Friday, October 16, 2009

Another Sailboat Washes Ashore in Playa del Rey

Oops, they did it again. Another sailboat washed ashore in our front yard this month. It's getting to be a regular thing.

We don't know too much about the history of this wreck as we were out of town again during the storm (Why does all the excitement happen when we're gone?). You can watch a video from the day of the storm, showing several guys futilely trying to pull the boat out of the surf by using ropes. We do know that two people were rescued by the Coast Guard after the boat's engine lost power. We hope this time our sailors had insurance...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

More Crazy Talk from South Africa

In a previous blog, I sought help in deciphering a list of food items that were recommended for my South African hiking trip. Thanks to a little help from the natives, I now know the following:

1. Vegetable extract: Marmite or Vegemite-type substance. If you've never been to the UK or Australia, this might not help. But remember that 80's song about the Vegemite sandwich? It's not as tasty as it sounds.
2. Smash: Instant mashed potatoes. We had smash one night for dinner with a tasty tofu sauce masquerading as meat sauce. It worked!

3. Rusks: Picture biscotti, but denser, fatter, and much harder. Please don't eat these if the teeth in your mouth are not your original ones.
4. Glucose sweets: I'm still a little unclear. Can someone shed light on this?
5. Boerewors: Yummy sausages. Let's ignore that health study that just came out about processed meats. Boer is Afrikaans for farmer and wors is Afrikaans for sausage. Farmer's sausage doesn't sound so unhealthy, does it?

6. Briquettes for the first night braai: A braii is a barbecue, and briquettes are firestarter material that looks like white blocks.
A couple other words I picked up on the trail:

Mozzies: mosquitoes

Saffers: Short for "South Africans"

Example: I was pleasantly surprised that when I was on my hiking trip, the mozzies ignored me and went right for the Saffers.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Floating a Backpack Across a River: Judgment Day

You may recall my apprehension regarding one leg of my South Africa hike which involved crossing a river. Just how we were going to swim from one bank to the other with massive backpacks in tow was beyond me. I consulted with experts, Google and drunken friends, but I just couldn't picture it.

The crossing was on Day 4 of our five-day hike, so I had plenty of time to fret. This was compounded by the fact that compared to the 11 other people in my group, I hiked at the pace of a turtle and often fell behind. Hiking near the back of the pack (our friend Patrick was always the "sweeper" at the very back for safety) left me alone with my thoughts--both a good thing and a bad thing.

I had already discovered during Days 1, 2 and 3 that hiking is not my strong suit. I thought it was, until I realized that the word "hiking" means different things in different parts of the world. In Los Angeles, it means meeting a friend for coffee on a weekend, driving to a scenic point along the coast, and going for a walk while catching up on boy talk and celebrity gossip. If you feel like you're breaking a sweat, you quickly and calmly return to your car so you can turn on the A/C before driving somewhere for a smoothie.

In South Africa hiking is a sport. I don't do sports. My mother doesn't do sports. I come from a long line of women who have had to charm their way into getting passing grades in gym class.

Also, we don't swim.

But suddenly here I was far from home with ten virtual strangers and my friend Jen, who was probably regretting her decision to invite me back to her homeland. I was fast earning a poor grade in South African Hiking 101, and the advanced class, Hiking While Swimming, was Pass-Fail.

It didn't help that at the trailhead where we registered with the Park Service, they showed us a safety video emphasizing the danger of the Day 4 river crossing. The footage of another hapless group of 12 who crossed under rough conditions was unsettling to say the least. The message was clear: We had to be at the river ready to go at exactly low tide.

Per the tidal charts, our T minus Zero was 11:45 am. It was decided that we slower hikers would get a 7 a.m. start so that everyone would arrive in plenty of time. Had I known the level of challenge that lay on the trail ahead, I would have left sooner. It was a day of up-and-down and up-and-down, from the sea-level rocky shoreline nearly straight up 150 meters, then back down again. And again. A bit like those heart-rate monitor charts from ER. Meanwhile my own heart was ready to flatline. I almost failed to take in the stunning views as I struggled, covered in sweat ten minutes into it, my backpack a massive concrete block throwing me off-balance as I pulled myself up the inclines by hanging onto tree roots, branches, or occasionally the hand of one of the other hikers who hurried past me on their way to the river.

At last I sensed I was near. The river had to be just around the corner, right? Wrong. Around the corner was: Another straight-up climb. "Are you kidding me?" I yelled at the mountain, furious. I was nearly out of water and had only about an hour left on the clock. I wanted to cry. Nobody cries on the Otter Trail, do they? Do they?

As I stumbled on in despair, Jonathan and Colyn caught up to me and led me through a challenging bit. They shared some of their water and every time I shook my fist at another towering rock ahead they told me, "It's easy, it's easy," and got me up and over it. Apparently "easy" is another term that loses something in translation.

When the trail mercifully leveled off a little I told them to go on ahead--no reason for ALL of us to die here in the wilderness. Finally, I reached the edge of the last cliff and saw the river down below. Far down below. As Jonathan and Colyn waved and shouted up to me, their voices were so faint they might as well have been yelling from Alaska. I looked at my watch: 11:55 am. I was ten minutes late, but I could see that most of the others were moving their packs inland from the edge of the opposite shore. They must have just finished the crossing, and I was third in line to cross next. Jonathan and Colyn were below busily putting their backpacks into waterproof floater bags, the process I had been so curious about. But I only had eyes for my own feet. The hike down to the river bed was characteristically steep so I did my best fast-turtle-hike. I knew that Patrick and Felix were still behind me and the others couldn't just leave us all, could they...could they?

When at last I made it down, I could see that our group was a well-oiled machine. Those who had already crossed swam back with the floater bags, and helped the new arrivals put their bags in and tied them. We took off our hiking boots and readied for the crossing. Paul and Cherelle had both hiked the Otter Trail twice before, and knew exactly what to do. Not only that--they are both members of the National Sea Rescue Institute in Cape Town, and well-trained in water rescue. I couldn't have been in safer hands. (Well if I'd stayed in LA where I belonged, that would have been safer. But let's not dwell.)

When I entered the water it was cold, but good cold. The river was deep enough by now that it was about chest-high, so I could sort of touch my toes along the bottom for much of the way. Cherelle led, pulling my backpack behind her, and I held onto the back of the bag. Wow--this was fun! Super fun! I was having a great time! We swam-walked straight across, but the journey wasn't over yet. Going straight across meant we had taken the shallowest route, but to get to the sandy shore we had to turn a right angle and swim to the left--closer to the mouth of the river which led right into the ocean. The swells got higher as we proceeded, and my feet were no longer on the bottom. I was relying on the bag as a life preserver. Finally, after navigating between some large rocks, I was able to half-paddle to a shallow area and stand up. Success! It wasn't pretty but I didn't care. Patrick and Felix were close behind, and several minutes later we all regrouped, safe and sound. "Let's stop here and have lunch and watch the tide come in," said Paul, still as full of energy as if the day had just started. I declined, uninterested in seeing the waves crash higher and higher and witnessing what might have been. All I wanted was a cold shower, a hot campfire and a long sleep. There was still one more day of hiking to go.

That's me on the left, doing the doggy-paddle.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Notes from the Otter Trail: Top Backpacker Travel Gear

Packing a suitcase can take me hours! It's exhausting.
--Marc Jacobs in InStyle, March 2009

You said it, honey. Until I can figure out how to afford my own personal butler, it seems that I will have to endure the packing nightmare anytime I want to go anywhere. As usual, I overpacked for my last journey but was pleased to find that at least the gear I crammed into my backpack was oh-so-useful. Below you'll find my favorite road-tested products from a five-day hike in South Africa called the Otter Trail.

1. Shorts-to-pants convertibles: Being from LA I wouldn't be caught dead in these normally, but their benefits on the trail proved that fashion doesn't always come first. (Okay it does, but convenience is a close second.) And the two pairs I got from Eastern Mountain Sports were actually kind of cute--one khaki pair that unzipped to become shorts (with convenient zips up the ankle so you didn't need to remove your boots); and a black pair that rolled up and buttoned. Not only did they save space over packing two pairs each of shorts and long pants, they were also quick-drying and durable.
Eastern Mountain Sports, $49

2. SteriPen handheld UV water purifier: Smaller than a traditional filtration system, it also avoids the nasty taste of purifying drops or tablets. On top of that, it's a lot of fun to use! Just fill your 1/2- or 1-liter water bottle with water, click the pen, and immerse and stir until you see a happy face on the LCD screen. The bluish UV glow destroys viruses, bacteria and protozoa and makes you feel like a Star Wars stormtrooper. Sound effects extra.
Adventure 16, $99.95

3. Nomad waterproof notebook: At $10 for a 3-x-5" memo pad, this was either going to be my biggest sucker purchase of the trip, or a nifty convenience. It turned out to be the latter. One thing you can count on during a five-day hike is that some of your belongings will get wet, be it from rain or river crossings. The water-repellant pages of the notebook dried in no time, allowing for trouble-free blogging notes that were still legible once we returned to civilization.
Eastern Mountain Sports, $9.95

4. Headlamp: The first time I saw someone other than a coal miner sporting a headlamp across their forehead, I laughed until I cried. I'm not laughing now. The headlamp kept my hands free while eating, washing dishes, and digging through my backpack after dark. Every hiker on our trip sported one of these. I recommend one that comes with a red-light mode because the moths don't seem to attack it as much.
Eastern Mountain Sports, $34.95

5. Balance Energy Bar in Chocolate Mint Cookie: On the hardest day of hiking, I hit a wall and pulled out this little piece of heaven...pure bliss in a bar. I've long been a fan of the Snickers-like Caramel Nut Blast, but the chocolate mint variety was better still. If you live for Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies, you'll love this bar--Scout's honor., $20 for a box of 15

Two products that didn't make the top 5 but worked well and were highlighted in this month's Backpacker magazine:

Therm-a-Rest's Microfleece Trekker Pillow: At the end of a long hiking day, small comforts count big. Yes, you could just ball up a jacket and rest your noggin on it, but why do that when you could be sweetly dreaming the night away on this feel-good fabric? Just stuff some clothing inside the pillowcase, fold the end over and relax.
Adventure 16, $10.95

Medaglia D'oro Instant Espresso: This blows Nescafe out of the water. We poured a two-ounce jar into double Ziploc bags and used a spoonful every morning to start the day right. One night we made a whole pot before dinner and spiked it with Amarula, a South African liqueur similar to Bailey's Irish Cream. Waiter, I'll have another!, $18.92 for pack of 6 two-oz. jars

Friday, February 20, 2009

Pack Up Your Troubles, or The Trouble With Packing

Let's be perfectly honest: I have no business posting this blog today. Today is Packing Day, a 24-hour period devoted to the ritual of making a thousand little decisions that boil down to: Take this. Don't take that. Put this in the carry-on. This gets checked. Needs a smaller container. Needs a baggie.

And of course, the thousand decisions are multiplied by a factor of a hundred because this is a backpacking trip, and now I have to consider: Too heavy? Too bulky? Biodegradable? Won't operate without electricity?

It's more than I can bear, which is why I suddenly found the time for blogging; a quick workout at the gym; a favor for a friend; and dinner with my cousin who I haven't seen since the holidays.

Sit there in judgment if you must, but before that you might want to look deep inside yourself and ask:
1) Have I ever bought Christmas presents on December 24?
2) Did I ever pull an all-nighter in college to get a paper done?
3) Have I ever done my taxes on April 14?
4) Did I ever race to return DVD's to the video store before leaving on a trip?

Aw crap. Need to run to Blockbuster.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Beach of Broken Dreams

Mom always said, Don’t leave your toys out in the rain. That’s especially the case if your toy is a $150,000 46-foot sailboat, and it’s your place of residence, your business, and you don’t have insurance on it. We were all a bit surprised to see this shipwreck appear in our front yard just before the holidays after it broke anchor and ran aground in severe weather. Once the cabin filled with water and sand it became too heavy for boats to tug it off the beach. Owner Larry Beane, who had dreamed of sailing around the world, then suffered the further pain of seeing looters and graffiti punks go to town on the boat. Meanwhile county officials scratched their heads for several weeks before coming up with this solution:

We hope Captain Larry has a better year in 2009!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fiji: A Day Too Long

Why is it that something must always go terribly wrong when I'm on an overseas vacation? Did I at some point offend the travel gods? Perhaps I brought on their wrath by always overpacking, never reconfirming my flights, and often running late for the airport. Oops. Well whatever it is, I must find a way to make amends. Either that, or burn my passport!

What could go wrong in Fiji, you ask? Tropical paradise. World-class snorkeling. Highly recommended accommodation. Friendly culture. And that's really what it was, for the first five days. In fact I was wondering what in the world I would have to blog about. If only I hadn't stayed one day too long.

As soon as I got the shuttle bus outside of Nadi Airport, I met Emelie, the first of many new friends I was to make. Emelie, a Swedish girl studying in Australia, was on her way to meet some British friends at the Octopus Resort, the same place I was staying. We shared the 1-1/2 hour boat ride to Waya Island, and were awed to catch our first glimpse of the wonderful secluded beach and bay where the Octopus was located. She went off to meet her friends, and I went about exploring.

"Resort" is a relative term, and in Fiji it has evolved to mean "a low-cost tourist accommodation to fool travelers into forgetting about our little coup issues." The ploy seems to be working. The Octopus was near full the whole five nights I was there, and the only time I heard Fiji politics mentioned was at trivia night (What 80's band sounds like the new leader of Fiji? I guessed Go-Go's, but the real answer was Bananarama. The leader's name is Frank Bainimarama).

As I was saying, the resort could be described as maybe high-end rugged, or low-end luxury depending on where you were staying. There were traditional thatched huts at various prices, and then the 12-person co-ed dormitory where I stayed. I opted for the dorm since I was traveling alone and wanted to be able to meet other travelers readily. It was clean and simple--a single bed with mosquito netting for each person, plus their own night table with lamp and electric fan. The communal toilets and showers were next door. In front of the dorm was a nice swimming pool with a view of the ocean and wide beachfront. Meals were served three times daily in a covered dining area--sturdy wooden tables for eight set right in the sand. With no shops or restaurants nearby on the island, this was the only option for meals. Luckily the lunch menu was plentiful and tasty. Several of the 8 or 10 choices featured pumpkin, one of my favorite foods. The Thai yellow curry, which I ate twice that week, had pumpkin and eggplant. Yum!

I sat down at a table with two British girls: Sarah, who turned out to be a friend of Emelie's; and Lucy, who recently completed Yachtmaster sailing school and was leaving for Canada the next day. After lunch we joined forces at the pool with Emelie, Julia (Sarah's sister) and Dan (Julia's fiance). Once Lucy left the next day, I spent most of my time with the remaining four. We shared all our meals, did some activities together (snorkeling, swimming and just general relaxing), and we single girls slept in a row in the dorm. Though I'd had every intention of catching up on reading and writing while on vacation, it seemed every time I opened my John Grisham, I was pulled into a conversation or convinced to join another activity. It was great fun spending time with non-Americans and hearing a chorus of words like "snogging", "crikey" and "I quite fancy a smoothie."

We were all excited about the New Year's Eve festivities, which were to feature a seafood bbq, games, and retro dance music. The dress code was sulus, similar to sarongs. The other girls took a class that day on the many ways to wear a sulu, while I opted to finally read my book and nurse the sunburn I'd gotten while snorkeling that morning (I saw a leopard shark and a stingray!).

Before dinner all the girls met up in the dorm and worked out the different ways we would wear our sulus. Dinner was at 7:30, and after that we were moved out to the porch while the tables were cleared away for dancing. In the meantime there were party games like limbo and balloon dancing. I can't really explain the balloon game as I was starting to feel under the weather and kept ducking out to rest in the dorm. I felt overheated and thought it might be the sunburn. I took off the flower lei they'd given out, and put my hair back. Then my stomach began hurting and I realized it must be something else. "My stomach feels funny too," said Emelie. I laid down, hoping it would pass. Emelie flitted in and out, checking on me and letting me know the music wasn't very good anyway. As the deejay cranked up Britney Spears "Hit Me Baby One More Time" I was overcome with nausea and ran next door to the bathroom. Nothing came up in the first two retches, but each was so severe and sharp that my whole body shuddered. Panicked, I fumbled at the door lock to make sure someone could get in if I passed out. It felt like a hand had reached in through my navel and begun twisting and squeezing my intestines. When the vomiting finally stopped, I stumbled back to my bed and waited for the momentary relief that expelling the contents of one's stomach usually brings. Instead I got another round of abdominal pain. The partygoers were getting lounder and louder and I heard the New Year's countdown from my bed. Soon Emelie came back, regretting that she was feeling worse "just when the music was getting better." I wondered if she meant Britney but was too weak to converse. I told her I'd been sick. "My turn must be next," she said. I realized then that it must be food poisoning.

I fell into a fitful sleep, but the pain woke me again and I staggered to the bathroom and got sick a second time. Sleep again, then pain so bad I went next door actually praying I could be sick a third time to get some relief. There I ran into Sarah, who was helping Emelie, as well as Louise--both Louise and her husband Andrew were sick. In all, eleven guests had fallen ill.

With Emelie and others retching in the bathroom, I escaped to the front porch steps of our dorm where it was considerably cooler than in the dorm or bathroom. Exhausted, I considered just lying on the porch until morning but knew that without mosquito netting I'd be eaten alive. Having experienced food poisoning before, I expected to get better, not worse, over the course of the next two days. The following afternoon I was scheduled to take the 1-1/2 hour choppy boat ride (no bathroom on board) back to the mainland, followed by several hours of waiting until the 9-1/2 hour flight home. I knew I couldn't make it in my condition, and tried to work out how I could rebook my flight, get a hotel on the mainland, and notify my office that I wouldn't be at work on the 2nd. In my weakened state these tasks seemed fully insurmountable, and my eyes welled up with tears.

Somehow, I did make it home. From Internet research later on, I narrowed down the type of food poisoning to one that strikes quickly (within a few hours of eating), but lasts no more than 24. By the time I boarded the plane with Louise and Andrew, we were still exhausted and worse for the wear but finally able to keep down fluids and a few bites of food. My friend Margaret picked me up at LAX and we ate our first meal of the New Year at Islands hamburger chain--probably the only islands I'll be visiting for a while. And when I do travel overseas again? I plan to do some serious kowtowing to the travel gods beforehand. I feel I've done quite enough bowing down to that porcelain god for a long while.