I just finished the first year of my PhD program, so I took a weeklong vacation to Southern California. My friends Lisa and Lister were getting married, and I also wanted to do some hiking and exploring. I flew in on Friday, May 29 and stayed with a couchsurfing host in Claremont. On Saturday, I met up with my hiking partner, Richard, whom I had met through the MIT Outing Club a few months before, and we went up to hike Mt. San Antonio (aka “Baldy”). We took the ski lift and the devils backbone trail, mainly to get some acclimatization. It was very dry and dusty, and the sun was powerful. Even with sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses, I got burned on my neck. I was impressed with the diversity (ethnic, gender, age, etc) of people out hiking. The views from the summit were pretty nice. In the evening, I went to the wedding party in Monterey Park at a large Chinese seafood restaurant. It was quite an experience to see such a large number of people having such a good time. On the other hand, one thing that really struck me about LA was how few people I actually saw, because I seemed to be driving all the time from one place to another on the freeways. Having become accustomed to the car-free lifestyle in Boston, it felt alienating to not come into contact with people as I was moving around.

On Sunday, I bought supplies and drove through the Mojave Desert to Lone Pine, a small town in the Owens Valley. On Monday, Richard and I drove up to Horseshoe Meadows and hiked up Cottonwood Pass to Chicken Springs Lake, where we spent the night. The lake is at about 11,000 feet and is surrounded by cliffs. It was a beautiful area. We met a lot of Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers at the camping area. On Tuesday, we hiked north along the PCT and then scrambled up to Cirque Peak, which had a magnificent view of the surrounding area. It reminded me of Byers Peak in Colorado, another wilderness hike I had done with my Dad a few years before. It’s a nice feeling to look around 360 degrees and not see any sign of civilization. It’s humbling too.

We then descended to the trailhead and drove to the Whitney Portal. We started up the Mt. Whitney Trail with our 45 pound packs and camped near Lone Pine Lake. In contrast to Mt. Baldy and Cottonwood Pass/Cirque Peak, it was nice to see running water along the trail. The unique plants and animals were fascinating too, as well as the splendor of the high granite cliff walls on either side of the valley. On Wednesday, we hiked to Trail Camp (12000 feet) and I spent some time practicing my ice axe self-arrest techniques on a snowbank nearby. We met several interesting characters in the camp, including father-son team Carter and Theo Brown. They were working on the state high points and Theo (8 years old) told me he wanted to be an Arctic explorer when he grows up. Carter had completed many difficult hikes and mountaineering climbs and said that he “used to be a juggler“. While I admired his accomplishments, it made me realize that I don’t want to be a full-time adventurer like him, but rather, someone who occasionally goes on adventures but also enjoys life in other ways. Richard, who has a family of his own, agreed with me that there is more to life than climbing mountains, even though it is a really awesome hobby.

We left camp at 3am Thursday morning (June 4) to make our summit attempt. We ascended a moraine on the trail, then put on crampons and started across a snowbank toward the “chute”, a steep snowbank leading all the way up to Trail Crest at 13600 feet. Before we got to the base of the chute, we noticed thick, dark clouds moving in and blocking the full moon. We decided to turn back around 4am, not wanting to get caught in a storm that seemed likely to develop once the sun came up. We broke camp and carried our packs all the way down to the trailhead. The temperature dropped rapidly and it started to rain and hail, with some snow as well. Looking back toward the summit, we saw that dark clouds had enveloped all of the ridges above about 12000 feet. We were glad to be off the mountain safely.

I thought that I would be disappointed to not reach the summit, but surprisingly I was relieved. I had been nervous about driving all the way back to LA to catch my flight after such an exhausting day. Also, I think it is easy to fall into the habit of peak-bagging and counting high points, losing track of the fact that it is the experience of the hike, and the beauty of nature encountered along the way, that is the real benefit of hiking. By not reaching the summit, it changed my focus from “getting to the top” to “enjoying the experience”, which is something I probably needed. I am grateful to my companion Richard for sharing his wisdom and knowledge to be able to make the decision about turning around, and also in planning out the acclimatization hikes so that we did not experience any altitude sickness. I consider the trip to be a success, because we got to see some really cool natural enviroments, and because I learned a lot of new things. For example, I experienced several “firsts” on this trip:

  • first time to use a bear canister
  • first time to use a “WAG bag” to carry out waste
  • first time walking on a snowfield with crampons

Now that I’m back in Boston, I am ready to focus on my research and on spending more time with my wife. I am very grateful for her patience in my crazy goals of mountain climbing!

Advertisements

Even though I’ve lived in Boston about half a year now, I sometimes still feel like a tourist, since I spend so much time in classes. When we first moved here in the summer, we had more free time and did a lot of exploring around, especially when my family came to visit. Here are a few suggestions I would offer to anyone planning a visit to Boston. I am mainly listing the “popular” stuff. I will put a (*) to mark things that are more off-the-beaten-track. This is not a comprehensive list, of course.

Downtown Area

  • Quincy Market/ Faneuil Hall
  • Aquarium/ Long Wharf
  • Italian restaurants in the North End
  • Freedom Trail
  • Bunker Hill
  • USS Constitution
  • Boston Public Gardens
  • Community Sailing*
  • Barking Crab restaurant- good seafood, less expensive than Quincy Market area.
  • Science Center

Back Bay/ Fenway

  • Trinity Church- taking a guided tour is recommended.
  • Duck Tours
  • Boston Public Library
  • Museum of Fine Arts
  • Fenway Park
  • Isabella Steward Gardener Museum*

Cambridge

  • Harvard Square
  • MIT Campus
  • Mt. Auburn Cemetery*- has a cool monument tower you can climb for an excellent view of the city. Also many famous people are buried here.
  • Minuteman Bike Trail*- an old railroad grade extends from Alewife all the way out to Lexington/ Concord

Other Places

  • Pleasure Bay*- it’s fun to watch the tide come in and out, and to see the windsurfers.
  • Arnold Arboretum*- Jamaica Plain neighborhood
  • South End neighborhood*- many interesting townhouses and shady streets
  • Larz Anderson Park*- South Brookline. Has a unique automobile museum and excellent sledding/ kite flying hills.

In August 2013, Tina and I went back to Colombia for a couple of weeks. The last time I was there was in 2010. It was nice to see some old friends again and make some new ones as well. Our first stop was of course Bogota, where we got to see Arieta and her boyfriend Will, who is originally from San Francisco. He had opened an excellent Italian restaurant in La Candelaria which we very much enjoyed. They also took us on a tour of the huge Paloquemao Market which I had not seen before. I took Tina to visit the La Merced neighborhood in La Macarena area, but sadly noticed that the El Cafecito hostel where I stayed before was no longer operational.

We then flew to Cartagena, where we were able to walk around the old city wall and watch the beautiful sunset. We had a long conversation at the hostel with an Australian exchange student, and a Doctor/Nurse couple from Michigan who were about to move to Alaska. They had lived in Duluth, MN for a while and shared several fascinating stories about working in the hospital. The next day we walked over to the huge Castillo de San Felipe (a giant Spanish fort). It was fun exploring the tunnels. We also passed through a surprisingly clean and fancy mall nearby. At lunch we met a local guy named Getty who talked with us for 2 hours about his career as an architect, the local politics, and his friends and family. The fish stew was amazing but I can’t remember if the hole-in-the-wall place even had a name it was so small.

Next, we took the bus to Taganga. I was re-living my memories of long family road trips when I was a kid by playing pokemon on my phone and Tina took a nap. In Taganga, we walked along the shore to the beach. It was way more crowded than I remembered, and full of noisy people, trash, chickens, and stray dogs. However, we found a good cove to swim in, and it was comforting to see many police stationed along the cliff trail. In the hostel there were many colorful characters, such as a sketchy older Argentinian man who was lounging around shirtless and watching Robert de Niro movies. He insisted that I look up some obscure jazz composer that he liked. A friendly Spanish guy was trying to access some gay websites on the computer, but then a crowd of kids ran through the room shoving and looking for a kitten that was hiding under the couch. The next day we rested and went to Santa Marta for some souvenir shopping and met two friendly ladies from a local church who helped us find our way. The following day, we hiked to Parque Tayrona. There was a plethora of other foreigners at Playa Cabo San Juan so we had to camp in a tent instead of staying in the hammocks over the rocks like I had before. We had dinner with a nice couple from Bogota- a tango instructor and a lady who was involved in some kind of herbal supplement pyramid scheme. At night, we kept waking up because the tent leaked and we had to put a big sheet of plastic over it. Of course, under the plastic we would start sweating due to the lack of ventilation and end up just taking it off and letting ourselves get wet anyway. We awoke at 5:30 am to see a beautiful sunrise. We went swimming in the cove and after breakfast hiked back out to the road. We rested at a hostel in Santa Marta and ate a lot of fish and drank delicious guava, pineapple, blackberry, tomate de Arbol, and passion fruit juices. There were many mosquitoes and not many people in the hostel, and “Home Alone” was playing on the TV.

We flew to Medellin. The long bus ride from the airport had beautiful scenery of the mountains. A nice local guy helped us get on the subway system, which was very clean and convenient. We stayed at the Palm Tree Hostel where we shared dinner with a friendly Dutch couple named Rody and Carliene and an older British couple who were vegetarians. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic Colombian-American guy named Orlando gave everyone travel tips and shared a lot of interesting historical and biological information. The next morning we explored the center of the city where we saw many Botero sculptures. There was a long line of people outside a bank waiting for government checks. We then went up the cable car and chatted with an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter who were from New Mexico. They were in town for the Pan-American Games. Their son was a javelin thrower from the Naval Academy. At the top of the mountain, we enjoyed exploring with bikes and even got lost on a short hike before luckily finding a guided group who showed us the way back. We bought tons of vegetables and an enormous guanabana at the Exito grocery store (like a Colombian version of Costco or Walmart). We made a big stir-fry and shared it with our new friends at the hostel, some of whom seemed to not know what ginger root was (!). To my surprise, no one liked the guanabana because it was too sour. Orlando told everyone about an interesting, sweet fruit called borojo which we had not tried before. Later, a Canadian girl and a Taiwanese girl arrived and told us they had been separately robbed and stalked in Cartagena. I definitely got the feeling Cartagena had gone downhill somewhat since I was there last. On the other hand, Medellin was as pleasant as ever.

Around this time, there were a lot of agricultural and student protests going on all over Colombia. This made us nervous about trying to get to Santa Rosa de Cabal by road, but we decided to chance it anyway. The road was a classic South American mountain highway- viciously curvy and clogged with slow trucks, which the bus driver never hesitated to try to zoom past in the lane with the opposing traffic. We passed Manizales and got off at the outskirts of Santa Rosa. To our surprise, our host family pulled up almost immediately and boisterously hugged us and took us back to their new house, which was larger than the one I stayed in before. Also, last time they didn’t have a car. I was glad to see they were doing well and able to have some conveniences. Their younger son had really grown up a lot since last time, and they also had a new dog, “Midas”, who loved to bark at skateboarders as they would pass by in the street. I noticed that many of the young people we saw all over the country now had iphones, ipads, and other technological gadgets, whereas before, folks were using the older flip-phones. I think this may have been facilitated by the recent US-Colombia trade agreement, which seems to have been a bittersweet deal in that it also may have contributed to the Colombian farmers’ difficulties in paying for fuel and fertilizer while having to sell crops at lower prices due to increased competition. At least, that’s the sentiment I felt from talking to local people.

After spending a few relaxing days in Salento and Valle Corcora, which was just as lovely as ever, but a bit more touristy, we flew from Armenia back to Bogota. Since we wanted to visit the downtown area, we stayed in La Candelaria, something I had not done before. After visiting the fascinating Gold Museum, we headed to the northern part of the city to explore a bit during the day, especially enjoying a large flower market. On the way back, we were physically unable to cram into the overcrowded transmilenio buses due to failing to anticipate the rush hour. So, after walking about 40 blocks, we finally hailed a taxi cab. The driver almost kicked us out when he heard where we wanted to go, claiming that due to the massive crowd of protesters that had converged on the Plaza Bolivar near our hostel, he was afraid to go anywhere within 10 blocks because “anarchists would throw rocks and burn his cab”. We gave him double fare and he let us out in the outskirts of the frightening scene. We heard distant shouts and popping noises. We carefully skirted the back streets and with a sigh of relief dashed inside the hostel. During the night, the drifting clouds of tear gas would come in through the open courtyard and everyone’s eyes would start burning. We were riveted to the television, and everything seemed surreal. Thankfully, we were able to get out of the city unscathed the next morning and catch our flight home. I don’t know if there is any lesson or moral to the story, but it was an experience I won’t soon forget.

While our last couple of days in Colombia were somewhat more “exciting” than we had hoped, it hasn’t changed my opinion of the country as one of the most beautiful and friendly I have ever visited. I only hope that the people there will continue to prosper and can hopefully find ways to resolve any future conflicts in a peaceful manner. On another note, I will never forget how brave and resilient Tina was during the whole unpredictable trip. I feel truly fortunate that she later agreed to be my wife!

Greetings everyone! I have returned to the USA after almost 3 months in South America. It feels good to be able to see family and friends here again, but of course I am also a bit sad to be so far away from all of the wonderful people I met during the trip. Also, I have decided to move to the Washington, DC area and start a part-time masters program in statistics at Georgetown as of January 2011. Since my company has an office in Arlington, I will continue working full-time.

That said, I do have a few more stories I’d like to share from my time in Brazil. When I left off last time, I was in the Amazon. From Manaus, I took a plane to Rio de Janeiro. While there I stayed with my friend Leo’s family in a neighborhood called Humaitá. Leo, who once lived in Charlottesville and has a PhD in Philosophy, shared many fascinating insights into Brazilian history and architecture as we wandered around the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, the Botanical Gardens, and of course the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Rio reminded me of Hong Kong in many ways. Both are cosmopolitan, semitropical coastal cities where steep, lushly forested mountains form a backdrop to skyscrapers and crowded beaches. One afternoon, Leo and I hiked up to a cable car station to watch the sunset from the top of the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf), a giant vertical granite pillar jutting out of the shallow bay near the financial center. After stumbling back down the trail in the dark, we joined Nicole, an American W&L alumna who now lives in Brazil, and her husband Amod in the Lapa neighborhood to experience Rio’s legendary nightlife. It was just as impressive as one might imagine, with hundreds of people dancing in the streets (and it wasn’t even Carnival). On another occasion, Nicole and Amod took me to a street party in a favela near their home in the fast-growing suburb of Recreio dos Bandeirantes. While it is true that many favelas are basically slums and can be dangerous due to drug gangs, this one was relatively safe, and the people were quite friendly. It was amazing to see not only 20-somethings, but also older married couples and children dancing until late at night. While I admire the Carioca spirit of conviviality, I’m not sure I could survive trying to live there, because the constant excitement can be exhausting at times. So, when Leo needed to fly to Canada for academic business, I decided to explore some of the surrounding countryside on my own. Having the opportunity to visit a place as unique as Rio de Janeiro was certainly a dream come true for me, but Brazil is huge and diverse, and I am also glad I had the chance to see other aspects of the country, about which I will write soon.

I am now in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after a long period of limited internet access. I will be visiting southeastern Brazil until early November. After my time on the north coast of Colombia, I flew down to Leticia, a small city right on the border with Brazil and Peru along the Amazon River (also known in those parts as the Rio Solimões). Here I stayed in a hostel on a guava, starfruit, and mango orchard owned by an eccentric, but helpful Colombian man named Gustavo who spoke fluent English… with a Flemish accent! Born in Bogotá, he had lived in Belgium for many years before retiring and starting the hostel. The only other guest was a French industrial artist who was trying to build a giant snake sculpture out of plastic bottles to promote recycling. Gustavo introduced me to a local farmer named Ferne who agreed to spend a day showing me around in the forest. The next morning I took a small bus literally to the end of the highway (there are no roads connecting Leticia to any other part of Colombia), where I joined Ferne, his mule, and his shotgun-toting neighbor. He assured me there was no danger of being kidnapped by guerrillas, because they prefer to hide in cloud forests at higher elevations rather than lowland rainforest since the former more effectively conceals smoke from campfires. After a brief snack of tucupi (bitter fish stew made with cassava) served by the neighbor´s wife (who I later learned was almost 25 years younger than him), we hiked about 2 hours to a small stream in the forest called “Tacana”. Using cane poles and chunks of a palm fruit for bait, we caught a few small sabalo fish, which looked like sardines. Due to it being the dry season, the level of the water was low and there were almost no mosquitoes around. This was a surprise to me because it had been raining so much in the other parts of Colombia I had just visited. They also showed me how to layer palm leaves to form a thatch hut. Returning to Leticia, I spent a few days shopping for a hammock and going through immigration, then boarded a riverboat called the Voyager III. In order to get on board, we first had to wait in a long line for several hours for the federal Brazilian police to inspect our luggage, and ensure we weren´t smuggling drugs. I was the only American on board, and there were only about 5 or 6 other foreigners, from Australia and Europe. The boat proceeded continuously for 4 days down the river to Manaus. During this time, I finished two 500-page novels (Zodiac by Neal Stephenson and The Firm by John Grisham), played about 50 games of Solitaire, and ate way too much rice and beans. I also got to chat with many of the other people on the boat, including an elderly Peruvian man from Iquitos, a Brazilian woman who was living in Palo Alto, California, and a large Haitian family on vacation. The Haitian guys were very friendly and taught me a game called “casino,” and I tried to teach them “hearts.” They explained that there are permanent Haitian communities in both Manaus and Tabatinga (a small Brazilian town near Leticia). Sleeping in a hammock every night was tolerable, but the boat was very crowded and they kept the deck lights on all night. I was glad when we finally reached Manaus (pop. 1.7 million). Here, my friend Raniere, who is a fish biologist and had spent a summer at Washington & Lee, hosted me for almost a week. I´m very grateful to him for showing me both typical aspects of family life, the city, and also the countryside nearby. We spent a few days on his sitio (farm), where I planted ajambo fruit tree (scientific name Syzygium). His two nephews had a good time laughing at my slow progress digging a deep hole in the blazing tropical sun. Overall, my impression of Amazonia is that it is vast. Anyone who has driven across Kansas or Nebraska knows how the great plains seem to go on forever. The Amazon is the same way, except it is mostly covered with trees. I say mostly because as you know deforestation is extensive and ongoing in many areas, and many of the forested areas I visited had been logged within the last 50 years. Furthermore, it is not uniformly an isolated wilderness- many people live there, and their hopes and dreams are sometimes shockingly familiar. In a testament to the ubiquity of American popular culture, one giggling teenage girl from a tiny village near the river asked me in Portuguese if I had ever read a book called Twilight, about a vampire and his lover. I just laughed and told her I had heard about it, but that I had no plans to read it. I guess Amazonian people really aren´t that different from Americans after all!

(click here for photos) Greetings from Colombia! I arrived in Bogotá almost three weeks ago and spent a week in the capital city, which is very spread-out relative to Quito. After I recovered from a mild cold (greatly helped by eating plenty of good food, such as a fish stew called ¨sancocho¨ my friend Carlos introduced me to), I went to a game of ultimate frisbee hosted by the couch-surfing (travel enthusiast) community. One of the locals invited me to join an ¨English Club,¨ which was a group of about 40 Colombians who wanted to practice speaking English. I was one of about 3 native speakers there, so we were in high demand to explain the difference between tricky words like cheap, cheat, sheer, and shear. After that, I took a few days to travel by bus through the ¨Zona Cafetera¨, where most of Colombia´s famous coffee is produced. Unfortunately, I don´t drink coffee so I can´t say whether it is really the best in the world. But, I can say that the small towns and people are extremely friendly. On the bus from Ibagué to Armenia, for example, we had to go over a high mountain pass, and a landslide blocked the road for hours. With a large family and crying babies in front of me, and no food for 5 hours, it was very frustrating, but nevertheless the man sitting next to me shared some plantain chips and invited me to stay with his family in the next town, Santa Rosa de Cabal. I accepted, and spent a lot of time learning about his business, which involves shipping garlic and onions from Peru to Venezuela, and hanging out with his 11-year-old son Sebastian. Experiencing family life in Colombia made me think about how some things are really universal across cultures, even if the language isn´t the same. I next spent a couple of nights in Medellín, which used to be famous as the ¨murder capital of the world¨ and the headquarters of international drug lord Pablo Escobar, but now is much safer. I was particularly impressed by their extremely efficient metro system, which connects seamlessly to a cable car leading up into the hills, where a very modern new library with internet access has been built in the midst of what once were slums known as ¨the cradle of assassins¨. Currently, I am in Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast (interesting article about the town here). About a week ago I flew into Cartagena and spent a night in Barranquilla (home of famous pop star Shakira), then started the trek to the Lost City, an archaeological site about 3 days walk inside the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park. Hiking through the forest and along raging rivers (one of which we had to cross by a wobbly cable car) was really an adventure, and I got to see not only the ruins but also many unusual plants, including the famous Coca bush from which cocaine is derived. The indigenous Kogui people were growing it in their backyards, along with Guava and Cacao (chocolate) trees, and banana plants. Also, it was my first time to sleep in a hammock on the trip. I plan to explore the beaches of the nearby Tayrona National Park over the next few days, then fly to Leticia in the Amazon region before crossing the border into Brazil.

Here´s some pictures from Ecuador: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2047406&id=19000929&l=fd0a25ed62
I´m back in Bogotá again after an exciting, exhausting last few days in Ecuador. It´s incredible how much there is to see in such a small country. So after my last email, Xan had to return to the US to start his Ph.D. program, and I became a solo traveler. However, I wasn´t alone for long before I had the good fortune to meet my cousin´s girlfriend´s friend from high school (try saying that ten times fast!), who lives with her husband in Quito. It was really fun hanging out with them, and to learn a few dance steps from their friends. I also thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Botanical Garden in one of Quito´s many big parks, where there were not only a variety of rare orchids and unusual tropical flowers, but also a beautiful rose garden and a display of medicinal plants. The next day Milton (a friend from college) invited me to play soccer with some folks from his school. The two teams included Germans, Ecuadorians, 2 Americans (including me), and a surprisingly large contingent of blonde Norwegian girls, who were very fast and agressive when going after the ball. I still have a scar from a collision with one of them! After that, I tried to cram in as much sight-seeing as possible, and rode the bus at least 4 hours every day for about 5 days straight. The first place I visited was a big volcanic lake called Quilotoa. It was very beautiful, but the exposed landscape was windy and very cold, so after taking some pictures I huddled around a wood stove with the Quechua owners of our ¨hostel¨ (more like a shack) and four friendly Australian backpackers. They told interesting stories about their recent visit to Cuba and Mexico, and we speculated on why almost none of the men in Ecuador choose to grow beards. On the way to Riobamba, I stopped for lunch (usually the cost was less than $2) at a small place near the bus station. When they brought out the soup, I eagerly started sipping. But when my spoon dipped closer to the bottom of the bowl, a chicken foot appeared! I was surprised but decided to eat it anyway to impress the waitress (actually I already tried chicken feet once in Hong Kong, so it wasn´t too scary). Riobamba is a popular base to explore Ecuador´s tallest mountain, Chimborazo (20,703 feet; the summit is regarded as the point furthest from the center of the Earth). Obviously, I wasn´t a skilled enough mountaineer to attempt the climb this time, but I did get the chance to hike toward the snow line. The landscape was completely barren of trees. The soil had a reddish tinge that made me feel like I was on Mars, and the thin air made everything seem very surreal. It was the first time I´ve experienced snow fall in the tropics as well. From this point, three Germans and I rode bikes down the mountain, spotting camel-like Vicunyas, Alpacas, and Llamas, as well as a falcon, along the way. I then caught a red-eye bus back to Quito and departed the next day for Bogotá, where I am now (and in the last 5 days here, I have yet to encounter another American). Next week I will probably go to the Zona Cafetera (place in Colombia where coffee is produced) and Medellin.