “Signs” by Tesla because there were signs everywhere telling you what to do. Fortunately or unfortunately we couldn’t read them. Also, the people didn’t seem quite as welcoming to visitors as we had hoped. We ran into more than a few servers who scoffed when they found out we didn’t speak Swiss German. We learned basic phrases but it was not enough to please some people. 

Some signs made us happy!

On the other hand, we met some fabulous individuals who showed us so much kindness it offset the bad apples. One afternoon we were fumbling around a village trying to find some information about a yodeling concert that was supposed to be that night. We got a lot of weird looks until a nice young man yelled across the road and asked if we needed help. He and his friends invited us to have a beer with them in the yard and we chatted about our trip and their lives in Switzerland. It was funny to hear them mildly complaining about their government in a seemingly perfect country with no litter, where everyone dives either a bicycle or a brand new car.  We thanked them for their hospitality and ended up skipping the yodeling concert because the crowd was dressed in suits and ties. We pressed on and found camping for the night at the nicest (and most expensive) campgrounds we had ever seen.

Things continued this way as we made our way south towards Murren. At one point, my poor route planning left us on a trail we thought was for bikes but it ended up being a challenging hiking path. It turned out to be a pilgrimage path with stations of the cross every few hundred meters. The terrain was steep and at one point as Lauren was struggling to lift her bike up onto a ledge on the path, a kind old woman in her 70’s appeared out of nowhere and started giving her a push. It was a hilarious scene and we laughed as we thanked her profusely in broken German. A few minutes later the path turned rough again and another even older gentleman came by and did the same. Towards the top of the path, we found a ledger for those making the pilgrimage and signed our names with pride.

We made it over pass after pass and continued on, subsiding on Baguette, Salami, Rugen Brau beer and swiss mountain cheese. If it hasn’t become apparent yet, Switzerland is really expensive and our budget was stretched pretty thin.

How much you wanna make a bet i can throw a football over them mountains?
Never did see the bird, but apparently this is good luck.

We finally arrived in Interlaken which is a beautiful city placed between two gorgeous lakes… Get it? Interlaken? They also had the only other incline train I’d ever seen outside of Pittsburgh. We were lucky enough to have a response on warmshowers and our host Matthius was very kind. We waited for him in the park drinking wine and watching paragliders landing. He met us at a cycling cafe after work and rode with us to his village a few miles away. We were treated to a much needed shower and some lovely meats and cheeses. The later of which was from his family’s cow! We shared stories of traveling and looked at maps of the world together talking about the places we’ve lived, visited and wanted to see. At the end of the night, he brought out a book with his villiage’s history dating back to the middle ages. It was complete with family sigils and drawings of the old farming methods used in the mountains. He explained his families sigil to us and pointed out that the star in the corner meant that someone in the family had been a knight. He said the remnants of the castle on the nearby hill were still standing. It was an amazing evening and reinforced that the best part of traveling is interacting with the local people. We forgot to get a picture together but we did get a few in his awesome hundred year old house.

Somehow we always manage to match…  Nerds!

We left Interlaken and still had a day to kill before Lauren’s family arrived in Murren. We rode through a beautiful valley to Lauderbrunnen where we froze huddled under a bike parking area outside of a convenience store for a few hours. We debated riding up the mountain in the sleet but instead stopped at a bar which happened to have a hotel upstairs. The next day, we elected to take a cable car instead of climbing the mountain in the freezing rain. We arrived in Murren and while it was incredibly touristy, we enjoyed riding through the streets on our way towards our lovely camping spot. We set up shop in a shack on the side of the road and slept soundly although a bit cold. The next day, we killed time drinking beer and wine on a bench and playing gin rummy waiting for her family’s train to arrive. When they did, we upgraded from a pathside shack with three walls to a beautiful Swiss Chalet for 7 days. It was a welcome change to have hot water and warm food.

Saw a sticker from Catalina brewing in Tucson

We spent the week with Lauren’s family checking out the local tourist attractions and playing Settlers of Catan and other board games at night. I tried going mountain biking one afternoon, but the trail was downhill Redbull style so I ended up walking down most of it. We ate well and had good company although the time was too short. Before we knew it, they were off on their way back to America and we were heading south for Warmer Climes and all the Wines in Italy!

So, I guess we kinda live here now.

“Some people never find it. Some only pretend. But I just want to live happily ever after, now and then.” – Jimmy Buffett

The plan was to stop on Koh Tao (a very small island in the Gulf of Thailand) for a week or two. We were going to try scuba diving, enjoy the beach, then get back on the road heading North for Chiang Mai. That did not happen.

Instead, our week or two is now at about six and we don’t have any plans for leaving any time soon. When we started the trip we always talked about scouting out places we really liked for when we wanted to take a break from traveling for a few months. We didn’t think we would end up staying on an island and training for new careers… sort of.

The first two weeks here were great. The weather was beautiful and the beach was fantastic. We swam and enjoyed all the Western and Thai food on the island. I got my open water scuba certification and we were just hanging out with no cares. We stayed up late, woke up whenever we wanted and generally relaxed. Lauren got food poisoning which was not fun at all, and the weather turned bad for about 5 days due to the remnants of a typhoon, but we were really enjoying it here. Our Visas were going to expire and we debated on what to do.

We considered a standard boat/van visa run to leave the country then come right back or maybe taking a boat to the mainland and riding the bikes to Burma and back. We thought about riding to Burma then just continuing up the Eastern coast. Finally we thought about just heading up to Cambodia. We debated for days and ultimately decided to just do a visa run and stay on the island.

We had an interesting mini-adventure for the visa run. We took the night ferry from Koh Tao to Chumpon and slept in bunks on the boat.

We arrived bright and early on a seemingly abandoned port at 5:30 AM and looked around confused. We waited with the other westerners and eventually a guy in a van showed up and started coralling us around. We ended up in a van, then switched to another van, then finally got on the road. What a road it was! The drive took us up and over the mountains toward Ranong. It was the same highway we had so desparately avoided on the bikes on the way down. Being in a car in and of itself was novel and the driver was downright insane. The road was a series of windy blind curves for miles. We spent at least 30% of the time on the wrong side of the road. Basically, there are lines painted on the road in Thailand, but they are purely for decoration. The other side of the road and both shoulders are all fair game. Passing on a blind curve just requires a simple toot of the horn and off you go.

It was about a two or three hour trip before we arrived at Ranong. We were shuffled to a place that copied our passports then stood in line to get exit stamps. We jumped on a boat that could only be boarded with crisp new ten dollar bills from the US for some reason.

The boat was a traditional longtail and we thought we had made it to Burma after a short trip. It turned out, this was the immigration checkpoint #1 of 3. The next thing we knew they were handing us life jackets as we laughed until we realized why. We had to cross a big gap of no-shit ocean to get to Burma. The boat was maybe 25 feet long and the waves were not small. We were splashed and rocked around for 40 minutes as we crossed the sea to Burma. “You may know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”

We spent a grand total of 20 minutes getting our passports stamped, then immediately left to come back to Thailand. The return journey was just as fun and re-entering was pretty easy. One gal in our group had a bit of trouble, she had done this several times before and the immigration officials basically told her she couldn’t come back into Thailand. Our guide stepped up and had some words with them and somehow it was magically resolved in ten minutes. +1 for booking through an agency and not trying to do it yourself. On the ride back, we got to know Cecilia from Argentina and had wonderful conversation about the island, diving, travelling and life in general. After the van ride for some reason we stopped to swap vehicles again and another gal in our group became beligerant. “If she missed the ferry, she was going to flip her shit!” she informed everyone over and over. We, along with Cecilia thought it was amusing and were glad that “shit flipper” ended up in a different van for the remainder of the trip. During the last leg which was a high speed chase to catch the ferry that involved dropping off a random Thai lady at a restaurant we chatted about how nice it feels to leave emotions like that behind. I proclaimed that if we missed the ferry the first round was on me and I knew a great seafood place at the pier. We laughed and decided we didn’t really care if we made it or not.

As luck would have it we showed up a few minutes late and they hadn’t even started boarding. That didn’t stop old shit flipper from cutting the line and ensuring she was among the first to be on the ferry so she could wait 30 minutes for everyone else to board. The whole thing was a great lesson in how far attitude can get you in life. Here is one person who is worried so much about something she has absolutely no control over. Additionally, the worst case scenario was that we miss a boat and take the next one. She was worried sick, embarassing herselft as she acted like an asshole. She was verbally abusive to the driver who was just doing his job and stressing out about missing a fricken boat! So much for the island attitude! On the other hand, Cecilia, Lauren, and I, took the oportunity to make new friends. We shared stories about how we might have reacted similarly in our previous lives, but have since learned that most of the time, it’s not worth it to get upset. The whole experience was a great reinforcement of all the decisions we made that brought us to that point.

When we got back we tried a new scuba shop called Goodtime Adventures, they also do rock climbing and flying trapeeze. The vibe at this place was exactly what we were looking for: stress free, laid back and focused on fun. I decided to keep pushing further with scuba and started my training to become a professional divemaster. I’d always thought scuba diving would be a great second career (if you can call it that) and Koh Tao is known for being one of the most beautiful (and cheapest) scuba destinations in the world. Lauren gave scuba a few more tries and decided it really wasn’t her thing so she started a climbing course to become a rockmaster. Like me with scuba, it is something she has always wanted to learn. She has fallen in love with climbing and comes back every day covered in bruises, calluses and smiles.

We’ve made such great new friends on the island, and it’s starting to feel like home. It feels good to have a purpose for awhile. We are absolutely going to get on the road again at some point, but for now we are living cheap and doing what we love on a tropical island… Why would we leave?

The last few weeks have been interesting. We’ve settled into a bit of a routine and our training kinda feels like work… But in a good way. Lauren is already guiding beginner climbers and I’m close to finishing up my divemaster training. She’s seen some amazing views from atop the island and I’ve dove with whale sharks twice! The bonus is once we complete our training we might even be able to make some extra money doing something we and a lot of other people are paying to do for fun.

I’ve fallen in love with the underwater world in the same way I love flying. The silence and serenity are unexplainable unless you’ve done it. I’ve blown a fair amount of money on scuba gear and training, but somehow justified it by the fact that I will be able to work anywhere in the tropics forever if I so choose. The long hair, no shirt and wearing flip flops to work style is fitting me a little better than a buzzcut and a prompt military schedule. The best part is that Lauren is climbing out of the same shop I’m diving at. We share lunch most days and go out to dinner every evening. It’s been busy, but once we finish the training we plan on settling into a part time work schedule and slowing down again.

I think we’re “supposed” to be on a bicycle trip, but I guess this chapter is a little more spontaneous and a little less spinning. In the meantime, we’ve got the two most expensive clothes hangers in all of Asia!

*Underwater photos courtesy of Logan Brown.

*Whale shark videos courtesy of some girl with a go pro who was on the same boat as me.

Being happy is the only thing that matters…

A few years ago in San Antonio Texas, we were out at a bar with our friend Mike. He was travelling across the country and went out of his way to meet us while I was there for some training. We have a running deal that wherever I travel to, he will come visit. We went out for drinks and had a ball. We wound up at “Howl at the Moon”, a dueling piano bar where they had two giant mirrors behind the stage where you could pay money to write a message. The deal was, pay a dollar more than the last person, and they would erase their message and replace it with yours. Our message was, “Being happy is the only thing that matters. If you’re not happy, it’s your own damned fault!”. It stayed on the wall for hours.

We are doing exactly what we want and we’re really happy! Seriously, it’s not some unattainable goal that you can’t achieve because of bills or debt or illness… All that is required is wanting it and taking the first step. We just found what really makes us happy, then took the steps to make that our life! I’ll talk about our journey, but I think the basic principles can apply to anything you want out of life whether it’s travel or restoring an old car or changing careers. Also, yes, you can totally do crazy random shit with kids. We see people all over the place with them. A girl in my scuba class has a 7 year old who goes to the international school in Koh Tao and runs around the hostel or plays on the beach all day! He is guaranteed to grow up and be awesome. We see him playing computer games and being a normal kid, who also speaks three languages. So sit back, grab a beer and listen to a part of our story. Or don’t, either way you should sit back and have a beer because it is Wednesday… I think.

Our lives were very different 5 years ago. The circumstances and details don’t really matter that much, but we both remember when it all started to change. We were on Christmas break from work and school and took a trip to Florida to visit my brother and his in-laws somewhere outside of Daytona. They had a second house on a beautiful plot of land where they kept their harness racing horses in the winter. They suggested a campground a mile or two down the road and Lauren and I, along with my folks, each stayed in the campground “Cabins”. In reality they were park model trailers with wood siding permanently parked on the campground which most resort style camping places will have. The trip was great, but that is not why I’m talking about it. About ten minutes after we got the keys to the cabin, which was maybe 180 square feet with a sleeping loft upstairs, we looked at each other and said, “We could live in one of these!” The trip came and went and we didn’t think much of it.

Fast forward a few months and we were living in an old farmhouse in Mississippi, driving 35 and 40 minutes to work everyday and thinking we had it made. I was flying my ass off in the Air Force and Lauren was finishing up her bachelor’s degree. We had plenty of money and were saving a bit while spending the rest. We spent several months there until one day we realized we had multiple rooms that had nothing in them but boxes and mattresses that no one slept on. We had been living in this house for months and hadn’t opened half of our stuff. Thus, the great idea was born!

It took a few months of brainstorming and ideas, but soon I was calling the campground in Florida to get the information for the manufacturer of the cabin. We had decided to minimize and build a tiny house. We had it custom built and lived happily for 2 years in our charming little cabin on wheels.

Here comes the first lesson we learned: You don’t need stuff! There are a dozen cliches about your stuff owning you and every one of them is absolutely true. We sold what was valuable on Craigslist and had a garage sale for the rest. We kept the toys that took us outside (bikes, backpacks, kayaks etc.) since that is what made us happy. At the end of the garage sale we were giving away hundreds of dollars worth of stuff just to get rid of it. We didn’t miss any of it! Space became our new concern instead of price if we bought something. We just made “compromises” like having the one cup Keurig instead of the giant deluxe model. We actually became stronger as a couple because we were never more than 10 feet away from one another. When we had company over, we had to go outside… Oh darn.

There was definitely some bad with the good, towing the tiny house was awful due to the fact that it was a barn door on the highway. Living in a campground in Mississippi introduced us to some very eccentric neighbors, but also we made some great friends and had some wild times. Overall we loved it. I got a new assignment in the Air Force and we towed it all the way to Tucson, Arizona where we had a sweet gig. We parked it in our friend Mike’s backyard and I paid $250 to have a 50 amp plug installed so we could have electricity. He was a Snowbird and only spent part of the year in Tucson, so we had a million dollar view for the low price of keeping an eye on his place while he was gone. Nothing great lasts forever and he ended up selling the place so we decided to downsize once again and moved into an Airstream trailer so we could be more mobile. The tiny house was a pain to sell but that’s another story.

Our neighbors.

We continued to downsize, even though we really didn’t have to. It became a habit to go through our closet every few months and get rid of crap we didn’t wear. We realized we don’t need 3 skillets, we need one. People in the Air Force gave me shit all the time for being weird, but I just smiled as they drove away in their brand new cars to their giant houses that were costing them thousands of dollars a month. Our cars were paid for with cash and I made another great discovery.

Mr. Money Mustache is a quasi famous financial blogger who is less about finance and more about living a reasonable life and not blowing all your money on stupid stuff. He retired at 30 and is living a dream life in Colorado on $25,000 a year with a family of three. Check out his website for the details. Loosely following his philosophy, we we were putting aside over half of our take-home pay to pay down debt and when that was done, we were saving that money. We made reasonable choices and didn’t buy things that didn’t increase our happiness. We weren’t living destitute by any means though. The small RV fridge was always stocked with top shelf IPAs and Lauren cooked gourmet dinners most days of the week. We tried to stick to a policy of only going out to eat for things we couldn’t cook like Indian and Ethiopian food. We obviously had moments of weakness, but overall the principles worked. The plan was to finish out my commitment to the Air Force, then go travel the world on bicycles, taking breaks when we ran out of money and doing part time work like caretaking, bartending or maybe becoming a scuba instructor. In the meantime, we spent a lot of time outside and made awesome friends. Life in Tucson was good!

This has been hanging in my office for years.

Crashing a random wedding rehearsal with Luu, a warmshowers guest and Ben n Kelly!

Things do not always go as planned. I got hit with a curveball as I was finishing up my training in the A-10. I found out I have arthritis in my back and wouldn’t be able to fly fighters anymore. Long story short, I was medically discharged, and our adventures would be starting a little earlier than planned with a little less cushy financial cushion. We could have stayed in Tucson. I could have easily found a job with Raytheon making good money or flown for the airlines, but we didn’t want more money, we wanted to see the world. Sometimes life happens… You can either bitch and complain about how things aren’t fair, or you can not do that and find something else that makes you happy… We chose the latter.

I don’t know very much. I’m 32 years old and just trying to live the best life I can. I have had some shitty luck and some good luck. Actually no, there is no luck. You’ve got to make your own luck. Anything else is just an excuse. What I do know is that even if I had a billion dollars, I’d be sitting on the exact same island I’m on right now with the exact same person riding the exact same bikes. I’d still be drinking a Cha Tri Thai IPA and probably still typing this on a bluetooth keyboard on my cell phone.
Space has become the ultimate commodity for us living on bikes and we make all of our purchases (not many) based on that more than price. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m happy. The journey to that happiness was an unexpected one, and certainly didn’t happen overnight. You don’t need to sell all of your stuff and go ride bikes in a foreign country to be happy, unless that is really what you want.

What you do need to do, at least if you bothered to read this far, is take that beer in your hand, walk away from your computer and go outside. Sit on the cold ground for a few minutes and think about what you would do if you didn’t have to work anymore. It sounds like a high school guidance counselor exercise, but honestly go do it. Whatever the thing is that you came up with, make it your priority. Make it a financial priority over the new car you were going to buy or the trip to an all inclusive resort in Cancun or even that $60 steak from Ruth’s Chris (Unless it’s your birthday, then eat the most expensive steak you can find). Make it a time priority instead of wasting time on the internet or spending time at lame office parties with people you don’t like.

If you think it is unachievable, or retirement is too far off, the next time you are going to check facebook or watch cat videos on the internet, read a Mr. Money Mustache article or find some other way to get closer to that goal. Or don’t… Do whatever you want.

As I write this, am sitting here on a tropical island in a room that costs less than $9 a night. The air conditioner is not even connected because we don’t need it and my biggest problem in the world right now is the fact that we have to run to the border in Myanmar tomorrow night to re-enter Thailand so we can stay longer. Actually, that’s my second biggest problem, the first is deciding if I want to be a scuba diving instructor, or ride my bicycle with my wife up the Eastern coast of Myanmar. And it’s Thursday… I think.

Prachuap Khiri Khan to Koh Tao

“Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him.  We, the people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer want to go in search of them.  We speak of them only to children.  Later, we simply let life proceed, in it’s own direction, toward it’s own fate.  But unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them – the path to their personal legends, and to happiness.  Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out indeed to be a threatening place.”

– Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist”

Our stay in Prachuap Khiri Khan (PKK) was relaxing and we had some good times taking a load off on the coast.  As beautiful as the beachside view was, we learned that it was not swimable.  Our first hint should have been the fact that no one else was walking on the beach or swimming.  We were wondering why for a few days and figured it out when walking the beach with Betty and Mark.  All of the sudden, the water felt really warm and smelled horrible, then a quick look to the left revealed the secret of PKK’s beach.  The sewers were draining right into the ocean!  Not THOSE kind of sewers, but it was definitely run-off from the streets and not pleasant.  When we got home, we thouroughly washed our legs and decided we’d stick to the sidewalk that ran along the water.

On the last afternoon, we took a trip to the Thai Air Force Base that was in PKK to check out the swimming beach and the monkeys.  Unfortunately the monkeys were sleeping so we hit the beach and while it was beautiful, there were a lot of people there.  Once we got in the water, it was wonderful and we played like a couple of kids splashing and jumping in the waves.  We drank a few beers on the beach and were entertained by a little girl who was rolling around in the wet sand and surf and giggling like a literal schoolgirl.  We and her parents were very entertained.  During lunch we met Gerhardt, a cyclist from Austria who was riding a KTM bicyle.  We chatted for awhile and recommended our guest house to him.

​​We met Gerhardt again that evening and talked bicycles for hours.  We shared some pizza from Mr. Bong’s and had a lovely evening.  Sometimes it is easy to forget just how much of a niche we are a part of when it comes to cycling.  Gerhardt was very much an athlete.  He rode long days to cover tons of distance and stuck to the highways in order to take the most direct route possible.  He was travelling on roads we wouldn’t even consdier taking unless we had an emergency and needed to get to a town ASAP.  The world of bike touring has so many varieties even in such a small niche.  There are skinny tires, fat tires, paniers, bikepacks, athletic achievers, trail blazers, racers, challenge seekers and tons more.  I haden’t thought much about where we fall on the spectrum until we met someone who is doing essentially the same thing as us but in such a dramatically different fashion.  Neither is right or wrong, just different.  First there are cyclists, then touring cyclists, then bikepackers, then fat tires, then finally (and we may be the only ones) cyclists who ride less than 50km per day and don’t plan their trip, stop all the time for afternoon beers on the road and wander about on back roads taking the most inefficient route possible for the sake of exploring the tracks that everyone else doesn’t see.  Right now we are sitting on Koh Tao, an island off the Eastern Coast of Thailand and are considering staying here for a few weeks, or maybe a month, or maybe six.  

The luxury of time and no possesions at home is awesome.  We realize at least once a week that wherever we are is our home and everything we’ve got fits on our bikes!  Also, we’ve been compiling a list of problems that we face day to day.  Here are a few from the list:

Deciding which island we should visit.
Having to constantly clean my sunglasses because of the sea spray.
And the greatest problem in the world to have…  What day is it?  Oh wait, it doesn’t matter!

We took off from PKK on our way to Chumpon and the first day started off great.  We were greeted by kids on the backs of scooters smiling and yelling HAALOW all morning.  A few kilometers in we hit a roadbloack.  The detour took us past an aquarium, and as we rode past the gates, the guard smiled and motioned us in.  Who were we to argue?  We rode up to the front and as we were locking the bikes up a swarm of people started forming around us.  It was a man with a bunch of kids and they all wanted to practice their English.  We smiled a lot and tried to explain our trip.  Lauren was able to practice some Thai with them as well. They asked for pictures so we all posed together in front of the bikes and snapped a few for ourselves.  It was a charming experience and we were very glad we stopped.  We said our goodbyes and made our way into the aquarium.  The A/C felt great and it was the perfect afternoon stop.  The translations for the fish were amusing and we had a nice little tour.  

One afternoon, we passed a place called “Rocky Point,” which was the same name for the beach we visited in Mexico with friends last summer, so naturally we had to stop for a beer.  It felt good to get out of the sun and we took a bit of an afternoon break.  We used the wifi to do some research on possible islands to visit and I somehow ended up on the lonely planet forums…  Don’t go there!  It’s a combination of everything wrong with the backpacker community plus the internet.

Along the road we saw a few signs that were anti-European Union and the locals definitely were not fans of Westerners.  I couldn’t blame them at all.  There were resorts everywhere catering to rich retired Europeans and they were pushing the fishermen out of their villages and taking over the coast.  We felt guilty and frustrated.  At the risk of sounding like a bleeding heart hippie, I started thinking about our trip and our motives.  On the spectrum of travelers I like to think we fall somewhere far from the condescending self-righteous douchebags who are wearing rice paddy style hats walking around town insulting locals and acting like drunk idiots.  On the other end are the rich tourists who are pampered at a resort they never leave. We genuinely want to spend time getting to know the places we travel and interact with the people.  To each his own I suppose.

In a serindipidous turn of events, as soon as we left the town we were hungry and decided to stop at a shack at an intersection on the road for some lunch.  Under the roof was a middle aged Thai Woman cooking on a propane stove with no electricity.  Also, there were two young guys enjoying their lunch.  We rode by and decided to immediately turn around for some lunch.  The looks on their faces were priceless.  We had a short conversation introducing ourselves and ordered via the tried and true, “I’ll have what he’s having” method.  We were treated to rice and pork “Mu pad prik” as we were instructed.  We were thankful for our language practice because “Mai pet krap” (Not spicy please) definitely came in handy when I saw the heaping spoonfull of chili powder she was about to dump in the dish.  The food was delicious and the company was great.  A few giant gusts of wind came by and it felt like the shack might blow away, we were all laughing and playing charades to talk about the wind.  When we got up to pay we couldn’t believe it was only 60 baht for both of us. (about 2 USD)  We thanked her profusely and jumped back on the bikes.  We never have pictures from these kinds of stories because pulling a camera out just feels wrong. Instead, here is a picture of a cow.

With about 8 km to go that afternoon, we decided to add a little adventure to the route.  The open source map we use has tons of dotted lines that represent dirt roads and paths.  I spotted a small two mile loop that was generally heading in our direction so we checked it out.  Finally, a little bit of mountain biking!  We started up a steep sloped washed out path and before long found ourselves in a thick jungle.  The path was rough and sloppy and we had a blast.  The navigation was a lot of guessing and turning around but we felt like we were deep in the jungle on an expedition of sorts.  In reality we were probably never more than a few km from the road.  The small detour was worth it and we felt like we were properly on our way.  

That night things took a turn.  I paid the price for the roadside shack pork.  I woke up in the middle of the night and let’s just say food poisoning sucks.  I was violently ill for several hours and the evening was not fun.  To top it off, the bathroom in our hotel had a strange odor when we checked in that later turned into an intolerable sewer stench.  Not a good thing when you are spending the entire night in said bathroom.  We decided to check out the next day.  Getting the bikes down the stairs with the strength of an infant was a challenge and the 2 km ride felt like the tour de France.  Somehow we made it to another hotel and I spent the next day recovering and waiting to be able to eat something.  We stayed 2 days just to make sure I was back in good shape then hit the road again.  The ride in the morning was incredible!  The road was right along the beach with hardly any traffic.  We chatted merrily and solved all the world’s problems as we rode.  As we ventured further, the local attitude changed again.  We saw a bunch more anti-EU signs and no one seemed to smile or even acknowledge our presence.  We concluded that someone was buying up all the land in the town and forcing the fishermen out.  We kept pedaling and tried to avoid feeling guilty.

That afternoon, we took a slight detour to Ban Saphon Noi, a small inland town.  We were looking for some AC and a spot for lunch.  Riding through the small town was a cool experience and it was obvious that not many cyclists come this way.  We had chips and Pepsi in the park and decided on our lodging for the evening.  We were off again and made it to a charming B&B on the coast.

The B&B seemed like it’s glory days were a decade ago and we felt like we had the place to ourselves.  There was a young Thai couple that did the cooking and upkeep and did not speak a word of English.  We took a dip in the ocean with no other people on the beach for literally as far as the eye could see.  Dinner was good and we met another cycling couple from Germany.  Ironically, they had spent the previous night at the same hotel as us.  We chatted them up and were inspired to find out they were 69 years old!  Their recurring holiday was to cycle Thailand for a month every year.  We felt empowered and excited, realizing this is only the beginning and we’ve got decades of traveling the world ahead of us!

We started late the next day due to a laundry miscommunication and paid the price physically.  The mercury was rising high and when the sun was not blocked by the clouds it was like an oven.  We took several pit stops along the road at what turned out to be community pavillions.  They reminded me of the ones you see out behind the American Legion back home.  Visions of high school graduation parties went through my mind as we sipped our water and waited for the clouds.  An interesting conversation came up:  “What would our teenage selves think about what we are doing right now?”  It’s an interesting thought no matter what you are doing with your life.  As I sit here writing this, I’m thinking perhaps the better question is, “What would my 90 year old self think about the life I’ve led?”  

The next part of the trip was a lot of pavement due to the close proximity of the mountains to the sea, and there were not a lot of North-South back roads to choose from.  Our choice to ride along the coast again paid off and we had some beautiful scenery.  In particular, the sand dunes North of Chumpon were beautiful.  If we had known about them ahead of time, we would have stocked up on food and water and stayed a few days.  The road was a fully paved coastal road that was completely abandoned.  We could have stayed for weeks with no one bothering us.  We had islands on our mind though and couldn’t wait to get to Koh Tao.

That evening we stayed at a small guest house.  When we arrived, the power was out so we hung out on the porch with the owners who were enjoying the weather and seeing to their newborn baby.  There was an adorable dog living out back and plenty of geckos in the room to keep us company.  It started pouring down rain and town was at least 1km away so we broke out our trusty camp stove and had rice noodles with chicken bouillon and canned tuna.  It was surprisingly good.  Cooking out of the doorway while it was pouring rain reminded us of camping in Colorado.  It seems like years ago although it’s only been a few short months.

At this point we were roughly 60km from Chumpon where the ferry for the island left from.  We decided we’d ride until we were tired and if made it, great.  If not, that was ok too.  It was a good day for back roads!  We had a blast splashing through puddles and a few flooded stream crossings.  Thank god for fat tires!  The sand was a non-issue for us where regular mountain bike tires would have led to an abrupt stop and two soaking wet Americans.  Once again we were on the inefficient route zig-zagging through coconut and rubber plantations surprising the locals.  We took our time and rode when the clouds were out, stopping for the sun.  It was a wonderful relaxing day and turned out to be our longest distance yet.  At one point we stopped at a small roadside market and woke up a sweet older woman who was having her siesta in the afternoon heat.  She was so happy to see us and insisted we take a load off to enjoy our bottles of water and strange gatorade-like drink.  We quickly exhausted our Thai and sat quietly smiling at each other.  We thanked her and said our goodbyes, happy to be on our way again.  The road we chose turned to follow a river which offered beautiful scenery and plenty of kind faces.  We decided not to eat fish in the area after seeing the water that some of the fishermen were tossing nets into.  We decided to stop for lunch at a small store where we loaded up on cookies, pop and salty treats.  The family who lived there was very nice and we did our best to explain our trip in Thai.  As we were packing up to go, they got a truck stuck in the mud.  We both trotted over and five of us together pushed and rocked the truck to get it out of the hole.  There were smiles all around and as we left the dad joked with the little girl that she should join us on her tricycle.  We waved goodbye and headed off again.

The last several miles were closer to the city and the road was a little busy for our taste.  As we weaved through the market, we got plenty of stares.  One woman yelled “OOOH Strong!”  and there were more than a few thumbs up.  We eventually made our way to the pier where the ferry left and had some delicious Tom Yum Gung soup on the water.  There were fishermen in the water up to their shoulders manually dragging their giant nets scooping up fish for the restaurant that we were eating at.  We found lodging right on the pier and slept well, ready for a bright and early 7 AM departure.

The ferry was relatively busy and filled with backpackers from all over the world.  It was candy bars and beer for breakfast, which suited us just fine.  The water was gorgeous and the sunrise was spectacular.  In a little under three hours, we could see land again!  On the boat ride I finished the book I’d been reading, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.  I don’t think, there is a more fitting read for someone on a journey around the world…  Thanks David!

The first few hours on the island were chaotic.  We were bombarded by taxi drivers and people promoting hotels and selling all kinds of stuff.  We kept our heads down and headed towards the dive shop to schedule our open water SCUBA diving course and find somewhere to stay.  The water is beautiful and the island is just what we needed.  We don’t know how long we’ll be here.  Maybe a week, maybe a few months, we are going to let the wind decide.

Video: Bikepacking Southern Thailand Part 1