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Baku, Azerbaijan

I was nearly delirious from a combination of lack of sleep and airplane cocktails by the time I landed in Baku.  Four flights and over 24 hours of travel had predictably taken its toll on my constitution, but as I stepped onto the tarmac, feeling the cool breeze of the Caspian Sea blowing across my face, a sense of contentment swept over me.  To set foot in a new country, a part of the world not yet known to me, is an exhilarating feeling, a feeling I have become addicted to.

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After clearing immigration and collecting my backpack, I found myself in the back of a classic London-style taxi, zooming toward the bright lights of central Baku.  Maseratis and Jaguars weaved through traffic with reckless abandon as my cab sped along the highway.  As we approached the city limits I saw before me the dazzling lights of a city that, at first glance, resembled the Las Vegas strip.  On one side of the car was the ominous black water of the Caspian Sea, on the other towering classically styled mansions and hotels whose facades were all perfectly illuminated by countless lights.  Above it all loomed three striking skyscrapers amazingly lit with an LED display of flames licking their exteriors.

For those of you who don’t know much about Baku and perhaps imagine it to be another obscure post-Soviet backwater, I can assure you it is not.  I have spent the last three days exploring this amazing city and it certainly rivals any of the great cities of the world. Replete with grand boulevards, exquisite fountains and a sweeping boardwalk along the Caspian, this city is a gem that, unfortunately, few westerners can point out on map, and even fewer have visited.

My experience of Baku, the capital and largest city of Azerbaijan, has been enhanced by my friend Tamrika Khvtisiashvili who usually resides in Salt Lake City but of late has spent the last four summers here in Baku working on her PHD.  A native of the Republic of Georgia, she is well-traveled and speaks several languages fluently.  She has proved to be a perfect host, tour guide and friend during my stay here.  Tomorrow we are heading to a remote mountain village in the high Caucasus called Xinaliq.  Tamrika has been studying their obscure language as part of her PHD and has many contacts there.  I’ve heard we may even get to see a traditional wedding during our visit.  From Xinaliq I’ll be heading overland to Georgia via the Silk Road towns of Lahic and Sheki.  More tales from the road may be in the offing if I can find the time and dependable internet.

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The Caucasus

Where Europe, Asia and the Middle East come together are three countries that have intrigued me for more than a decade and have long been near the top of my travel list.  The three countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all ex-Soviet republics, are often collectively called “The Caucasus,” named for the majestic mountain range that runs through them.  After years of reading about this area, I have finally set aside the time to backpack across it, starting in Azerbaijan and finishing in Armenia.

My fascination with this locality began while studying Russian literature in college.  Authors like Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy set several of their most famous works in the region.  Books like “Hadji Murat,” “A Hero of Our Time,” and “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” tell tales of young Russian men adventuring through the high mountain passes, fighting remote hill tribes and getting into romanticized duels.  As these countries have long sparked my imagination and tantalized my thirst for adventure, I am very excited to witness the dramatic landscape and experience the renowned hospitality of the Peoples who live there.

Saigon, Vietnam

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Buzzing with energy and action, Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is officially called, has a population of over 6 million. The city has not only two names, but also two seemingly distinct identities. First, there is the eternally unchanging Saigon, seductive and captivating. Like Shanghai, or Bangkok, its name alone congers a hodgepodge of exotic images: women plying the streets wearing traditional conical hats (called non la), selling goods from buckets that hang from long sticks they carry across their backs;  bowls of steaming hot Pho (rice noodle soup) sold from street-side vendors, and ancient pagodas nestled down quaint, back alleys.  Western-style colonial buildings can still be seen from the long-standing French occupation. Yet, in juxtaposition to all that is timeless here, there is Ho Chi Minh City, the modern metropolis hurtling toward the future.  Contemporary high-rise hotels, designer shopping malls and international restaurants are stacked next to each other beneath an ever-growing skyline.  Its roads teem with a million motorbikes buzzing around like swarms of wasps.  The streets are a cacophony of beeping horns and shouts from beckoning touts.  Full of hustle and bustle, Ho Chi Minh City has the feel of being on the move and on the make.  Rooted in tradition, but with its eye on the future, this city seems a perfect paradox.

On Monday afternoon I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat airport on a direct flight from Manila.  After collecting my bag and exchanging some money, I was faced with a common traveler’s dilemma: where to go and how to get there.  After deciding on a recommended hotel from my guidebook, I headed out onto the streets.  Immediately I heard the call of taxi drivers: “Sir, Sir, this way, where are you going?. . . this way, Sir.”  After inquiring how much it would cost to get to Pham Ngu Lao, the so-called backpacker district, I was quoted $10.  I thought this was strange to have a price quoted in U.S. dollars as opposed to Vietnamese Dong, but with an exchange rate of 19,000 Dong to 1 u.s.d., I guess they figure $10 dollars somehow sounds less expensive than 200,000 Dong.  I then asked them how much the local bus was, and they replied “same, same.”

Suspecting the cab drivers were attempting to over-charge me and knowing there was no way in the world a local bus in Vietnam would cost $10, I opted to try my luck with the latter option.  “Pham Ngu Lao?” I asked the bus driver.  He stoically shook his head in the affirmative and pointed his thumb to the back of the bus.  I boarded the bus, taking the seat directly behind the driver and began fumbling through my wallet in an attempt to pay my fair.  After seeing several locals board the bus and pay 3,000 Dong (about 20 cents) I did the same.

Now it was time for the fun part, trying to figure out where the bus was heading and when in the world I was supposed to get off.  I kept trying to look at street names and match them with the crude map in my guidebook.  This was anything but easy with street names like “Le Thanh Ton” and “Ly Tu Trong.”   I must have appeared to be the typical, beleaguered foreigner because I soon heard the wee voice of a young girl sitting behind me.  “First time here?” she asked in remarkably good English.  “How could you tell?” I replied jokingly, “I’m trying to get to Pham Ngu Lao.”

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, I exited the bus at my correct stop and soon found myself in the midst of backpacker central, Pham Ngu Lao.  Like Khao San Road in Bangkok, Pham Ngu Lao is a district of Saigon that is crowded with budget hotels, bars, cafes, travel agencies and souvenir shops.  Nearly half of the people you see walking down the road are travelers.  Pham Ngu Lao is ground zero of the Saigon Western traveler’s scene.

Upon entering the hotel I’d selected from my guidebook, a place called Madam Cuc’s Hotel 64, I was greeted by Madam Cuc herself who said, “Put down bag, you need beer.”  Lao Tzu could not have spoken truer words.  After sipping down a delicious, icy-cold Saigon Lager, I was asked to take off my shoes before being led up a staircase to my room.  I turned to pick up my bag but was told to leave it there. “We have machine,” Madam Cuc informed me.  After climbing a steep flight of stairs, we began to climb another, and then another, and then another.  At the top of each of the consecutive flights of stairs I thought “O.K. there’s no way it’s any higher than this.”  But sure enough, I was wrong.  In the end we climbed up 8 flights of stairs, barefoot. I began to see why Madam Cuc had offered me the beer and mentioned some sort of machine for my bags.

Thankfully, the room that awaited me on the top floor was perfect and by far the nicest I’d had on the entire trip.  It contained my own bathroom with hot water, a queen-size bed, refrigerator, T.V. and, most importantly, air-conditioning, not to mention an unobstructed view of Saigon.  For this room I was paying a whopping $16 per night.  As I turned back toward the door, I heard the cranking of a large wench ingeniously constructed to lift over-sized backpacks up the otherwise impossible staircase.

Staircase aside, I found Madam Cuc’s to be the perfect headquarters for exploring Saigon.  My room’s location on the top floor gave me the feeling of living in a penthouse and the lack of an elevator made its location feel all the more private.  The only drawback was the occasions that I got to the bottom of the stairs only to remember I’d forgotten my camera or guidebook.

That night I explored the streets around my hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao district.  I started with a delicious meal of lemongrass and ginger chicken, accompanied by rice and five fresh spring rolls.  Vietnamese cuisine is one of my very favorites, so I was delighted to sample the “real McCoy.”  In addition to the wonderful flavors, I found the price to be just as pleasing, the dinner costing about $5, including a beer.  With a full stomach and slight buzz, I began to wander the streets, intoxicated by everything around me.

As I walked along crowded Bui Vien street, a pair of local girls on a motor scooter came cruising by.  The one driving smiled at me and I instinctively smiled back.  She immediately slowed down and asked “Hey, where are you going?”  “Just walking,” I replied, as I had no real destination in mind.  “You come with me,” she said, “we make love one hour.”  “Thanks, but no, I’m good,” I replied, taken aback by the forward nature of her offer.  I continued to walk on but she soon swerved the motor scooter in front of me, blocking my path.  “You come now, we make make love one hour. One million Dong.” All along her friend sat on the back seat with a flat, expressionless look on her face. “I appreciate the subtlety and coyness of your offer,” I said dryly, stepping around the scooter, “but I’m really not interested.”

Granted, maybe this happens all the time, but I have to say it was a first for me.  Sure, hookers and pimps will offer their services just about anywhere in the world, but such a bold approach by two girls who appeared to be heading somewhere was quite a shocker.  Obviously prostitution is a huge racket all over Asia and just about every cab driver will ask if you want “nice girl” or simply “boom-boom?” but a couple of freelance hookers, hand-picking their clientele off the busy street was something I’ve never encountered. “Welcome to Saigon,” I thought to myself with a laugh as the girls cruised back onto the street and disappeared into traffic.  Although I spent two more days in Saigon, this was the only instance of this happening.

The next two days I spent exploring Saigon and visiting several museums.  Although I prefer to walk as much as possible when exploring a new city, this proved difficult in Saigon. Traffic consists of countless motorbikes and scooters all zipping around with little regard for traffic rules.  The simple act of crossing the street takes daring and bravery (or just plain stupidity).  After several near accidents and false starts, I gave up on trying to walk and instead hired one of the ubiquitous motorbike taxis that offer their service on every corner.  I found this to be a much quicker and more exciting mode of transportation.  Instead of dodging the maelstrom of motorbikes, I decided to join it.  The average ride costs only 20,000 Dong ($1), and you can hire a driver for the entire day for around $10.

My first stop was the Reunification Palace.  Once the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government, this building was the last to fall into the hands of the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong.  According to the film they played inside, on the morning of April 30, 1975 the first Communist tanks arrived and crashed through the wrought-iron gates.  In a dramatic scene captured around the world, a Viet Cong soldier rushed into the building and up onto the fourth floor balcony where he unfurled a VC flag.  In a chamber nearby, the South Vietnamese President, General Minh, waited with his defeated cabinet.  As the VC soldier entered the room, General Minh said, “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you.” The VC soldier replied, “You cannot give up what you do not have.”

After touring the Reunification Palace I headed to the War Remnants Museum.  Once known as the Chinese and American War Crimes Museum, this is the most popular museum in Saigon.  Surrounding the building are several pieces of American artillery, bombs and planes captured by the VC, now standing like trophies in central Saigon.  Inside is a horrifying exhibit documenting the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, referred to as “The American War” by the Vietnamese, displaying everything from the use of torture and tiger-cage prisons to the disfiguring effects of Agent Orange. There is even a plaque on one of the walls that calls U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, an abject murderer and war criminal.  Another interesting and disturbing display was a sculpture made out of shrapnel, simply titled “Mother.”

Granted, the museum only tells one side of the story and some of the rhetoric seems to border on propaganda; however, I think it would be difficult for any American, even supporters of the war, to pass through the museum without feeling a sense of disgust and regret.  I began to feel like a German must feel while touring Auschwitz or Dachau.  I started to wonder if similar museums might one day be erected in Baghdad or Kabul thirty years from now.

While browsing through the gift shop of the museum, I was shocked to see (presumably fallen) American soldier’s dog-tags for sale.  There were also military patches and medals, as well as Zippo lighters engraved by soldiers.  Certainly these things belonged in a museum, but a museum gift shop? And for only $4?  Needless to say, this was in very, very poor taste.

The final interesting museum I visited was the Museum of Ho Chi Minh. Housing many personal effects of “Uncle Ho,” this proved to be an interesting exhibition that reminded me of some of the revolutionary museums I’ve visited in Havana, Cuba.  Among the collection on display were several of his outfits, typewriter, eye-glasses and even his will which was chiseled into metal.  The museum did a good job of deifying him, and you left with the feeling he was the Vietnamese equivalent to Gandhi.

After touring the museums I explored more of the Dong Khoi area of Central Saigon.  Here I was surprised to see designer stores by Gucci and Louis Vuitton that would seem more fitting in Beverly Hills than in a city in Indochina.  America may have lost the military war here, but when it comes to culture, nothing stops American influence.  A single Strarbucks or American movie can convert more people to the American way of life than all of the bombs and war planes in the world. . . .

Boracay Island, Panay, the Philippines

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Only an hour flight from Manila, the island of Boracay feels a world away.  It is a land of sand and sunshine, exotic fruit shakes, and world-class diving.  From the moment I stepped off the ferry and felt the cool island breeze, I knew I’d arrived somewhere special.

Of the over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines, tiny Boracay is known as the “Pearl of the Archipelago.”  Located a stone’s throw north of Panay Island, Boracay is a tropical paradise matched by few others on earth.  Crystal-clear, turquoise water laps across a flawless beach of fine white sand. Lush palm trees sway gently beneath a brilliant blue sky that is punctuated by robust, white clouds.  Arriving here after 5 days in the hellish heat and humidity of Manila, I truly felt as if I’d taken a flight from Hell’s kitchen to Heaven’s front yard.

But as is so often the case with traveling, getting here was no easy feat.  On Tuesday afternoon I headed to the Manila airport to catch my Cebu Pacific flight to Caticlan.   Caticlan is a town on the north shore of Panay Island and the main departure point for ferries to Boracay.  Arriving at the airport I learned the flight was delayed by over an hour.  This disappointing news was amplified when I was told that due to weather conditions we would be landing in Kolibo, some two hours away from Caticlan, then shuttled to our intended destination.  In the end this meant that instead of arriving in Boracay around 5:30 p.m.,  I actually didn’t arrive until after 11:00 p.m.  Exhausted, I checked into a recommended hostel called “Friendz Resort” where I ran into a Dutch couple I had met my first day in Manila.

The next day I awoke to a cup of strong black coffee and feasted my eyes on glorious White Beach, a lovely stretch of coast that is the epicenter of activity in Boracay.  Stretching nearly the entire west side of the island, White Beach is the place to lay-out, dine, swim, get henna tattooed, massaged, or to just sip a fresh mango shake and squeeze the sand between your toes.  The beach is over three miles long and packed with restaurants, resort hotels, massage parlors, touts, souvenir shops and juice bars.

Although modern conveniences can often enhance the experience of a beautiful, natural setting, Boracay’s, and especially White Beach’s main drawback is it’s over-development and over-popularity.  On the whole, though, my experience here was great, but the throngs of Korean package tourists and Starbucks coffee shops, at times, brought to mind the term “Paradise Lost.”  Like so many other once pristine locations around the world like Bali, Koa Samoui, Cay Caulker, and Maui, the world has long since discovered Boracay and shortly thereafter built a McDonald’s.  Well, not a McDonald’s exactly (thank god there isn’t one on Boracay), but you get the point.  A fellow traveler expressed his disappointment with the existence of a Starbucks here, shortly before ordering a java-chip frappuccino. I reminded him that there is a Starbucks everywhere in the world, including the Forbidden City in Beijing.

I’ve spent most of my time here relaxing on the beach and partying with a vast array of travelers from around the world, including a troupe of Brazilian acrobats who work for Cirque de Soliel in Macau, China.  But the highlight of my time spent here was sailing around the entire island and snorkeling in two prime areas.  I was walking the beach one afternoon when I ran into two Canadian guys I had met at the guest house I stayed at in Manila.  The three of us decided to do a three hour sailing and snorkeling tour.  We began by sailing to the south end of Boracay and snorkeling near Crocodile Island.  Unfortunately, I don’t have an underwater camera but, take my word, it was as good or better than any snorkeling I’ve done in Belize, Hawaii or Indonesia. There was an abundance of tropical fish, coral and sea urchins. Sailing around the island also gave us a glimpse of several untouched beaches far away from the commercialism of White Beach. While sailing back we saw one of the most glorious and spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life.

Today I flew back to Manila and tomorrow I’m flying to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon), in Vietnam.  I’ve heard a lot about Vietnam, and the general opinion is that it is great if you can get over the fact that you’ll be over-charged for everything if you are a foreigner.  More from country 62, Vietnam, in a few days.

Manila, the Philippines

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At long last I’m back on the road and exploring new parts of the world.  For this trip I’m focusing on two countries I’ve never visited:  the Philippines and Vietnam.  This is my third time in Asia, and these two countries are among the last I have yet to visit on the continent.

My first trip to Asia was in 2002 when I took the trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow, Russia, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, then on to Beijing, China.   From there I headed to Shanghai before boarding a ferry to Japan.  My last trip to Asia was in 2004 when I covered Hong Kong,  southern China, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and India.  I had intended to visit Vietnam on that trip, but ended up running out of time, so it has been sitting on the back burner all these years, enticing me to return. . . .

My present journey started in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I was the last stand-by passenger admitted on the direct flight to Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, Japan.  Fortunately, I was seated in business-class and greeted with a freshly poured mimosa. I spent the flight enjoying a fillet Mignon and drinking screwdrivers until I passed out in the plush, over-sized seat. The flight ended up being just over 11 hours.

After a relatively short lay-over in Japan, I boarded a flight bound for the capital city of the Philippines:  Manila.  Again I was awarded a seat in business class; however, I was so exhausted I spent the flight sleeping, too tired to reap the benefits of free drinks and pseudo-gourmet meals.  That flight was just over three hours long.

When we landed in Manila, it was around 10:30 at night.  Walking off the plane and onto the ramp I could immediately feel the sweltering, thick, humid air of a torrid summer night.   Although it had been nearly 20 hours since I’d left Salt Lake City,  I also lost 13 hours due to the time change.  This meant I left the U.S. on Wednesday morning and landed in Manila late Thursday night.

After a half-hour cab ride, I arrived at a pension in the Malate district.  Malate is known for being a very colorful and cosmopolitan district of Manila.  It is sometimes referred to as “old Manila” because there have been several newer districts developed, such as Makati, where modern sky-scrapers and hi-rise condominiums abound.  Feeling completely sapped of energy, I retired to my humble room consisting of four walls, a bed and an ancient fan.

The next morning I awoke early and immediately headed to the Vietnam Embassy with the intention of obtaining a visa.  As far as embassies go, I found this one to be quite empty and hassle-free.  The only catch was they wanted 5 business days to process my application.  Thanks to some bad information posted on Lonely Planet’s on-line travel forum, I had been operating under the assumption it would only take one day.  Of course it was a Friday and five business days would end up keeping me in Manila for an entire week.  Luckily they offered an express option for an additional $20 fee that would allow me to pick it up on Tuesday morning. I spent the rest of the day exploring the Malate district where I am staying.

Manila strikes me as a city of great extremes.  It has a pretty terrible reputation, and it’s not difficult to see why.  It’s loud, polluted and overcrowded.  The heat and humidity are oppressive, and the poverty is disarming.  But for all the things that seem to plague the city, there is a lot to see and enjoy here as well.  If you are a person who can take a city for what it is, and have the time and patience to seek out what gems it has to offer, Manila is a pretty cool place.

On the contrasting poverty side of things, I was walking down Adricatio Street on my first day here and was accosted by 8 year-old boys selling packs of cigarettes.  Truthfully, this didn’t really shock me.  However, when they offered me boxes of Viagra and Cialis, even I, the hardened traveler I fancy myself to be, was a bit taken aback.  Poor children selling the latest erectile dysfunction medication is truly a memorable and perplexing image. In a strange way it seems a perfect metaphor for this city, a strange clash of third-world poverty mixed with modern excess.

That night I met a lot of cool travelers at the guest house I’m staying at, aptly named “Friendly’s.” It was a good mix of Canadians, English, Swiss, Chinese, Korean, and even a girl from Singapore.  We all had a great time talking about our travels and enjoying San Miguel lagers at about 50 cents a bottle.  I was still suffering from jet lag that night, so I ended up going to bed early and trying to adjust my body to the 13 hour time difference.

The next day I spent walking through as much of Manila as possible.  I headed north from Malate and ended up doing a walking tour of Intramuros.   Intramuros is an ancient and historic section of the city that was once the site of a huge Spanish fort built by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi.  Originally erected in 1571, Intramorus  has been invaded by Chinese pirates and fallen under the control of several foreign armies, including the Americans.

That night I contacted a friend who is a local here, named Paolo Lao.  Paolo was born and raised in Manila but recently lived in Salt Lake City for 7 years.  He was a regular at the bar and restaurant that I work at in Salt Lake City, and we have several mutual friends.  He ended up inviting me to have dinner at a friend’s house before we went out for drinks.  Paolo lives in the newly developed Global City district of Manila near Makati.

Although it should have only been a half hour cab ride from Malate to Global City; shortly before I left, the skies opened up and a torrential downpour of biblical proportions ensued.  Within about ten minutes the streets of Malate were flooded with nearly a foot of water. Several cab drivers refused me when I told them I was headed to Global City.  Finally, with the help of a doorman at a swanky hotel, I was able to get a cab driver to agree to take me.  The ride was a harrowing experience and ended up taking over an hour.  Several of the streets downtown ran like rivers.   The taxi died several times and I started thinking I might have to walk, or swim rather, to my dinner appointment.

Finally I arrived at my intended destination: a ritzy, hi-rise condominium complex near Fort Bonifacio.  I was immediately struck by the opulent entry way and the clean-cut doormen who knew where I was heading before I even opened my mouth.  “Good evening sir, you are here to see Mr. Essay. . . . This way please.” I was soon on an elevator headed to the 14th floor. After having walked through some of the poorest parts of the Manila, it was obvious I was about to see how the other half lived.

I soon found myself in the living room of a huge luxury condominium, one of the nicest I’ve ever been in.  Paolo greeted me warmly and introduced me to a group of eight of his friends, all locals of Manila.  We spent the evening having a terrific dinner, talking and watching the World Cup.  All of his friends were incredibly nice, spoke perfect English, and did their best to welcome me to the Philippines.  It was obvious they were part of the upper-crust of the Filipinos.  Mike, the owner of the condo, was a successful business man who had everything from a maid to a chauffeur.  After having spent the last few days in my cramped, budget room, I truly felt I’d gone from vagabond to international socialite.

After several hours of hanging out, we headed to a chic bar.  There we met up with more of Paolo’s friends and danced until nearly 3:00 a.m.  Paolo was a very gracious host, and I can’t thank him enough for the wonderful evening.  I finally took a cab back to my guest-house in Malate and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

I spent the next two days relaxing and exploring more of Manila.  I visited a very cool Chinese graveyard that included giant mausoleums, some of which were two stories high and included full kitchens with running water. Talk about being set-up in the afterlife. . . Who said you can’t take it with you?

I also spent some time in the massive malls of Manila.  There are several here that are some of the largest and nicest I’ve seen anywhere.  There are hundreds of incredible restaurants inside,  featuring cuisine from every corner of the world.  I’ve had some great chicken adobo, a specialty here, as well as some insanely tasty fried chicken.  The Philippine islands are an incredible melting pot of several different cultures, all of which have brought their cuisine here.

This blog wouldn’t be complete without mentioning boxing.  Boxing is “huge” in the Philippines, thanks to a man named Manny Pacquiao. In addition to being the current #1 ranked pound-for-pound boxer in the world, he is also my favorite sport celebrity.  His popularity in the Philippines is unmatched, and his face is plastered on countless advertisements and billboards.  He even recently won a seat in congress here. Manila was also the location for one of the greatest boxing matches of all time, “the Thrilla in Manila.”  It was Muhammad Ali’s third fight against Joe Frazier.  Having experienced the killer heat and humidity here, I feel a much greater appreciation and insight into what exactly those men had to deal with.  They were not just fighting each other; they were also fighting the elements.

On Tuesday morning I picked up my Vietnam visa and caught a flight to the beautiful island of Boracay.  I am now on what is reported to be the nicest stretch of beach in the Philippines.  I’ll write more from here later.

Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

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After leaving Valparaiso we spent two days in Chile’s capital, Santiago. Although we didn’t spend much time there, we found Santiago to be a pleasant capital city. On the night of October 4th, we headed to the airport and caught a flight back to the United States.

This concludes our 6 month adventure through 17 countries in Central and South America. I would like to thank all of my friends and family that supported us in this undertaking. I would also like to thank Bambara restaurant for graciously offering us our jobs back. Finally, I want to give a very special thanks to my father, Bob Jowett, who helped tremendously in the proofreading and publication of these blog entries.

That’s all for this edition of Jack’s World. Tune in next time for more travel tales from far-flung regions of Africa, the Middle East and Asia . . .

Valparaiso, Chile

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Ahhh, Chile. Another landmark country in my prolific travel career. Certainly one of the most distinctively contoured countries in the world, Chile’s impossibly long skinny shape represents a gigantic finish line for me. It is the 60th country I have visited, and it signifies the accomplishment of my long-held dream of visiting 60 countries before my 30th birthday. Chile is also the final destination of our trip and, most fortunately, one could not ask for a finer place.

Just when I thought the trip was winding down, I arrived in Neruda’s “Ocean’s Sweetheart”–Valparaiso, and found myself completely blown away. For me it was love at first sight, and I felt my mind struck suddenly to life once again. Within moments of wandering its intriguing alleyways, I found myself completely enraptured by the chaotic charm of this port town. Just like the unexpected gem of Panama City that awaited us at the end of our Central American trip, Valparaiso has proved to be another jewel, an extraordinary city that ranks solidly among my favorites.

Valparaiso is a bohemian city, full of poets, artists and dreamers. The town itself is stunningly situated atop a series of hillsides that tumble down into the vibrant blue ocean below. The city comprises ancient mansions, brightly colored houses, and a divine complex of cobbled paths and rambling staircases. It is a place abundant with the same kind of enchanting beauty one might find while peering down a hidden canal in Venice. The architecture is reminiscent of the faded grandeur of Havana Vieja, Napoli, or Casco Viejo in Panama City. It’s a place so picturesque, each new twist and turn seem to reveal the perfect photograph.

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Although Valparaiso is a place where beauty and charm come first, it is not like such places as Venice and Cartagena in that it hasn’t been taken over by tourists; it is a real city full of real residents. This town has remained authentic in a way few places with such beauty are allowed. Tourists don’t rule the streets of Valparaiso, artists and madmen do.

Let me retrace my steps in getting here. After leaving Mendoza, Argentina, I took an eight hour bus ride across the Andes to reach Valparaiso. The moment I left Argentina and crossed the remote, mountainous border into Chile, I began feeling a profound change come over me. It felt as if I had finally broken free from some strange, bleak stasis that had haunted me throughout my time in Argentina. The freshness and vibrancy of the Chilean landscape made me feel as though I had miraculously stepped into another world.

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Once across the Andes, the sky cleared to a cloudless, brilliant blue. Flowers were blooming in abundance, and the distinct freshness of Spring was in the air. I suddenly felt rejuvenated and refreshed, as if I were a dying plant that had finally been watered and placed in direct sunlight.

I arrived in Chile less than a week after their Independence Day, yet a sea of Chilean flags still flew proudly from every home. Freedom still seemed to be the theme of the day. Once I arrived in Valparaiso, I beheld before me a city that immediately brought to mind Napoli, Italy. Of all of the cities I’ve seen in Central and South America, Valparaiso is unlike any other. A city like this would seem more fitting in Sicily or Malta.

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After having traveled through the mundane, modern cities of Argentina, Valparaiso’s class and style seemed all the more accentuated. I felt as if every place I’d visited since Rio de Janeiro ought to be burned to the ground. Argentina and Uruguay seemed cast in a gray light like pieces of abstract wreckage. I had enjoyed my time in those countries, but it was now, in Chile, that I remembered that I live for the places that blow me away. Rio had done that, now Valparaiso was doing that too.

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Throughout our trip Eric and I have searched the nooks and crannies of each place we have visited, always looking for those little details that speak to our personal taste and vision of the world. Things like crooked roof tops, enchanting back alleys, blind accordion players, and silhouettes in windows. For all of the patches of magic we found in other places, it was here, in Valparaiso, that I found a kingdom.

Although Eric and I had agreed to spend time traveling alone, Valparaiso was one treasure I could not keep to myself. I immediately sent him an email declaring: “Valparaiso feels like Napoli.” I knew this single phrase would get the point across. Eric knows me well enough to know that I would never use an utterance like “Napoli” lightly. Such terms are sacred to us and have taken on a nearly religious connotation in our travel vocabulary.

After all, Napoli is the place where Eric and I first experienced traveling together, nearly three and a half years ago. The idea had come to us, more or less in passing at work, that we arrange to meet up in Italy for a few days before embarking on separate trips. After arriving in Napoli, we immediately found ourselves caught under its spell. It was during those brief powerful days that the seeds were planted, not just for this Central and South American trip, but for the very foundation of our friendship. The bonds and promises we made back then built the bridges we’ve taken all the way from Napoli here to Valparaiso.

Eric emailed me back and said he would arrive in Valparaiso in three days. I ended up spending those next three days enjoying the town with two girls I met at the hostel. They were both sweethearts that were traveling alone through South America. One of them was a twenty-year-old Swedish girl named Martina. She ended up telling us a heart-wrenching story about a bus accident she survived mere weeks ago in Patagonia. Apparently, the bus she was on collided with a truck, killing both drivers as well as one other person on board. She said the surviving passengers were then stranded on the side of the road for the next 10 hours before another bus was able to pick them up.

“By the time I got to Mendoza I’d had nothing to eat for almost 30 hours, ” she told us. “So I went to a restaurant and ate a rabbit steak.”

“A rabbit steak?” I asked, to make sure I’d heard her correctly.

“Yes a rabbit steak, and the man who served it to me gave me a discount because I told him of the accident.”

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Although their sweet smiling faces and interesting travel tales were a pleasure to be around, I found myself still anxiously awaiting Eric’s arrival. I knew I had jewels to cast before him and couldn’t wait to see the beauty of Valparaiso ring his bell. I was giddy with the knowledge that the “travel magic” he had first tasted in Napoli, still had tricks to pull out of its hat, even this late in our Central and South American travel adventure.

Three days later Eric arrived, and our first day in Valparaiso together turned out to be one of the most beautiful and epic of the entire trip. We started off the day by taking a leisurely stroll along a twisting residential road high in the hills. We were en route to visit the poet Pablo Neruda’s house and looking at our map, when a gentleman with a bag of groceries passed by. He and I happened to make eye contact, so I simply said “Hola.” He smiled and walked a few more paces, then paused for a moment before turning around and walking back our way. He then asked us if we needed directions.

Buscamos para la casa de Pablo Neruda,” I replied.

Although he spoke rapid Spanish with a thick Chilean accent, we were able to gather that we were right down the street from Neruda’s house, but he informed us it was closed today. He also mentioned that his girlfriend worked as a tour guide there, so that’s how he knew it was closed on Mondays.

The gentleman who stood before us had prominent facial features and a mass of wild, curly black hair. He was dressed in a light sweater and wore a certain style of pajama-like pants that Eric and I have found common among hippie and bohemian types in South America. He spoke with a great deal of intensity and leaned in close to our faces when he addressed us. He told us his name was Patricio and that he was a local artist and wood worker. Then, to our surprise, he invited us to walk with him to his house to meet his girlfriend and have coffee.

We were at first taken aback a little by this totally unexpected act of kindness being offered from this intense, mysterious stranger; but after only a moment’s hesitation, we agreed. After all, Naruda was dead, and even the museum that occupied his house was closed for the day. It seemed fitting to be meeting a living, breathing, Chilean artist.

We followed Patricio down a side street before arriving at his humble home. Constructed of old wood and corrugated steel, it was a kind of shanty house, typical of Valparaiso. As he opened the door we were greeted by his energetic young dog Farfalle. His girlfriend Deane was still enjoying her morning off by sleeping in, but was soon roused from her bed to meet the two strangers in her living room.

Deane greeted us with a smile, and we soon discovered she spoke excellent English. We found ourselves spending the next three hours hanging out with Deane and Patricio, and they turned out to have been the ideal locals for us to meet up with. They told us all sorts of interesting things about Valparaiso, and Chile in general, all of us speaking a mix of Spanish and English, and they even taught us some priceless Chilean slang.

Patricio told us about his artwork and how he sculpts his works from old antiques and objects he finds in the streets of Valparaiso. Of the artists I have met and read about in my life, Patricio had what seemed to me to be the authentic demeanor, disposition, and personality suited to true artistic geniuses. He had that certain intensity about him, and he had an artful, distinctive way of doing even the most mundane of tasks. I truly felt as though I were with a Van Gogh or Dali while in his presence.

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After a few hours of hanging out in their house, Patricio and Deane took us out for a tour through the labyrinthine hidden passage ways and random staircases that cover the hills of Valparaiso. During this time we visited an incredible ancient cemetery and also visited the ruins of a prison dating from the 1800′s. Visiting the prison was an amazing experience because the city of Valparaiso officially turned the site over to the local artists to paint and make studios out of.

“This place was once full of sadness and punishment, but now it has transformed into a place of beauty and freedom,” Deane explained to us.

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It all turned out to be a most memorable visit, and since that time we have hung out with Patricio and Deane almost everyday. They are truly the most hospitable people we have met on our trip. They are always eager to invite us to eat at their house and join them in whatever activities they have planned for the day.

Eric and I did eventually end up visiting Pablo Neruda’s house a few days after meeting Patricio and Deane. Deane was working that day, so we had a great time wandering around the five-story house of the Nobel Prize winning poet. The domicile was still full of interesting personal artifacts belonging to the poet and was still in the condition Neruda left it when he died in 1973. Although photos weren’t allowed inside, we did get a few of the exterior.

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A final highlight of Valparaiso was riding it’s strikingly unique, antique funiculars, called ascensores. It is hard to visualize Valparaiso without them as they are so distinctively characteristic to the town. Constructed between the years of 1883 and 1916, there are 15 different ascensores throughout the hills of Valparaiso that are still functioning, providing fun and interesting alternative ways to ascend the hills.

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Valparaiso, the “Jewel of the Pacific,” has certainly turned out to be one of my favorite places in the world. Just wandering through its beautiful streets makes every cell in my body sing. The kind of energy that exists in a city like this is powerful enough to affect everything from the way the blood flows in your veins to the serotonin levels of your brain.

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