Monday, July 13, 2009

My 'Failed' Attempt to Autostop

I've got no strings on me/
I'm feelin' fancy-free/
How wonderful to be/
On the open road!

- Goofy, “A Goofy Movie”


Hitchhiking had always seemed a mysterious road ritual, a quiet highway anthem taken by the breeze. When I was younger, I would listen to my Dad regale about his annual pilgrimage from Poland to Norway, first by train from Kraków to Szczecin, then by ferry to Malmö, Sweden, and finally by ‘autostop’ [hitchhiking] all the way up to the strawberry farm and dynamite factory where he worked in Trondheim. Or my mom talking about hitchhiking down to Bulgaria and Greece, once even on the back of a motorcycle. Occasionally, my ears would fill with the song of the road as other people shared their own experiences.

As my ears filled, my mind glowed. I wanted to try as well.

I figured I could do it and probably survive, uneasy about it as I was. So I committed my safety to God, checked local laws and rest stops locations, and decided to put myself into the trust of other people.

Having just come back from Thailand and the Philippines to Grand Rapids, my destination was Buddahville, NJ – beautiful 07002. My route was simple: I-96 E to US 235 S to I-80 and all the way east. I made my sign: “Mom’s in NYC,” with room to bulldog clip my route signs underneath.

On the morning of July 8th, with my trusty Kelty external frame and eight dollars worth of groceries – PB&J on whole wheat, Vienna sausages, and Craisins, I was dropped off at the intersection of I-96 and East Beltline. Quickly, I discovered that it was an awkward intersection for getting rides – three way traffic competing to get onto a one-lane exit ramp with less than 10 feet of shoulder for pullover. I stood there for about an hour and a half before getting picked up by a professor from Cornerstone University. I asked him to take me a few miles down 96 to the Cascade Meijer exit, where I’d certainly have better luck. Though it was but a few miles, the short ride recharged me, encouraging me to keep at it, as my cheek muscles already were lightly sore from smiling at drivers passing by.

I got out and ran across 28th Street, and I immediately saw my spot. I dropped my 40+ pound pack (Greek books weigh more than they ought) and kept it up about half an hour, until a prof from Ferris U going to Lansing picked me up. We shot the breeze the entire way down to Exit 110, Okemos, where he dropped me off, wishing me the best.

I marched down the on-ramp and started displaying my sign, but to no avail: for an hour only three cars came down the ramp, and the cars driving down the highway were going too fast to see my sign properly. I thought I was stuck, until I heard a car driving down the ramp. Excited and as eager as a Girl Scout (I suppose), I turned around and held my sign above my head like the Ten Commandments.

Problem: the car stopped.
Problem II: it turned on the red and blues. It’s the 5-0.

Out comes an officer from the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department – maybe 25 years old. He asks what I’m doing and we start talking. In the end, after running my files and discovering I am not a mass murderer and warning me about the vague legality and ignominious history of autostop, he gives me a ride as far as his jurisdiction allows – mile marker 122: Webberville. From the small cramped spot in the back of his cruiser, we had an awesome conversation about education, budget cuts, and the role of government. He let me out at the truck stop, and we parted ways.

The truck stop was a nuzzled in between a McDonalds and a Mobile gas station. I spent the next two hours until 3:30 PM walking from truck to truck, to my disappointment finding all of them were heading West and not East. Six PB&Js later, I finally went inside to order a burger. Strategically positioning my sign if any truckers heading my way walked by, I sat down and waited, as the smell of corn-fed beef filtered through my nose. The truck stop restaurant was classic Americana – screen door entrance, chalkboards and maps covering the counters and walls, a deli and grill, and, to top it all off, it was run by an Egyptian guy named Enzo wearing an Italy track jacket. It was marvelous.

As I’m soaking in the place and starting to feel the tingling of sunburn, a trucker saunters over and offers to buy me a cool drink – Arizona Ice Tea. In the meantime, one of the ladies from the grill brings me my burger, sets it down on the dull yellow tabletop, tells me, “We already bought it for you,” smiles, and leaves it for me along with the change from a ten. I was so blessed by that outpouring of goodwill and hospitality, and, as I devoured the burger – the most delicious I’ve had in a long time – I thanked God and savored the sweetness of the moment.

After eating, I went back the trucker, who was there till 2 AM, when he had a shipment of fish to deliver, and recommenced conversation. We meandered over a myriad of topics: the radio, BBC, energy drinks, atlases, technology, Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in Genesis 45, high fructose corn syrup, television, highway history, interalia. But it was 5:30 PM, and I had to get moving. I thanked him, and as I left, he bought me another AZ. Downing it, I was out.

My luck however was unchanged. Everyone was still heading west or perhaps north and south. The one trucker heading east lamented that he couldn’t take me – he was company-operated and would get fired if he took me and were found out. Thus, without success and with counsel, I decided to return east.

I scrawled a “Grand Rapids” sign and ran across the road, offhandedly flashing it an oncoming car. It stopped right on the dime. Opening the door, the driver smiles and asks, “You don’t happen to have a gun, do you?” “No, sir,” I answered. Grinning wider, he quipped, “Good, ‘cuz I do.” And thus we were off. He promised me to drop me off at a rest stop on I-96 W, from where I could easily get a ride back, yet he got so involved into telling me about his bowling league and cigarette lighter collection, that we missed the exit. “It’s all right,” he said nonchalantly, “I can just drop you off in downtown Lansing.” In the end, after accidentally taking the exit to MLK Drive, he dropped me off on Saginaw, right off I-96 on Exit 93b.

The light dimming, I looked around for a ditch to sleep in if I didn’t get a ride back. I spotted a few pines and high grass near a bridge and took note, but decided I would be back in GR in a bit anyway, so there was no point. As the sun dropped lower and lower, however, so did my confidence in the drivers, who just stared inquisitively and sped up. I called up Gracie to tell her that I was going to sleep by the road that night and would return the next morning; right on the ball, though, she told me that Dee and Josh (who had been wanting to take a drive anyway) were coming to pick me up.

Thus, I set my sights upon a Burger King. I received puzzled looks from the staff as I walked in (“Where are you from?” & “How far did you walk?”), but we quickly hit it off in conversation – my time in Thailand and the Philippines, that day’s trip, their families, and travels in general – which lasted all the way until I got picked up at 9:40 PM.

I finally got home three days later by getting a ride with friends from Grand Rapids to Erie, PA, and then, after a night there at Eben-Ezer Camp, with family friends who were leaving Erie for NYC.

Reuniting with my family (sans youngest brother Jeffrey, who's working up at Word of Life Island), donning Thai clothing.


I am still processing what I've learned on the 120 miles or so of road I covered with strangers , the hours of conversation with various interested and interesting individuals, and the time I spent in between those two waiting and thinking. But already, one thing I know: it was not a failed experience.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Manila, Philippines: pt. II

Luke snapping a shot of the weathered walls of Intramuros.

There were hordes of horse-drawn carriages in Intramuros, more than eager to give us a "special deal" to take us around the area.

Graffiti on the walls of an abandoned building in Intramuros.

Watching a PBA semifinals double header on June 17th in Araneta Coliseum.
Burger King Whoppers vs. San Miguel Beermen (87-102).
Ginebra Kings vs. Rain or Shine Elasto Painters (95-101).
The second game was amazing. I never realized that I could get passionate about a basketball game.

One of the over two dozen malls crowding the Metro Manila area, right before a downpour of rainy season torrents.

Manila, Philippines: pt. I

Sculptures in Rizal Park, commemorating the December 30, 1896 execution of Filipino nationalist and hero of the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish, Jose Rizal.

The English translation of Jose Rizal's last words.

Rizal Monument.

Manila Bay.

A building inside Intramuros (literally meaning "within the walls"; i.e. 'intramural' sports are within the walls of a particular institution), a 16th century fortress built by the Spanish. The 'walled city' endured attacks by Dutch, Chinese, and Portuguese pirates, the British, and the Japanese, among others for hundreds of years, surviving till this day with the aid of restoration efforts.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Expedition Course #3: Coastal Ecology and Culture, pt. V

Looking out from my family's restaurant in Ban Had Yao Jao Mai.

So, this is the way some of the other students and I spent our nights in the village. That's right, playing with gasoline-soaked  rags tied to the end of sticks and chains. There were three casualties to the nights' festivities - I. Johnny's quick-dry t-shirt, now filled with holes burnt by sparks; II. my left arm, which now has a small burn scar of a ball and chain; and III. Pinky's hair, a bunch of which was singed off by a wayward spark. Amazing nonetheless!

Ban Had Yao Jao Mai, where we stayed for 8 days, is a Muslim community, and thus, for our final dinner (the main course curry made from a freshly slaughtered goat), we donned traditional Southern Thai Muslim garb. 

Taking photos with our host families on the beach right outside my family's restaurant.

The 'cul-de-sac' I lived on was dominated by one family. They all didn't like spicy food (unusual for southern Thais); they didn't like sweet, or at least claimed to, against all evidence, even as they poured globs of sweetened condensed milk into their small teacups of gopi; they were all left handed; and they were absolutely amazing. What a perfect way to end the last of our expeditions!

Expedition Course #3: Coastal Ecology and Culture, pt. IV

Perks, Bang Eyat, and P'Toto (right to left) listening to Bang Heed talk about Ban Had Yao Jao Mai's mangrove conservation forest.

Ma Dtey roasting cashews on the streets of Ban Had Yao Jao Mai. They were delicious!

Riding in a motorcycle sidecar, I snapped one of Ma Mai and my younger brother Wa.

Tromping through the mangroves of Thung Da Sae, I was amazed by the sprawling complex roots of the Xylocarpus Mekongensis (pictured above) and of other mangrove trees.

In the Thung Da Sae mangroves, where I sat for two hours and just took in the colors, sounds, and smells (intense they were!) of the area.

Expedition Course #3: Coastal Ecology and Culture, pt. III

The sun nestles behind Koh Mook on the first night camping back on the mainland.

Our camping site, where we spent two nights on the beach nearby the mangrove forest*.

A stunning sunset on the second night of camping. Visible are also one student's sand castle and the little sand balls created by ghost crabs as they seek to separate nutrients from the sand.

Laura and Johnny kayaking into the mangrove.

A pod of kayaks in the mangroves.


* Mangrove refers to "trees and shrubs that grow in saline (brackish) coastal habitats in the tropics and subtropics" (

Expedition Course #3: Coastal Ecology and Culture, pt. II

A neighborhood of Koh Mook, at low tide. The houses closest to the ocean on this island, like the ones here are built on stilts.

A picture of the mainland from Koh Mook, through rows of the villagers' fishing boats, right before a rain storm.

The surf on one of Koh Mook's beaches, where we made beach landings in spite of the breaking waves. It was dope.

Thanks to a waterproof camera pouch I was able to borrow from a friend on the program, I was able to take this self-photo. I'd like to turn the attention to my superb sunglasses, whose lenses had the ability to swivel up and down over 90 degrees.

P'Toto and Luke kayaking to cross from Koh Mook to the mainland.

Expedition Course #3: Coastal Ecology and Culture, pt. I

Bang [Southern Thai for "Older Brother"] Eyat's long-tail boat, which served as our team's support boat for the kayaking portions of our trip.

Johnny and my bungalow at Koh Mook.

The tidal mud flats in Koh Mook. We explored this area during low tide (pictured) and discovered hundreds of spectacular organisms, from star fish and ghost crabs to sea cucumbers and snails.

A sea star in a pool of water left behind by the tide in Koh Mook's tidal mud flats.

Bang Eyat and his brother's long-tails pulled up on the sands of Koh Kradang, where we snorkeled in the area's coral reef and took a study break on the beach.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Expedition Course #2: Political Ecology of Forests, pt. IV

In Ban Hui Hee, a Karen woman is making thread from cotton on a loom. I tried to do the same thing, but somehow - decades of personal experience, I suppose, it didn't produce quite the same results.
I spent around 5 minutes trying to get this shot, and I think I'm pretty proud of it.
I snapped a quick photo of my lunch in Hui Hee before devouring it.

This is a rai [field] in Ban Hui Tong Koe. As a group of twenty-something (2/3 villagers, 1/3 students), it took us a few hours to both make holes and plant rice and other crops on this deceptively steep hill. The land area was about 3 to 4 rai (there are approx. 2.5 rai in one acre). It was hard work, and it shot a good deal of awe for true farmers into me.

A pati [uncle] in Hui Tong Koe examining my machete right before he and another pati taught a group of students a traditional Karen courting song.

Back in Muang Mae Hong Son [Mae Hong Son City], I spent an early morning in the park by a lake, relaxing, reflecting, reading the Good Word, and praying.

Expedition Course #2: Political Ecology of Forests, pt. III

A majestic vista from the top of Doi Pui!

"Rai Day" in Ban Hui Hee. This picture is of the various types of seeds that are interspersed with rice seeds. Around harvest, the villagers will harvest not only rice, but also pumpkins, three species of beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and numerous others.

"Rai Day" in Hui Hee. The Karen/Pgaganyaw people traditionally employed swidden agriculture. Swidden agriculture is based in the principle of "short planting, long fallow" and involved rotating of planting fields. Ideally and as has been practice, forest plots will be burned and then planted for one year; after harvest, the plot would be left alone for ten years or more and would during that time return to forest. After 10+ years of fallow (during which the fields would be continually rotating), the field, now rehabilitated by the forest, would again be burnt and planted for one year, and the cycle continue. It is a truly amazing and innovative process, which, although it initially seems perhaps suspect, is, when practiced as it has been traditionally, sustainable.

On "Culture Day" in Hui Hee, our group split up into four to makes various Pgaganyaw dishes. Here lie the finished products, which our group heartily devoured.

This was supposed to be a jumping picture. It isn't. I failed. Other than that, though, this picture shows three Karen/Pgaganyaw girls wearing homewoven dresses that unmarried girls traditionally wear.

Expedition Course #2: Political Ecology of Forests, pt. II

The Pgaganyaw alphabet, which I got several lessons on from various host family members as well as one of our expedition leaders, P'Toto. Based on the Burmese alphabet, it was developed by Christian missionaries who came to evangelize the Karen people. I find this an amazing thing, as written language strengthens any cultural-linguistic tradition, giving the sort of stabilizing resilience that the culture certainly would benefit from in times like these when the central Thai government and Thai-language media pushing into the Karen communities.

"Love me, love my fish."
"Honobono bear."
"Oh! Wow Mr. Iceman."
"Afternoon Tea."

The great and hilarious blanket under which I slept for two nights in Ban Naam Hoo.

Nawng Preyawtoo (left) and Nawng Supalah (right) chilling at with Johnnie and I at our house in Naam Hoo.

After hiking through a deluge, me, standing at the peak of Chicken's Head, overlooking the valley in which Ban Hui Hee, our next destination, is situated.

Annie G. snapping a shot near the top of Doi Pui, the tallest mountain in Mae Hong Son province. The mountain, which brought back floods of memories from my travels last summer in Scotland (the resemblance of the peak to what my buddies and I trudged through on the Isle of Skye was uncanny!). The mountain stands, according to one source, at 1722 meters above sea level.