Moving the Blog

I decided to combine my web domain and my blog. From now on www.ktsterling.com will be the proper address to access my blog. This page will soon become inactive.

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Breaking the Travel Bag Paradigm – Recap

Down with the naysayers!

Not worrying about my bag let me focus on more enjoyable things.

Not worrying about my bag let me focus on more enjoyable things.

My trip to Prague using SealLine’s Boundary pack was a smashing success. The 35L model held all of my girlfriend’s and my things perfectly, with even a bit of room to spare. Our only additional bags were a small day pack for carrying around and a small handbag with gifts for our friends. That bag ended up going into the bottom of the SealLine after we delivered the presents.

As I noted in my original post, my first trial only presented the problem of organization. To alleviate this, I picked up a Sea-to-Summit Compression Sack for my clothes, a Stuff Sack for my girlfriend’s, two small bags for toiletries and then I reused plastic bags for our shoes. With everything compartmentalized I was simply able to stack the items in order of access–shoes on bottom, clothes above and toiletries/travel documents on top).

Over the whole journey there was very minimal carrying involved simply because we were always on buses, trains, planes or in hostels. The bag actually sat in the corner the entire time we were in Moravia and then later in Prague. Hauling it to the return flight was the only time it was slightly uncomfortable, probably having something to do with the raucous amount of Czech beer that I packed in it.

The bag is tough; it’s waterproof; it’s cheap and light. If you’re worried about a lack of space, pay the extra ten bucks for the 70L–just don’t shell out $200+ for a full-featured expedition pack that will never see the light of day once you return from hostel-hopping.

My gear list:
2 Icebreaker shirts (worn)
1 Tshirt (to oblige the lady)
1 pair jeans
1 pair hiking pants
1 pair shorts (worn)
3 pairs Smartwool socks (worn)
2 pairs EMS Techwick underwear
1 pair Icebreaker Beast underwear (worn)
1 EMS Thunderhead rain jacket
1 EMS Summit Fleece
1 pair Chaco Z/1 sandals
1 pair La Sportiva FC2.0 shoes (worn)
(+ books, papers, etc.)
*I washed a few items randomly towards the end of the trip to keep things fresh, otherwise it was all zero-maintenance

The Pastry Crucible

My first attempt at short story.

If you’ve ever studied torture, you know it’s the simplest of things that ruin a man’s spirit. Drops of water, a cold floor, not enough room to sleep through a good night; but to me, and any other homeless wanderer out there, you start to forget that there’s any other way of life. We are the pigs wallowing in shit, wondering why our two-legged brothers insist on beds and excessive comforts. Walking past “Le Petit Monsieur” Bakery I am once again reminded which side of the looking glass I am suited to live.

The whiffs of confection sugar pierced me long before I crossed the shop’s penitentiary doors; I knew it was early, the time of day for coffee cakes and danishes–once a weekly treat when I resembled a more conventional man, a man at all. Poised on porcelain plates of pain they rise and remain above me, beyond me. Had I not just scrounged last night’s falafel from a 57th street green can buffet I may have even been hungry enough to want one. If I had the means of procurement, I may have even taken it just as a symbol of insignificant victory.

On the lower racks, yet to be discarded is last night’s gang of cupcakes. Another reminder of life when I walked upright, when I changed clothes and even owned a place to change into them. Their pink, marigold and baby blue frostings sting of colors far removed from my optical palette–snowflakes floating into the hell of an urban street, doomed to soil at the first mere touch of a tainted inhabitant. The intensity of their sweetness would probably further inflame my diabetic nightmare.

In the event that I still had a life to celebrate, a birthday to commemorate, this is the kind of place I would want to go. My bitterness aside, its bitter-sweet existence compels me to tap my human reservoir, to accept my circumstance and realize that these pastries of pain are only reminders of not what I chose not to have, but what I chose to lose. Instead, I sought a life subsisted from a higher carbohydrate molecule, so simple a chemical change, so profound a result.

There was a time when the bakery could have even been mine. Its diligent and deft workers, answering to my command. Now I stand a broken man, arguably, looking through a glass reminder of a life I once lived, overshadowed by the reflection of what I have become. In the purgatory in between our two worlds, a cupcake, an eclair can dually serve as the object of hopeful sanctuary or the stone-engraved death sentence of a life’s failure and the price to pay. I walk on, awaiting my next crucible of shame.

Breaking the Travel Bag Paradigm

This travel tip came to me from John Davison–an extensive world traveler. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to read some of his thoughts on India.

Old nerdy joke from my high-school math club: a pessimist says the glass is half empty, the optimist says half full. The engineer says it’s twice as big as it needs to be. For whatever reason, the average traveler is forever doomed to the paradigm of taking much more than what’s needed for a bag– be it in terms of features, capacity or price.

As an Eagle Scout I can understand “Being Prepared,” as it is after all the Boy Scout motto, but I also argue that there’s a right tool for every task. If you’re traveling, and not backpacking–for a long distance that is, your best bang-for-your-buck, practical option is to pick up a Seal-Line Boundary Pack.

Boundary Packs - what you should be taking to Europe.

Boundary Packs - what you should be taking to Europe.

It’s water tight – as in, it floats. If you’re in a jam you could even use it as a buoy to float back to your ship (just ask John). A lot of packs are “water-proof” and made of water-proof materials but not made with “water-proof construction” and then there’s Gore-tex and eVent and…none of it is going to be as impenetrable as this bag. It’s made of thick vinyl and holds air like an opera singer, an especially fat one.

Weight wise, how does 2lb. 9oz. sound for a 70L bag? Yes, it’s only a single compartment, but how many times have you lost something because you forgot about it in your ultra-secret security pocket? What good are all of those pockets if you still can’t remember where you put things? One compartment is awesome for finding your stuff and just think of how fast security checkpoint will be when there’s only one space to open. If you’re that worried about organization, just get some Eagle Creek bags or Sea to Summit stuff sacks.

Maybe you’re leary about its practicality. Did you see the available colors? You could find your socks in the bottom of this bag in a black hole–that’s an insane yellow! Nighttime be damned! Sure it’s a little ostentatious, but I can almost guarantee that no one will mistake your bag for theirs at a baggage claim. It has a breathable shoulder harness, a waist belt and on the 70L and up models a harness that acts as a load-adjuster and grip if you’re just lugging it around. The face that it’s vinyl also means it’s not going to absorb your sweat all day while you schlep it around looking for the Hofbräuhaus. Should you need to check it on the plane, boat, etc. the harnesses come off and you’re left with a seamless, secure and water-tight bag.

John’s advice made a convert out of me so I picked one up for my upcoming trip to the Czech Republic (9 days). Packing my 35mm digital SLR, a few lenses, my clothes, shoes, books and toiletries, I know I’m going to have just enough space for my girlfriend’s things as well – and I bought the 35L. It’s also perfect carry-on size, so I won’t be waiting in any long lines once I hit the tarmac in Prague. I also won’t be rethinking the price. At $70 for a 35L, $80 for a 70L and $90 for a 115L bag, you’re still looking at one third to one quarter of what a full-fledged backpack can cost. My advice is to save the money on the pack, spend it on travel clothes (hence my two shirts for 9 days) and carry less overall.

As a caveat, it’s not a trekking bag and shouldn’t be used if you’re knocking out the Camino de Santiago or the Ho Chi Minh, but if you’re hostel hopping, island floating or just traveling around for only a few miles at a time, these bags are worth checking out.

Keep an eye out for my Prague recap in early September; I’ll let you know how the bag goes.

Life in a Round Boat

My first guest contributor is my colleague and friend from EMS, John Davison.

In the southern tip of India, in a land called Kerala, a vast network of waterways flows through the richest farmland on earth. Every year for millennia two monsoons have come to this very fortunate place, not just one as in most tropical lands. This bountiful rainfall has enabled the backwaters of Kerala to produce two robust annual harvests. This unimaginable fertility was legendary eons before the Romans traveled long and hard to trade with this verdant place. All this bounty is taken to the wanting outside world by boat and barge for there are no roads here. There never have been. In every way, water has always set the pace of life here. It was in this grand rural Venice that I was witness to yet another lesson from mother India. One that again would make apparent to me another time, another place, another way far different from my own.

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As is typical of someone whose assumptions are in the process of falling away, it took me a while to really see what was in front of me . . .

At sun rise pairs of men, women and children in shallow, round wicker vessels much like large bread baskets – float past the window of my boat in silence. Even though they were just a few feet away, I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t happened to look up from my notebook. They made no sound. Slowly they drifted by, as they gently pulled up fine, delicate fishing nets that had been laying beneath my boat the entire night, trapping a few, flat fish that happened to swim by in the darkness. The fishermen had no paddles, oars and certainly not a motor of any sort. There was complete calm as they slowly drifted by and spun around and around on the surface of the water. The warm, still silence was complete.

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At first it all seemed so directionless and unguided, spinning and turning any which way in powerless circular boats that had no front or back, no left or right. But when I watched them, really watched them, I could see that they used the current, the breeze and the slow pull of the nets to guide them along. At any moment they may face east, west, north or south, but the direction they were facing ultimately didn’t matter. They were moving. They were collecting fish. They were together. And during all the slow spinning and turning no words were spoken between them. The experience of generations united them with exceptional skill. Why speak? What needed to be said? Confidence in themselves and each other was profound and absolute. As was their knowledge that these prolific backwaters would certainly give them what they needed and could only take them to where they were going. Once you trust yourself, your friends, your place why struggle to always face forward – the auspicious path just may lay in some other direction.

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Unser Täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread) Oh What the Lord Might Say…

Our Daily Bread (English title) draws its title presumably from The Lord’s Prayer of the Christian Bible, and after watching it I have to ask myself–what would the Lord say about what we’re doing to our food supply? I can only conjure the oxymoron “roaring silence” to describe this completely unbiased documentary of the food production industry in Germany (probably more tame than the U.S.’). The only source of any dialogue exists in bantering and chit-chat of the laboring workers, be they in a pork slaughterhouse or deep below the Earth’s surface in a salt mine.

There is no Alec Baldwin narration, no naming of corrupt FDA traitors–simply a display of contextual truth. We, the audience, are completely encouraged to make our own conclusions on the matter. Rather than the “bread of life” that Jesus referred to in the Bible, it seems quite apparent that our modern food system revolves around a mechanized “bread of death,” with little regarded to the fact that our food was once alive. The rendering of meat, which was once very human and in perhaps an esoteric way sacred, is now enslaved to cold, stoic process–completely for the sake of yield.

As silly as it sounds I watched the perfectly-engineered, steel behemoths slaying bull after bull, pig after pig, salmon after salmon and I couldn’t stop thinking about the Terminator franchise, where humans are at war with machines. Watching the efficiency of these systems–I have to think that the war as it stands has already been lost.

If you’ve ever seen the size of a full-grown bull, seen the capriciousness of a feisty pig, or seen the majesty of a full-breadth salmon, it becomes depressing to see their lives ended so quickly, their entrails so effortlessly plucked. I see it as not only a bastardization of the entire human condition throughout history, but a blasphemy towards what this documentary may cite as divine providence.

Even the very right of reproduction is engineered with these animals. The mighty bull takes his natural mount behind the heifer only to have his essence extracted and stolen for later use–or genetic engineering. He may have even been lucky compared to the piglets, comprising one of the most graphic scenes, who are swiftly made eunuchs and left tail-less while their head clamps prevent them from protesting the matter. If only Snowball and Napoleon could see this…

Being long enough to be excruciatingly thorough (92 minutes), Our Daily Bread covers a full gamut of the industrial food chain and not just the aforementioned animals. The highly dosed and doused plant crops are shown, as are their robotic attendants. Salt mining is illustrated, olive tree harvesting demystified, and a lovely landscape scene showcases a crop duster–having its way before the combines raze the stalks in the impeding harvests.

Our Daily Bread is by no means an exciting film, nor is it necessarily invigorating as are many of the shock-value films of our current times. It is however completely honest and very thorough, making it suitable and palatable for the seasoned, food-enthusiast or the life-long factory farm diner. The verdict will of course be up for grabs.

Special thanks to Meredith Miller at Icarus Films for recommending this film for review.

Kyoto’s Loving Arms

Original story from August 2006

After walking across almost the entire breadth of Tokyo the day before, I arrived in Kyoto via Shinkansen train a broken man. Flip flops had aided in developing huge blisters in the arches of my feet and others were starting on the balls and heel. How do you even say moleskin in Japanese?

Hauling my three small bags (this is before I was more travel-savvy) I oriented my map and made my way warily through the busy streets towards my hostel. One nice thing about Japan is that when you feel like you’re close to a hostel–just follow the westerners and you’ll probably find it soon enough. Kyoto’s Cheapest Inn has a bit of a cheeky name but is actually quite a nice facility for a single guy on a budget. I checked in to the group room, pulled my curtain and unpacked, soon giving in to wanderlust and the remembrance that I didn’t cross half the world to rest in my bunk bed. Also not wanting to punish my feet for the rest of my journey, I was able to locate some moleskin and patched them up good enough to tour Nijo Castle–the last stronghold of the Tokugawa Shogunate and a cozy 10 minute walk from the Inn.

Nijo-jo Castle Exterior

Nijo-jo Castle Exterior

The warm summer day was already soothing my fatigued being and I soon became witness to the still beauty of Kyoto. Flowers in full-blossom perfumed the air with an aroma of fragrance, acting almost like an aromatherapy for the traveling soul. I arrived at Nijo-jo (Japanese name) and payed the meager entry fee (600JPY); what I could see beyond the walls was already giving me a return on investment.

Entering the brilliant green courtyards, perfectly landscaped into a zen-harnessing utopia I have to say it was a pivotal moment in my life. It was the first time I had ever truly experienced something that I had waited my entire life to not only see, but to be consumed by a very presence. Seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms) dance through the warm winds with the garden orchestra, giving audience to the intricate and masterfully crafted walls and roofs of the castle harmonically became something more than a scene; it became an understanding of the people that created it and I believe in some way that in their situations I may have found the same conclusions on life, love and immortality. This setting, these elements; these are the building blocks of culture.

Nijo-Jo's Gardens

Nijo-Jo's Gardens

After countless photos of the grounds and having a tour of the interior spaces, I found myself recharged with lusting adrenaline and a new craving to know more about this land Kyoto, the capital of Japan before it knew the West. Turning my sails to the north I headed to Marutamachidori, a main east/west running street and the location of Kyoto Imperial Palace. I wouldn’t be storming the gates today, but at least wanted to scope the lay of the land.

Kyoto Imperial Palace’s landscape, like many parts of Kyoto, bears a tranquil serenity in the soothing summer air. Tapestries of the lush foliage cast shadows onto the sun-drenched golden walls of its perimeter. Doubling as a “Central Park” of the city, sporadic couplings of residents and their Shiba-Inus stroll through the grounds. The perfectly poised canines look quite at home in their native homeland.

Running low on daylight and having my fill of taking photos, I continued east on Marutamachidori hoping to at least cross the nearby river before heading in for the night. Halfway across the bridge I was stopped dead in my tracks by the ethereal beauty before me on the north side of the pass. I stepped into a nearby pedestrian alcove on the sidewalk, bewildered with the shear symphony of the river, the trees, the rocks, the people all flowing under the brilliance of the sunset. A sensation that I have only ever known there at that instant enclosed my presence; I have simply described this saying that the Earth hugged me–wallowed up and wrapped its arms around me with the utter perfection of this moment.

Kyoto's Loving Arms on Marutamachidori

Kyoto's Loving Arms on Marutamachidori

I entered Kyoto a broken, hobbling man, found something I had sought my entire life and carried on to seek its next treasure. Crossing this bridge I can only say that I was rewarded for my venture with an unfounded peace, and the absence of any pain or strife that I may have endured in arriving at that point. Japan’s warm summer winds from the southeast restored my faith in the reasons why I had gone there in the first place. As I said at Nijo-jo, seeing the elements of a culture made me better understand the people possessing the culture. On this bridge I knew that not only had the course of my future been affected, but I also held a greater admiration for my past and origins because had any one element in my life been different, then I may not have ever been here to see this myself. Kyoto became a part of me.

See Kyoto for its temples, palaces, castles, gardens, geishas and shops–but don’t forget to realize that the origins of all of those things stem from the very land itself.