“The fight is won or lost far away form witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”-Muhammad Ali
It’s funny how life works. Just as I was about to completely fall apart over Hayma and lose all the ground I’ve gained, Alan and Jonathan entered my life. Jonathan, a short, stocky twenty-three year old African American was waiting for me outside the Canberra bus station. He was sent by Alan, a white middle aged Australian family man who emailed me saying he will be wearing a durag, but what that is exactly, I do not know.
They couldn’t be more opposite of one another if they tried. Alan’s the owner of Dickson Central, which is the hostel that I’ve bartered a room with this week and Jonathan is his right hand man. Jonathan gets a free bunk and small paycheck and in exchange he checks in the guests, cleans the rooms and does all the little things like pick people like me up at the bus station.
They are both a bit of a conundrum.
Jonathan’s around my age and he grew up on the mean streets of North Philadelphia, which is the part of the city that has the highest rate of violent crime. His family moved around a lot when he was a kid, but he often found himself living in neighborhoods that were plagued by the same things; crime, drugs and social underfunding.
After high school Jonathan enlisted in the military where he served two tours of duty in Iraq. He was eventually forced to retire because of post-traumatic stress disorder. The toll that combat had taking on him still haunts him to this day and he’s not shy when talking about it. Before we pull away from the bus station he said, “Whatever you do, don’t sneak up on me or make any loud sounds around me.”
He quickly added that he would be filling out an absentee ballot for Donald Trump in the fall because he desperately wants his veterans benefits increased. I wouldn’t fault you for assuming that Jonathan must be a tough guy with a mean streak, but somehow, someway, this bowling ball of a man is exactly the opposite.
He’s outgoing, fun and funny and I say this with all due respect, but he’s kind of a nerd, like a really big nerd. Instead of turning to the streets as a teenager, he turned to cartoons and he still loves them to this day. He’s a walking encyclopedia of all things Superhero, and The Big Bang Theory is his favorite TV show. He’s constantly quoting Sheldon like he knows him personally. When he picked me up at the bus station he was wearing his favorite bright yellow Sponge Bob sweat pants (and durag).
Then there’s Alan, who offers his own contradiction. He’s a mountain man with a five o’clock shadow that seems permanent. He’s into camping and hiking and, like most Australian’s I’ve met, he has a really dry sense of humor. He’d vote for anyone other Trump if he could vote in our election and he’s always playfully pressing Jonathan’s buttons because of it. Alan recently spent every dollar he had to purchase the failing Dickson Central hostel and he’s smack dab in the middle of doing everything he can to turn it around. The place was a known haven for meth users and prostitutes before he took over, but it’s got good bones as Alan told me.
Alan knows he’s going to have to get creative to attract business because Canberra itself doesn’t get much tourist traffic since it isn’t much of a stop for travelers when they visit Australia.
Alan sadly said one day, “they usually go from Sydney to Melbourne or vice versa, often skipping over this amazing part of the country.”
His hands are worn and calloused from all the work he puts in remolding the place and his eyes are a cross between exhausted and optimistic. He works 6 days a week at the hostel, and then the 7th as a carpenter just so he can scrape together enough money to put food on the table for his family. I wouldn’t fault you for thinking that Alan must be stressed to the gills and the stereotypical grizzled handyman. But like Jonathan, he too is the exact opposite of what I was expecting.
Alan’s endearing, and an open book. He’s willing to talk about the inner working of himself and he quickly became one of the most genuine, warm-hearted people I’ve ever come across while traveling.
For as different as Jonathan and Alan are from one another, they do have one thing in common and that’s that they both have hearts of gold. There is just something special about the two of them, and our conversations around the hostel this week have helped me heal.
Alan might be the first person I’ve ever met who truly understands the essence of what I’m trying to do with my life without me having to explain it; he just gets it. He knows that my journey around the world has very little to do with travel itself and it’s as though he believes in me without needing an explanation. In my experience, people like that are few and far between.
The plan while I’m here is to do photos and a film of Dickson Central in exchange for a room. On top of that, I’ve also struck a deal with Alan, who is also starting a tour company called Blue Skies Adventure Tours. When he was telling me about it the day I arrived a light blub went off and I quickly came up with the idea that I could film one of the hikes his tour company will offer in exchange for a fee (like money, like real money, like what professional travel filmmakers normally do).
I was stoked when Alan quickly gobbled up my offer and when the dust settled a few minutes later, we agreed on a three-day hike to Budawangs National Park. The film I’ll create will be played in the lobby of Dickson Central to encourage guests to stay a few extra days and to sign up for the hike. The other part of our deal was that I’d recommend the hike to the people following my journey online, which has recently ballooned to over 100,000 travel-minded followers.
The whole thing is ideal for both of us.
Alan’s getting a film at half the price he would normally pay and he’s also getting to test out the route and terrain with Jonathan and I as his guinea pigs. And for me, this is as good as it gets!
I would have actually paid to go on a hike like this while I was here, so having Alan actually pay me feels like my biggest win to date. I’ll be hiking, which I love, filming, which I love, and so this feels like it might just be the real pot at the end of the rainbow that my mother mentioned way back in Singapore. This is exactly how I want to make money; this is my Bill Cunningham moment!
Last night just as I was about to fall asleep at the hostel, Alan sent me a text asking me if we can bump the trip up three days and leave tomorrow morning at 3AM. He said he had been looking at the forecast and that it looks like a storm is about to move in. But he thinks that if we leave in just a few hours that we might be able to avoid it.
Before I can type out my reply he also gives me the option of cancelling it altogether, which I instantly cringe at. There is absolutely no way I would ever cancel the hike. This is my first shot at a real payday since I got my final paycheck from my old corporate job nearly two years ago. Sure I’ve made some money along the way, but nothing this substantial, so I can’t pass this amount of money up regardless of the circumstances.
Plus, I can always bank on the fact that I did climb Mount Kilimanjaro once and that nothing can be harder than that. Right?
When I showed up in Tanzania four years ago I met my guide, Festo, at the basecamp in Arusha. The first question he asked was, “Have you ever done any hiking before?”
After I said, “No”, he asked, “Have you ever gone camping before?”
I said no again and told him that I had never spent a single night inside a tent.
He shook his head. “You do realize this is the tallest mountain in Africa don’t you?” he asked.
But that’s how I do things; I just throw myself off the cliff and find out whether I’ll fly or fall.
I’ll never fully understood the people that buy guidebooks and run their highlighter across every single site and statue in them. As I’ve made my way around the world, I’ve come across tourists that cross things off in their guidebook like their vacation was one big to-do list. They’ve scheduled out every minute of their trip before they even left home, which leaves no time for my favorite part of traveling – the unexpected.
The average American worker only gets 10 days of paid vacation per year, so I do understand that most people want to make the most of their hard earned vacation time and see the most important things first, but I’d much rather miss something big and be surprised by something small.
There is a drawback to my strategy however, and that’s that I often find myself unprepared, which is exactly what dawned on me the second Festo and I took our first steps down Mount Kilimanjaro’s Marangu trail.
The 7 days that followed were pure hell, but ultimately, after the hardest and most grueling days of my entire life, I did manage to will myself to the summit. The altitude, lack of sleep, and exhaustion (all things I hadn’t prepped or planned for) had taken a toll by that point and I could barely see straight, but I learned a lot about myself because of it. And I must admit that I was happy to see that the man that’s widely regarded as the best and toughest NFL linebacker, Ray Lewis, wasn’t able to make it to the summit when he tried a few weeks after I did.
I throw my backpack atop a pile of backpacks in the back of Alan’s Land Rover. I packed super light; just my toothbrush, deodorant and one extra shirt make up the contents of my bag. The last thing I want to do is lug around a heavy backpack the next three days while I’m trying to film the hike so I made the conscious decision to not bring much. I’ve also got my camera and tripod, but I set that between my legs as I settle in next to Alan upfront.
Jonathan shuts the trunk then hops in the back.
The old 4-cylinder diesel engine rattles the windows and Alan calls out, “Settle in boys, its about 4 hours to Budawang National Park. We’ll stop just after sunrise for some breakfast.”
Jonathan grumpily yells, “I still don’t understand why we have to leave at 3AM, but wake me up when we stop for breakfast. I want a sausage roll.”
The smile on my face is as wide as the night is dark. Even though it’s early and I didn’t sleep a wink last night, this doesn’t feel like work. This is a road trip with friends that I’m actually getting paid to go on, so it’s more significant than just going on a hike. It’s another layer of my dream manifested.
A few hours into the drive I ask Alan to pull over as hints of lavender begin to creep across the pre-dawn sky. We’re the only ones on the road and once he yanks the emergency brake up, I run across a road and unfold my tripod in front of the mountain pass. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful sunrises around the world and this one is right up there with the best of them. This utterly ridiculous hue begins to emanate from the sun once it hits the horizon. It’s purple, then pink and then gracefully slides across every shade of orange imaginable.
Frost has coated the grass that I’m standing on and it’s chilly out, but I don’t feel it because I’m so locked into what I’m doing.
I call over to Alan so he can get in position for the shot I want, “Lean up against the hood and look off into the distance.”
Not long after that we stop at this little hole in the wall place for breakfast. Everyone slowly wakes up as we sip beautifully brewed coffee and shovel delicious sausage rolls into our mouths. Around 8AM we arrive at the entrance to the park. Alan drives us a few miles down down a dirt road and then parks. We all hop out excited to start our adventure. Alan’s so kind and so nice that he ran out and bought me all the gear I’ll need for the hike and he hands me a shopping bag full of stuff like it’s Christmas morning. Since I’ve been trying to travel as light as humanly possibly as I make my way around the world, I don’t own anything other than jeans and t-shirts so he bought me boots, sweatpants, a jacket and also a wool hat.
I slide my right arm into the jacket first, but I can’t even get it past my elbow. Something isn’t right so I slip it off and hold it up to my eye.
“Um Alan, I think this is a size small”, then I jokingly say, “You do realize I’m like twice the size of a normal human being.”
“No it can’t be, I remember it was on the rack that was labeled extra-extra large and the hanger said XXL.”
We both reach for the tag that’s still hanging inside the jacket, and I say, “Yep it’s a small. It must have been hung in the wrong section, happens all the time.”
I immediately think of the line Chris Farley made famous and I can’t help but start laughing hysterically. I try to put the jacket on again and then I dance around Jonathan as he and I recite Farley’s famous line over and over, “Fat guy in a little coat, fat guy in a little coat.”
Alan laughs along, but feels terrible and apologizes profusely. I tell him that it’s not a big deal as I toss it back into the truck, “The sun is out and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. I can’t imagine I’ll even need to wear it.”
I reach for the wool hat next, and try to slide it over my head, but that doesn’t fit either. It looks like a Yamika on my head. And again, I can’t help but to laugh as Alan starts getting mad at himself for buying another thing that doesn’t even come close to fitting me.
“At least the tags are still on them so you can get your money back”, I say.
I toss the hat on top of the jacket and then hold up the pair of humongous sweatpants he got me and say, “at least these will fit.”
“What about the boots, they are the biggest ones in Canberra. They’ve got to fit.”
I unlace the boots and sit on a mossy stump nearby and slide them over my socks. My first instinct tells me that they are really tight; I stand up and walk around in circles like I’m testing them out at Foot Locker and say, “I think they will loosen up over the next three days and stretch out a little. I’m a size 15 and these are a 12, but it’s not like I need them forever, I only need them for the next three days.”
I throw the sneakers I was wearing on top of everything else in the trunk, put my backpack on and start heading toward the trailhead to see what lies ahead. Alan quickly calls me back, “Eric, where are you going? You need your backpack.”
“I’ve got mine on”, then I turn around and say, “See.”
Alan and Jonathan both start laughing at me. Alan then pulls a third backpack out of the backseat and says, “Its got your tent, your sleeping bag, your food, kerosene for the gas stove” and then he rattles off about 25 other camping related things I’ve never even heard of, but that are apparently essential for our camping experience.
“That thing looks like we’re going hiking for three years, not three days.”
I unload the things that are in my backpack, which weigh all of one pound, into the one Alan’s given me and then hitch it up onto my shoulders.
“This can’t be right, how much does this monster weigh?”
“It’s about 18 kilos, which to you Americans is close to 40 pounds.”
I stagger backwards and say, “And I have to carry this for the next three days? I thought Jonathan was going to carry some of my camping stuff so I could focus on the filming?”
“He is, he’s carrying some of your food and your flashlight, we gave you the lightest pack.”
I’m suddenly feeling less exuberant than I was three minutes ago. Nothing fits and the monstrous backpack won’t rest right on my shoulders, “I can barely stand straight and these nylon straps are going to rub my shoulders raw.”
Before we even get ten feet down the trail a sinking feeling hits me. It’s the same one I got at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro with Festo. I’m in over my head and I’m so utterly unprepared for what lies ahead.
In my excitement for the hike and the big payday at the end of it I forgot to stop and ask Alan anything about the actual hike itself. I don’t know a single thing about the trail, not one. I have no idea about the most basic things like our food and water situation and hell, I don’t even know where we are even hiking to, or how long it’s going to take to get there.
I began wheezing and sweating immediately, mud caking my boots and the back of my jeans as we begin a slow climb through a damp Australian rainforest. It’s hard for me to enjoy the sun gleaming through the trees though because I’m holding my camera and tripod out in front of me, which is roughly another ten-pounds of gear. Each time I move my arms it feels like I’m curling a tiny dumbbell, which if done once is not big deal, but I’m doing it inside each step. On top of that, Alan’s suddenly decided to move at a blistering pace and I have to try my damndest just to keep up with him.
I look over at Jonathan and he seems to be doing fine, but he’s a solider for god sake.
Alan’s original plan included three more hikers from a hiking club he’s a part of and they were going to be the “models” in the film, but since we had to leave early to beat the rain, none of them could make it. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal, but now I feel its consequences. I have to run ahead, set my camera up, then run back and walk alongside Jonathan and Alan so that I can fill out the shots and be one of the “models” as well.
The back and forth, up and down, immediately wears me down and I quickly realize that this is not exactly what I had signed up for.
About an hour in we use a series of rocks that are poking out of a stream to cross it, which means that we’re all but out of the rain forest portion of the hike. Alan switches into fifth gear and speeds up his pace and leads us north. As we begin to walk through dense brush, every ten steps or so there’s a tree that arches over the trail that causes me unspeakable misery. Alan and Jonathan zip under the branches with ease, but because I’m so tall I need to find a creative way under them. But that’s no easy task with this forty-pound bag on my back and my camera and tripod in my hands.
Sometimes I lean forward and then slide under the branch and then other times I bend at the knees and kind of crab walk under them. There is no winning in this situation, I’m either lunging or squatting every few feet and this goes on for hours under the heat wave the afternoon brought us. As we climb higher and higher, each step becomes labored, interrupted occasionally by a short series of downhill switchbacks, which is not so much the break I was hoping for as it welcomes me to a new kind of hell. It’s in these downward steps that it hits me that the boots Alan got me are way, way too small.
The weight of the monstrous backpack took my attention away from the boots this morning, but now each time I take a downward step my toes smash into the front of the hiking boot, which for some strange reason has absolutely zero give.
By midday I’m covered in sweat and beginning to show signs of cracking, “Alan you have to slow down! There is no way I can keep this pace up. We haven’t taken a break for hours. If you’re going to take people on this hike you have to go slower and give them a chance to rest every once in a while. I’m in decent shape, but you’re killing me out here.”
Alan apologizes and takes note of my advice. Jonathan and I really are the guinea pigs here. Alan hasn’t actually taken anyone on this hike before and it’s only his second time ever on this trail.
“I have to sit down”, I say.
I take my backpack off and rest up against the smooth side of a boulder. After I drink the last of my water, I poke at the toe of my boot. “Alan come over and feel my boot, it’s rock solid. My toes are absolutely killing me.”
Alan reaches for the tip of my boot and then at the same exact second it dawns on us what the problem is.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry”, he says.
“You bought me steel tip boots that are made for construction workers and not hikers. No wonder I can’t feel my toes!”
This realization is a bad one because it’s almost like it justifies the pain and it gives my feet permission to hurt even more.
I look at Alan and say, “Not only are they three sizes too small, but they’re coated with this awful unforgiving steel.”
Alan apologizes profusely, “I wanted to get you the biggest ones and didn’t think to look closely at the actually boot.”
I’m afraid to take them off because I doubt I’d be able to get them back on. “I’d give anything for my sneakers right now but they’re five hours behind us, way back at the truck.”
Alan offers a chance to go back, “Well, we’re almost half way to the campsite, but we can turn around if you want to.”
I think of quitting and heading back to the truck, but that’s not really an option because quitting now means I won’t get paid so I begrudgingly say, “I think I can keep going. It can’t get any worse, my toes are already numb.”
I stand up and dust myself off while dreading the monstrous backpack and steel tip boot combination and then brace myself for the next long stretch of trail.
Just seconds later in the midst of my next lunge under a low hanging tree branch, I hear this awful sound like someone ripped a giant piece of chart paper in half and then I immediately feel a cool breeze on the back of my legs.
I reach down and grab for the back pockets of my jeans, but they’re gone and I scream, “Oh no, I’ve just split my pants.”
The entire backside of my jeans, my one and only pair of jeans, has just split right down the middle and a gaping hole has replaced the two back pockets. I didn’t know jeans could split and create a hole this big from a single movement. It’s like someone fired a cannonball directly through them. But instead of stopping to change and risk my toes swelling up once my boots were off I decide to just continue on with my entire ass exposed. “There isn’t anyone else out here anyway.”
My dream project has become a nightmare in the span of six hours and I sigh under my breath, “What else could go wrong?”