Category Archives: Blog

Parapenting in the French Alps

I try to let the winds carry me in the direction it seems they want me to go. This sensation took to new heights last Sunday during a trip up in the French Alps when Fred Bouniol from Loisirs Assis Evasion called me up and asked if I would like to try “parapenting” with him. For those not familiar with this sport, an English translation of his inquiry could be, “Would you like jump off the side of a mountain with me attached to the equivalent of a tent and some string?”  After asking him the hard questions, such as, “Am I going to die doing this?” it seemed like the only correct answer I could have for him was Yes, I’ll go!

I have looked wistfully for years at people with these parachute-like devices far overhead, soaring like easy-going albatrosses in the breeze. Who hasn’t dreamed of flying, right?  Not the realist in me, who had always shut down the idea due to an uncanny affection for having all my limbs and head in good working order.

Knowing that Fred is an extremely experienced instructor in this sport (known as paragliding in English), and that he spends much of his time in the summer taking up people with disabilities for a similar experience, I felt more confident giving it a go. There wasn’t time to think about it either. I had an hour to finish up lunch and meet him at the landing area.

Fortunately my French host brother-in-law Luc had the time and willingness to shuttle us up to the launch point. We were joined by Fred’s 17-year-old son and his 15-year-old friend, both of whom would be flying independently. The 15 year old had already been paragliding for 3 years, which gave me an additional level of confidence, except for the fact that he forgot his pants. He ended up making the jump in shorts. Before he smiled and ran off the mountain into the air, I asked him, “Are you SURE you didn’t forget anything else?” DSCN1906 The view even from the launch point was stunning. A brush of fall colors had begun painting the Alpine mountainsides right up to where the tree line transformed into rocky teeth and cliffs, forming a bowl around the valley below. A storm had come through the area the day before and while it had rained at lower altitudes, Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, had received a fresh coating of white, creating a dramatic backdrop at the far end of the valley under the peaceful blue sky.DSCN1915DSCN1912I tried to stay relaxed and not get to nervous about the fact that I was about to do something that could be the last thing I ever do. After unpacking his sail and strapping me in to my harness, Fred’s explanations were brief and to the point. “Keep running towards that house across the valley until you are in the air.  Don’t try and jump or sit down too early.” …And “I’ll tell you about the landing later”.  DSCN1917Then it was GO time.

Video: Parapente takeoff across from Mont Blanc

Run, run run!…are we going to hit those trees below us? Nope, we skimmed above them soaring out into the beautiful void. Once in the air and beyond my initial panic of being airborne receded, I noticed almost that we were gliding silently aside from the wind in my ears as the scenery drifted below. I also noticed a ridiculous perma-grin on my face that wasn’t about to go away: this was AMAZING!

Video: Paragliding from the air

Fred guided us along the treetops, staying relatively close to the mountain from which we launched in order to stay near to where the best winds would be. It felt very super-hero like. I saw waterfalls and other things otherwise hidden in the mountainside I never knew existed. Fred was pleased that this late in the year he was able to catch enough updrafts to fly back above our launch point. Once we up and cruising around a bit, he began to explain to me some of the physics behind the miracle of flight we were experiencing. Discussions of paragliding can sound a lot like conversations relating to liquid matters such as surfing or rafting through rapids.  It is definitely more complex than I had imagined.

When we started approaching the pasture below for our landing Fred asked, “Are you OK with roller coasters?” whereupon he sent us into a death spiral towards the cows below. As the bottom dropped out and our speed & G-forces increased, this was the one part of our flight where I was having reservations about the lunch I had eaten earlier. I managed to keep it down, but I don’t think I have a future in acrobatic flying ahead of me.

The final approach instructions turned out to be much like the takeoff ones: run fast. Fred pulled up a tad early or late (I have no idea) for the landing, which didn’t end up giving us much of a chance at running. Instead we were moving a bit too fast and too vertical, causing us to pretty much splat one on top of the other. We were fine, but I could see how that could go a lot worse. Instead, I was effervescent with joy both with the experience and especially knowing I had survived it very much in one piece.

Would I do it again?  Hard to say. As spectacular an experience it was, it would be hard to top the stunning scenery surrounding us for this flight, nor would it be easy to come by anyone with as much experience as Fred. I certainly don’t see myself taking it up as a hobby on my own.

While we eventually got around to the meeting we had originally planned to discuss some adaptive equipment for folks with disabilities, the whole time we chatted and tried out his new electric powered 4-wheeled mountain bike, I was high with the knowledge that I had just done something amazing that I would never forget for the rest of my life. Thanks Fred!!

Post-paraglide wind down(French host sister Delphine photobombed the heck out of my post-parapente wind down celebration)

The Smallest Room I Have Ever Stayed In

People often wonder how I am able to travel for so long on my limited means. One “secret” is finding ways to keep daily expenses to a minimum while still enjoying and taking advantage of the locations I’m visiting. One area I tend to take the biggest shortcuts on is accommodation. If I can get a decent night’s sleep in a place with adequate showering possibilities and feel safe to a point I don’t feel me or my belongings are in peril, the cheaper the better.

During my current extended stay in Xiamen on China’s temperate southeast coast, I decided to take a break from my in-town lodging to stay by the beach in a laid back, out-of-the-way former fishing village called Zeng Cuo An.


It was here in this maze of cute, kitschy collection of shops, restaurants and bars that I came upon the hotel and  room which inspired this post.IMG_1465

Hotel Manzo entrance

The pleasant front desk hostess led me up one flight of stairs after the other to a rooftop deck where she pointed me to what looked to be a mini yurt/storage shed off to the side of the patio.IMG_1492

In it, they somehow managed to cram a bed, a tiny table, side dresser, chair, TV and air conditioner into a space that barely fits the bed. With its sloped roof, even if you could walk to the end of the room, you still can’t stand up. I couldn’t open my suitcase without putting it mostly on the bed.


I was reminded of a depressing place I stayed for work in Stockholm, Sweden where I could easily touch both walls with my hands extended out to the side, but that room was marginally larger overall because of the attached bathroom and you could walk around a bit. If memory serves me correctly, that room was still over $100 a night!

This place in China, while only 60RMB ($10), is about seven times higher priced than the cheapest place I’ve ever paid to stay, but this room is considerably nicer despite its size, and close to the best price you are going to find for a private room in urban eastern China these days. A decent common shower and Western toilet are around the corner on the same floor.

IMG_1493 The deck on which the room is situated offers sweeping views of the village and surrounding mountains, plus there are a number of additional pleasantly furnished public areas to hang out in, including some swinging benches and a couple tables down by the entrance, which have mini goldfish ponds under them.

IMG_1494There’s free WiFi throughout, free tea, purified drinking water and access to a group fridge. You can cook here for a $5 kitchen use fee including rice and oil, but why would you cook when there are so many cool little restaurants to check out nearby?

My first night I had a prolonged battle with an endless parade of inbound mosquitoes, but the next night I figured out how to keep them at bay by plugging some suspect holes, lighting a mosquito coil for 30 minutes before entering the room for the night, and keeping the A/C going. Slept WAY better!

Most of the rooms in the rest of the hotel are several times higher in price, so if you ever want to try and cram into room #403, you might want to call in advance.  Good luck finding the hotel, though. It is buried in the back of a winding, mostly pedestrian zone. I’d have no idea how to explain how to get there, having only found it by wandering around. Here’s a map (I guess it was #469):


If you aren’t claustrophobic and don’t mind a bit of adventure, in my opinion it’s worth it.


Any stories to share about small rooms you have stayed in?

Things seen along the way

Yesterday I went for a delightful run on an oceanside trail out to Kaena Point, which is in the most northwestern tip of Hawaii’s Oahu island.

Looking back at the trail leading to Kaena Point, Oahu

Looking back at the trail leading to Kaena Point, Oahu

Arriving at the point, I was greeted with the songs and curious mating dances of the Laysan Albatross, a bird that is recently making a comeback in this corner of the island, especially since the government erected a barrier fence to keep out predators and motorized vehicles.

Laysan Albatross, Kaena Point, Oahu, Hawaii

Laysan Albatross, Kaena Point, Oahu, Hawaii

Here they are in action:

(sorry about the wind noise, I guess the wind was blowing right into the microphone since it really wasn’t that windy)

As a bonus, just when I was about to leave and run back, I spotted this whale breaching like nobody’s business:

IMG_1042Pretty cool.



Photo essay from Aba in Western China

Back in 2001, I had an amazing journey through the sometimes off-limits-to-foreigners region of the Tibetan Plateau in Szechuan Province in Western China near the town of Aba. I thought I had written a story about it, but after looking all over while collecting material for my book, I couldn’t find anything other than the photos. But the images and memories I have from there are well worth sharing, so here ya go (click any image to expand it to full size and hit the browser’s  back arrow to return here) :

Section One: On the road from Guizhou to Aba

2001 China road to Aba Chinese students in truck w me

Chinese students sharing a pickup ride with me

2001 China Aba child peeing from bus

Nature calling (from the window of a bus)

2001 Guizhou to Aba road Truck overturned

What happens when you overload a truck and drive down rough roads too fast. No idea how he was going to get it back upright as this was in the middle of NOWHERE.

2001 China road to Aba farm houses

Surprising Swiss-chalet-like construction country houses. While common in a tiny little area here, I haven’t seen anything like it elsewhere in China.

2001 China Goat near Guizhou  

2001 China Aba young monks fun with cart

Young monks playing with a cart. I love the exuberant joy on their faces. Makes me smile every time I see it.

Section two: the Aba region

2001 China Aba town and mountains

Many people say that Tibetan culture is better preserved here in this site of important pilgrimages than it is in Tibet proper.

2001 China Aba monk living quarters from above

Aba monk living quarters from above

Pilgrims turning prayer wheels

2001 China Aba monk children

Young monks in training

2001 China Aba monks preparing for ceremony

Monks preparing for a meditation ceremony

2001 China Aba monks preparing for ceremony 2

Monks preparing for a meditation ceremony

2001 China Aba young monks prostrating

Prostrating is an important rite for many. They lay out flat, pray, rise to their feet, pray, take one step and repeat–for MILES. Many wear paddles on their hands and knee pads to reduce the wear on their body.

2001 China Aba monk in temple

This welcoming monk invited me to his house for yak butter tea. (I’m sorry, but that stuff is horrible! –but I did drink it politely)

Fun with mud puddles!

Seriously, what’s more fun than playing in a mud puddle?

2001 China Aba houses

Unique local house construction style

2001 China Aba street person trying to pick up one last thing

Street person trying to pick up one last thing

2001 China Aba women waiting for bus

Cute ladies waiting for the bus

2001 China Aba sky burial site

A Sky Burial site. Corpses are placed in the open in these locations and vultures “carry them off to heaven”.

2001 China Aba yak plow

Working the field with yaks

2001 China Aba kid extending hand

Cool part of the world, huh?



Dating can be hard work

Here’s a photo from the Galapagos story that didn’t make it into the book, but I still enjoy.

In order to attract a mate, male frigates make a nest on the ground or in trees and then put on a show by inflating the pouch on their throat while calling out and spreading their wings. Clearly bigger is better when trying to impress the ladies flying overhead. I am amazed at how inflated they get these. It looks like they could pop.

Galapagos frigate bird

Who Am I?

As I move closer to publishing the book Vacation Boy, I am finding quite a few cool photos I would like to share, but contextually didn’t have a place for them in the book. I’ll share some of those here.  Starting with one of my favorites…

Building being torn down in Hangzhou, China

This photo was taken across the street from my university in Hangzhou, China in 2000. Everywhere buildings were getting ripped down and replaced at a pace that felt like China was in a rush to try and put the whole country up for sale. A popular phrase at the time was “Construction is moving faster than the planning for it”.  It could be unsettling as institutions (like restaurants, stores, bus stations and airports) that you counted on being there, could be gone in a heartbeat. The pace of change was fun to witness as you could see the Chinese enjoying the tide of new developments but also questioning their own identity and how they fit into the New China.

It was within this context that I got this shot. In the bottom right and up on top of the building you see the sweaty workers who are doing the dangerous work of tearing these buildings down by hand, using manual tools like sledgehammers. The building has been razed all the way to the last 20 feet. On the last wall, you can see the phrase spray-painted on the wall, “Who Am I?” in English.

2000 China Who Am I closeup

I have no idea why a Chinese person would spray paint something like this on their wall in English, but there it was. Here on this about-to-be-destroyed building, it felt to me like the perfect summation of the introspection that the country was going through as a whole.

The next day, the entire building was gone.