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I Tend to Wander

This blog chronicles oddly-themed travel and food adventure in the Americas and Europe

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A K-Bar Fixed Blade is a Girl's Best Friend: Survival Training in Virginia's Blue Ridge

You wouldn't know to look at me: Female. 43. Eyes: kind enough, but squinting to a wince, wearied by reading in bad light, cheap mascara, and bi-focal contact lenses. They are green originally, my eyes, but hazed pink like a cheap Chablis or the liquid in a packet of raw chicken; permanent laugh lines, and a once-fit figure, now sedately spreading like chocolate chip cookie dough on a warm cookie sheet. No, you wouldn't know it to look at me, but I can do several amazing things because of a week-end I spent in the woods.

The Trip: The Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival School

Where? The George Washington National Forest, just west of Amherst, Virginia

Who? Liz and dashing husband, Brian, 43, who, despite his rugged good looks and ability to find crawfish under unassuming rocks like an otter, doesn't mind spending the night in the woods for the romance of it, but prefers to curl up beneath down and flannel with his cat (and wife, presumably) at home.

We joined the vigorous Reggie Bennet, surprisingly youthful and cherub-cheeked for someone who has spent a significant part of his life instructing military types (including Navy SEALS) in survival, evasion, resistance, and escape techniques, and who himself had survived really harrowing wilderness scenarios from polar ice cap crash-landing/freezing to death/being eaten by bears situations, to bobbing in badly supplied life-raft on open sea and catching birds with fish hooks, to roasting in a hole in the Gobi nursing the half cup of spit-hot water collected from the condensation pit, emerging in the cool of the night to recon by the stars and dig more wells.

It could be however, that Reggie Bennet is buoyant not in spite of, but because of these very experiences. Dropped into the rather pleasant temperate wilderness condition of Virginia's Blue Ridge with anything resembling a sturdy knife and some string, he can erect a snug shelter, light a fire, strangle and roast a rabbit, smoke extra meat to tasty hickory smoked jerky, sanitize water, rig a sauna for a pleasant sluice, and floss his teeth. In the evening, he can either signal for rescue, or melt into the woods.

Why Go? To flex our self-sufficiency muscles, sleep under the really lovely stars, learn how to tie some useful knots, make a fire in the rain, roast foil packets of potatoes, rosemary, and onions in capably-tended campfire coals, generally ratchet-up our "Confidence in the Woods" scores nearly snuffing out for good our (Liz's) long smoldering Fear of The Dark in general and werewolves in particular.

How long? a January week-end: 60 degrees and sunny on Saturday, 42 degrees and steady, soaking rain on Sunday.

Favorite Forest Food: Ghiradelli 60% cocoa bittersweet bakery chocolate by the chunk, and pecans and dried cranberries by the fistful in camp while learning really basic orienteering. Coffee in the morning.

I would have like to have roamed around a lot more. In longer classes (4 day) they break camp and move using their new orienteering skills. The landscape is steep and forested. It takes two hours to go three miles.

Thing I wish I'd brought: a pilfered airline pillow or the smarts to stuff my jacket into my sleeping bag sack to fashion a quite serviceable pillow. A $29 Black Diamond headlamp with a retractable elastic string to hold it on your head that is, all together, the size of a Nilla Vanilla wafer.

Cheapest Thrill: Stomping through the woods, in a long, cold, steady rain to rip apart, using a K-Bar fixed blade knife, the stump of a lightning-blasted pine tree for its dry and pitch-packed wood, then whittling with cold hands a fluffy mound of the impressively flammable pitch resin onto my fire platform, grating the knife down the flint, and having the the little shavings burst into flame, which I fed with larger whittlings into a fire big enough to warm up my hands.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sleeping in the Snow with Bears

Marie Antoinette liked to dress up like a milk-maid all breasts and bodices and buckets to spend a day at the royal country estate and pretend to milk cows that had been perfumed and powdered for her (and presumably debriefed afterward) and frolic with the happy, dancing peasants.
In what we hope is not the same hapless spirit (when the Revolution really heated up, the French queen fled to that same country estate, where she was caught by now scowling peasants, and sent back to Paris to face the music.), Brian and I will spend the week-end at Survival 101 training camp in a southern Virginia town called (and if this doesn't raise suspicions, I don't know what will), Pleasant Valley. My friend, Katy, knitting and jollying away at would say, "Don't do it! It's a trap!"

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Lion in Winter: The Cotswolds and London in February

We're off. To get roses in our cheeks and sleet down our necks in and around London in February. Our plan? Escape London straight away by train, trek the Cotswolds through drizzly copses and over deserted Iron Age barrows to firelit pubs for Ploughman's lunches, a pint of bitter, and Gloucester cheese.

We'll stay in Stroud, that whirling astral center from which radiate all things Cotswold. It's not easy to choose an astral center base-camp, and we may have things all wrong. However, Stroud is on the train line, an hour and a half and L20 from Paddington Station, and harbors an inn called, brace yourself, "Little Owl Cottage" that appears in its web site ( photos gazing gently down over sward and weald, its honey-brown stone characteristically Cotswold, stone, by the way, which becomes paler as you go south down the Cotswold limestone, glowing vaguely in the evening light.

At some point, we are required to wipe our muddy boots and return to London, where Brian will talk to construction people about construction topics, principally, how to keep construction workers from falling off tall things. In the City, we can't agree where to stay. I'm stumping for Epping Forest Youth Hostel which is described as being easily accessible, only 10 minutes on the train from London and then two and a half miles "down unlit forest roads." I think that sounds great.
Brian would like to stay somewhere a little more central.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Indigo Walk and Talk

E.L. Doctorow, who is a great writer, if also a know-it-all-smarty-pants, once said, "Thinking about your writing, researching your writing, and talking about your writing is not the same as writing." This snippy condescending hectoring can also be applied to epic journeys. If you're going to do it, do it. Think about your trip. Figure out where you're going and the real nuts and bolts about how to get there, from how you're goiing to rent a truck in Oaxaca when you're in Virginia and how much is it going to cost, to how you're going to contact the mayor of Quezaltepec in order to win safe passage through maybe the most fractious and remote swath of Mexico to keep from being macheted by desperately frustrated peasants whose goats are dying of thirst, and suspect that perhaps you are in cahoots with the neighboring town that, everyone knows, is diverting the streams and poisoning the wells, to figuring out how to keep your delightful/overly-cautious husband who would rather be having a coffee and sleeping in beds that clean, safe, and dry, on-board by knowing enough of the nuts and bolts to satisfy his "Rationality-of-Plan" Requirement, as well as paint for him the fantastic story of the whole grand 700-year old Pre-Hispanic Trade Route to fill his "Coolness-of-Plan" Requirement when he knows all of your story-telling, sales-pitch tricks and could at any moment choose to drag his feet and mope and refuse to participate on the quite tangible grounds that it will be too hard, too expensive, and we all be killed.

I am currently collecting nuts and bolts ammunition.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Go GoNomad: A Whirlwind Tour

Like somebody you'd like to go on a long trip with, the alternative-travel web site GoNOMAD at is both no-nonsense knowledgeable and packed with a giddy enthusiasm about the trip it's going to help you take. On top of that, this web site tells great stories.

More than just a vast clearinghouse of travel nuts and bolts (which it is) of flight price comparison calculators, huge vacation/cruise package lists, find-a-car/rent-a-car links, and hundreds of hostel sites, Go Nomad provides off-the-beaten track themes that run the inspiration gamut from French ethnobotanic culinary vactions and pink Brazilian river dolphin tending, to nude hiking and freighter hopping advice that make this site worthy of being a home base from which to launch even the most improbable foray.

Like a good traveling companion, it's tidy. Easily navigatable: even the Special Interest vacation search engine Booleans you through 14,000 vacation packages and 1300 top travel suppliers. You can imagine the editors and interns giggling manaically as they add yet another Bike Togo link or more guidance on riding Javanese ponies in Lesotho; whooping it up as they find ways to help you reserve beds on trains, barges, organic farms, castles, join wolf and grizzly bear safaris, or (way off the beaten track) build trails through Siberian taiga.

Like an unflagging travel companion, its very url eggs us on with its frolicing feature articles. "Go, nomad," it calls. Go! You can do it,' it says in David Rich's report from beyond-remote Kashmiri valleys full of strange and stunningly beauty on "knees past their 'use by' date" ( Those stories and amazing photos call us to loll in the rose-scented bathtubs of Tuscan spas, storm the ramparts of thousand year old Syrian fortresses, and meander through Croatian Zinfandel vineyards.

Go Nomad!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Cholul: Go for the 16th century church, stay for the roast chicken:

Cholul is the roast chicken mecca of Merida. Just as London would vanish each evening beneath the coal smoke of tea time fires, every afternoon Cholul, once a vast sisal hacienda, now devolved into a small town, five minutes north of downtown Merida, is awash in a succulent barbecue fugue. Every house sells roast chicken.
In our rented and plucky 1990 Nissan Sentra, we rocked through mud puddles into town behind a glossy Mercedes from Mexico City. In parade, we made our grand entrance by going the wrong way round the shady church square. Ludicrously, both the Mercedes and we, after passing the second one-way sign and two police officers leaning on their car, we realized our mistake simultaneously, slammed on our brakes, then stepped on the gas in unison veering out the first side street. Luckily, city-slickers who couldn't read street signs were so common they elicited no great surprise, and the shady square was quiet, ringed with, on one side, a venerable colonial building fronted by a stone cloister facing the 16th C. church, which is now chained shut, but handsomely built if moldy. We only glimpsed a blur of the other sides, escaping in shame as we were, where there were the equivalent of the Family Dollar, a grocer's, and a pawn shop. Interestingly, very different than Mexico's southwest, the Yucatan is full of pawn shops.
The square was empty except that, round the battered flanks of the old church, a fair was being set up for the evening, and truly piratical-looking people, whole families, were uncrating the rusting go-carts and stopping to eye us appraisingly and picking their teeth with the crow bars.
The little street down which we fled was lined with the tidy, concrete, flat-topped houses of modern Yucatan: like Kleenex boxes in magenta, teal, and aqua, a concreted yard relieved by a mat of bermuda grass, and possibly a palm or hibiscus and a concrete lion. Propped on the gate post at each house was a hand-written"Pollo Asado" sign, which was extraneous since smoke billowed from every car-port or undershirted dads stood in driveways wielding spatualas, turning dripping spits of skewered birds. This was a horror for us who are incapable of making even the smallest decision. We circled and bickered, "Do you like this one?" "No. You said you like that one." "He thinks we're stopping." "Honey, which one do you like?!" "Just choose!" until we were faint with hunger, embarrassed go around the square again, and afraid of the piratical circus families, we stopped at a house from which Nortena music thumped and a young brother and sister team in the concrete car port, manned the grill and the volume knob. She turned the birds and mopped them with sauce and took orders. The woman ahead of us, lived down the street, and had called her order ahead and waddled away lugging four grocery bags of steaming loot. We ordered two chicken halves and paid $40 pesos. The boy flung smoking poulty onto a splintered block, hacked it expertly into four chunks, piled them into a styrofoam box along with a knotted and swollen baggie of chipotle salsa, another of vinegary cole slaw, and, inexplicably, a sack of spaghetti. Maybe this jaunty pasta was pitched to a more global demographic.
In the little car, we ate on our laps with no utensils sloshing chipotle like ox blood right from the sack onto the luscious, tender birds charred to a barbaric crunch, pinching cole slaw from the bag to top the chicken with a cool tang to foil the smoky chipotle, we sucked our fingers and gnawed the bone knobs gazing at the church and the pirates. Only I ventured into the body-temperature spaghetti which was tomatoey and sweet. Returning to Merida to hand in the car, Jorge, the Avis rental car guy said, "Sure. Cholul for roast chicken all week, but on Sunday, everyone in Merida goes to Cholul for roast pork. It's a tradition. Tomorrow you should go." But we would be gone. For that, I was sorry to leave Merida.

Bike Yucatan:

In mountainous Mexico there are burros; in the Yucatan, tortilla-flat, there are bikes. In the Yucatan, everybody bikes.
Driving from Merida to Tulum.

Young men with carbines slung across their backs tool along
remote and empty highways cut like channels through the matted, spiny brush. You can see the lumber truck coming on your side of the road from miles away. Or the police barracade.

Or on the old road, which winds and noodles through towns of thatched roofed houses with tidily swept dooryards, errands are run. The back seat of a bike is broad enough to haul a shock of alfalfa to a horse picketed in the forest or for a girlfriend to ride side-saddle and chat pleasantly with a basket of masa on her lap.

There are bike taxis with tassled striped umbrella roofs over the cart with a wooden bench seat. When the girl is married and really broad bottomed she'll ride in a taxi with a few children and a basket of masa chatting pleasantly to the old man hauling them down the hot road full of white butterflies with his sinewy legs turning the crank, and his feet like a turtle's in plastic sandals who she's known all her life.

or along urban streets and intersections taxi and SUV carroming like pachinco balls through urban streets and intersections,

The infrastructure bike paths and wide-shoulders, is well developed for biking.

Bike rentals
Places like Tulum and Cancun of course, but surprisingly too in Merida (rent the helmet) and Valladolid.

Shaggy-chic Cabañas Copal, Tulum Yucatan

In a world full of resorts dedicated to fine wine and fine dining, a stay at Cabañas Copal, the palm-thatched, Caribbean inn and spa in Tulum, Mexico is like fine camping.

Breezy. Moonlit. Shaggy-chic. Five minutes from the grandeur of the Tulum ruins, Cabañas Copal wraps the adventure, romance, and mystery of the Maya Yucatan in candle light and mosquito netting and presents it amidst kayaks, toucans, and a magnificent sea.

Designed like a terraced garden, the 47 cabañas are bunched in little groves that have sea views, or are snuggled into the forest; and, while they’re called “eco-rustic” (all cabañas are without electricity), the spacious beds, tiled showers, adequate hot water, and gobs of mosquito netting in most of the Hobbit-y huts is simple, but nothing like primitive. For the minimalist, though, there are two sand-floored abodes without baths served instead by the tidy bathrooms down the path and the communal showers for a pleasant sluice under the coconut palms.

So well laid out is Cabañas Copal, the winding paths make the little nooks seem at once secluded and well attended. Palmetto glades hide pillowed hammocks for two, and, Look! there among the hibiscuses, lo and behold, you come upon, just in time, your Coronas clinking, two beach chairs perfectly placed for reading your Peterson’s guide, gazing at the Windex-blue sea, or, bare legs entwined, at each other.

The path from reception and the vegetation-walled restaurant noodles past the spa which offers a body loving pamper fest of yoga, wraps of mud, aloe, or chocolate, a variety of therapeutic massages – some at seaside - aroma and crystal therapy, and traditional Mexican temezcal steam baths. Each service is performed by skilled masseuses and Maya shamans dedicated to their craft.

Cabañas Copal is a spa, after all, and the things-to-do menu balances the yin of lying in corpse pose under your sun hat all day with the action-packed yang of biking to the ruins or into town, snorkeling the cove, or kayaking the mangrove lagoons of the Si’an Ka’an Bioreserve ( Si'an Ka'an, the knock-you-ecologist-socks-off bioreserve is just down the road by taxi or hotel van, and crammed with wildlife like spider monkeys and 350 species of migratory and native birds, with tours led by knowledgeable, passionate guides.

Cabañas Copal is one of three “sister” resorts strung along the beach. The restaurant, spa, rental, and transportation services of all three are available to spa guests. Each sister has her own well-honed, vertically integrated personality. Next door there is the vivacious Azulik: “Adult” says the brochure and you can’t see inside their gates; then there is, Zahra, dowdy but serviceable, with a nice little cove and electricity til 11 pm. By comparison, Cabañas Copal is the coltish sister: as tangy a surprise as a fresh-off-the-tree mango.

Undoubtedly, even Paradise has logistical glitches. Although the paths are dreamily candle lined at night, it’s easier to avoid garroting yourself with a hammock or mashing an anole if you’ve remembered to bring a flashlight; and, in the morning as the sun comes thundering up, it may take a while for shower water to arrive, but, hey, relax, you’re only a few slow-motion, hair-swinging lopes from the Caribbean Ocean. The water’ll come. Everything’s fine at Cabañas Copal.

High season rates: Sea view casitas for two with bath from $75 to $150; Sea view for four $85; Garden view $60; Sand floor and shared bath in the palms $35.