Pyranees Backpacking Day 2

August 14, 2017

At night I dreamt some sci-fi weird shit, like I was trying to keep these gooey soft green stress balls out of the tent. They were alive! And we were in outer space, floating around in the pop-up Quechua tent. Sounds funny, but it was pretty terrifying in the moment. Though I slept not very much, I was in a happy mood when K came by to make sure we were awake. We were half awake, and quickly grew to fully awake with a large smile as I had the first peep out of our tent.

First LightIt revealed a stunning wall of sharp rock over 800m in height, its top spires illuminated by the first rays of sun. I was re-living a slice of the life I had when attending University in Toulouse. It is a place where we shared experiences, our food, water, and lives with each other in the true fullness and honesty, with a sprinkle of sarcastic humor, and lots of human empathy. I realized this is what I and probably any other Europeans miss the most after moving to the USA, as I stared around the rest of the camp gearing up – ropes, helmets, various belay devices and harnesses worn by people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures. Petting the loud donkeyQuickly, we packed our gear into D’s bag and sat with T and K, reflecting on the poor quality of sleep we all had for different reasons: the moon’s brightness, the resident donkey’s panting cries in the dead of the night, which in turn induced various dreams and nightmares. Glad it was behind us, we looked forward to the crux of our trip: to climb the Pic Midi d’Ossau, an 800m ascent on partial vertical terrain. Then to come back down and head into the next valley to camp one more night. The weather forecasted to be sunny – a pretty rare occurrence in these Southern mountain range – we headed out over the initial boulder field towards the saddle.

The wind howling through my hair, I lead a brisk pace till the saddle, sweating profusely in the already baking sun. A quick snack and water break later, we paused before the rock – there was already a line of French people heading up the first crack. We decided to venture on the right which turned out to be a good idea. We passed two rope teams traveling much slower. We brought a 50m rope, borrowed from Lolo’s husband Paul, but was only planning on using it to rappel down. The way up became more and more breathtaking.

Rappel Down

Of course it was due to the view but also from the stair-like climbing which seemed to go on forever.The slope was 60 degrees or more at times where we were literally panting for breath every 15 minutes. Mainly, it was a ladder type climb with solid hand holds and spots for our feet. By the time we reached the top, I was genuinely exhausted, my legs trembling from the quick pace set by the Slovaks.

The view past the peak and all around was like from one of those red bull rock climbing video series with Alex Honnold – rock tops jutting out of the Earth all around us. Intermingled were series of lakes and huts, paths meandering all over the valley, spotted by white and brown farm animals grazing below. They were merely the size of pins from this distance. I was glad to have brought my puffy and mid layers. At 2880m, it was not summer-like heat, the windchill washing away the cozy warmth of the sun with powerful gusts. Rope Teams Coming back down, we met people on their way up, hearing more and more spanish “hola’s” instead of the french “bonjour” as greetings when passing each other. I mused over this as a curious difference in culture – the spanish start their day later. I was joking with the group: I bet the Germans were already back down by the time we even got going, clinking their beer as a salute to a successful sunrise finish.

Much of the rest of the way down was a blur between my aching thighs, tired knees and setting up rappels in three different sections. While waiting for other groups, I had the chance to chat with some real southern french men, probably in their 50s who have been doing this stuff for 40+ years, and reminisced about their youths: visiting and climbing El Cap and in Joshua tree. Their accented voices rose and lowered in the most charming tangy-slow and manner. It was music to my ears to hear this kind of dialect again. Back down by the refuge and lake, we sat to eat a snack and peel back the layer of sweaty sock caked in powdered dust from the climb. Refilling our water bottles and packing the tent & sleeping supplies, we headed SSW around the peak to another saddle called col Peyregret and to the Lac au dessus where I took the most restful nap in a long while. The three boys watched Marmots galavanting around, the furry animals completely ignoring all the humans around them.

It was already a long day and the sun was on its way down. Tomas asked me if I wanted to keep going or stay here. I was very tired, but felt I would be even more sore tomorrow, so made my opinion clear that I would like to continue the proposed 2.8km to the valley below where we would hopefully find more water. We were running quite low and I was definitely dehydrated in an attempt to conserve it. The amount of water I have to drink normally is at least 2-3x what I was feeding myself now. The bonus side effect was the lack of need to pee all the time.Sheep StampedeWatering Hole Narrowly avoiding a sheep stampede we finally got into the valley finding a canyoneering-type river that went from canyon to shallow waters. This is where I waded all the way into the water up to my neck after dropping my pack. I reveled in the feeling of frigid water cooling my inflamed joints and muscles. Quickly it became chilly and we settled in for the night. Close to falling asleep, suddenly a storm rolled in, faster than anyone could imagine, which is when we turned the 2 person tent into tight quarters for three as K, spooked buy the lightning and drizzle + wind, asked to join us. We welcomed him in, wondering what T would do. It got very hot quickly (just 5 mins before I was shivering) and between stretches of sleeping sandwiched between two dudes, the sky became starry, cloudy, shook with thunder, illuminated by flashed of light. Despite the angry weather, I felt very safe and unconcerned as I heard deep breathing on both sides. Knowing at least the two men were in deep slumber, at least while I was en guard.

This is how Filipinos greet strangers

I travel a lot. Everyone who knows me knows that. But ever time I embark on a new trip, I forget how exhilarating it is to finally land at my destination. In the last couple seconds of flight, I couldn’t help but grin, I’m here! I’m in Manila!

My plan originally was to find the shuttle to my hotel, but I did exactly what anyone would tell you not to do: hop into a car with a stranger. Mom and Dad, I know you’re probably freaking out right now, so let me explain…

During my flight, I was sitting next to a Filipino lady who invited me to dinner with her friends after arriving. I have yet to regret any impulse plan I’ve made, so here I go.

After dropping my bags at the hotel, we sat into the car and started driving. I knew not where, but looking around, I was astounded to witness the craziness of traffic: motorcyclists passing inches away from the side of the car and in between trucks with only a couple of feet between them. The surprise vehicle of the day was a truck full of sleepy-looking chickens.

sleepy chickens

Construction even at 9pm on a Friday night made the roads even more unpredictable, with lanes shut down, traffic going every which way, cars and Jeepnis* stuffed with breathing bodies, with some more hanging on the roof. As the cherry on top, we were forced to avoid the not so occasional pedestrian popping out of nowhere.


Regardless of the kind of situation that would drive any American up the wall, everywhere I looked, the Filipinos were smiling, even laughing: no sign of any road rage! Perhaps it has just become the status quo. I have much respect for them.

My new friends and I arrived at our destination after about one hour: it was a Filipino restaurant attached to a meat/fish, or “wet” market as they call it. This was the first time I had witnessed this sort of arrangement. We went over to the market, picked out crabs (they were still moving!!), shrimp, and fish to be cooked to order for us.

Wet Market

The live music started as we sat down, and had a round of mango shakes. Wow. I can never go back to US mangoes. These shakes, made exclusively of ice and mangoes were the best pick me up: flavorful and sweet, perfect as jet lag was kicking in.

Mango shakes

By the end of the night, I felt humbled by the incredible hospitality of these ladies, especially when I told them I came to help out the community in Tacloban as part of the post-typhoon efforts. They thanked me for helping out their people, paid for my part of the food, and even drove me home afterwards. With a large smile, I hit the bed like a log and slept until awoken in a confused daze by housekeeping knocking on my door. (It was 11am).

*Jeepnis are the method of public transport in the Philippines. They are like a Jeep from the 1990s, but extended in the back like a bus with no windows, and usually fit from one to 20 people, or more if the roof is used.


Monday. My second to last day in Europe. I stayed at a hostel that night, woke up sort of late, then took some time to find an indoor bouldering place which ended up being closed till that evening. Then I decided to hit up one of their many thermal pools. The one I chose seemed to be pretty sans-tourist for which I was glad. I followed the ritual of dipping in the most scalding hot pool, then jumping into the most ice cold one, and back and forth until my skin felt like a tough smooth rubber. Then I found their steam room, and repeated the process for around one hour. Leaving the pool I felt immeasurably refreshed, but also kind of lazy.

Walking around, I found a bus that took me back to the hostel to grab my climbing stuff. At the Bouldering gym, I found some interesting people, one of whom was a Polish girl who had been living in Iceland since January, and loves it. I asked her why, and she said – because it is sunny in the summer all the time. And in the winter I asked? She said the dark is worth it for the eternal sun, and the contrast is amazing actually. They had the weirdest rating system, which was sort of like the V system in the USA, but it was more about the setter than the rating – almost like following the books of a certain author, you get used to a certain style of routes and know better what they are.

Also, not sure what was up with the huge pile of mattresses in the corner of the gym.

That evening I met up with yet another guy from He and I had been chatting over the network, and I had called him a couple times. That night we finally met at one of the main bus stops. Instantly, we clicked. He had the most interesting eyes, the kind where you can sort of look into the soul and feel that there’s something real good in there. He was in his last year of studies to be an educator for disabled children, but taking the summers in Iceland to work as a glacier tour guide. He had been trekking around the island for the past two weeks as a vacation from his job using hitch hiking as his main way of transport. He was probably down to his last fifty Euros as I sensed while helping him around a Bonus (a grocery store chain). Then I invited him to come to a tour with me at 8pm – the “haunted tour” of Reykjavik. Only after I had told him the story of myself as a poor student in France and how people had helped me out monetarily, did he agree that I pay the price for him. In this case, it definitely felt great to give something rather than receive.
So we dropped his stuff off in my room and then went for some dinner, just in time to run over to the start of the tour. Except that I had marked the wrong place on the map. By the time we found the start point, the tour had already started, and no one knew which way they went.
We had worked so well together so far that I thought it would be fun to go hunt the tour down and take part in whatever was left of it. So we looked for clues: the website had three locations identified by words and two pictures. One of an “elf stone” (we found it),:

the other of the “oldest cemetery in Iceland”, and a third about the Parliament Park. We wandered around for about half an hour, finding the first two of the three things, until we stumbled upon a tour-looking group. Bingo! Found them! It was a really cool feeling, the two of us cracking jokes about our successful search and then about stuff the tour guide was saying. All in all, it was a good tour, but I did sort of freeze my butt off by the end of it. The day was coming to an end, so after grabbing a warm drink, my new friend and I walked along the bay as the sun was setting around 10pm, ending up at a statue of a Viking boat.

Eventually I had to stay goodbye as he boarded his bus that night, but I did so with a heavy heart. He was one of the best people I met on such random and spontaneous notice during my trip. In the end, I now do have a friend in Krakow, Poland where I know I’ll be welcome 🙂

Leaving Toulouse

It is easy to leave someplace I don’t fit in. But leaving someplace where you are loved and part of the crowd, have laughed a lot, learned a lot, and met some amazing people.. it is quite the opposite.
My plane was scheduled for an 18h05 departure, and I had not packed anything yet the morning of the flight. However, I got everything together in 2 hours, to be able to enjoy my flatmates’ company for the last couple hours. They prepared lunch for me, put on music, and danced to it with the windows open.
At 10h00, I met with an elder lady I taught Hungarian to the last month, and upon us taking a photo together, she asked me if I had a ride to the airport. I was prepared to take the bus, but she insisted on taking me, so we arranged for her to pick me up at 15h30.
When the time came, my two flatmates and I hopped in the car, the third flatmate to come meet us at the airport from work. After checking in, we had about half an hour to spend together.
This half an hour will remain with me forever.
My Spanish flatmate had brought his guitar; on our way up to the observation hallway on the 2nd floor of the airport, I got a call from another friend, wishing me a good trip, expressing his sadness that he couldn’t see me the night before. Once up there, he took out his guitar and began playing. We sang along with him as I experienced the most bittersweet goodbye of my life. Three amazing young men as my entourage, wishing me all the best for the future, filling me with feelings of true friendship. I will miss them dearly, as well as my one flatmate who couldn’t make it due to some previous engagements. Thank you all for your kindness, sweetness, and love during my stay in the most amazing city of cultural diversity I’ve ever seen.