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.

Pyranees Backpacking Day 1

Day after Lolo’s surprise wedding. Castet, France.

Woke up “relatively” early to a beautiful day in the Pyrenees: mountains all around. Today, after the picnic at noon in Port de Castet, we were headed out towards GR-10 trail close to the border of Spain, en-route to Pic Midi D’Ossau. It will be just T, K, D and I. Getting excited, we were gearing up, going to the grocery story where we bought too much food (as always), and some gifts to take home. While we’ve been in France, D and I have completely broken our diets, eating bread and cheese almost every day. I still refrain from eggs for the most part. So far we have experienced little to no side effects, having regular bowel movements. D’s even been eating pork.

Lolo was so welcoming, allowing us to use her new car when we needed one and we also borrowed sleeping bags, a tent and pads from her. Plus her most favorite 49L backpack since I didn’t have one big enough. The brunch was left over food from yesterday, enjoyed on a wide plateau 5km east of her castle-like house in Castet. As the four of us drove up in her tiny white Dacia, we had more and more expansive views of the opposing mountains.

PicnicFrench FoodAt the top, we were treated by a loud eew-haw from the next door donkey and grazing horses with cowbells chiming across the field of soft green grass – the type you would want to roll around in – except for the minefield of fresh and sun-dried cow pies. Paul had driven his yellow camping van to the middle of this open pasture, and dished out the boeuf-roti, ham, fromage de brebis, carottes-rapés, haricots vests, among many other delicacies of the region.

We found the beer tap in the basement, next to the “dungeon” dormitory we slept in that night, and brought over a bottle to everyone’s delight. The mood was very relaxed, a lazy dimanche après-midi in South France.

SiesteAfter a large plate of food, a glass of juice/beer/wine, we lazed around in the sun, the chilly breeze whipping up light goosebumps on my skin. In the distance, colts rolled about in the dirt, hooves kicking the air. A bit closer, dogs licked the remainder of plates to their owners’ nonchalance, and babies hummed softly as they learned the art of the afternoon “sieste”.

Packing up, the drive to the Pic began – first in a wide valley, then detoured through a village where we got stuck behind a tractor and some herders herding two cows (which decided to take a nice shit right in front of the car, our wheels squishing through the moist manure seconds later). Finally back on the main road, it narrowed between a deeper canyon on the right, and steepening walls on the left.

Pic Midi D'OssauNoses pressed to the passenger glass window, we arched our necks up to see the tippity-tops of rocky peaks peeking out left and right. Parking the car at a lake we were originally going to hike to (we weren’t sure if the roads were open), I was really jumping up and down in excitement watching other people mull around with packs, hiking poles, and climbing gear. It was so great to be out here, the Pyranees where I had spent my 23rd year of life, six years ago.

Our team of hikersThis time it was with my life partner and two of my favorite people in the world. We even brought a rope, as we expect the peak to be a series of easier 5.3- 5.4 climbs – which we will do tomorrow. Six and seven-tenth km, rolling hills, many sheep, cows, and horses in the shadow of high-jutting peaks later, we reached the refuge de Pombie at 2032m.

Nearby was a lake and farther, awe inspiring views to mountains in the east turning orange, red, then purple in the reflection of the quickly approaching sunset. Tent set next to a stream of water, we finished 1.5 L of wine and nearly a full bar of hazelnut chocolate before retiring to bed.

Bicycle Charged Cellphone ChargerPS: there was a bike to recharge non-iphone mobiles (Pedal to create electricity) and T & K found the coolest camp spot under a 45degree angle boulder. They called it their “living room 🙂

In First Class

My roommate warned me about Condor – that apparently they try to gain money by making their passengers pay to watch anything past two or three channels on TV, and that the meals were very basic, and anything past the default foods cost extra money. So I had brought extra food just to be prepared for this ten hour trip from Portland to Frankfurt. However, to my positive surprise, they decided to upgrade me to first class; maybe there weren’t any seats left in the economy class. Of course all the warnings from my roommate were no longer applicable.
I entered the airplane, and found my enormous seat, where the legroom was such that I couldn’t even reach the seat in front of me!

Not that I’m complaining! Just before sitting down, my “bench-mate” who looked to be a young guy, perhaps some entrepreneur arrived and sat into the seat next to the window. For a while, I fidgeted around trying to decide what to put in the overhead compartment, and what to keep around me, then sat down. Soon enough, the guy next to me and I started talking, and it turned out that he was also one of the last ones to drop his bag and check in – perhaps the reason for being upgraded, because just like me, he wasn’t excessively rich, infact he was just a student.
The rest of the flight passed with us laughing at the enormity of luxury that existed in the business class – the complexity of our chairs, the lights, large tv screen, armrests, thickness of the blanket, etc… Dinner started with an appetizer, then a main course, of which we had the choice of a catfish on a bed of rice and steamed spinach, beef with soft potatoes, or a vegetarian pasta dish. Then a cheese plate with wine, finally dessert of crème brulee and strawberries with crème. Finally let’s not forget the tea/coffee to finish with. In laughing and eating for a while, it became clear that we had a lot of things in common, starting with the fact that we were both of two cultures – he German/Greek and American , and me of Hungarian and American descent, both of us with dual citizenship. It took about two and a half hours for us to finish all the food, at which point we realized that we were pretty much halfway through the flight and that everyone else had long since scarfed their food and were sleeping nearly horizontally in their first class couches. After watching a movie under “romantic” reading lights, I fell asleep.
It was his gentle nudging that woke me up, I think in the middle of a violent dream that I don’t remember, but I was a bit embarrassed because I couldn’t really formulate real sentences for about a minute, ironically being winded by sleeping, or perhaps waking up. Of course, it was the steward in the aisle who pretty much directly asked me what I wanted for breakfast, but had to ask me twice as the first time all I heard was just some noise; maybe my ears were still asleep.
Of course, it took us once again twice as long to eat breakfast as the rest of the passengers, the jokes about how ridiculously excessive the service was in the first class continuing. Normally I don’t take photos of food, but this time I did, IMG_4671
aiming the reading lights in the direction of the neatly arranged pieces of food, quickly snapping the photos before the steward passed by again asking for the 10th time if we wanted another glass of wine or
champagne.
After landing, the guy and I exchanged phone numbers and email addresses – it sounded like maybe we’d reconnect after getting back to the USA, maybe to do a bike ride or other active thing. At least I’d ask him some suggestions for when I go to Berlin a bit later on. It was fun to experience the space of the rich with someone else, and spend about 1/3 of the flight slowly enjoying the food a luxe, bite by bite.
We passed the border guards pretty quick, both using our American passports. Afterwards, we parted, him finding his friend to pick him up, and me, to find the next flight to Toulouse. Not a bad start to my trip 🙂

My first time in LA and beyond

Apparently I have a talent for taking vacations with nearly no downtime and cramming as much as possible into very few days. This time I also found a partner in crime who exactly matched my zeal for last minute travel plans, usually prefaced by “we’ll figure it out.” Each turn in activity pretty much consisted of beating our bodies by participating in crazy sports, but ended up with an amazing satisfied feeling of what we accomplished.

My trip to LA began with a snafoo of missing the original flight we reserved, just because we didn’t check in early. Although it was frustrating, I kept my calm and took the advantage of Alaska Airlines’ holiday-relaxed attitude when they re-booked us on a later flight to an even better airport, all without any fees. “Merry Christmas,” they said, smiling.

We ended up with a relaxed lunch and quick flight to the Burbank Airport, with sunny 60 degree LA weather waiting for us on the other end. I realized how much I had missed the sun, because the first thing I did was get off the plane and greet the Earth’s star with a huge grin. People probably thought I was nuts.

After getting picked up, we headed straight to Griffith park through a melee of sun-spoiled California drivers. Although I had been previously warned that LA’s suburban crawl is unparalleled, I couldn’t stop gawking at its reality. Even in Washington DC suburbia, there are distinct sections and named areas separated more obviously by vegetation. Here, it was just street after street, criss-crossing randomly, highway after highway. I was just glad I wasn’t holding the steering wheel. What did surprise me the most is how hilly and mountainous the area was, neighborhoods of affluence jutting sharply into the sky from areas of pitiful poverty.

Griffith park was crowded by families, friends, kids climbing large-limbed trees. Passing through all this, we headed for the observatory. Parking and climbing up 1.4 miles, we were greeted by an expansive view of LA’s mushrooming groups of buildings, mixed with flat areas of civilization. The observatory itself was also an impressive sight, reminding me of Mosque-like architecture. Being exactly christmas day, many other people had the grand idea of visiting what I later found out to be the number one best place to visit in the LA area. Taking the panoramic tour around the side of the building, we even tried one of those 50 year old giant binoculars which offered us an amazingly blurry view of the Culver City in West LA. I could even make out the hairs on the nose of a biking hobo 15 miles away. I suppose it was a waste of 25c. Maybe it would have been better to leave those kids we shooed away to continue swinging on them.

By this point we were “a little hungry,” since it’s probably overkill to say starving according to Louis CK, even though it felt like my stomach acid was eating itself from inside out. Stopping at a sketchy thai restaurant – probably the only place open this late on Christmas Day – we ordered enough food for an army which we then shared with 4 other people. Here is where I met the step brother, step sister, and step mother. They were really chill people; I was immediately able to chat and laugh with them about certain ridiculously LA-type women who are still passively-aggressive and insecure about their husband after four happy kids and normal family.

The next day, I was introduced to the Beach at Santa Monica, probably the best beach I’ve ever seen. Instead of the typical hotel-recliners and vacationers asking for skin cancer, it was full of incredibly talented slacklining hippies, serious athletic dudes with 16-packs, and the occasional muscle spattered fake-tan 60 year old grandpa, swinging off of pullup bars, rings, ropes, and double bars. Best playground ever.

Post satisfying muscle-torture, we followed the crowd up to the city, hunting for some lunch. Of course the first thing we bump into is a bird-whisperer-retired-pirate looking guy who basically dragged me into a circle of people, then set two large parrots on my shoulder and one into my hand. The birds must be crazily well trained, they just sat there, and also was able to hang off my finger with only their beak. Of course the mandatory price was $5 donation. The funniest part though was when my travel partner did the same, the white parrot became incredibly intrigued by his nipple, taking a nice (but thankfully painless) nibble. The crowd burst into laughter.

Lunch consisted of an asian-like chipotle style restaurant with not enough seats. After vacillating to go eat on the beach or stay, we ended up flocking to a newly-freed table like vultures to the kill.

The next stop was Venice Beach – an equally fun location with the infamous handball courts. Driving the one mile to the south of Santa Monica, we came onto a similar beach, but this time snagged the last handball court. That sport is brutal. It’s basically like playing squash without a racket. Actually, the racket is your hand. I first watched a game, then did some practice, and finally tried to play. I may have hit a couple good ones, but probably was mostly in the way of the other players. Regardless, it was a lot of fun!

Taking a walk after the sun set revealed the most stoner row of stores. The pattern went kind of like this: Pipe store, greasy elephant ear/waffle shop, alleyway, souvenir-shirt shop, Medical marijuana clinic with signs saying “come to the green people and get legal.”, another pipe store, surf shop, more pipes, medical clinic (for $10 cheaper than the previous one!) with a sign saying “the doc is in” (the “doc” is a sketch-looking dude with dreadlocks…)… and so on. All I could do is laugh at this ultra-LA culture.

That night, we made it out to the NW desert area of LA, had a good night sleep, and started the next day off to a chilly but once again beautiful day of sunshine. Before being on our way to Bear Lake Ski Mountain, the pinnacle of the vacation, we visited Vasquez Rocks (the filming location of the Flintstones Movie among other Hollywood films). Climbing around the rocks, we thought of a cool idea: Geocaching! Of course there were multiple caches in the park. We targeted one not too far away, and found the sneaky little bottle, even though the only hint we had was that it is in a crack hidden by small rocks. Haha. Leaving for the Ski slopes I couldn’t wait to try skiing again. Along the way in between nodding off into light naps in the backseat with a puggy dog named Emily on my lap, I got a tour of the Eastern side of the LA area which was a mixture of flat land, sharp mountains, speckled with hardy bushes, and random palm trees amongst mostly sandy desert soil.

One notable place along the way was during a pit stop for gas. Not because of the gas station, but the store on the other side of the main road: Charlie Brown Farms. Google has the following subheading on its maps: “Local honey garlic fries”. Although I’m not sure if that’s supposed to mean “Local honey, garlic, and fries”, “Local honey, and garlic fries”, or the full shabang “Local fries topped with honey-garlic”, I’m sure all three of those items are available in the store. Stopping there on the way back as well, I’m still not quite sure how to categorize this establishment. Maybe the description should be “Everything you don’t need and more.” There definitely was local honey though, as well as ranch-flavored soda, kangaroo meat, fake blood, sugar free chocolate covered honey-comb, kombucha, rainbow-colored pistachios, coffee grinds, 50 kinds of hot sauce…. I have to stop somewhere because there may not be enough bandwidth to upload the full list of stuff. Anyway, I pretty much walked out of there with a light headache due to all the sensory overload. Even closing my eyes wouldn’t have helped, the mix of scents were so plethoric.

We arrived around 5 pm, following a series of life-threatening hairpin switchbacks and overall 6000 ft elevation gain from our original destination. The sun had set by now, but there was still a little orange-purple haze to the West. Temperatures dropped as we rented ski and snowboard for Sunday’s adventure. In the evening, we attended a concert with some family and friends, and also checked out the little town center of Big Bear. Unfortunately most shops were closed, but we did steal pitstop in a candy shop and then a souvenir store along the way to finding another Geocache. That game is so fun – this one’s hint was very clever, stating “it is not in a femail bag”. I was a little perplexed by the funny spelling and full meaning of the hint, but the easy geocache’s final location made full sense: it was in a mailbox!! Haha Good times!

Sunday we got an early start at Big Bear Mountain, racing down the slopes, taking only 30 mins to warm up, then headed straight to the terrain parks. Sadly, there wasn’t enough snow for the halfpipe yet, but a fair amount of boxes and jumps kept us quite busy. The resort also was sure to show off its sophisticated ability to fabricate man-made snow. They were relentlessly blowing the small white crystals out of the largest snow guns I’ve ever seen. One of these snowmakers could fit a whole human inside of just the gun part. Once the sun started bearing down later in the morning, I could definitely feel that I was no longer in Oregon: the sun was quite warm for December, but the air was still cold enough to keep my hat and coat on the whole day. During the day, I probably had about one pound of chocolate we had bought from Charlie Browns, and a nice lunch of rice-quinoa pasta from Trader Joes.

After conquering two middle sized jumps at Big Bear, we took the free shuttle over to Snow Summit, the other mountain face owned by the same company. This place had nearly all slopes open save for all the double black diamonds.. sigh.. I guess I’ll have to work on the hard core slopes at a later time. Soon after arriving, we found jackpot: the biggest jump in the snow park. Popping some chocolate covered espresso-beans, we sat observing others jumping off of it, then I let my friend go first. He made it, and after swallowing my fear, pushing myself down the hill, so did I. It took a couple tries to get the perfect speed going on this jump, but in the end, we both managed to do it flawlessly, getting a yard or more of air!

Highly fulfilled, we did some fast runs before the lifts closed for us (nigh skiing was still open), blasting past most people, just enjoying the sheer speed of the runs. At the cabin, we had a delicious dinner of fish tacos, rice, and spaghetti-squash lasagna (made up recipe by me). Finally, we headed out for some more geocaching, this time I finally found it instead of my friend! Then returned the superb rental equipment, making the mistake of returning the wrong snowboard boots, then having to take an extra trip back to cabin to correct the mistake. At least it wasn’t my fault :D. The night ended with rocking out to a metal cover band, two hot-toddies, and two games of pool where I was basically shamelessly beat by the boss of pooling. I guess it helps that he had a pool table in the middle of his living room growing up.

The next morning, we woke up sleeping in till about 9am. I’d been having the best nights of sleep during the trip for a long time, which is quite unusual, since the first night at a new location, I’m usually on edge and can’t sleep very well. I suppose it helped to feel safe and warm in bed. Packing up, we headed back to LA around 11am. Along the way, we spontaneously decided to go visit Catalina Island that evening, staying overnight, and returning the next day to catch our flight at 7:50pm. Lofty goal, but I foreshadow success 🙂

During the 2 hour car ride, I managed to call the ferry that transported us over to the island that evening and book a hotel. Just think that 10 years ago phone technology was not even close to allowing us to do something like this. I’m pretty sure I had a bulky flip phone that maybe could take some crude photos and call + text message in 2005. In fact, that’s when I got my first cell phone. Wow. Anyways, after a hurried lunch, we got a ride to the orange line, transferred to blue to take us all the way to long beach. We got there exhausted, but plenty early.

Surprisingly, the ferry was more than half empty, but it was a peaceful and smooth ride into the dark night at 35 mph on the sleek catamaran boat. Along the way, we poured through brochures and maps of the Island, thinking of how best to take advantage of the evening and next three-quarters of a day there. Bike ride? Mini Golf? rent a golf cart? segway? parasailing? SUP? arcade? Not really deciding on anything, the first thing off the boat, we just wanted sushi, so after checking in, we yelped really the only sushi shop in town. It was the weirdest setup, tables set up at the front perimeter of the building, a bunch of stands in the middle selling wine, chocolate, soap, candles, eau de parfum, among other random objects (like a vacuum wine plug). Along the rear perimeter was a coffee stand, ice cream stand, and a full bar. There wasn’t really a hostess, so we just stood around looking lost until a waiter came by and told us that we have to wait about 5 minutes. We ordered two sushi plates – one tuna jalapeno, and one yellow fish with asparagus. All of it was quite delicious, but only served as a light appetizer, as later on we ended up having a second dinner at another seafood restaurant: seared ahi for me, lemon chicken for my friend, and a huge (probably 1/2 liter) of beer + oversweet raspberry cider (was not so good.. tasted way too fake).

In between sushi and this restaurant, we found the arcade which actually closed way earlier than advertised, but we got in a good game of mini bowling, where again, I was destroyed and offered basically no competition to my friend. That guy is so good at everything, it blows my mind. But was fun nonetheless, especially given the fact that we got a free game because the lane’s pin resetting system got messed up and had to be manually reset.

Everything on the island had an aire of “historical functionality” to it. It was pretty strange, instead of cars, there were mostly gas-powered golf carts. The hotel we stayed at was also very quaint, and the room in actuality was an 80 square foot separate cottage with a nice view onto the hillside. Inside, the restroom and shower were just big enough to fit one person, probably not good for someone with claustrophobia. I actually really liked the small and simple lodging. It kind of reminded me of a large version of a tree house; I’m pretty sure the floor wasn’t exactly horizontal, but seemed to have a 2 degree tilt towards the back, and just to make sure we weren’t going to overheat, the heater had a two hour timer on it, which made for an interesting night, waking up once in a while to turn the timer on again. I probably should have McGyver-ed a solution with a rubber band to slow the timer length to a full 8 hours. Well.. hindsight is always 20-20.

The final day of the vacation was probably the most amp-ed up day I’ve had in a while. Once we got going, there was no downtime (unless you count eating while sitting instead of while moving). I dressed in a long sleve and vest, with light hiking pants. We didn’t really sit down for breakfast as we had wasted the morning lazing around in bed. Instead, we scarfed down a nectarine and a kind bar, and drank some precious water – the island was in extreme drought. In fact, they tell you to conserve water, but besides limiting shower time, they didn’t give us much hint as to what else not to do. Do other people spray water and let the faucet on while brushing teeth, or flush the toilet unnecessarily? Even water at restaurants were served in bottles instead of tap. I suppose they import that.

Walking onto the main street, we headed straight for the bike rental we saw on our way from the dock to the hotel. Contemplating renting a tandem bike, we instead opted for two mountain bikes, and given a relatively limited map of where we could bike (one 4 mile loop on the south side of the town and another 6 miler one to the north of Avalon), we started out on the south side. It was nice to be riding a bike again, I suppose I really must like biking, since that’s all I do at home, and I’m still not sick of it :).

About 2 miles into the ride, not far past the section where the elevation really started kicking in, I saw a sign for the Trans-Catalina Trail to the left. I looked down at my bike and its thick wheels, then straight forward to the paved road we were supposed to continue on, then again to the left where the rocky-uneven trail began. I could literally feel my bike licking its lips at the sight of the challenge just waiting to happen. Although there was a short gate and a sign that said “permit required for biking and hiking”, I was highly enticed to get off the main road. Making sure my friend was ok with it, thus began our ascent into the high mountains of Catalina Island. We kept playing leapfrog for the first mile and a half, seeing some other hikers along the way which helped calm my slight nerves about not having a permit. Then a jeep tour driven by a short asian lady passed us, mounting itself over the rocky steep terrain. Apparently we looked like crazy adventurers as one guy in the back corner of the jeep couldn’t help but stare at us with a mad grin. Perhaps he wished he was also digging his bike wheels into rugged earth. Or he was just happy to not be killing his legs like we were.

Ascent continuing, we kept telling ourselves, just a little more – there can’t be too much more to go. But it kept going: the hills that looked so tall in the beginning started becoming dwarfs below the trail. The wind picked up too, brutally whipping at our clothes. At one turn, we could finally look over a hill seeing the miniature town below. Amazing. I felt pretty fulfilled, but the continuing trail was calling our name. Both of us felt like we would be giving up just going back down the way we came. Since we did have over four hours before the ferry was to leave, we kept going, eventually seeing over to the other side of the island out at the infinite great Pacific Ocean. Wind, sun, rough rocks, and a bike, I was in my element. Already exhausted, lungs strained, I realized I was pretty much addicted. We had to keep going. At this point, we finally reached a semi-plateau, and more up-down hills than just the steep climb that had previously prevailed. We were both on adrenaline-high mixed with salty fear: what if the breaks failed and we just flew over the side of a switchback? What if the bike wiped out on some large rock or pothole in the way?

Keeping momentum, it was only a matter of time until the trail merged with a fire divide, the steepest climb yet. Neither of us made it up that incline, which was probably at something like a 40 degree tilt. Just walking the bikes up to the top was no child play. Finally, 6 miles after passing the gate to madness, we found a fork in the road which could take us back downhill to the city. Like any crazy person would, we chose to continue upwards after taking some photos and consulting a map one hiker had to at least make sure we weren’t going to end up in Two Harbors, the town on the other end of the island, probably about 20 miles away. By this time, the last slice of tangerine and piece of peanut from the morning’s kind bar was probably being transformed into muscle energy, in fact, last night’s tuna was what fueled the bicycle up these last couple brutal hills, ragged breaths drawing the thin, fresh air.

Stopped again by a group of friendly hikers, we pointed out to them pieces of the far away trail that peaked out from sections of the hilly region we had taken to our current location. They looked at us with admiration, and slight disbelief. By now, my friend and I had finished 1.5 kind bars I brought with me, our 1 water bottle was depleted (I suppose that’s one way to conserve water, take that Catalina Island, we care more about your drought than dehydration!). They also asked about the permit we didn’t actually have, but there had been plenty of hikers and no officials sighted. At this point it wouldn’t really matter anyways, we were in no shape to run for it haha. The last mile to the road passed us by a large communication tower. Up until now, I kept only having roaming service, so not able to send any snapchats. Friskily, I pulled out the phone, expecting to have full range, but instead got more roaming. Dang. Must be an At&t tower since my friend had full service. Come on Sprint.

The last catapult down the mountain took around 20 minutes – windy, bumpy roads twisting and turning all the way down to Avalon. Returning the bikes, we just smiled at the lender. He had no idea where his bikes had been. Huah what a ride!

Lunch was a revival of spirits. We were both destroyed, minds peacefully floating above the physical pain. It was fun in a masochistic, intense, crazy sort of way. I’m so glad to have had someone to experience this mad bliss with, who felt equally ecstatic and consummated by such a physically taxing trip in wild mother nature.

Post gorging ourselves full of fajitas with guacamole, corn chips and buffalo strips washed down by tea, we headed back to grab our bags from the hotel and start our journey back home. The prospective journey should probably make an appearance in some book, the kinds of transportation all in a span of 6 hours is worth noting. It started with the hour ferry ride back to Long beach, followed by .7 mile of speed walking to the blue line metro, then transferring over to the green line, followed by jumping on the shuttle to take us to the airport. LAX is probably one of the most crazy, unorganized airport known to man, somehow still in operation. Maybe because it is visually appealing, all lit up and a weird UFO structure lining the outside (is that the Control tower?). We made it to the security line with nearly 50 minutes to spare. As if some sort of miracle, the security line was even shorter than at PDX on our way to LA.

Following the trek so far was the airplane ride to PDX. 2 hours of turbulent flight and we dashed out the plane and onto the MAX which we made 5 mins early. Lastly, it was the half mile walk home. Finally home to collapse on the couch, I couldn’t believe the trip and the year was finally over. Bittersweet emotions tugged at my heart. What a way to end the year. Good bye 2014. It was a ride, a ride to something better. I have high hopes for 2015. Let’s go!

Ubud Day 5

Last day in Ubud area.. we actually decided to go out to Sanur, on the Eastern coast of Bali to do a SeaWalk. What this entailed was going out to a boat further off the coast, then they put a heavy helmet on our heads which was pumped with oxygen when we were underwater. This allowed us to go underwater a couple of meters and observe the underwater sea life without any sort of scuba training. They even gave us bottles with some sort of fish food which we could expell in huge bouts causing a whole school of fish to come inches from our helmets and feast. Or I could also pull out the morsels one by one, and the fish would come and nibble at it, without much fear from your own fingers. It was so amazing to be part of that very different world for the 30 mins or so that we were underwater. Of course when trying to catch the fish, we’d fail miserably- they were so quick and of course slippery as well 🙂
When we were done with this, took a little sunbath outside to dry off, then walked along the shore to find a very interesting bamboo structure that served as a yoga studio and little shop for an organization that helps save endangered sea species such as whales and sharks. Outside the very open building was a garden of hammocks where Michael tried and almost fell on his face trying to get into one. We probably looked like fools 😀
Then we played a game of life-sized (or rather midget-sized) chess, then sat down for a late lunch of soup and a sandwich before heading back to the hired car and driving back to Ubud, had dinner and crashed. I slept in the family room since they had an extra bed, a bed wrapped like a cocoon attatched to the ceiling. I felt like a proper princess on a camping trip, as the room was only half walls, half mesh panels letting in the sounds of the insects and rushing river far below. After only 2.5 hrs of sleep, I slapped myself awake for it was time for the my first night trek up Mt. Batur to see the amazing sunrise over the horizon and the largest volcano on the island rising to over 3100m tall.

Ubud Days 1-3

Day 1

I wake up around 6am, sprawled out on a king-sized bed in a room about 4 times the size of my room at home with the air conditioner on and black curtains blocking out most of the sun outside.. and snap- it comes back to me. I’m in the Villa of my cousin’s fiancee’s gay cousin. and he gave me his bed because he was spending the night with this guy he just met 2 days ago and they were going on a bike ride at 7am that morning.. easier to just eliminate the meeting part in the morning and just stay at his place, right? Sure..

walk out to get the other half of my breakfast, sat out in the pool area to eat it. met up with emily, gave michael’s key back at the receptionist making up a story about how he left it in “my” room so they didn’t think i slept in his room because that would have been an extra fee. took a cab back to emily/endre+ his family’s villa, from which they were moving out of to go to Ubud. I was to take the car with them. Little did I know that I was going to be the two kids’ playtoy on the way there.. after braiding their hairs (one was in the car while the girl was turning her head around not really helping me do the job, and was while we were dodging around motorcycles and potholeing) then had to hide a toy and use “hot/cold” to figure out where it was – but of course it was always under her butt or behind her back, so i had to pretend to not know that and start somewhere far away so she was always delighted to see that I took such a looooong time to find it, so she must have hid it in a clever place.
As we made our way out of Seminak, the terrain got more hilly, and rice fields were everywhere around us, with harvesters using old-fashion scythes to cut down the crop.
When we got to the new Villa, i was breathless- it was at the outcrop of a hill-but almost as steep as a cliff, with a river roaring down below. The panoramic view at the top area was of the largest palm-jungle I’ve ever seen. The villa hosts even told us that there’d be the occasional monkey and other wild animal that we would see. On arrival, they gave us fresh-cold towels, and iced-tea. After a tour of the place, we dove straight into the pool, and I spent about 1 hour teaching my little nieces (or cousins? not sure what my cousin’s children are in relation to me) how to swim.

Back to Ubud center, Endre rented a motor-bike. Him and I sat on, and zipped over to a supermarket to get me a SIM card into my faithful phone that I have used throughout Europe as well, and has the capability to connect to any network I’ve tried thus far. On the way back, we got a bottle of vodka to fuel the motor – hah just joking, it was gasoline, but here’s the best part: it was sold in a vodka bottle. Gas station = a shelf of petrol at the side of the road housed in clear bottles. Price ~ $2/gallon. (and the motor only cost about $5 per day) Barring that you don’t drive off the side of a bridge, I’d say that’s pretty worth it (and the rental is filling out your name, and signing.. they don’t even check if you have a lisence which technically should be a Balinese license.

That night Endre+Emily, 2 of Emily’s friends and i went out to dinner where about 1 hour in, jetlag hit hard. I just couldn’t get a comprehensible sentence out of my mouth, although it may also have been because of this insanely spicy fish I ordered.. i swear it was the most spicy thing I ate in my life, felt like my tongue was about to burn off. But good news was that anything after it seemed mild. I was even cooling my mouth off with a rice that the rest of the table deemed “very spicy”. I guess next time watch out for the phrase “traditional Balinese spiced”.

Day 2

After riding the motor on monday, i just had to get one myself. Of course all the “danger” alarms were going off in my head: No, I’ve never driven a motorcycle, people drive on the opposite side of the road here (well… theoretically) so I’m not used to that, I am not “actually” allowed to drive with an american lisence, so i may get stopped by the police, I’ll have no protective gear, just a helmet. But then I looked at the flipside: if I don’t rent one out (and price was definitely not an issue here), I will come home with the dissatisfaction of not having done it.

So here i go: rented the bike, weaved my way down a potholey path that was smaller than a regular sidewalk at home, and not even a 1/4 km away, i already bumped something. Now a normal person would probably curse and wish they never did this, but I just thought – yeeah adrenaline! awesome! now I have to think quickly what should I do? A taxi driver came and helped me then said he would go with me to the mechanic to get it fixed and he would get a better price than if I would go by myself.. i was skeptical, and good thing i waited around a bit, because the owner of the bike just came by, and said no no, he will bring his wife and then we would go together. Long story short: damage done: $30. All the while I had a great experience in waiting for the bike and observing how they fixed it in around 45 mins, talking to the lady from who we rented the room. All this instead of getting a massage like i originally wanted to. Haha, don’t regret it at all 🙂 Picked up my gay roommate, then headed back to the Villa on the motorbike through windy roads weaving through the jungle-like landscape then the rice paddies, all the while feeling the poor guy behind me shaking as I tried to hide my own nervousness by talking to him. Apparently did it well because he though I was totally chill, without a drop of anxiety. And we made it the whole 7 kms without a scratch. Score!

That night the whole gang went to the Jazz cafe, had a delicious buffet, and danced to a stevie-wonder double singing Superstitious, among many other great songs. Any jetlag I had for the first half of the night was pretty much gone after boogie-ing and making a human train on the dancefloor with Emily, Louise and Michael. Great night!

Day 3

In the morning, shortly after waking and washing my face, the homestay owner came up to us and asked if we were eating breakfast now or later? I said, oh, now.. and 10 mins later, he came back out of the kitchen with two places of the best looking egg-tomato-garlic toasted bread sandwich ever. I could not resist the temptation to eat at least half of one – it was delicious.. and although I was supposedly allergic to wheat and eggs in the states, I must have left it behind, it’s fists shaking on the California coast because I went through the day without a pang of pain in my stomach. He also brought a plate of fruit: papaya, watermelon, pineapples, and the sweetest bananas I’ve ever tasted! On top of all this, he brought two enormous coconuts with straws poking out! Remembering the coconut water I tasted back home, i was a bit wary about drinking it, but I thought – why the hell not.. it’s the freshest you can get.. and indeed it was very different from that store-bought, so called “100% coconut water” drink they sell at costco. Refreshing and semi-sweet.

By 10:00, we were at Emily+Endre’s villa where Michael and I booked a hotel for the Gili Islands where we were going to take a jetboat Saturday around noon. Then at 11 I hopped in a tour-car with my family except Endre (included 2 nieces, cousin, her husband, and my aunt and her husband) The adventure has begun!

In the following 10 hours, I saw the oldest temple in Bali, the elephant caves where some old men liked to meditate for 1 month without food and water (the smoke in there definitely made me want to sit and just “exist”.. and never go back to work :D), a coffee plantation where I tasted some amazing coffee, tea and hot chocolate – and witenssed the most interesting coffeemaker-contraption.. looked more like a science experiment, wolfed down mouth-watering fried bananas with fresh cane sugar on top, then saw their handmade-silver factory, the monkey forest where monkeys go abound stealing stuff out of your pockets and bananas out of your hands.. with certain ones thinking I’m friendly enough to even climb on my backpack and then pulling my hair, and finally the famous female-only kacak fire dance that celebrated the life of their sun-god Ramayana, as well as the horse rider’s dance through burning coconut husks. I finished up the day with the most delicious snapper fish dinner with rice and greenbean and cabbage salad. I even cleaned out two small bowls of spicy tomato and pepper salsa-like sauce. I must have grown some hair on my tongue or something after that first night out where I had to drink 2 large cups of orange-mango smoothie before I could breathe normally again. On the way back home I even witnessed the second pair of mating animals that day (first being a pair of monkeys, this second one being 2 dogs).