The Power of Film

Words and Photos by Alex Lostak

In 2013, Ben Stiller released his second film as a director, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. What to many was a feel-good movie for the 2013 holidays, for me, ended up being a demonstration of the catalyst film can be for action, and changed my life forever. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story about Walter Mitty, a film asset manager at Life Magazine, who spends his days daydreaming fantastical scenarios around him, as he muddles through mundane everyday tasks, but the daydreaming began to fade as Walter is sent off on an unexpected adventure, that brings the excitement right in front of him.

WALTER IN HIS FILM LAB AT LIFE MAGAZINE
SEAN O’CONNELL BECKONING WALTER TO GO ON HIS ADVENTURE

As Walter is sent off on an adventure around the globe, chasing down a missing photograph from a roll of film sent into Life by renowned photographer Sean O’Connell, the daydreams stop as Walter begins to experience adventures of his own. He fights off a shark, gets caught in a volcanic eruption, and pays off warlords on his hike through the Himalayas. At its core, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story about growth, about taking what life puts in front of you and creating your own adventure. Walter spends his life up until this point creating adventure in his head, but when the time comes, he seizes the opportunity and lives out his adventure in the real world.

MOUNTAINS IN ICELAND, USED AS SET FOR HIMALAYAS IN THE FILM

Watching this film as a teenager lit a fire inside of me. It was something I could relate to more than any film I had seen before. Walter constantly imagining being in another world, doing incredible things and living a lot of his life in his imagination, is something that I did a lot of my adolescent life. I spent a lot of my childhood imagining being in other worlds, in every way from writing to daydreaming. I longed for adventure, to set off on an epic like Frodo or hunt down long lost civilizations like Nathan Drake.

When the opportunity presents itself Walter doesn’t hesitate to venture out for himself, and take on this big adventure, and that struck a cord with me, it lit a fire to go on my own adventure. Sure I wouldn’t be tracking down a world renowned photographer, chasing one image across the globe, but I wanted that adventure. I wanted to stop dreaming about the crazy places and scenarios I would be in, but to go and live them myself.

In addition to the story, the setting of the film was almost as inspiring to me as Ben Stiller’s character. The mountains along the ocean, the waterfalls, the open fields, the volcanoes, it all seemed so surreal. It was astounding to me that these settings were on our planet, but what truly shocked me was they were all in one country: Iceland. I knew that I had to get to Iceland. I knew this was the adventure I had to take. The problem was that getting from Houston, Texas to Reykjavik, Iceland for an incredible adventure wasn’t the easiest thing to pull off as a high schooler. Thus, my dream of venturing to Iceland had to wait to be fulfilled, but all that did was continue to fuel the fire.

In the spring of 2018, five years later, I graduated from college with a little over a month until I started my first job. In that short gap appeared the opportunity to make that adventure a reality. Two and a half weeks split between Northern and Southern Iceland with my girlfriend and longtime friends: that would be my adventure.

For two and a half weeks we drove around exploring the multitude of awe-inspiring locations Iceland has to offer. Every day our schedule was pretty much the same. We would wake up early, draw back the blackout curtains that blocked out the ever-present Icelandic summer sun, then set off in our car to explore until midnight, coming back to crash from exhaustion and do it all over again.

There’s an untouched, natural beauty to Iceland that is getting harder and harder to find in our modern world. A single highway that will take you around the whole country, called the Ring Road, acts as a Sherpa to see everything from iceberg filled glacier lakes to enormous waterfalls. It’s a destination for photographers for a reason, traveling throughout the country you’d find it difficult to take a photo that couldn’t be described as epic.

But it’s not the beauty alone that gets you, it’s the uniqueness of the landscape. Iceland is an island who has been bent to the will of volcanoes, volcanic rock covers vast landscapes that makes it difficult for any sort of farming to occur. Valleys are filled with structures of cooled magma. The heat from the volcanoes powers much of the island and bleeds through the surface through geysers and steam. It’s obvious driving around why everything from Game of Thrones to Oblivion has been filmed here because it truly feels like you’re exploring another planet, a land of fire and ice. One year later, in the full swing of post grad life, that journey feels like it was long ago. But the fire that Walter Mitty lit inside of me six years ago, still burns brighter than ever. The ending of each adventure transitions into the planning of the next. Filmmaking and storytelling are incredible gifts, they transport us to different worlds, get us attached to incredible characters, but perhaps their most powerful ability, is the ability to inspire action in the real world. If I hadn’t seen Walter Mitty six years ago, I may have never taken my adventure. That journey will remain a testament to the power of film to catalyze action and bring moments on the big screen into reality.


Lapping Contrast and Colours

When we think of snowboarding (or skiing) in Japan we think of gliding effortlessly through beautiful, soft, waist deep snow that curls over your head at every turn, leaving you visionless for a second or two. We think of sharing the memories from that all-time day over just one (ha-ha) beer with your good, new or foreign friends atop or below the mountains. Taking it all in as euphoria engulfs our bodies.

I experienced this for four of the days in the first week of my one-month trip in Japan over February, in Myoko Kogen. I only pulled my camera out for two of those days because  I just wanted to ride, enjoy the snow and not hold the crew up every time I wanted to shoot. Unfortunately, these days were the only ones that I scored powder in Japan but I can surely guarantee that it was worth it. Riding the day after a 75cm dump was so much fun, also dangerous, but lapping the same chair on untouched powder is something I will remember forever.

From Myoko I made my way to Hakuba for three weeks to meet up with some other friends. Rain, sun and ice (no snow for the whole time) kept me off the mountain a little bit more than I hoped… but hey, you get that on snow holidays. I never got to experience Hakuba to its full potential but the small town vibe of Myoko definitely appealed to me more.

Anyway, I let my photography drive the trips that I embark on which has primarily led me to the mountains wherever they may be. I like the beauty of cloud formations around peaks and feeling so vulnerable to mother natures giants. But most of all I enjoy capturing the light as it hits different peaks and ridges - creating dramatic settings of contrast and colours.

Here is a series of my favourite images from my time spent in the Japanese Alps - inclusive of three street shots in Tokyo.

 

Check out more of Tom's work on his Instagram - @tomhy_

 


Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest

 

Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest

Words and Photography by Alex Lostak

 

There is something unique about photography that sets it apart from most other art forms. Most art, whether it's a painting, a film or a music composition, is often created over a period of time. Photography though, in its simplest form, takes place in a fraction of a second. Months of planning, research, and travel can go into capturing that fraction of a second, and much can happen after during post-processing, but the exact moment of pressing down on the shutter to get the desired shot, is so quick you could miss it. This series of photos is a collection of those moments. Months of planning, research and preparation for a trip into the middle of Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest, all led up to standing just a few feet from wild Silverback mountain gorillas.

The journey begins in the mountains sprawling across the border of Uganda and the Congo. Mountain gorillas cannot live in captivity, and their mountainous natural habitat is found only in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. The Impenetrable Forest in Uganda is home to approximately half of the almost 800 wild roaming mountain gorillas in the world. Once numbering in the thousands, the population was slashed by poachers and hunters. However, thanks to conservationists and government protection, these gorillas are beginning to bounce back, and are no longer on the verge of extinction.

As the sun rises we eat breakfast and talk excitedly about what the day has in store. We are in the mountains of Uganda, staying at the Nkuringo Gorilla Lodge. We landed in Rwanda a few days ago and have made the bumpy drive from Kigali up to the top of the Ugandan mountain range. Today we will be trekking through small villages and the mountainous landscape to reach the Impenetrable Forest, in hopes of finding gorillas.

After finishing our breakfast we all pile into the Land Cruiser and are ready to go. From here we go to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. At the park office we are given a safety and information briefing, and are off to drive to the starting point of our trek. The roads are rugged and raw in this part of Uganda. Even in our sturdy 4x4 vehicle there are moments when we nearly fly out of our seats. The roads have no barriers to block vehicles from falling off the side of the mountain. This makes even a five minute drive full of excitement. The safari drivers often joke that riding on the rutted dirt roads is known as getting an African massage. With our debriefing completed, the gorillas await. We drive to our starting point and exit our vehicle. From here we will journey down on foot through a few settlements, eventually venturing into the hills before finally (and hopefully) discovering the gorillas in the thick of the forest.

On a gorilla trek, you're hoping to find wild animals that are moving freely throughout the vast forest, so there is no guarantee that you will actually find them. By the time of starting our hike, there are scouts ahead of us, who have already been out trekking and tracking the movements of the gorilla troop we have a permit to see. The scouts start early in the morning from the last known location of the troop from the day before and search for signs of where they are going.

One thing not emphasized in advance, is the physical intensity of these treks. The total distance we hiked throughout the day was about 12 miles. Hiking 12 miles is not an incredible feat, however, combined with heat, humidity and the rough, uneven terrain; it adds up to challenge that proves too great for some tourists. Everyday, tourists get taken out on stretchers (hand carried by locals) out of the forest. Once you walk away from the roads and into the forest, there’s no other way out but hiking out the way you came in.

Continuing our journey, we leave the villages behind and drop into some of Uganda’s black tea fields. Black tea is one of Uganda’s leading exports, exporting more than $68 million of black tea each year. This part of Uganda is ideal for growing black tea, with its high altitude and uniform year-round warm temperatures.

Reaching the end of the tea fields we approach the edge of the Impenetrable Forest. Here we are instructed to leave behind our backpacks, monopods and hiking sticks. Due to decades of poaching, the gorillas have an instilled fear of stick-like objects; as they remind them of spears. As a result, everything but our cameras is left behind with one of the guides, as we venture into the dense landscape.

Only a few minutes after entering the Impenetrable Forest, we hear rustling in the bushes ahead of us. There shouldn’t be anything just yet. Our guide has told us the troop of gorillas is still another ten minute hike away, but suddenly, out of the brush comes a massive Silverback gorilla. He is the non-dominant male, whose role is to constantly survey the perimeter looking for threats. Excited and a rightfully nervous, we stop dead in our tracks and lower ourselves quietly as he approaches. Crouched, frozen with shock and awe, we watch as the gorilla stops, looks straight at us, then sits down resting his great back against a tree, as he stops for a lunch break. He begins pulling down branches and devouring leaves as he watches us watch him. We weren’t supposed to get this close to the gorillas, but our guide told us our safest bet was not to move. All we could do was stay silent, still and take in the strong yet somehow peaceful presence of nature’s impressive beauty sitting before us.

After several minutes, the gorilla dismisses himself from his post, perhaps deciding we are not a threat to his troop, and disappears quickly back into the thick brush. With elevated excitement of what lies ahead, we follow his tracks, exit the dense dark forest and enter into a sunlit clearing that straddles a river. This is where things start to become surreal, we suddenly see several gorillas peacefully wandering through the clearing all around us. Upon seeing us they simply carry along, making their way through the tall grass. Deciding that we are not a threat, the gorillas calmly cross the river, one after the other, using a nearby fallen log. What else are we to do but to follow?

One by one we make our way across the river, and follow the gorillas into the thick foliage of the forest. It all seemed too good to be true. Little did we know that what we had seen so far was just a teaser. The main event was the 25 gorillas waiting for us just a little further into the forest. The troop was comprised of the dominant male, his female companion, along with several other mature females, adolescent males and females along with several very young ones, all spread out, napping and relaxing in the afternoon shade.

On these guided treks, the government only allows visitors to spend one hour in the presence of a gorilla troop, Once we crept into position to observe the troop, our guide informed us that the clock was starting. My objective of coming on this trip was to capture the strong human aspects of these gorillas.

All of them sitting, sleeping and resting so peacefully, that vision quickly came to life. Some were laying down, gazing up into the sky; others were napping, with resting faces similar to that of an exhausted parent. The toddlers were swinging on vines, playing with sticks and horsing around, acting just like young children do before settling down to take a nap. Whether it was the look in their eyes, their human-like hands and fingers, or the serenity with which they rested, all of it was so relatable, so human. When our time with the gorillas was up, we quietly snuck back out of the forest and made our way out of the forest and back up the mountain.

Nothing gives you a stronger connection to nature or the animal kingdom than being only a few feet away from a troop of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The natural beauty of the mountains in Uganda and the incredible experience of spending time in close proximity to the mountain gorillas is something I will carry with me forever, both in my memories and in these photos.


Kazakh Eagle Hunters Mongolia Atlay Region

Kazakh Eagle Hunters in West Mongolia

Dawn Li (@li.dawn) is a Hong Kong-based photographer who travels to remote places of civilisations where traditions and cultures have still been preserved under the growing threats of globalisation, documenting via photography life of the people and tribes in exotic areas of the countries like Namibia, Iran, North Korea, Nepal, Bhutan, Morocco, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia and Mongolia. Here are some shots from her latest trip to the Atlay Region in western Mongolia.

Kazakh Eagle Hunters in West Mongolia

by Dawn Li  [@li.dawn]

Kazakh Eagle Hunters Mongolia Atlay Region

I love to travel. Western Mongolia was a last-minute decision as there were so many targeted places in my mind and I hadn’t made it to western Mongolia during my first visit in April last year but the southern part only. It was the public holidays of the Chinese Lunar New Year during my travel. And to my surprise, the Mongolian Lunar New Year takes place the same time as the Chinese and also the same public holidays. I learnt that from a Mongolian lady sat next to me in the flight to Ulaanbaatar. No wonder the flight was so full, even though it was during the low season. Many Mongolian people were returning home for their new year.

A happy family photo for the Kazakh eagle hunters.  Mr Ardakh is a Kazakh eagle hunter living with his family in the Atlay Region. Their son is 19 years old and their daughter, called Molgir, is 11 years old. Life is so simple and yet so tough in the region because of the long severe winter. Herding is the main source of living for the nomadic people, whereas eagle hunting is a well-known traditional Kazakh activity.  Mr Ardakh’s son has become a young eagle hunter like his dad. In this remote area, there are no much entertainment but merely poker-playing and tv-watching. The latter also depends on the availability of solar power. During my stay, the host family enjoyed a lot seeing the photos and videos I took for them. It was so much joy out of the simple, peaceful life there and I was more than happy to do so.

Kazakh Eagle Hunters Mongolia Atlay Region mongolian girl

The Red Apple girl is the eldest daughter of Mr Ardakh’s youngest brother. Upon my arrival at Mr Ardakh’s home, I went out to walk around a few settlements next door, the 8-year old Red Apple girl was running home from another uncle’s house and I passed her along her way. We waved hello to each. I was so excited and cheerful to see such an adorable girl with red cheeks like a red apple. That’s why I nicknamed her and I took her some very lovely photos. I paid several visits to her during my stay there and I will tell a story about her in another post series in my Instagram ( @li.dawn ).

During hunting, the first step is to find the targets which are mostly foxes, wild rabbits, and marmots. The eagle is not just a hunting partner which works closely with the hunter, but also a buddy and a family member. The eagle was kept at home most of the time even though it produces quite often a series of high-pitched whistling. There are only male eagle hunters in the Kazakh region because it takes time away from home, deep in the high mountains, to train an eagle to hunt.

Kazakh Eagle Hunters Mongolia Atlay Region

Eagle hunting is a tradition of the Kazakhs in western Mongolia. There is a Golden Eagle Festival each year in October which is a big festival in the Kazakh region. Mr Ardakh’s lady eagle is 5 years old and was the fastest flying champion in the Festival. I went hunting with the eagle hunter for two days in the surrounding Altay mountains but the eagle didn’t fly, even though she was urged to do so. It was likely because she was fed too full the day before.

Kazakh Eagle Hunters Mongolia

If the hunting is successful and a fox is caught, the liver and meat of the prey will be fed to the eagle as a reward while the skin and hair of the prey will be used for making clothes.

 

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Mr. Ardakh, the eagle hunter champion, was wearing a traditional hat of the Kazakh hunters of which the fur is made of fluff of the foxes hunted. Eagle hunters are always equipped with a telescope and a gun during the hunting, in addition to a horse and their eagle partner. 🏔🦅👣🌲❄️ ❄️Altay region, western Mongolia #remotexpeditions #kings_works #lensculture #ig_worldclub #igworldclub #ig_respect #ig_captures #discover #exploremore #travelphotography #traveltheworld #people_infinity #portraitphotography #portraits #peopleoftheworld #peopleoftheworld #instapassport #lifeofadventure #ig_energy_people #ig_global_life #people_and_world #bbctravel #guardiantravelsnaps #letsgosomewhere #nomad #ig_global_people #natgeotravel #natgeoyourshot #natgeo #Mongolia

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The most memorable experience came from the children there, as always during my journeys. I stayed with several hosts with children. Their innocence and loveliness completely melted my heart and I could always learn from children happiness could be a very simple thing.

Kazakh Eagle Hunters Mongolia Atlay Region

Kazakh Eagle Hunters Mongolia Atlay Region

 

I ate horse meat while I was in Mongolia which made me feel bad. I like horses and camels and regard them as travelling partners, not meat on the table. Horse and camel meat are very popular delicacies in the Kazakh Region. I gave a remark to my travel agent but I think my guide forgot about it until somebody mentioned what we were eating and it was already the last few days of my journey. I thought it was yak meat.

 

 


Wild Moroccan Eucalypt Forests

Cameron Peters spent some time in Morroco with a box full of Kodak Portra and a Leica M5. 

 

Wild Moroccan Eucalypt Forests

Words and Photography by Cameron Peters

 

Wild eucalypt forests, arid plains, mountain ranges, rolling green hills, vast deserts and a coastline filled with pumping surf breaks. Call me naïve but I never knew this combination existed outside of Australia.  

As soon as we landed, we were hit square in the face – “Morocco, how ya doin!?.“

I’d heard many stories of travelling through Morocco, not all good. It’s not a place for everybody. It’s a place where you have to throw yourself into the unknown and give huge amounts of trust to strangers. This may not be fruitful for all but the pay is handsomely rewarding.  

A place where religion, culture and architecture date back thousands of years. With the medinas of cities largely the same - around every corner was a new sight or sound to behold. I honestly couldn’t capture the amount of possible imagery available with my camera. It forced me to get out from behind the lens and be amongst the wild country.

Our trip consisted of three main locations; Marrakech, Fes and Erg Chigaga/ Sahara Desert with short trips to Essaouira and Chefchaouen. We covered a huge distance of the country by train and car, yet we didn’t even scratch the surface.

Marrakech

We feasted on the abundant complexity of chaotic and harmonious movements of culture, gastronomy, religion and craftsmanship. No one image could ever capture the variety of this city.

Fes

Inside the walls of the medieval medina there are no cars or scooters, the only form of transport is via donkey or on foot. A compact maze of riads filled with workshops showing off artisanal crafts, exquisite Madrasas/Koranic Schools and the famed Chouara Tannery. It is the most bewildering but also exhilarating part of the city. Letting go of the fear of inevitably getting lost was one of the most memorable lessons learnt.

Marrakech – Ouarzazate – Erg Chigaga

The drive from Marrakech to the Sahara Desert took us across the High Atlas Mountains. One side covered with greenery and forests and the other arid deserts. The journey took about 2 days each way - covering an array of breathtaking scenery and villages. One of those was the Draa Valley, a valley of date palms that runs for hundreds of kilometers

Chefchaouen

Situated in the shadow of the Rif Mountains and formerly part of Spanish Morocco, Chefchaouen is a relaxed and visually stunning city. The mountainous surroundings enhanced and contrasted the vibrant sky blue painted medina.  

Essaouira

A low-key port city with a Medina that heralds a blend of ancient and colonial architecture with Muslim, Jewish and European influences. A short distance from Marrakesh,  Essaouira is an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Atlantic Ocean air mixed with traditional spices and the constant grilling of fresh seafood.

 

Erg Chigaga/ Sahara Desert

We spent two days camping with Nomadic Berber guides. The understanding and knowledge these men had of the desert was incredible. No GPS, no maps, nothing more than an underpinning knowledge of their landscape.


Running A (Half) Marathon In North Korea

Running A (Half) Marathon In North Korea

By Dirk Eschenbacher

 

I was one of 630 foreigners to participate in the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. It was the second year the regime in North Korea opened the marathon to foreign amateur runners, and when I first read about it, I knew that this was something I needed to do.

I wanted to run this marathon for two reasons. For one, it seemed to be the perfect excuse to make a trip to the infamous and closed-off country. I am a keen adventure traveler, having been to many exotic places, including Nepal, Mongolia, the Golden Triangle and the Tibetan Plateaux. I live in Beijing and I have visited pretty much every country in Asia but, despite its proximity to China, I’ve never made it to such an outpost of society.

The other reason I was drawn to visit North Korea is the constant exposure the country receives in the media. It seems like every day brings another weird headline about Kim Jung Un, and I see photos of him constantly — either as part of a report or as part of a spoof. I felt it was about time to make my own picture of the country, of its people, and of the reality they live under.

 

Getting to North Korea

The visa is nothing but a loose insert

The trip was actually much less complicated than I had thought it would be. I signed up with a tour operator called Uritours and they took care of everything. You literally fill in a few forms on their website and make the payment, and then they make the arrangements, including the visa — which nothing more than a simple sheet of paper they hand you before you check-in at the airport.In fact, on entry and exit, North Korea doesn’t even stamp your passport.

Other than your memories and souvenirs (you can choose between ginseng, stamps or cool propaganda posters), there is to be no trace of your visit to the hermit kingdom.

We boarded a North Korean Koryo Airlines plane in Beijing and made our way to Pyongyang. There are three flights a week to Pyongyang from Beijing and Moscow, and weekly flights from Shenyang, Vladivostok and Bangkok. Because of the marathon, there were additional charter flights available departing from Shanghai. The quality of the flight was better than I expected; they handed out the Pyongyang Times, a North Korean propaganda paper in English, and a cold burger that actually tasted fine.

Approaching Pyongyang, I couldn’t see any paved roads in the countryside — only dirt tracks. Cars were sparse, just a few people on bicycles; and while Beijing was already in full spring bloom, North Korea was brown and dusty; a rather cold first impression that didn’t dispel my preconceived notions of what the country would be like.

Under construction: The new Pyongyang Airport Terminal in the background

The airport was strange, a one-story building comprised of a single large room. Since there are so few planes coming and going, the room serves as both arrival and departure hall depending on the need (at the time of writing, a new airport was being built just next door). Visitors to North Korea are required to carefully list everything they are bringing into the country, and their luggage is checked for these items.

Special focus is placed on mobile phones and books, each of which is recorded to ensure neither is left behind when visitors leave.

Nobody bothered to check upon exit, but I suppose the risk of being caught is deterrent enough for most. I reckon you can bring in just about anything, although it’s probably advisable to leave your Bible at home.

From there, our group boarded a bus and assumed a seat that, it turned out, would be his or hers for the next three days. Waiting for us was Ms. Lee, our North Korean “minder.” She was to be our guide; our sole source of answers and, more importantly, our political consciousness for the duration of our stay.

Almost immediately, she firmly laid out the first rule of tourism in North Korea: no pictures are to be taken while on the bus. And with that, off we went, en route to the capital, cameras in hand, ready to shoot from the bus, quietly soaking in the first impressions of this strange country.

Not many cars on the road

As darkness set in, only a few lights could be seen in the standardized apartment blocks dictated by soviet-style city planning. Cars on the road were rare, though as we got closer to the city center, there were more than I expected. What was most striking about Pyongyang, though, was the sheer numbers of people walking about or lingering around on the streets. It seemed that nobody was at home, everyone was outside walking. Everyone was on some sort of schedule, heading firmly and confidently to his or her destination.

Where were they all going?

We checked into our hotel — one of several “approved” for foreigners — enjoyed a mediocre dinner, met a few fellow runners, and quickly retired in order to be ready for the big race the following day.

 

Marathon Day

630 foreigners getting ready for the run of their life

Of the many factors that make the Pyongyang Marathon so special, the venue for the start and finish of the race, the Kim Il Song Stadium, really stood out. The arena seats around fifty thousand people, and on race day it was a full house. As we arrived in our busses, fans were already streaming silently into the stadium, but when we stepped through the gates into the arena, the feeling of being greeted by that many people was nothing short of amazing.

Kim Il Song Stadium

The race route itself is a ten kilometer lap. Participants in the 10k race do it once, the half-marathon runners go twice, and the full marathon heroes lap four times. I would have chosen the 10k, but because it doesn’t finish in the stadium, I opted for the half-marathon.

Arc of Triumph

The route was less scenic than I had hoped. It starts with the Arc of Triumph — the highest in the world, Ms. Lee ensured us, besting the one in Paris by some 11 meters! — and then climbs up a hill beside soviet style housing compounds. At one point there’s a tunnel, followed by a bridge crossing which marks the 5k mark. From there, it’s down along the Teadong River — the “real” cradle of mankind, per Ms. Lee, with relics found here dating back over one million years — then over another bridge, through another tunnel, and alongside more housing compounds until you finally find yourself back at the stadium.

thousands lining the streets

By far the best thing about the race was the people lining the streets. Whenever I could take my mind off catching my breath and focusing on my run, I was high-fiving fans by the hundreds from the very young to the very old.

I estimate there were around five thousand lining the 10k route alone.

Many just stood there and watched, but some where really excited, cheering us on and holding their hands out for contact with the runners. Some kids where even running along, shouting in English, “Hello, how are you, what’s your name?” It struck me that this was probably one of the very few times foreigners have actually been able to interact sincerely and without government interference/monitoring with the people of North Korea.

It was a truly beautiful and memorable experience, and the support of the onlookers greatly contributed to me being able to complete the half-marathon. They kept me going, they kept me thinking about them, their political situation and the reality of their lives. Theirs is a reality I’m unlikely to fully understand, and I certainly wasn’t going to get any closer to them from the seat of the bus under the watchful eye of Ms. Lee.

The kids of North Korea

We finished the race in front of those same fifty thousand supporters, who were eerily clapping and waving flags according to a strict rhythm, as dictated by directors assigned to every seating block. I don’t think that any of the spectators in the stadium really cared about us; they had simply been assigned by the government to attend the event and show the world how “welcome” the foreign runners were.

 

Pyongyang and the Leaders

The man and his son

The schedule was tight. Most of us had signed up for just a short three-day trip, which meant that after the race we had just enough time to shower or eat — not both. This was also due to the elevator situation at the hotel. With 47 floors, two of the four elevators were working, each stopping at every floor. A 20 minute wait to get back to our rooms was the norm.

(For the record, I opted for a shower, and then went to the convenience store in the lobby and bought myself some German chocolate cookies. They actually had a good selection of sweet and salty snacks from a certain grocery chain in Germany called Edeka.

As for how those goods got to Pyongyang? Look away, nothing to see here.)

Ms. Lee and me

After the break, we got back on our bus and started a sightseeing tour. The first stop was the Mansudae Grand Monument, which every tourist is required to visit. (Naturally, every North Korean must, too.) It shows the two leaders, Kim Jung Il pointing somewhere, and Kim Il Song looking in the same direction. There are three leaders in North Korea.

Kim Il Sung is the “Eternal President of the Republic”.

He is the one always shown leading the way forward. Everyone loves him, so the story goes, he is the man. He was the one to kick out the Japanese, he created the Juche philosophy that guides the Republic, he led the nation through the Korean War, and thusly, is the role model for everyone and everything. He passed away in 1994.

While Il Sung seems to have earned his status by accomplishment, however you wish to define them, his son, Kim Jong Il, in contrast, seems to more closely personify the hot-tempered, nutter mentality more commonly associated with the North Korean dictatorship. Ms. Lee hardly talked about him, in pictures and on monuments — there were A LOT of them — he always stands behind his father. In fact, it looked as if the artists didn’t really want to include him in the pictures in the first place, did so merely on account of him being Supreme Leader from 1994 to 2011.

Wikipedia says about Jong Il:

“During Kim’s regime, the country suffered from famine, partially due to economic mismanagement, and had a poor human rights record. Kim involved his country in state terrorism and strengthened the role of the military by his Songun, or “military-first”, politics. Kim’s rule also saw tentative economic reforms, including the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in 2003.”

Which brings us to the infamous Kim Jung Un, who was nowhere to be seen during our visit. We had hoped to see him in the stadium during the marathon, but he was absent — both physically and by representation. The only evidence we saw of his existence was on television (by photo, not video) where he was inspecting the new airport or visiting a shoe factory.

If this seems strange, that’s because it was, but perhaps he is just keeping a low profile on account of his newness at the whole dictator thing.

To his credit, he did bring Pyongyang a water park and a roller coaster — both of which happened to be closed on the weekend we were there.

Part of the Mansudae Grand Monument

After we bowed at the monument, we headed to the war museum, which treated us to an hour and a half of propaganda surrounding the Japanese occupation, the “imperialist American annexation” of the South, and “the truth about the Korean war.”

We were permitted to board the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship which was captured in the late 1960s and kept as a trophy.

The museum itself is quite modern, replete with 360 degree rotating diorama multimedia show, and is a mix of a traditional museum and Madame Tussauds. There are many depictions which detail the gruesome scenes of the war.

Visiting these monuments and institutions makes the ideology, beliefs and realities of North Korea very clear. On one hand, there is the “Leadership” cult, which so clearly highlights the absence of freedom and indoctrination of the society into a world which no longer exists outside of the country’s borders. Then, there is North Korea’s hermit-country status; a nation with no friends, but clinging to a widespread belief in reunification with the South. (No one else favours reunification.)

The scene left me with mixed emotions.

On one level, if I squinted really hard, I could understand some of the points made by the propaganda. Walking through the museum, I started to sympathize with the North Korea that is a victim of imperialist America and the West. Hearing of the great achievements of Kim Jung Il, I gathered why he is so revered as a shining light in this dark country.

It was still only propaganda, of course — brainwashing. But as Roeland Loof, a Dutch fellow runner says in this New York Times article:

“In the U.S. and Europe, we’re as brainwashed as they are here.”

Is there a better or a worse? Hard to say, it always depends on who you are and where you look from.

Kim Il Song Square

That evening we finished with a nice hotpot dinner, drinking beer and local rice liquors, before heading to a microbrewery for more beers. Finally, we were brought back to the hotel where everyone drank at the bar until one in the morning when the waiters kicked us out. It was the North Korean experience, at least as much as foreigners are able to get.

 

The Sightseeing Day

Kaesong street scene

The last day was spent mostly on one activity, a two hour bus ride down to the South Korean border and a visit to the DMZ (the demilitarized zone between the North and the South). The road seemed to be the only paved road outside the city and no cyclists or pedestrians were allowed on it. There was no fence, but we were able to see members of the rural population quietly walking or cycling on parallel dust roads.

Sometimes you could see a person actually cleaning the road.

Despite the maintenance, however, the road was in a horrible condition and I was fortunate (or wise) that I had chosen the middle section of the bus. The other runners sitting at the front and back of the bus found the bouncy ride to be much less enjoyable, on account of the shitty roads.

Demarcation line

We eventually made it safely to the border, visited a souvenir shop and bought some memorabilia, before we were escorted to an area comprised of several buildings adjacent to the actual border. This, of course, was home those famous blue houses, where the soldiers from the North and the South stare each other out across the demarcation line.

We saw the flags of each Nation, smoked cigarettes, and took some selfies at one of the world’s most hotly contested pieces of real estate.

While in the south of North Korea, we also visited Kaesong, a special city where there is, believe it or not, some cross-border exchange going on. It’s an industrial zone, but tourism also seems to be big there, in relative terms. Kaesong is famous for its Koryo museum and its ginseng produce, and we had the chance to buy some ginseng products and more stamps before we had a decent lunch in a designated restaurant for tourists.

Not much going on down in Kaesong

Driving to the restaurant, we saw hardly any cars, only people on bicycles moving sacks of rice, kids with schoolbags on their backs, and others washing clothes in dirty rivers or loitering at intersections. A fairly simple life for one of Korea’s biggest cities.

After lunch, we made our way back to the capital, where we then had the chance to take the metro from one station to another. Pyongyang’s metro is the deepest in the world, according to Ms. Lee — 100 meters or more, and its 17 stations are all designed uniquely for their location. That was the last thing we got to see before calling it a day, and heading back to our rooms to rest for our 8 a.m. flight back to civilization.

 

My Take

Kids of North Korea

Running the Marathon in North Korea helped me form my own opinion about a country and a people so prominently featured in the world press, yet so inaccessible to the vast majority of us. I was surprised to find Pyongyang to be quite a modern city — even despite its lack of widespread electricity and transportation.

I saw a few new luxury cars like S-class Mercedes and Audi Q7s, which seems to indicate some movement towards a system similar to China’s communist one, with capitalist features.

Overall, I felt as if I was teleported into the 1950s, with little electricity, and even fewer modern conveniences, but the strongest image, for me, remains the countless people walking the streets aimlessly toward an uncertain destiny. The people I saw looked well fed, properly dressed and generally not very interested in foreigners, which really surprised me.

At one point during the trip, my neighbour on the bus asked, “Do you think they are happy? They just look so serious.” Did they look happy? I don’t know. What is happiness, anyway? And for the people of North Korea, their lives are all they know.

So this is where I park my North Korean experience for now. For the immediate future, I am content to just keep reading and learning about this enigmatic country. I hope that in time, the people I saw walking along the roads will find their destinations. Especially the kids who gave me high-fives along the run.


The Enlightening Power of an Apricot

The Enlightening Power of an Apricot

Words/Photos by Kim Feldmann

I step inside the bus at the scheduled departure time but the driver is busy fiddling with the engine. Bags, baskets, suitcases, and rucksacks are thrown atop. People come in a hurried pace, sinking their bottoms on any given seat, rendering my ticket and early arrival useless. Men run behind the bus station and find a spot on the rubble for one last wee. It’s a cosmopolitan crowd, and considering the street lights have just switched off, a very energetic one.

I feel slightly out of place just as any foreigner would, but a deep breath keeps me at ease. If the bus doesn’t start, I won’t go; if there aren’t enough seats, I shall stand. I observe. I reconsider. I acknowledge. I merge. I change. That is what I’m here for; that is why I go places. I hike over bags and children and claim a seat of my on.

On my lap sits a 30L, waterproof backpack with everything I need – and own. At present, it is set to bus-journey mode: a 1L bottle of mineral water fits firmly into the lateral net pocket; sleeping bag, 13” laptop, hard-drive, towel, notebooks, and enough clothes for three months strategically entangle in the main compartment. Four packages of wet-wipes cushion my camera from above. A bag of dried apricots bought at the local market earlier this morning blocks the string-tied opening. Everything is an unlace, unhook or unclip away and I’m sure I’ve left nothing behind.

When the engine chokes and roars into a start, I reach into the packet and, blowing some microscopical foreign bodies off the hand-picked, home-packaged apricots, munch on the dusty fruit for breakfast.

I’m in Ladakh, a region in India’s Jammu & Kashmir state that borders Pakistan and Tibet, and the bus is headed north-west to the village of Tur-Tuk, from where you can supposedly see the K2. Despite it being a historical trade hub, infrastructure is not something the region can pride itself on: The ups and downs on narrow gravel with gorges to one side and crumbling rock walls to the other require both instinct, skills, and, preferably, four-wheel traction. I doubt this old TATA bus from colonial India is 4WD, and the driver looks underage. Accidents are rarely fatal, but not unheard of. There is the odd group of foreigners on their rented Royal Enfields driving as if they were on the autobahn. There are thousand-meter-high drops delineating most of the road we drive on. Somehow, the latter feels less hazardous than the first. I chew a handful of dried apricots and watch the precipice below.

All the turning and bumping and waggling begins to stir something inside me. Not figuratively – it is not an emotion that stirs, but a substance of some sort. At first there is no alarm; after all, having sat on a bus for the past four hours, it is a matter of course my body responds. But then come the belly grunts. After an intermittent sequence of duller noises – always followed by a tremble – the stomach orchestra stops.

I let a doubtful sigh, for in a situation like this, on a crowded bus at 3000 meters of altitude and miles away from any toilet or bush, I need more than a mere pause to truly grasp relief.

Images of emergency escapes flicker lively in my mind’s eye. I try to con my thoughts away from the daymare by reminiscing on how I got here. Like the shaky frames of the world’s proto-films, I relive my day from the start: the waking up, the chai at the kiosk around the corner from the guest house, walking to the market and purchasing the apricots, heading to the bus station. Mind-tricking myself diminishes both the cramps and the premonition of their potential consequence. But then I feel hungry.

All around us is rock and dust. The way from Leh until our first stop in Nubra Valley winds constantly, and when it doesn’t, the long straight road shows no end in sight, squeezing the horizon out of me. It’s a high-altitude desert and as far as I’m currently concerned, not very different from any concrete-laden metropolis. One is the raw material, the other its anthropomorphized product. We’ve just learned to overvalue the beauty of that which is yet to be build because we continue to perceive ourselves unintegrated in nature, struggling to appreciate that which we have created.

We drive past another group of people standing by the roadside: workers, their bodies fully covered, a t-shirt-cum-mask and sunglasses blocking their eyes, a determined posture sheltering their fatigue.

They hammer the ground and move rocks around, stopping for a brief stare at the bus, returning to dirt and shovel as soon as we pass.

With the thick, high-altitude air, they probably don’t sweat as much as if they hacked stones at sea level, but they sure gasp more often. I stare back at them with a shiek around my neck and no idea what goes through their minds.

The stomach cramps return at full steam; frantic agitations protuberate my t-shirt. Looking around at my neighbours’ expressionless faces, I can feel my own lineaments contorting with the ache. But apart from the noise, the involuntary movements of the abdomen, and the needle puncturing my insides every now and then, nothing is actually happening.

An eruption doesn’t feel imminent.

As I sink into my seat in pseudo-relaxation, the bus halts to a stop. A congregation of houses shields both sides of the dusty road. The pubertal voice resounding from the driver’s mouth announces a 20-minute stop.

Twenty minutes standing seem to have settled my organism somewhat: I’m glad, but aware; hopeful, but sceptical. In order to reconnect with the present-tense – from where I have been diving and resurfacing constantly through daydream – I spin my neck and scan around, my eyes sentient for the first time since we left Leh six hours ago. I stop at the seat to my left, where a woman – blond, short hair, lean posture, narrow blue eyes, at least forty years old – looks strangely at ease. On her lap, a set of 50mm lens attached to a Canon 5D (which probably costs more than the bus) moves gently with the motion of the ride. Her left hand rests on the gadget, but it’s her right hand gripping the bare metal rail of the seat ahead what truly impedes both bodies from hitting the ground.

She senses my stare and opens a smile with her head still facing forward, as if saying I know you’re looking.

“I’m from France but this is probably my twentieth time in India,” Julie tells me, her eyes unable to hide the fervour the word ‘India’ incites within her. “I’m a photographer and my work is pretty much all about this country – India is my muse,” she elucidates the mystery behind the expensive gear and overconfidence. As we continue to chatter about the different shades of the country she has sensed and captured, my mind sneakingly wonders if she has ever been in the situation I was in just a while ago. A hankering for commiseration and advice teases me to throw the topic out there – something like “So, what’s the deal with these long bus journeys and stomachache?” My anticipation of embarrassment holds me back.

She segues with her storytelling and I instinctively reach for the apricots, throwing them into my mouth as I would with popcorn, watching her act out her stories as I would with a film.

Then a twinge in my stomach steals the scene.  

The bus slows down; I can hear the driver speak to someone through the window. A loud creak opens the door, a softer creak lifts the figure of an elderly woman inside, and with her upward motion, the pain in my gut escalates. I can’t pinpoint its nucleus but I sense that what was once the ideation of an eruption is about to become real. Eyes closed, I think of the buses back home and the times I was stuck in traffic for hours, on roads fenced with restaurants and cafes, always a bush around, plenty of toilets to choose from. My eyelids part – I’m still here.

The mid-afternoon light breaks through the dusty windows, and in a debile response I squint to see a bunch of rooftops outside. I turn to Julie – who by now has stopped talking and watches me attentively as if about to unwrap a present.

There is a split second of stillness.

Then I spring from my seat – bag in hand, apricots now on the floor –, exclaim “just leave without me” twice and stampede to the door. I don’t know if Julie understood what I said but I’m sure she understood what I meant. I run around the front of the bus and disappear into the village.

On a dark alley shaded by the straw roofs of stone houses, I halt at the sight of a child – probably old enough to give directions – hanging off a second-floor windowsill. “Toilet?!” I beg him, likewise begging that globalization has touched this part of the world. I also hope “toilet” doesn’t translate into “school” or “church” in his language, for I once met a Taiwanese guy named Tai who, while travelling somewhere in southern India, was advised to change his name to anything other than Tai, since ‘Tai’ meant “penis” in the local dialect.

Much like Tai’s fate had a lot to do with the person who suggested the name change, my own fate here is literally in the hands of a nipper. Unaware of his responsibility, the boy points to a light at the end of the alleyway, towards a clearance where a roofless building of four naked brick walls and a wooden door stands, pot-of-gold-like.

I run in – it’s a toilet. I sigh and lock the door.

The lock is far too modern for such rustic construction but I don’t think about it; there is a chasm on the dirt ground and that is where I direct my focus. Time stops. I barely perceive the mechanics; my entire organism floods with a mix of emotions like never before. Fear becomes joy which turns into dread until metamorphosing into relief. I am the quintessence of humanity – a vortex of contradictions. This is the epicentre of the most beautiful hurricane I have ever witnessed.

Its raving winds blow all my preconceived notions of “problem” a million miles away.

Here, crouching half-naked between an aperture on the earth and the cloudless Ladakhi sky, I question my entire existence and conclude that real necessities are few and, more often than not, unsophisticated. Diverting as thoughts are, mine manufacture a hatred towards apricots, dried fruit in general. But as justifiable as the hatred may be, it can’t seem to gain momentum – I’m enveloped in love and gratitude and acceptance and the most surprising ilk of peace. No ashram or week-long meditation course provides such insight. I wonder if I have reached enlightenment.

A knock on the door interrupts my rumination.

“Man, we gotta go!”

It’s a polite voice; a voice taken there almost against its will, with a duty to fulfil, not meaning to intrude. I recognize the voice: other than Julie and the old man at the market from whom I purchased the (possibly poisonous) apricots, this is the only other voice I heard today.

“Just a second!” I shout back, knowing it will be more than a second.

Silence...then a much harder knock, a single arresting punch, shakes the door. Either someone else is there or I just offended the first knocker with my lie.

“You go – now!” threatens the puncher. It is an impatient, perhaps even upset punch. It makes me realize I never stopped to consider that this may be someone else’s private toilet.

“Can you please give me a few more minutes?”

“No! No foreigners here!”

“C’mon, one minute please?!”

No sound comes from the other side of the wall. Then the first knocker breaks the silence:

“Everyone on the bus is waiting for you.”

“That’s fine, you can leave without me – I’ll find my way to TurTuk later.”

“Are you crazy?! There is no one else going to TurTuk from here. This is the last bus today.”

“I’ll get a taxi or hitch a ride.”

“Man, there are no taxis here and no one goes to TurTuk – it is the end of the road.”

“I’ll walk.”

“It’s 18km away! It’ll be dark soon!”

“Then I’ll just sleep here and either walk or catch the bus tomorrow,” I say, trying to wrap up the case.

Just then the puncher jumps into the conversation: “I say no foreigners here!”

Acknowledging I won’t win the argument, I decide to buy time by feeding them random questions, all the while hoping that, despite his anger and resentment, the puncher won’t kick the door open.

“Why no foreigners? I just need a place to sleep for tonight and tomorrow morning I’m gone.”

His sigh seeps through the tiny gap between the door and its frame.

It is a language I don’t understand.  I reconsider the kicking-the-door-open thing.


* * *


For someone who was so much at peace only ten minutes ago, musing about life, appreciative of this unexpected experience, I start to sweat quite a bit. Not because of heat or effort – we are at 300m of altitude in non-tropical India and there was no effort whatsoever in undergoing my business – but sheer fear.

A fear that relates more to embarrassment than pain, yet I classify as fear due to its alarming properties, something embarrassment lacks.

Regardless of what it is, this fear-cum-embarrassment has little to do with what people may think of me and more to do with my behaviour towards people. It’s a cultural shame, the everlasting fine-line between a local and a foreigner: Why didn’t the bus depart at the scheduled time and people didn’t seat on designated seats? Why couldn’t I spend the night at this village before Tur-Tuk? Why was my organism so sensitive to dried apricots?


On the way back to the bus, I think of Julie and wonder if she, with all her knowledge and wisdom gathered over years of traversing India, would have had a tip for me.

I think of all the guidebooks and travel forums I never read and wonder whether they would’ve prepared me for any of this.

I promise myself that once there is electricity and Wi-Fi I’ll write about extra-ordinary, non-marketable, potential features of a long bus trip in northern India, emphasizing the cost-benefit of purchasing hand-picked, home-packaged, unlabelled dried fruit.

 

I reckon this is as important to address as “Where to Stay in Delhi” or “10 things to do in Rajahstan.” If anything, I should warn people to bring more wet tissues than they would deem needed.

 


Sipping Sake

Sipping Sake

The sign slows down and reads Kanda Station, this is my stop. On an escalator floating up to the street level I check Google maps and confirm that my rendezvous is only a few blocks away. I check again to ascertain the direction, before, then, my phone dies. Damn.

With a 'head for direction,' I begin to walk. As my breath trickles steam into the night air I look around, the traffic is busy yet organised, the lights bright but not dazzling, the weather cold but not harsh. Tokyo has a habit of putting her arm around you and although you are part of a much bigger picture here, she makes you feel relevant and somehow safe. Turning down the street I presume to be where I am heading, a group of suits approach me, they respectfully give me space on the sidewalk as if they know me. A minute later I see my destination, Sake Bal Shu Shu, the sign glowing like a pendant in the dimly lit side street.

Peeling back the door I step gingerly inside. Instantly I am met with my grinning host, Kizuki Hommoto owner and chef of the bar, he motions me to take a seat at the bar top,

“Did you find us ok?” he asks giving me a semi-serious look,

“Yeah, I did actually, although my phone died” I respond.

Kizuki smiles, nods before saying, “then you are truly meant to be here. Let us begin.”

I’ll be honest. I know very little about sake.

It comes from rice, is often strong and you pretty much just shot the stuff and it will get you drunk, right?

Appears not. Kizuki gives me a brief and comprehensive summary of sake as he pours my first three samples. The legend of sake surrounds the story of a prince who once used the beverage to intoxicate a dragon in order to save a princess. Not your average fairy tale, but a clever prince nonetheless. He continues to explain that although the process can be complex the ingredients themselves consist of just 4 components: rice, water, yeast and koji (mould spores).

The process of making sake is actually pretty close to that of beer. The rice is allowed to ferment, after, the koji is added with sometimes new rice and additional water; depending completely on the desired result. The liquid is either then filtered or not and voilà, you have yourself sake, sitting often between 15-20% ABV.

1800 years of a refined process in merely a few lines. You’re welcome.

My first three sakes are the ‘premium set’ otherwise known as Daiginjyo, perhaps these should be saved till last I think to myself. Kizuki motions me to begin trying them; surely he has done this for a reason, so I begin to taste.

First floor Yano building, Konya-Cho Kanda, Tokyo 101-0035

As I taste Kizuki tells me these are the most delicate and sought after sakes, with tastes and aromas of floral notes and even rose. I agree to an extent, they are floral but what they all have in common to a degree is a noticeable background flavour, aniseed. Now aniseed is all very well and fine, but it is one of those tastes that can really divide people.

A catastrophic teenage bender on Sambuca can haunt you for years; we all have that one friend.

As I sip I listen to Kizuki and I hear something that grabs my attention,

“Sorry, could you repeat what you just said”, I eagerly request,

“About the rice polishing?” asks Kizuki looking puzzled.

Unbeknown to me, rice can and most of the time is polished within the sake making process. Now, not to be confused with the type of polishing you would bestow upon a prized 2nd place trophy, rice polishing involves an abrasive process in which the outer layers of the grains of rice are removed. These outer layers contain fats, proteins and vitamins that will inevitably add flavours and aromas, by removing these the acquired taste is then purer.  The resulting yield though, is as you might expect, lower, making these styles harder on your pocket.

“I get quite a few American customers these days and they love these styles, for their clean and simple tastes. I think it is because they are used to drinking simple low flavoured beers, like Budweiser!” Kizuki goes on to tell me with a laugh.

“Do you get many customers from Europe?” I ask.

“We often get Europeans here also, you know your Spanish or French guys. They like to experiment and will often settle on the more dynamic and thicker sakes, even the unfiltered ones. Other than that we get a few from China and Hong Kong. They will often just pick the most expensive sakes from the list without even consideration.” Kizuki raises his hands in a submissive gesture as he makes his last point; quietly wishing they sought for more.

Next, I am treated to two sparkling sakes. The first is called Mio. Incredibly easy to drink that I have to show restraint, my host notices this though,

“it’s an easy sake to drink huh? We get groups of girls in here who drink a lot of this, sometimes even at lunch- it’s juice!” exclaims Kizuki with a beaming smile.

And he isn’t wrong. The second sparkling produced by Yucho Shuzo and named Alpha is naturally sparkling. Telling me that it should be complex yet drinkable, I cannot fault his comment. The sake in question just seems to keep giving; a plethora of flavours frolic on my tongue.

The night continues, as does the sake.

I try unfiltered and aged sakes, which Kizuki explains hold more savoury characteristics. He nods towards 2 middle-aged businessmen sat to my right enjoying small dishes and sharing warm sake.

“I know these guys they come here often, and put simply they are incredibly rich. They are drinking a cheap unfiltered sake because that is what they like. They care not for the cost of how they might come across to others; sake is treated this way in Japan. No pretention.” Kizuki’s smile disappears for a moment as he tells me this, I feel myself submerged in a culture that effortlessly permeates mystery.

The Final sake that I am told I must try is made only a few blocks from where I sit. Rita is the producer and I am poured a healthy looking glass. I instantly detect an aroma and then taste which takes my brain only a few seconds to interpret.

“I get the taste and even smell of apples. Like fresh green apples” I wryly exclaim, half expecting to look silly.

Kizuki barks something at his assistant before turning to me with the biggest smile I have seen all night.

“Very good! This sake actually has high levels of Malic acid; apples are renowned for having this also. You know your stuff,” shouts Kizuki over a now hissing frying pan, the flash of its flames illuminating his eyes. As I feel the alcohol numbing my senses I begin to wonder; the world of sake isn’t as complex as most people perceive it to be?

The bar begins to thin out and Kizuki leans over and we chat.

Turns out Kizuki once used to be a boxing promoter, with a swift look around he then pulls up a sleeve to reveal a tattoo.

The tattoo is a Russian word and he tells me he would look after Russian fighters here in Tokyo before going into business in Thailand and splitting his time between Tokyo and there.

“So where do you go tonight when you finish up here? Back to your hotel to write up notes, begin this article” he asks.

I look at my watch; it tells me it is almost 10 pm. The night is merely a youth.

“I think I will probably go back, drop my things and head out for some drinks somewhere. Where do you suggest?” I enquire with the hope of some useful Intel.

Kizuki shoots me a cheeky grin the first time I have seen a mischievous side to my host.

“Head to Shibuya my friend, and go to any of the big nightclubs there. Find a western looking girl who is your height or taller than you, she is likely then to be Russian. Buy her some vodka and you will be taking her home after an hour” he says before finishing his drink. I follow suit and finish my drink also.

“ Can you call me a taxi?” I ask.

 


Ayahuasca Paranoia: That Time I Nearly Died in the Amazon

Ayahuasca Paranoia: That Time I Nearly Died in the Amazon

Ayahuasca Paranoia: That Time I Nearly Died in the Amazon

Words by Alisha Smith  & Illustrations by Aidan May

 


People say that ayahuasca is a truth serum, but I think it’s a fear venom. It drives its viney tendrils deep into the sludge of your soul. It has an arsenal of machinery ready to excavate the shittiest beliefs you hold about yourself. It can make you live your worst nightmares, often in the most creative of ways. And if you’re lucky, it may even kill you.

It was my fifth time working with ayahuasca on a 23-day immersion somewhere in the emerald belly of the Peruvian Amazon, and I was getting pretty used to the drill:

5 pm — Flower Bath

Be doused with a bowl of sweet cinnamon smelling liquid. Air-dry, so the tiny orange flowers stick to your skin and help to integrate the coming lessons.

5:45 pm — Prep

Grab ceremony essentials: headlamp, blanket, water bottle, pillow, crystals, lighter.

5.55 pm — Set-up

Head to the large jungle hut called the Maloca, and arrange belongings. Remember the protocols:

  • Lie water bottle flat to prevent knocking it over and scaring everyone mid-ceremony
  • Practice putting headlamp on the red-light setting to not blind everyone mid-ceremony.
  • Tie headlamp around wrist so that you’re not trying to look for it on the ceiling mid-ceremony (I learned that one the hard way).
  • Carefully position plastic vomit bucket
  • Pray to baby Jesus that ayahuasca will be gentle

6:00 pm — Yoga

Set intentions and do an hour and a half of candlelit yin yoga. I try to keep a clear mind but my brain insists on thinking about pesto pasta, Thai beaches, and my long history of questionable life choices.

The Shipibo healers arrive, a husband and wife team with plant medicine in their bones. Maestro Americo whistles a song into an old soft drink bottle filled with ayahuasca, while Maestra Olga rips perfect squares of paper to place the rolled tobacco mapachos on. I’m called up, and they pour a shot glass half full of the lumpy swamp sludge. I say a prayer (again), down the medicine, and gracefully holdback an insta-purge.

Apart from the facilitator, Allen, and the door guys, everyone drinks — even the healers. Then the lanterns are taken away, and we are left in the dark limbo lands.

Waiting.

Waiting.

Nothing’s happen-Whooooooooomph

My mind was strapped to SpaceX and launched to a land where enthusiastic elves competed to show me their geometric mega-devices, yet my body remained in the inky black madhouse of a maloca. Whimpers echoed from the bathroom, red lights flashed like police sirens, and every ten seconds a very loud thud booms through the space.

Reality dissolves into a webbed sea of menacing energy. My eyes itch and puff up, my throat closes….smaller, smaller until it’s difficult to breathe.

I saw a movie screen flashback of the assistant who makes the medicine smirking while stirring a killer plant into a pot of bubbling ayahuasca. A plant that would cause a very long, slow and painful death.

I’d been poisoned! It was his plan all along. He’d charmed the retreat guests with his friendly smile, earned our trust, then sneaked a deadly plant into the ayahuasca so he could watch everyone die in the middle of the jungle.

There was no point in getting Allen’s attention now — he knew what was going on, and it was too late. He was busy shining a light into the eyes of the thumping culprit, who was now limp and silent. He must have passed away, I thought. Me next.

I crawled towards the door to escape, with the thought that I’d rather die within the quiet walls of a lantern-lit bathroom than an asylum.

My eyes blink closed and a trillion visions strobe: barbie pink butterflies dance in a kaleidoscopic pop-art painting that fractals into infinity. My eyes blink open and the floor starts breathing again.
Ayahuasca Paranoia: That Time I Nearly Died in the Amazon
I’d royally fucked up this time, hadn’t I? Newspaper headlines projected onto the bathroom walls “12 Found Dead in Amazon Poisoning”. I’d forever be known as the girl who died drinking ayahuasca in the jungle.

After teleporting back to the maloca, the medicine kept me in its claws for hours. I was dragged, drugged, stalked, poked, prodded, X-rayed, dissected, and disinfected. I told my family I loved them. I accepted my own death.

Then, silence.

The shamans stopped singing.

Allen’s comforting voice lit up the room.

‘Alright beautiful people, the ceremony is now closed, gracias para La Medicina’.

And in that moment I was back. I was a shattered shell, unable to move, but holy moly, I was Alisha and praise the starry skies, I was alive!

I lay sprawled on my mattress, eyes wide open until the roosters called and early morning rays shone through the mosquito-netted walls.

As I stumbled back to my hut, silent tears rolled at seeing this world for the first time. I had to hold myself back from shouting: OH MY GOD look how green the grass is! I was mesmerized by the trail of ants, and even the cat was a mystical and magical being.

Ayahuasca helps us to remember.

Remember that we spend our lives trapped in a backwards bitch of a society, so hell-bent on becoming that we miss the beauty of being. The joy of a sweet smile, the rustling of leaves, a gap in thoughts, a petal, a deep inhale and full exhale. Oh, what a gift it is to simply breathe.

Ayahuasca helps us to remember.

That one day we won’t breathe anymore.



With Maestro Americo, Maestra Olga, Tanya and Haroldo (the poor subject of my imaginary poisoning) at the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru.

Off-the-Grid: 6 Months Without a Phone

Off-the-Grid: 6 Months Without a Phone

Lessons learned from a hitchhiking trip as a phone-less millennial

Half a year ago I was hit by a transport truck. It flipped my whole world upside down — literally. In nothing short of a miracle, I walked away from the accident in one piece but was later diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome. This set-back wasn’t exactly what I had planned for my last few weeks of undergrad, but hey — that’s life for you.

I was a 22 year old male, told by my team of doctors to limit all exercise, screen-time, and alcohol consumption. In other words, “stop being 22.”

Not long after, I called up my carrier and suspended my phone plan. Surviving a high-speed crash has a way of putting life into perspective. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my youth with eyes glazed over a screen, or maybe that was my impulsive, post-concussive brain talking. Regardless, if I wanted to truly limit my screen time for the sake of my own recovery, I needed to do something radical.

There was only one problem with the R&R recovery plan; I don’t know how to sit around and just do nothing. So I hitchhiked across the country instead.

 

The mile zero sign at the eastern terminus of the trans Canada trail in St.John’s, Newfoundland

What would you do if you were 22, and just saw your life flash before your eyes? No work, exercise, screen-time, or alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, that means I wouldn’t be biking across Canada again this time around, but hitchhiking — that was fair game.

What’s better for the soul (& the brain) than a good ole fashioned road trip anyways?

Reesor’s s(c)h(ool) bus named Daisy. We met via a mutual friend 3 days earlier then drove to Nova Scotia together before parting ways. Along the way, we stopped in to visit some east coast friends, like Keegan in PEI.

Here are a few lessons that I learned on the road:

Justine is a medical journalist I met in NF. She was my ride through Gross Morne. Also, boil saltwater straight from the ocean for the best tasting lobster.

It’s good practice having faith in kindness.

Take the story of these lobsters for example. After picking up two lobsters at the wharf, we asked a neighbour if we could borrow their pot to boil water for our meal. They happily lent it to us and we brought it down to the beach for our fire. Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to ask for help — people are kind (especially in Newfoundland).

Perfect strangers want to help you more than they want to hurt you.

There are still good people in this world. You need to believe that other people believe you are one too. While skepticism will do you well in life, don’t be too quick to assume the intentions of others. Just because someone asks for a ride or offers to give you one, doesn’t mean they are going to kill or kidnap you. Choose to believe in the goodness of people instead.

 

Hypothetical situation: Let’s say that I had a phone on me.

I probably would have:

  • Ordered an uber or taxi instead of uncomfortably standing on the side of the road with my thumb out.
  • Searched on google maps for a store that sold kettle pots instead of approaching a stranger with a request to use theirs.

In both instances, I would have retreated to my comfort zone and relied on my device to solve my problems. I doing so, I would have wasted more time in the long run, spent more money, and would have never shared an experience or interacted with the two individuals mentioned above — how lonely & boring.

Now I know what you are probably thinking. There are times when having a phone could have been quite useful, like getting directions, or making an emergency call. Although my time ‘off-the-grid,’ is no doubt an extreme example, I also had the rare privilege of experiencing some of the most raw and authentic human interactions. When someone offers you a drive, you have an obligation as a hitchhiker to entertain them. They want to hear your stories or share their own stories with someone who will listen — not someone staring at a screen. How does anyone benefit from that?

Am I saying that phones are evil and need to be abandoned?

 

Not at all. Fast forward 6-months and last week I finally decided to re-activate my own plan — but with some new ground rules in place. The key takeaway that I gained from this experience is that we need to make technology use a positive addition, rather than a harmful distraction, in our lives.

Here are some tips to make your device work for you:

  • Take the earbuds out — music is great, but don’t be that guy on the bus. Instead, try saying hello to someone new and starting up a conversation.
  • Turn off your notifications — or at least the ones that don’t matter.
  • Schedule in-person meetings — use your device to coordinate a time and place instead of acting as an alternative to meeting in-person.
  • Make things a little less convenient — if you have trouble with aimless scrolling, or constantly updating your feed, keep your phone out of reach.
  • Explore the apps Screen Time & Digital Wellbeing — if you have no idea what I’m talking about, search for them on your device right now!

And if you think you are up for the challenge, consider going phone-less for a few days, or — dare I say — a few weeks. You might just develop a new found appreciation for the little things that make us human.

Go for a hike (or even a hitchhike).

 

Originally posted on Medium