This is the final installment of an eight part series on the seventy best travel experiences of my life that begins here.
5. Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tana Toraja was the highlight of the most amazing solo journey I've ever taken, a ten day journey by bus and ferry from the southwestern to northeastern tips of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It was the roughest traveling that I've ever done but also the most rewarding in a place that few Westerners have heard of, let alone visited. Tana Toraja is an area of central Sulawesi that is home to an indigenous polytheistic society that has remained relatively isolated from the Islamic and Western influences that have defined the rest of Indonesia. Among the unique customs of the Torajans are funerals with sacrifices of domestic animals, internment of the deceased in cliff crevices and caves, and tongkonan houses with characteristic curved roofs. Perhaps the most remarkable custom is the carving of wooden effigies of the deceased called tau tau which are often placed on balconies attached to cliffs. Many of these customs seem primitive and morbid to Westerners but I felt as though I had arrived at the most physically and culturally remote place from my home that I had ever encountered in my travels. Given that I'm already twelve years older and now with a wife and three kids, it's probably unlikely I'll ever travel again in third world transportation shoulder to shoulder with locals conducting their daily lives. It's an experience that I am very grateful to have had in the final months of my single life.
4. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
When I researched Croatia, Plitvice Lakes came up over and over again as a top destination if not the most rewarding in the country. I hesitated because it was difficult to ascertain how strenuous hiking in the park would be, and even if it might be dangerous for the kids. Eventually I read enough accounts from people who had brought small children that I decided it would be safe and worthwhile. It was quite a struggle to find the entrance to the park due to a lack of cell phone signal in the area. The lakes and waterfalls are formed by a confluence of small rivers that arise from runoff from the surrounding mountains and are shaped by the continuous action of the running water against the porous karst and travertine limestone. The lake at the highest level of the park conveyed a sense of serenity that contrasted sharply with the pounding waterfalls further down. There were paths of wooden planks on either side of the lake system, with occasional transverse pathways connecting them. These transverse paths allowed us to walk right at the base of several waterfalls. The number of shades of green and blue seemed infinite here. There was no question in our minds that all the difficulties and hard work we had encountered that day was more than worth it for the lifelong memory of one of the most beautiful natural places we had ever seen.
3. Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico
The more I think about Puerto Rico, the more I realize that our experiences there could have taken at least five places on our list. I included the beautiful colonial city of old San Juan, the incredible fishing trip at La Parguera, and now the bioluminescent bay at Vieques but I passed on the incredible views in the Cordillera Central and the roadside pig barbecues in Cayey. If there's one single most important thing to take away from this list, it's that Puerto Rico may be the most underappreciated travel destination in the Western Hemisphere.
Our short trip to the island of Vieques got of to an inauspicious start. While waiting for the little turboprop plane to fly us over we each had a margarita in the airport bar. I didn't feel a thing but by the time we arrived in Vieques Mei Ling was red faced and could barely stand. There also weren't any taxis at the airport. The information desk claimed to be calling us one but we waited at the entrance of the airport for an hour and no taxi showed. Finally some people in a passing car asked us if we needed a ride which we gratefully accepted. When the driver saw me practically carrying Mei Ling into the back seat he asked if we needed to go to the hospital but I declined, and by the time we arrived at our hotel Mei Ling was back to her old self. I had miscalculated the time it would take us to walk to the departure point of the kayak tour of the bay and halfway there I realized we needed to start running. We arrived breathless and just in time to be included. The experience was truly wondrous and unique. The luminescent protozoa filling the water sparkled and shone with every stroke of the oars as our kayaks glided through the darkness. Once we were in the center of the bay we were allowed to jump into the water and admire the glow around our limbs as we paddled. Mei Ling was especially amazed as she had never even heard of the phenomenon. We didn't want to take a chance with our precious cameras by enclosing them in plastic bags for the kayak trip so we don't have any photos of the bay but we have our memories and plenty of other pictures from the beautiful and peaceful island of Vieques.
Be aware that licensed tour operators are no longer allowed to permit tourists to swim in the bay, and also that the bioluminescent phenomenon was severely affected by Hurricane Maria. If you choose to visit Vieques make sure you do your own research to get the most up-to-date information regarding Mosquito Bay.
2. Carnival in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
Carnival in Trinidad is the greatest party I've ever experienced in my life, and I've seen a few good ones around the world. Everyone's heard of Mardi Gras and Carnaval in Rio, but the awesome thing about Trinidad is that it is for everyone. It's not drunk and rowdy, nor is it exclusive. Everyone gets to participate as much as they want and have an amazing time. Mei Ling and I signed up in advance for a Mas Band, which just requires a payment for costumes but no particular musical or dancing skills. We arrived several days in advance to participate in the many fetes and competitions that lead up to the Mas procession on the final day. We went to an exciting party every night and watched children's parades and steel pan band competitions during the days. The morning before the final parade we woke up at dawn for J'Ouvert, a riotous opening to the official Carnival involving heavy dousing with paint, flour, and chocolate syrup. It took us an hour to shower off the gunk to be ready for our Mas rehearsal. The Mas procession was exhausting but exhilarating, hours of constant dancing to soca music while surrounded by people of every description wearing some of the coolest costumes I've ever seen. One of the things I look forward to most is bringing my kids back to Trinidad for Carnival once they're all old enough to be part of the children's Mas.
Not only was this one of my best travel experiences, but it was the trip on which I realized that after forty-two years on my own there was no way I would ever let Mei Ling go. Marriage was scary but Mei Ling was just too beautiful and too much fun to be with. After our Trinidad trip I knew that I would never regret spending the rest of my life with her. A month later I asked her to move to Miami and live with me, and six months after that we were married. Nine years and three kids later (including five or six more carnivals around the world) and our life together hasn't gotten any less exciting.
1. Amazon ecolodge in Brazil
I've finally arrived at the end of this list, my greatest travel experience of all time. Now that I've completed the list I would probably put a few experiences in different order, but not this one. The trip Mei Ling and I took to the Amazon was just one of those charmed events that could probably never happen again in the same way. Even our flight to Brazil was perfect - a five hour direct flight from Miami to Manaus in the center of the Amazon on an empty plane. We slept for the entire duration of the dawn flight stretched out on our own four-seat center rows. We had a fine day in Manaus and were taken by van and boat to our lodge the next day. Once we arrived we discovered that we would be the only guests at the lodge for the entire three days of our stay. Given that it was 2009, I suspect they had a few cancellations because of the financial crisis. As soon as we disembarked we were greeted by an extremely affectionate and mischievous woolly monkey named Conchita who would be our constant companion and tormentor during our stay. If there wasn't any food in our hands to steal she was crawling into our laps to be cuddled.
None of the staff at the lodge seemed disinclined to work because they only had two guests. In the morning we'd ask what activities were on the schedule and the guides would tell us all the options and ask us what we felt like doing. In the evening we'd ask what was for dinner and they'd ask us what we wanted to eat. Even though we had chosen a fairly cushy Amazon lodge not very far from Manaus, we still had a range of amazing experiences from piranha fishing to a night camping in the jungle. I felt like we were having the same experience a billionaire might get after reserving an entire lodge for his own family. I know we'll do the Amazon again when our kids are old enough but I don't expect we'll be lucky enough to have another lodge entirely to ourselves with another semi-domesticated woolly monkey to enchant our kids.