Durango Mexico
Tokyo Japan
mexico225px1 japan225px
The mountains of central Mexico are so rugged that few fences are needed to confine the donkeys and goats that sustain the locals. I had been living in a small village deep in these mountain for five months, and I was bored. Just recently, I had gone to the capital of Durango, and had purchased a topographical map, complete with every steam, mountain and footpath that had been in use within the past 50 years. These maps had been made from aerial photographs taken during the dry season.

It was now the rainy season, and I had developed an itch to wander out of the particular valley I had been living in to explore a village that appeared to be a half-day trek downstream. So I packed minimal supplies, and headed out with my map in hand.

Things were going well for the first two hours. Then I encountered a fork in the path where the map showed no such fork. Intuitively, I went right. Predictably, it was a bad move. Within three hours the path had thinned to matted grass, and was funneling me along a river between two daunting ridges.

Night came, and it began to rain. At an elevation of perhaps 2,200 meters, it was a cold rain. I decided I would definitely need a fire to survive the darkness that had come earlier than expected in the deep valley. I was fortunate enough to discover a small dry area under an overhanging rock beside the river that was roaring past, invigorated by the day’s rain. I then scavenged all the dry wood I could from under other outcroppings of rocks.

I finally got a fire started, and considered my predicament. I was not technically lost. I knew where the river led. However, ahead the impassioned river ran directly between two impossible cliffs.

When I woke up the next morning, I knew I would be more climbing than hiking. I ascended the cliff on my left, finding rocky finger holds and tufts of mountain grass to hang on to. The sun told me I was properly headed west, and estimated that I had two more mountains ranges to tackle before I would be near my destination. By the time the second nightfall came, I had only conquered one range of mountains.

I found an abandoned goat herding cave to stay in this second night. It even had dry wood for a fire. I finally got some sleep in spite of my hunger. I had eaten only prickly-pear, the sweet fruit of cacti, plus the raw leaf of a cactus after carefully scraping off the spines with a knife. Oh, yes. There was also the mushroom with the bright orange top that turned out to be nonpoisonous.

The next day I set out west again. About three hours into the day, I came up over a ridge and encountered a young Mexican boy herding goats. He froze when he saw me. And it probably was not merely the fact that I was the first gringo he had ever seen. There was also my wildly-bushy beard, and the fact that I was emerging from the same dark mountains that had given rise to many stories of demons.

After assuring him I was of this world, I followed him back to his village. I rented mules and a guide for the remainder of my mountain adventure.

I cycle everywhere in Tokyo. On my many days off during university break, I intentionally attempt to get lost. This is not always difficult. Many of the streets and highways are so convoluted that, on a cloudy day where there is no sun to index direction, I’ve often circled back on myself. So the other day, after cycling around Ueno, I headed east into the area of canals and serpentine rivers equipped with an iPod full of philosophy and science podcasts that comfort me on my journeys.

It was a cloudy day, and within a couple of hours, I had found myself in an area that was completely unfamiliar.

Tokyo is amazing. Once you think you’ve reached the outskirts of town, you’ll suddenly find yourself in the middle of anther commercial district bustling with activity. I took several photos and videos of people with their pets, lovers in a park, and boats navigating the canals.

The sun dismissed itself, and I still had no idea where I was, so I headed in a direction I thought was west, and rode for a hour. I then decided to head in the direction of the tallest buildings to locate the nearest Starbucks.

For those who may have misconceptions about Tokyo, I rarely encounter hostile samurai, and it is impossible to ride more than 15 minutes in the Tokyo area without spotting a Starbucks, Dennys, McDonalds or Subway.

Sure enough, I spotted a Starbucks, bought a sandwich and a coffee, then pulled out my laptop which I, in top geek form, always carry on the back of my bicycle. I also have a broadband card that keeps me connected nearly anywhere in Japan. I fired up my browser, pulled up Google Maps, and attempted to find a green area near Tokyo the shape of the huge park I had just ridden through. I found it, then confirmed this after chatting with the Japanese business man seated next to me.

As an aside, this Starbucks was the first in my ten years in Tokyo in which one of the staff was a tall, lanky American boy, just as you would find back in the U.S.! A bit surreal.

I headed back to Tokyo. I was hungry by this time, so I stopped at a standing ramen shop and slurped down a bowlful.

I must have cycled for 7 hours, most of that in new territory. It was a good day.

Tokyo is much more convenient than Mexico in which the lack of electricity, plumbing and an internet connection would now disturb me in my comfortable old age.

But getting lost in Tokyo within range of the aroma of a good cappuccino while listening to a podcast on abiogenesis lacks the thrill of danger that the mountains of Mexico guarantee.

But then again, at the end of the day, I went home to sleep in a bed that is degrees of magnitude softer than the rocky floor of a cave in some distant memory of Mexico.

I took both photos at the top of this post. The Mexican family on the left were my closest neighbors, and I purchased fresh tortillas from them every morning. The photo of the Japanese men carrying the shrine was taken not far from my apartment here in Tokyo.

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