Ruby On The Beach: Week 5

February 16th, 2015 - Ubud, Bali

In maintaining alignment with the direction of our programming bootcamp, I've decided to make an adjustment to the blog. Whereas the first half of the class focused on absorbing and utilizing foundational coding concepts, the second half is centered around self-directed learning through exploratory research and developing real web applications. For programmers, success in the face of a new challenge often depends not on your knowledge base, but rather how quickly and effectively you can add tools to your skill set. In this regard, comfort with ambiguity, frustration, and constant code errors must become second nature.

Although this mindset shift was challenging at first as it removed most of the curriculum's structure, I am confident that it will produce the kind of durable learning necessary to continue improving as a developer long after our cohort disperses from Bali. Moving forward, in lieu of breaking down one core concept each week and evaluating my productivity, I'll attempt to explain how the apps that we've been building actually work. This week, I worked on two projects inspired by platforms everyone is familiar with: Pinterest and Ebay.

Pinterest Clone

When developing technology, it's vital to first pare down all the possible features within the product scope down to the most basic requirements: the minimum viable product. Pinterest, at its core, is a photo sharing application. Once users are signed in, they should have the ability to post and view pictures.

One of the coolest parts of building software is the prolific availability and extensive documentation of open source projects. The entire user signup and login process in Ruby can be handled by a "gem": a code package that can quickly and easily be implemented into any existing application. The preeminent gem for user authentication in Ruby on Rails is called "Devise", which after just a few commands and some simple styling can handle all the necessary database manipulation and generate forms to be rendered in the browser like so: Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 8.26.07 PM

You may notice that across the top here, I've included a navigation bar. Although it seemed daunting at first, another open source project, Bootstrap, made implementing this beautiful feature relatively painless. Bootstrap is a front-end framework that makes designing and styling website components ridiculously quick, and is definitely the fastest way to make a minimal rails app look much more impressive.

With just a few lines of code, I was even able to implement a responsive design that turns the navigation into a drop down menu when the width of the browser shrinks.

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My favorite feature of the navigation bar is that it even renders different clickable options depending on whether or not the user is signed in! Can you identify where the split takes place in the code block below? (Hint: look for a part that includes either "Login" or "Logout").

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.15.57 PMNow that we've established user creation and basic navigation, it's time to ensure that users can achieve their original goal: the ability to upload a "Pin" and view it. Although this feature was significantly more involved as I had to connect to Amazon Web Services' cloud hosting platform for the first time and suffered through the same error for over 24 hours, it was glorious moment when the app finally successfully began saving the images correctly.

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Fbay

Fbay, "the world's premier auction site for all things F", was the group project that I worked on most extensively this week. The original assignment was to create a basic site similar to Ebay, but utilizing the new strategies that were introduced this week. One of these concepts was validation, so we started by creating a simple command that only enables users to upload items that begin with the letter F and ran with our app from there.

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Coding in a team environment is an invigorating process, as each member contributes unique ideas and knowledge, enabling the group to create something much stronger than the sum of our individual skills. Although our group was met with an exceptional number of new challenges this week, we were ultimately able to build progressively more complicated functionality into the application.

Upon completion, users could add an item to the site, include a description and image, and set a duration for the auction. Other users could then bid on the item, but only if their bid is greater than the highest current bid:

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.55.12 PM

After a few hard days of work, numerous merge conflicts on Github, and more errors than I could mentally handle at times, we finally produced a final product full of Fedoras, Ferraris, Ferrets, Flowers, and Flamethrowers! Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.59.40 PM

 

As someone who works best when I can see the outcomes of my work, it feels spectacular to have turned the corner from fundamental programming to composing real web applications that people will actually be able to use. This week we're diving into the wide world of APIs, and I can't wait to get started on our next project.

Back on The Traveling Trail

February 9th, 2015 - Ubud, Bali

After a month of settling into my coding routine in Ubud, last week was a departure back to the traveling lifestyle, as I took advantage of our week long break to explore Lombok’s Gili Islands and Bali’s remote northern coastline. Mentally, it felt spectacular to be back on the move and was a great reminder about why I embarked on this trip originally: to explore amazing places. Both Bali and Gili Trawangan are stunningly beautiful, and snorkeling in February is always a plus.

The Gili Islands are one of those tropical paradises you’re more likely to see on Pinterest than with your own eyes. They are composed of three tiny islands ringed by white sand beaches, with no fresh water yet a bustling tourist industry. The water is crystal clear blue and a massive coral reef teeming with fish surrounds the island.

DCIM100GOPRO

We arrived by taking a ferry across the Wallace Straight, the body of water running between Lombok and Bali and the biogeographical line of demarkation between Australia and Asia. The depth of the ocean is the deepest in the Indonesian archipelago, reaching up to 1.2KM and making it impossible for land-bound species to cross, even when global ice ages caused the ocean levels to drop hundreds of meters.

Our crew of Ruby On The Beach travelers dispersed to our separate digs around the island, and I teamed up with Dan and Luca, two fellow aspiring code monkeys, to find “Little Woodstock”, our tiny bungalow complex set halfway to the other side of the island. We wiled away our time on the island lounging on the burning beaches, snorkeling the surrounding reef, and drinking our fair share of Bintang beers to accompany the gorgeous sunset views. Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 8.18.18 AM

 

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After three wonderful days on Gili Tarawangan, Luca and I returned to our villas in Ubud on Tuesday evening for a spectacular night’s rest and some much needed clean clothes, but immediately upon rising the following morning I set off again, this time via motorbike. Over the next three days, I took a loop around Bali’s northeastern corner, taking in breathtaking views at every step along the way.

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Upon departing Ubud and heading North, I didn’t get that far out of town when I encountered a gorgeous panorama view of cascading rice fields into one of the surrounding valleys. The farmers terrace the fields to take advantage of as much land as they can, and I stopped for a coffee at one of the hillside cafes, just listening to the water slowly percolate down from one layer to the next.

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As I steadily progressed North, the islands massive peaks began to come into view, and before long I was greeted by a stunning view of dueling volcanos separated by a glassy lake.

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Instead of following the planned route around the peaks, I decided to traverse the road that paralleled the lake far below. As I descended into the valley, I was dwarfed in size not only by the massive mountains and their respective calderas, but also by gigantic volcanic rocks left over from the most recent eruption. The towns in the valley were completely remote and untracked by tourists, which made for some delightful interactions as I whizzed by young children on their way home from school.

In the afternoon, with my backside getting increasingly sore after riding for so long, I arrived in Lovina and haggled with a few different guest house owners before finding decent accommodation for the evening. Traveling to remote locations in the down season has tremendous advantages, and the prices in Lovina were a world away from the Gili Islands or even Ubud. Just steps away from my room, I made my way down to the ocean for sunset and took in a fiercely competitive game of locals playing volleyball.

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Not particularly enchanted by Lovina, which was a relatively quiet town with just one main street of guesthouses and restaurants, I woke up early the following morning for an absolutely stunning ride along the northern coast, bound for Amed but in no particular hurry. As the sun began to peak over the onward horizon, I was greeted by gorgeous views of mist rising over the rice fields on my right as the fishing boats made their way out to sea on my left.

Every half hour or so, I encountered another town with a bustling morning market, replete with farmers hawking produce from all over the area, fresh seafood, and uniformed school children grabbing a bite to eat from one of the many breakfast stands. Leaving so early enabled me to make great time, and before 9AM I was already on the outskirts of Amed, where I stopped for breakfast at Batu Belah, a tiny set of bungalows facing out over the Ocean’s endless expanse to the North.

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As I was the only customer, my pit stop here was one of those perfect off the beaten path traveling experiences. Over breakfast, I had a fascinating and informative conversation with the owner, a British man named Colin who has lived in Bali for 16 years now. He was chalk full of interesting tidbits about the surrounding coastline villages and Balinese culture, having married a local and raised two girls on the island. In exchange for helping him with some issues he was having with his computer, Colin even provided me with some snorkeling gear to explore the reef right off of his tiny beach, which was, in his words: “an absolute aquarium”. It was beautiful.

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In the early afternoon, I arrived and explored around Amed, which is not really a town at all but rather a series of fishing villages, strung together with tourism infrastructure, along the Northeastern tip of Bali. Throughout the afternoon, I snorkeled some amazing spots in the surrounding area and relaxed along stretches of black sand beach.

The following morning, I was awoken by a rapping on my door at 5:15AM. “Matt!” a voice called, “Time to wake up!” Although every fiber of my being wanted to roll over and get another couple hours of sleep, one of the local fisherman had convinced me it would be a blast to head out fishing with him the following morning. So with the full moon still illuminating the night sky and a bounty of stars overhead, I head out fishing with Putu, who trawls the gorgeous surrounding waters each morning for mackerel, mahi mahi, and barracuda. The calming silence of Putu's sailboat cutting through the current combined with the ocean’s spray leaping up to kiss my face was the perfect way to start your day. As we sat there, waiting for the fish to bite along his line, dawn began to peek its early morning rays of light over Lombok’s volcanoes in the east.

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Finally, the sun made its grand appearance and the massive ball of light rose rapidly into the morning sky, extinguishing the remaining stars and illuminating the multitude of other fishing sailboats trawling their morning lines. It was a spectacular morning, not blighted in the least due to the lack of biting fish, as Putu maintained his cheery spirit throughout.

That afternoon, I made my way back to Ubud, taking the long road through the mountain pass and enjoying spectacular views as I criss-crossed luscious hillsides.

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That evening, I returned to Ubud, tired but feeling accomplished and recharged after six amazing days on the road. For now it's back to coding and learning, but I won't be surprised when wanderlust strikes again.

Ruby On The Beach: Week 4

January 31st, Ubud, Bali

After four ridiculously challenging weeks, dozens of cups of coffee, hundreds of hours in front of a computer, and thousands of lines of code, I've finally completed the first segment of Ruby On The Beach in beautiful Bali. This was another massive week of learning about Rails, as we finally began to produce some functional applications and applying the major concepts that we've been exploring for the last month. Today's class even consisted of a massive milestone in our coding journey...deploying a functional application to the internet. Check it out! (Yes, it is undeniably pointless)

My reward? A week off to relax on the pristine beaches of the Gili Islands and do some exploring in remote corners of Bali. This is one of the most unique aspects of Ruby On The Beach's philosophy: just when you think your brain can't possibly hold any more information because it's been grinding non-stop for almost a month, there's a week-long break built into the curriculum to explore our tropical paradise and think about anything besides code. Mentally and physically, I'm going to take full advantage of this opportunity to reset before hitting the ground running for another month long sprint of learning and building.

Week four was particularly challenging because we finally began to wield all the different tools in our programming tool belt and start solving real world problems. One of my favorite projects was almost entirely open-ended: provided with a variety of different data types about the music industry, how would you go about structuring a database to accomplish prospective user goals? After we split into three development teams, each group ran in wildly different directions and started hacking together solutions.

Our team brainstorming User Stories for a music app

Ultimately, my group settled on the relationship between Artists and Agents. How could we make it easier for new musicians to get discovered and sign with a record label? We quickly pared all of the possibilities into a minimum viable product: artists should be able to upload new music, then agents can vote whether or not they like each song. The resulting application, MusicLink, ended up feeling a whole lot like "Tinder for Music." We had a blast collaborating to build the product; the feeling when all the tiny pieces finally coalesced into a working prototype was truly spectacular.

By focusing on my new mantra of "break time is NOT screen time", I was able to boost my productivity score on RescueTime by 8% this week while taking plenty of mind de-cluttering breaks walking around our gorgeous villa.

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My daily habits took a step back this week as I spent way too much time in front of the computer and stressing about unmanageable code blocks. I'm aiming to kick these goals in the butt upon my return from our week off.

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What Goes Where? Routes in Rails

Without being consciously aware of it, you send hundreds of HTTP requests on the internet every day. Let's break down how it works with Ruby On Rails and how applications know which actions to perform where. At a basic level, four HTTP verbs tell servers what to do with data sent from every web page.They are:

  1. GET: Let's go "get" some data from the database.
  2. POST: Take some information from the user and "post" it to the database.
  3. PATCH: Update an existing entry in the database.
  4. DELETE: Destroy that data!

Every time you load a web page using data, one (or more) of these four verbs is being called. In Rails, there are seven basic actions that handle these four types of requests.  Revisiting the basic twitter clone I constructed using scaffolding in last week's post, our tweets_controller file already looks something like this: Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 4.47.32 PM

What we're really interested with here are the seven methods (or actions) in the file. These are all the things we can do to tweets. They are: index, show, new, edit, create, update, and destroy. Wait a second! Why are there seven actions, but only four verbs? Well, each verb can actually help us perform multiple actions. For example, the GET verb is versatile enough to handle the following methods:

  • Index: Get and show all of the tweets from the database
  • Show: Get and show just one specific tweet from the database
  • New: Get the information to begin creating a new tweet
  • Edit: Get a specific tweet from the database so we can edit it

One of the most helpful resources in Rails is the ability to view all of our routes in the terminal. By running rake routes, we can see which HTTP verb responds to which controller method.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 4.52.13 PMNotice how GET is paired with four different Controller Actions. Thus, when we visit localhost:3000/tweets/new, we're running the new method within the tweets controller. Don't just take my word for it! Check out the server's output after I navigate to the "tweets/new" page.

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For each URL navigated to within the site, Rails follows the convention of Controller#Action, as you can see in rake routes. But we can also set up custom routes! In this scenario, you could just navigate to the routes.rb file in Rails and append it with:

 get '/newtweet', to: 'tweets#new' 

This just tells our application that when someone navigates to Twitter.com/newtweet, it should run the action New within the controller Tweets. This ability to create custom routes becomes incredibly helpful if you want a more complex application with multiple controllers to have simple and intuitive URLs. Hopefully, you should now have a basic understanding of how applications respond internally when prompted with various URLs and user actions.

Ruby On The Beach: Week 3

January 25th, 2015 - Ubud, Bali

Another week of Ruby On The Beach has flown by! This week was particularly exciting, as we dove into the concept of Rails, a framework that enables the creation of powerful applications written in Ruby. Packages like Rails are an amazing reminder that software developers today are standing on the shoulders of giants, having been equipped with wonderful automation and behind the scenes processing power. It was incredibly empowering to see how quickly and easily we could build apps that just a decade ago would have taken exponentially longer.

It was another challenging week of absorbing programming concepts and beginning to put some of our knowledge to work by building real apps, but all of our work definitely began to pay off when we were able to interact with our code in the browser for the first time!

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One of the coolest aspects about reaching this milestone in the course is we were now able to tackle larger projects within small groups. This environment led to a lot of knowledge sharing, and I enjoyed picking up coding techniques and product management strategies from my peers within the cohort. Programming is hardly ever an individual undertaking, so it was a great experience to understand how folks with different backgrounds, skills, and mindsets approach solving the same problems.

Fabian, Luca, and myself designing a database schema (with instructor Brett observing)

The undertaking of a technology bootcamp entails a large portion of my week is spent in front of a screen, so having the accountability of RescueTime running in the background on my computer definitely helped keep me on track during those moments when focus started to fade. Although I bested my productivity score from the previous week, there's definitely still room for improvement. Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 10.31.42 AM

As for my daily habit regimen, I started off strong this week before failing to check-in to all my habits on Friday and Saturday, as I definitely hit a wall and took some time to re-group before the beginning of another long week of learning. Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 3.54.09 PM

The workout category is undoubtedly boosted by our yoga sessions three times a week, which I'm incredibly grateful to have incorporated into the curriculum. It's a testament to Ruby On The Beach's no burnout philosophy that we are encouraged to start our days establishing the mind-body connection and enjoying a much needed anxiety release. Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 3.49.57 PM

Scaffolding in Rails

Our curriculum covered a plethora of rails concepts this week, including many I don't yet understand well enough to explain in a blog post. But there's one aspect that easily highlights the incredible powers of this framework: scaffolding. Pared down to it's most basic form, scaffolding enables the creation of a simple interactive website in just a couple of lines of code. Let's dive into this topic by building a semi-functional twitter clone.

Once the Ruby On Rails development environment is set up on your machine (which is no simple undertaking), to make a new application all you have to do is open the terminal and type:

rails new Twitter

Instantly, Rails goes berserk and configures a pre-ordained structure, then implements "gems" which enable the access of helpful third-party code blocks. Look at all those "automagically" generated folders and files!

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But at this point, our application doesn't actually do anything. We can quickly rectify that by running a devilishly simple command:

rails generate scaffold tweet username:string tweet:string

Let's break this down into bite-sized pieces:

  • Rails flags the terminal that what follows is a command in rails
  • Generate means we're about to create something!
  • Scaffold is what we're creating. Scaffolding is an easy way to build and interact with a simple application in the browser. It supports the creation, reading, updating, and deletion of objects - in this case, "tweets."
  • Author:string is an argument that means each instance of tweet should have a username that is a combination of numbers and letters.
  • Tweet:string means each instance of tweet should have some content as well.

Rails quickly interprets this and builds a whole set of files which serves as our basic scaffolding. If we now set up our database using rake db:migrate and fire up a local server by typing  rails server , then navigate to localhost:3000/tweets on a web browser, we can see the following:

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Incredibly, scaffolding creates bare bones HTML forms for all of the different pages you can now access. Without writing one more additional line of code, we can click on "New Tweet" to build an entire database of tweets. We even have the power to view, edit, and delete them.

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Now this might not seem miraculous to you, but the amount of work that Rails is doing on the back-end to enable this is relatively mind-boggling. Additionally, this is just one example of the power this framework enables developers with. I'm excited to see what next week's deeper dive into Rails has in store.

Ruby On The Beach: Week 2

January 18th, 2015 - Ubud, Bali

Just two weeks in to the Ruby On The Beach bootcamp experience, it's incredible to look back at the software concepts I was struggling with ten days ago and laugh at my own naiveté. Although my goal of becoming a bona fide programmer is undoubtedly still far away, it feels great to make progress every day and I've undoubtedly traversed a massive amount of material already.

In an effort to share insights into this experimental learning process, I've decided to share the outcomes from two ways in which I'm quantifying my progress and holding myself accountable throughout the course. The first, RescueTime, is an application that automatically tracks and categorizes how you're spending the time on your computer, providing insights into productivity and the biggest drains on your time. My first Weekly Dashboard shows a pretty focused week overall, with plenty of down time for reading Grantland, catching up on The Challenge, and even streaming NFL playoff games:

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The second, Coach.me, is the new name of Lift.do, an app I've written about before. Coach.me now offers chat-based coaching for $14.99/week, but the feature I love is completely free: daily habit check-ins. After experimenting with tracking a variety of different habits over the course of the last year, I've settled on six that are truly fundamental to my personal development and well-being. Most are self-explanatory, but #500WED just means writing 500 Words Every Day about anything that's on your mind. My first week of tracking got off to a solid start:

 

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 10.06.22 AMWondering why flossing made the cut? Want to learn more about developing positive changes in your lifestyle and be "scared straight" into developing a flossing habit? Check out this awesome illustrated Medium post.

During the first week, I was extremely motivated and actually really enjoyed diving into the fundamental aspects of programming. The concepts we approached in the second week of the curriculum were more challenging, and I spent significantly more time planted in front of my computer this week (13.6 more hours, according to RescueTime). Although there were stretches where I felt like I was repeatedly banging my head against a brick wall, in retrospect I definitely took huge strides in my understanding of Ruby.

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Although by sheer volume this was the most productive week I've ever had on RescueTime, those late nights of coding took a tool on my energy level and willpower, and I didn't prioritize well enough to have a great week of daily habits.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 10.09.58 AMO Christmas Tree!

One of the most challenging projects we encountered in the curriculum this week was on the surface, incredibly simple: write a program that draws a Christmas Tree that looks like this:

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Appearances can be deceiving. Constructing this program left me utterly stumped for hours at a time, but I was eventually able to grasp the concepts associated with it and will now try to distill the code into terms anyone can understand.

First, notice that the entire program consists of merely printing spaces and asterisks (let's call them stars). In the first row, there's 1 star, followed by 3, then 5, and so on. If we were to represent this sequence as an equation, it could be (row number[starting at 0] = row number * 2 + 1). We can create a chunk of code to represent that:

def calculate_stars row
  row * 2 + 1
end

Ok, WTF is going on here?! First, we're defining a "method" called calculate_stars. Every time we type calculate_stars in different parts of the program, it will run this block of code. Calculate_stars also has an "argument", called row. Now when you run "calculate_stars 7", the method will take 7, multiply it by 2, then add 1. In row 7, calculate_stars knows to create 15 stars!

Second, let's calculate the number of spaces in each row much the same way.

def calculate_spaces width, stars
  width - stars
end

When we run the program at the end, we'll be providing it with two inputs: the number of rows and the width. Think about each individual line: if you know the number of stars and the total width, then you can figure out the number of spaces. Just do width - spaces! That's what is going on here.

Third, let's create another chunk of code that takes these calculations from above and translates it into actual printed stars and spaces. In order to do this, we'll need to run a loop that looks like this. Comments start with #HASHTAGS :)

# start with a blank line 
line = ""
# Below, stars is a variable. 
# It says, if there are 15 stars, run through this 15 times
stars.times do 
# Every time we do this, add a star to that blank line
  line = line + "*"
end 
# Print that line out! 
 puts line

This is a good start, but we need to add in our spaces first. The final result is a method named print line that runs through two variables, the number of spaces and the number of stars. Good thing we calculated those using the first two methods!

def print_line spaces, stars
  line = ""
  spaces.times do
    line = line + " "
  end
  stars.times do
    line = line + "*"
  end
  puts line
end

Finally, we have to put it all together! This time we'll write a master method that uses the three sections we've already built.

# Let's draw_trees with 2 variables: rows and width. 
# This enables the creation of custom size trees. 
def draw_tree rows, width
# Let's run the code below for however many rows there are. 
# |row| will go up by 1 each time through the loop.
  rows.times do |row|
# Remember calculate_stars? Let's use it right now! 
    stars = calculate_stars row
# width - stars is equal to the number of spaces. 
    spaces = calculate_spaces width, stars
    print_line spaces, stars
# This handy line adds a star to both the left and right side. 
    width = width + 1
# End the loop 
  end 
# End the method
end

Now let's check out what happens when we run the program in our terminal with a width of 15 and 10 rows.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 11.43.54 AM Success!! The best part is this program is flexible enough to create any size tree. The final output looks something like this. Can you figure out what each line means?

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Although we eventually figured out how to draw a base, invert the tree, and re-factor our code to include other fancy concepts like arrays and hashes, I think I should leave it at that for now. If you have any questions or certain parts didn't make sense, I would love to hear about it in the comments below!

If you're interested in other perspectives on the "bootcamp in Bali" experience, be sure to check out the blogs of two of my fellow students at http://www.chic-ceo.com/blog and http://rubybali.tumblr.com/.

Ruby On The Beach: Week 1

January 11th: Ubud, Bali
"All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

For the next nine weeks, this blog will adopt a decidedly different flavor compared to my previous travel writing. During this time I'll be a student at Ruby On The Beach bootcamp, learning software development while living in Ubud, the cultural and artistic capital of Bali, Indonesia. This is ultimately an intellectual experiment in pushing the limits of what I'm mentally capable of, and I'm excited for what's to come.

Immediately upon arrival, it quickly became clear that this wouldn't be a typical tech bootcamp experience. For starters, accommodation, as well as access to a delightful bamboo co-working space steps away from our classroom, is included in the cost of the program. How much would this villa run you in Silicon Valley?

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RO0GOBU4d9w[/embed]

DCIM100GOPRO

 

For the last week, I've slowly been growing accustomed to returning to a regular working schedule and re-calibrating my brain to think like a computer programmer. However, the course has been structured much differently than I anticipated. As opposed to working 12 hours a day and cramming material into our brains as quickly as possible, Ruby On The Beach is founded under the principle of avoiding burnout. By taking a comfortable pace through the curriculum, taking frequent breaks to let information percolate, and starting with yoga class three days a week, class so far is legitimately delightful.

Beanbag Chair + Board Shorts + Pool = The ultimate stress-free coding environment

As our fearless leader Dan reminded us during a morning stand-up session, every concern and fear we have while coding must be appended by two words: in Bali. As in, "I'm getting really confused by this utterly impossible assignment....in Bali." This mindset puts everything into perspective; take in the gorgeous surroundings and don't get too worked up because you will figure out the solution eventually. So far, the most spectacular aspect of the class is the people. My fellow students hail from all corners of the globe and each one brings unique experiences and perspectives to the table. Our instructors have infectious positive attitudes and the bootcamp's 4:1 student to teacher ratio means an experienced and knowledgeable code monkey is never more than a shout away.

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Becoming proficient in Ruby on Rails, a popular software framework for developing web applications, won't be an easy undertaking; there's a lot of ground to cover over the next two months. While taking Coursera's wildly popular Learning How To Learn to prepare for the class, one big takeaway was that if you can distill a complicated topic into segments simple enough to teach anyone, it becomes much easier to retain concepts. To quote Barbara Oakley's fantastic A Mind for Numbers"when you cultivate simple explanations by breaking down complicated material to its key elements, the result is that you have a deeper understanding of the material." For the duration of the class, I'll take one seemingly complicated concept we learned each week and try to make it simple, right here on the blog. Although this week we dove into version control using Git and even wrote our first programs in the Ruby programming language, I'll start with something devastatingly simple: the command line interface.

The Terminal

 

Unless you're a designer or developer, it's unlikely that you've ever opened the command line interface on your computer on purpose. But until the invention of the GUI (graphical user interface) this is how everyone interacted with computers! On the Mac operating system, it's called the Terminal and looks something like this:

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Huh? Yea, most students in class were befuddled and intimidated by this screen on Monday morning, yet by the end of the week we were all well versed in the powerful (and potentially destructive) applications of the Terminal.

If you're unfamiliar with the Terminal but comfortable with a Mac, an easy comparator is Finder's file management system. Compare the two shots below: Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 8.32.10 PM

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Notice the similarity? The first shot is the Finder's display of the root folder on my computer, whereas the second picture shows what happens when you run the ls -l (ls = list, -l = long form) command of the same root folder from the terminal.

When properly manipulated using commands, the terminal becomes an easy and convenient way to create new folders and file systems. In the example below, I created a new folder for my Blog Content (mkdir Blog_Content), moved to that folder (cd Blog_Content), created two additional Folders for images and text (mkdir images, mkdir text), moved to the text folder (cd text), then created a text file for this post (touch ROTB_Week1.txt)

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For comparison, here is how the outcome is demonstrated in Finder.

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Boom...now you know how to make folders and files using your command line interface! Exciting, isn't it? Ok, not exactly. But while laying the foundation for more complicated applications and concepts, you have to crawl before you can run. Check back next week to learn something else about computer programming!

Reflections on Backpacking

January 4th, 2015 - Bali, Indonesia
Seven weeks doesn’t seem like a particularly long time. It’s not long enough to take a class at any accredited university. It’s not even long enough to complete most projects at work, from inception to delivery. But when traveling you can go learn and accomplish a lot in just seven weeks (just look at the map below!).
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As this segment of my journey comes to an end and I transition to an extended period living in Indonesia, I wanted to capitalize on my recent experiences to share some of the most poignant lessons I’ve learned. My intent is to dispel three key myths one might encounter when considering a similar trip in the future.
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Myth #1: Long-term travel is expensive 
 
One of the largest mental barriers preventing individuals from travel is the prohibitive factor of cost. Most people, conditioned by standard work vacations, believe that it requires a large financial investment to embark on a long trip.
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John Muir, legendary environmentalist, traveler, and writer had a term for this attitude: “time-poor.” Long-term travel is ultimately about how one decides to utilize their most valuable commodity: time. By traveling slowly, choosing a destination that is relatively inexpensive, and making certain sacrifices along the way, I found it incredibly easy to travel comfortably at a very cheap pace.

This million dollar view doesn't actually cost a million dollars

Although there were certain upfront costs that had to be incurred (flight, travel insurance, etc.), I tried to spend about $50/day and comfortably came in under budget for the whole trip.
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Myth #2: Travel requires a ton of advance preparation 
 
Before this year, every single trip I’d done had been accompanied by extensive planning up front: a daily itinerary, hotel bookings, ground transportation tickets along the way. Long-term travel invokes a different approach: embrace the freedom and ambiguity of having no set schedule. The key here is to rid yourself of heightened expectations, just enjoy the present moment and make your own decisions about how long you want to stay in each location.
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For example, I arrived in Pai, a tiny town in Northern Thailand, with plans to stay for 2 or 3 days and see the main sites before moving on to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. But when I was met by an inspirational amalgamation of fellow travelers from all over the world who were all having an amazing time, it was easy to make friends and thoroughly enjoy myself. I ended up staying for a full week before moving on.
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On the flip side of the coin, I planned to stay in Nha Trang, Vietnam to relax on the beach for a few days after a long motorbiking journey in Laos. But the gloomy weather, influx of tourists, and lack of fellow backpackers made it an easy decision to move on to my next destination after just 36 hours.

The gloomy barren beach in Nha Trang

Myth #3: Solo Travel is Dangerous and Lonely
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When I first started telling my friends, family, and co-workers about my plans, one of the most common refrains was “Who are you traveling with?” followed by surprise when I informed the person that I would be tackling this journey alone.
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Although there are definitive positive externalities to traveling with friends, I never found myself lamenting the fact that I was alone on the road. To the contrary, I found great comfort at enjoying each day at my own pace, unencumbered by the agendas of others. At the same time, I also vastly enjoyed sharing my traveling experiences with people I met along the way. Making new friends from all walks of life is one of the core pillars that makes traveling such a special experience.
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With the exception of a couple of finicky busses that broke down and a brief scam attempt in Bangkok, this trip was also miraculously devoid of any particularly arduous situations. Although there were a few times when I found myself in potentially dangerous situations, maintaining personal awareness and a calm demeanor can go a long way in keeping you safe in a foreign country, even when traveling alone.

Although the sun is setting on my backpacking trip, I must try to maintain this traveler's mindset, for it opens up a world of learning and results in enrichment of the soul. If extended travel has taught me anything, it’s that much of what we pursue and fret over in our regular lives is largely meaningless. Life, even with all its complications and endless information, can be boiled down to certain universal truths (like this one, from a temple in Chiang Mai).
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This trip has been the adventure of a lifetime. It was replete with a multitude of moments that had me wondering what I have done to deserve a life as great as this one. I’m distraught to think that I’ve reached the end of my vagabonding life, yet I hold hope in my heart that it is just the beginning of a much longer journey.
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10 Days in Vietnam

December 29th, 2014: Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

My first ten days in Vietnam have been a memorable amalgam of all the incredibly different traveling locales this massive, diverse country has to offer. Here's a map of my exploits since leaving Laos.

Last week's travels

Nha Trang

It took me 25 hours of traveling and 23 hours of bus riding, but I finally arrived in Nha Trang, a beach town looking out onto the South China Sea, at 6am after a fitful night's sleep on the night bus from the border crossing town of Kon Tum. Nha Trang was a particularly confounding introduction to Vietnam as the city contained more Russians tourists than Vietnamese locals or Western travelers. Despite the poor beach weather during the current rainy season, the view from my hostel dorm took in the sea and it definitely felt great to relax for a few days and take long walks on the city's 6KM crescent-shaped stretch of sand.

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Dalat

After a brief stay in Nha Trang, I booked a bus to Dalat, a larger city set back into the Southern Highlands of Vietnam. Dalat is serene yet simultaneously bustling with a vibrant economy; the city serves as a central meeting point for many surrounding towns and villages. There is something eerily familiar about the city, but it takes me about 24 hours to put my finger on it.

Maybe it's the surrounding hillsides, dotted with colorfully painted row houses. Maybe it's the lake just a few blocks from the city center. Or perhaps it's the unrelenting clouds and misty fog that encompasses the surrounding area.  It could just be the wind, driving a chill that makes inhabitants bundle up at night. It's undoubtedly the culture; there are coffee shops, bars and restaurants that wouldn't feel out of place in contemporary towns across America. Whatever it is, there is something about Dalat that brings my soul back to my hometown of Oakland, California.

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Dalat, at this point in my journey, is an opportunity to enjoy traveling slowly, riding around the surrounding hills in my motorbike then warming up on cloudy, windy days by drinking Vietnamese tea and eating Pho for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The coolest aspect of Dalat was how the main city centre bustled with motorbikers weaving through intense traffic during the day, then rapidly transformed into an expansive walking city in the evening. The night market contained everything you could ever hope for in a shopping experience: cheap eats, a plethora of clothing shops, and everywhere you turned - soy milk carts, one of the city's specialties.

The surrounding area around Dalat is incredible scenic and offers great outdoorsing opportunities, including trekking to waterfalls, canyoning, and hiking the highest peak in the province for a great panaroma view.

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Finally, Dalat serves as an opportunity to simplify - upon departing I purge my pack of everything I haven't used on my trip yet. If I haven't needed it once in the last 7 weeks, then I won't ever need it!

Christmas Eve in Saigon

On December 23rd, I boarded a night bus from Dalat headed South to spend Christmas Eve with Greg Murray, a friend from Cornell who is teaching English in Saigon. Even though the bus station told me I'd be arriving around 7AM, I was shaken awake at 4:10AM to be informed that we were already at our final destination. Slightly apprehensive and incredibly groggy, Christmas Eve began being hassled by a fleet of Saigon's taxi drivers arguing over my business. I found one who spoke halfway decent English and we set off en route for Greg's apartment. Luckily, Greg was a complete lifesaver and picked up my call to let me in around 5AM. We each embraced in the comforts of seeing an old friend halfway around the world.

After a few more hours of sleep, I spent the rest of Christmas Eve closing my eyes and praying for safety on the back of Greg's motorbike as we raced through a real-life video game: Motorbiking in Saigon. The city is massive and simply more chaotic than anything I've ever experienced before. With 10 million people but no public transportation system driving is potentially disastrous, but Greg was spectacular maneuvering us through hordes and performing weaves in traffic circles. We hit up some of Greg's favorite sights, including a delightful Tea stand where the employees marveled over our height and an indoor market packed from floor to ceiling in apparel.

Phu Quoc Island

For the last four days, I've been posted up on the beautiful remote island of Phu Quoc, off the Southern coast of Vietnam.

A Christmas Card From Vietnam

Motorikbing is again the locale's preferred mode of getting around, and I explored the vast majority of the Phu Quoc's highways, dirt roads, and national park areas on the back of another steel horse. However, the island's calling card is ultimately its abundance of pristine white sand beaches. The best way to explore is to just slowly take a self-guided tour of the island, weaving through dirt paths and stumbling upon long stretches of deserted beaches. Once at the beach, the rules are pretty simple:

  • If you're too hot, go swim in the ocean
  • If you're too wet, go lie on the beach

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For the first four days I stayed at a backpacker hostel, which was a great place to meet people but not as highly recommended if you're interesting in sleeping or cleanliness. Yesterday, I finally packed up and deposited myself at a nicer resort on the remotely populated Northwest Corner of the island for my last night. After almost 2 months of constant traveling, I am sorely in need of creature comforts and time to recharge.

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Travel truly feeds the soul, and my time here is the perfect combination of reading, writing, and relaxation. The week between Christmas and New Years is a natural inflection point for me, as I always enjoy taking extended periods of time to reflect on what's important in life. The beach has been the perfect way to close this chapter by reflecting on all that I've learned and experienced this year, then mentally and physically prepare myself for a year of exponential learning and growth in 2015.

"Remember this, that very little is needed to make a happy life." - Marcus Aurelius

3 Motorbikes, 6 Days, 820 Kilometers

WARNING: This post takes on a different form. In contrast from my previous weekly recaps, this week I documented each day's journey while motorbiking in Southern Laos. You'll notice from the tiny scroll bar that the resulting effect yields something MUCH longer than my usual posts, so dig in at your own risk (or just scroll through the photos and enjoy the videos).
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December 12th, 2014 - Pho Sy Guesthouse, 85KM from Tha Kaek
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Yesterday afternoon, I departed Vientiane on another "VIP" bus with my German friend Rico, who I had met while tubing in Vang Vieng, with aspirations to tackle Tha Kaek's legendary 3 day motorbiking loop. While stepping onto the bus, I introduced myself to John, an American from.....wait for it...Bethesda, Maryland(!!), who next year will be working for....wait for it....Capital One(!!). It was shocking and hilarious to encounter someone whom I have so much in common with in such a foreign, isolated locale. To put things in perspective, in the 2+ weeks I’ve spent in Laos so far, I’ve met less than 10 Americans in total.
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Throughout Laos, lanes on the roads are much more of a suggestion than a rule, and our bus winded through ridiculous swaths, passing motorbikes while getting passed simultaneously. Along the way, Rico, John, and I made friends with the only other travelers on the bus, 3 Israeli girls named Roseanne, Noa, and Noa (again) who had recently arrived in mainland Southeast Asia after a few weeks in the Philippines. We split a tuk-tuk to the unofficial meeting point for intrepid travelers attempting The Loop, Tha Kaek’ Traveler’s Lodge. With our late arrival, we were able to secure 2 of their last rooms and enjoyed a delicious late dinner of fried noodles and BeerLao, much deserved after surviving another long bus ride through the evening’s darkness.
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We agreed to search out more information about The Loop as a group the following day, and this morning we woke up early to go price shopping at the motorbike outfitters in town. After going back and forth between two different shops and comparing bikes, horsepower, insurance policies, and overall trustworthiness of the owners, I finally settled on a smooth, automatic Honda. It’s probably important to mention that only Rico and I had any experience riding motorbikes before this point. The Israeli girls took test drives in the morning and gave it a valiant effort, but ultimately didn’t feel comfortable riding for the first time in their lives on such a long journey across uncharted territory. Meanwhile, John took a bike for a couple of spins around the block and declared himself ready for the 450KM adventure.
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After much deliberation, the girls decided it would be infinitely more fun to jet off with us than to try and take bus trips to the surrounding caves and sights, so the six of us set off on the open road by following the shop owner’s directions: “Go straight. Then straight. Then straight again.”

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Tha Kaek is a veritably tiny town with just one traffic circle and one legitimate intersection with a traffic light; it wasn’t far before we could open up the throttle on deserted roads surrounded by stunning panoramas of limestone cliffs sticking their sheer vertical faces directly up from the ground. Just 30 minutes out, we came upon the biggest cave of the day, Tha Aen. A great introduction to the landscape of the area, we marveled at the cave’s scraggly stalactite formations hanging from the domed ceiling and speculated about how deep the cave’s eery, icy river went into the massive mountain.
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Outside the cave, we encountered out first major roadblock of the trip: Jon accidentally locked his key into the motorbike’s storage compartment. Rico suggested our best course of action would be for one of the other two bikes to return and acquire the spare key. No less than 2 minutes later, I was speeding off alone back in the direction from which we had just come, having set the "over/under" betting line for my return at 52 minutes. It is specifically worth mentioning at this point that on our first day, the winds of the typhoon that had just wreaked havoc on the Phillipines were sweeping across Laos, making John’s parting wisdom to “ride like the wind” particularly pertinent. Although not as formidable when aided by Noa’s grounding weight on the back of my bike, we fought against strong gusts the entire day except for this one solo stretch back, where I was bolstered like a sail in the wind and flew back, making excellent time.
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I hit the under with 3 minutes to spare then the 6 of us spend off once more, making up for lost time while taking in awe-inspiring views. Although three days is the minimum recommendation to knock out the loop, the distance one must traverse honestly isn’t that strenuous, particularly on the first day. Sadly, our group got separated in a mix-up during a gas stop, but we were all able to make it to our final destination with an hour to spare before sun down. During the final hours, we enjoyed a stunning climb through a windy mountainside adjacent to a hydroelectric dam, then witnessed an eery man made lake, a result of the dam, dotted by submerged deceased tree trunks. The lake, which is relatively new, was stunningly beautiful but also had some undoubtedly creepy qualities about it, and I couldn’t help but mentally call it “The Tree Cemetery."
"The Tree Cemetery"
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Pho Sy Guesthouse is set right on the edge of the water, and once we were all reunited and safe at our final destination, Rico and I set off for a late afternoon ride on some of the dirt roads. Our adventurous spirit was rewarded with a glorious view of the sun’s descent and the wonderful feeling of solitude and clam that can only be triggered by nature’s beautiful wide open spaces.
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Upon returning to the guesthouse, having taken in my appreciation for the enormity and accomplishment of the day, it took a solid hour for the massive grin to slowly fade from my face. All in all, it was a spectacular, adventuresome first day and I’m giddy with excitement to continue this journey tomorrow.

Sunset just kept getting better and better

Nighttime Campfire


December 13th, 2014 - Sala Konglor, 4KM from Konglor Cave
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Today was quite A DAY! This morning, I woke to calming yet freezing picturesque views of Tree Cemetery Lake at Pho Sy and enjoyed a devastatingly bitter cup of coffee while huddled in a blanket, waiting desperately for the sun to start warming everything up. After everyone shook the junk out of their eyes, we started to get moving on the second stretch of The Loop, which includes the most dangerous stretches of unpaved roads. In the morning, we took the short ride over to the only other guesthouse in the general vicinity so that Noa could send a quick message using their Wi-Fi, but ended up staying for over an hour to enjoy a delicious breakfast while the Owner/DJ/Waiter/Chief Customer Service Officer blasted karaoke variations of Hotel California from his massive antiquated speaker set. While devouring omelettes and instant coffee, we also absorbed Koko into our biker gang, an Australian of Polish descent who had the challenge of riding solo yesterday.
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We gassed up and the 7 of us peeled out, only to immediately be greeted by pothole filled dirt rounds that wound through tiny, dusty villages. It felt exhilarating to hop on the bike again knowing that a full day of riding lay ahead, and after a good night’s sleep and the experience of yesterday under my belt, I felt much more concentrated and connected with the bike despite the increasingly difficult terrain.

Ricooo

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Having established ground rules and made-up communication signals, we had a much easier time sticking together as a group on Day 2, and I led the pack through curving, gusty mountain passes and spectacular overlooking vistas. We stopped after a few hours at a dusty roadside village, where I became enthralled with a match of 3 on 3 soccer and then opened every freezer in the tiny town in a desperate search for ice cream, but instead encountered my fair share of whole iced chickens and massive frozen fish.

Throughout the day, John attracted a ton of dirt and started looking more and more like a rugged traveler

After another 60 Kilometers, we finally arrived at a city that was actually on the map, and took the second of the three left turns that comprise the loop onto a new road. The next 25KM stretch was by far the most fun I’ve ever had driving a bike. It had everything one could wish for: luscious scenery, perfectly curved roads that angled with our weight on the bike, and for the first time all day, a paved road!
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Before long, we reached a sign written only in Lao that denoted a natural cold spring. We took a bumpy path for a few minutes off the main road and although the swimming hole itself was underwhelming, we wound up in the middle of a deserted canyon, miles away from any other humans. It was a spectacular feeling to just be alone out there, taking in the surrounding views and feeling the strong breeze gush across the landscape. Between the deep red soil, the lack of any signs of life, the insanely powerful winds, and the unearthly scenery, I felt like an astronaut exploring another planet in my ridiculous head cover helmet and reflective visor. In fact, all afternoon we were serenaded by beautiful views.
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After we got back on the main road, the reality of today’s distance hit me, as we still had almost 100KM left to traverse before reaching our final destination and only a few hours of sunlight left in the day. The final stretch along the main road was particularly treacherous, riddled with sharp mountain turns and 18 wheeler construction trucks passing up and down the steep incline. We got through this portion as best we could as the sunlight began to cascade across the afternoon sky; everyone was anxious to reach our final destination for the possibility of a real meal.
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Finally, we turned down the road to Konglor Cave, the main attraction of our entire journey, and raced the sun deep into the middle of nowhere along a perfectly straight road accompanied by mountain cliffs on either side. By the last few kilometers, my butt was getting dangerously sore and my legs started to lock up on the bike’s pedals. But after playing hide and seek with the final rays of sunlight as it started to dip below the cliff formations, we encountered our first sign in English in over 40KMs and thankfully it was for "Kala Songlor: Room and Restaurant."

A successful second day

To say it was a relief when we finally arrived would be a drastic understatement, as everyone was dusty, exhausted, and desperately in need of a hot shower and multiple celebratory BeerLaos. Kala Songlor is set deep into the woods, a few kilometers from the cave, and has a perfect peaceful river view juxtaposed by a singular stunning sheer facade across the water. We quickly settled in for the night and let exhaustion and relaxation take over, having accomplished that awesome feeling that can only be reached by accomplishing all of your goals for the day, of which we had four:
  1. We made it to our final destination
  2. We made it before freezing darkness set in
  3. No one crashed
  4. No one got separated from the group
And that, my friends, is what I would call a success. After generous dinner portions, copious amounts of BeerLao, and delectable banana sticky rice pudding, the girls even got a few minutes of Wi-Fi and were able to get their WhatsApp and Facebook on. Truly, at least for this moment, all was right in the world.

December 14th, 2014 - The night bus to Pakse
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Today was our third and final day of The Loop. Now 11pm and already setting off for another destination, it’s tough for me to recognize how much we accomplished in the last 16 hours. I woke at 7am this morning for a few perfect minutes of peace and solitude as the sun’s rays began to dramatically peak through the river’s overhanging jungle foliage.
DSCN1664Our group of seven soon set off for the legendary, massive Konglor Cave. Located 45KM from any road that doesn’t stop in a dead end, the cave is one of the most remote sights in Laos and even for an attraction it was far removed from the tourist and backpacker trail I have largely been inhabiting thus far. We split up into boats to explore the cave, which was surprisingly accessible due to a 7.5KM river that runs directly through a massive mountain. Once inside, there was a dramatic atmospheric shift, as the humidity rose immediately and we quickly waved goodbye to the last rays of sunlight for the foreseeable future.
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The sheer enormity of the cave instantly had me contemplating how many millions of years it took mother nature to craft such a tremendous work of art; it was a truly a natural wonder of the world. We were guided the entire way by Shai, our boat captain who knew every turn, outcropping, and exposed rock better than I know the streets of my old neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. It was extremely entertaining to just watch the intense beam of his headlight dart back and forth across the bow of the boat, evaluating our speed and trajectory in the pitch black. The cave’s sheer size made it unlike anything my eyes have ever encountered, and except for a brief display of illuminated stalactites, we were in complete pitch darkness the entire way.
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Just as we first glimpsed the ultimate proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, we had to get out of the boat so that our guides could push it up a rocky set of rapids, but unfortunately I missed the memo (Shai screaming “NO, NO, NO”) and stepped out in a deep and treacherous section, where I instantly rolled my ankle, fell chest deep, and lost both my flip flops. Through a miraculous combination of luck and skill, Shai nonchalantly scooped them right out of the roaring current and ensured I was OK.
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Once we arrived on dry land at the other side, we reunited with the girls and enjoyed a particularly nutritious breakfast of knock-off Oreos and peanuts before hopping back into the boat for the spectacular return ride. At this point in our expedition we had a decision to make: we could either take two more days with out bikes and return the same way we came, or we could hightail it back to Tha Kaek and attempt to cover 180KM over the course of the afternoon. Due to the girls needing to get back and our desire to get started on another adventure, we decided to complete the loop that day.

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Honestly, the rest of the afternoon was a complete delirious blur, as we gunned it on the homestretch and battled the clock, keeping in mind how cold and dark it gets immediately after sunset. Upon arrival back in Tha Kaek, we all exchanged high-fives and massaged our asses, deeply sore but incredibly proud of accomplishing such an adventurous journey.

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Our return to the Tha Kaek Traveler Lodge also meant the unfortunate disbanding of our merry band of travelers, as the 3 Israelis and Koko booked the 1AM bus bound north for Vientiane and after much consternation, John, Rico, and I decided we hadn’t had our fill of ridiculous motorbiking trips yet and boarded the 11PM night bus to Pakse, a jumping off point for another loop around Southern Laos’ Bolaven Plateau.

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December 15th, 2014 - Palamei Guesthouse, Tad Lo
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After three packed days of riding, we were all tremendously beat. On the local night bus I mercifully found a tiny nook in the back corner and was able to pass out for almost the entire 7 hour journey. Hazy and groggy, we arrived in Pakse at 5:55AM, secured a room with actual mattresses, and got a few more hours of shut eye.
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John, Rico, and I left our dirty laundry, rented a new set of bikes, and hightailed it out of Pakse before the sun ascended to it’s noon peak, eager to hit the road once more. Pakse is the capital of Savannahket province and significantly larger than Tha Kaek, but still firmly off the normal traveler trail and we had plenty of difficulty finding reputable, english speaking shop owners and travel guides to get all the necessary information before our departure.
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Our new bikes also brought with them a huge learning experience, as it was the first time I was ever going to attempt driving a non-automatic vehicle of any kind. Rico and John were helpful in explaining which gears I should use in certain situations and how to downshift to stop quickly when necessary, but learning a semi-automatic engine was honestly just something that should be explored and experimented with trial and error. The first couple of kilometers out of the crowded, dusty city roads were quite jerky, but an hour into the ride I stopped trying to force it and just started feeling and listening to the engine, which made everything much easier.
Our fourth consecutive day on bikes also meant we were much more comfortable with speed, handling, and communication, and we worked well as a team to stay together and assist with passing massive trucks. Unlike the roads we were accustomed to surrounding Tha Kaek, everything was beautifully paved and completely devoid of potentially disastrous potholes. Once we escaped Pakse’s chaos, the open road was nothing short of spectacular, and we were able to make great time with a smaller squad of three.
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Whereas Tha Kaek’s loop is all about the caves, the Bolaven Plateau is all about thundering waterfalls. Before I knew it, we had already reached the first one marked on the map. Although I was skeptical that a major attraction so close in proximity to the city might be overrun with tourists, we must have avoided the tour bus schedule and were lucky enough to have the waterfall's beautiful viewpoint to ourselves as we basked in the cooling misty spray.
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After enjoying a brief lunch at the on-site restaurant staffed by local villagers, the road beckoned again.The three of us set off at a breakneck pace, passing each other at increasing speed and testing how far our semi-automatic engines would take us. Driving had a much different feel than the automatic bikes I was used to, and it was awesome to be one with the bike and the road, hugging turns and leaning forward on straightaways to max out the engine’s power.
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The entire way, the ride was accompanied by spectacular views of the Bolaven Plateau’s massive mountains and lush landscapes of jungles and fertile coffee plantations. The main road in this stretch was also dotted with plenty of schools and as we road through the afternoon it was a great sight to watch them all playing soccer, volleyball, and schoolyard games outside. With all the wildlife in these rural areas, it’s also important to be cognizant of animals crossing the road as you’re whizzing by, and John and I established a safety rule: If the animal is bigger than your bike, it’s not going to stop regardless of how many times you honk. Dogs and chickens will almost always get out of the way, there are no guarantees for pigs and goats, and cows always have the right of way.
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Eventually, we arrived at a small town set on the intersection of two roads and after dissecting the maps and Rico’s GPS location, realized we had gone straight past our proposed final destination, Tad Lo, at least half an hour ago. Tad Lo is not so much a town as it is a one block collection of guesthouses and homestays for weary travelers a few kilometers off the main road surrounded in close proximity by a plethora of waterfalls. Price shopping for accommodation upon arrival yielded a wealth of cheap options, and we settled down in two bungalows just as the setting sun began to illuminate the surrounding sky a spectacular glowing deep orange. Dinner in Tad Lo is decidedly a family affair, as our hosts at Palamei Guesthouse offered an all you can eat family style meal. The atmosphere around the table was reminiscent of Thanksgivings past, as travelers enjoyed Mr. Palamei’s signature Ratatouille concocted from fresh Barilla penne pasta alongside a wealth of fresh Lao foods.
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After four days of riding, the three of us are worn out and retreated for a full night’s sleep. Tomorrow we are setting off again, this time for another long stretch of biking as we ascend higher into the surrounding Plateau.

December 16th, 2014 - Thevada Hotel, Paksan
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Today, we covered a ridiculous amount of ground, close to 200KMs, as we went around an entire curve of the loop and even approached the homestretch back to Pakse. Breakfast this morning at Palamei guesthouse was accompanied by plentiful amounts of small children and young animals to entertain us with delightful laughter.

Afterwards, we hit two of the waterfalls around town for some morning zen chilling.
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As the sun began to rise toward its daily crescendo, we gunned it out onto the open road, made another wrong turn, and then recovered fast enough to have plenty of time to go off-roading through dirt paths and rice fields before even stopping for lunch. The off-roading section was particularly awesome, as we have each progressed a long way when it comes to controlling and maneuvering bikes through rocky and slippery sections. Check out the Youtube video below for some of the highlights!
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For lunch, we stopped in Sekong, another tiny town at the intersection of two roads that had just one open restaurant and no other travelers in sight. A market in the center of town yielded some delicious cheap eats, but we also got slapped with $1 parking tickets due to suffering from a severe case of being completely unable to read any signs.
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In the afternoon, after climbing a mountain and earning steadily better views all the way up, the road suddenly crumbled into dirt and bumpy moguls as we entered a construction zone with no warning at all. Although it was a slightly dangerous stretch and we had absolutely no idea where we were most of the time, I also had a ton of fun on the rocky, unpaved roads.
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In the late afternoon, the weather in the Plateau started to shift suddenly and we were apprehensive about the dark clouds and strong cold winds, but decided that as long as it didn’t start to rain too heavily we could make it to the next town on the map. We arrived in Paksan with a few minutes to spare before sunset, just as my legs started to seize up on the bike from having covered so much ground in one day. We price shopped at three guesthouses around town, but ultimately only found one which was halfway decent, Thevada hotel. When combined with the ominous dark clouds and howling, swirling winds, our sparsely populated hotel set on the top of a deserted hill felt like the set of a horror movie. As I huddled in the restaurant, which for reasons unbeknownst to me had only 2 walls, it was an opportune time to complete an exercise I find helpful at the end of a strenuous day: Write down 10 things, no matter how big or how small, that you are appreciative of. It was the perfect way to set my mind straight and re-center myself with gratitude for the present moment:
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10 Appreciations
  1. I am appreciate that I am safe and healthy after five straight days of adventurous motorbiking.
  2. I am appreciative for my awesome companions, without whom I may be tackling this daunting journey alone.
  3. I am appreciative for all the untouched, gorgeous wide open spaces of earth’s natural beauty that I have had the tremendous fortune to experience in the last few days.
  4. I am appreciative for this nomadic lifestyle that motorbiking enables, where every day one can discover a new village market completely devoid of other travelers.
  5. I am appreciative for the glorious feeling of control that riding your bike all day provides. We are in control of our speed, our pit stops, and our final destinations. We are our own tour group, and it is much more agreeable this way.
  6. I am appreciative of the perfect whirring sound my engine makes when shifting from 3rd to 4th gear, signaling the final acceleration and announcing that it’s time to open up the throttle and work the engine to its fullest.
  7. I am appreciative of the wonderful solitude that is accessible while riding; there are no troubles or worries on my mind.
  8. I am appreciative for all the awesome local children that are always excited to wave to us from the side of the road while they’re walking to and from school.
  9. I am appreciative for the creature comforts of a warm shower, a cold BeerLao, and a comfortable mattress after a full day tensing my shoulders, butt, and legs on the bike.
  10. I am appreciative, most of all, for this spectacular journey and all that I’ve learned and experienced in this action-packed week.

December 17th, 2014 - Lankham Hotel, Pakse
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On day 6 of 6 of our motorbiking expedition, we reaped the rewards of having covered so much ground on the previous two days and were able to take our time exploring four gorgeous waterfalls on the 50KM final stretch of the loop. My favorite aspect of the day was just sitting, completely devoid of any wants in the world, as we were serenaded by the sound of falling water that contains such a powerful calming and quieting effect on the brain.
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I also loved the way that the mist billowed off the waterfalls as the water plunged into the pools below, slowly dissipating into nothingness.
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After a wonderfully slow day relaxing at a great self-guided tour of the best waterfall stretch in Laos, we settled in for a decadent and delicious lunch with a perfect view of twin 120M drops, then instantly dropped dead in hammocks for a post-lunch siesta.
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DCIM100GOPRO In the afternoon, we eventually made our way back into Pakse just as rush hour traffic was hitting its peak and I couldn’t help but be proud of how comfortable the three of us were in streets filled with such commotion. We easily glided in and out of traffic circles and intersections, avoided heaps of bikers and cars on either side, and did it all with style and ease - something that would have been next to impossible just six short days ago.
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After six long days on the bike, my body has been mutilated and is in need of a massage, but my brain is oddly completely collected. One thought that permeated through the trip is the distinct similarity between driving a motorbike and mindfulness meditation.
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Motorbiking requires a certain combination of awareness, calm, and prolonged concentration that quiets the mind and brings with it a certain sense of peacefulness absent elsewhere. While riding, one must be connected with the bike, feeling the engine and hugging tight turns with the weight of your body. There's no time let the mind wander. There's no time to concern yourself with the past or the future. Just live in the present moment. Just ride.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiM7iTRcxgw[/embed]

Update: This video may be blocked in some countries. I'm working on resolving the issue!

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-P-4T8waQE[/embed]

Vang Vieng & Vientiane

December 11th, 2014 - Vientiane, Laos

Vang Vieng

I'm certain I cannot find the words to accurately describe the 4 days I just spent in Vang Vieng, so I'm hoping that videos and pictures will do it justice.

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Banana Bungalows, where 3 nights ran me a total of $7.50 USD!

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Some 6 year olds play little league. This one goes spear fishing.

Undoubtedly the aspect of Vang Vieng that I enjoyed most was the wonderful people I was incredibly grateful to meet and spend time with. Rasmus, Jonas, and Samir are three friends from Sweden who I was lucky enough to encounter in four different locales along the trail from Thailand into Laos. They are a hilarious threesome who are unrivaled in their ability to bring entertainment and unstoppable laughter into my days on the road.
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Upon converging in Vang Vieng, they convinced me to move out to Banana Bungalows so that Isabelle and I could live in close proximity to their group, which also included Philip, DJ, and Nicola. A ragtag group of varying ages and nationalities, we had a spectacular time relaxing in the hammocks, indulging in way too many $2 sandwiches, and becoming engrossed in the party scene of the tiny, isolated town. Everyone I meet on the road teaches me something about themselves and their respective culture; when I’m open to it they’ll often teach me something about myself as well.

The Vang Vieng family

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Vientiane

After four days in the backpacker heaven of Vang Vieng and almost three weeks since I last encountered a big city, Vientiane was a huge culture shock. Exposure to traffic, air pollution, and a real economy outside of tourism was the polar opposite of my lifestyle since departing Bangkok. Although considerably more expensive than anything I've experienced in a while, the aspect I enjoy most about bigger cities is the ability to encounter completely new things, eat to your heart's content, and thoroughly entertain yourself by simply exploring the surrounding area.

Although Vientiane certainly has its fair share of tourists and all the Western necessities in the main part of town, it also feels great to immerse myself more in the Lao culture, with fresh local markets, plenty of spicy noodle soups at roadside stands, and a hilarious night market complete with street food, carnival attractions, and giggling high school students. With three full days in the city to physically and mentally recover while my visas for Vietnam and Indonesia were processed, I had plenty of down time to observe the city's sights and inhabitants on foot, bicycle, and motorbike.

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Sunset on the Mekong never disappoints

At my Dad's recommendation, I also spent some of my recovery time in Vientiane learning more about the historical relationship between the United States and Laos, which heightened during the 1960's when the CIA recruited Hmong tribes to repel militia from communist Vietnam. One of my first stops in town was a bookstore where I picked up Hmong Means Free, a historical account that includes provocative first hand testimonies of Laotians as refugees and American immigrants during and after the Vietnam war.

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Without a doubt, the most memorable activity in Vientiane was visiting the COPE Visitor Centre, where I learned more about the covert bombing raids the United States sent over Laos in an attempt to destroy the Vietnamese army's Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was used to funnel supplies around the demilitarized zone in central Vietnam.

Between 1964 and 1973, 580,000 bombing missions occurred over Lao territory, which equates to one mission every 8 minutes for NINE YEARS. During these missions 270 million bombs were dropped, yet approximately 80 million failed to detonate, resulting in an inordinate number of injuries and reputations as the unexploded ordinances (UXO's) were uncovered by Laos' rural farming population. COPE serves a vital role in the country by manufacturing artificial limbs and rehabilitating those in need.

A provocative display of artificial limbs at COPE

Yesterday I rented a motorbike and escaped from the chaos of rush hour traffic to take the long route to the surreal Xieng Khuan, which contains bizarre Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.

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Vientiane is renowned for its spectacular French and Lao cuisine, and apart from the plethora of bakeries in town, I indulged in a pair of memorable meals:

  • Larp sounds simple enough: chopped beef with vegetables. But when served with hot chili peppers, a plate of fresh greens, and hot soup broth, Larp takes on a life of its own and makes for a spectacular traditional Lao lunch.

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  • The dish that has most enthralled me since my entry into Laos is one that I'll undoubtedly be trying to re-create upon my return to the United States. I was powerless to the addictive effects of stir-fried green beans and morning glory mixed with fresh garlic, chopped peanuts, and fresh chilis. When I went back for a second time the stand owner saw how much I appreciated his work and thankfully heaped up a massive portion.

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Today marks one month since I landed in Asia and began this spectacular journey. If I've learned anything so far, it's that this world is truly a magical place. It's filled with amazing people, places, and things. Although the norm is to strive to become rich in money and possessions, travel has taught me my audacious goal should be to become rich in experiences and relationships.

This afternoon I’m hitting the road again, this time to Southern Laos for a week of solitary motorbiking and exploration of natural caves and waterfalls, far removed from the tourist trail that I’ve been inhabiting the last few weeks. I’ll close the first month of travel with a personal adaptation of my favorite post from Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits:
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Less rush, more slowness
Less consuming, more creating
Less busywork, more impact
Less noise, more solitude
Less focus on the future, more on the present
Less social media, more conversations
Less worry, more smiles
Breathe

Luscious Languid Laos

  December 6th, 2014* - Vang Vieng, Laos

*Author's note: This post was written 2 days ago, but Laos' devastatingly slow wifi has prevented me from uploading it until now. 

It feels impossible to reconcile the fact that it’s only been 8 days since I crossed into Laos and was first exposed to the lovely pace and friendly people of this beautiful country. This is a long post so strap in, because there's a lot of adventures and amazing content to share!

The Gibbon Experience

For the first three days after arrival, I trekked deep into the remote corners of the jungle with the Gibbon Experience, an outfitter that has pioneered “canopy tourism” by creating a network of ziplines and enabling travelers to see and hear the black-crested gibbons, one of earth’s most fragile and beautiful endangered species.
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Our group traversed for 3 hours on a pickup truck through increasingly desolate hillside villages, veered off on to a dirt road, then hiked through fields and jungle just to reach basecamp. From there, we strapped in our harnesses and set off for the ziplining journey to our three story canopy treehouse 100 feet into the sky.
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Each morning at dawn, as the mist rolled over the fertile jungle floor, we were awakened by the call of the gibbon, an indescribable natural morning song that echoed over the rolling mountains. Depending on the visibility, dawn is also the best time for a gibbon sighting, and both mornings our treehouse served as a hospitable meeting point for other tour groups and local Gibbon Experience employees. Huddled in blankets and crouched around the railings with binoculars as we sipped coffee, we were luckily rewarded with sights of the majestic animals as they used their long arms to propel themselves through the branches and pick tree fruits for breakfast.
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Throughout the day, we had both organized excursions around the zipline network and free time to act like children, delighting in the adrenaline rush of speeding above the luscious jungle. Looking out from the vistas of any of the canopy treehouses, one is greeted by an endless expanse of overgrowth, complete with massive trees, diverse bird calls, and insects that are just on a different scale than any I’ve encountered before. After an early sunset, the jungle sinks rapidly into pitch black and after our guides ziplined off, we were left alone with just whiskey and coffee to protect us from an inevitable tree rat invasion and the ominous sounds of the jungle. It was tough departing on our final morning as I probably could have lived out there for at least another week, but I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have lived with gibbons in their natural habitat and had such a thrilling time doing it. Check out the video below to hear those glorious gibbons, see some awesome ziplining footage, and learn about Lao-style Snickers for breakfast.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZevFBgFchpM[/embed]

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Luang Prabang
 
Heavily dotted along the trail for both tourists and travelers, Luang Prabang envelops the soul with it’s fabled history and languid pace.
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On the "bus ride from hell”, an overnight journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, I was fortunate enough to make friends with a group of 4 French students studying in Bangkok, bonding over the difficulty of trying to sleep on Laos’ bumpy, windy roads and praying that the bus would start again during prolonged stops for the driver to work on the engine. We finally arrived after 17 hours cooped up in tiny seats and haggled the price for a tuk-tuk to town. Haggling with tuk-tuk drivers and shopkeepers is a commonality in Lao, and it’s entertaining to experiment with the best tactics. Along with the French students, we teamed up with Isabelle, a German solo traveler, and found a clean bunk bed dorm in town.
After depositing our bags, we were eager to carpe diem, Luang Prabang style. This attitude consists of depositing yourself at a cafe with a view of either the main walking street or the placid Mekong and enjoying a slow breakfast, hopefully including a strong coffee and a fresh pastry or baguette. As a group, we strolled around the main sights and let the city’s quiet, calming vibe engross us.
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At night, we made our way to "the only good bar," Utopia, which was set on the bank of the Nam Khan river to embrace the chilled out vibe and peaceful river views. Luang Prabang’s strong culture and customs make the city much less conducive to going out, as bars are shut down at 11pm, igniting a mass exodus to the only place in town that is still serving beer: the bowling alley! Packed with backpackers until 2am, I reveled in the escalating party of travelers from all over the world playing such a familiar game.
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On our second day in the city, we arose from our hungover stupor for a group brunch before hiring a tuk-tuk to Kuang Si waterfall, one of the best sights in the surrounding area. We wiled away the day getting up close and personal with some bears at a wildlife preserve, exploring the eerily blue natural swimming pools, then climbing to the top for majestic views of the jungle valley floor far below.
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On the way back, the sun began to shine brightly for the first time since our arrival in Luang Prabang and we embraced the simple glory of just leaning out the back of the tuk-tuk to soak in the afternoon rays and wave to the swarms of school children biking home.

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On the whole, Laos is gloriously inexpensive and the food is dangerously cheap and delicious. My three favorite meals in Luang Prabang each cost $10,000 Lao Kip ($1.25 USD!!)
  1. The clear winner was a vegetarian buffet at the city’s night market. For just over a dollar, you get an empty bowl and can dig into a diverse array of fresh or deep fried vegetables.
  2. One of Lao’s top tourist meals is baguette hoagies, and I enjoyed my far share of chicken and avocado sandwiches at the street-side market just steps from our hostel.
  3. No day in Lao is truly complete without at least one serving of noodle soup, and I found a great one-woman operation off the side of the main street with delectably spicy pork noodle soup, heaped high with fresh greens and thick or thin noodles.

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On my last day in the city, I rose at 5AM to observe Tak Bat, the offering of morning alms from Luang Prabang’s citizens to apprentice monks. It was a moving sight, deeply rooted in spirituality and traditional customs, yet simultaneously blighted by drones of tourists, snapping photos ridiculously close to the procession. They scampered around with huge phones and DSLR’s, eager to snap the perfect shot.
DCIM100GOPROThere is something devastatingly simple about life in Laos that bring into question the beliefs and attitudes so engrained in the rest of the developed world. Sure, the vast majority of the inhabitants here live on less than $50 USD/day. But they are also a happy, spirited, easy-going people who love joking around, making friends with travelers, having a great time, and not worrying about the normal constraints and stresses of life.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPSC4RG5qYI&feature=youtu.be[/embed]

"I'm on Pai Time"

November 28th, 2014 - Huay Xai, Laos

Last Thursday, I woke up early and had my first encounter with food poisoning in Asia, then conveniently boarded a bus through the windiest road in Thailand, turning 762 times over 151 Kilometers on the way up to the tiny town of Pai in the mountains. Along the way up I made acquaintance with Peter, who lives in Austria but is currently on assignment in Afghanistan, and Emilia, a fellow solo travel who surreptitiously was able to brief me on Vietnam and Laos, having made Thailand her third stop. As the minivan wound it’s way through the mountains, we were greeted by impressive vistas and misty clouds around almost every turn.
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Upon putting our feet on the ground in Pai, neither Emilia nor I had a place to stay, so we teamed up and hit the streets, exploring housing options and asking fellow travelers for advice. Eventually, we stumbled across a makeshift bamboo bridge and discovered an open bungalow in a secluded patch of grass, facing out over a beautiful mountain view. At 400 Baht a night ($6 USD each) for a private room with hot showers and a hammock on the front porch, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to leave.
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[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LiGQeg03h0&feature=youtu.be[/embed]

After gratefully depositing our bags, we met up with Bill, who had been enjoying Pai life for the last few days. He told us about a popular pool just outside town, and we all agreed lounging in the sun, taking a few refreshing dips, and enjoying some cold beverages would be the ideal way to while away the afternoon.

Living on Pai Time is simple; each day follows a certain cadence dictated by the city, the weather, and the people:

Morning
The mornings in Pai are misty and wondrous. From sunrise to 10 or 11 each morning, a thick layer of clouds and fog surrounds the entire town and the mountains behind our bungalow, slowly unveiling as the sun burns them off. As the first rays of light begin to warm everything up, it’s a great time to take advantage of our beautifully manicured lawn and do some yoga or indulge in a morning workout while enjoying free coffee and bananas, courtesy of “Phu View” Bungalows.
Afternoon 
After a long, slow morning sipping coffee in the hammock, it’s probably time to take the motorbike out for a spin and grab some lunch at one of the restaurants either in town or on the way to one of the waterfalls. With a plethora of fresh, local produce, there were a ton of healthy cafes in Pai, serving everything from kombucha to wheatgrass smoothies.

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One day, I encountered a tiny stand off a dirt road with a sign that read: “You decide pay by donation.” After I sat down, they proceeded to not stop feeding me ridiculously fresh fruits and juices grown steps from my table.

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The cost ($3 USD/day) and convenience of a motorbike rental, combined with the prevalence of waterfalls and gorgeous canyon vistas made it the most economical and enjoyable activity of my trip so far. From lunch until sunset is the perfect time to glide around Pai’s windy mountainside streets as the sun angles across the sky and into the canyon. Emilia and I very much enjoyed the peacefulness of just riding around, enjoying the sights and finding it impossible to ever really get lost.

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Evening 
The sunsets in Pai are postcard material. The last few red and purple beams of sunlight reflect off clouds and mountains for breathtaking views, then the real scene in Pai comes alive just as darkness flows over town. Evening ushers in the creation of a sprawling street side market throughout most of the downtown area. Complete with locals performing entertainment acts, beautiful handmade crafts, and more delicious street carts than your stomach can handle, Emilia and I ate our way through the town each night, stopping every 20 minutes to sample dumpling, kabobs, sticky rice, and drowning it all down with beers from 7-11. Even though we enjoyed a veritable feast, I can’t have spent more than $5 USD food each time.
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At night, the main stretch of bars slowly erupts as the massive crowd of travelers migrates from one bar to another in unison, all the way from just before midnight until sunrise. One of my favorite parts about this tiny little village is the ease with which you can see smiling familiar faces due to the town’s nature as a congregation location for longer-term travelers. Emila’s ability to speak a multitude of languages constantly came in handy as we wander around town letting our extroverted natures take over and making new friends.
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After going out, the best part is taking in the epic show mother nature puts on each night. With minimal surrounding light in the area, a new moon, and clear cloud cover, the stars are the brightest and most bountiful I’ve ever seen them.


I compiled some of my Go Pro motorbiking footage into a music video of the rolling countryside:

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hdhq2jjQK40[/embed]

Update: I'm currently having difficulties with the copyright claim for the background music, but if you play this video simultaneously, it will have the desired effect :)

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TO9Qa7MpAvw[/embed]


This morning, I crossed the border into Laos to embark on the next leg of my journey. Tomorrow at sunrise I’ll be departing for 3 days in the jungle, ziplining through rainforest canopies and sleeping in treehouses over a hundred feet above the ground.
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Traveling for three weeks now has been an amazing crazy wild ride. My favorite aspect has been the destruction of monotony. Every day brings with it new opportunities to encounter something or someone you’ve never been exposed to in your life, and I’m loving learning as I go.

Phi Phi to Pai

Phi Phi Phi Phi island, a 2 hour ferry ride from mainland Thailand, is the exact opposite of a cultural immersion experience. Part tourist village, part Asian Ibiza, part adventure sports mecca, the island is a unique lens into the travel culture for the youth of countless nationalities. The global mixing pot is complemented well with not one, but two beautiful crescent beaches that are separated by a tiny village of shops in the town of Phi Phi Don.

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 5.43.25 PMTourists and westerners outnumber locals at least 3 to 1; the abundance of British, Australian, Canadian, and American visitors ensure English is the language of choice, although German, French, and a multitude of other languages are readily apparent on the streets as well. Along the long crescent of the Eastern beach, visitors can hire long tail boats for day trips to isolated snorkeling spots in surrounding reefs, rent kayaks to explore secluded beaches, or just while away the day rolling around in the miraculously shallow sea.

DCIM100GOPROThe islands bountiful plant life and mossy covered rocks protruding directly from the Andaman Sea make the island feel like a little slice of heaven, although you’ll have to escape from the tourist traps of the town below to get some peace and quiet. The entire real estate market in town can be categorized into 6 main groupings:

  1. Hostels
  2. Restaurants
  3. Trip planners
  4. Massage Parlors
  5. Tattoo Parlors
  6. Mini Marts

Often times, owners claim two or even three of the above within their tiny storefronts.

At night, the beach bars come alive, blasting deep house beats that permeate through your skin to rattle the bones and the entire area illuminates in neon and strobe lights. Pyromaniac performers from the ages of 5 to 50 twirl fiery sticks in dizzying formations, throwing their torches higher and higher into the starlit night sky.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwurg-EEBiQ[/embed]

Power Rankings: Top Tank Tops, Phi Phi 

The attire of choice for the bros of Phi Phi is definitively the tank top, and we delighted in seeing hilarious shirts on drunken guys stumbling around town. The five favorites:

  1. Singha, Chang, or Leo Beer. Take the label off a beer can, put it on a t-shirt, and you’ve got a best seller
  2. Thai Red Bull logo….same logic applies here
  3. 7-Eleven Logo. 7-Eleven has an astonishingly strong presence in Thailand, and Bill was somehow able to peer pressure me into buying this tank when I went out shirtless and shopping one night
  4. No Reason to Say No (Donned by a female masseuse)
  5. Same Same (Front) But Different (Back). A classic.

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TTTT (Trevor's Top Travel Tips)

When you're traveling, you should probably bring a phone charger!

Somehow, Trevor made it through two weeks in Thailand without owning his own iPhone charger!


Meditation Retreat  The day after arriving in Chiang Mai, I embarked on the single weirdest overnight trip of my life and showed up at Wat Suan Dok on the outskirts of town for a 2 day meditation retreat. For 30 hours, while secluded in a gorgeous peaceful hillside far away from the bustle of the city, I joined 40 other travelers and tourists for an introductory course in Buddhist meditation.

All White E'rythang

Upon arriving, the entire group undertook a vow of silence and donned all white attire, including one-size-fits-all ridiculously baggy linen pants. I was initially incredibly surprised to find that practicing meditation for the past year or so put me firmly on the more experienced end of the spectrum compared to other participants, but even establishing a regular practice would not come close to preparing myself for the challenge that lay ahead.

Over the course of that afternoon and the majority of the next day, our instructor Monk interspersed lectures regarding meditation, mindfulness and Buddhism with prolonged periods of practiced meditation. Although sitting still and thinking about nothing might seem easy in practice, the human brain is a fascinatingly complex piece of machinery and I can honestly say that the stamina necessary for long meditations was the most difficult task I’ve encountered in a long time.

530AM: Giving Alms (rice) to a Monk. That's the only food he ate that day

It must be hard for friends and family to believe, but for the entire retreat the only time I spoke was when chanting before meditations or meals. As a group, we all learned a lot about Buddhism, the practice of loving kindness, and ourselves during the retreat. It was with glowingly calm smiling faces that we finally dispersed back to Chiang Mai on Wednesday evening.


 

Chiang Mai Chiang Mai is a wonderfully inexpensive city situated in the center of Northern Thailand; as it was once a bustling trade hub for the entire golden triangle, it is richly steeped in culture and a temple lover’s delight. These days, it also serves as a jumping off point for all kinds of amazing outdoorsing trips: trekking, zip lining, rock climbing, rafting, and elephant training are all easily accessible from booking agencies. During my first few hours in the city, I went on a self-guided walking tour of the area's plentiful temples:

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In the gorgeous gardens surrounding the city's largest temple, Wat Phra Khew, I found myself in a tiny forest with Buddhist sayings tied to the trees. Although grammatically they translate to English poorly, the ideas still permeate through:

Today is better than two tomorrows

There is no glory for a lazy person however good looking

There is more happiness in giving than in taking

The skilled man does not show off, but the man without knowledge usually show off

Merit making calculated to impress is not real merit

Virtue is more valuable than university degree

Better is to speak unpleasant truths than to tell lies

More than any other city I’ve ever encountered, Chiang Mai seems to be populated by a booming international retiree crowd; white-haired expats from Europe, Australia, and North America fill the streets and bars late at night to play pool and chat up the local crowd. Chiang Mai is also renowned for it’s night bazaar, which consists of intricate and beautiful displays of artwork on stalls lining the street in every direction, juxtaposed by American fast food chains on many of the same corners.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3ZCL9Wg5Mk&feature=youtu.be[/embed] It’s amazing how the shopping scene in Chiang Mai really comes alive immediately after rush hour. Wood carvings, oil paintings, hand made bags, thai silk, and expensive spices all populate the area and are accompanied by aggressive shopkeepers. Their method of choice for entertainment while not hawking or haggling is definitely the tablet, and I pass by many people playing candy crush sage, clash of clans, and other games I don’t recognize on my leisurely stroll through the expansive market.

DCIM100GOPRO Don Ithanon On Thursday, I booked a day trip to Don Ithanon national park, which encompasses the highest mountain in Thailand, beautiful waterfalls, and two massive pagodas built straight into a misty hillside. It was a wonderful adventure.

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During the 40 minutes our group spent exploring these twin sacred Pagodas, the clouds engulfed and dispersed around us no less than 4 times.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35nMBoJEFjs&feature=youtu.be[/embed]

Up here in the clouds


Pai  This morning, I woke up early to catch a bus on the windiest road in Thailand up to the tiny northern village of Pai. Although I’ve only been here a few hours, just strolling through the city streets and finding a gorgeous bungalow with a panoramic view of the mountains has filled me with a great feeling about this town and the adventures that await up here.

A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving.

- Lao-Tzu

Bustling Bangkok to Beachside Bungalows

November 15th, 2014 - Phi Phi Island, Thailand To sum up my first week of travel into a coherent and concise post seems to me an impossible task. Although I’ve been in Thailand less than 5 full days at this point, it feels like weeks have gone by since I last set foot on American soil. Nevertheless, I’ll give it my best shot and intersperse the story with photos and videos to keep things interesting.


November 11th, 2014 - Bangkok

As the plane began to descend into Bangkok just before 7AM local time after a full day and a half of travel, my anticipation heightened and I began to contemplate the realities of my current situation. I had just flown halfway around the world with just a single bag and was now faced with the daunting task of navigating a foreign country without a working mobile phone, a contact to meet me on the ground, or any real plan of what I was going to do once there. It was simultaneously exhilarating and frightening. Just over 24 hours after saying goodbye to my parents in Washington, DC, I found myself and my massive pack smack dab in the middle of rush hour on the subway in Bangkok. As we progressed downtown, whizzing by rice fields and dilapidated hovels, people crammed into the car like sardines on their morning commute. The smartphone revolution has surely made its way to Thailand, and commuters watched videos, checked Facebook and Twitter, chatted on Line and WhatsApp, and listened to Pittbull loud enough for the entire car to hear “Timber.”

Even though I tried to use a map and asked plenty of locals for directions, I got hopelessly lost on my way to the hostel and ended up stumbling around town for over an hour in the sweltering heat and humidity of Thailand’s cultural and political capital. Bangkok is a busy and crowded city; during morning rush hour the congestion was nothing short of epic. Speeding motorbikes weave their way through cars, Tuk-Tuks, and packed busses to the front of the line at every red light, then each time the light turns green the first wave of vehicles looks like a motorcycle rally coming right at you.

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As I was interested in exploring the legendary temples and tourist sights of downtown Bangkok, the lovely volunteers at COW (Citizens Of the World) Hostel helped me out by introducing me to the cheapest and fastest way to navigate the massive city: water taxis. For just 15 Baht (50 cents USD), you can procure a seat on a high speed boat in any direction along Bangkok’s vast network of canals.

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I took the boat all the way to the end of the road, where I struck out with a map and a few places I wanted to check out, knowing full well I would get hopelessly lost along the way. The first temple I checked out was the Golden Mountain, which provided me with my first aerial view of Bangkok’s wide skyline.

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On my way to the next Temple, I stumbled into a beautiful garden, where I’m not proud to admit that I was lured into a scam that can only be called a “Tuk-Tuk Affiliate Marketing Tour.” I was approached by a friendly looking Thai fellow named Dom who, in excellent English, told me he was a school teacher at the school right across the street (establishing credibility). He immediately proceeded full fledged into an intricate story about how the temple was currently closed because it was time for the Monks to pray, but boy was it my lucky day: It was “Buddha Day” in Bangkok, which meant that silly tourists like me would get heavily discounted Tuk-Tuk rides all around the city all day. Although I was skeptical at first, he was honestly a very nice fellow and was successful in convincing me that the Thai government was subsidizing Tuk-Tuk costs to some of the best sights in town if you also go the tourist information office. He said he would help me find a driver who was participating, and lucky enough there happened to be one (his accomplice) less than 50 yards away.

As soon as I stepped into the back of the Tuk-Tuk and was whisked away at a torrid pace through tiny alleys and back roads, I realized the perils of the situation and how naive I had been to trust this person I had never met. It turned out that the “tourism office” he had been referring to was actually a place where agents try to sell you overpriced packaged deals for trips and treks throughout the country. After I didn’t buy anything my Tuk-Tuk driver insisted on taking me to “an authentic Thai factory” where they tried to sell me tailored suits. Ultimately it turned into a great deal for me: I got free Tuk-Tuk rides all afternoon throughout the major sights of the city in exchange for politely declining all of the affiliate offers. Here are some of the sights from the tour:

Big Buddha

Emerald Palace

Emerald entrance

From the emerald palace, the last stop on my tour, I trekked onwards to the river downtown, but not before stopping on Khao San Road, a backpacker mecca engulfed in street shops selling tourist trash and restaurants serving decidedly Western fare. The last temple I explored that day was surely the most impressive: the massive reclining buddha at Wat Pho:

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Taking up the entire length and height of it’s majestic temple room, the reclining buddha is decadently cast in gold and features 108 mother of pearl inlays on it’s humungous feet.

After more trials and tribulations navigating back to the hostel by water taxi, foot, and underground subway, I was decidedly spent and thankful to mercifully pass out back at the hostel.


November 12th, 2014 - Bangkok

After a glorious night’s sleep in a crowded and uncomfortable hostel dorm, I woke early for my second day in Bangkok and began by sampling local breakfast fare from street vendors as the sun started to peek through the skyscrapers and massive open walkways that cover the city. The clear winner that morning was a tremendous spicy pork noodle soup, which I devoured for 50 Baht (Just $1.70 USD!) next to the water taxi stop in the neighborhood of Siam Square. Nearby was the historical site of Jim Thompson’s house, an American expat who fell in love with Thai culture and moved here, combining 6 traditional Thai houses and enclosing them with calming gardens, antique Asian art, and beautiful koi ponds.

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Thompson Tree

After participating in a private tour to see the inside of the house, I made my way a few blocks over to the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center, where there were a couple of provocative exhibits on display and I had a great time playing around with my new GoPro camera for the first time.

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The night before, I booked a flight to Krabi to meet up with my friends Trevor and Bill, so in the early afternoon I made my way back to the airport. On the flight over, I bonded with the guy across the aisle over our shared distaste for cold shrimp served on an airplane. His name was Ben, and together we were able to wrangle up a couple of other backpackers at the baggage claim to share a cab to our hostels. Bill and Trevor heard a recommendation that I should stay at “Slumber Party Hostel”, where I was kindly greeted at the front desk/bar by a group of good natured ex-pats and backpackers traveling to Thailand’s legendary beach scene. Slumber Party was hosting a pub crawl that evening, and just as I would have been settling in to my desk back on the East coast, I cracked my first beer of the trip and observed the scene developing all around me.

We all had a spectacular time that night getting introduced to Thailand’s delightfully strong liquor buckets, making new friends with strangers from Europe, Australia, and around the world, and cutting it up on dance floors around the beach town. I ended the night taking my first dip in the Andaman Sea and enjoying the glorious laid back vibe that envelops the town.


November 13th, 2014 - Ao Nang Beach

Highs and Lows today:

Highs:

1. The morning can pretty much be summed up by this footage I shot swimming around in a circle on a beautiful secluded beach.

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2. Reuniting with Trevor and Bill! We met up at Ton Sai beach, a gritty backpacker scene far removed from the luxuries and accommodations of Thailand’s tourist beaches. Surrounded by spectacular rock climbing options, Ton Sai is known for its cheap bungalows built into the hillside, Thai-Rasta vibe, and more recently this unfortunate destruction of all the waterfront property so that a large resort can be built in its place.

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Lows:

1. Getting caught in a cave for almost an hour during a thunderous monsoon while the trail I was on transformed into a river.

2. Breaking my sandal and walking barefoot through the rocky jungle for half an hour in the pitch black.


November 14th, 2014 - Ton Sai Beach

Today Trevor, Bill, and I joined up with 10 other travelers on a private bout tour to go Deep Water Soloing, a form of rock climbing involving no clips, no ropes, and plenty of high elevation jumps into sparkling blue water below. Although I can’t say I was anywhere close to decent at the climbing, I basked in the glory of the open ocean's pristine water and as Trevor and Bill ascended the scraggly stalactite filled rock formations, I tried to capture some footage of their ascents and impending dives.

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November 15th - Phi Phi Island

Early this morning, Bill and I left Trevor behind in Ton Sai so that he could do some more rock climbing and we could move on to Phi Phi Island (pronounced Pee Pee), where Bill wants to do some scuba diving and I'll be enjoying the pristine white sand beaches.

It's been less than a week on the road so far, but I'm truly enjoying every minute of this exciting experience. Every day is an adventure packed full of learning, exploring, making new friends, and seeing the wonder that is Thailand!

How do you say "Goodbye" in Thai?*

Next week, I’ll be boarding a one-way flight to Bangkok and embarking on an indefinite excursion across Southeast Asia. I’m incredibly excited for this next step in my life and embracing the adventure of the open road. Wondering why I’m leaving?

First, similar to the vast majority of young people with desk jobs, I have been infected by a strong sense of wanderlust to travel and see more of this wondrous world. Out of the 23+ years that I’ve inhabited this earth, I'm ashamed to admit that I’ve been in the United States for 99.5% of the time!  Specifically, I’m ridiculously excited to learn about the culture of the Mekong Region first hand, experience natural wonders of their environment, and go on some awesome trips ziplining, kayaking, and trekking through the jungles.

Second, as much as I appreciate the corporate comforts of my job, I have a deeply held desire to live life in an adventurous way. While sick and isolated from my friends for 3 days while traveling to Peru earlier this year, I was inspired by the book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. In it, Potts postulates for the premise of leaving material possessions behind for the wild adventures and life experiences of long-term travel. The limitless possibilities of embracing this mindset was the first step along my journey.

Third, it’s an intellectual journey as much as it’s a physical one. Along the road, there are three main areas I’ll be specifically working on:

  1. After meditating regularly for almost a year now, I’m excited to immerse myself in its cultural roots. I’ll be traveling to rural areas of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia where many traditional buddhist customs remain intact, undisturbed by hundreds of years of industrial and technological development.
  2. It’ll also be an opportunity to read and write. My kindle is completely stocked up, and I’ll be writing a new post on this blog once a week for the duration of the trip.
  3. Finally, it's my belief that with today's technology, few individuals have greater potential to positively impact the world than software engineers. Recently, I discovered Ruby on the Beach and realized I could learn software development….from experts….in an immersive learning environment…. in BALI, Indonesia?? Sounds like a great life experience. Count me in.

To close, this passage from Walt Whitman’s song of the open road perfectly embodies my current mindset:

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines, Going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

--

*Title credit goes entirely to Jenna Waltersdorf

 

Achieve Anything with Lift

If you were to scroll through the top charts of the Health and Fitness category in either Apple or Google's app stores, you would find much repetition. Many of the apps accomplish the same goals, whether that be tracking your steps, helping you count calories, or providing a workout companion while at the gym. But there’s one app that is on a mission to do so much more: unlock human potential. Lift is an app that helps you achieve your goals through tracking, community, and coaching. Although many goals are health and fitness related, Lift also incorporates things that you normally wouldn’t consider play an impact on your well-being, like flossing, playing a musical instrument, or keeping a journal. Each different goal on Lift is accompanied by a question and answer section where you can utilize the vibrant community to find their favorite tools or get over tough roadblocks along the way.

 

IMG_1784  IMG_1786 Lift has also developed a growing database of challenges in categories like Meditation, Yoga, Cardio, and Strength Training. One of my favorite aspects of these plans is that they subtly incorporate BJ Fogg’s Behavior Change Model of tiny habits. Instead of suggesting intense workouts, each plan starts off with something that seems incredibly small and easy, like just holding a plank for 30 seconds. But as you progress through these month long challenges, the daily expenditure gets incrementally more challenging.

Recently, Lift has unveiled  1-on-1 coaching for $15/week: a big feature that will surely be an important inflection point for the app’s development. It will be interesting to observe how this new channel impacts user engagement with the Lift platform and how coaching gets enhancements over time. Using the coupon code COACHME, the first week is free right now! What are you waiting for? Give it a try and see what happens...

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Yosemite National Park

IMG_1774 I was recently fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit Yosemite National Park, one of our nation’s iconic natural landmarks and a destination for adventure-seekers from around the world. After a day in San Francisco making friends with homeless drug salesmen, getting ridiculously lost biking through the city’s parks, and enjoying the Giants game with good friends, my friend Tim and I hopped in a rental car early in the morning and set out due East. Although we had to navigate through the city to get started, going against traffic was fortunate, and as soon as we crossed the Bay Bridge into Oakland there was nothing but wide open roads and wilderness all the way to Yosemite.

Along the way, we read up on the history of the area to prepare ourselves. Yosemite national park was originally inhabited by a diverse conglomeration of Native American tribes who were forced out in bloody struggles throughout the later half of the 1800’s as European Americans took their manifest destiny west into the deeper wilderness. After visiting in the 1850’s and becoming concerned about the human destruction of natural wonders that was already occurring, John Muir and other conservationists successfully lobbied for Yosemite to become one of the first protected areas as a national park.

Four hours outside of San Francisco, we found ourselves deep in a forest of trees above our heads and were anxious to escape the rental car and get a first hand look at what this Unesco World Heritage Site has to offer. No first timers trip to the park is complete without driving straight into the heart of Yosemite Valley and pulling over to get out and stare in awe at the initial view of the glorious combination of El Capitan and Half Dome.

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Rising at a sheer incline straight out of the valley floor, the pristine facade of El Capitan is a rock climber’s ultimate test, and professionals come from around the world to prove their worth and attempt to ascend the summit. Visible slightly farther in the distance from our vantage point, Half Dome is the stuff of legend (Quite literally). Surrounded by other fully circular domes on peaks within the range, Half Dome appears as though someone took a serrated knife directly through the center of a sourdough load, leaving a pure vertical face that remains stunning from every angle. Although the complimentary cables weren’t operational during our visit, there is an intrepid 17 mile round trip hike from the valley floor that crescendos on the dome’s summit, providing an unencumbered 360 view for miles and miles.

Splitting the difference between the two iconic facades, Tim and I stopped at a trail head and and began the steep 4.4 mile hike to the Glacier Point vista. Although strenuous and unrelenting in its elevation gain, the path up was buoyed by a sense of natural wonder; we were continuously re-inspired by every improving vantage points over the valley floor and El Capitan behind us.

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Yosemite is known for its majestic giant trees, and for good reason. Multiple times along the way up, I found myself staring in wonder directly up the trunk of a tree then taking a few steps backwards and realizing it was actually significantly larger than I could have contemplated in my imagination. The trees in the park are some of the largest living things in the world and even though we were still just on the tip of the iceberg when it came to exploring the park’s wonders, they provided an exceptional sense of natural beauty to compliment the stunning view and deep sense of solitude within nature.

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The pace up was slow. We originally planned our timing at 25 minutes/mile, but between stopping for lunch, breaks to enjoy the view, and the thinning air, we ended up taking twice as long as planned to make the ascent. Reaching Glacier Point’s seemingly insurmountable peak after 3 grueling hours, we were gifted with the reward of a stunning panorama of the entire valley, stretching for miles across our view in both directions.

The pure thrill of having accomplished the most difficult part of the trek combined with the impressive view threw us into a delirious state of joy, and I felt like a kid jumping around the different vantage points and exploring the maps of the distant peaks. After only interacting with a few hikers descending the trail while we were on the way up, we were surprised to see a genuine crowd of selfie-snappers at the top who had just driven 90 minutes one way to reach this vantage point.

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After sufficient exploration of the surrounding area, Tim decided we hadn’t had enough self-flagellation undertaking rapid elevation ascents in increasingly thin air and we set off for Sentinel Dome, just over a mile way but another thousand feet into the sky. Our intrepid nature and tough slogging on the path up was not destined for disappointment. The path ceases to lead the way as you approach the Sentinel’s summit, but the rocky slope it disappears into signals the elevation peak of the surrounding rock outcroppings. Once at the top, we found we had earned a 360 view of the entire valley and were awe-struck looking down at how high we had climbed over the course of an afternoon.

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As the sun began its slow precipitation into the Western corner of the valley, we evaluated the time, our projected descent pace, and the situation, and decided we probably needed to initiate the trip back in order to not end up lost in the darkness of the park at night. Now sufficiently exhausted, we let momentum carry us as much as possible on the way down, running through the steeper portions and stopping for a few last immaculate views of the setting sun. Once the day’s light extinguished, twilight quickly turned into pitch black darkness and the last hour of the hike was a race against the night, which we promptly lost.

Using our iPhone flashlights to light the way on the steep descent, we lost ourselves in the complete darkness of the situation and it was not until we reached the bottom and stumbled into a clearing that we were able to get an unencumbered view of the night sky. Living in a city, it’s easy to lose appreciation for the vast expanses of the universe and the beauty of a sky full of stars in the middle of nature. Unencumbered by city lights and under a new moon, the stars in Yosemite illuminated a beautiful sky that night and is not something I’ll soon forget.

Mobile Mindfulness

In 2013, I became interested in meditation as a form of developing mindfulness, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence to improve performance and general well-being. Like most people, I was incredibly skeptical at first. Sitting still and quiet has never been something I’ve found particularly enticing; I’m much more comfortable being constantly stimulated by music, TV, podcasts, and the internet. However, I've also noticed that in many ways, technology has shortened my attention span and altered the way I think and work. This has driven a personal interest in products that are able to flip the paradigm and have the opposite effect, sparking deep stages of productivity and calm.  

Throughout the last 15 months, I’ve had many false steps with starting and maintaining a meditation practice. I’ve often thought “I’m doing this wrong” or spent an entire session being unable to quiet my inner parade of thoughts. One toolkit that has proved immensely helpful in this regard has been the recent proliferation of meditation apps. My phone is within reach for almost the entire day, and I’ve found it extremely accessible to just plug in my headphones for 5 or 10 minutes for a brief break in my day to center myself. There are three apps that I’ve discovered in this space that might be helpful for others, no matter how skeptical of meditation you may be.

 


1. Calm

Calm is the meditation app I’ve used the most and found the most success with in advancing my practice. For $9.99/year, Calm provides access to a set of guided meditations of varying length and amount of instruction. You can scroll through different background environments, each with their own unique set of ambient noises, then select a guided meditation or simply set a timer for your desired amount of time. 

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Call me silly, but the simple feature that has got me to use Calm consistently is the “streak.” I love the feeling of progress that comes from seeing that I've been able to establish a daily habit, and I don't want to let myself down by not completing a session every day!

 


2. Headspace Narrated by a guy named Andy who does an amazing job of making meditation feel approachable, Headspace is quickly growing into a meditation community of users who absolutely love the product. Headspace starts with 10 sessions, each just 10 minutes, designed to get you familiar and comfortable with meditation practices and is a great jumping off point for anyone interested in flexing their mindfulness muscle.

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Stingy as I am, I haven’t explored the paid version of the app yet ($7.99/month), but based on the glowing reviews in the app store and growing community online, it’s sure to not disappoint.

 


3. Omvana

A product of Mindvalley Creations, which has an entire suite of mindfulness products, Omvana users are provided with a few free guided relaxations to start off, which you can mix with calming background noises for some pretty engaging effects. When you tire of the free tracks, Omvana has a paid library modeled on the iTunes store which makes for an intuitive design.

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The reason I haven’t experimented with Omvana more is that past the basic library, individual tracks cost around $5 each. Although it’s easy to see how some people would end up spending a lot on the product, I much prefer the subscription model with access to a full library.

 


These platforms are surely still in their infancy, but it will be interesting to see how their products and designs evolve with the introduction of HealthKit, wearable devices that can detect your respiratory rate, and other advances at the intersection of mindfulness and technology.

Eat Plants and Natural Foods. Not Too Much.

Many of my friends who are interested in improving their health reach out to me for advice regarding their nutritional intake. What foods should I eat to lose weight and get ripped? When should I eat them? Of all these fad diets, which one is right for me? Nutrition is a personal topic. Individuals respond to nutrient and caloric intake in different ways, but one thing rings true no matter who you are: diets don’t work. The mentality of using willpower to deprive yourself of things you enjoy is unsustainable and harmful in the long term. Simply said, the best “diet” is a nutritional lifestyle that you can stick to and makes you healthy and happy.

Despite millions of dollars spent annually on eating healthier, achieving nutritional goals is surprisingly difficult in today’s world. Americans are surrounded by processed foods, bombarded with advertisements from big food conglomerates, and led down misguided paths from government agencies lobbied by special interest groups. A well-known fact among the health and wellness community is that if you want to learn about nutrition, you’re going to have to do a lot of research and experimentation yourself.

After numerous stints tracking calories on SparkPeople and MyFitnessPal, eating a highly regimented 6 meal a day plan, experimenting with various macronutrient profiles, and doing a ton of scientific research, I have finally settled on a lifestyle that works for me: "Eat plants and natural foods. Not too much.”

What does that mean? My nutritional intake consists primarily of produce, protein, and healthy fats. That’s it. No special gimmicks. No strict portion control regimen. No pre-workout protein bars. No 100 calorie snack packs. When I go to the grocery store, I don’t buy anything that comes in a box. By sticking to the outside of the store, it’s easy to avoid unhealthy preservatives and fill up my cart with vegetables, fruit, nuts, and grass-fed protein.

It’s easy to poke holes in this strategy. I’m sure I’m not optimizing for muscle growth by eating 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up, carb/protein cycling, or tracking my macronutrient intake to the gram. But the difference with this choice is that it’s easy to adhere to, it provides me with sustained energy throughout the day, and it creates a healthy relationship with my food. And isn’t that what really matters?

A September Experiment

Summer is my favorite season. I love being able to wear shorts all the time. I love the feeling of a cold beer on the back of your neck on a scorching day. I love how those hot days turn in to cool summer nights that seem to go on forever. This was one of the most fun summers I’ve ever had, but towards the end I began to realize the impact of my lifestyle. Between all that “fun”, regularly traveling for work and taking a night class, I had gotten into some bad habits that started taking a toll on my wallet and my well-being. I found myself drinking more often than not, even on weekday nights, which led to lower quality sleep and over-caffination the next day. In an attempt to regain some control over my daily habits, I underwent a September experiment: I wouldn’t drink for a whole month.

Now this might sound crazy for a 23 year old single guy living in one of the best cities in the country, but really though, how long is a month in the grand scheme of things?

It turns out a month is a very, verrrryyy long time. In the end, I made it 19 days before succumbing to a delicious IPA, but I learned quite a bit along the way. One thing I found incredibly interesting was that numerous friends who I told about my decision were considering similar stints of cutting back for a while or banishing booze altogether. If you’re interested, here’s a taste of what to expect:

Cons 

People won’t understand. From a purely scientific perspective, alcohol is horrible. It’s full of empty calories, it inhibits your decision-making, and too much will make you feel horrible the next day. But alcohol has become ingrained in our culture, and it’s a staple of being a young person in a city. Instead of having to justify yourself every time someone asks if you want a drink in a bar, just nurse a seltzer and lime. Be prepared to have fun in different ways. At first, I simply had a lot less “fun.” I didn’t go to parties with my friends, I removed myself from social situations once the booze started flowing, and I generally relegated myself to being the party pooper in the corner. But as the month progressed and I realized these decisions weren’t sustainable, I realized how important it was to find sober ways to let off steam on the weekend. It’s harder to make new friends. How many times have you walked up to an attractive guy/girl or someone you don’t know, and asked if they wanted a drink to get the conversation started? Alcohol is an incredible social lubricant, and one must be creative to make new friends while not drinking.

Pros 

Sleep cycle. The biggest positive impact was being able to fall asleep at the same time every night. Staying up until 3AM on the weekends had two huge negative consequences on my energy. First, I would often still wake up at 7AM on the weekends and be unable to fall back asleep, leaving me in a zombie-like state for the rest of the day. Second, it totally threw off my biological clock on a weekly basis, and it would usually take until Wednesday of the following week to finally be fully rested from a long weekend.

$$$$$$$$$. Alcohol costs a lot of money in Washington, D.C. A six pack runs upwards of $10, a drink at a bar probably averages about $5. Alcohol was a huge drain on my monthly income and it was AWESOME to remove it entirely for a few weeks.

Productive Weekends. Do you ever turn around on Sunday afternoon and wonder where the weekend went? You had some nagging tasks on your to-do list that needed to get done, but somehow the list ended up getting longer even though you had a few days off from work? Not drinking completely solved this problem for me. Waking up after 8 hours of sober sleep on a weekend morning is an invigorating feeling, and I was consistently able to seize the day. 


 

Once I broke the streak, the good news was I didn’t immediately return to my old ways, but in total I did end up having about 10 alcoholic drinks in the month. Looking back though, I feel more clear-headed, significantly healthier, and in more control of my daily lifestyle than I did a month ago, but I’m also looking forward to having a nice glass of red wine without making myself feel guilty.

Abstaining from alcohol isn’t for everyone. It takes a committed mind that is focused on the positive impacts in the future instead of the attitude of instant gratification that has become pervasive in today’s world. But if you arm yourself with the right mindset and learn from some of my mistakes, maybe you can cultivate the positive impacts you’re looking for.

TL;DNR - I didn’t drink for a while.