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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.

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)

Worst Audition Ever for The Amazing Race?

After hearing about it from friends, I decided to try auditioning for The Amazing Race, a reality TV show where teams of two race around the world to exotic places, completing tasks along the way, with the final winning team walking away with a million dollars. I found out there was an open casting call nearby, so I figured I might as well give it a shot. When I audition, a world traveler like me should be a shoe in, right?  Sure, unless you do it the way I did.

To audition, first of all you need a teammate, so I figured the best person for the job was my friend Tanner, who is completely blind. Tanner was excited about the idea and once he said he was ready to give it a shot, it was game on and time to prepare. Having never seen the show, I began watching reruns and dissecting the way it works to see if it would be possible for a blind person to participate effectively. I know Tanner is a bad ass, but there are some hurdles you simply can’t overcome without vision.

The more I watched, the more encouraged I was that it was totally doable. Even when certain activities required sight, there were always workarounds or ways to do the activities slower or an option for me to do the majority of the task. Reviewing my show analysis together, Tanner and I became more and more excited. We feel like his participation could show the viewers something fresh in a show that feels like it is getting into a rut after 25 seasons.

Tanner and I are currently on opposite sides of the country and you were supposed to audition together as a team. We decided to go for a Skype video ambush audition where Tanner’s presence is revealed on my laptop part way through the audition. Our intent was to then wait until near to the end of our presentation before revealing that he is blind.

Tension began to build for me even before the day of the audition for something as simple as lodging. I ASSumed that a cheap room in Winston-Salem would be easy pickings, but instead was body blocked by a big Jehovah’s Witnesses convention. I was relieved to find what seemed to be the only sub-$60 room around for miles and miles. I was glad I didn’t camp out as I originally planned as it was a hot and stormy night.

On Game Day, my sister’s friend Phil was a hero, driving an hour in from Durham to help two people (Tanner and I) whom he had never met. Phil’s role was to hold the computer and “be” Tanner until revealing him on Skype in the audition.

Jon and "Tanner" a.k.a. PhilWe were about halfway back in a line of several hundred people relaxing in the shade of the awning of the furniture store where they were holding the casting call, chatting away with our neighbors to pass the time. My stress was palpable when the doors opened and the teams filed in towards the registration desk, not knowing if we were going to somehow be prevented from our Skype-assisted audition and whether we would encounter technology hiccups.

Folks waiting in line to auditionOnce to the front of the line, Phil filled in a media waiver which they checked against his ID, and then surreptitiously filled in Tanner’s personal details on a separate form tracking the audition participants. We were then in the unexpectedly fast moving people pipeline flowing towards the awaiting cameras. When we were just three teams from Go Time, I got my computer up and running on Skype, only to see that Tanner wasn’t online. Yikes! One frantic call later, Tanner had his wife help get him online and ready to roll. We were connected and ready within one minute of being called up.

As we walked over to the camera, I heard a disconcerting sound like a plane flying over coming from the computer. There wasn’t anything to do at that point but ply forward and hope for the best. The smiling Channel 2 News cameraman Andy reminded us that we had exactly one minute to make our pitch. I was off and running…

“Have we got a team for you! I’m Jon Sattler, the travel ringer of our group. I’ve been to 69 countries, speak five languages, and have even written a best-selling travel essay book called Vacation Boy.  I’m going to need all my travel prowess to help my teammate Tanner, who I really wish had gotten out of the house more before now…”

At this point, Tanner is looking great on the computer with a piercing blue Arizona sky behind his athletic profile, but instead of him jumping in with his lines…we hear static. “Go Tanner!” I implored to his statuesque image. “Talk!!” Clearly my microphone wasn’t working.


Panic, at least for us. In hindsight, the cameraman Andy probably was amused by our unintentionally Benny Hill-like presentation.

A blur of efforts unfolded to revive the connection while I begged Andy to hang tight, assuring him that we had a great pitch for them as soon as we could get the technology to cooperate. He showed legendary patience considering the number of people waiting in line behind us. I asked him over and over to let us get out of line and regroup. It was taking an eternity and we were already several minutes past our allotted 60 seconds.

In a moment of shared scrambling, I noticed Phil grabbing a pen and feverishly writing something on our audition ID paper. I guessed he was jotting down Tanner’s number so he could call him, but then I realized he was writing the word “TALK” to show Tanner on the screen to prompt him to start. While I appreciated his resourcefulness, I reminded Phil that Tanner was completely blind and had no way to see the sign. (Tanner later told me it might have worked because his wife was watching the screen part of the time, so what do I know?)

I tried restarting Skype and then my whole computer, which seemed to be moving at sub-glacial speeds. Having witnessed our presentation implode before his eyes, Andy was more patient than he needed to be, eventually letting us step out of line to let another team come make their pitch.

Performing technology CPR in the corner, I urged my computer back to life as fast as possible while Phil tried calling Tanner to let him know the scoop. I hardly heard a thing the couple after us said in their casting call, but the highlights for me were the Asian dude whipping off his shirt to reveal a serious muscle package and I recalled her closing with something about her “loving her big boobies and Botox”.  I figured despite our technology injury, we had a much more compelling story to tell.

And time to tell our story it was. Tanner had been communicating with me smoothly via Skype, so with Andy’s prodding, we went ahead and jumped back up in front of the camera lights with renewed vigor. I spewed out my same lines above with blind confidence as if nothing had happened or would reoccur. But when it got to Tanner’s turn…again silence. He couldn’t hear me again!

Phil speed dialed Tanner, getting voicemail the first time. In the meantime Andy asked me to just introduce Tanner on his behalf. I gave it my best effort, but it was a sad, lackluster rendition of Tanner speaking himself.

FINALLY Phil got Tanner’s wife on the phone and got her to tell Tanner to just start talking. Luckily we had practiced out parts enough that even though he couldn’t hear me, you would never know it.

Tanner: Hey guys, Tanner Gers here. I’m the athlete of our team. I competed with Team USA in Track and Field at the Games in London in 2012, play baseball at the national level and hope to be back on Team USA at the next Games in Rio. I’m a personal trainer and Jon is one of my clients. I’m worried about Jon being too out of shape and slowing us down.

Me: Tanner, anything to add to that?

Tanner: Do you think they are going to want to know I’m blind?

Me: Probably.

Tanner: Well, I lost my sight 10 years ago in a car accident. Winning the Amazing Race would give me the money needed for an expensive surgery which can restore my sight. It is for this reason we are going to be competing as…


Me: Please give us a shot to fulfill this dream.

Tanner: You won’t regret it!

We closed the deal with a Skype fist bump.

I felt like I had been dragged over glass as we exited the audition area, thanking and apologizing profusely to Andy plus apologizing to the people in line behind us, since we were probably there 10 minutes or more altogether.  I did notice Andy smile and nod at the end when we got to the “Team Vision Quest” bit, and hopefully it was because he liked the message and the delivery rather than him sensing he could at last be rid of us.

On the way out as we second guessed everything that just transpired, I dropped Tanner’s media waiver off at the registration desk (which he mailed to me ahead of time), explaining that it needed to be filed with our audition number B-22. The woman seemed a bit vexed to have this errant, unexplained waiver appearing out of order, but I simply turned and walked off before she could ask more questions about it.

And then we were done.

Who knows if the people watching the tape will have the patience to piece together the decent parts in a way that comes across as compelling? And who knows even if they do, that we fit the profile of what they are looking for, or whether they would have the balls to let a blind guy run their race. If you never hear more about it, you can assume our audition shenanigans simply humored some intern skimming through the tape and probably met the billing of one of the worst Amazing Race auditions of all time, although for a good time, I’d love to see the ones that were worse than ours.

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