Archives for March 2017

Living Life To The Fullest: In Memory Of A Friend And Great Adventurer

“I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves, wondering if we had spent our living days well.”

Lyrics from Lie In Our Graves, Dave Matthews Band.

You always hear these adages, encouraging you to live life to the fullest.  To live with no regrets.  But what does that really mean, and, honestly, how many of us really heed that advice? How many people do we know that actually live these full lives?

I recently lost a friend in a tragic and unexpected way.  To me, he was the living embodiment of what it means to live life to the fullest, and to never take a single day for granted.  He was the one person I knew that lived these truths.

Neither my friend’s identity nor the details of his death are important.  What is important is the person that he was.  He was the kind of guy that had seemingly lived 100 interesting lives.  I met him 10 years ago in law school.  We were in the same section, and, if you know anything about law school, you know that means that we spent the next year together because we had the exact same schedule– every class, every day for a whole year. We bonded over our mutual love for travel and for animals, dogs specifically.

He was the kind of guy that basically excelled at everything he did, but not in an annoying way. In an inspiring way. He attended the Portuguese Air Force Academy where he graduated first in his class. He had a career as a military pilot and as an airline pilot for one of the largest airline companies in the U.S.  He was an accomplished private, commercial, instrument and ATP rated pilot as well as a Gold Seal Flight Instructor. He once told me that he enrolled in law school as a result of a bet/dare from his wife.  True to form, he was accepted to the best law school in the State of Florida and graduated second in our class, booking almost every class he took (non-lawyer translation: at the end of every class in law school, they give out an award (often endowed), called a book award, to the person who has the highest grade in that class). I always wondered if finishing second annoyed him since he was so used to being first.

He had an affinity for adventure and speed.  He loved fast (German) cars and fast motorcycles, and had both. He also loved to fly. He was the only person I knew in law school who had a plane, and that includes the faculty and staff.  He loved taking his fellow classmates up in the plane.  Two of my girlfriends and I once flew to his home to meet his wife and puppies (all 5 of them) and have dinner.  He let me take control and fly the plane on the way back, which was so exciting because I had never before (or since) flown a plane.  I saw a light in the distance and told him that he should probably resume control of the plane since there was some air traffic up ahead.  He laughed and said, “That’s not a plane, Anastasia; that’s a planet!” Whoops!

He was the kind of guy that always had time for conversation (especially if the conversation was a debate). He as not afraid to take a position, even an unpopular one, and he stood by his convictions. He believed in himself. He was also the kind of guy that never said no. He was always willing to help.  If you were struggling to understand a concept, he would take time and explain it to you the way he understood it.  I sat next to him for an entire month during our bar preparation course, which I was in charge of running.  He was early every morning, ready to help. He was an authentic and genuine soul.

After law school, we kept in touch through Facebook.  He briefly worked at a law firm, but hated the structure, so he started his own firm with his wife who was already a lawyer. He also provided safety consulting services to the offshore and land-based oil and gas industry. In his spare time, he volunteered his time and his plane to provide free air transportation to financially distressed people with medical needs and to health care organizations through a non-profit charitable organization.

As a law school graduation gift, his wife got him a climbing trip to Kilimanjaro.  He was certainly no stranger to travel or to adventure. He  was a skydiver, mountain biker, sea-kayaker, and scuba diver. But, I think this gift began his love for the climb. My law school friends and I followed his travels on social media, and every time I would open Facebook, he would be in some other corner of the world, conquering some unimaginable feat.  Waldo had nothing on this guy.

Over the course of two and a half years, he completed the Seven Summits Challenge.  That means that he summited the highest mountain on each of the seven continents: Mount Everest in Asia, the Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa (twice), Mount Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, and Puncak Jaya in New Guinea (Australia).  Because there is a debate about whether Mount Kosciuszko or Puncak Jaya is the tallest in Australia, he climbed both. I teasingly told him that I would be impressed only after he also summited K2. He matter-of-factly told me that he already summited the highest mountain in Asia and the world. Touche.

In between climbing mountains, he had some other pretty epic adventures, including gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda, expeditions to Antarctica, and 100s of “trips of a lifetime” to the Galapagos Islands, Australia, South America, North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. It seems he that he always immersed himself with the locals wherever he went, and he always found dogs to love all over the world. His pictures are National Geographic amazing, because he was, of course, a professional level photographer. He was my travel icon, and we often compared notes on travel, although my travels paled in comparison to his.

On the rare occasion that he wasn’t off on some bucket list journey, he spent time at his second home in the Bahamas, which he built and dedicated to his squad of adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.  In my next life, if I can’t come back as him, I want to come back as one of his dogs. He would load up the pups in his plane, put the  protective earmuffs on them, and fly them down to their island home, Sandy Paws. They would spend time exploring the island in their golf cart and taking to the seas in their boat, the Barkardi. He and his dogs would go paddle-boarding. These dogs live a charmed life, and I loved it.

He got involved in a local charity in the Bahamas that built homes for and fed stray Potcake dogs on the island, which is a mixed breed dog commonly found on the Caribbean Islands.  He flew plane loads of supplies to the island from the States to support this cause and the these dogs. He loved all animals and our environment, but he especially loved dogs. He had tattoos of the face of every one of his dogs on his body. I judge the greatness of a person by the way they treat animals, and he was one of the greatest.

The last country he visited was Bolivia, where he was hiking up a volcano. Before he died, he was working on completing the Explorers Grand Slam, which he planned to start next month. That involves skiing to both the North and South poles. I am sad that such a great adventurer will never get to complete this feat.

He was truly the most interesting person I have ever known (and probably will ever know). His life was remarkable, inspirational, and one that deserves celebration. He lived life to the fullest. The last time I spoke to my friend was on March 15.  He died four days later.  I never got to tell him how much I admired him, and for that I am sorry.

As news of his death spread, his Facebook wall was loaded with pictures and messages of condolences from people around the world. Literally, around the world: his climbing friends, his Island friends, his local community, his law school friends, even people who had met him once in passing.  It is amazing to see the impact and reach that one person had on so many. The messages are similar: “amazing man”, “great human”, “inspiring person”, “authentic”, ” positive, fun-loving and gregarious” “remarkable and wonderful[ly] accomplish[ed]”. In times where humanity can’t seem to agree on anything, scores of people from different cultures, races, and religions seemingly agreed: he was good people.

They say all dogs god to heaven, and if that is true, on March 19, heaven’s dogs met their greatest angel.  I hope that he is resting peacefully in heaven, surrounded by dogs, gazing over the highest and most amazing peaks. I hope he died feeling like he spent his living days well. 

Luang Prabang, Laos: A UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Chances are that Luang Prabang, Laos (pronounced Lao, without the “s” at the end) is not on your travel list (it wasn’t on ours), but it should be.  There is something spiritual about this little city that just mesmerizes you. We actually had some of the most memorable cultural encounters in little-known Luang Prabang. We came to Luang Prabang on the recommendation of our travel agent, and I am sure glad we did.

I am almost hesitant to write this post.  I kind of want to keep Luang Prabang a secret and all to myself and those who have discovered it. Luang Prabang has a small village hippie vibe. It is a backpacker’s paradise. It is considered the best preserved city in Southeast Asia, which also earned it its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Unlike other major Asian cities, the pace of life in Luang Prabang is slower and the scenery more rural. We spent three days there, but Luang Prabang is the kind of place that you think you only need three days for, but wish you had a little more. In fact, a lot of people we met along the way came to Luang Prabang with the intention of staying a few days, but extended their trip for several more days, or, in some cases, weeks.

Before you go, you should know that a visa is required for U.S. citizens who visit the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. To get a visa, your passport must have 6 months of availability on it, and you must have two blank pages available for the visa. You can purchase the visa at the airport upon arrival, but, I strongly recommend you get a visa before you come as many visitors purchase the visa on arrival or are unaware of the visa requirement and then purchase upon arrival.  Since most people are in line for visas, the lines can get quite long. If you purchase a visa on arrival, you get a 30-day visa.  If you pre-buy the visa, you get a 60-day visa. Since we already had visas, we bypassed all that mess and went right through customs in a matter of mere minutes, with no lines at all.

We stayed at the Luang Say Residence, which is a colonial-style boutique luxury hotel set in a lush tropical garden. The hotel is very tranquil and serves an excellent American-style breakfast.  The property is also worth exploring. We arrived in Luang Prabang just in time to visit the night market. Apparently, there are a lot of unexploded ammunition left over from the Indochina and Vietnam wars. The locals take these wartime leftovers, turn them into keepsakes and jewelry, and sell them at the local markets.  We had some action packed days in Luang Prabang! Along the way, during our all-too-short time in this magical little place, we had some very meaningful experiences and encounters with locals.

On our first full day, a visit to the Pak Ou Caves was on the itinerary.  The Pak Ou Caves are about two hours by boat from Luang Prabang.  So, to get there, we had to first board our very own slow boat, which was an adventure in and of itself.  Check out the gang plank we had to walk: On the two hour journey down the peaceful Mekong River, we got to see a lot of rural everyday life along its banks. After a couple hours, we arrived at the caves! The caves overlook the Mekong River and are  hidden in a mountain side.  Inside the caves are hundreds of old Buddha statues. There is something very spiritual and peaceful about climbing into a cave full of treasure! Little golden Buddhas glittered from every corner.  The caves are guarded by monks… After our visit to the caves, we stopped at a local village, the Muangkeo Village, to try rice whiskey. We came to a village where we were greeted by an older woman who makes the rice whiskey at her home. Rice whiskey in clay barrels: I’m not gonna sugarcoat this part– the village rice whiskey is not smooth. It is unlikely to ever win any tasting awards. It tastes like liquid fire. But it’s all part of the experience, so, by all means, drink up!

We stayed a bit to explore the village and meet the local people. Walking through this village, which only got electricity the year before we arrived, you get the sense that it is set up as a cultural stop for tourists looking for a village experience. There were several “shops” where locals sold handicrafts and I questioned whether they were really made by these particular locals. The best part about this visit was stopping in at the local school house, where we got a chance to visit the local children at school. They were so cute that we ran out into the market and bought them all snacks. Word gets around fast in this little village because the next thing you know, little kids were coming out of everywhere lining up for their snack! It was like Christmas came early for these little kids! They were so happy and appreciative that they sang us songs as they ran around eating their treats! At last it was time to bid adieu to our new village friends and get back into town. After a long day on the Mekong, we came back into Luang Prabang to visit the museum and have some lunch.During lunch, we saw a group of monks crossing a make-shift bridge.  We decided to follow them and explore the temple on the other side. By the way, the reason why this bridge seems so ill-constructed is because it only exists for several months. Every rainy season it is destroyed by flooding, so, every year, they construct a new ramshackle bridge to replace the one destroyed the year before. The next day started way before dawn! This was probably my favorite day because we got to do three very cool things that gave us a more authentic experience. The first, and probably my favorite, is that we got to participate in the daily ritual of givings alms (or thanks) to the monks. This is a sacred ceremonial tradition in Laos, and our guide set it up so that we could not only witness it, but participate in it.

This ritual takes place a sunrise in the streets of Luang Prabang, but you have to get there way before that to secure a spot and set up. Our local guide set up our mats and brought our offerings for us.As the sun rises in Luang Prabang, around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal (as monks only eat once per day). All the food that is collected is shared by the monks of each temple.

There are many rules to both attending and participating in this ritual, but the most important is that it is a silent ritual, so you are not supposed to talk, break up, or follow the processional. If you are giving alms, you must be dressed modestly, you must kneel, and must remove your socks and shoes, and you must not touch the monks. You typically sit on the floor to give your alms as the monks pass you by. Offerings are typically rice and fruits.  We had traditional offerings, but we also brought along some American treats, like peanut butter, almonds, and snack bars, which the monks were very excited to receive.  The monks carry a large bowl which they keep open, and you place your offering in their bowl as they pass by. This processional goes quickly and there are a lot of monks, so you need to be on your game, as they will not stop and wait for you.  Here’s a pro tip: when you get your big bowl of sticky rice, roll it into balls so you are ready make an offering at lightning speed!  At the end of the processional, the monks line up in front of their temple and chant a prayer before heading into their temple to share their food and eat their daily meal.

After the ceremony was over, we were invited to explore the inside of one of the temples. First, we left an offering of sticky rice in the tree. When the locals visit the temples, they typically bring an offering of marigolds, and our guide came prepared.  She gave us this beautiful cone of marigolds that we offered to the temple. Our next order of business was to go to the morning market and buy all the ingredients we would need in order to cook a traditional meal at our guide’s home which we would share with her family. She gave us our lists and our money, and we were on our way.The morning markets are fascinating.  They are a great way to get a glimpse of everyday life and interact with the locals.  There is an array of fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish on display. And then there are these: Insects and snakes?? My adventurous spirit only goes so far… No thanks!

After our shopping was done, we went into to town for a different kind of shopping, which leads me to the second coolest thing we did on this day: a visit to a Hmong village! We were so intrigued with our cultural village visit, that we asked our guide to take us to a true local Hmong village that is not set up for tourists. Before we went, we stopped off at a local market to purchase snacks and educational materials to give to the children, and then we were off.

On the nearly hour-long drive, we got to see some more rural areas of Luang Prabang.We arrived at the village with our goodies in tow! The Hmong are an ethnic group that live up in the mountains. There is a long history of persecution of these people, which you can read more about here. But, we were here to visit the children of this ethnic village, and help them practice their English!The children were so excited to receive their treats and clapped along as we sang the English ABCs. They were very curious and excited to see Western tourists in their village. We happened to visit when UNICEF was there for the purpose of vaccinating the children. They come once a year to hold a vaccine clinic and provide basic medical care to rural populations of children.On the way back from the village, we stopped at the famed Kuang Si Falls. These falls, while certainly not as large as Victoria Falls (which we visited the year before in Zimbabwe), are stunning in their own different way.  They are a series of smaller falls that collect in beautiful turquoise pools.  The cost to get into the park is about $2.50 per person. There are a series of trails and bridges that you can use to walk among the falls. You can even swim in them, although when we were there in late November, the water was cold; but that didn’t stop this spectacle.  Allow me to introduce you to the Amazing Asian Man, with whom I fell in love. Not only was he wearing a magnificently small Speedo, but he would climb up to a tree or rock, strike a pose, and demand that his friends photograph him before he jumped into the water.  I was mesmerized by this creature, and he has inspired in me a book idea! After studying this jewel for a very long time, we made our way over to the bear sanctuary on property. These black bears are an endangered species because their bile is used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes. This sanctuary rescues them and houses 23 bears. I love animals, so I just loved watching these bears roam and play.Our next stop was to Ok Pop Tok to get our weave on! Ok Pop Tok is a living crafts center set in the jungle on the Mekong River. It teaches traditional weaving techniques in demonstration style classes or you can sign up for half day, full day, or multi-day classes. You can even stay on the property while you attend classes. They have a shop that follows fair trade principles and have Village Weaver Projects, where their weavers work with local NGOs to teach skills to artisans in villages in 11 different provinces, using their knowledge of the market to help villagers make a better living from their handicrafts, as well as buying, selling and promoting their products.

We came for a half-day class where we learned about the different fabrics, how the dyes are made using natural ingredients, how to create and then to dye the fabrics, and how to use the weaver’s loom to make different patterns.  The cool part about our class is that we got to come home with a scarf that we made! But, our day of learning was not over.  It was time to go to our guide’s home and learn to cook a traditional meal that we would share with her family, which is where we had the third coolest experience!

First, we had to get dressed for the occasion…Then we got to work cleaning, chopping, mincing, and cooking. While we worked in an outdoor kitchen, inside, the elders prepared the centerpiece that they would use to offer a blessing to us. They used banana leaves, marigolds, and sweets for the offerings. Candles were placed in the center and poles of white string were placed in the center. Our guide’s uncle, a former monk, led the blessing ceremony as the elders sang.One by one, each elder removed a set of white strings and came around in a circle placing one string on each of our wrists as they gave us a blessing.  At the end of the ceremony, they offered us the marigolds.  After the ceremony, it was time to eat and party! We shared the lovely meal we prepared with her family.You see the guy in the back row, third from the left? We nicknamed him “Uncle Crunk”! He kept coming around with a growler of Beerlao (the main, locally brewed beer in Laos, which Chad says is actually a pretty good lager) and  doing the ‘ol “one for me and one for you!” It wasn’t long until Uncle Crunk, was well, Crunk!  He turned on the tunes and then it was time to dance; and, let me tell you, Uncle Crunk LOVES to dance, especially with his new American lady friends. Here is also where my sister, whose name is Haroula, solidified her nickname: Colorado, Asian Temptress. If you are wondering what I am talking about, then you need to read this.

Although we only spent few days in Laos, they were truly excellent days! That’s the thing about traveling; sometimes you come across a gem and love it more than you could have ever imagined, and it changes you as a person. That is how I feel about our short time in this charming little country and city. I hope you too make it to Luang Prabang one day, and when you do (or if you already have), I’d love to hear from you! Sa Bai Dii!