Quick Chile trip recap

Outrigger power

As usual, there has been considerable delay in my brief write-up of my brief trip to Chile in early August. It took a full 24 hours of travel each way, from Boston to Las Trancas. South America is big! I think people outside of South America don’t realize how large even countries like Peru and Bolivia are.

The group accommodation was simple and very pleasant. It seems like there are a ton of accommodation options in this town.

Unfortunately, the weather gods were not on our side. It was raining half the time, and when it was snowing decently, the resort would stop running their lifts due to high winds. Certainly a bit of a bummer.

Not what you want to see during ski season

But I did get a day or two of decent skiing in. I also met another three-tracker in the group. It has never happened where I meet (1) someone who skis on one leg and ski, (2) Rips, too, (3) Skis on the same leg as I do. Holy shit, the trinity is complete!

I think we have a good shot at qualifying for the US National Synchronized Outrigger team. (Photo: Maria Peters)

We just look fuckin’ weird here (Photo: Maria Peters)

It is pretty cool to ski in August! And it was nice to visit Chile again; it has been a very long time since I was last in South America. As I am currently teaching myself Portuguese, my Spanish is totally mangled, and I spoke some kind of Portuguese/Spanish hybrid when I was in Las Trancas. I was able to get away with this because the area gets a lot of Brazilian skiers/tourists, so most folks there can speak some basic Portuguese.

An unfortunate health problem cropped up for me on this trip  and it made me wonder about what kind of medical care could I get in Chile, let alone a place like Las Trancas. Access to excellent health care and specialists is a huge factor in deciding where I will live, and that elicits a lot of negative feelings and emotions in me. I hate feeling and being limited in my choices.

I was pretty wrecked after so much travel, and connections in confusing airports (i.e. Santiago). It’s not that fun lugging around a huge ski bag twice my size around airports. I am very mobile given my disability. However, I was thinking the whole time about the difficulties someone less mobile than me would have in the same situation, and what assistance they would receive.

If you are making a connection in Santiago, the process and airport are very confusing. You might be approached by guides or people with official airport badges offering to help you.  They aren’t doing it to be nice; they expect a sizable tip.

I will be off to Portugal again soon. It is kind of cool to go from the Andes to sunny Portugal. I love contrast.

(Almost) Chile-bound – a hedge pays off

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like it when:

  • You cancel plans (say, climbing or skiing ones) because of forecasted weather but the weather ends up being favourable
  • Finding out the item/service/commodity you just bought went on sale shortly after your purchase
  • Make the decision to change airline travel plans e.g. because with imperfect information you are quite sure you will miss your connecting flight; don’t get on your original flight; and later find out you could have made your connecting flight, which would have saved you a great deal of trouble.

Fortunately, #3 did not happen today.

This round of travel involves many steps, all tightly interwoven and dependent on each other. Like blocks in an igloo. Or like this engineering marvel: a ring created out of Pringle chips. If you remove one chip, the entire structure collapses.

Getting to my final destination of Nevados de Chillán required:

  1. Flying from Boston to Miami
  2. Catching the connecting flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile
  3. Flying from Santiago (SCL) to Concepción (CCP), Chile
  4. Ground transport from Concepción to Las Trancas

Many steps: BOS to MIA to SCL to CCP to Nevados Chillán.

It was only when I was looking at why the travel time from Miami to Santiago was so much longer than I expected (~9 hours) that I learned just how large Colombia (440,800 sq. miles), Peru (496,200 sq. miles), and Bolivia (424,200 sq. miles) are in size! Texas (268,597 sq. miles) is super dinky in comparison.

Closer up of Chile stops/destination in relation to each other. Note the scale at the very bottom of the image.

As I write this, I should be in Miami by now with plenty of time to spare for my connecting flight to Santiago. But I’m not because I made the decision at the check-in counter to change my flight to be a full 24 hours later (same time tomorrow) based on estimates from non-airline (in this case, I am flying American Airlines) websites (e.g. Google which is based on FlightAware); forecasted weather for the next few hours and tomorrow; and predicting how a ton of flights were going to be backed up. The original departure time was supposed to be 1645 hr. This was pushed to 1730 hr this morning, which still gave me enough time to make the connection. We continued to check flight status right before leaving the apartment, and during the drive to the airport. AA continued to stand by this 1730 hr departure, despite predictions from FlightAware of a delay of over an hour. As of right now, this is the status of that flight:

Original departure time was 4.45p then 5.30pm. The plane still hasn’t taken off.

Of course, so that airlines can minimize the official delay time, the flight has been pushed off from the gate for a long time now, and just sitting on the runway waiting for takeoff, with passengers wanting to gouge their eyes out, I’m sure.

So yes, I can now feel vindicated about my decision, but it really was not clear at the time. Firstly, my SCL to CCP domestic flight was on  a separate ticket with a partner airline that would have been the same airline I would have flown had I kept that leg as an AA reservation. Nevertheless, AA could not make changes here. I did this to save a couple hundred dollars. Maybe the moral of this is to try and have all legs of a journey on one airline.

Before I made the decision to shift my departure to be 24 hours later, I needed to see if I could change my internal Chile flight and what this would cost. Comically, when I called LATAM customer service and tried to do this, the agent told me their system was down for maintenance. WTF. Who schedules maintenance on a fuckin’ weekday afternoon. So I didn’t know what was going to happen there. But I was also sure I was going to miss the connection in Miami so I’d just have to sort that out later.

The next complicating factor was travel insurance would likely not cover the additional and non-trivial expense of having to get a separate private shuttle from CCP to Las Trancas due to my late arrival, if my original flight actually had taken off in time to make my connection.

I might be wrong, but it seems like the pain and inconvenience of travel is rarely conveyed. On the whole, it is a relatively small price to pay for the reward of the destination and experience, but it is still very much a necessary evil to me. The neuropathy in my left leg from the Spinal Cord Injury, inability to sleep at all on planes (sleep is a big issue for me in every day life too), and the back pain from all the hardware holding me together makes me loathe/dread flying or any other kind of transportation that involves sitting for long periods of time.

I’m not thrilled that my layover in SCL is now 7+ hours instead of the original 4 hours as they did not have seats on the same flight the next day (I was told by the organizer that the whole process of disembarking, collecting bags, rechecking bags, and getting onto the domestic flight took them ~3 hours yesterday). But I would have been a lot more unhappy if I was stuck in Miami overnight or Santiago for who knows how long. I was lucky that Scott was there to drive me to the airport, wait with me to see how things transpired, and drive us back; and be able to sleep in my own bed tonight. As Tim (the organizer) said, you’re the best person in the whole group for this to have happened to. Yay, I’ll take one for the team.

In any case, I’ll be going back to Chile for very different reasons and under very different circumstances from 8 years ago when I was in Santiago. It will be an experience, that is for sure.

 

Portuguese food

Despite being a foodie, I almost never blog about food. And I almost never take pictures of food.  But it would be remiss of me not to at least mention some aspects of the food we had in Portugal. Food is, of course, regional and our culinary experience was based on spending time in Lisbon, the Algarve, and Setúbal peninsula. I am looking forward to trying different foods in other parts of the country on our next trip.

As someone raised in Hong Kong who thinks Cantonese cuisine is one of the pinnacles of gastronomy, I really love and appreciate the emphasis on freshness, especially with respect to the seafood (which I also love and is my primary source of protein). That, and my fondness for soft, doughy, pillowy, eggy baked good means that Portuguese cuisine is a big win for me (unlike, say, Kazakh cuisine). Incidentally, the origins of all these eggy sweets comes from the convents and monasteries. The nuns/monks used the egg whites to starch clothing and the remaining egg yolks were utilized in baked goods.

It seems like the only pastry tourists know about is pastéis de nata (literally, cream pastry), which is unfortunate since there are so many other tasty Portuguese pastries (more on that later). Macau’s proximity to Hong Kong meant that I had been exposed to and ate Portuguese egg tarts quite a lot. But now I got to try it in the motherland! Had we not rented a car and if Belém was not somewhat on the way out of town to the Algarve, I would not have endured the 40 minutes each way on public transportation for these things. But events aligned and I wanted to see if all the hype about the egg tarts from Pastéis de Belém was warranted.

The birthplace of pastéis de nata was Mosteiro dos JerónimosThis picture offers a better perspective of the monastery’s size.

Where it all began: Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a stone throw’s away from Pastéis de Belem

Arriving first thing on Saturday morning meant we did not have to deal with lines.

The famous Pastéis de Belem.

Upon entry, I noticed locals having their bica and pastry standing up at the counter. I like that this place in every tourist guidebook also caters to locals as well. Pastéis de Belem makes many other baked goods besides their famous pastéis de nata. The staff cranking these babies out work behind a large glass screen, which allows visitors to see them in action. Hopefully the glass screen does not make them feel like zoo animals.

Cranking pastéis de nata all day

The pastéis de nata looked good, but not extraordinary. That is, until we bit into them. The pastry was layered and flaky, and the custard warm and of perfect consistency. I would say, when warm, these egg tarts were the best I had on this trip. If they are cold, there are a lot of other places that produce just as good pastéis de nata.

Humble looking pastéis de nata bely their deliciousness

The space is huge. Clearly Pastéis de Belém caters to big tour groups

As I said earlier, I hope visitors to Portugal try more than just pastéis de nata, as there are many other delicious pastries. Sintra has their delicious queijada de SintraAnother one is pastéis de feijão (bean pastry). Pastel de feijão usually comes in the form of a round tart with a marzipan-like filling (I know, kind of like queijadas). Fábrica Pastel de Feijão in Alfama has a different take on these.

Outdoor seating

Scott and Eric stumbled across this place totally by chance. When Scott waxed lyric about this place, I was, as usual, slightly skeptical. The pastel de feijão was outstanding. At €2.50 each, they are not cheap by Portuguese standards. It is a good way to prevent me buying them by the half/one dozen.

A totally different take on Pastel de Feijão. I like how the cardboard holder is optimized to transport the pastry and eat from one end.

Empires were built by the bean

Okay, enough of doces (sweets). The savory foods were what really got me loving Portuguese food. We had so many good experiences in many restaurants that I can’t list all of them. I think Portuguese food is quite simple in its preparation, but I enjoyed almost all the fish and shellfish (especially cuttlefish and octopus (polvo)) dishes I had. Arroz de polvo was our revelation of the trip. We had no idea about the dish before we arrived in Lisbon, and got to have it in octopus central (Santa Luzia and Tavira in the Algarve). It has also been cool to practice speaking Portuguese at the Portuguese fishmongers here (they are Portuguese American and speak perfectly fluent English; they are just humouring me most likely).

Scott’s friend, Erich, kindly booked us a table at the Michelin starred restaurant, Loco. We had the 18 course (they call them “moments” – yes, a bit gimmicky) menu, which is a record for me. There were a few standout dishes. I am not keen on land meat (okay, okay, a pig on an aircraft carrier doesn’t count) but still tried all the meat dishes. I admit, I had to pass almost all of the beef tongue to Scott and Erich.

This is actually choco (cuttlefish) with vegetarian “caviar”

One of the standouts for me: red fruit (including tomato) with red pepper sorbet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Incidentally, we had really excellent Indian food in Lisbon. There is no shortage of Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese restaurants. I did find it a bit strange to see quite a few of these restaurants serving Italian food as well e.g. Indian Italian, Nepalese Italian. Is this a think in Portugal?

It seems like vegetables don’t play a starring role. I find this odd given what wonderful produce Portugal has. Even the vegetables as sides to the protein were kinda lame. The only vegetable dish/side I remember (because the rest were so insipid) is cenouras à Algarve (delicious). I will trying to seek out Portuguese vegetarian options next time round.

To me, Portuguese food is simple in its preparation. But that does not mean it is not super delicious. I think the simplicity of preparation techniques allows ingredients to shine. I am looking forward to eating new foods and old favourites on our next trip to Portugal.

 

The Algarve – Vacation from vacation

Praia Dona Ana in Lagos

Despite its (deserved) reputation as being infested with drunk Englishmen, we decided to spend a last, long weekend in the Algarve, the southern most region of Portugal, known for its beautiful coastline and beaches. I am really not much of a lie out on the beach kind of person, so I almost never go on beach holidays. But it would have been a shame not to see this part of the country.

We wanted to spend most of our time in the Eastern Algarve, which is much quieter and less built up than the Western Algarve. Being closer to the Mediterranean, the water is also warmer to swim in. But, since we were down there already, I wanted to make a slight detour to check out the other main towns in the Algarve.

The Algarve is the southern part of the country. We stayed in Tavira, which is very close to the Spanish border.

The Algarve is a super easy ~2.5 hr drive from Lisbon. The golden, arid, rolling slopes, with crops and cows, really reminded me of driving through the Sierra foothills in California, an area I have crossed so many times to get to/from all the climbing and skiing in the Sierra Nevadas.

The main towns of the Algarve: Lagos, Portimåo, Albufeira, Faro, Tavira.

Our first stop was the town of Lagos, the town most associated with rowdy tourists, but also some lovely beaches. One such beach is Praia Dona Ana, which I wanted to see because its ochre walls/sand looked quite distinct from the other beaches/coastline of the Algarve. The beach was crowded, but I  can see why it is regarded as one of the top beaches in the Algarve and Portugal.

Praia Dona Ana in Lagos

The other end of Praia Dona Ana

On the way out of town, we stopped at Meia Praia, perhaps the main beach in Lagos, and bloody huge. The beach is about 4 or 5km long. I can see why it is popular: light, fine sand, calm waters, wide beach, relatively close to town.

Meia Praia to my left

Meia Praia to the right of me. It stretches for miles.

We did not have any urge to stop in Portimão or Albufeira, but did make a brief stop in Faro, and the town of Santa Luzia, very close to our final destination of Tavira.

The mighty Rio Gilão and one of two small foot bridges connecting the banks in Tavira

Tavira is a very small and completely charming town which many Portuguese I spoke to said was what the rest of the Algarve was like a few decades ago. The majority of people there appeared to be Portuguese and a few Scandanavians.

Ginormous figs. Oranges and plums for scale.

A dish that was totally not on our radar when we arrived in Lisbon is Arroz de Polvo. This is our favourite traditional Portuguese dish, and the area is especially known for its polvo (octopus). We have had amazing seafood on this trip, and the restaurants in Tavira continued that streak.

Tavira is also the jumping off point to another “top 10” Portugal beach, Praia do Barril on the Ihla de Tavira. I did not take pictures of the beach, so you will have to take my word that it is an awesome beach: wide, long, super fine light coloured sand, refreshing (but not too cold) water temperature…

You can also take a miniature train to save about a mile of walking to/from Praia do Barril in the blazing sun. Which is, of course, what we did.

Train to Praia do Barril on Ilha da Tavira

Set back behind Praia do Barril is the Cemitério das Àncoras (Cemetery of Anchors), an homage to the bluefin tuna fishing industry that died out by the 1960’s.  These big anchors were used by fisherman to hold the tuna nets in place instead of mooring boats, and had to withstand the large tuna and Atlantic.

Cemitério das Àncoras (Cemetery of Anchors)

A very poor picture of the crowded part of Praia do Barril. But it captures the sandy dunes and fine, light coloured sand.

We continued our streak of excellent food and nightly delicious gelato.

Evening stroll in Tavira

On our way back to Lisbon, we decided to visit a beach on the West coast of the Setúbal Peninsula called Praia do Meco. Again, quite a different beach to the others, being right on the Atlantic, with colder water and more battered cliffs. All these places are such an easy drive from Lisbon that it would probably be a bit remiss not to visit them. On the one hand, I love the vastness and space of North America. But on the other hand, the compactness of Portugal makes it super convenient and easy to see a multitude of different geographies and locales in a short period of time.

 

Climbing under castles

I love revisiting a place and seeing it from a different perspective. In this case, I returned to Sintra only a few days after I first went there, to check out the climbing a bit. This was my first (and only) climbing experience in Portugal, and it was a nice introduction.

Routes right under Castelo dos Mouros

The routes were short (the longest route we did was three short pitches), and sport climbing, but thoroughly enjoyable with some pretty great views. I mean, how many crags have a view of a castle??!

View of Palácio da Pena from a belay

Being July, we only climbed for a half day before it got too hot.

View of Sintra from another belay. You can see the Quinta da Regaleira in the left foreground

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the granite here. Certainly there were some dirty parts, but the routes that were clean had great rock.

Some quality rock here

Sintra is noticeably cooler than Lisbon. So while it was a warm day, I was super glad not to be in blazing hot Lisbon. We did not see any other climbers, which made for a great climbing experience. I guess that is not too surprising given that climbing is not hugely popular in Portugal, and this area is also not super popular. I’ll certainly bring some light climbing gear with me the next time I am in Portugal.

Setúbal region

A totally chance and serendipitous encounter with an Uber driver in Lisbon led me to contact him again to hear his suggestions for excursion ideas, with him as tour guide/driver. Tiago’s very first suggestion was Sintra, but as we were already going there on Sunday, I asked him for other ideas, preferably those off the usual tourist map. He quickly responded with the Parque Natural da Arrábida and Setúbal region, and proposed a rough itinerary of Azeitão, Setúbal, Sesimbra, and Cabo Espichel. The plan appealed to me as I was keen to see places farther afield of Lisbon and different geographies. Since Scott had to work on Monday, it was just Tiago, myself, and Erich (Scott’s friend who lives in London, who hopped over to hang out with us for a few days).

Península de Setúbal

This map shows Cabo Espichel

We crossed the Tagus over the Ponte 25 Abril (the suspension bridge that makes everyone draw associations between Lisbon and San Francisco) to get to the Península Setúbal, stopping in the town of Azeitão first, to tour the Jose Maria de Fonseca winery, the oldest table wine company in Portugal. Tiago insisted we have some tortas de Azeitão beforehand, making me regret eating a few pasteis de nata for breakfast already.

Tortas de Azeitão. More flour/sugar/eggy/canela combinations

Mahogany barrels on the sides, oak barrels down the middle

Notice the heavy cobwebs. The spiders are actually welcome, to help control the bugs that would otherwise eat at the barrels.

Setúbal is actually an active port and fishing town.

A HAND-le (haha). A typical door handle in Setúbal.

Lunch in Setúbal was a large affair. The town is particularly famous for its choco frito (fried cuttlefish).

Almoço begins…

I had never seen cuttlefish so meaty and fat before. It was delicious.

Look at how FAT those cuttlefish are.

Delicious sardines to wash the cuttlefish down…

After lunch, we made our way towards the beach town of Sesimbra, with a few stops along the way.

Interestingly, the name Sesimbra is of Celtic origin (Cempsibriga). Tiago thinks Sesimbra is actually nicer than the Algarve, although less well known, even amongst the Portuguese.

View of the beach in Sesimbra from afar.

Sesimbra is pretty much your typical, local beach town. It was nice to see it untouched by foreign tourists.

Another view of Sesimbra.

We drove up to see another Moorish castle and the church Nossa Senhora do Castelo, before making our way to the final stop of the day, Cabo Espichel. The chilly, windswept plateau with its deserted church and structures and dark cliffs was quite the contrast to Sesimbra.

These used to be rooms for pilgrims

You can see the different strata in the rock

All in all, it was a long and enjoyable day seeing places not usually visited by tourists. I also got one long Portuguese language lesson out of it from Tiago, who was incredibly patient and took the time to speak slowly and correct me. He said it made him so happy that I was making the effort to learn and speak Portuguese. That kind of response is great motivation to continue to speak and learn a language that isn’t the most common/popular (okay, excluding the 208 million people in Brazil. Brazilian Portuguese sounds pretty different too).

 

 

 

 

Sintra – Disneyland for castles

Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site located less than an hour by train away from Lisbon (trains depart from Rossio station in Lisbon). Despite its proximity to Lisbon, its noticeably cooler microclimate and lush setting make for a distinct contrast to Lisbon.

The place is quite the trip! I had seen pictures of the Palácio da Pena online, so had kind of expected the tutti-frutti exterior of the place. But I was surprised by the contrast between Palácio Pena and the other sites, namely Castelo Dos Mouros (Moorish Castle). I was also surprised that the trip occupied more of the day than I thought it would (not in a bad way).

(Source: Google Maps)

I hate lines and having to wait unnecessarily, so I was keen to get to Sintra not too late in the morning to avoid even more crowds. In opposition to Scott, I also insisted we have a rough plan for the trip. It seems that most people hit the three main sites in the following order, moving up in elevation: Palácio Nacional de Sintra, Castelo Dos Mouros, and then Palácio da Pena. Since I thought Palácio da Pena and Castelo Dos Mouros were the priorities, and I knew I probably would not have interest in seeing three palaces/castles in a day, and I prefer walking downhill, I suggested we start at the top of the hill at Palácio Pena, then head down to Castelo Dos Mouros.

First, we had to fortify ourselves with coffee and queijada, a pastry specific to Sintra. Everyone knows pasteis de nata, but I actually prefer the marzipan like filling of queijada, consisting of cheese, sugar, and eggs. The Portuguese actually use cheese in quite a lot of their pastry fillings, and I’m a fan.

Queijadas de Sintra

The day started off windy and overcast, and I think that made the colours of Palacio Pena look less vibrant than I expected. But the place was still a bit of a riot. The palace is considered a national monument in Portugal (and one of the country’s Seven Wonders), and is a pretty striking example of 19th century Romanticism, whimsy, and Moorish influence.

It was a bit windy (Photo: Erich Schlaikjer)

After touring the interior, we headed down the hill to Castelo dos Mouros.

View of Castelo dos Mouros from Palácio Pena. There are rock climbing routes on those slabs below the castle.

Lingering clouds

The walls of Castelo dos Mouros reminded me of The Great Wall

Looking up at Pena Palace from the Moorish Castle

The Quinta da Regaleira had not been on our radar at all, until our Uber driver told us it was his favourite place in Sintra. It was also a geocaching site, which was incentive enough for our friend Erich to go. Surprisingly, it was the site with by far the longest lines of the day.

The geocache is down this well. Somewhere. Or was it in the other well?

Heading down into the abyss (Photo: Erich Schlaikjer)

The main house of the Quinta da Regaleira

We were all pretty knackered by the end of the long day, but Sintra is well worth the excursion if you’re in the Lisbon area. I even ended up returning a few days later for some rock climbing on those slabs near the castles.

View of Castelo dos Mouros from town

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lisboa – initial impressions

Overlooking Lisbon from the East.

Olá, from Lisboa. I actually enjoy learning and practicing Portuguese with patient locals. After the initial phase of learning the non-intuitive pronunciation, I think I am getting the hang of the language pretty quickly.

Before arriving, I read comparisons made between Lisbon and San Francisco. Aside from the Ponte 25 Abril, hilly/steep terrain of the city, and a cool breeze, to me, Lisbon is nothing like San Francisco. I wonder how locals feel about the comparison. Do they even care?

Ponte 25 Abril.

My first impressions of Lisbon were not great. I thought, and still think, the place is very run down, especially for a Western European capital. There are so many examples of once clearly grand buildings in varying states of neglect and disrepair, which is a bit sad.

So many examples of buildings like this in Lisbon

I was surprised to see buildings located in the main commercial and tourist area of the city in such poor states.

This building is right in/near the commercial/tourist area of town.

Building facades are covered with azulejos (tiles), a result of the Moorish influence. This makes for a colourful cityscape.

Azulejos everywhere

The pavements are also covered in small tiles. On some pavements, the tiles are uneven, in others, the tiles are polished, smooth, and even. I found out that I fuckin’ hate them when it is wet. I was slipping and sliding and falling as I descended steep slopes, and felt like I was walking up scree (one step up, two steps down) when I walked up tiled slopes. Obviously my inability to have a perfect gait/left foot placement is a factor here, so something to note if I am ever in Lisbon in the winter (rainy) months.

Arco da rua augusta e statue of King San Jose I

I had/have quite a bit of time for my impressions of the place to be shaped and change. As a fish and seafood lover, the fish/marisco-heavy cuisine suits me well, as do the pastéis de nata – what we called Portuguese egg tarts in Hong Kong. And when you get tired of bacalhau and Portuguese food, there are some other kick-ass cuisines in town, like the Indian and Japanese food.

I can see how someone could like the “grittiness” of the place, and perhaps see its potential and opportunity. I do not know enough about Portuguese politics/economics/business development to know if this potential will be realised.

The enjoyment I derive from a place is never through sights, monuments, etc. etc. It is from engaging with locals, the feel of a place to me. Most Lisboans speak perfect English, but quite a few got a kick out of this Asian girl trying to practice her Portuguese with them. And a few of them have been patient enough to converse with me and correct me. One particularly patient and nice guy said it made him so happy that I was making the effort to learn/converse in Portuguese.

The  Lisbon region has some nice sights to see, of which I will write about in future posts.

 

Quarterly Update – Another Round of Travels Begins

It has been four months since my last post :( Even I do not let so much time pass between posts. March, April, and May were the toughest times of my life; even more so than the process of being pieced back together, and acquiring a Spinal Cord Injury. The physical/health issues I was dealing with had me house-bound for much of March; I was desperate for an answer as to what/why I was experiencing such symptoms. Ultimately it was a self-diagnosis that got treatment going, even though my condition was/is tricky to treat. This period was also a reminder of how woeful our medical system is. Call after call, email after email, going from one specialist to the next, going to alternative medicine practitioners, rinse and repeat…now I am probably as proactive a patient as you can get and familiar with dealing with our health system. But this experience totally eroded me. It is ironic how I live in the Boston area, probably the densest concentration of medical professionals and hospitals in the country, and yet, had so much difficulty trying to be seen by the people I should be seen by. Things reached a nadir in mid-May; I was just done. Fortunately, I have been on an upward trajectory since then, after finally finding some doctors who actually help me.

Given my health issues, entering climbing competitions was the last thing on my mind. Earlier on, I firmly dismissed the idea of competing at the Paraclimbing Nationals competition, held at my local climbing gym. I didn’t just want to show up, and I knew I would feel bad for not being able to climb at my best/well. But upon seeing how fun the routes looked, encouragement from many people, I altered my itinerary and registered at the last possible moment. I actually had a blast, even though the top-rope format usually does not interest me.

A super fun climb. I am actually pushing off a hold with my left arm, not humping the volume. (Source: USA Climbing)

This was actually the first climbing competition where I was not super nervous because I did not have expectations about how hard I would climb, placing, etc. And it showed in my climbing!! I climbed loose and relaxed, having to dyno for many holds (I am very short), entertaining spectators with my moves, and climbing well. In short, I climbed with style.

I ended up placing; not bad for someone in really rough physical and mental shape a month earlier, who did not train at all. Unfortunately, I had to dash off before the awards ceremony because I had a long drive ahead of me to Acadia National Park. Ironically, I am currently climbing at my very best! I am climbing routes at a grade I would usually never touch, and actually climbing – not thrutching or hang-dogging at each clip. It is rather strange. I guess not being injured from overtraining (as in the past) helps.

Tomorrow I head to Lisbon, Portugal for a fortnight. Although the city does not have a rope climbing gym (?!!), and I don’t want to regress in my climbing abilities, I predict I will dig the place. I am glad to be spending a fair bit of time in Lisbon and fully exploring the city and surrounding area. It will be interesting to see how I fare with my Portuguese. Then, at the beginning of August, I head to Chile, and then likely back to Lisbon at the end of August. Given the depths of despair I was trapped in, it feels especially good to be back on my feet, exploring and experiencing new places again.

(N.B. I am trying out using the AP style guide for my blog post title, even though unnecessary capitalization annoys me; probably more than it should :))

Last day: Sugiton and parting thoughts

(Photo: Yves)

(Photo: Yves)

After the very cold and windy experience on La Grande Candelle, I had one requirement for our last morning of climbing: sun. We had a train to catch back to Paris at 1456 hr, so there was a little bit of anxiety when we found the 30 minute approach expressed in the guidebook was really more like an hour, able-bodied or not. The climbing, views, and setting were one of the most enjoyable/spectacular of my entire trip: a fitting end.

Where we were the previous day, from a different perspective

Where we were the previous day, from a different perspective

Sugiton is a very small calanques, with incredible views of La Grande Candelle. Even more so than yesterday’s climb, the views on the approach, route, and especially the top, filled my heart in ways so beautiful and soaring, that it hurts.

Morning calm

Morning calm

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I cracked up when I learned from Yves what the A.N.P.E., in Secteur A.N.P.E. (where we climbed) was: it was the Agence Nationale pour l’Emploi, or basically unemployment agency.

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How can one ask for a better belay spot (Photo: Yves)

It is pretty incredible to be able to go from a proper sit-down breakfast, doing a route of this quality and in this setting in the morning, boarding the TGV train from Marseilles to Paris (in not too grubby condition!) in the afternoon, be on the Paris subway, and back at the steps of the Eiffel Tower by dinner time.

It is often hard to convey to strangers, and maybe even people closer to me, how much I felt (and sometimes still feel) I lost in my accident including climbing/skiing/mountaineering in remote places, a “simpler” life devoid of day-to-day logistics around my medical issues and more extensive planning around this, being able to pack up in an instant and travel distances to meet someone and embark on an adventure. In spite of various setbacks, I think this winter, this trip has allowed me to reclaim a little, maybe even a lot, of that part of me.

After returning from the IFSC World Championships in Paris in early October, I was admitted to the hospital for complications related to my spinal cord injury. Right after that, the following trips ensued:

  • Mid-late October: ~10 days rock climbing in Utah and City of Rocks, Idaho
  • Mid-November: Climbing in Red Rocks, NV and climbing the hardest trad route since my accident (Cloud Tower, 5.12-) and after nearly dying again in May/June from sepsis
  • 1st half of December: Visiting family in Hong Kong
  • 2nd half of December to late January: A solo road-trip across Canada and the United States to (mainly) ski
  • Late January: Warm weather sojourn in Martinique
  • Late January to mid February: 10 days of skiing and ice-climbing in Chamonix
  • Late February to early March: A little over 10 days rock climbing in the south of France in Les Callanques

Perhaps it was the breathless pace of travel and moving on from one trip to the next, which did not allow me to fully grasp how amazing doing all this is, especially given my accident and disability. Yves said a very nice thing early on in our Callanques trip: I made all this happen. I do not think that is entirely true, because Yves did so much to facilitate and arrange our Chamonix and south of France trips. But, I guess it does take an inner strength, passion, maybe even love of life (even if it is balanced with sadness and darkness) to imagine, plan, and execute the things I did.

My travels need to stop for the time-being, while I deal with practical things like work and making a living. For a number of reasons, there is sadness. But maybe, in spite of physical and emotional setbacks, the last 5 months have taught me that more wonderful things can and will await for me to seize.

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(Photo: Yves)