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travel

Witness to the Wonder

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Witness to the Wonder

Words to live by when traveling with your significant other.

By Beau Flemister

There’s something thrilling about watching someone you love watch a place. Watching them walk through a city, through a valley, down a trail—into the woods. There’s something shared there, something intimate, when a place moves the both of you through geographic black magic. 

There’s something about watching a place reveal itself to you and your companion. Watching a place disrobe. There’s chemical reaction. When you’re rounding a corner on the Amalfi Coast in a Fiat rental, and Positano—a town of pastels that practically drips off a cliff into the sea—flashes you from across the bend, and just takes your breath away. There’s something in the air when that happens. A quickening. A vibration. A love at first sight. And you realize, undeniably, that an experience is better when shared. That traveling is even more fantastic with a companion. When you can watch that other person’s eyes widen as much as yours at the sight of it. You have a witness to the wonder, someone to pinch you—it was real.

I spent the better part of my 20s obsessed with world travel. I’ve had a few co-pilots over the years, but the story kind of went like the beds in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. My pal in Nepal: much too firm. My pal in Brazil: a bit too soft. But my wife, traveling around the world: just right. She approaches each place with newborn eyes, like yesterday was erased. She says things like, “I’m 27 and a half” without a hint of irony. She literally dances through life (she’s an ex-ballet dancer) and pirouettes at crosswalks, in lines, in kitchens all over the world. She’ll come back to the room with coffee in the morning and exclaim, practically glowing, “Today is going to be magical because a butterfly flew in front of me.” And she believes it. She believes in the hope of each day and, moreover, the infinite potential of a new place. It’s why she’s the perfect travel companion. And perhaps that’s what marriage is: an unyielding belief in the potential of a life with somebody.  

May of last year, we embarked on a trip around the world. She quit the job she’d had for the last six years. I kept mine by promising to work remotely from the road—the only way we’ve been able to keep this gig going. We’re halfway through a malleable itinerary that started in Indonesia and has taken us through Burma and Thailand, up into Mongolia, over into Russia, along the Trans-Siberian railway across half of Asia, through Scandinavia, around the Mediterranean, back into Europe, and down to South Africa. As of December, Cuba’s on deck.

A friend of ours recently told us that if you can survive travelling around the world with your spouse for a few months, you can survive anything. He’s divorced. But honestly, it hasn’t been that hard. I owe that to a few things we’ve learned very quickly along the way. Sure, there have been speed bumps. There was a creepy Balinese guy that gave us a ride on his motorbike one night that certainly shook us up, but we probably shouldn’t have been hitchhiking at night, nor taken a ride from a drunk pervert. I take full blame for that one. 

On a venture like this one, attempting to cram the whole world into a year of travel, you begin to develop a syndrome I like to call AFC.” It’s a sensory overload disorder where new places appear merely as AFC. Like, here’s “another fucking country,” “another fucking city,” “another fucking cathedral.” It means you’re seeing too much too fast. You must slow down. There’s a story about an Amazonian tribe that migrates each year with the rainy season. The way the tribe travels is by walking hard for two or three days, then resting, stationary for one. Then, they walk hard for another few days, rest for another, and so on and so forth. When asked why they travel this way—with that day of rest—they explained that it was to let their souls catch up. We’ve learned this as well. Stop for a couple weeks and let your souls catch up. Because the journey can surely wear on you. 

On that note, forget that regurgitated old travel adage, “The journey is the destination.” If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that the destination is the destination, and the journey can be grueling. For instance, on our last day in Mongolia, we woke up at 4 a.m. to drive halfway across the country in the freezing rain to cross the border into Russia. Fourteen hours in a van, four hours at the border, and two strip-searches later, we were whisked to a “guest house” over the border that resembled more of a Russian halfway house. Imagine an American halfway house; now imagine one in Siberia. The guy that appeared to be in charge at the house—a Russian male in a white tracksuit with a white doo-rag—greeted us from a filthy sofa with a white poodle on his lap. He looked like a Russian movie villain, and the four other men around him looked loaded on heroin, one of which was not so covertly filming us from his cell phone. We didn’t get to the hostel (our destination), until 4 a.m. the following morning. In other words, the destination was Ulan-Ude, Russia and the journey was a fucking nightmare.

We’ve also learned that you’ve gotta flip the script from time to time. Rigid itineraries are for fogies. If you want to travel around the world, it’s imperative that your partner is flexible. This is crucial because sometimes you’ve got a week blocked out for Rome, but you then get to Rome and find out that Rome kind of blows. Plus, spontaneity is life’s most potent, natural aphrodisiac.  

Traveling with your spouse, or any companion in such close quarters for that matter, you’re attached at the hip, which is why you should never take score. Everyone’s got their buttons, and if you don’t already know what your partner’s are, get a clue. Sometimes one of us just wakes up on the wrong side of the Airbnb bed, and the way she smacks her lips in the morning, or how I never put the toilet seat back down, is enough to start a war. How many times I’ve left the seat up or how often I find her hair in the sink is unimportant. Life’s too short and the trip’s too long to keep tally. Never discuss the score, never keep score; resentment kills all. 

Often, I’m the one who’s easily jaded. The one to come down with AFC first. But a team can’t have two cynics. Two cynics are repulsive, ask anyone. There should only be two types of travelers: drivers or passengers. Two passengers, and you’re going nowhere. Two drivers, and you’re yanking on one wheel. When traveling with a companion, pick a role, but be OK with switching them. 

Here’s another gem: Get your head out of your ass. By that, I mean compromise. No couple wants to do or see or visit the exact same sights, and that’s only natural, if not healthy. She probably wants to stick it out under a mosquito net waiting for that perfect wave in Sumatra as much as you want to sip Darjeeling in a tearoom in Old Bordeaux. But if she made it, then so can you.  

Keep looking around that corner. Gather no moss. Your time out there—together—is an emulsion of life and dream. Your time out there is a mixture driven by the centrifugal force of curiosity and wonderment; keep them continuously mixing, suspended, spinning. Don’t let the latter of life-and-dream settle to the bottom of the cup. Keep the two blurred in fantastic, sentient suspension. 

Hold her hand while you’re at it. Don’t make her beg. If she’s had a couple glasses, and you can see it in her eyes, rise with her and dance. At a bar. In the kitchen. Even at a stoplight in Paris. Especially at a stoplight in Paris.

as seen in the Companion issue of FLUX Magazine Hawaii

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Cuba Cowabunga

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Cuba Cowabunga

“You came here from Los Angeles?” asks Arnan between a lull in the sets. “I have a cousin that works at a cheese factory in Santa Monica.”

Arnan is one of the better surfers around Havana — which pretty much means all of Cuba, too. There’s not a whole lot of regulars. For just 25 years old, however, he looks gaunt and fragile as I’d come learn that he’s just recovered from a very recent battle with cancer. He’s wearing a wetsuit that fits loosely over his slight frame to fight the wind-chill but smiles wildly just to be out in the water again. Or probably, just to be alive.

I’m still stuck on the cheese factory in Santa Monica-thing, though. I’d been living in Venice and I was unaware a place existed on the other side of Rose. 

“The Cheesecake Factory?” I probe.

“Yes! That one!” he beams, turning for a chest-high right, working it into the shallow inside reef.

Arnan is one of two-dozen or so consistent surfers here at this peaky little right off the city known as Calle 70. The break is so close to the shore that a few of his friends who’ve pulled up on motorbikes hoot and heckle him, maintaining lively conversations from just 50 yards away on the exposed lowtide reef. Behind us in the distance, the bizarre Russian Embassy observes our every move like some kind of giant, concrete, post-modern watchtower. 

Rachel and I found my way to Calle 70 via the de facto president of the Cuban Surfing Association, Yuniel Valderrama Martinez. I say de facto because the Cuban government doesn’t really recognize surfing as, well…a thing. Recreational? Maybe. But [officially] athletic? Nah. To the government, boxing and baseball — those are athletic. Surfing, however, is a bit too akin to floating on an unauthorized watercraft in the sea a little too far from shore. Yuniel explained that to the government, surfing is a bit too close to, well…fleeing.

Coincidentally, Yuniel looks like he could be a professional baseball player. Broad shoulders, fit as a fiddle, home-run biceps and a head shaved bald with a thick dark beard below the cheeks. Yuniel is also walking, talking, grinning charisma and when not handling affairs for the quasi-official C.S.A., he makes a living as a tour guide/driver for a company hired by ultra rich Saudi princes. And famous New York fashion designers. And Silicon Valley tech-dudes. And British sitcom actors. He shows me a picture on his phone of some actual princesses — the European wives of the princes — frolicking in a waterfall he’d driven them to. He shakes his head and chuckles to himself, “That one ate way too much — how do you say it — marijuana-chocolate?”

Hours earlier, Yuniel picked us up in a white 1960s VW bug with surf racks on top and en route Calle 70, it felt like driving through a dream. 

Barely in second-gear, we zip past a giant billboard with an army of uniformed youth staring out bravely into the future with huge font hovering over them that reads: The Revolution is Invincible. All around us, bygone era Chevys and Fords and Soviet Moskvitches sputter about, stopping for anyone they can cram into the backseat, farting thick black soot in their wakes. 

No one’s wearing much in the clothing department and the women practically burst out of their skin-tight jeans and tops that cling on to them for dear life. There’s not a supermarket in sight, but there’s a line of Cubans snaking around the block — and then another — for what seems like a mile-long and I ask Yuniel what that’s all about and he says, “Egg day.”

“Egg…day?”

“Jes, the eggs come today,” he replies matter-of-factly.

And the buildings…God, the buildings. Brilliant, columned colonial mansions, sea-worn and mildewed in every color of the spectrum. Beautiful fading, pastel ruins.Yuniel sees us gawking at the homes and explains how after a rain storm, you have to be careful walking the streets because the sun dries the buildings and pieces of them break off and drop to the ground before your very eyes. We pass another giant billboard, this one of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nelson Mandela standing side-by-side, smiling about something profound with words above them that read: Big Men Believe. 

Then suddenly, we round a corner and the streets start singing. A old man with a mic in one hand, dragging along a dolly with a mounted speaker in the other, croons old Cuban songs to anyone that’ll listen. A couple dances an intricate salsa beneath a storefront awning. A random dude blows a kiss to Rachel from his bicycle. The malecon seawall beside us explodes intermittently with crashing waves like foamy, white fireworks. 

We rub our eyes, snap out of the daydream and moments later we’re hopping into the Strait of Florida, trading wind-blown, rampy peaks, America somewhere out there, just over the horizon. Chatting about cheese factories in Santa Monica. And how not that long ago — due to the absence of any surf shop in the nation — Yuniel and Arnan were making surfboards out of foam pulled from old refrigerators, hand-glassed with marine-grade boat resin. Or leashes fashioned from jump rope cords and bookbag buckles. And how some Cuban surfers are still making equipment today like that, out on the far less-visited wave-rich southeast corner of the country. 

And yet. 

Regardless of the sport’s not-so-official-status in Cuba, nor the association’s recognition by the government, Yuniel and the few dozen other surfers are doing their best to change that. They want to be able to travel and compete. They’ve had a few contests in the last five-odd years, but American surf brands sponsoring them…is still touchy territory. 

But after over half a century, there’s flights out of Miami (with other cities to come) to Cuba now. Still, it’s difficult-to-impossible for many Cuban surfers to leave. Because there is definitely some talent and there are some waves, but there are also still “egg days,” with surely even longer queues to get a passport. Yuniel and Arnan hope surfing will be a way for the younger generation to leave and see the world. A way to drift away on watercraft that isn’t mistaken for escaping. Plus, there is cheese to taste in a factory somewhere in Santa Monica.

as seen on Fjallraven.com

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HUNK PILOTS

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HUNK PILOTS

The aircraft’s nose tips forward and suddenly we descend toward the Telo Islands off North Sumatra, Indonesia. The sky is a lovely pale blue and through the small windows cartoon-like desert islands litter a turquoise sea, but at the moment I’m kinda wondering: Who farted?

We’re in a 12-seater prop jet — a bold move, I must say — and I turn to Rachel, holding my nose and ask, “Baby, was that you?” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head quickly like, of course not.

I look toward the cockpit suspiciously. Two handsome studs of the Bavarian stock. A couple of hunk pilots. It had to have been one of them. They boarded all 12 of us so smugly they didn’t even read us the in-case-of-emergency directions, which frankly had me wondering if that just meant, If something goes wrong, don’t worry, you’re f--ked. Rachel expressed that she was worried our bags were too heavy. “I don’t want another Aaliyah-situation,” she told me, the night prior. Surely one of those hunks must’ve let one slip. The co-pilot has been texting pretty much the entire flight from Sumatra. I wonder if he was on a group-chat like I am with my friends. Or, if he was just texting the pilot beside him. Had Mexican last nite, these passengers r bummedddd, LOLZ. I swear one them winked at Rachel as she climbed up the plane’s stairwell.

I will say they’ve gotten us to Telo island soundly where upon an Australian named Dave intercepted us, zipping us out to Telo Island Lodge, a short boat ride away. We drift into a lagoon framed by two pinnacle-like rocks and before us, the lodge sits on a sleepy patch of beach front paradise. In front of the lagoon, a perfect righthander peels with the dropping tide and apparently there’s half a dozen other amazing surf breaks not far from here.

Immediately three local boys swarm us smelling fresh meat. “Hello mis-tah! You buy shell? Neck-lace? Carving?” I tell them maybe but the leader of the pack, Adam, is a savvy young businessman and wants verbal confirmation in the form of a definitive “yes.” Adam is a true closer and I respect that but I tell Adam, “we’ll see.” Adam pinches the bridge of his nose and shakes his head, annoyed, and starts to work on Rachel. Adam and I might be off to a bad start but the boys are shooed away by the bartender/resident D.J. (Freddie) who hands us two Bintangs…at 10 o’clock in the morning. I suppose that does make it 8pm yesterday in California, though. We cheers beers and settle into lodge life.

As seen on Fjallraven.com


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