Zip-Lining Lake Sebu, Philippines.

 

The greatest mistake I ever made.

I love adventure. Those who know me or have traveled with me know that I am up for anything. SCUBA, Sky Diving, Spelunking … you name it. So when I was approached with the possibility to go zip-lining in the Lake Sebu region of the Philippines, I said sure.

Dear God what a mistake.

I had never been so afraid in my life. 7 lines, the highest in Asia, 300 meters above sea level, extending over 750 meters, this was absolutely horrifying. The heigh is daunting, the length is daunting, but what is truly frightening is that its basically a rusty ol’ line, strung together by a bamboo platform, and you are being held up by a vest.

Im 220 lbs of Italian beef. That’s what made it real scary. I immediately went on a diet afterwards, and seeing I lost at least 5 lbs in fecal matter and fear-sweat on the ride, I considered it a good jump start.

Read about it in a much more comprehensive way here.

AMAZING AMAZON

As a native New Yorker, I am no stranger to long commutes, however, 8 hours traveling up-river on a flat-bottom diesel boat to the heart of the Peruvian rainforest was a test of endurance even for a experienced G train rider. Once at our destination however, it became immediate clear to me that I was in a world untouched by any human about to have my mind blown, and definitely would find it near impossible to find a good slice.

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The Tambopata Research Center (TRC) is located deep within the Madre de Dios province of the Peruvian rainforest, a protected wildlife area founded in 1977. It is home to tens of thousands of animal and plant specie, from macaw to monkey, Jaguar to giant turtle. It is so prolific in fact, that while I was there, two new specie of spiders were discovered … walking from the boat to the lodge. It’s basically like God’s test kitchen that you can visit.

Getting there is not the easiest, which is why I absolutely love it. Upon flying into Puerto Maldonado, you are met by your personal guide, and brought by bus to the aptly named “town” of inferno, which seemed to consist of a bodega, bathroom, and small dock. There my personal Virgil (who’s name was Ramón and amazing) and a dozen other travelers jump on a 3-hour cruise to our first lodge, the Refugio Amazonas.

This remote outpost, with its shellacked dark wood, thatched roofs, and tall, cool drinks awaiting you upon arrival, echoes the romance and adventure that you would find in a Hemingway novel or an early Cary Grant film. After a warm reception, you are given the key to your room, which to me was curious considering you only have three walls; one wall is completely missing allowing the surrounding nature to engross you, which it does. The materials the lodge is composed of, the gently swinging hammocks, the fresh meals prepared for us, the fact that power is only offered for a certain number of hours a day, all truly thrust you into this beautiful experience without any delay. You are immersed in pristine nature, and you are only a third of the way to your final destination.

The next day you spend with your guide exploring the backcountry, trekking to an observation tower, which if you have the testicular fortitude to climb you are rewarded a sublime view of the 40 meter high Rainforest canopy. Traveling back you stop at a large lake, where a small man powered boat takes you across to view dozens of species of birds that make the watering hole their home. “Shall we fish for piranha?” our guide asks which of course the answer is “hell yes”. Soon he is carefully affixing a small morsel of meat on the end of a hook and line that look like Huckleberry Finn had just put down. “Here, just drop it in. Gently.” He handed it over to me as I placed it in the water cautiously having watched Shark Week one too many times, and before I knew it I had a small piranha on the end of my fishing pole. Our guide grabbed it and removed the hook, and let us all get a close look at the sushi that eats you back before returning it to the lake. I will have to switch to a California roll.

The next day we made the next leg to our final destination, the TRC, one, if not the most remote Amazon lodges in the world. As our repurposed truck engine blended us deeper up river, the nature completely took over. On the banks we saw Jaguars and Peccarie and Caimans, trees that came right to the river’s edge, their root system grasping on to whatever land the river allowed them to take. At times we would pass small barges with pumps on them shooting river water through a giant slanted sieve. “Those are illegal gold miners. This river is rich with gold.” Dangerous work, but apparently very well paid if you are lucky and not caught. About three hours in there was a fork in the river, and we docked at a weathered old landing that jetted out into the Tambopata River. We were at the Malinowki River Control Station, which looked like something out of the film Apocalypse Now. Screened in shacks strewn together, with bottle caps nailed into boards for traction, and a make-shift basketball hoop that defied attrition hanging on the side of a slanted tree, this was a mandatory control stop to enforce legal river traffic. In the small office, lined with weathered maps and young men with firearms, I had them stamp my passport to memorialize the event. I figured I’d never be this deep again in the rainforest; best have some ink to prove it.

Another two hours up-river and we finally reach the research center. Porters run out to grab our sacks, and we make our way through the lush forest, which is alive with noise. Boar-like peccaries bark at each other and shuffle through the low-lying bush, while howler monkeys scream to a rival tribe across the treetops. Graced with the grand entrance to the TRC lodge, it is even more majestic and beautifully organic then the last lodge, and would make for a fine base for the next three days where I would have the pleasure of exploring one of the most remote portions of the rainforest with some of the worlds most interesting people.

What Rainforest Expeditions offers that separates it from other tours is that you are in a functioning research facility staying with actual researchers and field scientists. This is more then eco-tourism, this boarders on getting actual college credit to go toward your doctorate. In the morning we visited one of the more active salt licks where my guide said we might see a few specie of Macaw feeding. By a “few” he meant a few hundred, and the colors, reds, blues, greens and yellows blurred before me like a Gaspar Noé titles sequence (Enter The Void, look it up). The shear volume of bio-diversity here is mind blowing, beyond any zoo, any safari on earth, and no SD card in the world has enough capacity to capture it all.

Dinners were exceptionally exciting as this was a prime time to mingle with not only the other travelers, but also the researchers and scientist that also stayed at the lodge. Here they would swap stories of what animals were seen, or new discoveries were made, or secret locations to best capture that perfect photograph. It was here I a young researcher and photographer, that invited me on what they called a “rainforest rave”.

“We go out at night, with UV lights, and discover bioluminescent insects. It’s a riot.” Basically this was the equivalent to telling a frat boy that there was a well-organized pub-crawl planned. After dinner we made our way out with blacklights in the pitch of night and let the forest put a show on for us that would have blown the mind of any burning man participant. Spiders that look like the 80’s puked all over them. Frogs that radiated pink and green like a neon sign. Did you know scorpions glow bright blue in UV light like a toy out of one of those grocery store vending machines? No. I didn’t think they could be any cooler either.

During the following days we explored riverbeds and trekked inland to natural waterholes, seeing all sorts of bats, turtles, barking caterpillars, and dozens and dozens of butterflies. 600 specie of bird, 200 of mammal, 1,000 of butterfly, and thousands of insects definitely keeps your neck loose as you constantly turn to see something new and amazing. My guide and I would travel downriver to a “Spiritual Retreat” that was being built for Ayahuasca ceremonies among other things. We met with the shaman, and saw the massive construction, and even took a tour of the jungle “garden”, getting face to face with the mind-altering hallucinogenic vine itself. Perhaps the most interesting interaction I had was after having met three young post-grads, I helped climb a 30 meter tree to hang an Macaw nest with a camera in it so that they could research the nesting habits. Of course assisting the researchers with manual labor is not something on the planned itinerary; it is something that was amazingly rewarding for me, and indicative of the type of immersive experience that only Rainforest Expiations can provide.

After 5 days deep in the rainforest it was finally time to say goodbye. We made our way back downstream to lovely downtown Inferno to reunite us with civilization. I had been to remote, wild places on earth before, but this however had changed me in a way that was wholly unexpected; the combination of sublimely, comfortable accommodations while being completely submerged in the most bio-diverse locations on the planet, surrounded by people who’s knowledge was so vast, that their entire existence was dedicated to the cultivation of yet more knowledge, was too much for my city forged mind to handle. I returned to my small apartment, 24 hour electricity and high speed internet a bit shaken, a bit more skeptical of packaged food, and much more enlightened. It would seem that Rainforest Expeditions doesn’t just take you to one of the most remote places on the planet, they take you deep down into your own soul, to places you might not have known even exist.

Go to www.getlostmagazine.com right now to continue the adventure and read more great places to go explore. Also, here is a little video postcard I put together for you. Enjoy;)

Rs

 

day one. (send help.)

And so … it begins.

I met Joel right outside of customs at the Bangkok airport. I never formally met Joel, and frankly, didn’t really know much about what I was getting into. It sounded exotic, dangerous, and most of all, fun, so I was 90% there. As long as I had a place to stay and could do my job properly, I’d be living the dream. Joel seemed on the ball, an honest guy, and most of all, excited. People who are excited about what they are doing, no matter if you’re a garbage man or a tax attorney, make me happy. Passion is universal.

me and joel, my new best friend.
me and joel, my new best friend.

We jumped into a really nice transport van driven by Song, who spoke no english but pointed like a champ. So we’re driving. And driving. And driving. And finally, we “arrive” although if you saw the place you would have doubts you were anywhere let alone where you were supposed to be. We’re camped out in a place called Chon Buri, a South East dry district in Thailand. Dry because there is about a two days less rain than other places in Thailand, not because they don’t drink alcohol there. They drink. In lot’s of different ways, but I’ll get to that later.

Chon Buri It’s basically no where which makes it kinda amazing. While it lacks almost complete existence, it is home to one thing; Buffalo Racing.

bufalo buck'n

While it doesn’t take much to convince me to get on a plane and come fly a drone around, Buffalo Racing definitely perked up my ears, mainly because I had never heard of it before. Ever. And while it might seem pretentious, that is pretty odd to me. I mean, I love the internet. I love blogs. And for something as exquisitely exotic and certifiably crazy as buffalo racing to never even ping on my internet radar was quite amazing.

Kwai Keng, or Buffalo Racing, has been around in this “formal” incarnation for about 150 years. Originally a way for rice farmers to let off some steam (and make a little side cash on their luck) the event has become a big back alley festivity that brings a good chunk of people in to watch, race, and bet. We’re not talking Madison Square Garden numbers, but definitely WNBA numbers.  For the purposes of the shoot, they organized a special race to take place, as the real races happen in the Fall at harvest time. I immediately understood one of the benefits of shooting in Thailand, where you could have an annual event happen 6 months early, and people not only don’t charge you for it, but are happy to move it for you. We would be shooting over the next following days, and I was definitely looking forward to see what madness this event would bring.

Racing aside, we eventually made it to our “hotel”. It’s kinda an apartment complex that just exists there on the road. There isn’t much around; a little sad market that sells some sundries, and lots of chips and beer. Next to it is a little “restaurant”; basically a wok, and a few tables. Everything is new; like just built. Like paint still wet. But like Stalin built it. There is no style or decor, it’s just basic. Basic of basic. Cave with an outlet is kinda what we’re dealing with here people.

“I made sure you have the best room in the place,” said Joel, extremely proud and excited, “it has a television and air-conditioning.”

the room

Thanks Joel.

This place is hilarious. The bed, was pretty much on the floor. The furniture was all new, so new it had the protective wrapper on it still. My closet had the plastic wrapping on the hanger bar, but lacked hangers, which I thought was just the right touch. The TV (a 13 incher CRT job, remember those 1989?) had a miraculous 216 channels on it. Seriously. I counted. They were all either in Thai, Chinese, or Hindu. 189 of them were K-Pop/Music Videos that played the same 5 music videos.

At the very least, I thought, the bed was nice and big. I then tossed my phone on it and it broke. It broke. Cracked. Placing my hand on it cautiously I quickly realized that it was basically a piece of plywood with a vinyl cover.

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Brand new mind you, which kinda blew my mind. I mean, someone had to design this. There was piping around the edges, and it was made well. Someone had to actually say, “ok, so we’re sleeping on the floor. I need a solution for making that more comfortable. Wait, got it. We’ll take some wood and wrap it in vinyl and raise it 6 inches off the ground.” then another guys is like “brilliant Ted, but what if, and just walk with me a minute, we put white piping around the edge. You know, to class it up a bit?” And then they had a martini lunch celebrating their new product, “the mattress”.

I was pretty much in awe, until I saw the “bathroom”.

bathroom

The shower had a knob where water came out. You get just water temperature. Whatever temperature the water is at that time is the temperature of your shower. The funny thing is that at the hottest part of the day the water, which you would love to be cool, is at its hottest. Irony. In the end I had to respect the uniqueness of this bathroom; there aren’t many places you can bathe and take a shit at the same time. Pretty much the Ganges and here.

And it may sound really strange, but, I was extremely happy. I live in Manhattan. I have a sweet apartment, with running hot and cold water, cable, internet, and a city where anything you want from sex to a slice of pizza is available 24/7. Living like that can make you forget what you are made of, who you are, and what is really the value of comfort. So an experience like this I look at with hungry eyes, happy for the chance of discomfort, and the mandated focus on the reason I’m here in the first place. Let’s just hope that holds up for a month. I mean I’m not crazy.

After getting comfortable in my room, I headed down to met some of the “crew”. Another producer named Ray who was German, but had been living out in Thailand long enough to look like he’d been living out in Thailand. Ray had a comically thick German accent and loved to make off-colored Nazi references. It was like Mel Brooks knew I was going on trip and sent me a gift. Another nice kid named Weiss from South Africa that loved animals and loved hunting; a combination I always find interesting. He knew everything that could hurt, poison or kill you in Thailand and wasn’t shy to point it out to you at every turn. These guys were red and leathery with piercing light eyes. They looked like they worked on the docks, and knew what the business end of a knife was used for. Another glorious example of how the film industry takes all kinds.

The "hotel restaurant"
The “hotel restaurant”

Along with Joel we sat outside, shared a bowl of noodles, and drank several very cold beers in the afternoon heat. We discussed the film, traveling, meats we liked to eat, and places we liked to visit. We watched a massive thunderstorm roll in, over us, and out the other side leaving again a beautiful day.

ray
The German, Ray, Leo beer, L&M unfiltered, and crisps … aka … dinner.

While life here seemed slow and relaxed, it sure seem to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Eventually, after trying all the chip flavors in the shop (“Mexicans” was my favorite, go figure) We rolled out to dinner, at the shopping mall about 10 minutes away.

A giant TESCO in the middle of no where. Inside the Tesco there were other shops, anything you could imagine; barber shops, cell phones, dentist. It was like a small town. This is what I imagine the post apocalyptic future will be like; irradiated jungle badlands for miles, with a giant climate controlled warehouse filled with a village of commerce defying the nature surrounding it. This place was frightening with its variety; they even had a Swansons and Dairy Queen. As long as I can get my Blizzard on I’m good. There is something I hate about these places, mainly, it’s a parasite culture in a foreign place, but there is something miraculous about it as well, like taking the lowest level of art and raising it to museum quality. It makes me think of Charles Bukowski and Robert Moses at an S&M party. There is something perfectly mind-blowing about a perfectly short, brown Thai man in a red and white soda-counter stripped shirt saying in perfectly broken English “Welcome to Swanson’s” in the middle of a desolate jungle province.

The "Nightcap".
The “Nightcap”.

Back at the hotel I had a ceremonial Alka-Seltza and put on GnR’s “Welcome to the Jungle”. I peered out the window into the darkness. No street lights, no stars. Just jungle black. What would tomorrow bring, who knows. As for now it is late, and time to sleep on my wood plank.

Rs