Don’t Change that Channel, Exploring the Channel Islands

Time for another girl trip!! G and I have been doing backpacking and camping trips since 2007. She is my friend from vet school and we started by hiking the grand canyon in ’07 and tend to have adventures together once a year or so. She is one of the coolest people I have ever met. She lives in Oregon, I live in Arizona.

We were talking on the phone and discussed doing another camping and hiking trip and she suggested hiking in the Channel Islands, off the coast of California. I jumped at the chance to see another national park. She arranged a ferry ride to Santa Cruz island from Ventura and arranged two nights of camping. As I was preparing for the trip my friend and neighbor stopped by, he was interested in the trip. He asked who I was going with because he was curious what other “rugged bitches” I knew. I took that as a compliment.

On Saturday I drove out to Los Angeles to pick G up at the airport. The airport area in L.A. is somewhere I spent a lot of time this summer during my work for G Adventures. I felt happy in the L.A. traffic in a Civic and not in a large commercial van with a trailer attached. I picked her up and from there we stopped at a Ralph’s grocery store directly across the street from the hotel that I had stayed in it so many nights over the summer.

We headed out around L.A. to do some sightseeing for ourselves. We went to the La Brea tar pits near Hollywood and to the Page museum which has displays of bones found in the pits and information regarding them. It was very fascinating. We went to the Hollywood walk of fame and posed with some stars and saw the Hollywood sign in the hills, then we headed toward Ventura to try to find a campsite for the night. We couldn’t find a site and ended up staying at a hotel for the night.

Our souvenir photo from the La Brea Tar Pits (Sabertooth tiger ate my middle)

Our souvenir photo from the La Brea Tar Pits (Sabertooth tiger ate my middle)

Display at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Display at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Hollywood walk of fame

Hollywood walk of fame

Hollywood stars!

Hollywood stars!

In the morning we got on the Island Packer’s ferry bound for Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands. We had all of our camping gear and got onto the ferry. The ride was about an hour and a half from the California shore. We saw some California sea lions and a few dolphins along the way to the island.

 

Ferry to the Channel Islands

Ferry to the Channel Islands

California Sea Lions

California Sea Lions

When we arrived at the island all of the campers, a group of maybe 15 or so, were gathered together and greeted by a park ranger, Ranger Cole, who laid down some island rules. Ranger Cole seemed like a no-nonsense sort of guy, he was the only ranger I had seen who carried a gun and a set of handcuffs. He didn’t seem to be in a joking mood, and actually seemed quite sick of people’s shit. He was about 30 years old, tall, dark, muscular and handsome. G and I both noticed he didn’t wear a wedding ring. He laid down rules regarding obtaining fresh water, cleaning at the campsites, checkout times, fire restrictions, and talked about the importance of not littering, and about packing all trash back off the island. The island has no trash services and all trash must be taken back to the mainland by campers. He also discussed the importance of staying safe on the island and discussed how little emergencies can escalate into big problems due to our remote location. He told us to come to him immediately with any medical emergencies, even minor ones “like a sprain or a fracture.” G and I glanced at each other sideways trying not to snicker because we wondered how Ranger Cole could classify a fracture as a minor injury. He also talked about some of the unique wildlife on the island. The Channel Islands are sometimes called “the Galapagos of North America” because there are varied species on each island and many distinct species of animals are found on the Channel Islands that are found nowhere else on earth. Santa Cruz is home to the island fox, which is the largest predator on the island, there are about 1300 on the island. He also told us about the native people who once lived on the island and that there are sacred burial sites present. He told us to never disturb a site and told us that some sites are still being discovered, and if we think we discover one we should tell him. Ranger Cole didn’t smile once during his speech and dismissed us at the end of it. G and I shouldered our packs and started heading to our campsite, which was about a half mile away from the harbor.

On the way to camp we discussed some hiking options and we talked about packing out trash and we resolved to also pack out any other trash we found on the island as well. We decided we would leave the island cleaner than we found it. We also talked about how we wished we could see some more sea life, hopefully some whales and more dolphins and sea lions. We also wanted to see some island foxes. We joked that we had already seen one fox, Ranger Cole, and we debated about how often park rangers likely get laid. We had different theories on this subject. We joked about how Ranger Cole told us to find him for medical emergencies or if we discover a sacred burial site on the island, but he didn’t actually tell us where to find him. We wondered where he stayed. We wondered how often he used his handcuffs.

We set up camp and then went to the visitor center on the island. We learned about how the island used to be used as a ranch in the late 1800s, but then sheep and pigs got loose and became feral and took over the island and fucked up all the environment and threatened native island species. Eventually the sheep and pigs were trapped and relocated back to the mainland and all ranching activities were stopped. The island and its wildlife are still working on recovering from the insults of ranching.  After our learning experience at the visitors center, we hiked up to a viewpoint called Cavern’s Point, and out to another scenic point called Potato Harbor. The island scenery is stunning and the coastline of the island is very beautiful. We looked for whales but didn’t see any. After hiking we went back to camp and cooked a dinner of dehydrated food using water we boiled with a Jetboil and then made a dehydrated dessert. It was good. A scruffy looking fox with a limp and previously injured ears walked into our campsite. This fox obviously had been living off of food scraps and wasn’t scared of people. Ranger Cole had made it clear never to feed island wildlife. We sat and watched this fox as he wandered through our site, he even walked right up to G and waited by her feet for a moment before continuing on through the site. We called him Scar.

Huge eucalyptus trees near our campsite were fun to climb

Huge eucalyptus trees near our campsite were fun to climb

Near Cavern's Point on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

Near Cavern’s Point on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

View of Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Islands, Channel Islands, California

View of Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Islands, Channel Islands, California

View near Cavern's Point.  Channel Islands National Park.

View near Cavern’s Point. Channel Islands National Park.

This beat up limping old fox came into our campsite.  We called him "Scar"

This beat up, limping, old fox came into our campsite. We called him “Scar”

Island fox we nicknamed "Scar"  He is looking for a handout.  He came right up to G

Island fox we nicknamed “Scar” He is looking for a handout. He came right up to G

The next morning we got up and Jetboiled some water and made oatmeal and granola and coffee. We packed some more dehydrated food and a bunch of water and headed out for an all day hike to another shore of the island called Smuggler’s Cove. (I never found out how these different places on the island got their names.) We walked up and down hills in the sun and along the coast through stunning scenery to the other side of the island. We saw another island fox along the way. The fox wasn’t scared at all and I got very close to it taking photos and I made G pose with it. As we hiked we picked up garbage along the way and had a competition as to who could get the most trash or the most usual trash. We reached Smuggler’s Cove around lunchtime. There was a beach and a nice view of Anacapa Island, another of the islands of the park. We combed the beach for more trash and found some unusual items including a walkie talkie, some plastic letters, part of a camera and part of some glasses. We also found an almost full pack of Camel cigarettes in smokeable condition. We had also been finding numerous bones all over the island. The bones we suspected to be pig and sheep bones.

Island fox with mats on his back refused to look at me for his photo op

Island fox with mats on his back refused to look at me for his photo op

G with Island Fox

G with Island Fox

I was actually surprised by how little trash there was on the island overall, but we still managed to find enough to stress our small daypacks. (We didn’t take any bones but left those where they were.) Before we packed the trash all up we played with it and I decided it would be a waste if I didn’t smoke a cigarette. I lit one with the Jetboil flame and was immediately shocked by how disgusting it was. I think I forgot how gross cigarettes are. I took a drag but couldn’t bear to inhale any; it tasted like my chainsmoking grandma’s morning breath. I stubbed it out and packed it back with the other trash. G had no desire to try to smoke a cigarette, but we took some self timer photos posing with the cigarettes and other trash for fun.

Some of the trash we picked up off the beach on the Channel Islands.  We strove to leave the island and ocean cleaner than we found it.  Saving the world.

Some of the trash we picked up off the beach on the Channel Islands. We strove to leave the island and ocean cleaner than we found it. Saving the world.

Playing with trash we picked up on the beach

Playing with trash we picked up on the beach

We made backpacking dehydrated meals again with the Jetboil. G forgot her spoon and although I offered to share mine, she preferred to use a piece of a broken shell to eat soup and mashed potatoes with instead.

Gretchen eats soup for lunch with a seashell.

Gretchen eats soup for lunch with a seashell.

From the beach we headed past another building that used to be a part of the ranching operation on the island in the late 1800’s. We hiked up a trail called the yellow banks trail and enjoyed the views from there. We decided it would be nice to live there.

We hiked back to the campsite in the late afternoon and along the way discussed very important life topics, like having crushes on Bill Nye, the science guy. We also discussed having crushes on members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I have had a crush on Anthony Kiedis since I was in high school, and G made me feel inferior for this, telling me that I had blindly went along with the masses. She made it clear that Flea was clearly the better choice. He is a good humanitarian, a musical soul, free spirit and caring person. Anthony Kiedis was just plain hot. G recognized this from the beginning, when I took over 15 years to see it. We also discussed other important topics like viewpoints on sailing a sailboat, how we clean the bathtub, and how to protect pigs from getting sunburned. Oh and I found out that G actually proposed to Bill Nye via email when she was in high school…. more proof that she is cooler than me.

I made G take my photo at Smuggler's Cove Beach attempting to live out my dream as a "Globetrekker"

I made G take my photo at Smuggler’s Cove Beach attempting to live out my dream as a “Globetrekker”

Hiking in the Channel Islands

Hiking in the Channel Islands

Back at camp we Jetboiled more dehydrated food. Another island worker, Brett, came over to talk to us. I don’t think Brett was a ranger, but he drove a golf cart. He came to ask us if we were kayaking and told us that someone left their kayaks on the beach in a poor location where they would have been taken out to sea in high tide. He didn’t seem pleased about it, but he was very friendly and chatted and joked with us and was very personable and pleasant. Ah, forget Ranger Cole, we were now fans of Brett. Brett was cool.

Scar came to visit us again at the campsite, eating tidbits of unknown items in the grass as he strolled around the area. We greeted him warmly, but didn’t attempt to feed him or approach him.

The next day we swam and hung out at the beach. The water was cold. Our ferry came to pick us up at 3:30pm to take us back to the mainland. We rode back with a class of elementary school kids on a field trip for the day. We sat on the upper level of the ferry while the kids were on the lower level. Neither G or myself are big fans of noisy children. On the way back was were greeted by a very large school of dolphins who decided to ride in the waves from our ferry. It was hands down the coolest group of dolphins I have ever seen and I was so happy as I watched them. There must have been more than 50 of them. The kids on the lower level of the ferry were so happy and I thought to myself that it must be an incredible experience for these kids to go to the island. It was an incredible experience for me!

 

Scorpion Beach, Santa Cruz Island

Scorpion Beach, Santa Cruz Island

 

Dolphins swim next to our ferry

Dolphins swim next to our ferry

 

We camped on the beach at Point Mugu State park south of Ventura for the night. The campsite was on the sand of the beach and we made a fire on the beach and cooked grilled cheese sandwiches in a mountain pie iron.

Our campsite on the beach south of Ventura

Our campsite on the beach south of Ventura

The next day we met up with another friend, Joyce, from vet school. I haven’t seen Joyce since 2009 and G hasn’t seen her since 2005. It was amazing to see her. We met her at a beach where she was surfing and we spotted her riding a wave in. It felt like a celebrity sighting!!

Our first celebrity sighting!  Joyce!!  Our super smart board certified specialist friend from L.A.  :)

Our first celebrity sighting! Joyce!! Our super smart and beautiful board-certified specialist friend from L.A. 🙂

The three of us went to the Getty Villa near Malibu and had fun looking at all of the antique and historical things there but had the most fun “petting” herbs in the herb garden. We went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant afterwards. It was so nice. G and I went to Santa Monica beach, muscle beach and the pier, it was really fun.

Mini Vet school reunion in L.A.

Mini Vet school reunion in L.A.

Then it was over. I had to take G back to the airport. I had such a fun time. I can’t wait for our next adventure. Looking forward to continuing adventures of the rugged bitches.

Off to New Adventure!

On Wednesday I am leaving for my next life adventure.  Well, first I’m headed to a wedding on the east coast, but then flying clear across the country and re-locating to San Francisco for the summer.  I will start my training to work as a tour guide for G Adventures on May 5th.  I have long wanted to do this and tried hard to get this job.  I’m very VERY excited.

I’ll be taking a break from veterinary medicine for the summer.  Good-bye veterinary medicine, for a while….  I’m definitely in need of a break from you.  Don’t go away mad, just go away.

I’ve been crazily studying the California Commercial Driver Handbook as I will be required to possess a Class B Commercial Driver’s License with a Passenger Endorsement for this position.  I will be leading tours throughout the U.S. and possibly Canada for the summer.  G Adventures caters to adventurous outgoing travelers and offers reasonably prices tours in a sustainable fashion.  I’ve been on three G Adventures tours before and I’d dare to say they changed my life.  I’m excited to have the opportunity to work with the company.

Provided I pass all of the training program, I’ll start leading tours around the beginning of June.  I don’t know my tour schedule yet, or which sections of the country I’ll be going through.  Most of the tours involve camping, hiking and other adventure, and they seem to focus on national parks and fun cities: right up my alley!!

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I’m planning on blogging periodic updates.

I’m so excited!

Ran my first 5K. Didn’t Die. Life is Beautiful!

 

 

 

Today I ran my first 5K event ever!  Being able to finish a 5K race without stopping has been on my “bucket list” for a long time.   Today I achieved this goal.  Today was a good day and I’m very happy! 

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I have always felt as though I was never a good runner, by this I mean that I never managed to run very fast or very far.  I was planning to take running more seriously last year, and I actually agreed to train for a half marathon in January with my friend Jordana.  But as fate would have it I broke my foot the morning after making the pact to run the half marathon.  I broke my foot in August of 2013, and the healing process has been long and slow.  My foot is mostly healed now (it still hurts a little, but I can do almost everything on it.)  In December I signed up to run the 5K course in the Sedona Marathon Event with some friends, and I decided that I’d walk the course if I have to, but I would at least try to run it.  

I trained for the event by running around in my neighborhood as my foot would tolerate it.  My goal each time I ran was to run as far as I could without stopping.  At first I couldn’t run much more than a mile, but I improved as time went on.  Earlier this week I actually ran 3.7 miles (a little over 5K) without stopping.  That was the farthest I have ever ran without stopping in my whole entire life.  I know that it may not be much to some people, but I was very proud.  

I felt confident that if the race was flat and at sea level that I could finish, but in Sedona, I wasn’t so sure.  Sedona has much higher altitude and it also has hills.  As a bonus added challenge to my goal, I have also been fighting a cold over the past two days.  I decided that I’d try to do my best anyway and see how it goes.  

Today the race started at 9:15am.  Me and three friends, Eric, Jordana and Carolyn, all carpooled up to Sedona last night and spent the night at a cute, locally run motel.  We woke up early this morning and had a light breakfast and then went down to the race.  

The “Sedona Marathon Event” consisted of a marathon, a half marathon, a 10K race and a 5K race.  Everyone who had registered in the race got a t-shirt and a “bib” with a number.  The bibs were color coated for the four different races, and every runner needed to pin their bib on their clothes in a visible location on the front part of their body.  

The full marathon started at 9am and everyone in the race had to herd themselves into a “corral” in front of the starting line before the race started.  At nine o’clock the runners for the marathon began their race.  Immediately the half marathoners corralled themselves at the starting line and their race began at 9:05am.  The 10K racers started at 9:10am and then me and my friends and the other 5K racers shuffled into the corral like cattle and waited until we could go at 9:15am.  

At the start of the race, I was jammed pretty much at the back of the corral and had to walk for the first few yards just because it was so crowded, but by the time I made it to the official starting line it was less crowded and I was able to jog at a slow pace.  There was a large mix of people in this race and the backdrop of the scenery of Sedona was very beautiful.  It was about 45 degrees fahrenheit and it felt quite cold.  

I concentrated on jogging a slow and steady pace that I thought I could maintain longterm in order to not ever walk or stop if I could help it.  There was a large variety of runners in the 5K.  Fit young adults were running, old people were running, disabled people were running, teenagers were running, even kids were running.  Little kids who had entered the race with their parents ran excitedly as moms and dads ran more steadily after them.  Some people were running with strollers.  Some people were wearing shirts or signs stating that they were running for cancer, or running for a loved one, or running some other cause.  I wondered what my cause was.  What was I running for?  I never really thought about a cause: just good health, I guess.  Yeah, that seems like a pretty good cause.  

My friends Eric and Jordana ran ahead of me pretty quickly, and they briefly looked back at me as though they expected me to keep up with them.  Yeah right!  Jordana kept the pact that she made back in August to train for the half marathon, and she ran it and finished it last month, and Eric, well…  Eric is a guy.  Eric entered today’s 5K on a whim.  He doesn’t even own jogging pants, and he was running the race in hiking pants.  I, however, did not for one second think that I would be able to keep up with Eric.  In all of my past experiences participating in active sports with guys, I have found that they annoying do great even if they don’t train, and they usually do better than me, even if I trained my ass off.  I supposed he would have no troubles in this race.  Of course he didn’t have any troubles, and he seemed to breeze through it, even beating Jordana to the finish line in the end.  My friend Carolyn ran more at my pace, which was nice for me, not that I really felt like I required a running partner.  For me the race was more about my own personal goals.  

The layout of the course for the 5K was sort of a circle.  The start and the finish line were in the same place.  The course ran down a paved path and then merged with the main highway.  After a short way along the highway, the course turned left onto a side road.  After a stretch on the side road, the course doubled back on itself at a turnaround point, and then turned right onto another road that circled through a hilly neighborhood.  After circling the neighborhood, the course headed back along the original path to the start/finish line.  

Along the first section I was getting passed by all sorts of people.  I got passed by old people, I got passed by people who appeared athletic, I got passed by people who did not appear athletic, I got passed by kids overflowing with energy, and I got passed by people pushing strollers.  I got passed by super skinny, 20-something year old girls, whose legs were so tiny I wondered how they carried themselves.  

By the point of the race where the course turns onto the side road, the shear numbers of people passing me seemed to decline.  The super high energy levels of some of the children were starting to visibly fade.  One kid lost his shoe and limped backwards along the course towards it.  Another girl, approximately 8 years old, sat crying with a skinned knee on the side of the road.  Two boys who looked 12 years old had stopped and were doubled over and panting, and another boy who looked 10 years old announced to his mom that this was really hard and he was going to run really fast so he could just get it over with.  

I kept up my slow and steady jogging pace and I began to pass up hoards of exhausted kids.  I also started passing several people who had begun to walk.  I made it to the turnaround point and doubled back.  Generally, people everywhere seemed happy.  There were people standing along the sidelines of the course cheering on the runners: “Good job, nice work, looking good” etc.  It started to seem warmer and the sun was shining and the day was really beautiful.  The views of the surrounding area and the big red rocks of Sedona were gorgeous.  I was actually enjoying myself.  

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The course took a turn and went into the hilly neighborhood.  It went up a fairly steep hill.  I kept jogging, at a very slow pace, however I didn’t stop, and I didn’t slow to a walk either.  I passed several more people on the hill.  I found that I was one of the few people in my vicinity actually jogging up the hill and not walking, and it made me feel proud.   I passed the skinny legged girls on the way up the hill.  I had had my suspicions that their legs couldn’t really take them very far and now I was glad to know that I was correct.  

I made it up the hill, and by then Carolyn was behind me; she had to stop at a “porta potty.”  I didn’t want to wait for her because I was on a mission to see if I could finish without stopping or walking.  

People continued to cheer me and all the runners on.  I passed water stations without getting any, because I was worried it would break my pace.  I didn’t think I was skilled enough to jog and drink water at the same time, and I usually didn’t drink water on my practice runs at home anyway.  The downhill part of the course through the neighborhood was really nice.  I passed a boy and his dad; the dad was telling the boy that we were about 2/3 of the way done.  I actually felt pretty good.  I thought maybe I was going to make it.  I was amazed that I felt so good.  My foot was doing really well, although it was a little stiff, and my lungs were actually doing ok too!  

During the last third of the race I was passing numerous people who were walking, and it felt good to be passing people instead of them all passing me.  It was a nice feeling to know that some of the people who had smoked past me earlier couldn’t actually keep up that pace the entire time.  It made me feel more normal.  

It was really nice to see all the different people running the race.  It was inspiring to see people of different physical abilities working toward their own goals!  It was nice to know that my goal of running a 5K wasn’t necessarily a small goal, and although I sometimes felt like it, I wasn’t the “last person on the planet” to do it.  

As I rounded the last corner of the course, I saw the finish line in the distance and started to run faster toward it.  I felt really good.  I never would have guessed that I would actually HAVE FUN running a 5K, but I was having fun.  I was actually really enjoying myself.  I sprinted toward the finish line and felt so happy to know that I was completing another one of my “bucket list” items.  A group of people at the finish line were handing out medals to people, and a woman handed me a medal for finishing the race.  I thought maybe this was in error; I thought perhaps she thought I was finishing the 10K instead of the 5K.  Surprised, I asked her “I get a medal for running the 5K?” and she responded “Of course you do, good job!”  It was so cool, and it was nice to know that others understood how important these personal goals can be!  It may seem small to some people, but it is a big goal to those who have never done it before.  

It’s funny, now that I have checked “running a 5K” off my bucket list, I still don’t feel “done.”  Now that it’s crossed off, I think I might add “running a 10K” onto the list.  

Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Seeing wild gorillas has been on my bucket list for years.  In 2012 my friend Corinne called me and asked if I would be interested in a tour through Africa with her that focused on seeing primates.  She had long wanted to see African apes and monkeys in the wild, and she was looking for a travel partner.  I was more than happy to be her travel partner!  We had decided upon a tour through Uganda and Rwanda in March of 2013.  The tour focused on seeing chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, various monkeys, and other African animals.  On March 10th, 2013, seeing mountain gorillas was a fantasy dream that was finally going to come true. That is, if we were lucky enough to see them on our trek!

We had been traveling through Uganda for several days with a young tour guide named Jacob and had a nice time seeing a lot of sights.  On the morning of our gorilla trek Jacob picked us up at our lodge and took us to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest so that we could meet with our trekking group at 8am.  It was raining, which didn’t seem to be uncommon so far during our days in Uganda.  Gorilla trekking is said to be strenuous.  Of course in order to see gorillas one needs to hike to where the gorillas live, and that is in the deep jungle in the mountains and far from people.  Gorilla trekking involves hiking at altitude, up steep grades, though thick vegetation, usually for long periods of time, and sometimes in bad weather.  Corinne and I were prepared.  We had our walking sticks, we had long sleeve shirts and long pants and gloves and rain gear to deal with the elements.  Our hiking boots were laced and ready, and our pants were tucked into our socks to prevent insects or vines from crawling up our legs.  We had a packed lunch and plenty of water in our backpacks for the day.  We were ready and we were excited!  We arrived early and were the first at the meeting place.  Someone there led us into a small building and started playing a video for us.  The video went over some rules of what to do and what not to do on a gorilla trek.  The video also explained how gorillas are tracked and explained some history of mountain gorillas.

Corinne and I excited to start the trek!!!

Corinne and I excited to start the trek!!!

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Mountain gorillas are very endangered animals that neared extinction, and in the 1980s there were only 254 mountain gorillas left on the planet.  They were threatened by loss of habitat, war, poaching, and disease.  Conservation efforts have helped them and today there are about 880 mountain gorillas left in this world.  However they are still one of the most endangered species on the planet.  The mountain gorilla is highly celebrated in Uganda, and in the town we were staying it seemed that all locals loved the gorilla and understand how important gorillas are to tourism and the economy in the area.  In fact $100 of our $500 fee for our permit to enter the gorillas’ forest is going to help the communities in the surrounding areas.

Gorillas live and travel together in a group.  There are different groups of gorillas in the forest and some groups are considered “habituated” and some are not.  The groups of gorillas that tourists are allowed to track and see are the habituated groups.  Being habituated means that the group of gorillas is followed by people every day.  Trackers constantly are following the gorillas and every day a group of tourists is allowed to be near them for an hour and then leave.  This has been going on for many years.  These habituated gorillas have grown accustomed to humans and generally do not see humans as a threat.  They have gotten used to people staring at them, talking near them, and taking photos, and it is a part of their daily lives.  There are several habituated groups in the area that tourists can see.  Trackers and locals have gotten to know them and can identify individuals in the groups and have come to love them.

There are several rules for tourists when endeavoring on a gorilla trek.  Gorillas are powerful animals and can be dangerous, and also human contact has potential to transmit respiratory diseases to the gorillas.   Rules have been implemented for safety of humans and gorillas.  People are not allowed to trek to see gorillas if they have a cold.  Also, nobody younger than 15 years of age is allowed to trek with gorillas.  Some of the other rules outlined included a distance limit, meaning staying at least seven meters from a gorilla at all times.  It is never allowed to touch a gorilla, even if it approaches you, or touches you.  Eating or drinking near the gorillas is prohibited, and we are not allowed to harass gorillas in any way.  If a gorilla does touch one of us, which we are told sometimes the younger ones will approach and touch people out of curiosity, then we are instructed to take a submissive posture and do not look at or touch the gorilla in return.  If a gorilla threatens us, we are to crouch or hunch down and look at the ground; we are to not make eye contact and to appear as submissive and as unthreatening as possible.  It was stressed that we should not run.  Running may provoke a gorilla to chase and harm you.  Yikes!

The video also explained how we were going to track and attempt to find gorillas.  What happens is that every day the habituated groups of gorillas are tracked, and at the end of the day the GPS coordinates for a group is set at the last place they were seen.  Very early the next morning trackers start from the last known point and set out to track and find them again.  Gorillas are tracked by looking for evidence of disturbance to vegetation, looking for tracks and dung left by gorillas, listening for noises and smelling for their distinct odor.  The trackers start looking for gorillas hours before tourist even arrive.  Tourist trek leaders are in communication with the trackers in attempt to lead tourists to the gorillas.  Tracking gorillas can take as little as half an hour to 10 or more hours.  When they find them, the trackers will alert the tour guide leader as to where they are, and the trackers will stay with the gorillas as they constantly move about.  It is said that a tourist trekking group is successful in seeing gorillas more than 90% of the time.  Of course there is no guarantee that tourists will get to see gorillas on any given day, and of course there are no refunds if gorillas are not seen.

As the video kept playing in the room, more and more people started to trickle in.  The room became louder and louder.  There were four young women in particular who didn’t pay any attention to the video and spoke loudly amongst themselves.  I eventually gave up trying to watch the video and just waited to be told what to do next.

Soon we were all led outside and all tourists were separated into trekking groups.  Once separated we met with our trek leader and other helpers on the trek.  Our trek leader was named Rita and we had a group of eight tourists.  The tourists consisted of me and Corinne, a dude from Phoenix (of all places) and his foreign girlfriend who was not talkative, and four girls from Australia, who happened to be the noisy women in the building while we were trying to watch the video.  Rita had a very athletic build.  She had long, braided black hair, which seemed unusual for the region as most all Ugandan women I’ve seen had a closely cropped haircut.  Rita carried a machete and she was strikingly sexy.  She had a no-nonsense attitude and a tough as nails appearance.  I got the impression that we needed to take her very seriously.  Rita was accompanied by several men with machetes who were assistant guides.  Rita went over the same rules from the video of what we can and can’t do around gorillas and told us that there was no guarantee of seeing them today.  She told us that we will be tracking group “H,” which stands for Habinyanja group.  She informed us that group H was last seen yesterday quite far from our starting point and they are suspected to be quite far away today, but she cannot tell us how far or if we will even see them at all.  She told us the trackers haven’t found them yet.  She stopped talking for a moment and looked up at the sky which incessantly dripped rain down upon her.  She looked around for a moment with a look of disgust and swore quietly to herself “Jesus Christ the rain!”  I thought it was odd that she seemed to be angry about the rain, after all, it had been raining all week and it’s been raining all morning, so to me it didn’t seem like much more would make a big difference.

Rita continued to explain the day and told us that the trek would be difficult and she recommended that every tourist hire a porter.  Rita explained that a porter is a local man who works as an independent contractor and is not hired by the park.  She explained that a porter will carry a hiker’s bag and assist the hiker during the trek.  “He can push you and pull you along the trail, and help you to not fall”  Some of us looked around at each other questioningly.  One of the Australian women asked “Do we really need to be pushed along the trail?  Should we be expected to fall without the help of a porter?”  Rita’s response was “Yes you will fall without their help, of that I am very sure.”

On the drive to the forest earlier that morning Jacob had told Corinne and I that it is highly recommended to hire a porter, they cost about $15 for the whole day, which is a good wage for locals.  He told us that working as a porter is a highly desirable job and that men will walk from 2 hours or more away to meet with the gorilla trekkers in hopes of getting hired as a porter for the day.  Jacob told us that a lot of the porters actually used to be poachers in the area, but now rules are stricter against poaching and there is a growing market for porters to help trekking tourists.  Jacob said that hiring a porter helps decrease the amount of poaching in the area and provides a good income for local families, and who better to know the area?  This almost made me want to hire two porters for the day.  Instead I hired just one.  Every tourist in our group hired a porter, except for the Phoenix guy and his girlfriend.  The spoke nervously to each other and then decided not to hire porters.  They struck me as being on a very tight budget and it seemed that their reasoning behind not hiring porters had more to do with being broke than with them possessing excellent hiking skills.

My porter’s name was Ennis, and I found it somewhat difficult to communicate with him.  I wasn’t sure if it was because his English had an unusual dialect or if it was because English was not his first language.  In any case, he smiled and shook my hand and seemed helpful and he was very, very nice.  He took my backpack and away we went, following Rita and other assistant guides.

The trail along one of the easier sections, where I could hold my camera

The trail along one of the easier sections, where I could hold my camera

The hiking immediately was crazy difficult.  We went directly into the mountains and directly up the side of a mountain.  The trail was covered in slick mud and the trails were incredibly steep.  Parts of the trail were approaching 60% grades and I scrambled to climb up.  Ennis was amazing, he seemed to find magical footholds and held my hand and pulled me up crazy steep parts of trails.  We had to duck under thick vines and step over other vines that grew along the floor of the jungle that were a constant challenge not to trip over.  Somewhere ahead of us men with machetes and Rita helped to clear the way by cutting through thick vegetation.  Within about 20 minutes of hiking it became clear who the strong hikers were in our group and who the slower hikers were.  I was in the slow group.  Of the eight tourists in our group, five were fast and three were slow.  The three slowest hikers were myself, Corinne, and one of the Australian girls who named Hollie.  The other five hikers were ahead of us and we brought up the rear with our porters.  Occasionally Rita would stop and ask how we were doing.  The Phoenix guy and his girlfriend were quiet and managed to hike the terrain quite well considering they didn’t hire porters.  However, they did seem to have their fair share of sliding and falling and they were definitely the muddiest of all of us.  Some of the other’s porters would help them through the difficult sections anyway.  The three faster Australian girls talked non-stop and were incredibly annoying the entire time; I was actually grateful to be distanced from them a lot of the time by being a slower hiker.

The trail relentlessly went up, there were crazy switchbacks and vines everywhere and the mud was deep and slick.  Of the slow hikers, it appeared that I was the strongest, and Hollie was the weakest.  Hollie struggled and had to take many breaks to catch her breath, she often needed two porters to help pull and push her up certain sections.  The second porter that helped her was my porter, Ennis, and helped Hollie a lot, often leaving me on my own to make my own way.  He told me “I see you are strong” and he let me know that he wanted to help those who need it more.  I noticed that Hollie didn’t always have her water handy and I offered her a bottle of mine, which she refused, I also noticed that Ennis didn’t have any water for himself and I offered him some; he took a small amount, seemingly only out of politeness.  I also noticed that he didn’t carry anything of his own at all, he was only carrying my bag.

During the trek Rita had to stop several times to wait for those of us bringing up the rear.  One time when she stopped she asked “Are you doing ok?”  at which point the three faster Australian girls all answered that they were fine and ready to keep going.  Rita snapped at them:  “I know you are fine, I was not asking you.  I was asking Hollie, Corinne and Melissa.”  At that point Rita decided that the three of us would be moved to the front and the rest of the hikers would follow us.  This plan was short lived as within a few minutes the other three Australian girls passed us all anyway, and they teased Hollie as they passed her by.  After that Corinne and I secretly referred to them as “The Australian Bitches.”  Weren’t they supposed to be Hollie’s friend?  We could plainly see that Hollie was trying her hardest to keep up and she was suffering.  I felt sorry for her.  I have been in her shoes before and it was not fun.  It is no fun to be the slowest hiker in a group of hikers, suffering while everyone else seems to be having a good time, or is at least doing better than you are.  Hollie seemed ashamed and embarrassed, and she rebuffed or ignored any attempts made by Corinne or me to help her, so we let the porters do their jobs and we concentrated on our own hiking.  It was hard enough for us, anyway.

We seemed to climb one mountain and then go steeply down the other side, then back up another mountain, then down again.  In addition to all the mud and vines, we came across some vines that had wicked, sharp thorns and had to be avoided more carefully.  Also, occasionally there were swarms of fire ants and/or safari ants, that had to be jumped over.  Both types of ants swarm and live in colonies and can cause horrible bruising, bites and stings that can leave the skin horribly painful.  This of course added even more adventure to the trek.

Image of stings from fireants (not mine)

Image of stings from fireants (not mine)

Then we came to a flat area that looked like a giant bog.  There were giant puddles of water and some logs laid over the puddles and deep mud everywhere.  It seemed like a huge area and appeared like it was about 200 meters across.   We had to get to the other side.  This is when I remembered Rita swearing earlier about the rain.  This is probably the section that she was worried about.  We had to cross this by walking along logs and balancing over the deep mud and water.  There was precious little to use as hand-holds, and if someone were to fall, the mud and water was deep, up to a person’s knee or thigh.  I only found out how deep it was by watching others who fell in.  The logs over the area were very slippery.  Ennis went ahead of me and held my hand along the way.  I did surprisingly well and only slipped a foot off of a log here and there, getting mud up to only my socks.  Some other hikers fell in a lot deeper and got covered in mud, but generally the porters helped everyone enough to prevent anyone from falling completely over and becoming completely submerged in the mud.  No one had a muddy face or head by the time we were across.  After that section was completed, we had to hike directly back up a mountain again.

I fell into pace again as we hiked through slick areas, hanging vines, fire ants and vines on the jungle floor that constantly wound around my feet if I wasn’t careful.  Ennis helped Hollie and me equally.  Hollie’s own porter held onto her full time to help keep her upright.  Corinne seemed to be doing ok, I really was not sure how how things were going for her, because she was behind me, whereas Hollie was in front of me.

During a moment when Ennis was making his way back to me from Hollie he stopped suddenly as though something stung him and he rubbed his eye.  He ignored it for a second and took my hand and I kept on hiking, then he rubbed his eye with his other hand and told me that he cut his eye with a thorny vine.  I looked at his eye and his upper eyelid was torn and bleeding.  The eye itself seemed ok; he held pressure on it for a few minutes and then he stopped bleeding.  He told me he would be fine.  I was glad he didn’t injure his eyeball.  Suddenly I noticed he had blood on his hand.  The next chance I got I looked at my own hand to check for wounds.  I didn’t see any.  I didn’t want to be a dick and act like I was afraid of his blood, but I definitely also didn’t want to be exposed to human blood out here in Africa.  The HIV rate of infection is very high in these areas and I definitely didn’t want to expose myself to Ennis’ blood.  We stopped a moment after Ennis stopped bleeding and he washed his face and hands with some of my water.  I stealthily examined my hand again for open wounds, and not seeing any I went on hiking, and used Ennis’ helping hands when I needed them.

After hiking through all of this crazy terrain for about 4 hours, Rita stopped us again and we sat down to eat our packed lunches.  The porters returned everyone’s backpacks to their owners and then they separated themselves from the tourists and sat  away from all of us.   All of the tourists sat and ate some lunch.  The porters didn’t eat or drink anything.  The Australian bitches talked non-stop and seemed not to include Hollie anymore, but Hollie didn’t seem to want to talk to them or to Corinne or me or anyone else either.  The Phoenix dude and his girl stuck together, not speaking with anyone else, and everyone seemed tired and hungry and appreciated a break.  After eating, some of us offered leftover food to some of the porters, which they accepted and then they collected our bags and we started hiking again.  The “trail” really ceased to be a trail anymore and we walked over vegetation and through stinging nettles.

After hiking a little longer Rita stopped us and told us that the trackers have found the gorillas and that we have about another hour to hike, although she still cannot guarantee that we will see them.  She told us that we will need to hike through very tall stinging nettles and that we will need to put on gloves and roll down our long sleeves at this point.  We did as we were told and hiked through tall stinging nettles on the face of a steep mountain for about an hour.  It was very difficult to balance and we nearly fell several times.  The nettles were stinging through my pants and my legs felt as though they were on fire.  Then Rita stopped us and told us we were now very close to the gorillas and that we should be able to see them.  The porters would not be coming with us to see the gorillas.  Ennis handed me my backpack and I took out my good camera and spare batteries.  I took a small digital camera as well to shoot some videos.  I was so excited.  Ennis waited behind with the other porters.  Rita and a select few men with machetes led us to the area where the gorillas were.  It was amazing how much harder it was to walk without Ennis right by my side.  I was slipping and sliding on crushed nettles and nearly falling with every step.  Rita explained that her team would work on clearing vegetation to obtain decent views of the gorillas and told us to please wait to take pictures until after the vegetation had been cleared.  We walked a short ways farther and then stopped, Rita told us that gorillas were around us and men with machetes began to cut vegetation.  Rita herded us together and told us to stand still.

Suddenly we saw a fuzzy black animal behind some plants, it turned out to be a female gorilla!  She was very close to us.  The Australian bitches were in the front of the group and whipped out their cameras and dominated the view of the gorilla.  They made no attempts to be polite or to make sure those behind them could see well (which we couldn’t.)  The gorilla was still very cool to see, and she didn’t seem to care about us at all.  She seemed to know we were there, but it seemed as though we were an uninteresting part of the landscape not worth worrying over.  The gorilla actually came out of the vegetation and walked directly in front of us, casually glancing at us as she calmly walked by!  I got a great photo of her as she walked by!  It was incredible.  I held my breath and thought to myself “Wow!  I’m actually in Uganda seeing mountain gorillas!  This is amazing!”

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There were two baby gorillas nearby playing in the area.  I was barely able to see them past the Australian bitches.  Rita noticed this and led me and Corinne up and behind the bitches to another vantage point and we were able to see the baby gorillas playing with each other.  They were so cute and fuzzy.  Their faces were adorable!  They looked like they were wearing fuzzy rugs over their bodies they were so furry.  I had an incredible desire to pick them up and hold them, of course that would be impossible, but I imagined it anyway.

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Rita and the other trackers then located the silverback gorilla of the group and he was just beyond some tall stinging nettles and vines and I couldn’t see him at all.  After a short time the silverback walked up near to where we were standing, and he actually pulled out some plants and made a clear view of himself.  He sat incredibly close to our huddled group of tourists.  It was so exciting!  He had a baby gorilla near him and didn’t seem to pay much attention to the baby gorilla, or to us.  He was way closer to our group than the required 7 meters of distance and I nervously looked back toward Rita to see if she would lead us back away from the great animal, but she didn’t appear to be going to.

Instead Rita talked and told us facts about gorillas and she didn’t even whisper, she spoke at a normal volume.  I glanced nervously between Rita and the huge silverback as she spoke.  After a few minutes I relaxed because it seemed apparent that the silverback didn’t care about us at all.  He sat eating stinging nettles, he would rip the leaves off and shove them in his mouth and eat and eat.  Of course the Australian bitches were at the front of our group and they were talking among themselves and taking photos, each one posing so they could have a photo of themselves with the silverback close by in the background.   I couldn’t get a clear shot of him without them in the photo, so I just gave up and took one with them in it anyway.  After they all got their photos they started ignoring him and speaking among themselves.  I even heard one of them say that she was satisfied that she had seen everything she needed to and she didn’t think everyone needed to stay the entire hour here.  By then I wanted to shove them all out of the way and hope the gorilla would maul them, but instead I simply asked them to move so others could see.  They acted annoyed as though they were put out by having to move for someone else, but they did move, and Corinne and I got to get some good photos and we made sure that the others were able to see and get photos as well.

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I wanted to try to see if I could get a photo of me kneeling and have the giant silverback behind me, but he ended up moving before that was an option.

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And when he did move, he suddenly sat up and walked directly toward us!  It was scary and amazing and incredible all at once!  He walked toward us for a moment and then he turned to the left and walked away from us.  My heart pounded the moment when he got up and came toward us, he was already so close.  People of the group collectively held their breath and a guide told us to stay still and not to run away.  I happened to get that moment on video.  It was amazing.

We watched another baby and a mother gorilla nearby.  None of the adults seemed to be interested in tourists, but one of the babies stood and curiously stared at us for a long time.  He was so cute!  When the silverback walked by and moved on, the mother and the baby followed him, but the after a few steps the baby paused and looked back at us, as if to say “Are you coming along too?”  He just about melted my heart.

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We got to watch two other babies play in some trees and they looked like they were having fun, climbing up and swinging around.  They almost looked as though they were laughing.  I got to watch a young adult climb a tree with a stick in his hand.  The stick had ants on it and he ate some of the ants off the stick.  I could have stayed and watched them all day, but then the magical hour was over.  Our time with the gorillas was up, and we had to leave.  To me, for the hour I was with the gorillas, it seemed that time stood still and I was in a magical place.  It was as though I entered a dream and became privy to the secret world of these incredible creatures.  It was so amazing!

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We were all on a high as we prepared to walk back to our starting point and go back into the world of human civilization.  Hollie, Corinne and I took our places near the end of the line of hikers and I was glad when the Australian bitches were out of earshot.  Hollie was almost immediately suffering and seemed to be utterly spent and exhausted from the 6 hour hike to get to the gorillas.  We had a long way to go to get back.  Her bitchy “friends” never even asked how she was feeling and they left her in the back of the line without a word.  It was clear Hollie was miserable and was going to have a hard time making it back and I felt very sorry for her.  Since Ennis was also helping her, I was sentenced to walk at her very slow pace, which overall I didn’t really mind, but I just felt awkward as Hollie seemed to not like having me around.  Corinne and her porter passed us and were soon out of sight.  The entire group didn’t stay together on the way back, like we did for the way out.  I supposed this made sense because we were all going to meet up again at the starting point.  Rita let her assistants walk back with the faster hikers, and she stayed back with Hollie and me.  She asked if Hollie needed anything, and I could see Hollie reaching the point of tears.  I noticed Hollie was wearing two pairs of pants and I asked her about it because I thought she was probably too hot (because I certainly felt hot.)  When Rita found out that Hollie indeed had on two layers of clothing she made Hollie strip down to one layer, and that seemed to help Hollie become a little bit more comfortable.  Still, we had a long, long way to go and the pace was very slow.  A few times I offered Hollie some water and asked if she needed anything.  Hollie seemed only to be embarrassed and wish that I wasn’t around, so I stopped asking and just walked.  At one point I asked Rita if I could pee somewhere and she told me “No, you hold it!” and I hiked on wondering how long I could possibly hold it for.  Eventually Rita let me pee, but I had to do it while she stood guard.  Hollie took several breaks and told Rita she was fighting against an urge to have “a funny tummy.”  Surprisingly Hollie managed to hold it until we got back several hours later.   As we walked back to the starting site and the area of the toilets Hollie’s “friends” were loudly talking amongst themselves.  They didn’t even notice when Hollie and I came back to the meeting area.  Hollie spent a long time in the toilets and Rita and the rest of the group waited until everyone was together.  When Hollie joined us her friends teased her and said “Oh Hollie, you will never believe this!  The people tracking group ‘M’ only had to hike 30 minutes before they saw gorillas!  Hahaha!  Can you believe that we had to hike so far?!  Hahahaha!!”  The Australian bitches cackled and made fun of Hollie for having to hike such a long distance in misery, while other lucky tourists only had to hike for one hour.  Hollie responded with some type of curse and then fell silent.

Rita filled out certificates of successful gorilla trekking for all the hikers and everyone got to say how they felt about the experience and everyone, including Hollie,  agreed that the hike was a long and challenging one, but the gorillas were indeed awesome and so very worth it!  I was so happy!  The gorillas were truly magnificent!  And I was lucky enough to see several of them.  The hike was amazing, it was one of the craziest hikes with the most obstacles I’ve ever encountered.  I loved it!!

I got my photo taken with Ennis and I paid him his $15 for the day and tipped him another $15.  It was a great deal and I was so proud of him for helping me and also for helping Hollie too.  It was a really great experience and I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to do it!  It was one of the best days of my life!

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I will try to add a link here to all of my video footage from that day.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHAs7LwBok4&feature=youtu.be

Hitching a ride in Wales

Hitchhiking in Pont-y-Pant, Wales

Dual perspectives during a backpacking tour.  In 2011 my boyfriend, Rob, and I went backpacking through Europe for three and a half months.  We both kept journals.  It was about 1-2 months into the trip that we discovered we liked reading our journal entries side by side.

Here is an example of our journal entries:  This is one day along our journey when we were in Wales.

Rob’s Journal Entry:

Sunday, June 26

Wow, it’s hard to believe we’ve been traveling for over a month now!

We slept and didn’t start moving until 1045 this morning, it was worth it, we were really tired.  After a couple quick showers, some breakfast, and some tunes in the background, we head for the town of Pont-Y-Pant.  We stop at a small pub for a purple Moose Ale, some soup, and a sandwich, while we watch a little formula one racing on TV. The food was decent and the beer was OK. We then wander over to the little grocery store: SPAR.  With a meager selection of groceries and no dental floss, we scrounge up enough for dinner and lunches, along with a few breakfast items as well. It’s only ¾ mile or so back to our hostel: The Llader House.  The views alongside of the road are pleasant as its mostly sheep grazing along nice rolling hills that are lush and deep green in color. There are a ton of motorcycles whizzing by, as they should be, it is an unusually beautiful day, sunny and warm. We drop the groceries off  and decide to take a walk to Betws-Y-Coed ( pronounced Bettis E Coed), which is about 6-8 miles away. So after walking for a bit I suggest we try to hitch a ride into town. It’s the first time ever for the two of us to try this and after a mile or so of walking with our thumbs out, (and Melissa walking so she’s seen first) someone pulls over! It’s a man, maybe early 40’s with his young son in a car seat in the back. We jump in and he gladly takes us into town which is only a few miles up the road by now. He informs us about some of the local places to see and drops us off at a store where we can buy stamps. Wow, we both thought, that was really cool and nice of him to give us a ride! So off we go to do a little bit of sightseeing, then stop by the market to pick up some salami and mushrooms and then start walking back. So we walk back along a wooded side road and all along not one car passes so we stop for a quick pee break. Then when we hear a car coming we think to ourselves, fuck it, and we both put our thumbs out to hitch a ride. I take one good look at the car and I can’t believe it, it’s the same guy! Whoa! He gives us a lift back as he was on his way home from dropping his son off. So were driving along talking and he asks us if we’d be interested in coming back to his place for a cup of coffee. I’m thinking ahhh not really the soundest plan, and suggest we need to get back and cook dinner. Right about then, Melissa belts out, mmm ok! Hahaha! I think to myself, fuck it, its just a walk down the hill to our hostel, at the same time I’m also thinking this could be a bit sketchy.  So we drive up this narrow two track dirt road high up on the hill side above the railroad tracks and pass a few houses along the way and then pull into Adrian’s driveway. He said it was a pig sty but we hadn’t the slightest idea what we were in for. The place was all cluttered with shit everywhere! Just a bunch of random old useless junk, mostly old furnishings and decomposed wood…etc. He tells us he inherited the place from his father and that its over 300 years old!! While inside among the clutter we sit down and Adrian offers us some coffee. It’s a dark very old lonely place with random things scattered about, some drawings from his 7 year old little boy hanging from the wall catch my eye. The conversation is scattered talking about the schooling in Wales, Politics, and various legal battles he’s had with the state and his ex-wife.    After a while we’re thinking, ok, time to get going. Sensing this he offered to show us the garden (yard).  Much to our amazement, albeit a bit overgrown, it’s fucking amazing! The potential this place has to be as nice as it once was is incredible. His father had connections through the local quarry years ago and there were beautiful black stone spiraling staircases that led down to a pool which was also made out of the same smooth black stone. There was a little seating area, or cabana that was falling apart and it was in a state of disrepair, but I could really appreciate the beauty and all the amazing craftsmanship it once took to transform that place.  There were multiple tiers of the garden which led deep down into the lower wooded area by the train tracks. We say our goodbye’s out on the road by a youth camp of some sort and part ways. Melissa and I are thankful things went down peacefully and he wasn’t a crazy serial killer guy, hahaha! On the walk back to our hostel we talk about our thoughts when we were inside Adrian’s house and our tactical escape plans. We’re surprised that we shared similar thoughts!

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Melissa’s Journal Entry: 

Sunday 26.6.11  (Europe writes dates with the day first, then the month, then the year)

We are in Pont-y-Pant, Wales in Snowdonia National Park.  It’s sorta the middle of nowhere.  It took a long time to get here by train.  We had three connections and of course one train was late and we missed connections.  Pont-y-Pant is not even a normal train stop, it’s a “request stop” which meant that we had to ask the conductor to stop at it.  We were the only ones who got off at that stop.  We arrived and had a little bit of an issue finding the hostel.  The issue mostly involved that we got off the train and there is NOTHING nearby.  Only a small stream and sheep.  We had to walk several minutes to even find a building.  We ended up calling the place on the cell phone that our friend Laura gave us when we visited her in Bradford.   The hostel is called Lledr Bunk House and Rob and I are the only people staying here.  It’s run by a young couple with at least one small child living in an attached house.  The hostel part is upstairs and on the side of the couple’s house.  It’s huge and old and since Rob and I are the only people here, it makes it creepy.

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Last night we made some food in the kitchen that we had packed with us, we played on the internet (a computer and WiFi is available) and we watched T.V. (one of the few hostels with a T.V.)  We slept in this morning and it was really nice.  We walked to a small town father down the train track that starts with a “D”, I can’t remember.  Words here are funny.  Welsh appears to be a strange language.  It resembles English not at all.  Signs here are posted in Welsh and English and the Welsh looks as though a one-year-old child banged his hand on a keyboard.  Welsh seems to put together letters I wouldn’t even know how to pronounce.  Anyway I just looked up the town and it’s called Dolwyddelan.  There wasn’t a whole lot there.  We ate at a pub where the lady working seemed very flustered that she had more than two people to serve at the same time.  Lunch was ok, we had sandwiches and soup.  We had some local Welsh ales, which I didn’t like (too bitter).  We bought some groceries and carried them back to our hostel.

We later decided to walk up to the city in the other direction – which is 4 miles.  We walked a short distance and then decided to try hitchhiking.  Neither one of us have ever done it before.  It seems to be somewhat popular in Europe.  Our friend Simon from Bern who we couchsurfed with last month said he hosts people who hitchhike and that he also picks up hitchhikers himself.  So anyway we gave it a whirl.  We thumbed as we were walking and many cars went by.  Eventually a middle aged man with a small child in the backseat stopped and gave us a ride to the town (called Betws-y-Coed).  The man seemed really nice.  He said he lived in Wales for the past 25 years but didn’t speak Welsh well, but his son, Alex (sitting in the backseat) was learning Welsh and actually being taught largely in Welsh.  We told him we were from Arizona and he thought that was interesting.  The ride and conversation was pleasant.  We walked around Betws-y-Coed and got a few more groceries.  The store in this town was better stocked than in Dolwyddelan.  We looked here for dental floss, which we were quickly running out of, and they didn’t have at the last store.  Well, there was no dental floss there either.  They had toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouthwash and dental cleaner – but no dental floss.  I began to wonder if Welsh people even floss their teeth.  In town we also hiked, I mean walked, (they call hiking “walking” around here,) around a park near the river and it was nice.

After spending some time in town we started walking back to Pont-y-Pant.  The first car we stuck our thumb up for looked very familiar.  Rob said “is that the same guy?” and I said “no way,” but sure as shit it was.  He stopped for us and he was laughing.  The kid wasn’t in the car and he said he was dropping his son off at his mother’s.  We laughed about the timing and talked a bit about where we came from, about his son and the Welsh education system.   He asked us if we’d like to come over for a cup of coffee.  He seemed genuinely amused about the timing of our trips and seemed nice and he did pick us up with his kid in the car earlier and that made me think he was a trusting and trustworthy person.  Rob said something about going to the hostel to make dinner, but I asked him where he lived and he said he lives near the train station in Pont-y-Pant and I replied that I thought we could come and have a cup of coffee.  The guy said his place was a pig sty.  We agreed to join him for some coffee.  He drove up near Pont-y-Pant’s train station and up a winding, pot-holed narrow lane and to a very very old giant house that appeared dark and spooky and looked entirely like it was haunted.

He parked his car in the driveway and introduced himself as Adrian.  He led us into his house.  Immediately I became uncomfortable as he opened the door into what looked like essentially an abandoned, old, dark, dusty barn with tons of old crap in it.  We walked in near darkness and followed Adrian around and through old washers and dryers, other appliances, old kid’s toys and other rubbish – through a door on the left into a living room absolutely bursting with old crappy furniture and junk.  There was a small dining room area with ancient cushioned chairs around a table that was cluttered with papers and orange juice boxes.  A small kitchen was nearby and was partitioned from the dining area by a ratty towel hanging in a small doorway.  Children’s board games and books were laying on every flat surface in the area.  A birthday card with a giraffe on it and a big number “7” and the word “Alex” across it was hanging from the wall.  Adrain was talking while making coffee, small talk, asking us what we did, talking about Arizona, etc.  Then he asked us if we have seen the movie “U-turn.”  We told him we hadn’t.  He said it was set in Arizona and starred Jennifer Lopez and Sean Penn and that it was one of his favorite movies and that he was thinking about it after he had given us a ride into Betws-y-Coed.  I asked him what it was about and his reply was “it’s about psycho killers,” then he grabbed a copy of the DVD and handed it to me.  Rob and I shared a nervous look as if we both were thinking the same thing….  “oh shit, this guy intends to kill us.”  Adrian set a pot of coffee on the table and handed me two cups.  I filled them both only half full and handed one to Rob.  I tried to appear relaxed and comfortable and sat on one of the ancient chairs and felt a spring in the cushion pop under my ass.

I looked over to my backpack which I had set on a different chair when we entered the room.  I thought about how quickly I may be able to reach Laura’s cell phone and reminded myself that in Britain people dial “999,” and not “911.”  Adrain, Rob and I discussed music, the public education system in Wales and the U.S. and reducing carbon footprints.  As we were talking a fly started buzzing and we all looked over at the window and saw a fly desperately trying to escape a spider’s web.   I tried to appear to be enjoying conversation, but was really wondering at what point Adrian was going to try to trap us in his old and creepy house and lock us up.  After our coffee was finished Adrian invited us to tour his garden (british version of the yard) and he reported that he could walk us down to the road from his back garden.  I was just happy to be led back out of the house.

The yard was green and large and lush.  He told us that the house was his fathers and that it was built 300 years ago with some add-ons and improvements done in the 1900’s.  There was a “pool” in the backyard which was overgrown with weeds and had plants growing in it – it looked more like a pond.  He walked us down a hill along super ancient and overgrown stone steps, down a trail that was long and steep moving away from his house into thick woods, the trail started as unkempt and unmaintained to almost non-existent.  The trail was quite slippery in regions and very steep and thick underbrush that I had to move aside while walking.  I tried to remember exactly the directions we came from and keep track of the way we were headed, in case I needed to try to run away quickly.  Visions from the movie “Hostel” filled my head.  Adrian seemed nice, still, but I was eyeing him up and convincing myself that Rob and I could take him down if we needed to.  Finally I was able to at least see train tracks and I felt a little better.  The “trail” led to a tunnel under the train tracks and I was very edgy and alert as Adrian led us into the tunnel.  We managed to make it through the tunnel uneventfully.  The tunnel came out and near a hotel and up a small path and finally I recognized that we were near the main road right near our hostel.  I said “oh” in a very surprised and relieved voice.  I turned to Adrain and shook his hand and said “thanks for the rides and for the coffee, it was nice meeting you – have a nice night”  Rob also did similar.  I wanted to say “thanks for not killing us.”  Rob and I walked over the bridge on the river to the main road and when out earshot Rob said “well, we are alive.”  We began to discuss how creepy it was.  Rob said that while we were in the house he was coming up with plans to defend himself and he had spotted a tire iron and was making exit strategies.  I felt really creeped out, but also guilty, because in my mind I believe that Adrian was probably just fine and a lonely guy and not a threat, he just happened to have one of the creepiest houses in the country.  However it also dawned on me that things can have potential to become dangerous quickly and I felt dumb for being naive and potentially getting us into a dangerous situation.  Rob and I talked about it and we decided that we should never go to a strangers house again (except couchsurfing).

We made a nice dinner of cooked vegetables and are getting ready for bed now.  So, we are alone again tonight in this creepy hostel and will probably sleep all cuddled up.

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I Vomited on a Shark!

Shark diving in South Africa – I gave my breakfast to a shark, and now I’ve got nothing to eat.   

Not far from Cape Town, South Africa, exists a place called “Shark Alley” it’s one of the few places that I know where tourists can get onto a boat and see great white sharks in the wild and it is also to get into a dive tank alongside the boat and see them from underwater.  In the summer of 2010 I decided to do this.  

My goal for the day started out: see a shark, maybe see one underwater. My new goal (after achieving the first two), was to puke on a great white shark. This goal was also achieved. 

Ok, ok, so I know I get sea sick. I KNOW this. I knew this ahead of time.  I also knew I really wanted to see sharks.  I also knew that Dramamine has helped in the past.  However, the key word here is in the past. Holy shit!  

I took two Dramamine before getting on the boat to head into the ocean. I felt pretty good, did fine for the entire ride out toward “shark alley,” but after arriving there, the boat was just sitting at seam rocking and lurching, then I started feeling green. 

While I focused on trying not to vomit, I was forced to ignore all instructions on how to get on the wet suit and how to jump into the shark cage.  Instead, I stared at the land, sucked on a lollipop (which is supposed to help with sea sickness but does not), and I had to sit for several minutes. 

The crew on the ship was a bunch of macho young men and they were very happy and throwing chum everywhere to attract sharks to the area. Within only a few minutes sharks appeared. It was really cool. I got to see them come near the boat and people were getting all suited up to dive into the cage and see them up close. I managed to take one picture of a shark fin protruding from the water and then had to sit down again. A really nice volunteer helper lady from England and another one from California basically dressed me in a wet suit, because I told them that I really wanted to see the sharks underwater even though I could barely stand up and function.  I laid on a bench like a small child and let them pull a wet suit over my body.  I handed them arms and legs as needed to achieve this.  I really thought that if I could just get into the tank in the water that I would not be as sea sick. 

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After being dressed by nice ladies, I had to spend several minutes deep breathing and fighting nausea.  I then managed to get into the cage and went down for a few moments at a time, the cage is near the surface of the water and one has to simply dive under the surface of the water with a mask on and look at sharks as they swim by.  Ok cool.  However I immediately realized that the sea sickness actually got worse in the cage.  I had a hard time breathing and felt as though I may drown.  Pumping adrenaline enabled me to manage to go under a few times and see some sharks.  It was really amazing.  One came right up near me and I looked into his huge black eye as he swam by. I felt safe in the cage and thought to myself that he looked just like sharks do on TV. He was very beautiful and amazing to see. But, after a few minutes I had to ask the crew to let me out; I was about to vomit in my mask.  It was a little nerve-wracking and scary to come out of the top of the tank right at the surface of the water with two very large great white sharks circling the cage. But I made it out, probably largely due to the fact that the crew pulled me out, I think.

Then, I had to suffer in my own personal hell for the next two hours.  It was  some of the longest hours of my life.   Ug, horrible horrible sea sickness that had no end. The lurching of the boat and the smell of chum and the young macho crew guys all screaming and shouting made me so sick.  I sat with my wet suit on, sitting in a pitching boat in the Atlantic ocean, freezing.  I managed to get my wetsuit halfway off and sat shivering and staring out at sea attempting to fight down the nausea.  It’s probably the first time in my life that I didn’t mind feeling as though I was freezing.  It didn’t bother me at all compared to the horrible nausea and waves of sickness.  In fact I wished I could only be freezing and not nauseated, freezing was so much better. 

Then the puking started.  I vomited over the edge of the boat, and all along side of the boat.  I’m pretty sure the macho crew men thought I was gross; I was gross.  I thought I would feel better puking, and I did, for about 5 minutes….  Then more puking.  Lots and lots of puking.  I saw a great white shark swim right under me.  I puked on him too.  Behind me I could hear the other passengers of the boat, they were so happy, they were so thrilled, they went on and on about how this was one of the most mind-blowing and amazing experiences of their lives…  It was one of the most gut-blowing experiences of mine.  The skipper handed me another lollipop, which I took one look and and vomited some more.  Then I tried to open it, oh why was it so god damned difficult to open, oohhhh, so frustrating.. more vomiting.  I managed to peel off my wet suit which was really bothering me at this time and I stood lurched over the deck of the boat in my bikini in the freezing Atlantic ocean barfing on sharks.  Small fish were eating my vomited breakfast.  Then I had nothing more to puke and was simply making disgusting retching noises and basically crying.  The lady volunteers were really nice.  The macho crew men sometimes stared at me in disgust and pity.  The nice English lady and the California lady tried to comfort me and they both told me that I wasn’t the only one to ever do this on the boat.  I didn’t really care or find that very comforting. I just wanted to get a few more pictures of the sharks or look at them a little more, but could not find the strength to get my camera or walk to the area where they were “chumming.”  I never made it back there before the end of the trip and never got another picture.  

I was happy that I at least did get to see the sharks, and that I was able to go in the dive take for even a short time and see the sharks near me underwater.  I was however and still am sad that I didn’t get to see them more or spend more time in the shark tank.  I think I would have really loved it if my stomach could handle it.  I think it would be great fun to do if I didn’t barf the whole time.  Good news is that I was given free ginger beer afterward to help settle my stomach.  I love ginger beer, so that was a bonus.

So, how many people can say they vomited on a shark? I suppose it was a good thing to check off a life’s list of goals!