Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Alaskan Safari

Welcome to Planet Endurance

If you liked the landscape you saw in the 2007 Horror Movie - 30 Days of Night, Alaska is the place to be. Nothing in Alaska is easy. The state is colossal. The distances from the towns to tourist attractions are time-consuming and grueling. The roads are hazardous and many are unpaved. Winters are resentfully cold, overcast and stretched, with only two hours of daylight. Summers are short and sometimes absent. Everything is bloody expensive. Travel is a bitch, and there are no major cosmopolitan cities to nourish with world-class restaurants, hotels, the arts or shopping after enduring nature's punishing elements. Alaska is the only state in America where residents are actually paid a stipend to live there. But where there is challenge there is also an adventure. And this is exclusively mine.

In Alaska you take a bush plane like an urban dweller would take a public bus or a call taxi. There are more small planes in Alaska per capita than any other American state. As everything is complicated, everything becomes a mini adventure. So why do Alaskans do it? What's the pay-off?

The answer I got, from pilots to taxi drivers to musicians to road maintenance workers, was pretty much the same - after facing the immense challenges of nature's elements each day, Alaskans feel they have conquered and triumphed by mere survival. Most of us feel we have a hard enough time getting through the exigencies of the day without a daily kick in the ass by Mother Nature but not sturdy Alaskans. There's also a very strong sense that this is a restricted nonconformist realm where citizens can't, won't or have no desire to live in the undesirable outside. (The word "Outside" is always capitalized up there.)

So what's in it for us Outsiders? Lots. Astounding panoramic beauty and superb wildlife, opportunities for both hard and soft adventures and a plethora of wintry sports. The Air is so pure you would want to bottle it and market it. And, most important, a true sense of mankind's place in nature. Alaska's sheer size, the cold silence and majesty is close to a true spiritual experience. You really get to know how minuscule you are in the scheme of it all, and the result is deeply overwhelming.

An extraordinary treat for me was to clamber an observation tower to shoot the 11:30 p.m. sunsets. Autumn color starts to scream in late August along with one Alaska's unique phenomena: the Aurora Borealis, the natural gods’ light show that defies any ordinary description. Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, reaching 20,320 feet above sea level, is in Alaska, but don't expect to get a great shot with a point-and shoot camera; between the cloud cover, rain and haze, the stately mountain appears only about 25 percent of the time.

When I went to investigate Fairbanks, the base town from which tourists depart for the Alaskan good stuff, I found that one afternoon was more than enough. Most of its old-time architecture had been destroyed for parking lots and McDonald type Fast-food restaurants. Its bland streets teem with infinite and gaudy stores that sell the kind of cheap souvenirs that people buy at consumer fairs, take home, store in a drawer and eventually can't sell at yard sales. Fairbanks has one shining jewel - its beautiful history museum. Skillfully and engagingly designed, lit and presented, the museum is captivating in how it brings alive the past while also maintaining the wild spirit of Alaskan life.

Quirky Coffee shops and rustic bars are many and excess in Fairbanks, people find a place to spin good music; the local military men, of whom there are many, hear about the music and move in; the local women follow; people move to another bar, taking the music...

If your endurance fantasies or your tastes for adrenaline are highly developed, try the Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay. This 414 mile gravel road (really Dalton Highway, developed to bring supplies to the source of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company) stretches from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean. You'll be able to say you traveled an outwardly never-ending gravel road where food and gas stops are 115 miles apart. You'll be able to see the Brooks Mountain Range, the stately and pompous king of Dalton Highway and you'll be able to tell your friends you have been to the Arctic Circle.

However, there is a grueling 12-hour drudge of a road. And there are draconian lodgings at Prudhoe Bay, not to mention punishingly inedible "food", which is a truly supercilious statement to Outsiders- “We’re the only restaurant in town. Eat it or beat it".

Real Beauty? Yes. A surrealistic landscape of ice-cold tundra and absolute desolation, the pipeline buildings in the misty distance, living facilities resembling correctional mental institutions, signs of humanity practically unreal, the only place in the world where you must have a permit to see the ocean-the Arctic Ocean, no less-frankly, all that fascinated me. And it was well worth the price of ticket. For those who require a level of comfort, however, this leg of the tour will not work.

The trip back down the Dalton Highway was highlighted by a stop in Wiseman, a peaceful settlement of log houses (there seems to be an unwritten law that all log houses in Alaska must have moose antlers the state icon) above the front door). Wiseman was established in the American gold rush and in 1898 it was a big boomtown with $200,000 worth of gold panned there. It's reported that half the money was spend on booze and whores. And why not? What else was there to spend it on?

According to one very sexy local, the population swings "between 27 and 30 - depending who's pregnant!" This place is so right in its place, in its feeling of a small community separate in sensibility but unified in case of crisis. The people here are kind, hushed and much attached to nature and to their heritage. Wiseman is a place that contains a real sense of serenity-holding from the last century to this one with loveliness and style.

I next took a bush plane to Paradise Valley Lodge, where true aficionados come from the four points of the earth to pan for gold, not in a tourist attraction, but where gold can really be found. If you have a big hankering for roughing it - this is the place. The cabins are spaced very far apart so you have a real sense of privacy. Essential amenities are almost absent: one room cabin, outhouse, mosquitoes, etc. You stay a half mile from the lodge and must bring your own food or make previous arrangements with the manager. And think about it, when was the last time you checked into a lodge and they gave you a can of bear mace?

My final stop took me right to the Canadian border. The small town of Eagle has 130 people or something like that, a flower-laden landing strip, four museums four, and a general store-motel-gas station all-in-one. That's it. The museums are based on memorabilia from the remains of Fort Egbert, where the army first established law and order in a wild and woolly lawless territory run by power and guns. In the one cafe in town, four men, who look like they are from a movie casting call for grizzly 19th century trappers, meet every day to discuss in dramatic detail how they like to skin animals after they've trapped them. The former town mayor is a large sized woman with mighty arms and a tattoo on her neck who lives with her dainty friend in a log cabin with the only computer in town. The Princess cruise line buses passengers to Eagle from their ships docked downriver. They don't allow them overnight stays. Good. That's how Eagle maintains its purity.

If you are the brave and energetic kind, Alaska offers generous opportunity for real thrills, pristine wildlife and peaceful quietude. Once you take it in, you will never see your world the same. As I read it somewhere, "In life you are not really living. unless you take a chance". Take a chance. Go to Alaska.

Monday, December 29, 2008

My First Post - Why this Blog Exists?

This is the Big Picture!

Remember how great it felt the last time you landed in a really terrific job? Well, after about a splendid 1700 days (that’s close to around 5 years!) on board at solo project, I'm still riding that emotional high.

Working solo is never a private experience. You deal with a crowd of clients and vendors. You also have to take care of all the small details - from choosing a computer brand to hiring an auditor. And after you've negotiated and persuaded this army of bosses and suppliers, there's a cosmos of characters to consider when keeping the self-operated enterprise healthy: Bank managers, family members, friends, associates, the tax man and the demands of your personal life. You don't need to exclude every vestige of family and friendship from your day - that's one of the rewards of leaving a structured office environment. But you must honestly assess your distractibility and develop a plan to manage your resources effectively.

I went out to lunch last week with an old associate with whom I hadn't spoken in a long time. A few years back, we worked together at an Anglo-American consulting firm, and while our professional relationship was sometimes edgy, on a personal level we always seemed to bond in an undeclared, enjoyable way which made it clear that our camaraderie ran deeper than the ups and downs of the daily toil. Yet way leads on to way, and it had been more than 2 years since we'd really caught up. I made lunch plans with the expectation that we'd enjoy some lighthearted chat about recent events, but as we walked to a nearby Asian restaurant, it became clear that the conversation was going to be more solemn.

During the last year, my friend explained, he had been fired from his plush job and his marriage had broken up. Simultaneously, his health began to fail in ways that were clearly stress and anxiety related. He'd been spending a lot of time focusing on his work and his career, he recalled with clear regret, and along the way he'd allowed himself to lose sight of matters closer to home.

It’s obvious; we cannot allow ambition to blind us to the things that make life meaningful. No surprise, I guess – finding that balance is one of the most difficult challenges all workers face, no matter what kind of work we do. Paradoxically, I suspect this challenge can be especially difficult for all of us. Granted, the group dynamics of traditional office environments generate a lot of pressures and anxieties that can be difficult to counteract but I also know that many of us feel that they are their own most demanding taskmasters. That's why I often hear people expressing variations on the theme that "I am my own boss, and my boss is driving me crazy."

It’s true that the uncertainties of worklife can make it hard to unwind. Even during times of feast, it's natural to worry about the next famine - and that thought can generate a lot of stress and overwork. Likewise, when you no longer have to punch the clock, it's easy to settle into a mode where you're always on the clock, as the distinctions between work and not-work begin to blur.

Over time, I've found that the only way to truly inoculate myself from these pressures is to treat rest and relaxation as a "to-do" item, that's just as important as any project timeline or professional objective. And today, after having just returned from a one full Sunday of aimless floating aboard a sea boat in the Bay of Bengal, I'm feeling veeery relaxed and starting this Blog which I have been procrastinating for almost 2 years now!!

As your guide, my goal is to fill this blog with interesting, worth it stuff – mostly rambling thoughts, incisive commentary on subjects that affect me plus reviews and links to awesome movies, beautiful music, great places and other stuff that you probably would have never heard about. Over the next several weeks, keep your eyes peeled for some exciting changes here and pray and hope that I keep this blog alive!!! On my part, I’ll try hard, really hard.

Until then, Godspeed to a happy 2009 and beyond :)
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