Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ends of the Earth

Long gone now are the days of dangerous expeditions, S. A. Andrée's attempt to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon, or Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Though I fully intend to see the top of the world, reaching the North Pole is no longer the great feat it once was. There's cell service, you're flown up in a toasty plane to a landing strip on the ice sixty kilometers from the pole (cleared seasonally - and as the ice allows - by a bulldozer), and visitors are lodged at Camp Borneo, complete with heated tents, cots, and regular trips in aging Soviet helicopters straight to 90° N.

Of course, the six feet of ice over the pole is constantly shifting, so you're never able to stand there for very long. The bulldozer that clears the runway fell through the ice this year, and in an NPR article last week (still looking for the link), I listened to a woman who, while recording, fell into a crack in the ice - cracks which constantly dis- and reappear. If the runway breaks up, nobody leaves.

At the other end of the world, NASA released their new map of Antarctica yesterday, comprised of over 1,000 true-color satellite photos. Still, the South Pole remains a slightly more challenging destination than its opposite, if only for monetary reasons (tours to the actual pole average US$35,000 - $50,000), but getting there is still quite possible. There are tours around the fringes of the continent as well (by helicopter, coast-hugging ships, or some combination of the two), and, of course, the Ice Marathon.

Having every square meter of a place mapped out from the air doesn't mean it's given up all its secrets. Liquid lakes are still being found beneath the ice (the most famous of which is the massive Lake Vostok), which have given rise to much speculation over the possibility of life in the water, and - given their similar environments - on Europa.

Last week, I was reminded by a coworker that within 15 years, the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro could be gone. If I put off trips to the poles long enough, it will be as simple as a boat ride, or a nice hike with a light jacket, to make it to the ends of the earth.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Abandoned Train Stations (US)

While there's no great lost continents left to discover, human expansion provides. Multiplying at an exponential rate, building over and around what already exists, fossilizing the past for future generations to discover.

I've always kept sites I've found myself secret, and I never myself publish anything that I think might be undiscovered or otherwise sensitive (the location of the Golden Tunnel, for instance). I only repeat what's already been made quite public. The less forgotten these places become, the more likely it is that the proper authorities will come bearing padlocks, barbed wire, and security cameras.

That said, abandoned train stations & tunnels from NYC. The same rules apply when you're trekking through the mountains, "Take only photos, leave only footsteps." Don't be an jerk.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Socio-Economic Disparity

I'm reminded of an incident a few years ago when I was in Michigan. A visiting scholar from the International Affairs College in Beijing sat in on a human rights course I was taking. Afterwards, myself and a friend, who had spent a semester in Beijing, approached the visiting scholar and asked her if she would like to go out for coffee. She agreed, and we went to a Caribou Coffee near campus.

My friend asked, "So, what do you think so far?" as she had never been to the States before. The visiting scholar replied, "Oh, well, everyone here has so much money." My friend and I exchanged looks.

The woman had been picked up at the airport by a few professors and whisked away in a car down the high-walled highways that lead out of the airport and the slums of Detroit and straight into the plush, sprawling lawns and massive homes that populate Auburn Hills, MI. She was most likely housed on-campus, and spent all of her time being hand-led around the university. Even if there was any sort of mass-transit in Michigan, she didn't have a lot of time for exploration.

Silently, my friend and I decided it was necessary to expand on her statement. "You know," I began, "Not everyone here is wealthy. In fact, there are many Americans who are very poor." She looked at both of us, my friend nodded, and mentioned that just a stone's throw from campus was Pontiac, MI (generally considered to be more destitute and broken than Detroit, and compacted into a much smaller area). Then my friend smiled, "Would you like to see it?"

The visiting professor clearly was an intelligent person, and as any intelligent person would, she wanted to have an accurate picture of the country she was visiting. She agreed, and off we went, down I-59 into the heart of Pontiac. Even before we were in the heart of the city, she, looking around, let escape an, "...Oh." We drove aimlessly through neighborhoods with burnt-out, boarded up houses and rusted cars on blocks. We definitely made an impact on her, and her view of America. Apparently it got to the university's president, as well, who was less than thrilled.

All this aside, the buildings in Pontiac, condemned and rotting though they were, and their proximity to obsessively manicured lawns (and owners), could not begin to compare to that of the living conditions of some of the world's most poor, the less-than-a-dollar-a-day crowd.

I find it even more interesting that we can look at pictures like the ones in the link above, and not notice the disparity in our own surroundings; parallels within our own home countries go unnoticed because we're simply so used to them. Like staring at a blank wall, eventually the corners of your vision fade to black.

The solution? Move around.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Bricked-Over Doorway - Seattle, WA

Walking around a few days ago, I peeked between two loose boards in the fence surrounding the construction hole between James & Cherry / 3rd & 4th (apologies for ineloquent directions, I wasn't raised in a city).

I noticed that, in it's southeast (James & 4th) corner has, at the bottom of what looks to be about five stories deep, a bricked-over doorway leading, it seems, under 4th Avenue. I'm not sure if it connects to the bus tunnel, City Hall, or somehow to Seattle's underground, but, man, I'd sure love to find out.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Chacabuco, Chile

In northern Chile lies the Atacama Desert, 100 times more arid than Death Valley.

I'm not a big fan of heat. Perhaps it's where I grew up, but I've always felt that it's better to need layering up than stripping down, as once you reach nude, you've hit the wall. Freezing to death certainly seems to be preferrable to heat exhaustion; I've experienced Stage 2 hypothermia before on a few occasions and I would certainly prefer it to the convulsions, vomiting, and blindness which result from hyperpyrexia and dehydration (see William Langewiesche's delightful descriptions of death by hyperthermia in Sahara Unveiled).

Nevertheless, within this desert lies the abandoned ruins of several silver nitrate mining towns, abandoned in the 1930s after the invention of synthetic silver nitrate. Of them, Chacaburo is probably the most famous; repurposed under Pinochet as a concentration camp, it now lies surrounded by mines. A former prisoner of the camp, Pedro Barreda, became a self-appointed caretaker to prevent the ghost town from vandals and people from landmines. He died in 2006, at which time he was replaced by Roberto Saldívar.

Short of going to an abandoned scientific research base on Antarctica, I would dare say that Chacaburo would probably be the ultimate ghost town exploration.

Photosets of Chacabuco: 1 / 2

Trackback Notes:

Found Cacabuco from Wikipedia: Atacama Desert
Followed Atacama Desert from Wikipedia: Extremophile
Extremophile searched because of article on a liquid lake beneath Antarctica.

Monday, August 6, 2007

"What gives value to travel..."

Today at lunch, after relating some tale of reckless adventure from my childhood, a coworker inquired:

"So, should we all be amazed that you're still here to tell us these stories?"

...and it reminded me of something I had read recently, an essay by Pico Iyer, entitled Why We Travel (takes a while to fully load, but well worth it). In it, Camus is quoted:

"What gives value to travel is fear."

Which is true. I have to admit I was a little aroused by the story my neighbor told me of an abandoned mine on the Olympic Peninsula, cut through a mineral so black that flashlights are rendered nearly useless, and I'm really tempted to try for Kurdistan when I pass through Turkey next year (see "Shooting in Iraq"). But why?

Writer that I am, I know part of it lies in having a great tale to tell. Part of it is seeing something new, something many people will never see. But there are scores of "safe" places which fall into those categories, and "having a good story" and "seeing new places" are the reasons why everyone travels, from socks-and-sandaled cruise shippers to more intrepid wanderers. So why is it that fear, uncertainty, the big Unknown, are all so alluring to those of us who aren't content with our reasonably green grass? The full quote by Camus:

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Balestrino, Italy

44° 07' 27" N, 8° 10' 27" E

While my upcoming trip in February will probably not lead me into Europe any further west than Zagreb (and there are certainly a lot of abandoned castles and villages throughout the former Yugoslavia), a photoset of this little town on the Italian Riviera caught my eye the other day, and made me have second thoughts about not including a Europe leg.

Though the photoset would lead one to believe that the village is abandoned, from some brief Googling (including a very brief history on the town) it seems that Balestrino is indeed populated (~500). Checking the photos against Google Earth, it seems that the abandoned section is only the western part of town, south of the road (SP34) that bisects the village. Nevertheless, it's certainly on the list, and given it's proximity to the coast, it's certainly worth considering for a place to sleep that's out of the way, should I happen to find myself hitching from Genova to Monaco.

The website where I first found Balestrino, Abandoned But Not Forgotten, is now listed in the sidebar. Some of the pages have very little information, some without maps at all, which is of course half the fun. After all, if you want your sightseeing planned for you, Seattle has a splendid alternative.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Great Blue Hole

About 60 miles east of Belize City lies the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, home to the Great Blue Hole (which only sounds a little dirty), a large underwater cave which formed during one of the last ice ages, before it was submerged by the rising oceans. Indeed, diving in the cave, one passes by massive stalactites and stalagmites, evidence that the cave was once well above sea level (put that in your pipe and smoke it, creationists).

The Great Blue Hole measures around 1,000 feet across and over 400 feet deep, this is far too big and near civilization to be very far under the radar, and given the warm clime it's rather popular in extreme diving circles, but I feel that it's worth mentioning here anyway. There are several "blue holes" throughout the Bahamas; a great collection of information on blue holes can be found on the Blue Holes Foundation's website (including an article detailing the find inside an underwater cave of the first ever Lucayan Indian ceremonial canoe and human skeleton).

Unfortunately, there aren't any decent photo sets of the interior, though a small piece on diving to the end of the Great Blue Hole (and a single shot of the bottom) albeit on rather hideously designed page, can be found here.

I love caves and mines (having spent chunks of my teenagehood exploring abandoned copper mines in Michigan's UP), and the underwater variety are certainly all the more exciting given the added possibility of drowning, but given it's proximity to Belize City and its popularity, it seems more the sort of tamer thing I'll opt for when I've a wife and kids, and have grown enough sense to stop shrugging nonchalantly at death (e.g. my father used to cliff dive, now he rents a minivan and drives the family down to Ocean Isle Beach, NC).

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Juvenile, Reckless Adventure

A text message conversation this morning between my buddy Nate and I began with the logistics of growing ivory in a lab (and, consequently, how rich we could become). It quickly devolved into this:

          Outbox Msg 12
          6/6/07 11:45am

          So, I'm thinkin' we get
          some long-range paintball
          guns w blue paint (leave
          ...little trace) and do our
          our Halo thing in a real

          Inbox Msg 15
          11:49 6/6/07
Brilliant! We should
          totally do that. But we'll
          need some adaptive
          camouflage to make it as
          fun as possible.

          Outbox Msg 13
          11:53 6/6/07

          Think blue & white
          camo, Alaska, kayak to a
          remote glacier, and
          demarcate play
          boundaries w handheld
          GPS units.

          Outbox Msg 14
          11:56 6/6/07


He and I only have a chance to get together over Christmas, at which time, as we have for the last several years, we engage in what we like to describe as a "gentleman's game" of Halo. (for those not hip to the video game, bear with me) He and I, on separate TV screens, match wits in duels which individually can take hours, played with sniper rifles in an expansive glacial canyon. There's no "woohoo"ing, no aggression or one upmanship - it's chess with guns.

For what it's worth, Nate is mostly joking, and he's far too sensible with his money to fly to Alaska with me for the World's Greatest Paintball Fight (though he probably doesn't know about crevasses, so convincing him is merely a monetary issue). But we've been friends long enough for him to know that I'm entirely serious, and it's not as though I'd pick the Khumbu Icefall as the locale (although, now that I mention it...). Wherever it might be held, it does sound pretty badass, if I do say so myself.

And thus, it's on The List.

Afterthought: We've also discussed - should we ever find ourselves both with a terminal illness - an actual battle to the death on Antarctica; however, I fear its theatrics would surely fall short of our imagination, due to the inevitable lacking in our ability to recreate the necessary Amok Time soundtrack.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Sarawak Chamber

3° 57' N, 114° 47' E

I couldn't really find a good picture of Sarawak Chamber - part of the Lubang Nasib Bagus cave system in Malaysia - because one simply does not exist. It's hard to photograph a cave large enough to fit ten jumbo jets nose to tail.

This massive chamber - the largest in the world - sat undiscovered until 1981 (giving me hope there might be a few things left to be found) in what is now the Mulu National Park in Borneo's north. The British explorers who first stumbled upon the cave had no idea of its size, following one wall of the cave until they decided to cross to the opposite end, assuming it to be relatively nearby, despite not being able to see the opposing side with their lamps. Only after a lot of walking through darkness without end did they begin to comprehend the cavern's vastness.

In addition to the Sarawak Chamber, the Lubang Nasib Bagus includes Deer Cave, the largest cave passage in the world, and Clearwater Cave, the longest cave in Asia. Clearwater, incidentally, has never been crossed from end to end.

Now, I don't know... well, much of anything about caves beyond the childhood mnemonic device: "stalactites" hold "tight" the ceiling, and stalagmites are the other one. I've never planned any spelunking, but rather I explore the ones I stumble upon. In general, things like "basic familiarity," "dangerous tide shifts," or "a lack of a map of any kind" haven't really stopped me before, and the adventure points for this one are through the roof.

But I'm not a complete idiot (I'm still alive), and I always bring the necessary supplies and make the right preparations for a serious expedition. But I don't let something I'm a little green in get the better of me. Besides, I've seen The Descent, The Cave, and The Cavern (a trinity of crap if there ever was one), and I've read House of Leaves, so I think I've got all the info I need on caves, thank you.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Northern Hemisphere Tour 2008 Blog

I've created a new group blog for the proposed trip around the world in 2008, which can be found here:

Northern Hemisphere Tour 2008

All posts on the trip - planning, locales, headaches, et cetera - will be there, excluding anything especially delicious that might find it's way back home to the Theatrum.

Update 2/21/08: The NHT08 blog is no more. It was never that interesting, I have enough trouble dealing with two blogs and a Twitter as is; the trip will be recorded in Hey, Nice Jacket.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Northern Hemisphere Tour 2008:
Itinerary Planning, Part One

In early April of this year, over many cocktails and a webcam, number one travel buddy Adela and I came upon quite the conundrum:

1. I'm flying to Osaka in February 2008 to spend a few weeks with Adela in Japan, where she is currently teaching English.

2. She and I are dying to go back to the ex-Yugo, and maybe pop into Turkey and Greece while we're in the neighborhood.

3. We're both rather impatient, and know that once I'm back in university and she's in grad school, it will be years before we embark on any serious travel.

So, what do two enterprising young bohemians do when presented with such a predicament?

Looking quickly on Google Earth, I say, eating the last olive of my fourth martini, "Well, it's only 10,000 kilometers between Osaka and Sarajevo..."

Northern Hemisphere Tour 2008

Seattle > Osaka > Mumbai > Kathmandu > Beijing > Ulaanbaatar > Moscow > Tbilisi > Athens > Sarajevo > Zagreb > Ljubljana > London > NYC > Seattle

While we haven't worked out, well, any of the kinks, we've established that the trip will begin shortly after my arrival in Osaka in February. After two weeks in Japan, I will (possibly, finances allowing) fly to Mumbai to meet ex Stephanie. From there, we will wander India for a few weeks in a roughly northerly direction towards Lumbini, Nepal, and then Kathmandu. From there we will head into Tibet and on to Beijing, where we will meet Adela and boyfriend Art.

After a brief stay in China, the four of us will get on the Trans-Mongolian railroad, heading through Ulaanbaatar to catch the main Trans-Siberian route to Moscow. From there, the route blurs. We may head through Ukraine and then south into Bosnia, or south from Moscow into Turkey and Greece and then to Bosnia.

After wandering the ex-Yugo for a while (Sarajevo, Split, various little spots along the way), we'll head towards London, catching a cheap flight Stateside.

More to come...

Monday, May 21, 2007

London's Subterranean Rivers

Sigh. Again with the Wikipedia.

In my wanderings on the interweb, I dig up a lot of interesting little tidbits about the hidden right under our noses. If only I had known when I lived in London that right under my feet were miles of subterranean rivers, I would have spent a lot less time napping on the grass in Regent's Park, and a lot more time crawling around London's underbelly with a Maglite and a pair of neoprene waders.

As London developed, the need for space necessitated burying beneath the city the tributaries which fed the Thames and Lea, many of which were converted into sewers (and it would be just a little cool to contract the plague on an adventure). Today there are over a dozen of these tunnel systems running under the city. I haven't found a very good list of these rivers (some so large they were once navigated by barges), and everything I find has hints of rivers that are truly lost, no one sure of their exact location, or if they ever existed at all.

Sub-Urban, of course, has quite a few adventures within the rivers chronicled on their site, including the River Fleet, the largest of London's underground rivers. I appreciate their ability to show and not tell - nobody likes a loud mouth schnook who gives it all away (is that what this blog is all about, I now wonder?), as it is invariably followed by newly fenced-off entrances and CCTV guardians. After all, some secrets are better left so.

Next time I'm in London, I'm bringing rubber boots.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

$100 Laptops In The Field

This morning, I found a collection of videos of the $100 laptop in use in Brazilian and Cambodian schools.

If you haven't heard, the $100 laptop, designed by MIT for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child), powered by batteries charged via a hand crank, running open source software, and, as mentioned, costing only US$100, is probably one of the best things to hit the Third World since Alfred Sauvy invented the term, thus damning them to a ambiguous but decidedly dark place in the First World's collective consciousness. Although, malaria shots were pretty cool, too.

While $100 is an unattainable goal for much of the world's poor, organizations like the Grameen Bank push that goal much closer to a reality, especially if used in conjunction with business ventures, sort of like the GrameenPhone.

Of course, if you're Bill Gates, projects like the $100 laptop, Village Phone and all poor who need them can suck an egg, unless you and your horrifying backwardness are lucky enough to fall into the category of an Emerging Market (which only sounds a little vaguely evil on it's own), or, as it's more commonly known, "exploitable." Gates and the $100 laptop.

And if you're thrifty and own a soldering gun, you could always make your own.