Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Whippin' through the West

As my National Parks Pass is set to expire in about a month, I thought it would be fun to revisit the parks I toured out West last winter. I was taking a long detour on my drive home from Colorado to San Antonio, TX, but I didn't have time enough for any in-depth explorations of these magnificent places. Hopefully my travels will take me back to the parks in the future so I can do them justice.
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First was Black Canyon of the Gunnison, about 15 miles northeast of Montrose, CO. Approaching from the east on Highway 50, you can see the canyon start to grow at the western end of the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Much of the park was closed off, still covered in snow, so I only spent a couple hours sampling the scenic overlooks accessible from the main road.

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Heading into Utah, the next stop was Arches National Park. I actually was able to hike some short trails through this area's incredible landscape. I plan to return to see the rest and to take advantage of the cool little town of Moab, which is brimming with outdoor adventure activities just south of the park.

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There's only one word to describe Zion National Park in southwest Utah: dramatic. In truth, I only wandered into the park accidentally after making a wrong turn. But what a great mistake that was. It was early morning, so the sun was casting spectacular shadows on the massive colored rock formations. Though car-bound, I found the steep, winding roads to be thrilling.

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Of course, I couldn't make this tour without stopping at the Grand Canyon. Wonderfully desolate Highway 89 from Zion into Arizona whetted my appetite, and the canyon itself certainly didn't disappoint. I wanted to hit Flagstaff before dark, so I didn't take the time to do more than drive the park's Southern Rim Road and stop at the crowded overlooks. Still, very impressive.

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Northern Arizona surprised me with all its short, stubby pine trees, cool temperatures, and lingering snow. However, after a series of crazy descending switchbacks on Highway 89 south of Flagstaff, the landscape magically changed into the hot desert you tend to associate with the state. The touristy town of Sedona and its orange-rock backdrop were there to greet me.

The final stop on my whirlwind tour was White Sands National Monument, 50 miles northeast of Las Cruces, NM. Though less impressive than the national parks, the area's terrain was quite unique, and I got a kick out of watching all the kids sliding down the white dunes on sleds. The surrounding White Sands Missile Range injected a bit of adrenaline into the visit.

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I've always felt an affinity for the American West, and this trip only heightened it. I'll be back.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Portrait of a Dish

Since resettling in the U.S., I've had plenty of opportunity to pine after fragments of the cultures I've left behind. I regularly yearn for things Korean, having made my home in Seoul for a solid 20 months. Just flipping through the Lonely Planet guidebook today while doing some research for an upcoming article brought it all back--the scents of fish and fermentation permeating the tight alleys, the crush of bodies and designer clothes in Gangnam, the neural connections firing in my brain as I struggle to interpret Hangeul.

And now the experience of living in a foreign and wonderful country has ended, impossible to recreate. Instead, I find myself condensing that tapestry of emotions into a handful of tangible items. There's the faded subway map tacked to my bedroom wall, the ceramic figurine I bought at the gift shop of the Buddhist temple. And there's the kimch'i jjigae.

The first point of Korean cuisine anyone learns is kimch'i, that peculiar, pungent concoction of pickled cabbage and hot pepper paste. Of all the dishes I've eaten in my life, kimch'i stands alone, unique, comparable to nothing else. Perhaps that's why, no matter how much aversion you experience on first sampling the cold, soggy, fiery vegetable medley, addiction inevitably sets in.

Served with every meal, kimch'i in many senses is the dominant flavor of Korean cooking. Case in point, kimch'i jjigae--"kimch'i stew." When made well, this dish is an explosion of sweet, spicy tang that will leave you with burnt lips and a runny nose.

I've come across many styles, but the foundation for all is, of course, kimch'i. The older and more fermented the better, as it will have a stronger taste and make the broth more flavorful. Green onion, yellow onion, zuccini, peppers, garlic, and ginger are also staples. Most contain slices of fatty pork as wells as chunks of soft tofu, while some variations substitute shellfish for the pork. The jjigae is served, still boiling, in a hot stone pot, accompanied by a small bowl of white rice. Really, there's nothing finer.

Oddly enough, one of the best kimch'i jjigaes I've tasted was found at the Four Seasons restaurant in Ithaca, NY. Chance encounters such as this are now my only links back to my savory, unforgettable life in Korea. I'm constantly on the lookout.

**photos by Aya Padron**

Friday, January 18, 2008

Buy Cambodian

When I'm on the stationary bike at the gym, I like to listen to the podcast of NPR's This American Life. A recent episode titled "David and Goliath" discussed the textile industry in Cambodia.

Now, the stereotypical image this topic conjures in one's mind (or at least my mind) is of sweatshops, child labor, hazardous working conditions. In fact, I own a sweater with the "Made in Cambodia" label, and ever since I bought it I've felt guilty for doing so. But not any more.

It turns out that Cambodia's garment industry, the country's largest and creator of the vast majority of its exports, is among the most progressive in the developing world when it comes to workers' rights. We're talking more than a month paid vacation, three months maternity leave, outlawed child labor...the list goes on. Having traveled to Cambodia and seen the living conditions of most of the people there, this strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.

From what I can gather, the success of the garment sector in Cambodia, both in terms of output and ethics, can be linked to two trade deals. First is the Mutli Fibre Agreement, established in 1974 to place quotas on the amount of textile exports developing countries could send to the developed world. While this hurt manufacturing powerhouses like China, the effect on smaller, poorer nations was beneficial. For example, because the U.S. could no longer look to just one or two Chinas for its cheap textile imports, it had to branch out and start importing from the Cambodias of the world. In other words, by limiting the output of larger developing nations, the MFA opened the door to increased output from smaller ones.

Second, in 1999, the U.S. enacted a bilateral trade deal with Cambodia that gave that country's garment producers greater access to U.S. markets in return for labor reforms. Amazingly, these groundbreaking reforms actually stuck, and as a result, big-name retailers such as Gap and Levi's started contracting with the new worker-friendly Cambodian factories in order to enhance their reputations among conscientious consumers.

So it sounds like an uplifting story, right? One of the few to come out of a struggling developing nation's manufacturing sector. Well, bridle that optimism. The MFA expired at the beginning of 2005, setting the stage for China to begin out-competing most other Asian garment producers. But even more ominous for Cambodia, the special access deals it's enjoyed with the U.S. are also in the process of expiring.

Without these trade protections, the future is grim for Cambodia's garment industry and its unique labor conditions. All materials used in the production of clothing, from fabric to buttons to zippers, are imported from other countries. This, combined with the higher costs of maintaining ethical labor standards, puts Cambodian manufacturers at a severe disadvantage compared to those of other developing nations. Their hope is that consumer gravitation toward fair-labor practices will continue to increase, and that other major retailers will turn to Cambodia for this reason. The alternative, the collapse of this vulnerable country's biggest industry, would be disastrous.

So needless to say, after hearing this piece, I have a strong urge to give away all my clothes and head to the Gap to replace everything with Cambodian-made, albeit overpriced, apparel. Not to mention I'm feeling a lot better about that sweater. Thanks, Ira Glass.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Take Me Back to Mongolia

For Christmas, I got DVDs of "Long Way Round," a documentary-style TV mini-series about a round-the-world motorcycle journey taken by actor Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman. I'm a little more than halfway through the 10 episodes. I was expecting it to be less "managed" than it is; they created a whole production company, went through every manner of preparation you can imagine, and have a van support team that meets them at border crossings. All that kind of defeats the purpose of adventure travel, in my opinion, but whatever.

Anyway, episodes 5 and 6 find them struggling with washed out roads and broken bikes in Mongolia. Despite the setbacks, they're overwhelmed with affinity for the country and its people. I know exactly how they feel.

In early September, 2006, I spent just under two weeks in Mongolia. My time was evenly split between a secluded ger camp at the southern tip of Bulgan aimag and a hostel in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar (universally referred to as "UB"). I enjoyed both immensely, but the rural experience is what I remember most fondly. The heavy, natural quiet of the mountains, the plains, the northern Gobi sand dunes, and the vast, uninterrupted sky seeps into you. Nomadic herder families, their livestock, and their gers punctuate the rugged landscape. People you encounter are dressed in the traditional thick, maroon, robed coats and get around on horseback. This is life in Mongolia, where half the population remains nomadic or semi-nomadic.

I desperately want to return. Of the many strange and fascinating places I've traveled to in the past couple years, Mongolia's echo is the loudest. I want to be invited into a ger to drink airag and eat fresh goat's milk cheese. I want to take a trek by yak, mountain bike, or foot to a crystal-cold lake. I want to travel to a Kazakh community in the far western mountains and watch a winter eagle-hunt.

From time to time, I consider living in UB, perhaps working for a charity or education organization, spending my free time roaming the open countryside. But Mongolia is so far away from home and family, so different, and so cold. I don't know if I'll ever do it, but I do know that I'll be back someday, because I'm finding it too hard to stay away.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Welcome to WayWorded!

My life is centered on thoughts of travel. Whether it's through a day trip on my bike or a job opportunity abroad, I'm constantly trying to give direction to my passion for new places and new experiences.

I recently created this blog with two goals in mind:

1. I want to post accounts of my past, current, and future travels. The more I can reflect and expound on them, the closer I'll be to achieving my goal of traveling for life. I'll also provide links to articles I've had published on other websites/blogs.

2. As the blog develops and more people come across it, I hope others will contribute their own travel experiences.