Tag Archives: travel

Reset the Pieces


I recently watched a great movie: Queen of Katwe. The protagonist is a young woman raised in a Ugandan slum with few prospects for a bright future apart from her passionate and newly discovered adeptness for Chess. At a memorable stage we find her utterly defeated and ready to give up after a blindsiding loss at a promising Chess Tournament. She entered with great confidence, and fled with her ego crushed, ready to lay to rest her dreams of a better life.

Her coach shared his own personal story of defeat – of being alone with life’s odds stacked against him. He then encourages her that even though she can’t see a way through, to never give up but instead…

“Reset the pieces and play again.” You can always play again.

This, I thought, is exactly what I’m doing.

I’m clearing the field, resetting the pieces and starting again.

This pilgrimage is many things. It’s scary as hell. It’s liberating. It’s challenging my attachments, as well as indulging the parts of me that sometimes want to just drop everything and disappear.

Why am I doing this? Why have I closed my humblingly successful business, rehomed my dearest companion, Taco,



…and prepared to set out with virtually no plan and nothing more than a backpack and limited savings?

I don’t know. I only know that I must. I feel my life depends on it.

I cannot continue to live this life as is. My soul aches for more. Aches for discovery and richness of experience. 2014 was the Year of Devastating Loss. 2015 was the Year of Survival. 2016 perhaps the Year of Unfettering. 2017? We shall see.

I have no delusions of this being easy and painless. I fully anticipate being confronted with my unhealed wounds, my blind spots, my ignorances and vulnerabilities. And as happens when you are striped bare of your comforts and perceived security, I know that I will also have a chance to see my strengths revealed as they rise up to meet my challenges. I know that my path will cross with many others who will inspire and teach me, who will reveal themselves to me and reveal me to me. Those whose shared destiny will be unlocked after we’ve both said ‘yes’. Beyond that I cannot predict the path. All I know is that I must go. I must let go. I must trust.

I have worked hard to develop my heart, my hands, and my head. They serve me and others well, but I will admit I am embarrassed at times with how much I still have to learn, how foolish and ignorant I sometimes catch myself being.

I want to do good. I want to be good. But sometimes I mess up and don’t do things well. I lack skill. I lack wisdom. Those who know me well know that I tend to be quite hard on myself. Part of my work is to remember that it’s ok for me to not always get it right – for me to try and “fail”. That’s what life is: imperfect, impermanent, trial and error, actions and their consequence. An experiment. Many, many experiments in fact. We pick an approach, go for it, see what happens, and (hopefully) learn from it.

We can always reset the pieces and try again.


¡Ay, Carumba!

Shane and I set out from my Dad’s house Saturday morning at 8am, agreeing to obey all traffic laws while in the city.

All fresh and excited!

Heading down 19th Ave and then weaving our way towards and around Lake Merced was a good ego boost to get us started – it was all downhill.  Then in Daly City we hit our first climbs and for a moment I wondered just what I’d got myself in to, not knowing how much climbing I was in store for or how I’d fare.  But I climbed, climbed, climbed and when I reached the apex of that first long hill and Shane remarked “Wow, you’ve gotten so much stronger, Maria!” I beamed with renewed confidence and made a mental note to thank Whitney Wolff (the owner and trainer of Adrenaline CrossFit Chico) for getting me into the best shape of my life.

Before we knew it we enjoying that sweet smell of salty decay as we rode oceanside.


We picked up a lovely trail that allowed us to continue away from the main road near the ocean.  Then we picked up a path that was like the bicycle version of San Francisco’s Lombard street.  Far from being miserable, it was delightful to climb!

Looking down from the top of our “Lombard St.”

At the southern end of Pacifica our alternative to the highway ended; we were now on Hwy 1 (Cabrillo Hwy) for the rest of our journey.

Almost immediately we hit 3 miles of narrow, twisty roads.

First we climbed.

Just keep moving.  Just keep moving.  Just keep moving.

Climb, climb, climb.

There was no shoulder, but fortunately all the drivers seemed to accept our need to ‘Share the Road’ and no one honked at us as we pretty much rode on the white line.

About half-way through those three miles, we reached the top and then began to descend.

That’s when I quickly developed a new appreciation for the climb: it’s slow and much easier to control.

Downhill speeds freak me out a bit, especially going down windy, narrow roads that I’d never been on before.  Thus, I rode my brakes down almost all the hills, alternating methodically between front and rear brakes, and trying to sit upright to increase my drag.

The only noticeable setback I felt from my crash two days prior was a weakness in my left grip, and a limitation in comfortable hand-position options.  With my hands on top of my handlebars, fingers wrapping around the top of the brake levers, my wrists felt most comfortable, yet my leverage on my brakes was limited, especially with my weakened left grip.

This bike belongs to the internet, not to me.

And going downhill at fast speeds with my weak grip on top meant that going over some sort of  bump could have easily popped my hands right off the bars.  At least that was my fear.

For a more solid grip on the handlebars and the brakes, I needed to drop my hands and torso down.  This meant greater security in that it was unlikely that I would lose my grip, but unfortunately it put me in a more aerodynamic position and put much more strain on my wrists, fatiguing them quickly.

I was playing a balance for control. I tried to keep my downhill speeds in the 20’s (though I did get as high as 35mph), while crazy Shane topped out at 41mph.

I found that after going down a long hill I was more exhausted from focus and tension than I’d been from the physical labor of going up it.

At 25miles we arrived at our first destination: Half Moon Bay!

We found a fantastic little cafe called the Garden Deli Cafe which was as perfect as could be.  We ate delicious vegetarian sandwiches on freshly made bread (Olive Walnut, yum) while sitting outside on colorful benches while a wrinkly man played guitar and sang in the perfectly breezy sunshine.


Back on the road, things seemed to smooth out; the hills were much more gradual, and our bodies were both warmed up and refreshed.

We had a nice wind that kindly pushed us along at times, and we’d stop here and there to enjoy the scenery…

… and to stretch!

Yoga for Cyclists 🙂

I definitely had a couple conversations going with some body parts while riding: namely, my right rhomboid.  She’d act up, throwing a little tantrum because she was having to bear more weight to compensate for my left, and I’d have to calm her down by helping her breathe, expand, relax, and go with the flow.

***On a side note, I was in a spin class at the gym a couple months ago when the no-nonsense instructor attempted to inspire us by saying “This isn’t Zumba!  This isn’t Pilates!  This isn’t Yoga!” to which I internally protested “But… yoga is in everything.”***

After my spill two days ago, I was riding is Super Vigilant mode: going at what I felt was a safe, moderate speed, only allowing myself to go fast when I could see the entire stretch of a downhill clearly, scanning the road and shadows for debris, watching cars with a healthy dose of suspicion.  My intuition helped me avoid what could have easily been a few scary moments with cars had I not anticipated that people weren’t paying attention.

There was one line of cars parked along the side of the highway that I marked with particular suspicion.  My inner voice said “Sooooooomething smells fishy over there.”  I slowed down even more than normal and gave a particularly wide berth as I approached them.

I was not at all surprised when a truck suddenly pulled out into the highway without giving any indication.  Nor was I surprised when the driver-side door swung wide open two more cars down.

Eventually we reached a particularly satisfying personal milestone:

50 miles. Officially.

At 60 miles we took a break, ate some trailmix and glowed in our triumph.  We were ahead of schedule, feeling fantastic, and almost there!  We’d arrive at Shane’s sister’s house in an hour.

After a satisfying stretch, we were eager to continue, so we saddled up and set off.

Two miles down the road, we came cruising around a bend and were suddenly presented with a situation I was not prepared for and had little time to react to:

Railroad tracks

Now, when going over railroad tracks on a bike, you want to hit them perpendicularly.  The threat is that your tire can either get locked into the track groove, or that your tire loses traction and slides out from under you.

From this picture it would appear that there would be room to go wide to the right and cut over them safely at a relatively perpendicular angle.  But take a look at this aerial view from Google:

We were headed from left to right.

The path leading right up to the tracks was very narrow (about as wide as the lettering on the picture).  So to cut across the tracks at a safe angle would mean cutting a sharp turn left into traffic, which I rejected in my moment of decision making.

We were going 20 mph, Shane about 10 ft behind me.  I realise that seems pretty slow in car-terms, but in bicycle (aka TOTAL LACK OF ARMOR) terms it’s not so slow.

I thought that hitting my brakes was a futile and possibly more risky move, so in my moment of choice-making I decided my best option was to hit it at as much of an angle as I could safely do without going in to traffic, and to hold on to my handlebars in my top position (there was no time to move my hands down) as firmly as I could to try to prevent them from going any direction I didn’t want them to go.

I braced myself.

I hit the first track and experienced a moment of immense relief as I safely maneuvered over it.

I hit the second track and flew.

The track stole my tire with the rest of my bike faithfully following as I followed my own path of momentum, hitting the ground hard on my left side (AGAIN!) and rolling into the street.  As soon as I hit the ground Shane crashed into my back, throwing him and his bike over me, also into the highway.

We are insanely lucky that no one hit us.  Several cars had to swerve out of the way to avoid us and three cars pulled over and stopped just ahead of us after they passed.  Oddly, no one in any of those cars got out to see if we were okay.  They all drove away before I even began to try to get up.

Shane popped up immediately, simultaneously pulling our bikes out of the road and making sure I was okay. He luckily survived with just a scrape on his thumb and a bruise on his back from where he landed on his cell phone.

I knew immediately that nothing was broken, and again was humbled with gratitude.

I was banged up pretty bad and needed help getting up.  By the time Shane helped me up, a car that had seen what had happened (and were shocked to see all the cars that had stopped drive away) made a U-turn to come back and make sure we were okay.  We realized pretty quickly that both our bicycles and myself were not capable of riding the last 11 miles to Santa Cruz.  Since our nice helpers were not equipped with a bike rack, they were not able to give us a ride into SC as I’m sure they would have been happy to do.

Shane called his sister to come rescue us. As soon as he told her we crashed, she guessed that it’d been on the tracks.

The following day we spoke with her neighbor and mentioned that we’d been riding from SF to SC but that we’d crashed.

“WA-WA-WAIT!  Let me guess!  The railroad tracks in Davenport!  Dude, I see people go down there ALL THE TIME!”

You’d think they’d put a sign up.

Sitting there waiting, I was afraid to look at my wounds.

Each finger had some blood on it, and the tips felt numb.

My left elbow was bloody and my expensive, super-lightweight Patagonia jacket that I’ve had less than a year was shredded up.  I realised, again with gratitude, that had I not pulled the sleeves up minutes earlier, bunching the material around my forearms, my elbow wounds would probably have been much more extensive.

My hip burned.  BURNED.  After much avoidance, I lifted my shirt and saw a big bloody patch above my hip.  I also felt  burning lower on my hip in the same place I’d just abraded myself.

I didn’t hit my head this time, but I did hit my hip hard.  I could feel my back beginning to seize up, which is what concerned me most.

By the time we arrived at Amber and Alex’s house and I could finally peel my clothes off to assess and clean my wounds, my clothes had glued themselves down on my open wounds.  Peeling them off brought me to tears.

Double Ouchie.

Amber was so kind, cleaning and dressing my wounds for me.

Right after the crash, Shane kept asking me over and over if my mid-back was okay.  I kept telling him it was fine, that he just hit my backpack, not me.  He just couldn’t believe me and kept asking me over and over.  I kept insisting that it was just my lower left back that was received the trauma from the fall.

Well… it turned out Shane was right.

The tire marks are there to prove it!

Once my wounds were all cleaned and bandaged and my heavy dose of Ibuprofen was kicking in and my shock was abating, Shane and I looked at each other and all we could do was shake our heads and laugh.  A bittersweet laugh.  A complex laugh.  A laugh appreciating what a glorious day it had been, how close we had come, how proud we still were of our achievement and our knowledge that we are capable of realizing this dream; a laugh acknowledging how insanely lucky we were to be able to walk away from something that could easily have been so much more serious.  A humble, uncomfortable laugh of gratitude that this ended up lighthearted rather than tragic.

Much as my last post touched on, the most vivid way to appreciate life and health is to be faced with its sudden departure.

So even though I didn’t complete my objective as I’d laid it out, it seems I did achieve my ultimate goal of remembering to appreciate my life and health afterall.


The next day, we enjoyed the morning as best as we could hobbling around.  We went out for some tasty, unique ice cream at The Penny Ice Creamery where I got a scoop of Rose Petal and a scoop of Cherry Balsamic.

Alex, Amber, Shane, and the Ice Creamery Menu

Bellies full with treats, we loaded in to the car and Alex drove us back along Hwy1 towards San Francisco.  Shane and I both scanned the scenery, waiting to come upon our fateful location.  As we approached, we saw a cyclist heading that way.  Shane felt compelled to yell through the (closed) window “Be careful!  Railroad tracks!”  The cyclist missed his warning and urgent finger pointing, but as we drew closer, Alex pointed out a limey green railroad track sign underneath which was posted another limey green sign saying “WALK BICYCLES ACROSS TRACKS”.

“Where the hell was that sign on THAT side?!”


There it is.

It turns out there WAS a sign.  We just missed it entirely.

Now THIS is a great sign. They should have this sign up, bigger, and FLASHING. Maybe a few of them in each direction.

I am actually comforted greatly knowing that there were posted warning signs.  Before I knew this I felt at a loss for how to continue this desire of mine to travel long-distances on my bike, not knowing how I could have done anything differently had I been in the same situation again.  But now that I’m aware of these blessed signs, I’m spotting them like a hawk!  Turns out there are a few of them near my mom’s house that I’d never noticed before.

I have renewed confidence that given a similar situation I would SEE the sign.  Additionally, next time I’ll use Google maps to scan my route for railroad crossings.

All in all, my adventure was quite a success.  I had a fantastic 62 mile ride, I felt great, spent time with a dear friend, enjoyed my beautiful state, benefited from the kindness of others, and remembered just how precious and impermanent life is.

There is so much to be grateful for.

To be continued.

Adventure Time

I just looked up the definition of adventure and I like it.

1      : an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks

2     : an exciting or remarkable experience

Yup.  Sign me up!

My most imminent adventure is one that I am very pleased to announce: a 4-day bicycle tour from San Francisco to Santa Cruz then Monterey/Carmel and back!



It’ll be about 260 miles round-trip:

Roughly 77 miles on days 1 and 4.

Definitely my longest ride yet.  I’ve never actually, officially even ridden 50 miles in a day, though I’ve been so close that it’s good enough for me.

Additionally, I confess that I’ve likely ridden my road bike  <10 times in the last year – and 0 times in the last month other than a few miles each way to CrossFit Chico.

Hence the adventure.

I’ll be riding with my buddy Shane.


Me and said buddy.

It might not be pretty, but I’ll make it happen.  And Shane is patient and gentle so I know that no matter how much I lag, he’ll be supportive and just keep smiling.

A bike tour is something that I’ve wanted to do for the last 5-6 years, ever since I randomly got a Terry Precision Cycling Catalog in the mail and was introduced to the concept (and promptly purchased super-stylish vestments [such as the one you see above] for my journey that I was determined to make happen).

My big goal is to ride the whole length of CA, or the whole West Coast of the US, perhaps.  To do that kind of fully-loaded tour (where I’m carrying all my food and camping gear on my bike) requires a bicycle that I do not yet own.

Something like this, to which I can attach panniers.

So rather than delay my adventure any longer waiting for the right bike to enter my life or waiting until I’m in ideal shape, I’m just going to make a tour to fit my current circumstances: a mini Tour de Maria sans camping.

We’ll stay with Shane’s sister in Santa Cruz, get a hotel in Monterey, eat along the way, and proudly put on stinky clothes a few days in a row.

Shane and I had originally planned to do this tour in November over my “Celebration of Life” day commemorating the anniversary of my heart surgery. Each year I make a point of doing something that I would not be able to do were I not alive and healthy to remind myself of how much I have to be grateful for.

We decided to postpone our tour as Shane’s sweet grandmother was making her final preparations to move on.

Our adventure begins Saturday morning from my dad’s house.  I intend to document our travels, though I don’t imagine I’ll be posting any updates from the road.  I may post a piece of writing from my heart experience to offer some insight into what this adventure represents for me.



I decided it would be a good idea to take my bike into the shop (The Bicycle Wheel owned by a great guy, Mark Wade) just to have Mark check it out before my ride.  I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, but I thought it’d be a good idea just in case.

I brought it in Tues morning and went in to pick it up at the end of the day.

“I have been working on YOUR bike ALL day!  Yours is the ONLY bike I’ve been working on.  Pretty much everything that could have needed work, needed work on this thing.”

Heh heh.

Who knew?

Part of my bike’s makeover involved a new chain.  Mark’s suggestion was that I give it 20 miles or so BEFORE my big ride to help the chain settle in.  I thought that’d be a good idea anyway, so I (well, Russ did actually) planned a ride today in between my appointments.  20-30 miles.


Man, I was sailing, making good speed, feeling strong, having fun!

We noticed a bike path neither of us had been on and decided to take it.  It was beautiful.  It went behind a row of houses with an open field extending out on the other side.  Riding down the path we gathered an ever-greater flock of birds that flew just ahead, trying to get away from us.  Then there were these two little quail hurrying along next to the path.  They were so cute as hurrying little quail are and then I was falling.

I was slowly, inevitably falling forward to my left as my handlebars bounce maniacally over to my right – my hands completely disengaged from the handlebars.


There were a few things that went wrong here.

Firstly, I was probably going too fast on a trail I’d never been on before.

Secondly, I was distracted on a trail I’d never been on before.

Thirdly, there was a brutal network of roots that were busting up the asphalt, hidden in the shade of the tree they belonged to.

Fourthly, I believe I was shifting my hand position at the critical moment of jarring impact.

Fifthly, I’m used to riding my mountain bike (which has tenderly forgiving shocks).  There is a difference between how you ride a road bike and how you ride a mtn bike and riding one like the other is a recipe for Ouch.  I’ve now experienced that first-hand in both directions.  One of the first times I went out mtn biking, I concussed myself because of my road bike riding habits.

So the great news is that nothing is broken!

My hip took the biggest impact. Deep bruising which will probably blossom in a few days.

Shoulder and elbow forearm got a bit scratched up. Fortunately I had a (now shredded) jersey with sleeves on.

Ouchie. Had to cancel some appointments on account of this one. Sadly I went out without my gloves on. This could have been avoided. But I didn’t not break my wrist so I am extremely grateful!

Hard to tell but it’s swollen and purple-y.

Also difficult to see. Left noggin is lumpy and sore from impact. (THANK YOU, HELMET!) Left brow is scraped. And bridge of nose is swollen and bruised. from sunglasses being slammed into my face. Head is also not excited about rotating.

All in all, I am extremely lucky and grateful.  This could have been so much worse.  I could have broken something.  I could have seriously injured an ankle rather than just shred off some skin like I did.  I can still peddle!  I’m not sure how it’s going to feel having the pressure on my wrist while I ride, but I’m willing to see how it goes.  I am still alive and healthy!

And I’m grateful that I had Russ there with me to help me home, clean my wounds, and run to the store to get me ice and first-aid goodies.

My once-beautifully tuned-up bike is feeling a bit like I am.  She’s battered and banged up, twisted a bit out of shape.  Mark is trying to re-fix her for me before he goes out of town today for his own adventure.  He’s only got a few hours, but he’s doing what he can to help me.  She probably won’t be riding as sweetly as she was, but that’s okay.  As long as I can ride her.

So what’s the point of all this?

As someone who believes that everything happens for a reason, I’ve asked myself why this happened.  I think the answer was that this happened so that I would ride with  much more caution and attention, remembering the differences between road riding and mtn biking before I embark on my bike adventure.

There is inherent risk involved in the pursuit and realization of any goal or dream.  Denying that setbacks and pain are a part of any path of a worthy pursuit is naive and can lead to giving up altogether.  The reality doesn’t need to match the ideal picture in our minds.  It’s important to recognize that we are not immune to setbacks and that we have the ability to carry on in spite of them, and often with greater wisdom because of them.

We’ll see how my big bicycle adventure unfolds!

Cerro Chirripó for the Overconfident & Underprepared

3 May 2010

Last month on the Monkey Project was insanely busy.  On top of my MASSIVE load of data (and emails) that just kept piling up needing attention I was blind-sighted by an eruption of human drama en el campo.  Fortunately I think things have settled for the time being.

The last day of work is usually a half day where we finish up data collection on a group and usually do trail maintenance.  Then everyone comes home, finishes the last of their data editing and proceeds to participate in the End of the Month Party.  I had to take two extra days out of the field at the end of the month just to try to get on top of all my data.  For reasons I won’t get into, I essentially had about 90% of the data collected last month.  That meant full monero-days (i.e. long, 12+ hr days) of editing, dictaphone transcription, and poring over shadow follows of the trainees.  My last day of work was at least 13 hours of data editing, trying to tie up all the most immediate loose ends before I took off for vacation.  At 9:30pm I finally closed up shop and joined the now-drunk and sleepy hoard of people out at the BBQ in town.

After an exhausting month, the thought of spending 5 days in a hammock on the beach drifting seamlessly between napping and reading sounded far more appealing to me than maintaining my commitment to climb Costa Rica’s highest peak, Mt. Chirripo.

Yup. THAT’s what I wanted. But those snuggle-muffin kitties would have to wait 8 more months for me.

But I couldn’t back out, tempting though it was.  I realized that if I didn’t do it then, it wasn’t going to happen.  So after zero minutes of sleep I headed out early on the 26th with Isabel and Whitney.  After a full day of travel we arrived in the small mountainous town of San Gerrardo at the base of the mountain which seemed to be perched in a bowl of high peaks.

San Gerrardo, Costa Rica

We rose the next morning to hike down to the permit office to be there by 5am.  The sky was just starting to lighten as we walked out onto the road from our hospedaje and all three of us were struck with awe as our chins pointed skyward.  Above us the black profile of the surrounding mountains rose up to support a thick dome of cobalt cathedral glass in the richest shade of cobalt imaginable.  I desperately tried to lock into memory the deep blue tone, but my efforts were futile as with every focus of my eyes the tint detectibly evolved and escaped me.  Oh the heartbreaking beauty of impermanence!

The park office opens at 6 but only issues 10 permits a day to stay at the camp up on the mountain, so we needed to make sure we had three of those 10.  We camped out in the dark at the gate enjoying unmemorable conversation.

Fortunately we had no problems getting our permits and headed back to our hostel for what was one of the most delightful days I’d had in a loooong time.  After a glorious hot shower (all my hot showers in the last year have been highly memorable events) we all collapsed back into bed where we spent nearly the entire day sleeping and reading.  It was glorious.  Absurd and delicious.  Isabel didn’t even read.  She just laid there when she wasn’t actually sleeping.  You’d think our room had been exposed to some sort of neurotoxin the way we just laid there like worms.

We DID manage to get up a couple times, though if I’d had it my way I would have played no part in it.  At one point we went for a walk and found this beautiful boulder that I immediately fell in love with: smooth, warm, atop a hill overlooking a valley lined with purple flowers and surrounded by lush mountains.  If I lived there, that would be my reading/napping/lunching/writing rock.  >sigh<  I long for it already.

Begrudgingly breathing fresh air.

We had a predictable but no less enjoyable lunch of Gallo Pinto across from the elementary school where we watched the children carom around the soccer field with their teacher while a smaller subset tirelessly rolled down a hill like little caterpillars spilling off a leaf.

Our marathon mattress-loving time ended in the four o’clock hour of the next morning when we hefted our packs, clicked our buckles and headed out.  It’s never a good idea to underestimate a mountain or overestimate one’s preparedness.  Being that I’ve never climbed a mountain and that I spend the majority of my days backpacking anyway, I made the erroneous assumption that conquering this mountain would be no big deal.  Good lord, was I wrong.

Look at that smug confidence. She has no idea.

Cerro Chirripo’s peak rises 12,530 ft above sea level and is one of Costa Rica’s seven wonders.  Granted, in terms of peaks this is a baby peak (or maybe a grade-school peak), but it was my first one and it kicked my ass.  As you make your way to the top, you pass through rainforest…

cloud forest…

and finally tundra ecosystems…

At the top on a clear day you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  But the top was still a long way away at this point.

Starting out, my glutes were immediately (and mysteriously) sore.  I must have been running through someone’s thoughts all night!  But seriously, I didn’t think much of it and for the first 3-4 km it did not affect my stride and I powered on ahead of Isabel and Whitney.

Then things changed.

One of these is not like the other. It’s me… snarling.

The burning of my glutes grew steadily more present in my mind until eventually every ascending step was an agonizing force of will and I trailed behind my compañeras.  I did a mental inventory of everything in my pack and censured myself for each unnecessary item I’d foolishly flung into my bag.  Why did I pack that?! I should know better!

On the two reprieving stretches of level ground and the cursed relief of descending slopes that came at kilometers 12 and 13, I was able to resume my usual clip and console my ego.  I realized that it’s just the steep ascents that I was not in shape for and poignantly that was all this was – the essence of what I was doing.  There was no escape.  No way around it.  Only one direction: UP.

After eight hours we finally dragged ourselves in to base camp at 14.5 km.  The refugio is this large stone building that hugs one of the mountainsides.  It has no heating and has solar panels that allow for electricity for an hour after dark, not that we needed it.  We peeled off our rain gear (half our hike was in the rain) and sweat-soaked clothes and Whitney and I braved the icy-cold showers.  We bundled up, ate some cold food, and went to our bunks.  I massaged Isabel’s glutes and thighs and then she blessedly returned the favor.  A lot of people don’t realize the true pleasure and reward of a fist or elbow sinking into your glutes.  It’s glorious.

Dark descended upon us and we bundled up further in all the clothes we had, crawled into our sleeping bags and zonked out.

My alarm went off at 3:15.  Within 20 minutes we were ready to go and headed out to make our summit.  Six more kilometers in the dark.

The break-a, break-a dawn.

We all felt wonderfully refreshed on the trail.  That lasted about 10 minutes.

Fortunately a significant portion of the 6km was through a valley, but every flat plane was balanced out by an even steeper ascent later on.  After two hours we were nearly to the top.

The last leg was just rock and very steep – hands and feet required.  Fortunately, for that last portion the sun was rising so we could climb without flashlights.  It would have been much trickier to climb up in the dark (as many people do) in order to catch the sunrise from the top.

When I finally dragged myself up and over the last rock-face completing my nearly 10,000ft climb I was so exhausted I just collapsed on the nearest rock and let my lungs massage the thinner air.



There were three others atop the peak with us, signing the book, chatting, enjoying the view.  After a few minutes I livened sufficiently and began to look around.  The sky was still clear at that point and the view of the glacial lakes and the layers of mountains in successively lighter shades of blue spanning out into the distance in all directions was simply put: beautiful.

We took pictures, ate some food, signed the book, bundled up in sleeping bags and more layers to fight off the frigid air and basically killed time waiting for the other parties to leave before we could enact our brilliant plan. After a few minutes buffer of the last person leaving Isabel and I sprang into action.

What was our brilliant plan, you ask?  Only the most sensible thing in the world: we got naked.

Whitney was having none of this “foolishness” and did not participate herself but was certainly amused by our antics.  It was exhilarating!  And so much fun!  Standing on top of Costa Rica in nothing but my boots and a hat: awesome.  I think any peak I summit from now on (if I decide to torture myself again (which I most likely will at some point)) will have to be punctuated with my bare ass.

After a couple of hours on top of Costa Rica, we began our invigored descent.  We paused to enjoy the beautiful tundra landscape when I half-jokingly suggested Whitney reconsider the nakedness and offered to join her so as not to feel awkward as the lonely divested monera on a mountaintop.  She adamantly refused the suggestion.  Isabel turned to me and asked in a cheeky voice “want to get naked again?”  Definitely.  So, fully amused with ourselves we stripped down and did a little naked-tundra backpacking.

Because we can.

We made great time going back down the mountain – only took half the time.  We made it half way before it started pouring.  Going down in the rain presented a far greater challenge than going up.  The trail was extremely slippery and the last two kilometers saw me falling again and again.  I was well ahead of my amigas on the way down, what with my healthy knees.  We had planned to take pictures at the bottom for a Before & After but at each waypoint I had no desire to stop.  I wanted to get the hell off the mountain.  Every time I stopped I could feel my legs pulsing with the heartbeat of a hummingbird.  I just kept going until I was done with the 27+ km of the day.  By the time I was done I had lost all euphoric sentiments and was exhausted and grumpy as hell.  Eventually food, a hot shower, warm clothes, a bed and my book restored my contentedness.  We spent the rest of the day supine, reading and playing my new word game (this is where I list all the words I don’t know the definitions of out of my T.C. Boyle book (I am in love with this man’s vocabulary) and other people try to see how many, if any, they know.  Yes, we play vocabulary-building games for fun.)

The next day was the first day of vacation in which we actually got to wake up naturally after the sun had risen.  I think we were all awake by 5:30am and luxuriated in “sleeping in”.  We returned home to Bagaces that day, all having quite a bit of difficulty moving.  Sore all over.  Every time I had to step off of that last extra-high step on the buses without a rail was dicey to say the least.  I never knew if I’d be able to catch myself or if I was just going to crumple to the ground accordion-style.  Fortunately all went well and though I’m still sore the threat of collapse is no more.

Liberation of One Sort

Today is a special day.  I’ve experienced this day once before.  Today, I am debt-free!  (Except, of course, for the incalculable debts to my parents throughout the years!)

It’s a strange mix of triumph and delayed satisfaction as I wait a couple days for my payment to be processed to show me that satisfying $0.00 balance on my account that I long to see.

The last time I stood here, I’d ended my loving partnership with Joe, sold 90% of my belongings including our “family” car which would never fulfill its intended purpose, and used the money to pay off my loans before moving indefinitely to South Africa.


Something about this feels familiar…

End a significant relationship: Check.
Get rid of all my stuff: Check.
Clear out my debts: Check.
Leave the country indefinitely: Check.

Hey, whatever works!

I won’t be selling my car, though.  She’ll wait patiently for my inevitable return.  And I’m not selling my furniture because it’s Grandma’s furniture.  But a massive purging is upon me.

I’ll only be taking with me what will fit in my backpack.  And that will be plenty.

I realized something on my bike yesterday about this business of being happy.

I realized that I’d never actually asked myself that question before, which is perhaps why, when I did, I had no freaking idea what real happiness looks like to me.  That has never really factored into any of my major life decisions.  At best it seemed irrelevant, and for a certain chapter of my life seeking happiness for oneself was something to be ashamed of.  I remember being asked by friends when I was in Costa Rica if I was happy and thinking ‘what an odd question.  Happiness has nothing to do with this. I didn’t come here to be happy.

Reflecting on the major decisions of my life and my guiding questions has been an interesting exercise:

                Q: How can I be of the greatest service to others?

                A: 1) Dedicate my life to saving baboons.  2) Go back to school and finish my degree.

                Q: How can I best challenge myself to stimulate growth and to understand my actual limits as opposed to my perceived ones?

                A:  Go to Costa Rica to study monkeys at the most grueling field site in primatology.  Then agree to manage it.

                Q: What will bring me into balance and allow me to more effectively help others?

                A:  Go to India and study yoga.

                Q:  Where can I best be supported and actually enjoy life after all this hell I’ve been putting myself through? (India excluded).

                A:  Move back to Chico.

For a long time I believed that serving others and seeking happiness for oneself were mutually exclusive.  I realized the hard way (because I tend to stubbornly adhere to the path that I’m on) that an ascetic life is not only unsustainable and unhealthy, but it is also unnecessary.

From the beginning, I’d been driven by the desire to leave a better world than the one I was born in to.  That was the stated purpose of my life.  I created a tremendous amount of pressure for myself to work tirelessly and selflessly toward this goal at the near-total sacrifice of myself.  It was when I found myself in the aftermath of a broken heart (literally and figuratively), coming to terms with big, existential questions and my suffocating fear of dying before I could really make a difference that I allowed myself to see that I already accomplished my goal.  I already had made a difference.  I wouldn’t be written about in history books, but I’d made a positive impact in the lives of others.

Conceding that success five years ago felt like taking 200lbs of pressure off my chest.

Today I stand with the same exterior but a very different interior landscape.

The fact that I am even asking myself that simple question shows me how far I’ve evolved.   I’ve realized that seeking happiness for myself (again, not to be confused with pleasure) not only doesn’t contradict benefiting others, but it could be the best route.

How can I have compassion for others and hold love in my heart if I’m plagued with suffering?  Frustrations, disappointments, irritations… when they exist in our minds they only create suffering for ourselves and those around us.  If we can replace those feelings with loving-kindness, compassion, and gratitude it feels a hell of a lot better for us and enables us to interact with the rest of the world in a positive way.

That’s what I’m working on.  I have a long way to go, but life is all about practice, right?  At least I feel I’ve cleared out a lot of the brush and I’m finally on the right track that I think will lead me home.  Wherever that is.

I wonder, what are your guiding questions and how have they changed through time?

Butterflies, Babies, and Awkward Conversations.

4 April 2011

Countless white butterflies are fluttering up the mountain outside my window right now.  They look sort of like big snowflakes moving in the wrong direction.  Or like sperm racing to get to the egg first, which is apparently at the top of the mountain.  A steady stream of them keeps flying past.  I wonder where they all came from and where they are going.

Uh-oh.  One of them is lost.  He’s going in the wrong direction!  Turn around, buddy!  You’ll never make it that way!  There’s nothing over there!

Oh… oh… sweet.  He found his way (at least past my window).

Yesterday I massaged Jittender, the therapist who does Thai massage.  It was a wonderful massage.  Our energies clicked and he was very happy with the work.  After the massage we both sat on his table and drank chai.  He was very complimentary and said that I massage from the heart.  I liked that.  When he found out that I am a biologist he starting calling me “doctor” and asked me to explain why there is pain in the pecs and what to do about too much uric acid in the body, wanting to compare my opinion with that of an actual doctor he’d seen.  I could explain the pecs easily enough but had nothing to offer for the uric acid dilemma.  Despite my explaining that I’m not a doctor, he insisted on calling me “doctor”.

From there I went straight over to Kamal’s to get my massage.  He was totally professional and did a lovely job.  Very strong and skillful.  He can clearly see with his hands.  It was very interesting to experience his style.  He did a lot of myofascial work using some completely different techniques than I was trained in which accomplish the same thing.  He didn’t know the term “myofascial” and I don’t think he knew the theory or mechanisms behind his techniques, just that they were effective.

As seems to be the case with everyone I’ve met so far, Kamal never received any formal training but picked up an amalgamation of techniques from various people who have come through at different times.  Having received a very high quality training myself at Chico Therapy Wellness Center, it is a bit disconcerting having people doing things like chiropractic adjustments after being shown a couple things by a chiropractor once, without being aware of possible damage that one could do.  What is also disconcerting is people who have not received any formal bodywork training then going on and dispensing training to others, as is very popular here.  It seems every massage therapist, no matter how long they’ve been practicing, also offers a massage training course.  Usually two hours a day for five days.

After the massage and the obligatory cup of chai, I climbed the steps out from his office up toward the road.  As I looked up the enter the street, a familiar face hovered right in the middle of my view, framed in the doorway, about to walk past.

Katyanna!  My friend/yoga instructor from Nicaragua!  I’d almost completely forgotten that I was going to see her here.  She just happened to be walking past the doorway at the exact moment I was stepping out of it.  Crazy.  Katyanna is the reason I became interested in India in the first place and the reason I ended up here, now, in this course.  She was my favorite yoga instructor in Central America.  She went through the same training and now she has returned to be an assistant instructor.  We went to a café and talked about yoga, Nica, India, etc for over an hour, even practicing our Spanish a little.  It was so crazy, the last time I saw her we were in Nica saying “Okay, see you in India” and there we were again.

I went to have dinner at the Tibet Kitchen again for the third day in a row to break my fast.  Yesterday a fast was held to pay respects to a 20-year old monk named Phuntsok Jarutsang who set himself on fire on March 16th to mark the third anniversary of the March 16, 2008 deadly crackdown by the Chinese on Tibetan peaceful protesters in Tibet.  I hope everyone who reads this will think about that for a moment; what the Chinese government has done, what it continues to do, how brave one must be to peacefully protest in China (knowing that doing so means relinquishing your right to live), how it must feel to believe that your best chance of bringing attention to the atrocities being committed against your people is to burn yourself alive… and to actually do it…

Phuntsok Jarutsang

The least I could do was not eat for eight hours.

When I did eat I had Sonam, my same waiter from the previous two days, help me pick out my next dish to try.  I think Sonam is in his twenties and escaped from Tibet four years ago with 82 other people.  He said it was very dangerous for them.  He’d just finished school three months ago where he studied English, Tibetan and Tibetan history and culture.  He explained that it is a school where all the new refugee children go.  His accent is very thick and his English isn’t super strong so it took a lot of time for us to converse.  There was a lot more I wanted to learn from him but his boss indicated that he needed to stop talking and get back to work.  I told him I’d be back the next day and he seemed pleased.

Tibet Kitchen


I’m happy to report that I seem to be acclimated to the 9,275ft elevation and that the buhjillion steps up to town are far more manageable now.  On my way up today, I was stopped by Kunchok, a young Tibetan man.  I really have to make no effort to meet local people here – they just start talking to me.  The dialog almost always goes like this:

Person: “Hello! Where are you from?”

Me: “Hello.  I’m from California.”

Person: “Oh.  How long you stay McLeod Ganj?”

Me: “One month”

Person: “When you get here?”

Me: “X days ago”

Person: “This your first time in India?  You like it?”

Same thing (almost) every time.

Kunchok mixed it up by throwing a “You’re hair very different” in there as the follow up to “where are you from”.  He seemed fascinated with my appearance, clearly studying my attire as if I was some exotic creature, which I find funny since I’m wearing Tibetan and local clothes and my hair is simply up in a clip like I always have it.  Just ahead of me on the stairs was some hippy dude with super long dreadlocks, so I’m not sure what was so unusual about my hair.

The only thing I could think to say was “It’s, uh, messy” thinking how I hadn’t bothered to brush it.  FYI: curly hair and clips work together as masters of disguise.

We chatted briefly and he invited me for chai and told me to come visit him at the café he works at.  I declined the chai but assured him if I found myself near his café I’d stop in to say hi.

I continued my ascent and a bit further up I stopped to investigate the sound of children singing.  I peered through the gate of a preschool and kindergarten for Tibetan children.  Across the courtyard in a classroom I could see a group of tiny little round children in uniforms neatly arranged, singing and dancing a simple, choreographed dance.  THEY WERE SO CUTE!!!  I tried to take video of them but the contrast between the bright outside and the dark inside the classroom meant my camera didn’t pick up any of their adorable, stout little appendages moving around: feet stopping, arms swinging… I want one!



I’ve officially decided Tibetan children are the most adorable children in the world.  Their faces are spherical!  They look like little variations of


my grandma and my little cousin, Elaina, whose nickname given to her by her older brother is “Cookie” (cuz she’s round like a cookie).

I think I’m going to have to learn to speak Tibetan before I’ll be of much use to the kids.  Fortunately, though, there are a lot of opportunities to learn Tibetan and Hindi here.  There are many efforts going on to keep tibetan culture alive, so one can also easily find classes on how to cook Tibetan food, how to create the traditional Thanka paintings, not to mention all the lectures going on everyday.  So much to do!  You see why I have to come back?

While I won’t have time to get involved in pretty much any of that during this trip, but I do hope to make it to the Tibetan Children’s Village.  According to my Rough Guide it is “a huge complex providing education and training in traditional handicrafts for around two thoughsand students, many of whom are orphans or have been brought to safety by parent who have returned to Tibet.”  If you are interested in reading a little more about them or learning how you can help (such as by sponsoring a child for $40 a month) you can check out their website here.

Once I was in town, I made my way back to Jittender’s office where I received my first Thai massage.  It was RAD!  I think I need to learn how to do this.  Wow.  Really, really cool.  I’d love to offer this to my clients.  It’s so interactive.    For those of you who have not experienced it, you lay on a pad on the ground with loose-fitting clothes on while the therapist stretches and massages you.  Two thumbs, way up.

Afterward I went for lunch at Tibet Kitchen but was disappointed to see Sonam wasn’t there.  I picked a random thing on the menu “Veg Petsel Phing” with two yum-yum-yummy things of Tibetan bread called Tingmo.


The Petsel Phing turned out to basically be a spicy version of the thing I ate last night without the yummy paneer (cheese).  I thought to take a picture of it only half-way through my bowl…

Veg Petsel Phing (I think)

After lunch I walked around, found a nice view with my building in it…

If you follow the line of flags on the left edge of the photo, Sidharth House is the first building (orangey/pink) above it.

…bought my next papaya, and made my way home with one more awkward conversation with Kunchok to round things out.

Kunchok: “Hello again!”

Me: “Hello!  How are you doing?”

Kunchok:  “I’m just reading this magazine here.  It’s… really interesting… this magazine.”

Me: (Seeing that the magazine was a worn copy of Better Photography) “Oh, you like taking pictures?”

Kunchok: “No.”

Me: “Oh.”

Kunchok: “You want to read it?  It’s really good.”

Me:  “No, thank yo-“

Kunchok: “So you are going home then?”

Me: “Yes”

Kunchok: “You, uhh… share a room with someone? Or you by yourself?”

Me: “I am by myself.  Okay, nice chatting with you again!  I’m sure I’ll see you later.  Enjoy your day!”

Exploring Day Two in McLeod Ganj

2 April 2011

Okay, so I didn’t accomplish any of my objectives for yesterday.  I stepped out from my apartment to go explore the rich Tibetan resources of the area and as I fumbled with my lock on the door a woman stepped out of hers a few doors down, saw me, and rushed over to introduce herself. 

Nicole is from Alberta and will be on the course with me.  She is one of the most outgoing, bubbly people I’ve met.  She is very much her own person; full of life and warmth, the kind of person who could orchestrate masses.  She arrived the same day I did and in just one day had the scoop of the whole main portion of town.  She knew where all the best deals were, how to get the best rates, where to get the freshest fruit, etc.  She gave me a tour of town (where those two roads are that I hadn’t found the first day).  It turns out there are a buhjillion steps between Siddhart House (where I live) and the main town.  I heard talk that it was over 300 but I’m skeptical there are that many.  I’ll count and let you know.

This photo does no justice to the expanse and brutality of those steps

 We went to lunch at a restaurant recommended to us by Kamal and dined on the roof which has a beautiful view of the mountains.  Why didn’t I take a picture of this?  As we were deciding on a table to sit at, Nicole noticed a guy sitting alone, quietly at a table.  Without hesitating she chimed “Are these seats taken?  Want some company?”

So that’s how we met Sean. 


Sean is from Washington D.C. and has been traveling India since October.  He’s a very sweet-natured guy who, like me, found it hard to resist Nicole’s presence. 


After lunch the three of us climbed up more steep hills and steps to reach the Tushita Meditation Center .

 There we watched a video about the Buddhist nun, Venerable Robina Courtin, who will be leading the 10-day retreat that Sean has signed up for.  The nun is this very loud, brash Australian woman who is not at all what one would imagine when they think of “Buddhist nun” but many people have deeply connected with her.  Personally, I felt no draw to her and spent the second half-hour massaging Nicole whose been having back pain.

Before leaving I went up to their Library and found a wealth of books I want to read.  I could spend forever here, reading, learning, growing.  I found a book recommended by Brandon called Mindfulness in Plain English by Venerable Henepola Gunaratana. I already don’t want to put it down.  I’m only in the second chapter but I can’t wait to keep reading.  It’s explains Vipassana style meditation in very basic terms.  Basically it de-mystifies the whole meditation process, talking about what meditation is and isn’t, etc.  There are so many people that come to mind as people I think would benefit greatly from reading this book and that I STRONGLY recommend it to that I actually typed up the ENTIRE first chapter and was about to post it when I discovered that the whole book is online as a free pdf.  So dive in to that first chapter and see if you feel compelled to read more.


After returning down the mountain to McLeod Ganj, we browsed through various stores where Nicole insisted Sean try on a variety of brightly colored clothes rather than the calm, earthy tones he’s more comfortable with.  “You can’t leave India without at least one brightly colored item!”  Despite trying on a number of things he wisely withheld making an immediate decision and purchased nothing.

We parted ways and I went to go eat my first Tibetan meal.  I had absolutely no idea what anything on the menu was so I asked the server to decide for me.  I don’t remember what I ordered but they were like crispy, fried hot pockets filled with vegetables.  And they were delicious.  I also ordered Tibetan tea.  He warned me most foreigners don’t like it, finding it too strong, but I insisted I wanted to try it.  I quite liked it though it was indeed rich.  It tasted like hot, creamy, salty butter.  Yummy, but I could only drink half a cup.

Then I made my way home, stopping to buy a big Papaya for my breakfast, and stopping to talk with Kamal.  He was very understanding that I got carried away exploring town for my first time and ran out of time.  We agreed that I’d show up to massage him today at 11.

Before bed I met up with three more people from my course who have now arrived. Everyone seems very nice and I look forward to getting to know them better, though I find myself cherishing my alone time as well and not wanting to get swept away, spending every minute with the same people.  I just need to find the balance, and I’m confident that this is the place to find it.