Leaving My Heart in Havana

Havana, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Besos Discretos performed by Fusión Caribe, a fantastic band on the streets of Havana. Video follows below.

We arrive in darkness around midnight, packed in a taxi, creeping along a narrow street in La Habana Vieja. Our driver speaks very little English, but stopping and turning off the engine is a pretty clear indication that we’ve arrived at our casa particular. Our host meets us on the street and shows us into the building. We climb five flights of stairs and enter the tall wooden door to our apartment.

Even though I’ve seen the photos online, our casa particular unexpectedly sweeps me up in its aura, with its decorative floor tiles and unreachable high ceilings. The photos on the wall offer a few hints about the history of the neighborhood over the past decades. The gold chandelier looks cherished but forgotten. The refrigerator is a relic. The parlor doors swing open to the warm night air and the balcony looks out on a street where thousands of days and nights and people have come and gone in Havana. This place has so many stories to tell.

We sleep and wake up the next morning to music. It’s a fusion of sounds coming from all over — below us, out front, out back. The combined rhythms eventually pull me out of bed. No one seems to mind the noise. This is just how Cuba wakes up in the morning. I follow the strongest beat to the back of the apartment and look out from the open air dining area where I’m greeted by a bright yellow wall against a blue sky. How curious that someone has felt strongly enough to paint half a wall in such a magnetic color in such an unusual location. Like the morning music, it’s another clue about the spirit of Cuba.

View across the street in Havana

View across the street in Havana

As the morning goes on I become a dance partner with the balcony overlooking the street, where the neighborhood has come to life. Outside, inside, outside, inside… I unpack in the bedroom while taking quick little breaks to see who and what is passing by below. I see I’m not the only dancer. Everyone with a balcony has mastered this same choreography. Outside, inside. Inquire, retreat.

Havana, Cuba

Firewood delivery at the Italian café

Our casa particular is located across the street from a wonderful little Italian café where we enjoy coffee, breakfast and a warm welcome to the neighborhood. An old Ford Model T pulls up with a delivery of firewood for the café’s pizza oven. The scene in front of me probably doesn’t look all that different now than it would have in the 1930s.

Havana, Cuba

We walk to the malecón where the road and the seawall extend for several miles in a graceful curve on the north side of the city. The heat and sun are as intense as the blue of the sky and the colors of the cars driving by. These classic cars are everywhere, inspiring our constant speculation about make, model and year. It seems almost miraculous that so many are still running and in pretty great shape (the exteriors, at least) some fifty+ years since manufacture.

A tiny vintage cab shuttles us over to the cerveceria near the ferry terminal and art market. It’s our first of many experiences with live music, beer and cigars. In this heat, a cold beer tastes really good. We hang out for a couple hours and continue our walk around the city.

Most of the architecture of Havana is in dire need of restorative attention, but the remaining beauty offers tantalizing hints at how incredible this city must have been in its heyday in the early to mid-1900s. During that time, Cuba was enjoying freedom from former rule by Spain and relations between Cuba and the U.S. were functional. Havana flourished from a boom in tourism and foreign investment, but the growth of casinos and nightclubs brought gambling, prostitution and organized crime. This, along with repeated upheavals within the government, meant that the years leading up to the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s were prosperous but challenging.

Shortly after the Revolution and introduction of communism, foreign-owned assets were expropriated and the U.S. embargo began. Cuba set off on a new path, independent of the sources of its previous economic success. The country stagnated and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union further degraded the economy. Cuba found itself trapped in time, with no way to move forward.

Havana’s streets tell the whole story — with plazas and churches from the 1700s alongside formerly beautiful buildings left unprotected from the clutch of age. With pastel colors and Spanish Colonial features, some streets resemble an unlikely mash-up between Prague and Cuzco. Other streets are rough and decaying but there’s always at least one friendly face peeking out from a window or a doorway. In some cases, the face we see belongs to Che Guevara. His visage is everywhere and it seems he’s the most endeared figure of the Revolution.

Havana, Cuba

Plaza de San Francisco

We come to the Plaza de San Francisco and the rain begins to pour down. We rush into Restaurante Café del Oriente and feel like we’ve suddenly stepped 75 years back in time. The grit is gone and we’ve found Havana’s old opulence in this cafe’s enormous columns, Baroque crown moulding, and marble and brass bar. A young man plays a grand piano in the corner. He reads the crowd and spices things up with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody thrown in among the usual piano classics.

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The rain passes in an hour, leaving the city with a dull and dirty glow. We walk back toward our casa particular as life returns to the streets after the storm. J stops for a haircut at the local barbershop — a tradition he follows in every country we visit. He never knows what he’s gonna get, but this guy in Havana does a better job than anyone in any other country. For 10 bucks.

Havana, Cuba

We get to the casa particular and I’m sucked back into the allure of the balcony, and Havana in general. The afternoon turns to evening, I watch the world go by and I wonder why we waited so long to bypass the border and come to Cuba. As Americans, the story we hear is that Cuba is barely getting by without us … unable to really prosper without the support of its biggest neighbor. Certainly, the Cuban people do face a lot of challenges but in the one day I’ve been in Havana I’ve seen happiness, warmth, gratitude, ingenuity and prosperity. It is far from destitute and the people here have pride, energy and determination. Cuba is not a country of people sitting idle with their hands out wondering when help is going to arrive.

Our sweet old ride in Havana

Our sweet old ride in Havana

The next two days take us even deeper into the heart of Havana. We hire a driver with a classic car to take us to the sights outside of La Habana Vieja. The Hotel Nacional sits along the malecón, overlooking the ocean. Our guide tells us it’s the first time in decades that the Cuban and American flags are able to hang side-by-side at the entrance, thanks to the diplomacy of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama. Everyone we talk to about the recent political developments is happy the two nations are reconciling.

We stop at the Plaza de la Revolución — an enormous and featureless plot of pavement for important gatherings in Havana. Fidel Castro and Pope Francis have both spoken here. To the north, Che is memorialized in a steel line drawing on the side of the Ministry of Interior. The tower on the south side of the plaza is a memorial for José Martí, an intellectual who inspired Cuba’s independence from Spain. It’s fascinating to me that this island nation of just 12 million people has been the source of such dramatic history over the past 150 years — colonial rule, independence, revolts, the Revolution, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. embargo, and the saga of Guantanamo Bay. Maybe it’s that the principle characters of Cuba’s biography have been such dramatic figures themselves and geography has unavoidably provided the stage.

Except for the book market, where these history lessons are lined up on the shelves, Havana has a peaceful demeanor that belies its tumultuous past. Business on the streets seems to be doing okay. People are selling what they can to make a living — fruit, coconuts, cleaning supplies, vintage books and magazines (Nat Geo from 1923, anyone?), and even vinegar and cooking oils in recycled bottles that have been sealed up with packing tape. Stores, on the other hand, lack any proof that basic household needs can be reliably purchased. Shelves are empty except for canned tomatoes, cooking oil, baby formula and rum. Lots of rum. Necessity has forced the invention of the thriving economy we see on the street.

Havana, Cuba

We come across a group of guys playing a fierce game of dominoes around a nicely crafted table outside an apartment building. We watch and learn, and I love that they’re not at all bothered by our curiosity. I turn to look down the street and a classic car is coming toward us. But the driver sees some friends on the sidewalk, so he just parks the car and everyone enjoys a quick catch-up on the side of the street. It is Sunday afternoon in Havana.

I can’t keep writing about Cuba if I don’t start writing about the music. The two go hand-in-hand. Never before have I been to a country where sound is such an integral part of the identity of a nation. In the handful of days we spend in Havana, we have the pleasure of hearing no less than nine groups performing on the streets and in the restaurants. Music is everywhere. It seems like everyone sings or plays an instrument, and we see a couple of the best musicians around town accompanying different bands at different times of the day.

When the maracas get shaking and the bongos start banging, the rhythm of Cuba comes alive and street corners come to a standstill as everyone gathers to enjoy the music. The musicians themselves can’t resist the call to move. Their feet, their hips, their wrists … everything moves with a little bit of flare and swirl that is uniquely Cuban. Happiness radiates. Music might be the one thing — the most enduring thing — that has carried the country through history and escaped the turmoil and economic hardship. No wonder it’s such a big part of life.

Havana, Cuba

The one and only Coronet

On our last night in Havana, J chooses one more classic car for a final spin around the city — a big, beautiful, burgundy, convertible Coronet. The only one in the entire country. As we take a look at the car, we get to know the family who owns it. The father is the driver and the son-in-law, who speaks perfect English, is the tour guide. Ingenuity meets opportunity.

We cast aside the tour map and tell the guys we just want to cruise around for an hour. The son-in-law replies, “Ooooh, you want to cruuuuuuuuze! I get it!”

We all pile into the car and dad starts the engine with a big smile. I think he’s just as excited as we are to go drive around. He pulls away from the rainbow of classic cars parked near the capitol building. We go slow. We cruuuuze. We drive 20 miles an hour as the sun sets beyond the malecón, and we couldn’t be happier seeing Havana one more time from The Coronet. It’s an experience we’ll never forget — an experience found only in Cuba.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been completely enraptured by a city but Havana has all the elements that make it happen — history, art, architecture, beauty, kind people, heart, heat, spirit and music … so much music. And the food? It’s okay. There is a lot of lobster so it could be worse. But let’s just say … the food is poised for its own revolution.

I’ll raise a mojito and toast to that, as I run out to the balcony one last time and say goodbye to Havana. I already can’t wait to come back.

Above: Fusión Caribe performing in Havana, Cuba

***

Next post: Trinidad

Previous post: Carnaval: Into the Heart of Cuba

Experience

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Final Thoughts & Sketches

“Take your protein pills and put your helmet on…”

It seems appropriate that Woon Chi would end his road trip around the western U.S. by singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity, as you’ll read in his journal below. Growing up in one of the world’s smallest countries and traveling by motorcycle throughout one of the world’s largest must feel like exploring a spatial frontier. One of my favorite moments from Woon Chi’s whole trip was when he looked out on Yellowstone and wrote, “I never knew there was this much green in the universe.”

“Commencing countdown, engines on…”

While collaborating and sharing his journey, it feels as though we’ve played the roles of Major Tom and Ground Control — Woon Chi as the former and me as the latter, observing his route, hoping it all went to plan, and ready to help if it didn’t.

“Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong…”

Despite a breakdown on the first day and summer temps that took Death Valley off his list of destinations, Woon Chi rode almost 5,000 miles through Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and British Columbia. You can see his route here.

He stopped in Vancouver and tuned up his bike before continuing on to Tofino, the last stop on his month-long journey.

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Woon Chi rode the ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo, then motored on to Port Alberni and Ucluelet where he stopped for the night.

Ucluelet

Ucluelet

“I’m stepping through the door and I’m floating in the most peculiar way…”

The ocean called so Woon Chi hit the waves in the late afternoon. He sent photos and noted, “Just came back from surfing! Had a great session!”

He met up with friends in Tofino and explored the coastal forest of British Columbia.

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Looking at his photos, I can’t help but wonder if there’s an X-Wing hiding in there somewhere…

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“And the stars look very different today…”

The culmination of his road trip coincided with his 32nd birthday. Good times with friends in the moody, misty forest.

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Throughout Woon Chi’s road trip, his illustrations have been a delight for all of us. While in Tofino, he sent some final sketches of memorable moments on the road that weren’t included in his daily journal.

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In this first sketch, he recalls Hawk vs. Bike, noting that “I thought I would have died for a second when the hawk flew out. We almost collided. Almost.”

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And finally, this one…

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Woon Chi says, “I freaked out n’ stopped by the freeway, couldn’t make out if it was inside or outside. Took my goggles off n’ flicked it out. It was inside, ha. Fuck.”

Yeah, fuck. Keep calm and don’t carry on, or crash. I think Woon Chi has given new meaning to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

“Far above the world,
Planet Earth is blue…”

Until today, this photo of the Canada coast was the final shot from Woon Chi’s road trip.

Tofino

But hold on… there’s just one more thing:

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“For here I am sitting in my tin can…”

It seems Woon Chi really meant it when he said, “I want a campervan omg.”

Please welcome the newest addition to Woon Chi’s Road Trip Armada.

His first comment about his “new” campervan?

“I’m crazy.”

Maybe. But isn’t that how all the best dreams begin?

“Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go…”

Drive on, Woon Chi, drive on.

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Experience
Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 7

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Entering his fourth week on the road, Woon Chi motored north from Grand Teton National Park toward Yellowstone National Park. Or as Woon Chi called it … Yhellastone. Bumper sticker, anyone? Yhellastone is America’s first national park, established in 1872.

Perhaps the only thing that could rival his excitement at being there was Old Faithful, known as “one of the most predictable geographic features on earth.” That sounds really boring, but in reality it’s pretty cool to see this percolating geyser spew between 4,000 and 8,000 gallons of boiling water straight into the air every 60 to 110 minutes. Wait for it …………….. or just get the app. Yes, there’s an app that will tell you when it’s about to go off.

Woon Chi noted simply, “Excited earth.”

Montana campers

Driving further into the park, he looked for camping at Norris Campground. No sites available, but his bike (and slight resemblance to a Stormtrooper?) attracted a young family who struck up a conversation with him. When they found out Woon Chi couldn’t find a campsite, they gave him their reservation they had at Canyon Campground to the east. The family had decided to stay put at Norris instead of moving on to Canyon. So, what are the odds of crossing paths with the ONE family that just *happens* to have an EXTRA campsite reservation at the EXACT moment that you need a campsite in the middle of summer at one of the most popular national parks in the United States of America??? It seems Woon Chi found a unicorn in Yhellastone.

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Driving around Yhellastone, Woon Chi admired the sites and colors. As he parked his bike on the side of the road, he offered this thought:

“I never knew there was this much green in the universe.”

He stayed only long enough to see the sites and smell the air — at times thick with hydrogen sulfide gas from the geysers.

“Smells like boiled eggs.”

He snapped a departure photo at the stone archway out of Yhellastone and continued into Montana.

Leaving Yellowstone National Park

Leaving Yellowstone National Park

Montana

Hello, Montana

He arrived at Three Forks Campground where he pitched his tent for the night and met a French couple camping at the site next door. They were on a six-month road trip in a camper van and, like Woon Chi, had experienced a mechanical breakdown right at the start of their trip.

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That evening, the Singaporean and the French forged a friendship over burgers, beers and breakdowns. They plugged in the disco dance lights for a certain … je ne sais quoi … and the sun set on another day in Big Sky Country.

Van has a character!

Over breakfast and coffee the next morning, Woon Chi decided to alter his route and go to Glacier National Park avec les amis nouveaux. Allons-y!

Montana

Montana

While filling up at the petrol station, Woon Chi’s bike attracted yet another inquisitive conversationalist. This guy was riding free and fearless, with no helmet. He shared a life story with Woon Chi that happened to him years ago, then noted the time on his watch as the two of them were talking.

“Had a chat, talking about no helmet laws, said he’s not afraid to die cos he had an out of body experience. Said something like he was in bed at 9:07, when he returned it was 11:11. Said something told him “not yet.” He thinks it was God or an angel. Then he showed me the time … 11:11. Crazy!”

Regarding his own bike, Woon Chi added, “Ya it’s crazy how much attention I get with this bike, ha! People talk to me at campsites, gas stops, traffic stops, visitor centers,  grocery stores, cafes … I guess it looks ‘friendly.’ Harley riders look more menacing but they are hella nice.”

Woon Chi and his French friends entered Glacier National Park, and when he sent me this unbelievable photo I remembered his thoughts about green and the universe.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

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After camping together in Glacier, Woon Chi bid adieu to his French friends and continued north into Alberta, Canada. The featureless border crossing gave no hint of the mountainous terrain ahead.

Entering Alberta, Canada

Entering Alberta, Canada

It was right about here when Woon Chi’s route started orienting back toward Vancouver. In the photos he sent, the weather turned dark and cloudy, mirroring that dreaded feeling of a once-in-a-lifetime vacation coming to an end.

“I’ve that sinking feeling it’s going to be all over soon! Man, time flies when u’re having it good.”

Frustration set in, too.

“I’m trying to get to Banff. In Calgary now. I keep getting lost on the highways. They use trail names instead of numbers, arghh. Like Cowboy Trail, wtfff”

But Woon Chi channeled his inner Taylor Swift, shook it off, and found his Cowboy Trail.

Revelstoke, B.C.

Revelstoke, B.C.

After camping in Banff, he moved on to Revelstoke and Kamloops. Woon Chi noted, “Yeah, all the ski towns are cool! Banff is the fanciest of them all, haha. Wanna snowboard at Revel, Kicking Horse, Lake Louise n Banff in the winter!!!”

Kamloops, B.C.

Kamloops, B.C.

On the last night of his road trip around the western U.S. and back to Canada, Woon Chi pitched his tent in Kamloops, B.C. But this isn’t where the story ends.

“Camping at Kamloops. Tho it was raining, the scenery was dramatic and I enjoyed the ride, a very zen moment, I guess there’s no more destinations, no more plans, it was all about the ride. Will be in Vancouver tmrw. n chill for a few days before leaving for Tofino.”

On the way back to Vancouver, Woon Chi “took a longer scenic route on highway 1. Was awesome.”

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Woon Chi

Woon Chi

Next up: Tofino and the final chapter of Woon Chi’s road trip, including additional illustrations of some of his memorable moments on the road.

Until then, Woon Chi says, “I want a campervan omg.”

***

Missed part of the road trip? You can catch up with Woon Chi here:

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 2

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 3

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 4

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 5

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 6

 

Experience
Bonneville Salt Flats

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 6

Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

At last check, the rain came pouring down and Woon Chi stopped for the night in Wendover — one town with two identities, straddling the border between Nevada and Utah. Same same, but very different. (I’m beginning to see a theme here.) Woon Chi booked in on the Utah side, but ventured to the Nevada side for some evening entertainment.

“Lost $35 on blackjack, but free beers so it’s okay!”

The rain continued through the next morning when Woo Chi departed Wendover for Salt Lake City, passing Bonneville Salt Flats along the way. The reality was far different than what he had expected.

“Well, the Salt Flat’s a river, ha ha ha!”

A deserted and vanishing one-point perspective, Woon Chi continued toward the horizon, trying to outrun the rain.

“It was the straightest road from Wendover to Salt Lake City. Straight line for over an hour.”

It was on this dreary morning that America woke up to the massacre in Orlando, and Woon Chi and I exchanged messages about the dichotomy of the U.S. Riding freely, experiencing the country’s vast beauty, freedom to roam and friendly people makes it hard to reconcile the omnipresent potential of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Upon arrival in Salt Lake City, Woon Chi worked out his accommodations and located a bike shop. Salt City Builds checked his w650 and gave him a thumbs up for the second half of his ride around the western U.S.

Woon Chi had a chance to tuck into some of Salt Lake City’s finest cuisine.

“Had my first In&Out. It was ok … dun know why the craze, like Tim Hortons, ha ha.” But did he have it Animal Style?

The Polygamy Porter at the market was apropos of this Sister Wives state, but totally overlooked in favor of the “best fried chicken I ever had” at Bubba’s BBQ. Bubba’s proved a good stop. Due to the rainy weather, Woon Chi and his friends in Salt Lake City decided to head south to Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for the next three days.

“Bubba’s chicken owner has been giving tips to camp around Capitol Reef and Escalante. Had a good long chat.”

Woon Chi & Friends departed the next morning.

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Driving southeast, the soggy landscape around Salt Lake City dried out and the contours of the desert southwest appeared. Capitol Reef and Escalante offered up the quintessential blue skies and rusty vistas of this geological wonderland.

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While exploring Capitol Reef and Escalante, Woon Chi met a German couple traveling around North America. Karola and Hans are driving an epic camper van that looks prepared for pretty much anything that comes their way.

Three years on the road and Hans and Karola’s path crossed with Woon Chi’s at a point somewhat equidistant between Singapore and Germany. Karola and Hans keep track of their route on a map on their vehicle, and write a blog with photos from their journey.

Woon Chi noted, “German couple’s initial plan was to travel 1.5 years in North America and another 1.5 in South America. Over three years passed but they still haven’t seen it all, ha ha, USA is too big!”

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While in the desert, Woon Chi also saw a unicorn of sorts. “Was hot n’ dry out here. Only one cloud spotted.”

On Friday, Woon Chi returned to Salt Lake City and began the next leg of the trip to Yellowstone National Park. He stopped in Pocatello, Idaho for the night and enjoyed the ride through Swan Valley on Saturday morning.

“So nice to be back on my bike!”

He arrived in Jackson, Wyoming on Saturday afternoon.

“Jackson’s cool. Like Tahoe but western.” Same same, but … you get it.

Saturday’s highlight was Woon Chi’s serendipitous arrival in Teton National Park. The stars aligned, as they often do for people who set aside their fears and set out to explore the world.

First: “Campsite by the lake!”

And then: “Bucket list! Grazing bisons!”

And finally, as Woon Chi captioned the photo of his bike in front of the Tetons, the words of Freddie Mercury came to mind: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter…

***

Missed part of the road trip? You can catch up with Woon Chi here:

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 2

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 3

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 4

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 5

Experience
Bodie, California

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 5

When we last checked in with Woon Chi, he was lounging poolside at Keough’s Hot Springs south of Bishop, California. With an afternoon temperature around 100 degrees, the southern trajectory of his road trip ended there. Continuing on to Death Valley would have been living up to its name. As the bartender at Rusty’s confirmed for Woon Chi, “No, no Death Valley. You’ll die in that helmet.”

Woon Chi enjoyed Bishop, as most everyone does with its abundance of old town character. He noted, “This town is full of spring breakers!”

Before leaving Bishop, he stopped at legendary Schat’s Bakery — not to be missed if you’re in the area.

On a map, Highway 395 looks featureless — just a highway between Bishop and Carson City. Yet there’s actually a lot to see and, as you’re driving north, the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range looms large on your left for mile after mile.

Just out of Bishop, Woon Chi stopped at Laws Railroad Museum and snapped two photos. Once again, “Same same but different.”

After the railroad museum he motored on to Mono Lake. Although it looks like any other lake from the shore, Mono Lake is actually one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. The lake is saline — three times as salty as the ocean — and its brine shrimp population attracts more than two million migratory birds every year. The lake is between one and three million years old but in 1941 Mono Lake’s freshwater sources were diverted, wreaking havoc on the lake and ecosystem almost to the point of collapse. Through aggressive conservation efforts during the past 30+ years, the lake is in the process of a partial recovery — a journey that will take several decades or more.

Woon Chi’s journey continued up Highway 395 where he took a right turn toward Bodie. The paved road turned to dirt, leading him to the tattered edge of a town lost in time. Cue Ennio Morricone’s theme song to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and imagine Woon Chi stepping off his Kawasaki w650 into his own version of a Spaghetti Kway Teow Western.

Bodie is a real-life Wild West gold rush ghost town … bustling with the activity of more than 5,000 people in the 1880s, then slowly abandoned as miners moved on to more lucrative locations in the western U.S. In the 1920 Federal Census, Bodie’s population was only 120 people. By 1943, just a few people remained.

Woon Chi noted, “Everything stood still in time. So crazy. Especially when you peek in the houses.”

Bodie, California

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Back on the road out of Bodie, Woon Chi blazed a trail through the mountains up to Lake Tahoe.

He arrived at Stateline (the border between California and Nevada runs right through the lake) where a guy admired his bike and offered to buy him a beer. Awesome! He was shocked when that same guy took the stage at Open Mic Night! But locals would not be so shocked — Lake Tahoe survives on seasonal recreation so people often have to do a lot of different things to make a living year-round. Your realtor is the guy who plows your driveway is the guy who coaches your kid’s ski team is the guy who sings in a band and plays at Open Mic Night. That’s how Tahoe rolls.

Open Mic, South Lake Tahoe

Woon Chi headed to Meek’s Bay where his campsite was waiting, just a few steps from (what I think is) Lake Tahoe’s best beach. Woon Chi’s verdict? “Super cool n’ chill.”

He met a bunch of cool people at the campground, avoided contact with Tahoe’s notorious bears and summarized his experience by saying, “Tahoe is small enough to be clean and quiet, big enough for things to happen, perfect size.” He added, “I wanna come back n’ chill in Tahoe proper next time.”

He left the lake on Highway 89, with one small detour to see Truckee before heading east toward Salt Lake City. Truckee is where I lived before moving abroad to Singapore.

Truckee, California

Truckee, California

East on the highway and out of the mountains, Woon Chi drove toward the vast expanse of Nevada’s Great Basin. Fighting the crosswinds on the road, he made it to Battle Mountain — a place so terribly scenic he couldn’t be bothered to pitch his tent.

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The blazing sunset that evening made up for the trashy inferno he saw on the road, and another day wrapped on his road trip around the western U.S.

Nevada Sunset

In the morning he set out for Salt Lake City but rain forced him to stop in the unremarkable town of Wendover, Utah (which is remarkable for being the site of the hangar for the Enola Gay).

The highlight of this day came not in sunrise or sunset, scenic byway nor stunning landscape. The highlight for Woon Chi was American people.

“Bikers here are amazing man, there’s a solidarity amongst them. I stopped at a bridge earlier just to take shelter, a few of them stopped to ask if I’m okay.”

And when he checked in at the Bonneville Inn, the receptionist gave him a discount on the room rate because he drove all the way from Canada.

On a bike in the middle of nowhere, I think Woon Chi’s found the heart of America.

***

Missed part of the road trip? You can catch up with Woon Chi here:

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 2

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 3

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 4

Experience
Golden Gate Bridge

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 4

It was last Friday afternoon when, after stopping to recover from the heat of Sonoma County, Woon Chi continued down the 101 toward San Francisco. Acting on an awesome tip from a familiar blog writer, he exited the highway just before the Golden Gate Bridge and drove toward Marin Headlands where he was greeted by a postcard view of the City by the Bay.

The City was nearly fogless and perfect, a rare summer pleasure, on its best behavior for the arrival of our foreign traveler.

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After crossing the bridge, Woon Chi (himself a young Jedi) of course went immediately to pay his respects to Yoda at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio. Insurance for a safe journey, I think.

Yoda

“Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice.”

Woon Chi stayed with friends who live in the East Bay, giving him a chance to see life on both sides of the Bay Bridge. The sunshine stuck around and it was a prime weekend for exploring. That predictable summer fog dumped over the ridge above Twin Peaks but, for the most part, the Bay Area showed Woon Chi its most agreeable mood.

Sunday afternoon brought some thoughtful deliberation … should he stay or should he go now? With temps in Yosemite nearing 100 degrees, a lingering hangover, and the notion of arriving in bear country at sunset, Woon Chi delayed his departure until Monday morning. After an enjoyable ride, he found camping outside Yosemite Valley and the next adventure began.

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Yes, another breathtaking view. And another one, and another one after that. Although it’s far, far away from anywhere else, Yosemite is truly one of the most beautiful places in our galaxy.

Yosemite’s waterfalls are raging this year, thanks to El Niño and a decent snow pack in the mountains. Woon Chi found the park’s most iconic views on a drive toward Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point. In his words, “Top of the world!”

After camping a second night, Woon Chi packed up this morning and headed east on Highway 120, past Tenaya Lake, through Tuolumne Meadows, right at Lee Vining and south past Bishop. He says the ride out of Yosemite National Park has been the highlight of his road trip so far.

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So there you have it, folks. Death Valley has been deleted from Woon Chi’s route for fear of melted treads and self-combustion amid today’s high temperature of 116 degrees (44C). The Excessive Heat Warning for the area says “no person or animal should be left in a closed vehicle.” Probably no one should be left in an open vehicle either. Wise choice to change course, Woon.

He arrived at his alternate destination this afternoon — Keough’s Hot Springs, with a shady place to pitch his tent. He’s lounging by the pool at an “unreal” and “so retro” “oasis in the desert,”  proving that sometimes it’s better when your original travel plans don’t work out.

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Next stop: Big Blue.

Have questions for Woon Chi about his road trip experience so far? Leave your questions in the comments and I’ll post the answers.

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Missed part of the road trip? You can catch up with Woon Chi here:

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 2

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 3

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 5

Experience
Oregon Coast

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 3

Woon Chi’s Excellent Adventure continues! After his bike died near Astoria, he rented a car for 24 hours until the requisite part arrived from Georgia and the bike shop got him back on the road. He made it to San Marine where he camped for the night.

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Along the way, a fellow cyclist chased Woon Chi down and chatted him up at the petrol station. Woon Chi’s rare motorcycle had caught his eye on the road. The two of them have similar bikes. Or as Woon Chi put it, using that universal and beloved phrase that comes in handy among all countries and cultures … same same but different.

And what would a road trip be without some other memorable characters along the way?

Making up for lost time, Woon Chi went full throttle all day Thursday for 292 miles/470 km, from San Marine to Eureka. The weather cleared and the coastline zipped along at his side.

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He arrived in Eureka around dinner time, located a campsite and celebrated the day’s journey in all-American fashion with a Clif Bar, a Drumstick and a Budweiser.

After departing Eureka early this morning, Woon Chi cruised the Avenue of Giants among some of California’s tallest redwoods.

He had his picture taken driving through the Chandelier Tree. This tree measures 16 feet in diameter (4.9 meters) and is about 2,000 years old — rooted at this spot since a few decades after the romance of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. The only thing rivaling the enormity of this tree is the intensity of the temperature on the road today: 98F/37C degrees throughout Sonoma County. Sweltering, even by Singapore standards! Woon and his bike are cooling off at the roadside before the final push into San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge awaits his arrival at the City by the Bay.

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Missed part of the road trip? You can catch up with Woon Chi here:

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 2

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 4

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 5

Experience

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 2

Good news, everyone! Woon Chi is back on the road after breaking down on the first day of his month-long motorcycle ride around the western U.S.

Woon Chi departed Vancouver, Canada on Monday morning. He made it to Oregon but broke down at Gnat Creek Fish Hatchery — not far from the middle of nowhere, on the road toward Astoria. Here’s the story through his words and sketches.

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This morning, the CDI Unit arrived from Georgia and Woon Chi got back on the road. Thank you, Kawasaki USA and L & D Race Tech! He traveled down the coast and found a place to camp for the night at San Marine. Tomorrow he’ll try to make up for lost time and get to Eureka. Cheers to a better day on the road, Woon!

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Missed part of the road trip? You can catch up with Woon Chi here:

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S.

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 3

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 4

Woon Chi Rides the Western U.S., Part 5

 

Experience Miscellaneous