a letter home from Russia, 1992

29September1992, 17:11 KDT
Sea of Okhotsk, Russia, CIS

Mom and Dad,

So far, I’m still alive. I think that it’s safe to say that I will never again be doing this kind of work. I’m nowhere near as miserable as I was on the Diomedes, but that isn’t saying much. I’m paid more, I’m in pain less, and I have more authority to resist abuse. I just keep thinking of how happy I’ll be when this is all a memory. At least I won’t owe you any more money, and we can have an entirely different kind of conversation about my higher-education choices.

Today is the first day of daylight saving time here in Kamchatka, so the whole bureaucratic community is in an uproar. People who were supposed to make radio calls and reports at 16:00 were doing them at 15:00 and mucking all sorts of things up. Here is a brief overview of the problems that I have encountered lately: a $5 million (around a billion rubles) disagreement between the Russian fish cops and TINRO (ТИНРО); dealing with accusations that an old man is sexually harassing the crew on one of my boats; a new American technician on another boat whom I had to train; daily shouting matches with Kamchatski-Rybvod representatives; continued confusion regarding the allocation of 500 metric tons of blue king crab quota; fish-cops complaining to me about their pay; seasick scientists; Americans wanting to go home (which is damned difficult to arrange); arranging Japanese freighters and getting them permission to enter the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone; monitoring the quality of finished product for multiple vessels; and keeping the buyers in America, Korea, and Japan informed of what’s going on. That is a short summary of this week’s work. Don’t let anyone ever say that I don’t know what it means to earn a living. At least this week, no one pointed a gun at my head or left me overboard to drown.

This new guy has done some contract translation work back in the States, and he says that you can earn $20-$100 per page. I can translate two or three pages per hour now. I am seriously going to look into this sort of work as something that I can do to work my way through school. I’m not good enough for that sort of work yet, but I could be, given a year of study. Just something to think about.

At present, the best guess at my date of arrival back home is 10December. The quota mess is so confused that I could be back on 1November or 1January, but my best estimate is still in the first two weeks of December. I plan on spending no more than five days in Seattle, probably more like three, so don’t worry about me getting back early and staying out west. I have a few good reasons for staying on the west coast for a while, but I have more and better reasons for returning ASAP.

You should be getting this letter in the latter half of October. This letter is getting to you via an American who is riding a Japanese freighter back to Japan and will then fly to Seattle, where she will mail this. (I hope.) The last letter went to Korea first and should have been mailed from the US by an inspector returning home at the end of his two-month contract.

I really need to get off this boat so that I can eat some food that is good for me and exercise outdoors and in a fashion that is much more pleasant: running, cycling, fighting, et cetera. Here, it is nothing but calisthenics, some weights, stretching, and a lot of hyong. I have had to eat a lot of meat and go without milk, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables. I want a salad, some strawberries, a banana, and some milk right now. (Of course, I want a lot of other things, too, but that is another subject entirely…)

When I first came up here, the sun was up for more than 20 hours per day. By the time we leave, it will be light for less than 6 hours per day. Welcome to the near-Arctic. The Arctic Circle is a few hundred miles north of here. I am more than a thousand miles north of you right now, and many thousands of miles west. The last time I was in the wheelhouse, our position was 58°19′N 154°15′E. That’s in the general area of Magadan, a Russian city on the northern edge of the Sea of Okhotsk. If an American boat had been this close to a Russian submarine base a year ago, we’d have been sunk immediately. Of course, I’m still a little nervous about the destroyer only a few miles away right now.

Spread the word of my continued survival to Tanya and anyone else you can think of. That’s all for now. I will see you within three months.

P.S.: That’s a one-ruble note. At current rates, it’s about 8 cents. [I was wrong about this. A ruble was worth about half a cent then.]

The rest of your life begins with a million steps.

I have not done a good job of making physical exercise part of my daily routine for the past year, since returning to the regular working world.

I’m fixing that.

I find that competition motivates me, and I also find that I have an easier time changing my habits when I am already in transition in other ways. Conveniently, my company has a month-long competition (Walktober) starting tomorrow, and I am also changing roles and physical work locations within the company. This is a good time to reset habits.

I am going to walk to and from work (>20km round trip) every weekday during this month. On weekends, I’ll focus on strength training. Stretching every morning and while working. After the month is up, I’ll evaluate how to modify this routine as a longer-term habit.

I’m hoping to beat the one-month step count that I got last summer.

Optimize Yourself: Zack Arnold and I talk about my recent challenges for myself

Zack Arnold just released an hour-long interview with me on his Optimize Yourself podcast in which we talk about my past few years and how I’ve worked to re-establish good habits for mental and physical health.

We spend a lot of the interview talking about how I used a recent five-week trip to Brazil to test my fitness and my Portuguese language skills, as well as forcing myself to use and develop my social skills. In a way, recording this podcast was the last phase of my test, since I needed to break out of my introverted shell to talk openly to some large number of strangers about my personal struggles. I think that it came out well, though.

If you want to read more about my trip to Brazil, why I did it, and what I learned, you can start here.

I posted a lot of pictures from my trip on this blog, and there are even more on Instagram.


finishing up on the Caminho da Fé: I give myself a B-.

Acabou! (It’s over! It’s done!)

Yesterday, I arrived in Aparecida, at the national basilica honoring A Nossa Senhora Aparecida.

When I arrived, I presented my credential document, which had been stamped at various inns, ice cream shops, and other support points along the way.

Upon examining this document, an official gave me a certificate attesting to my completion of the pilgrimage.

You can see that I’m number 25,070. It seems like both a large number and a small number: A lot of people have done this, but not as many as I would have guessed.

My last day was special and easy because I was very far from alone for the last 20km or so. Somewhere in Pindamonhangaba (a fun name to say) I came across two dozen members of the São Paulo SWAT team who were doing the pilgrimage on foot. They had a support vehicle carrying water, food, and most people’s gear—though a few stubborn, hardcore people were carrying their own packs.

I talked with several of these folks about why they were doing the pilgrimage, and most said that it was to give thanks for health and good fortune. Marcos, the support vehicle driver, said that his reason was to go to ask A Nossa Senhora Aparecida for fewer people to die violently in São Paulo this year.

Here’s Marcos showing off his SWAT tattoo just after we arrived in Aparecida:

Not that I was very concerned before, but it did make me feel safe to arrive in this city surrounded by SWAT.

The previous couple of days had been rather lousy… and only mostly figuratively. I had slept in a stable my last night on the trail because the only pousada within 18km was closed. But, on the bright side, I had a stable to sleep in and a delicious tilapia dinner because a very kind man (Neto) welcomed in the strange North American. And the previous day had sucked because about 10km of the trail requires walking on slippery railroad ties descending a steep mountain. I’ll be feeling that day in my ankles for the next week.

But, really, it seems petty to complain about one cold, buggy night and one precarious and physically challenging day. I had spent the day before in Campos do Jordão, Brazil’s equivalent to Whistler, BC: posh restaurants, beautiful homes, all of the amenities that one could want. It was amusing to note that I hadn’t seen a single police officer for almost two weeks… and then eight within an hour, as soon as I entered this playground for relatively rich people.

You can see that some of the more modest vacation homes in Campos do Jordão have the ticky-tacky vibe going on:

I stayed in a sort of hostel for bicyclists and such, Bikeville, which was comfortable and cheap and weird. I think that I can sum the place up with this lock mechanism:

The high point, literally, on the trail is around Campista, at ~1,860m (~6,200ft). I thought that the muscular toll of the ascent would be the bad part. It wasn’t. It was the cold. Yeah, it’s the tropics, but a cloudy winter day at 1,800m is still chilly, and the night is downright cold. I slept in a very drafty log barracks in Campista under all of the blankets for all of the dozen or so beds. It’s a good thing I was the only guest that night.

I was surprised at how easy the ascent was, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been: I had been acclimating myself to this kind of activity for quite a while by this time. I had really been fretting back in Luminosa, though, seeing that mountain range approaching.

The end of the Brazil 135+ ultramarathon changes from year to year, but in 2015 and 2016—the years when I was involved—it ended around Campista. So, my sub-goal of doing the course was completed in about 13 days, almost an order of magnitude greater than the winning times for the real competitors.

OK, so it’s over. I said in my first post that I was treating this as a final exam in two parts for my year of language study and physical training after quitting my job. How did I do?

The bar for passing the physical portion was to get from Sertãozinho to Aparecida on foot along the Caminho da Fé by the end of August 9th. Done, with more than a day to spare. Plus, I made lots of little side trips, walked around each town/village/city I stayed in, and otherwise did a lot more than just the official route. For example, I never missed a chance to wander around an abandoned train station:

I could have trained more with a pack, since my torso turned out to be the weak component, but I managed. I am disappointed that I didn’t move faster, since I had wanted to do a quick trip to Americana and Santa Bárbara D’oeste at the end. I give myself a C+ for this part.

Here are my FitBit statistics for the month:

The bar for passing the language portion was to not use English for a month, not counting communicating with people back home (like I’m doing right now). I succeeded. Sometimes I needed to ask someone to speak more slowly or to repeat themselves, but I never failed to communicate about any practical matter. I even was able to discuss complex, sometimes subtle matters with people who were willing to be patient with me. I got quite good at explaining to the umpteenth incredulous Brazilian what was happening with Donald Trump. My ability to parse spoken Portuguese is way behind my ability to speak, read, and write, so some conversations could get tedious for the person needing to repeat herself. I was especially pleased at the many people who told me that they were convinced by my pronunciation that I was Brazilian. I give myself a B for this part.

So, a B- overall. 

This trip wasn’t just about testing myself, of course. It was also about reassuring myself that there are a lot of good people in the world. Spending a month on a rural trail where people go far out of their ways to help a strange foreigner is a good way to get that reassurance.

Tomorrow, I fly home. I miss my wife, my dogs, my bed, my kung fu school, my friends… I’m ready to go home. I’m so glad that I did this.

my third week on the Caminho da Fé: crying in front of cowboys

Tomorrow morning marks the end of my third week on the Caminho da Fé. I started at kilometer marker 571 in Sertãozinho, and I’m now at kilometer marker 133 in Paraisopolis.

The Brazil 135 (without the plus sign) ultramarathon ends right about here. The Brazil 135+ ultramarathon goes quite a bit farther… and much of that farther is up. The 22km tomorrow are hilly, but the ~20km after that are straight up a rather imposing mountain range.

The trail has been getting quite a bit tougher here toward the end, with each day including the crossing of at least one small mountain.

I briefly met another pilgrim on foot back between Inconfidentes and Borda da Mata. He is a beer salesman from Curitiba who had just decided on a whim to spend his two-week vacation hiking the Caminho da Fé from Aguas da Prata to Aparecida, about 320km. He’s quite athletic, but he wasn’t accustomed to repeated days of hiking on steep, often rough trails. Already, he was limping from blisters that were greatly slowing him down on descents. I stayed with him to Borda da Mata and stretched my Portuguese to its limit to advise him on blister treatment and prevention. When we stopped for the night, I gave him nearly all of my bandages and other blister kit, since by this point I am pretty well armored up with calluses.

We stayed at different hotels, and he had indicated that he intended to start earlier than I did in the morning, so I thought that I might catch him on the trail. But in the morning I couldn’t find his tracks in the dirt on the trail, so I presumed that he did the wise thing and stayed put in Borda da Mata for an extra day to let his blisters heal.

I’m seeing a lot more pilgrims on bicycles, though, like these two puffing up a hill before Estiva:

I suppose I’m a bit smug and inappropriately judgy, but doing this trail on a bicycle seems less contemplative than doing it on foot. Then again, I need to recognize how stupendously fortunate I am to have the time to do it on foot. 

Doing the trail on horseback somehow seems to fit the spirit more, but I haven’t seen any pilgrims on horseback. All of the people on horses have been using them for work or routine transportation.

From Sertãozinho to Estiva, anywhere from 1% to 5% of the traffic that I saw was on horseback or in horse-drawn carts. From Estiva to Paraisopolis, it was more like 25%. This is cowboy country. Horses are everywhere.

Horses can be scary. Imagine being on foot on a one-lane icy road with barbed wire fences on either side, and you see an out-of-control car spinning at high speed toward you. Now replace the ice with powdery dirt and replace the car with a horse ridden by an inexperienced teenager.

I am surprisingly fast at getting over a barbed wire fence.

Bulls can be scary, too. I’m going through a lot of open range land, meaning that cows and bulls can be—and often are—on the trail. More than once, a bull has made it clear that he didn’t like me and wanted me to leave, immediately. Usually, though, they are pretty chill about the tiny biped wandering through.

I think that my worst experience in cowboy country is that I keep crying in front of the cowboys.

I’m not quite as quick to cry as some people who live in my house, but I would say that I cry somewhat readily at emotionally moving material. Especially when exhausted. Especially at altitude (Yeah, weird, right? Except it’s not). Well, I’ve been listening to some emotionally moving material on the trail, including Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect. As luck would have it, each time I would start to cry at some emotionally powerful part of this terrific story, a cowboy would appear—either charging across the trail in front of me after a rogue calf or just standing at his fence as I rounded a corner. I’m sure that they had more important things on their minds than whether my face was really sweaty or something else, but still… something juvenile in me was especially embarrassed at crying in front of real cowboys.

I would have been more comfortable being weepy a town or so back, in Inconfidentes, where the local industry is proudly all about crocheting and knitting:

Yes, that is a tree wrapped in doilies. Other people have done a better job than me at capturing this lovely silliness.

I mentioned in my previous post that I am pleased and not really surprised at how much support there is out here for pilgrims. It’s 20km or more between villages, and that’s often up and over a mountain. This is the tropics, so trudging up a mountain is hot, dehydrating effort. This makes it awfully nice when someone has left an entire building with potable water, chairs, shade, fishing poles, a toilet, toilet paper (!), and a working laundry machine (!!!) at the top of a mountain with a sign that says that it’s for pilgrims to rest:

Giant thanks to the Xavier family!

This specific example is grand, but there are countless smaller examples, often in the form of potable water under a little shrine to A Nossa Senhora Aparecida:

This past year or so has been tough. A lot of us are disillusioned and pessimistic about how many of our fellow humans truly care about helping one another, versus only caring about helping oneself or one’s very small circle. I decided to take this trip to break out of that pessimism, to put myself in a situation where I would need to rely on the kindness of others toward strangers. And I’m finding that the kindness is coming in not only personal interactions—which I had expected—but in great quantities in these odd bits of… infrastructure… these fountains and buildings and things that people built and maintain explicitly for traveling strangers.

That’s not to say that everyone is nice. A bartender a few days ago was intent on picking a fight with the gringo, but even that ended well when the guy next to me bought me a beer for holding my own in the argument and actually knowing some Brazilian history. Truth be told: I was elated that my language and history knowledge had stood up to an aggressive test.

I’m off to get some real food, after a day of Gatorade and peanut butter. Then to bed, to rest up for the push over the big mountain in a couple of days. Almost done.

my second week on the Caminho da Fé: Gatorade for pilgrims

Yesterday marked the end of my second week on the Caminho da Fé, a trek for which I gave an overview in an earlier post. In just over half of the time allotted, I’ve gone just over half of the distance along the trail. As I write this from Ouro Fino, Minas Gerais,  I have 246 more kilometers to go in 12 days. No problem!

Last night, I stayed at a coffee farm in Barra:

I don’t like talking with people, as I have previously described. But I don’t really have much choice when it’s near sundown and I’m in a tiny village far from any hotel. So, I ask around about where I can sleep, and the locals direct me to a coffee farm that is set up to feed, lodge, and provision travelers, especially people performing this pilgrimage along the Caminho da Fé. I overcome my dislike of talking with people enough to arrange for a room, have dinner with the family, and learn some new vocabulary, such as ‘pinguinha’ for a shot of sugar cane liquor. The next day, I eat breakfast and watch chickens pick through the drying coffee spread out in front of the house. 

Before I left, I stuffed cold bottles of Gatorade into my pack and profusely thanked the proprietors, João and Joelma, for doing such a great job of providing for pilgrims on this trail.

It’s no accident that I need to interact with people more on this trip than I’m comfortable with. I chose this challenge and planned my schedule so that on most days I would be forced to talk with strangers in a foreign language if I didn’t want to starve or sleep outside. I look forward to the days when I’m in a city with a hotel where I can just say a few words up front and then be quiet and alone, but my route doesn’t only give me such days.

I started seeing other pilgrims about 100km back, between Casa Branca and Itobi, but only on bicycles. I’ve asked at a few places how many pilgrims come through, and the consensus is that there are essentially zero people this far out from Aparecida doing the pilgrimage on foot, but there are anywhere from a few people to a few dozen people per day coming through by bicycle. The last city at which one can officially begin the pilgrimage is Paraisópolis, 135km from Aparecida; I expect more pedestrians to start there.

No wonder people have been treating me even more strangely than expected.

When I got to São João da Boa Vista, I was entering an important phase of the trek: This is the city from which the Brazil 135+ ultramarathon begins each January. On Tuesday morning, I started from the UNIFAE gate in São João da Boa Vista in my own solitary time trial for this race course. 

The 281km race course ends about 60km short of Aparecida. I’m expecting to take almost an order of magnitude more time to finish this course than the ~1.5days that the winners of the race take. 

That elevation chart scares me every time I look at it. 12,000m (40,000 feet) of elevation gain over 281km (175 miles), with the hardest part at the end.

Ascending into the mountains from São João da Boa Vista means leaving sugar cane fields behind and entering tropical forest, complete with monkeys and fauna warranting warning signs:

I didn’t meet any jaguars on that stretch of trail, but I did meet more mundane but still challenging threats hiking up a tropical mountain trail: heat, fatigue, thirst. And just when I needed it, there was a bench in the shade with a potable water fountain:

It’s easy to have faith that one will encounter the means with which to overcome challenges when those means keep appearing. I’m so grateful for the people who establish little points of support like this.

Much of the trail from Aguas da Prata to Ouro Fino (and beyond) is bordered by coffee and banana farms, so I have lots of time to—for example—notice that bananas have big purple flowers hanging from them…

… and when the natural wonders get dull, there’s the occasional artificial wonder to marvel at, like the giant golden “boy of the gate” at the entrance to Ouro Fino:

The name of the state that Ouro Fino (“Fine Gold”) is in is ‘Minas Gerais’ (“General Mines”). I’ll give you one guess why the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers fought over this place.

Well, tomorrow I’m off through Inconfidentes, a city whose name means “conspirators”, in reference to a failed revolution, the scapegoat for which, Tiradentes, is memorialized in street names throughout the country. This country’s history is not boring.