Sri Lanka Death Train
Sri Lanka has some of the most iconic railways in the world. Sri Lanka also has experienced the greatest train tragedy in history. I briefly explore this story along the scenic coastal rails south of Colombo. It's a story which you too can follow in your travels. Although it's a devastating tale, grasping the fragile nature of life can open up a deeper appreciation for this brief moment we have to enjoy, savor, or squander.
This filming was shot and co-produced by Maximilian Sperber
How Travel Disasters Can Turn Into Big Wins (top 5 moments from Road Less Traveled)
#5 - Couldn't hit the damn ball!
The ancestor to baseball is in Romania. Wow. The oina federation was happy to have us. They gathered the whole national team, a huge crowd, and local press. I was first up to bat... all eyes on me.
I could not hit that damn ball. They literally threw it 15 times, the pitches got progressively slower and softer.... my confidence sagged and embarrassment soared.
What is the upside of public humiliation? It's twofold. A lot of travel shows are heavily "fixed". Road Less Traveled is not. When you see me fail to get on a snake boat after a big whoop-tee-do buildup (season 1), or continually whiff a softball pitch, it is clear that we are keeping it real.
Likewise, there is nothing like failing at a simple athletic task to keep the ego in check. We all have bad days. I'm a fallible human being. Experiences like this provide the opportunity to embrace vulnerability, which is essential to having a more intimate life. So a big thank you to my motor skills for making me look like a newb.
#4 - Visiting Goa during monsoon
We assumed India's coastal gem would provide an episode full of content. We got two minutes of footage. It just rained and rained. Everything was closed and shuttered.
So we rented a car and drove inland until the rain stopped falling. What unfolded was a fun road adventure and a completely serendipitous episode in Karnataka.
#3 - Screwed up the Vietnam visa
The dude responsible for arranging our travel saw Vietnam had a "visa on arrival" and read no further. It turns out you still have to fill out forms and pay money in advance. We got to our short stopover in Singapore and they wouldn't allow us on the connecting flight. Disaster!
So we sat in the airport cafe, opened up our laptops, and started digging for nearby content. After five hours I found something called "Shoe Dating" in Kuala Lumpur. With that lead we took a chance on Malaysia.
One of my shoe dates invited the crew to a party at her house. There I overheard a group talking in hushed tones about a situation in Sarawak, the Malaysian slice of Borneo island. This lead us to the meat of a completely unplanned and uniquely political episode. Bam!
#2 - Went to the wrong restaurant in Italy
Walking down the streets of Bolzano, a door opened beside me and the most delicious smells wafted out. Mmmmm! I turned to the crew and suggested we get lunch. The place was cafeteria style so we loaded up our trays with goodness and brought them to the register.
"Do you have a student card?" Asked the cashier.
"Uh... non habbiamo.. Is cash OK?" I responded.
No. Cash was not OK. We needed a debit card from the University. We'd have to leave the food. Shit.
"You can use my card and give me the cash," said the lady behind us. Lunch was saved!
We sat beside that lady. She was researching avalanche rescue techniques. I asked her if she knew the rescue crews working the Dolomites. She did. A couple days later we were in one of their helicopters running a rescue drill in the mountains. Boom!
#1 - Leaving all our camera gear 8 hours behind in Manila
It was lucky to roll into Manny Pacquiao's gym on the day he was there. We left all smiles and drove through the night to get to the Banaue rice terraces in central Luzon. As we unloaded the van it became clear we left all our filming gear behind. Caramba!
When we returned to Manila I asked for a day off to recuperate from all that driving. On the free day I decided to check out an allegedly miraculous Jesus statue. As an afterthought I asked the cameraman to come along and maybe get a couple shots. We were immediately busted by the church officials who sent us to the office to get filming permission. I almost didn't go.. it didn't seem that important.
Standing in line I noticed the office wall was covered with plaques like:
Department of Prayer - Room 201
Department of Choir - Room 423
Department of Worship - Room 315
Hmmm.... the little hamster wheel began to turn in my head. When I got to the counter I asked if there was a department of exorcism. This opened up an entirely new episode which included demon possession, the Filipino vampire, and a beauty pageant. Bonanza!
Recently I met with Travis Walton of Snowflake, Arizona. Travis was abducted by Aliens 40 years ago. The story of that encounter led to a book, a movie, speaking positions at UFO conferences, and TV appearances (including Road Less Traveled). It also invited a lot of ridicule and skepticism.
The tale begins in the darkening hours of November 5, 1975. A logging crew is returning from work when they see a bright light up on a hill in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Their suspicion of fire is quickly dispelled as an illuminated UFO comes into view. Travis gets out of the truck and scrambles for a closer look. Suddenly a blast of energy sends him flying like a lifeless ragdoll. The loggers in the truck peel away in horror. Down the road the frantic men gather themselves and return for Travis, but both he and the UFO are gone. The police are notified and a fruitless search is conducted. The local sheriff administers a polygraph, suspecting foul play. All the men pass, save one inconclusive result. Five days later Travis makes contact from a row of phone booths in the nearby town of Heber. He has a helluva story to tell.
Last month, I met Travis on the side of the 277, where he’d run out of gas on the way to meet our crew. We drove to an empty Mexican restaurant for an informal interview and after he led us to the site of the abduction. Although I’m a natural skeptic, I approached our encounter with an open mind, reserving analysis and judgement for a later time. I found Travis to be a likable guy. A man who speaks very evenly on all topics, without much excitement or the hint of hyperbole. He kept the same level tone discussing the dangers of colliding with elk and his favorite music as he did on the subject of manhandling aliens and describing the scene at Skrillex’s birthday party in Los Angeles.
Driving away from the encounter I offered some thoughts to camera. I thought it unlikely that a group of loggers in blue collar Arizona could rapidly come up with a scheme of this magnitude and stick to it for the rest of their lives. Something must have happened in those woods. Was it an alien spacecraft? Perhaps. However, I’ve since chewed on the possibilities and considered these alternatives:
Travis was the victim of an attempted murder. The sheriff’s initial suspicions were warranted. The crew tried to kill Travis and put him in a shallow grave à la The Revenant, but, just like DiCaprio, the robust logger refused to die. Staring up at the stars as his brain flickered at the edge of oblivion, he dropped into a deep, DMT style hallucination of aliens and spacecraft. Eventually his motor function software rebooted and he staggered towards the town of Heber. The would be assassins, learning of his survival, were relieved to hear him babbling about UFOs and quickly agree with every word of the extraterrestrial story.
Travis and his crew ran into top secret aircraft. Last year the CIA openly admitted that most classic UFO sighting were, in fact, their shenanigans. Our film crew spoke with Scott Marchand, executive director of the impressive Pima Air & Space Museum. As we stood beside a jet black SR-71 Blackbird, Scott told me that the CIA and U.S. Air Force often fed disinformation to UFO enthusiasts to distract from the true nature of their military projects. According to Scott there are around two dozen clandestine aircraft in current operation about which the public knows nothing.
Travis and his crew fabricated the story. Imagine this possibility: You will take a hike this afternoon. When you return you will find your family and friends to deliver an oscar worthy performance of alien abduction. Picture the reaction of the people closest to you. What would they do? Some would laugh, others would call B.S., and some might be moved to tear-inducing concern over the trauma you must have endured. No matter what happens, you will not for one moment tip your cards. Even when your closest friend, your loving spouse, or your loyal parent speaks to you in quiet confidence you will unblinkingly lie to their face. You will internalize this story so deeply that it will eventually become part of your reality. Could you do it?
Consider the ramifications of such a ploy. If you fail to pull it off you will either be disgraced or labeled mentally unstable. However, if you do succeed in holding the line, a constant set of challenges lays ahead. You will eternally be ridiculed, slandered, and tested for incongruities. You will have to manage massive internal dissonance over the deception of loved ones. As a one-hit-wonder band is condemned to forever play that song, you will have to speak on this subject almost every day of your life.
On the other hand, you’d be the most interesting person your friends and family know. Everyone who heard the tale would engage in unique thought and conversation. You’d essentially give the gift of a remarkable story, introducing a scoop of awe and wonder into every life it touched. Moreover, money could potentially flow to you and your community. Which begs the question: If Travis Walton and his gang did make this up, as some claim they did, has he done something wrong or something wonderful?
At a roadside cafe, hours before meeting Travis, I spoke with some of the locals about the topic. The seasoned men fumbled with their coffee mugs as their eyes clouded with introspection. They were open to the idea of extraterrestrial life. With a universe so large, how could you not be? Did Travis encounter it? Well, they’re not sure. But, he’s been sticking to his story over 40 years, and there is something to be said for that.
Authors note: Travis' story definitely added a little sparkle to my scene. We got a great segment for our show and I've had a handful of engrossing extraterrestrial conversations since. Thanks to the affable folks at the Mutual UFO Network for hooking it up. If I get abducted myself one day (and I sincerely hope I do) they will be the first people I call (My friends and family would undoubtably consider it a publicity stunt or a psychedelic trip which slipped from my grasp).
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said, "Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back."
We've had foolhardy grins on our faces since we began production back in the summer of 2011, but fortunately have thus far evaded the Reaper's ory scythe. Had we met our demise on a handful of occasions the headlines may have looked like this:
TV Crew / Travel Show Host.....
Found Dead in the Desert
In a rush to grab the final shot of our Nevada episode we raced out across open desert at sunset. When our rig got stuck on a dune and the sky tuned pitch dark it occurred to us how much trouble we were in. The SUV contained no water, there were no signals on our phones, and the walk out would be far and uncertain. Luckily we managed to dig the Toyota out of its sandy grave... an experience which I blogged about here.
Killed by Cobra in Vietnam
After eating a cobra dinner in Hanoi I decided to track down the source of my meal: A town completely dedicated to farming snakes for the Vietnamese and Chinese market. Arriving in the village we had some trouble getting permission to film from the suspicious locals, but money eventually talked. A motley gang of snake farmers (some with missing fingers) led us into a large room with rows upon rows of little wooden trapdoors on the floor, under each a gaggle of snakes. Without warning one guy took a metal rod and flips open several doors and real deal cobras spilled out. In Southern California we have some concern for rattlesnakes, who's bite probably won't kill you (but could destroy your finances); but cobra venom would drop me dead in 30 minutes. The locals repeatedly scooped up snakes with their special metal rods and shoved them in my direction admonishing me to handle them with my bare hands. I unwisely took the bait to a degree which you can witness in the episode. Before we left I asked to see their stash of anti-venom. After a small pow-wow the handlers said they would show it to me for 200$, which led me to believe the price would have been much higher had I been bitten (and perhaps had something to do with their carefree approach to my safety).
Lynched in Kashmir
A last minute discovery in Kashmir lead us to Roza Bal Shine in Srinagar, where a legend suggests that Jesus of Nazareth was buried after he survived the crucifixion and fled to India. My enthusiasm for this story was not shared by the locals in neighborhood who promptly surrounded us as we began to film. The energy in the air, as more and more men arrived on the scene, reminds me now of the bees which began to swarm on us when we opened their hive in Belgium. In both incidents I detected an immediate and foreboding vibration change in the air. In Belgium the result was all crew members getting stung. In Kashmir it almost tuned into something far more deadly. As the men around us were riling each other up into a lynch mob frenzy our rickshaw driver came to the rescue. He leapt in front of us, pleaded with the crowd by quoting peaceful Quran verses, and quickly glanced over his shoulder to say, "get in the ricksaw," as dead serious as you could deliver that line. My hands were shaking as he sped off under a wave of yells and threats.
Plastered by Bus in the Philippines
The crew and I were engrossed in conversation as we moved towards a bus terminal in Manila. Walking smack in the middle of a zebra crosswalk leading to the main doors I did not see a bus approaching on a collision course. According to the crew the driver had his eyes firmly trained on me but was not slowing down, defiantly playing chicken with the heedless westerner daring his bus to stop. As the crew barked my name in warning I came to a halt and the behemoth passed no more than a single pace in front of me. One more step and I'd have been roadkill. My mistake was violating these street-crossing rules for travel:
1. Anticipate vehicles to come from any direction
2. Assume they will not stop for you
3. Give no value to crosswalks
There are some exceptions to these rules. Occasionally the matrix hand and a strong resolve will stop a car in India. A consistent walk across a street in Vietnam will allow the multitude of 125cc motorcycles to flow around you. However one should never assume safe passage before learning the custom.
Terminal Head Trauma in Perth
We finished up season 3 of Road Less Traveled with the crew of the Maersk Peary, a massive tanker carrying a year's supply of fuel to America's Antarctic bases. We met up with the ship in Perth, Australia; taking a smaller boat out to the bay where the Peary was waiting. The crew on that small boat may have mentioned the hazards of transferring from ship to ship, but nonetheless, as we bobbed up and down in the shadow of the oil tanker, I momentarily lost my situational awareness. Suddenly I heard, "Look out!" hollered from above me, and I turned around to see the edge of a ladder shoot 6 inches from my head as our small boat rose up a wave. I still have not forgotten how tragically the Jonathan Legg story could have ended because I was not paying attention at a critical moment.
Bonus: TV Crew Crashes Paraglider in Leh!
We arrived in Leh, nestled in the Himalayas of Northern India, with less footage than anticipated. There was nothing ideal about paragliding in Leh, but we needed the roll time. Why wasn't it ideal? For one, there were no official flying sites and I could find no record of anyone flying there. But what concerned me the most was the terrain. Leh sits in a fat, dry valley 3,500 meters (11,500ft) above sea level. Into this valley dump the unstable winds of multiple canyons snaking their way through the mountains. I anticipated the airborne conditions to be as rowdy as a fierce rodeo bull.
We spend a long time hunting for a launch, finally finding one off a curve on "the world's highest motorable road." Our taxi brought us up early to avoid the strong mid day conditions that occur when the sun bakes the land. I handed the driver a camera, instructed him to meet us promptly at the bottom, and began to set up the glider, meticulously laying lines around rocks strewn on the mountainside. It was a terrible setup. There were multiple stones in our path that got bigger the farther you descended (better launch fast), the landing was crosswind onto a dirt road (hopefully no cars passing as we land), and the wind was barely puffing at a gusty 2mph (better pull up that glider fast and clean).
As I clipped the producer/cameraman into the passenger harness we heard a rumble approaching. On the road 5 military trucks carrying Indian soldiers were chugging down the mountain. All of these guys fixed us with looks of bewilderment as they passed. This particular corner of the country is heavily guarded due to past conflicts with Pakistan and China. Two foreigners in a flying contraption with no permission might be violated some air restrictions. The trucks were headed for a base down in the valley below us. Before the commander heard about us, we had to be gone.
As the last truck passed I felt a small puff of wind, pulled the glider up, tuned around and screamed "Run!" We sprinted down the rock field but I did not feel the immediate pull of the wing in flight. A set of huge rocks were directly in our path and we were rocketing towards them. In the footage you can witness the moment panic lights up my face like the christmas tree. A second later "CRACK" the glider grabs an up-current and we whoosh off the hill. We then slid into our landing on that dirt road, threw our gear in the cab, and boogied over to the tourist quarter where we would disappear with our big bags. You can watch the whole unadvisable flight here
You Can Die in the Desert
You can die in the desert. It’s a dangerous place. That sure seems like an unnecessary thing to say, but it’s a fact easily lost amongst glossy national park brochures, with their condensed text on nature interrupted with tiny pictures of bright flowers popping out of cacti and tiny varmint tracks in the sand. I had one of those brochures stuffed in the car door slot as i rode down a rough, desolate road towards a place called “the racetrack”, named after rocks that seemed to be moving themselves slowly across a dry lake bed.
It was my first trip out of LA with a girl I’d been casually dating. You could say we were “taking it to the next level”. I was in typical character, transfixed by the siren song calling from the most isolated spot in the expanse of Death Valley. I had to go there. 30 miles later the road began to deteriorate significantly. Large washouts. Bigger and bigger stones in the way.
My old Subaru Forester has 7 inches of clearance. She was quickly getting out of her depth. But after multiple trips to Yosemite, Zion, and the Mojave that car and I have built up an understanding. Even when I smashed her transmission pan coming up Marshall Peak (loaded down with 5 men and 5 paragliding setups), she still got us to the top with all the warning lights ablaze and stuck in second gear. My sister teases that it’s a lesbian car. An opinion fueled by her empirical evidence up in Portland, Oregon and exacerbated by the knowledge that A) I bought it from a lesbian and B) the license plate says 4MUF. I’m cool with that. Lesbian, straight, bisexual, polyandrous.. as long as she’s honest with me. The worst thing, in a place like this, is for a vehicle to surprise you. You’ve got to rely on it do what it’s always shown you it could do. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Eventually I got stuck on an ascent, deep down that lonely Death Valley road, but I managed to jiggle out of it. When i got shored up on a stone the second time, I got out and took a hard look around me. The upbeat music blasting from my speakers suddenly warped into something tinny and psychedelic as i fully registered the expanse of barren, bone-dry land that stretched out in every direction around us. We had passed no one on the route up. I had maybe half a gallon of water in the back. No signal on my phone. No one was notified to our location. It’s quite amazing how you can go from a carefree good time to the realization that your life is in grave danger. “We could die out here,” I thought. Perhaps it was the same, anvil heavy presentiment shared by earlier settlers making their way west down similar desert routes, absolutely counting on the existence of a spring or a wagon repair that could not go wrong.
“We’re turning back,” I announced decisively. I entirely loath a retreat. I’d rather trailblaze through treacherous conditions on a hike than return the same way. But there’s a thin line between courage and stupidity, and I was one stuck Subaru away from crossing fully over.
The girl, who had subtly voiced a few doubts on our final climb, wisely refrained from reminding me of her prescience. She had been floating the “turn back” idea for a while, but, sensitive to my ego, she praised my strong command of the situation.
“Never again,” I thought as we retraced our route. I imagined walking those wretched miles with a small quantity of water in my hand, traveling by night, hoping to find someone before the morning sun rose and began to bake the desert once more. Would I bring the girl with me or tell her to wait in the car? Stay inside it at night and under it if the sun came up. Write SOS on the roof with stones. What percentage of our water would I leave her if she did stay? Heavy questions I was happy not to answer. I shook my head in quiet self rebuke. Never again.
The Next Time
In Feburary 2014 we began filming season 3 of the Road Less Traveled. I had a brilliant idea for starting the first episode: Drive a 4x4 through the Mojave desert en route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Between the sand dunes, joshua trees, ghost towns, and abandoned mining operations we were sure to have a solid start to the show. I contacted a few auto companies and Toyota came through with a beastly FJ Cruiser SUV. Switching from my Forester felt like jumping off a pony onto a Belgian draft horse, although you could practically see the fuel gauge swing.
The Old Mojave Road is an eagle feather in any off-road enthusiast’s cap. There are tougher routes out there, but few with such a rich blend of history and scenery. The European pioneers came through the road, and long before that Native Americans used it as a route to the sea. The way passes through dramatic canyons, black volcanic cinder cones, a dry lake bed, and the largest Joshua Tree grove in the world. Challenging a vehicle to not cross will be deep ruts, soft sand, deceptively thin baked crust with sinking mud below, the occasional flash flood, and enough isolation to make a hike out a deadly proposition.
As a crew we astutely understood these dangers. For precaution we followed the FJ with a Range Rover recently purchased by Sashi De, our executive producer. We carried a tow rope, heaps of water, and plenty of survival gear. We charted out all the flowing springs in the preserve and always double checked our location.
The trip passed by without incident. We never got stuck once. It was so easy that for the next week in Vegas a recurring theme in conversation was regret for not pushing our loaner 4x4 harder. We played it too safe.*
Several days later our production was coming to a finish. We had one day of filming left a couple hours north of Vegas in a vast stretch of desert containing just a pinch of tiny communities. On the agenda: A ghost town, a legal brothel, and a final standup for the episode where I typically present some wrap up thoughts straight to camera. Ideally this last segment would be shot by sand dunes near the abandoned junction of a place called Rose’s Well.
Perhaps we took too long with the drone shots in the ghost town, or maybe we lingered at the brothel longer than anticipated.** By the time we set out to find those dunes the sun was sagging low over the horizon and shadows were long. Off the two lane country road, a good ten miles or so from the brothel, we swerved onto a primitive dirt road. As I gazed at the drooping sun anxiety swelled up within. If it set we’d have to go back to Vegas and return the next day. If we made it we could wrap the episode then and there. I peeled off the beaten path and drove straight at the dune across the open desert...fast.
As we pulled along the edge of the dune’s sloping sides the sun finally tucked out of view. The crew jumped out with the cameras and set themselves in place. I popped out and did my routine, “Blah blah blah… see you next time on the Road Less Traveled!” We got it! High fives and whoops all around. Invigorated by our last second success, I decided on a victory run up the mountain of sand.
“Hey,” I yelled over my shoulder, “Just come get me up there!”
I was happy as a clam as the FJ approached, plowing up the steep dune. I could see Dante, the cameraman, at the wheel. Our eyes met as the vehicle pulled up to the crest. He was smiling like a kid on his first pony ride. Suddenly the SUV stopped making progress. I could hear the engine revving, see the four tires spinning, and watched as they began to burrowed into the soft sand, bringing the car to rest entirely on its frame.
“Stop Stop Stop” I barked, but it happened so fast.
It was now completely shored up on the sand. We gazed at each other in momentary disorientation as the dim rays of dusk retreated. In 2 minutes it was so dark we couldn’t see your feet.
Again, just as in Death Valley, the gravity of the moment dropped like a lead bomb. There was no preparation for being stuck up on a dune in the dark. No water or food in the car. No flashlights but for our phones, batteries mostly depleted from a full day of work. It was decided we must all get on our bellies and meticulously dig the car frame out of the sand. We might have only one chance to extract it. Further digging attempts would put the Toyota in a sabulous grave. We could soon follow.
After an hour the car was ready. The sand cleared and tumbleweed stuffed under the tires. The keys, burdened with heavy responsibility, changed hands a few times before I took them. With the Sashi and Dante pushing, I eased into reverse and she came out of the sandy chokehold. As with many of our close calls, no filming was done. We were all too concerned with preserving the lives we had made. As we drove back to the warm embrace of civilization we reflected on how quickly a series of rushed decisions led us into the perilous situation. Never again. We would remember that you can die in the desert. It’s a dangerous place.
* The only point of concern was a certain rotten smell that seemed to grow more putrid by the day. Was a dead animal stuck up in the frame somewhere? A little detective work and recollection revealed the culprit: Sashi had placed an open quart of chocolate milk in the styrofoam cooler, wedging it upright in the ice keeping our beer cold. Days later the ice had melted, the quart tipped over, and when the back of the SUV bucked up in the air on the rough road the cooler split like the Liberty Bell. The whole concoction of beer, water, and chocolate milk flooded the back of the vehicle and gear within.
Despite the smell, I sure did enjoy driving our trail-dirty vehicle around Vegas. I finally understood the jacked up 4x4 obsession some men enjoy. When pulling up to a stoplight next to a smaller, cleaner, more soccer-momish SUV I felt like Tommy Lee undressing at an orgy.
** And speaking of orgy.. the friendly ladies gave us an extensive tour of the brothel, pointing out all the spots where they like to "party". Having traveled all over the world I immediately noticed how different the legalized trade appeared, a point I tried to subtly make on the show, although I am not the first to do so on TV or in print.