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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Sidewalk Street Foods of Antsirabe

Near the daily market of Antsirabe, the pleasant hillside town of Madagascar’s highlands, women with enormous bowls of batter sit next to sizzling pots of oil over a low charcoal stove. While crouching or sitting on wooden stools, they fan their flame and plop their freshly fried goods into mountainous piles of steaming fresh snacks. Continuing onwards we see no shortage of vendors or variety. Lining the streets are small display boxes filled with bowls of breads, noodles, and salads. Other vendors mingle with the crowd, hawking their wares to nearby shoppers while balancing plastic containers on their heads. While the Malagasy staple food – heaping servings of plain rice – is as simple as food gets, street food is a parade of flavors.

Mofo-Anana

In Malagasy, mofo means bread while anana translates as leafy greens, giving mofo anana or “leafy greens bread” a much healthier name than it deserves. Vendors start off by mixing well-cooked greens into a bread batter, then deep frying it to make a soft, doughy treat. Sometimes prepared with tomatoes and other veggies and optionally served with sakay (hot sauce), this crunchy, deep fried bread is irresistible when hot.

NemNem

The fillings vary from vendor to vendor and according to in-season vegetables, but these crispy eggroll like snacks called “nem” usually come stuffed with a combination of ground beef, potatoes, cabbage, leeks, and onions. Although simple in appearance, vendors first start by making small crepe-like pancakes in a pan, then rolling in the filling. Then, sitting with neat pyramids of uncooked nem, they deep fry them outside in scalding, bubbling pans of oil. My personal favorite is the potato-leek combination.

SpaghettiMountain of Noodles

“That’s a huge mountain of spaghetti,” my friend commented on the window-box stuffed with plain noodles. We don’t really know what was happening with those… spaghetti sandwiches perhaps?

Sambosa
Sambosa

Like nem, samosa-esque sambosas, are another culinary example of Madagascar’s unique position between two continents and the strong Asian influence on Gasy snack food. While they lack the hot spices of their Indian counterparts, vendors almost always have a small jar of hot peppers to compensate. Commonly stuffed with potatoes and ground beef, this savory snack can satisfy any comfort food craving and warm the belly on cold Antsirabe nights.

Brochettesbrochettes

For those hankering for more than just a spattering of meat in their deep-fried nem or sambosas, food stalls are filled with miniature kebabs known as brochettes. On the coast, they are frequently made with fish but in the highlands vendors skewer a line of freshly sliced beef, onions, peppers, and tomatoes and grill them over an open flame, giving them a toasty char-grilled flavor.

Vary sy LokaVary sy Loka

Finally stepping off of the sidewalks, dozens of living-room esque hotelys (restaurants) entice passersby to indulge in a real, rice-laden meal. Being the highest per capita consumers of rice in the world, no Malagasy meal is complete without a heaping bowl full of plain, unsalted rice (vary) – although coconut milk is occasionally added in costal towns. Common laoka, which translates as the dish you serve with rice, include pork with leafy greens, beef with sauce, chicken with peas, dried fish, beans, or a dish of ground-up leafy greens known as ravitoto. As an example of its incredible significance in Malagasy cuisine, people will often invite others to have lunch or dinner with them by asking “will you eat rice (with me)?” So, with grumbling bellies we enter a promising hotely and before sitting make sure they have food by asking “is there rice?”

Mazatoa! Enjoy!

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

I Have a Lemur for a Neighbor

Lemur in Ankarana by Sally Bull

As soon as I received the mislabeled FedEx envelope telling me I was about to spend two years in Madagascar, I braced myself for the onslaught of comments about lemurs.

“Who are you going to teach English to? Lemurs? Hahaha,”
“Ooo, that’s great! You’re going to see so many cute little lemurs!”
“Lucky you! You get to live near lemurs!”

“Um, you know people live there too…” was the best response I could conjure to counter friends’ envy of the iconic creatures I’d undoubtedly be living amongst. Thanks to pop culture and some admittedly well done wildlife documentaries, Madagascar inevitably evokes romantic images of lush, tropical rainforest, massive baobabs, and otherworldly animals. This is a fantastical daydream compared to the Madagascar I’ve become familiar with and at my fourth month here I admitted to a Malagasy friend that I still had never seen a lemur.

“What?” she said, “but there’s one right by my house!”

I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. Our town, Antanifotsy, is a major highland town near a heavily trafficked highway (by Gasy standards), and the surrounding hillsides have been largely stripped of animal or plant life by traditional slash and burn practices. Fewer trees have also had the consequence of lose topsoil, a dusty town, and a lot of people complaining about living in a dusty town. Unfortunately this is a common circumstance, especially where farming is a main source of income, long held tradition, and even white collar workers own fields. From my untrained perspective, it appeared there was no environment left for any creature to live in.

“You’re lying!” I teased.

“Oh yeah?” she said leading me through a tall, wooden gate into a neighbor’s yard. Linking her arm with mine, she tilted her head and pointed to the second-story balcony of the house. “Look up there,” she said, “you see him?” Squinting at the shadowy, brick, terrace I saw a bushy tail dart out from behind a pillar. Its owner stopped in full view and stared back at us through wide, dark eyes while munching on a banana.

 “There he is!” she exclaimed.

His face looked eerily human and while locked in a staring contest with him, I thought of one of many Malagasy fady, or taboos. In some areas it is considered fady to eat or kill lemurs because they closely resemble humans in appearance. Some towns even have myths about the spirits of dead ancestors manifesting as lemurs or lost children long ago changing into them. While a recent National Geographic article on rosewood harvesting cited that some of the harvesters hunt lemurs for food, Malagasy generally believe this to be a last resort and not a common practice at all. Humans are more of a threat to Madagascar wildlife through their destruction of habitat for farmland.

“Damn, that lemur has a nicer house than me,” I thought to myself.

“Now you’ve seen a lemur,” she said proudly, before I thanked her and headed home.

Finally, after months of building up my own cache of “really Malagasy things” – taxi-brousses, rice, chickens, spaghetti sandwiches, windy roads, the pale blue smocks worn by students, tall spindly trees – I caught a brief, domesticated glimpse of what foreigners most frequently associate with the island. All too often, that first thing we associate with a place isn’t as omnipresent as the more mundane, commonplace (and therefore less marketable) scenes that build the particular ambiance and memories we associate with travel.

/ Photo of lemur in Ankarana most likely taken by miss Sally Bull. She has more wonderful photos of Madagascar here. /

Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life Travel

Soaking in Sails and Street Art in Diego, Madagascar

SailExploring Diego and Emerald Bay

When we finally arrived at the northern-most point in our journey in Antsiranana (Diego), Madagascar the air was heavy and threatening thunderstorms. Rainy season was arriving late this year, but it seemed as though we hadn’t missed it completely.

Wandering through the streets of Diego felt like I had been transported to a totally different country. The French colonial architecture, unmaintained and now decaying, stood side by side with the brightly colored concrete houses and bamboo fences. We passed a medley of faces, skin colors, and dress while walking up and down the main stretch of road that felt at the same time Western and African. And finally, eerie, black portraits of men with chaotic expressions dotted walls throughout the city — some of the first graffiti I’ve seen in Madagascar.

While camped out in Diego, we made a side trip off to Emerald Bay — roughly 45 minutes by boat — which gets its name from the color of the ocean there. Although the bay is popular enough to drag in a whole army of sailboats full of French, Comoran, and American tourists every day, I can’t exactly object to a day spent splashing in calm, clear ocean, snorkeling, and gorging out on freshly caught fish and crab. On our way back to shore in our wooden sailboat, the waters turned rough as dark clouds rolled in over the bay, and we ended our adventure soaked and shivering but still giddy from the excitement of bouncing through the sea in rough waters.

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Diego Sailor

Emerald BayDiego MopedSandwich Seller in DiegoDiego Street ArtDiego Graffiti
Photos: / 1 / Our boat’s sail / 2 / Sail boat captains / 3 / Approaching Emerald Bay / 4 / Women selling noodle-sandwiches on New Year Day / 5 / A couple driving their moped back from church / 6 + 7 / Diego street art
Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Shopping for Second-hand Clothing in Madagascar’s Markets

“This,” I thought as I tugged at the bright, tacky-but-could-be-cool fabric from a tangled pile of frip (used clothes), “is clearly where fat clothes come to die.” Giggling since the piece that had caught my attention turned out to be a pair of shorts double the width of my waist – an “XXL” still on their faded value village price tag – and tossed it back into the pile.

From the other side of the low, makeshift table and plastic awning, the vendor registered my interest in her small mountain of goods and began unearthing more gaudy-fat shorts and placing them in front of me. “This one is good… une mille,” she said in a Malagasy-French hybrid typical in bigger cities. “Ngeza be! It’s huge!” I responded, holding the shorts to myself.

Ngeza be!” she repeated quietly while chuckling to herself, apparently more amused at a foreigner speaking Malagasy than the actual meaning of the words.

I smiled, made some small talk, and continued to sift. While sorting through various frip that are as much a staple of a Malagasy market as the rows of women with woven baskets full of rice, bananas, or hog-tied chickens, I feel like a treasure-hunter or archaeologist. Most specifically, examining the hodge-podge of fashion tossed out by trend obsessed Americans, French, Koreans, and who knows who else reminds me of the garbage archaeologist of Arizona – digging up information on the modern American’s lifestyle habits by taking note of what they put out on the curb each week.

Hidden in the depths of those street-side piles of cotton, polyester, and spandex, are the sequined, child-sized princess dresses and Halloween witch costumes worn briefly by American kindergarteners before hopping from attic box to thrift store to cargo freight bound for Madagascar. Relics of phases – fat phases, neon-spandex clad aerobic phases, pregnant phases, Hot-Topic inspired Goth phases – and the items simply too-awful-even-for-Value-Village get their last shot at a new owner in the open-air markets of third-world Africa. And while a few seriously amazing pieces are always buried among stretched maternity pants and flashback-to-the-80s-vests, sometimes I wonder if only vahazas (foreigners) can see how weird this stuff is. Or weirder, the 4-year-old-boys with snot running down their faces wearing the polyester princess dress, the ubiquitous Santa cap in the chilly highland Julys, or the grandmotherly old women wearing chuck-high-tops or bondage pants, completely oblivious to the social symbol they hold on the other side of the world. I’m still waiting to find something tossed from my own transient wardrobe among the lot.

A brilliant turquoise catches my eye. I tug on it and out emerges a cheap, vintage-inspired cotton dress with black trim. “How much?” I ask. “One thousand Ariary,” she demands. I begin to haggle, but she cuts me off “prix fixe,” she says. I can’t help but feel I’m being lied to, ripped off, but like the dress too much to care. So I hand over a crisp, purple 1000 Ariary bill – the equivalent of 50 cents – nod my thanks and continue along the dusty market.

Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Going Coastal in Mahajunga, Madagascar

People on the road to MahajungaOn the Road North…
One of the most incredible features of this country are the drastic transformations the landscape, culture, people, and everything undergo in just a few hundred kilometers. Driving north from Madagascar’s capital, the rolling highlands and boulder dotted landscape gradually give way to forests of palm trees, thatch-roofed huts, bursts of tropical vegetation, and eventually, beach. A few hours into the drive I stop seeing the Asian-featured Merina tribe of the highlands, bundled in sweaters and conservative dress. Instead the women walking next to the road casually drape themselves with loose-fitting lamba, or sarong-like pieces of cloth while their children run around naked or in nothing but their underwear. By the time we reach Mevatanana, it has become far too hot for anyone to wear much more than that. Fruits become more tropical, and at some point I notice the large grass-woven baskets of mangoes, coconuts, and bananas women are carrying on their heads and salivatingly begin to daydream of sipping coconut juice on the beach.

After twelve hours on a bus, we arrived in the muggy, coastal city of Mahajunga, greeted with a cityscape of mosques, a roundabout with one of the widest baobab trees in Madagascar, and a salty ocean breeze.

Petite Plage and Cirque Rouge
On our first morning, we took a taxi-be, or bus, (500 Ariary; 20 minutes) from outside the Hotel de Ville towards la petite plage to lounge around in the ocean. As soon as we arrived, we headed to a French-run restaurant on the beach for beers and freshly caught shrimp the size of my hand. While we waited for our food, a couple of children amused themselves by posing for photos for me and shrieking with laughter as they competed to see how ridiculous they could make their faces. After lunch, we hiked for far too long to see the cirque rouge. However exhausting, meandering around the towering, red rocks made the hours-long trek along the beach worth it.

Returning back from the Cirque Rouge, the two friends I had trailed off with and I re-discovered the rest of our group (who had given up on the walk to cirque rouge) splashing in the waves and making friends with yet another French restaurant owner. Totally unanxious to return to the bustle of Mahajunga’s city center, we hunkered down with a couple of frosty beers again and watched the sun set. From the wooden patio, we could spot groups of local fishermen pulling in their sailboats full of the day’s catch. Chickens and dogs roamed the beach as the fishermen worked, making the beach feel more like an extension of everyday life than an exotic getaway.

La Petite PlageLunch at La Petite PlageBig Shrimp at La Petite PlageChildren at La Petite PlageCirque RougeBringing in the evening's catchSunset on La Petite Plage
Fin.

Categories
The Nomadic Life

Celebrating Christmas on the Other End of the World

On Christmas morning, while the sun was still down, I woke up on the floor of a taxi-brousse — Madagascar’s cramped, jolopy-esque version of a chicken bus. I accredit the sleeping pills I took prior to the twelve hour bus ride for this amazing feat of scrunchability and indifference towards sanitary matters, but when a pothole jolted me awake, I suddenly realize how gross it was to be passed out on the floor of third-world public transportation (or any public transportation for that matter) and my friend’s dirt caked feet.

Groggily, I growled “move!” at him. I jabbed him in the ribs as I tried to weasle my way back into the row of five passengers squished into a seat intended for three.

He didn’t move.

I jabbed him again, slapped his face, pinched him as hard as I could. Nothing. So I gave up and simply sat on him.

“Beats the floor,” I thought before dozing off again.

At sunrise, we woke up again, sweaty, dazed, and dirty enough to scratch layers of black off our arms as the brousse pulled in to Ambanja, Madagascar. All ten of the Peace Corps volunteers we had fit into the brousse piled out and staggered towards the sidewalk while simultaneously dodging traffic of bikes, cows, taxis, and cars, and making a vague attempt to remember how to walk. Once out of the street and across from the cluster of men tossing bags down from the brousses roof, one of my friends cleared his throat and turned to me. “Merry Christmas,” he said. Without the usual ambiance of freshly made pancakes, coffee, and a grey sky threatening snow, his words felt more foreign than the chaotic scene around me.

“Merry Christmas,” I replied, before schelping my backpack over my shoulder and setting off to find the party at “Mama Peace Corps'” house.

***

While handing me a plate of coconut rice and roast sheep, freshly killed the day before, Mama Peace Corps’ friend explained “we only have one big party every year, it’s her birthday around Christmas,” she said pointing to one of the little girls running around in white, satin dresses. Energetically they bounced around on the bed, ducked under tables, and ran between peoples legs. The house was filled with guests, both Malagasy and Americans and the table was piled high with crab, rice, sheep, and calamari. Mama Peace Corps had clearly put a lot of effort into making an excellent Christmas meal and welcoming about a dozen strangers she had never met before. Even if I was munching on tropical fruit instead of sugar cookies and gazing out at palm trees and wiping sweat off my face instead of shivering in the snow, it was clearly still Christmas. Being shown such an incredible amount of generousity and warm welcomes while on completely opposite ends of the earth from my friends and family seemed to me exactly what this holiday is all about and in some ways I feel like celebrating it so far from home made me appreciate how we gather with those we care about each December in a new way.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

Madagascar: Life as an Education Volunteer for the Peace Corps

"Lets Learn English" Coloring Page

In the midst of a looming thunderstorm I discovered the pink and purple postcard of a sunset in Seattle. Once the initial excitement of receiving mail (real, actual, physical mail!!) from a friend subsided, I read it.

“How do you fill your days?” she asked.

Although I joke about the endless hours spent eating peanuts and watching the chickens in my backyard, I insist that I do work as well. Sometimes this means chasing chickens out of the English Center (although my students are far better at it than me), and sometimes this means actually standing in front of a classroom and getting my hands dirty — with chalk, of course.

I teach 7th graders
Most of the volunteers here are assigned to teaching at the Middle and High school levels. I teach the baby 7th graders who are in their second year of English. But raging in age from 9 to 15, not all of them are that “baby”.

I’m developing resources & filling up the bookshelves of our English Center (ECANT)
The first volunteer at my site (I’m number 4) set up an English Center that’s modeled after one in a nearby city, called Antsirabe. However, it’s seriously lacking in easy English readers (Where’s the Dr.Seuss!?!) and some of the other teachers I work with have expressed a need for new English learning games. Fortunately, there’s tons of organizations willing to donate books.

Creating fun events at the English Center
Already I’ve hosted a conversation club, which was intended for adults but ended up being a group of fantastic and motivated high school students. Also, we show kids films every Saturday with our wonky, sort of broken DVD player, and I’m working on burning a few new ones they haven’t seen before. The other week, we watched Madagascar… with the chicken.

But there’s still room for more! Starting in January and February I hope to get story time and games nights going. We also begin our Adult English course.

I teach a monthly cooking class…
And then of course there’s cooking classes with the teachers! So far, we’ve only had one, but we made some delicious chocolate pudding in spirit of the holiday season. I count it as an accomplishment that it’s now made its way to one of my students’ Christmas menus.

Categories
The Nomadic Life

How to Ride the Swissrail for Free

Swiss railroad

“Where are your tickets?!” The heavy-set Swiss ticket-taker demanded at us in German. We stared at her blankly. She tried again in English.

Our expressions remained blank. She became frustrated and tried a third time, “where are your tickets?! You need tickets to be on this train!” she said, enunciating her words to make a point of how serious our ticketless situation was.

At this, my quintessentially tall, blonde, and Finnish travel companion exclaimed “oh!” and pulled out her wallet. Babbling in Finnish and smiling innocently, she tried to shove money at the ticket-taker as an internationally recognized symbol that said “I’d like to pay now.” This bold act of hers wouldn’t have worked in the Ticino canton of Switzerland where trains headed south to Milan will allow passengers to pay on board, but on the German side of the Alps passengers boarding a train without a ticket ran the risk of being screamed at by a rotund and red-faced ticket-taker. And just to be certain passengers understood the German-Swiss procedure of paying for and procuring train tickets, signs were posted at precise intervals throughout the car explaining this in about five different languages. Even though none of them happened to be Finnish, the ticket-taker was clearly becoming flustered with our failure to comply with the rules.

“No, you cannot pay now, you must buy your tickets before you get on the train,” she said while pointing to one of these signs. Her curt tone and the threat of being fined several hundred francs began to make me nervous. I felt like a kindergartener who had just been caught eating crayons and slumped futher into my seat.

The Fin on the other hand appeared unfazed. Even with the ticket-taker’s growing irritation, she put on her best hurt / confused face and turned to me, saying something in Finnish (I shrugged at her) before returning her gaze to the ticket-taker and insisting that she take the money. They continued their confused-Finnish-backpacker-who-doesn’t-speak-English (yeah right) versus the pissed-off-reddening-Swiss-ticket-taker dance for several more minutes before the woman gave up on us and kicked us out at the next stop, 45-minutes outside of Zurich.

As the train pulled away, I shuffled over to a map of the train routes and stared at it.

“Hey, it worked!” the Fin said to me in English.

“Yeah, it did, but um… we just went in the wrong direction.”

“Damn.”

Categories
Europe In Photos The Nomadic Life

Daydreaming of Autumn in the Tropics

In celebration of the fall I’m missing out on below the equator, here are some photos of autumn in Colchester, England and Lyon, France taken during a trip in 2009.

Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Spring in Madagascar’s Highlands in Photos

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Taking photos of where I live (the gold mining, potato farming, fried chicken selling town of Antanifotsy) has been difficult to do without drawing attention but here are a few stealth shots from the past week. Mostly, I was able to capture some of a tomb on the highest hill near town. The rains have arrived and the landscape is slowly metamophising into a flower dotted valley of rolling hills and crop fields.

Final photo was taken in Antananarivo at dusk, just as all the schools were letting out and herds of students in matching, pastel smocks were making their way home.

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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

In Case of Emergency, Exit Through the Window: A Malagasy Bus Ride

From my vantage point squished in the backseat of a taxi-brousse meant for the smaller bodies of Malagasy passengers, I wasn’t able to see the man until he was halfway out the car’s window, shoving himself out head first with a hot pink Jan sport-backpack in tow.

“He’s saying ‘fuck this! This brousse is never going to leave!’” The Peace Corps Volunteer taking us to her site translated for us between laughs of amused disbelief. “Oh man, look at Drunky there! This other dude is slapping the crap out of him!”

The man, who couldn’t be much bigger than my 5’3” self, was swaying under the excessive amount of toka-gasy (the Malagasy equivalent of moonshine) in his system, and limply taking a battering to the face by another man – equally small and equally drunk – trying to shove him back into the open door of the brousse.

“So Drunky there is saying that the bus is never going to leave because the driver has run off somewhere,” which was true, “and this other guy, who I’m pretty sure is drunk too, is trying to get him back into the brousse. But look at them! He’s not even defending himself! That other guy is just giving it to him,” the volunteer narrated as we watched one Gasy man slur insults while slapping the other’s face. Drunky leaned against the van to keep from falling, but otherwise did nothing but slur about the brousse never leaving in response.

Meanwhile, other passengers were shouting at the pair, clearly preferring Drunky’s decision to throw himself out the window of the car than to sit next to him for a 6 – 10 hour long brousse ride. Within minutes, the driver was back, joining in on the shouting and successively slammed the door shut and revved the engine… without Drunky.

Finally, we were off at a slow crawl through the crowded brousse station with Drunky left to stagger back towards the ticket counter, luggage still strapped to the top of the van. As we pulled out, the brousse fell silent and Drunky’s seat was taken by a young, teenage girl who came running up to the brousse just before we were about to turn out of the station.

“Damn. Lucky girl,” the volunteer commented, and on we rolled, out of the dusty capitol and south towards the bandit-ridden roads off the RN7…

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Winter in Madagascar’s Highlands in Photos

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In playing the role of opposite land to North America, July and August mark the coldest months in the Malagasy highlands. The region often turns into a muddy mess under a Seattle-esque, overcast, sky with grey drizzle. However, we’ve mostly avoided the season’s usual crappiness and gotten to see Mantasoa’s better side.

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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Living With a Malagasy Family

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“Why were your host brothers playing with a plate?” Another trainee asked me.

“Because it was a steering wheel, duh,” I said.

After a full day of intensive Malagasy immersion, I always feel relieved to understand something as universally obvious as a kid pretending to drive a car. So much about our homestays make us feel like toddlers relearning how to take care of ourselves, but when I see my host brothers spinning a round, straw place mat in front of them and making wrrr-ing noises, I get it. Language barriers gone, I fake shift into second gear and smile as if to say “wanna race?”

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The Nomadic Life

Home, Muggy Virginian Home…

I should stop lying; Virginia (not Washington D.C.) is home. And this week I find myself suddenly transported from the cool, overcast skies of Seattle to the oppressive heat and grit of a full-blown Virginian summer. Besides celebrating a 20-degree temperature change by retiring my jacket to the corner of my old bedroom, I have been wandering old haunts and taking a short jaunt to Richmond (the state’s capitol and paramount hub of hipsterdom). While Richmond embodies a cliche sort of southern grit and sluggishness, my home-space of Northern Virginia is a generic, sprawling, monotonous mass of strip malls and suburban landscaping. However, no amount of concrete and construction in either place seems to have abated the rattling crescendo of cicadas or the dark thunderstorm clouds that roll in lazily before washing away the day’s sticky summer heat. In that at least, they’re exactly the same.

Driving with the windows down from Richmond, I easily imagined myself in a setting akin to a Mark Twain novel or Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” — one that doesn’t readily make sense in the cool evergreen forests of Washington state — and I wondered how many of my northwest friends would instinctively think of this. Yep. I’m definitely in Virginia, I thought. And wiping the thin but  always present layer of sweat from my forehead, I realized that coming from another part of the U.S. had me seeing Virginia as Virginia this time, and not a one-size-fits-all image of America in general.

Categories
North America The Nomadic Life The United States

Thru Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail: An Elusive Route

South of Yachats // Credit: Marian Mclaughlin“Do you like long walks on the beach?” my friend teased; referencing how I’d earlier rolled my eyes at this cliché interest listed on a facebook profile. I smiled, and had to admit the irony of my judgment as I looked around at the giant boulders jutting from the ocean and the seemingly endless expanse of flat sand and pine-dotted cliffs we had yet to pass. Except, her remark well If I was not wearing the most comfortable walking shoes for men – I likely wouldn’t have made that super long trek of a hike. summarized our attempt at following the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT), which hugs the Oregon coastline from the Washington to California borders, as a thru-trail. We had essentially embarked on one damn long walk on the beach.

I had originally chosen the OCT because of its easy access to food, well maintained campgrounds, and the seeming simplicity of the route. The first two held true, but aside from several patches of well-marked trail that took us through lush temperate rain forest or long stretches of beach parallel to highway 101, the trail wasn’t always obvious. At times I felt like we were chasing an elusive creature with a map – printed from the Oregon Parks Service website – about as good as the one used by the kids in Astoria-filmed “The Goonies”.

It wasn’t until about 92 miles from our starting point in Tillamook, outside Yachats, that we saw our first sign demarcating the trail and unexpectedly hiked 2.2 miles of steep incline. By chance alone we met a pair in Neskowin who informed us the next 6 miles of trail would actually be a technically closed maze of fallen trees. While later en route to Humbug Mountain from Port Orford, high tides made a beach hike impossible, forcing me into the bike lane along a curving, 3-mile stretch of highway 101 during a heavy downpour.

Eventually, the beach hikes became too monotonous and we agreed to simply pitch our tents in a hike-heavy area (such as Humbug Mountain), do a day hike, and move on. At one point, a hip, artsy 20-something couple from Portland offered us a ride to Newport and we immediately ditched our plans in exchange for a beer at the Rogue Brewery.

But even in despite of our questionable actual-miles-hiked log, the OCT had an abundance of surreal landscapes, wildlife, and picturesque vistas for us to gawk at. In fact, the trail’s habit of meeting back up with 101 and winding through some of Oregon’s sleepy (and at times quaint, quirky, or just plain creepy) coastal towns made simply finding the trail half the challenge. Some stretches (such as Yachats to Florence) resembled the challenging, seaside, dirt trails we had expected, while others (such as Lincoln City to Waldport) were lacking enough in nature to send us to the nearest bus stop.

Although the OCT is totally feasible as a thru-trail, I’d follow the majority on this adventure and hike it as a series of smaller day hikes. That is of course, unless you truly enjoy long — seriously long — walks on the beach…

OCT Resources

Oregon State Parks Website: includes PDF downloads of maps for the OCT
The Great Outdoors: a basic, practical overview
Day Hiking the Oregon Coast by Bonnie Henderson: includes information on thru-hiking the OCT

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