July 24, 2017

The Missile/Dam/National Park Tour Home -- and the road forward

We hit all the big missile related sites in the Southwest on our route home.

Los Alamos Bradley Science Museum.

V-2 Rocket, restored, White Sands Missile Museum

The White Sands Missile Museum.

The outdoor rocket field at White Sands Missile Museum.

The Titan Missile Museum
Giant Titan Rocket (never feuled, no warhead) 
inside the Titan Missile Silo at
the Museum.

Launch control for the Titan Missile Silo.


We also visited the Biosphere and Hoover Dam, which neither of us had seen before.  We took a 2 hour very educational Biosphere tour, but unfortunately, the damn tours were not being offered on the day we arrived.  So we did a self-tour in the 109F heat, and got back into the air-conditioned car for our drive to Vegas.

The ocean inside Biosphere 2.

I used to love Vegas, but now it doesn't really do much for me.  We had a nice quick visit with a delicious greek seafood dinner at Estiatorio Milos, followed by an hour or so of craps play by me, a good night's sleep, a quick run in the gym, and the long drive to Lee Vining, California.

The scale of the dam is hard to comprehend -- it's HUGE!
The next day, we used our National Park pass for the 5th time at the East entrance to Yosemite, finally getting over the purchase price in entrance fees for a net saving of $30.  It's valid through August 2017, but we doubt we'll have the chance to hit up another U.S. National Park next month.

Smoky view of half dome from Columbia Rock
For our last night of the sabbatical, we splurged and stayed at the Ahwahnee Hotel.  I'd always wanted to stay here ever since I was a little kid, and despite all of our visits to the park, I'd never done so.   After checking in to the hotel, we braved the smoke from the Mariposa fires and hiked the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail to Columbia Rock and further to the first view of the falls.  Despite the cool temps (the smoke limited the heat from the sun), and breeze, it was a solid 3 mile round-trip hike with 1,000 ft plus of elevation gain starting around 4,000 feet.

The dining room at the Ahwahnee.

From Yosemite, we drove to the storage unit, picked up the aerobed and a few other items, and drove home to unlock the door for the first time in over a year and start our re-assimilation back to our home-based life.

Lower Yosemite Falls -- gushing due to this year's snowpack.

After a Saturday of chores, we attended a lovely wedding, and then slept in Santa Cruz so that I could run Wharf to Wharf with E2.  It's a bigger race than I realized, with a sold out registration of 16,000, of which, several thousand registrations are limited to locals.  E2 got into the local lottery registration, so she encouraged me to try the general registration lottery and I got in too.

Smoky view of Yosemite Valley from the Upper Yosemite Falls trail.
My "training" consisted of intermittent running and hiking whenever I could fit it in the last several months.  I had a (slow) baseline from my Peachtree Road Race, and I'd tried to fit in slow aerobic efforts mixed with some speedwork as we drove westward.  Thankfully, the day of the race was blissfully overcast with a starting temperature of 57F.  As expected E2 was more fit than me, but she needed a couple of portapotty stops that helped me recover.  I did need to ask for one walk break after the top of the last major hill, but overall, I was pleased with how it went -- final Garmin data claimed 6.09 miles at 11:36 avg pace including all of the stops.  When running, we averaged 11:21 minutes per mile, with the last 1.1 miles averaging 10:47.

Oh look! Stop and Go traffic on 880 North at 3 PM.  Yup, we're back.

I've registered for the Rock 'n Roll San Jose 10K on October 8th as a goal race to actually regain some of the year's lost running fitness and complete a 10K at a (hopefully) decent pace, followed by the Kaiser Permanente SF Half on February 4th, as the goal race to return me to half marathon shape.

The final road trip was great, but it's very nice to be home, putting our home-based life back together, including scheduling local races and (at some point) a training plan with local runs.

July 16, 2017

U.S. Southern Route West, Part 1

I drive outside of North America, E drives in North America -- this sabbatical year, I made out like a bandit.
We've got a bit of a schedule to keep on our drive back to California.  Technically, the sabbatical year is up today, and we are now on borrowed time.

Unlike the lovely 9 week trip we made from California north to Canada and then east, below the great lakes, back up over Niagra falls and through Quebec to Maine and down to Atlanta, we're pushing the mileage and minimizing the site-seeing on our trip back.

So many wrought iron fences in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
E drove from Atlanta to New Orleans in one 6 hour plus day.  We arrived to heat and humidity and a culture that was so uniquely its own that it floored me.  If most of our American travels are about realizing how much major US cities are all starting to evolve to be more like each other, arrival in New Orleans was the opposite.  This place is *very* much its own, with very strong French, Spanish, and Caribbean influences. 

Also, the food.

5 PM beignet snack before a hot sauce tasting
at Pepper Palace (YIKES!)
and a 2 hour walking tour
followed by a delicious dinner.
Oh. My. God.

We only ate a few meals in New Orleans, but I could not believe the deliciousness of every single bite that passed my lips.  These people have combined and savored everything from all of their immigrants and made a cuisine unlike any I've ever had.  So many different layers of flavor.

We took the Creole Queen down the Mississippi to the site of
the Battle of New Orleans, which they are proud to report
is how the war of 1812 was finished off, and why the USA
did not have to lose her Louisiana Purchase territory
to the Brits (or the Spanish, due to legal technicalities).
After 2 nights in New Orleans, E drove another 6+ hour day to Austin so that we could visit with friends.  Visiting Austin was bittersweet.  The C family were the folks we had our most frequent social interactions with when they lived in our town.  They moved while we were traveling, and coming back home to miss them is going to suck.  Thankfully, they have a very comfortable guest suite that we plan to take frequent advantage of.

Austin still feels foreign to me, but after several visits in the last few years, it's starting to feel more and more comfortable.  For example, I thought I didn't like Tex-Mex, but actually I just hadn't had good Tex-Mex before Austin.  Similarly, I thought Texas BBQ brisket was fine, but the best offerings in Austin convinced me that it's one of the most impressive ways to cook beef, period.


Welcome to Texas, indeed!  Driving across the border from Louisiana.
I started running regularly in Austin after a couple days of recovery post Peachtree.  It was ridiculously humid, but after Atlanta and New Orleans, 70% humidity didn't seem too bad.  I kept the running up on our road trip after we left, and I pulled a 7-day 25 mile running streak (took day 8, today, off) for the first time in a long time, with most of the miles being slow (often run-walking), in heat and humidity.
Oh, Texas...
After a few fun days with the Cs, we pushed westward with one-night stays and days of driving with only the occasional stop for missile-related site-seeing.  Each day we got closer and closer to home, and things started feeling more and more familiar.  Rural Northern Californians, and particularly my Dad's and Mom's extended families and college friends have so much in common with the average person we encountered in Western Texas and New Mexico.  Every day of westward travel, as the landscape and air became drier and drier, and the accent moved more towards that of my grandparents, I could feel our cultural approach to my homeland in my bones.

Last night's accommodations at the Big Chile Inn, Las Cruces, NM.
After a full year of travel, we are coming home, visibly, palpably, a little each day.  And for the first time in my life, I'm completely devoid of wanderlust.  I can't wait to live a bay area home-bound life!

July 4, 2017

First Race in 13 Months

Running took a back seat to friends and family as well as travel and foreign language, culture, and food during the sabbatical year.

Huge Peachtree Road Race expo at the Georgia World Congress
I am totally okay with this.  We've been very active, walking for most of our sightseeing, and most weeks, I've fit in several hours of decent cardio (usually hiking with some running wherever I could make it happen).  Also, hefting our packs everywhere coupled with lots of elevation change in our hiking as well as gym workouts (both hotel and outdoor) means that my general functional strength is much better than it was before the year began, even if my running fitness isn't.  Although my weight has fluctuated a few pounds here and there whenever I've found a scale, right now, I weigh a pound or two *less* than I did before we started the year, and I feel like I have more muscle, particularly in my upper legs and arms.

Before we left the bay area, my last real race was the See Jane Run Half.  Since then, I've only strung together more than 5 miles of true running effort on a handful of occasions.  So, I was understandably a bit apprehensive about running my 3rd Peachtree Road Race.

We were in corral G, so we got to watch the final meters
of the Women's Elite field finish before we started.
I'd run this race twice before.  The first time, in 2011 (almost 6 weeks after a 4h13 Coeur D'alene Marathon (avg 9:40/mile) I ran it to pace my father-in-law and a pregnant friend on a very hot and humid day -- we finished in 1h07 and I remember it being *much* more difficult than 10:54 miles should have been at that level of fitness.  In 2014, one month after a 2h15 half marathon (10:15 avg), on a relatively mild 4th of July in Atlanta (by this race's standards) I ran it in 1h03 to average 10:10 miles, and it was also *very* difficult.  In other words, it appears that this course and weather are not designed to BT's advantage.

I'd gone out for a few runs in ATL the week and a half before the race, so even before the red alert I knew that it was going to be rough for me (I'm very heat and humidity sensitive).  When our corral started at 8:05 AM, it was about 74F with 95% humidity, and both the temp and the humidity just kept climbing.  Just standing around waiting for the start caused me to break a sweat...

My 70+ FIL is *very* fit and finished 7 minutes ahead of me.
The start was the usual festive 4th of July occasion, with red-white-and-blue stars and stripes everywhere and on everyone.  My father in law wanted to try to make up the slow downs from the crowding in the first half mile, and by the time we hit the first water station, it was clear to me that I could not keep up with his planned pace.  So, I told them to go on without me and walked briefly, and then started my plan of run-walking heat management (walk up hills if high effort, walk slowly through water sprinklers & water stations to dump cups on my head, walk in the shade if a patch presents itself between long exposed areas, etc.)

3/4 of mile walk from where we parked to our corral,
then 0.4 miles of easy intermittent walking to the actual start,
and 1 mile from the finish to our other car.
I finished the course with 6.3 miles on my garmin at an average pace of 12:30 (1h18 chip).  Given the heat, my lack of training, and my history on the course, this felt like a decent showing.  I feel good about it as a very high effort starting point for some home-based running in the fall and winter. 

Also, I observed two very interesting things.  First, I backed off due to overexertion much earlier than I historically would have (probably because 13 months of not training gave me permission to be very conservative), and I actually cooled down the overheating and was able to finish the last 1.5 miles of the race with a stronger effort and faster pace than the portion in the middle where I was struggling.   I don't think I've ever actually recovered from over-exertion and gotten comfortable enough to have a faster finish in a race before.  It was such a great feeling (the downhill didn't hurt).

Pace & Elevation vs. Distance (miles)

Second, I had remembered this as a race with lots of hills.  But the hills near my in-laws' home are much more steep (where I'd run a few miles in prep), and that, combined with all of the hiking we did this year means that right now, I don't really register a total elevation climb of less than 300 feet over 6 miles as anything remotely hilly.  The race felt flat to me, which was a big change from the 2 previous attempts where I'd done the running before the race in the flat bay area (also possibly because I took walk breaks up the hills and compared to uphill hiking, these inclines were nothing).

I am happy to be back in my home country and to be able to celebrate its birthday with such a big fun race.  I highly recommend the Peachtree Road Race to everyone.  The field is large enough that the raffle is relatively forgiving (all 5 of our group who registered as individuals got in).  This year, it was the site of both the men's and women's US 10K road championships, which made for some fun fast US running to enjoy while waiting for our start corral. 

This race is *amazingly* well run -- tons of security and volunteers, 60,000 participants, water stations are well-marked and large (but nothing besides water is on offer), the start corals go off *exactly* on time, the toilets are abundant, and the finish is in the beautiful and huge Piedmont Park where you can relax with friends and family and enjoy the ice cold water and snackboxes.

And now, I'm psyched to have time to actually build some real running into my schedule as we road trip across the US, I get to construct a 2.5 week training plan to get ready for Wharf to Wharf.  Wish me luck (E2's in fabulous shape, so I'm gonna need to up my game -- I'm starting with praying for cool weather.)

June 25, 2017

Iceland, Part 2

As I mentioned, I was unprepared for Iceland.  But, if you can get over the sticker shock, it really is a wonderfully gorgeous place.

Strokkur geyser erupting.

Malta has 520,000 people on an island that is 326 times smaller than Iceland.  And Malta didn't feel crowded.  So, with that perspective, Iceland, with a population of 331,000 is definitely very remote and bereft of people.  We never went more than an hour without seeing other cars (as opposed to some of our very rural road trip time in the northern middle of the U.S.), but we had gorgeous breathtaking views of unspoiled nature in every direction almost every moment of every day while driving (even if the views were hard to see through the rain).

Öxarárfoss waterfall in Thingvellir national park.
Like Maltese, Icelandic is an island nation language that is only spoken by very few people.  Thankfully, again, we basked in the privilege of being native speakers of the world's second language and got around in English.

I would definitely recommend Iceland as a destination for people who love road trips and large vistas of unspoiled wilderness.  It's also 100% renewable energy supported (primarily geothermal and hydroelectric), so if you are an energy infrastructure nerd, there's plenty to see and do related to that as well. 

When it's sunny, Iceland is breathtaking.
Unfortunately, while we were here, outdoor activities were much more difficult to accomplish than I expected.  Our Iceland Air in-flight entertainment informed us that Iceland is the 3rd windiest place in the world, but that humans don't live in the first 2.  The wind is no joke, my friends.  If parked in the wrong direction, it could be almost impossible to close the car door.  While driving, at times, I had to slightly angle the car tires into the wind to drive straight, which results in a very scary course change when you are passing large oncoming vehicles that block the wind.  Yesterday AM, it wasn't raining, so E and I headed out to try to go for a run.  After 0.2 miles, I asked to turn back.  The wind hurt my eyes (even behind my glasses!) and I felt like I was spending more effort to stay upright than actually running.

Cairn in the snowfields between some of the West Fjords.
Due to rain and wind, we didn't get in any great hikes in Iceland.  Just a few walks of less than a mile to and from various breathtaking natural sights (geothermal features, fjords, waterfalls, and more). 

One of the west fjords.

Finally, today, our last day here, it was sunny when we woke and I got out for my first actual run in 16 days!  2 easy miles, but on beautiful trails and in the perfect sun and air.  I ran to Laugardalslaug, the largest public pool facility in Reykjavik, so we could enjoy the local hot water culture.  E met me there and we popped around between fresh water hot-tubs at 38C, 40C, 42C, 44C, and the hot geothermal salt water pool.  It was a popular day for it (sunny and brisk at 13C), and we enjoyed the people-watching.  This was our consolation prize since we didn't get around to trying to book a visit to the Blue Lagoon 'til the day before and it was super sold out.  The only availability was for 10 PM (1 hour) for over 100USD each, which in addition to being much too expensive for our blood, was also at the time when we are typically snuggling into our beds.

Dedicated running and bike trail in Reykjavik.
We closed out the trip with a visit to the bridge between the continents (the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate meet in Iceland) and a visit to a boiling mud pot before checking in to our hotel on the old US navy base next to KEF.

Eurasia on the left, North America on the right.
Tomorrow, we get on an early flight to head back to the U.S. and we're both very excited to get back to the huge food selection that the U.S. melting pot offers, as well as the people, customs, culture and language that are our own.

June 24, 2017

Sabbatical Data, Part 1

We're getting ready to fly back to the US in a couple of days, ending our international travel for the Sabbatical year.  In all honesty we are *both* ready to go back home and live a non-nomadic lifestyle.  E's been ready pretty much all year, but I've been getting there slowly over the last few weeks, and Iceland really broke me.  Looking at the numbers makes me feel a bit better about being ready to call it -- it was an ambitious project, for sure.

Total Countries (including the US): 25

Nights that will have been spent in each country, in descending order:

USA - 149 (40.8%)
Italy - 19 (5%) -- a bit of a surprise since we were only planning to attend a weekend wedding.
Canada - 18 (5%) -- as planned.
France - 18 (5%) -- longer than expected due to re-routing Europe.
Japan - 18 (5%) -- roughly as planned.
Argentina - 16 (4%) -- roughly as planned.
Thailand - 16 (4%) -- surprisingly longer than expected, we really enjoyed it there.
Peru - 14 (4%) -- roughly as planned.
Colombia - 11 (3%) -- surprisingly longer than expected, we really enjoyed it there.
Ecuador - 11 (3%) -- longer than expected due to opting into an 8 day Galapogos cruise
Spain - 10 (3%) -- a surprise country after the European re-route.  Delightful.
Chile - 8 (2%) -- longer than expected, but a great place to finish South America.
Mexico - 8 (2%) -- a surprise visit to friends, not remotely in the plans when we set out.
Iceland - 7 (2%) -- roughly as planned, although, in hindsight, perhaps too long.
Vietnam - 6 (2%) -- roughly as planned, although a visit to rural south Vietnam to see friends was a big surprise.
Malta - 5 (1% and less, below) -- roughly as planned, after we were advised to go in Thailand.  One of the best surprise countries of the trip.
Portugal - 5  -- totally unplanned, a wonderfully enjoyable side trip.
Taiwan - 5 -- roughly as planned.
Korea - 4 -- roughly as planned, too short.
Switzerland - 3 -- roughly as planned to see friends.
Denmark - 3 -- opportunistic stop from Malta to manage airfare.  Walking and riding bikes in Copenhagen was gorgeous in the Summer.
Malaysia - 3 -- unplanned but enjoyable overland train transit between Singapore and Thailand.
Philippines - 3 -- weather did not cooperate so we moved on.  Much shorter than we'd hoped.
Panama - 3 -- roughly as planned.
Singapore - 2 -- unplanned but wonderful quick visit to see the city and visit with a friend's parents for dinner at their home.


June 21, 2017

Iceland, Part 1

A good friend sent me the Oh, you went to Iceland? Amazing link.  It sent me into hysterical laughter.  You should read it if you have friends, family, or social media acquaintances who've gone to Iceland recently, you'll probably relate.  I did.

See, I already had a love-hate relationship with Iceland by the time we got here.

View of the Blue Lagoon from the approach to KEF.

[Full disclosure, this post is going to have some serious first-world spoiled rotten whine in it, because you can't really complain (even honestly) about being able to travel to amazing places without sounding like a bit of an asshole.]

Typical gorgeous road trip view
if you are unlucky enough to be in Iceland when it's storming.
So, we were doing Europe on our standard seat-of-the-pants "dirt-bag planning" that more-or-less worked this Sabbatical year throughout South America, most of Asia (but not Japan), and all of Europe right up until Iceland.  This approach means we don't usually have lodging or rental cars more than a week in advance (sometimes booking the day before), and typically, we buy tickets for trains, planes, ferries, etc. a week before we need them (or 2 weeks if we really have our shit together, or, on the other extreme, we just buy them the day of if we're convinced we don't need to purchase in advance).  Essentially, we're cheap, lazy, and late, and we tend to take the best of the dregs of the cheapest of what's available wherever we are headed with a dedicated bathroom ('cause we're old now), which generally tends to work out fine and occasionally results in some very funny stories.

Road trip views of the ocean and shoreline in Iceland before the weather turned.

We hadn't booked our flights back to the US from Europe, but I knew that Icelandair had free stopovers for up to 7 days in Iceland, and I knew that Chase Ultimate Rewards points could book on Iceland Air, so I figured we'd just go with this option and do some time in Iceland on our route back just like so many of our friends and family who've shown us their awesome photos.  First mistake -- I waited 'til about 2 weeks before we needed to fly to Iceland and called Chase Ultimate Rewards because I couldn't figure out how to book the free stopover on points online.  Turns out, they couldn't either.  Apparently, it's a benefit that's only available for people actually paying real cash to Icelandair.  I could have called and researched and tried to solve the problem but I decided that was too much trouble, so we just booked one leg to Reykjavik on the Chase Ultimate Rewards points on Icelandair.  And then, I built in a week stay for us to enjoy Iceland (without doing any research on hotels, mind you) and booked our flight from KEF to the US on airline miles after that week.

Stereotypical $110+USD a room night, in-room sink,
but down the hall for shared toilet and shower
Iceland special.
So, now we had flights in and out of Iceland right around the Summer Solstice.  In hindsight, I probably should have guessed that a place with that much Summer sun might be a popular destination around the longest day of the year...

But, I didn't.  So when I went to start reserving hotels, my jaw dropped at the prices, and I quickly downgraded to guesthouses and hostels with shared bathrooms, which, in most cases were still some of the most expensive lodging per night we'd purchased for the entire sabbatical year (including amazing suites and glorious ocean views and what not in places off the beaten track in Asia and South America).  In fairness, we did cheat a bit and used hotel points and Chase points in big expensive cities this year, so it's not a true apples to apples comparison, but even so, I was super shocked to learn that rural Iceland is *much* more expensive than rural Japan when booked late on our seat-of-the-pants-travel-plan (like 2X for a basic room for 2 in Iceland sharing a bathroom with multiple guests vs. enjoying a very private en-suite bathroom for half the price in a rural Japanese business hotel).

Waiting for the Geyser to erupt...
You know what none of my friends or family who'd been there before told me?  Iceland is CRAZY EXPENSIVE.  Like $10 pint draft beer special expensive.  Like $25 hamburger expensive.  Like $40-$60+ per person to get in the popular hot springs expensive (and that probably doesn't include towel rental, etc.).  Like now that we've seen our options, we actually plan to go to Taco Bell (secret guilty road-trip pleasure in the US normally) and see how much we can save with a run to the border for a road-trip meal before we leave.  All of a sudden, my cousins who brought their camping gear and MREs and did a road trip in a rental car and tent-camped around the Ring Road in May even though there was still snow on the ground don't look so crazy to me.

Beautiful Icelandic horses in the wind...

Oh, did I mention the weather?  Yeah.  Turns out, Iceland is green and beautiful for a reason.  Our day of arrival was gorgeous, but we'd come from Malta so we figured this was normal and didn't take too many pictures.  Since then... well, it looks like we're here for a week of serious wind and rain and cold.  Did you know Iceland is the windiest place in the world where people actually live?  Yeah.  It's true.  Thankfully, we have rain gear and hats and wool socks and gloves from some of our other travels, because it had not occurred to me that 21 hours of sun a day in Iceland would be anything other than glorious Summer.  I mean it was almost 25C in Copenhagen when we were there!  But the high today was 8C (46F), and it rained *all* day.

The face of the Eurasian tectonic plate from the rift walkway...
Anyways, Iceland is gorgeous, but the rain, wind, and cold has cut back on our planned enjoyment of the views, the running, and the hiking.  And, unfortunately, the food in Iceland is actually pretty terrible.  There.  I said it.  I'm from California, I've been traveling the world for a year (primarily to eat good food, if I'm honest), and today, I was excited to go to a diner where I could order mozzarella sticks with iceberg lettuce and a cucumber on the side with a large soda water for lunch -- this was a *great* option by local standards (in fairness, it's actually a pretty great little kid guilty pleasure lunch, just super unhealthy).  Not to be outdone, E had one of the famous Icelandic hot dogs and jalapeno poppers along with some fries (to the restaurant's credit, they gave us the fries for free and we both enjoyed them -- the fryer had more than they needed for the lunch service and we arrived on the late side of the lunch rush).  This gastronomic experience set us back $30, which is by far the cheapest meal we've had in Iceland thus far. 

Posing, with the famous Icelandic hot dog... (just fine, not mind-altering).
Make no mistake, Iceland is *not* a culinary destination.  Which is, of course, fine.  Its landscapes are obviously the reason to come.  But it's more fine if you happen to be here when the weather is good and the free views and hikes help balance out the value of the otherwise egregiously expensive trip with bland expensive food, or, it's fine if you're prepared with MREs like my genius cousins, or at least if you're pre-prepared for the amount of money you'll be paying for something that doesn't really qualify as a proper meal in many of the places you regularly spend time (I wasn't and it's still smarting, every day, to see the totals on our bills after mediocre meals -- oh, the 4 EU full-size amazing margarita pizzas in Naples, they do that one aspect of life better than just about anyone, and it really hurts to experience how badly Iceland missed the good food value boat).

June 19, 2017

Malta and Diving

On the advice of our awesome dive instructor in Thailand, we built in some time for a visit to Malta on the European leg of the sabbatical.  Shore diving?  (No need to get on a boat, just go straight in and start your dive.)  Sign us up!

The cliffs just drop into the sea creating great walls and dive sites.
Maltese is a living language.  Spoken by 520,000 people. Related to Sicilian, Arabic, Italian, English, and more.  With its own alphabet.  I mean, how can you not fall in love with these linguistic survivors of all of the various conquering invaders?

Maltese sampler (with chicken fingers for E): delicious bread,
pickled cheese, sausage, dried tomatoes in oil, olives,
capers, and bigilla.
Listening and watching our Maltese native dive team leaders interact with the local world was fascinating.  Easily 50% of the people we saw and interacted with in Mellieha were not Maltese.  But, this place has such an easy-going inclusive vibe that it didn't seem weird at all that the locals all preferred to speak to one another in Maltese, and did so while switching into and back from English at will.

View from the restaurant across the street from the dive shop.

Essentially, Malta was one of the best parts of our European leg of travel.  We came to dive, and we did.  6 dives in 3 days over a variety of sites.  We also fit in a couple of lazy beach/pool days.  It was amazing, and a nice slow easy luxurious stop after some of the more adventurous travel in Southern Italy and Sicily. 

Sunset view at dinner one night.
I struggled with air management for the first dive because I thought I needed 8Kg of weight.  When we let the air out on our descent, I dropped like a rock.  This seriously freaked me out.  I had obviously gotten the weight wrong, but I felt obligated to tough it out, which I did, but I was kicking quite a bit to avoid sinking and sucking air like a runner on land who isn't remotely concerned about saving air plus I was inflating my BCD and letting out air for buoyancy control way too much -- in other words, I was a scuba mess.  I let our instructor know about my air consumption rate as soon as I could, signaling 150 on the way out to the wreck after just a few minutes because I knew I was struggling and I was not going to be able to make a full dive, and I wanted her to have as much time as possible to plan.  Thankfully, she was awesome.  She turned the dive when I hit 100bars, did a safety stop, let me ascend, did a buoyancy check and told me to remove 4 Kg, and then sent me and the poor master diver trainee to supervise me on our way to the shore while the rest of the crew went out for another 15 minutes to another site.  The dive master trainee asked why she turned the dive and she said, "She hit 100."  He made a face and she later told me that I'd gone through the tank faster than anyone she'd ever seen (she's done 700+ dives).  Apparently, most people bail when things are uncomfortable (like way too much weight) instead of belligerently staying below and poorly managing their oxygen.

The next dive with 4Kg was perfect.  What a difference proper weighting makes!

Hike in to the blue hole shore entry:
Sometimes shore diving requires a bit of a scramble in full diving kit to get down to the water.
The next day, at the end of the most amazing but long and deep dive with a different instructor I'd bled a tank down to 30Bar, which meant the tank was super buoyant and I was severely *under* weighted and my dive buddy (E) plus the instructor had to physically hold me down at 5m for my safety stop, because otherwise I would float up.  In fairness, everyone else in the group had 15L tanks and they'd given me a 12L tank (let's just call a spade a spade and say they gave me a girl tank).  The buoyancy of the almost empty tank meant that I couldn't stay down, but I'm guessing if I had a proper dude tank on the same dive, there wouldn't have been a problem.

Views from the diveshop van, on our way to the dive site.
The next dive, with all of us on 12L tanks, and me back on 8Kg of weight at the advice of the instructor who'd held me down, I struggled with the sinking and BCD management, so, like the first dive, I ripped through my air, but not quite as badly, and no safety stop issues arose.  We still had to turn the dive due to my air consumption (you never want to be the person who turns the dive!) and I exited with 15Bar, which is *way* too low.  After chatting about it, the instructor and I agreed that I'd go out the next day with 6Kg on my belt, but he'd carry a spare 1Kg to give me at the end to counteract a low tank at the safety stop.

Thankfully, 6Kg on the belt with this kit worked perfectly ('cause my instructor gave away my spare 1Kg he promised to hold to another diver before we even got in the water...). 

The inland sea entry pool on Gozo:
swim through the tunnel (deep below the boats) and out to sea.
The last day, we took the ferry to Gozo (the middle-sized island of Malta).  First, we dived the inland sea, which is a pool of seawater that reaches the sea via a tunnel through a cliff.  Looking up to see boat propellers making lots of bubbles and listening to the buzz of their engines while 10-25 meters below them was quite the experience.

The blue hole with the former azure window in the back
(the left column and top are now on the bottom of the sea)
The second dive was down the blue hole, and around the site of the former famous arch, which, unfortunately, fell into the sea last winter -- we just missed it!  Actually, the boulders on the seafloor from the fallen arch make for a very interesting dive site, it's just not as beautiful of a view from land anymore.  This dive was definitely the most technically demanding dive I'd ever done, with the tunnel descent down the hole, an upward swim through a small vertical chimney from 18m up to 4m or so, and a cave exploration with torches. 

The peaceful sound of nothing but your own breathing and the bubbles you exhale coupled with buoyant weightlessness is definitely addicting.  Plus fish and other sea life are so cool!

Bragioli (aka Beef Olives) -- delicious maltese specialty of
thin beef wrapped around sausage in a tomato caper sauce.
Diving in Malta was wonderful.  We very much enjoyed the relaxed international vibe and spending three consecutive days doing such physical work (between getting kitted up, getting in and out of the water, the heat loss in the water, the actual dives, and getting out of the kit, we went to bed pleasantly exhausted each day).

I'm still learning, but I'm definitely over the initial scuba hump, and I'm so glad I pushed through.  I've got 15 open water dives in my dive log, and I can't wait to add more.  Also, the scuba community is full of the friendliest and most fascinating people.  Almost all of the dive instructors we've met have completely rebooted their lives to enable themselves to dive full time.  They come from all over the world and all types of previous careers and situations and the only thing they have in common is they love to dive and they are happy and grateful to get to do it for a living.  It's very inspiring to be surrounded by such positive, happy, and self-actualized people.

June 12, 2017

Italy and the return to Italian

E and I were talking about it, and it's agreed.  My Spanish, is, finally, after 3 months of immersion, miraculously, better than my Italian.

Classic salcicia e friarelli pizza.  (And a saltimbocca sandwich in the background).
But...  A little bit of Italian goes a long way in Italy.  Like way more than quite a bit of Spanish in Spain or French in France.

Plastercasts of people buried alive by the ash of Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii.
Also, every day we were in Italy, my Italian got much better.  E told me about a week in that he was happy to see that service people stopped cringing when I insisted on struggling through in Italian when clearly their English is much better than my butchering of their language (conveniently, my face-blindness extends to a lack of awareness of people's frustration with my insisting on speaking a language I think I should be able to communicate in). 

I was unprepared for how large the Pompeii ruins are.  It's an entire city.
(That's been under constant excavation for more time than the US has been a country!)
And, somehow, along the way, I happily unlocked stuff that was 15 years deep in the recesses.  About halfway through our visit, a server counted the number of pieces of uneaten pasta on E's plate and motioned that he was not doing his job.  We all laughed and I said, "Vergogna?"  And then, certain I must have gotten it wrong, I proceeded to try about 12 different Spanishized/Fracophied/Latin-based modifications until the server stopped me and said, "Si. Vergogna. Shame!"  It's always very bizarre when your brain re-activates a long dead pathway.  I knew "Che pecatto" but for some reason at that moment, my neurons grabbed another word, one I had no recollection of actually knowing, but somehow did.

Running in Italy did not happen much, but aggressive hiking on sketchy trails to historically fascinating
sites was a regular activity.  (View from the hike to Tiberius Ruins on Capri.)
In the 15 years since I was last in this country, Italy has become much more English-speaking.  If you are a tourist, it's now hard to even do anything in Italian if you speak English unless you are in a non-touristy place, which, since so much of the economy of Italy runs on tourism, is kind of hard to find...

Sea Urchin Spaghetti -- Amazing
After 11 days of minimal Italian study and using it every day in the country, E commented at dinner, "It's probably true that your Spanish is better than your Italian right now.  But you are just so much more comfortable in this language.  Watching you talk to people in Italy after a week is like watching you talk in France.  You just expect that things they say will make sense to you and that they will obviously understand what you are saying. You visibly try much harder in Spanish."

Lemon ricotta, cream, basil, preserved lemon ravioli 
(Very traditional Amalfi meal -- no new world ingredients)
And there it is.  Despite years away, Italy and Italian is like a homeland to me.  I may love France and French, now, but I worked so, so very hard for it, whereas I definitely didn't do the same level of effort for Italian.  In fact, I think I probably have also done more total work on Spanish than Italian, and definitely much more recently, and yet, I'm just more comfortable in Italian (and they, in fairness, tend to be more comfortable in English as well).

2 kinds of tartare and 2 kinds of carpaccio with a side of beef sushi
(Appetizer before arguably the best beef meal of the year in Reggio Calabria)
I mean, I get their jokes.  That's really what it comes down to.  They are close enough to my people that I understand what they think is funny even if I don't totally understand all of the words.  And they see me laughing.  And they reach out, physically, because they are a loving, demonstrative, joyful, and full-of-life people that I'm so very happy to visit yet again. 

On the trail of the Gods hike in Amalfi
Also, it doesn't hurt that E looks like half of the men in Napoli and 1/4 of the men in Sicilia.  We've seen so many people who've reminded us of his uncle Vinnie (no joke) and his grandma on this trip.  And I have dark hair, and I may or may not come from people of this region (or its many invaders), but they often assume that it is true.  They are so accepting and loving and feeding you too much food (today at the airport the food service guy refused to take money for bread and breadsticks when I returned to buy them after realizing we hadn't bought enough).

The average Naples intersection -- we hadn't seen traffic on this level since Vietnam.
After 20 days of Italian chaos and joy, we left for Malta.  Despite the inefficiency and unpredictability, I was so thrilled and happy to be listening to and singing the song of Italy, enjoying its gorgeous countryside, talking with its people and eating its delicious food at every turn. It has been wonderful to return after 15+ years of absence.  And, I can only hope to return much sooner next time.