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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Our Day with the Elephants

I've never ridden a horse. At 53 years old that is actually embarrassing.

No trip to Chiang Mai in Thailand is complete without a visit to see the Elephants. Elephants have been a working part of Thai culture forever. Private elephants farms in the area advertise all over the place, but we didn't want to just pick a place at random. My friends Graciela and Klem, who lived in Thailand for a few months, had a couple of recommendations for us, but unfortunately they were booked up.

There are many, many locations to choose from, but we wanted to support a farm that actually cares for the animals. Some places treat the elephants like circus performers, making them play soccer or draw pictures. Others use hooks and chains to essentially torture the animal into behaving. Amy and I focused our search on rescue facilities that truly care for the animals. In addition, given the heat and humidity, we wanted to limit ourselves to a half day program.

That search led us to the Ran-Tong Elephant Center. This is a truly wonderful place, that provides a loving and caring home for Elephants. One elephant in particular had broken a leg doing brutal, illegal forestry work. It now spends its day as a step-mom for another orphaned baby elephant. Ran-tong is cruelty-free, using only voice commands and the personal relationship between the elephant and its Mahout, or trainer. The Mahout forms a personal, one-on-one relationship with the elephant that lasts for many years.

We were met at the park by a retired Swedish gentleman, who gave us a brief history of the park, described our day to us, and gave us some advice about riding the elephants. We learned 6 voice commands, as you can see below. I memorized all of them, and forgot them all about 30 seconds after we climbed aboard. Fortunately Amy remembered, although to be honest I don't think our elephant actually cared what we said.

Mae Noi (pronounced may-NOY) our 9,000 pound female elephant, was far and away the largest of the elephants in our group. To be perfectly honest, I was pretty terrified after climbing aboard. Amy sat up front, and I sat behind with no saddle, just the top of a rope to hold on to. Amy felt pretty comfortable, having ridden horses as a child. I hadn't sat on top of an animal since I got rid of my rocking horse as a child.

The animals are gentle, but have a mind of their own. They may decide that it's time for a grass break, or that they'd rather go left than right, or maybe they just want to take a break. Our remonstrations to "Pai, Pai" were typically ignored, but the Mahout, having spent years with Mai Noi, had the right touch. The first couple of times she decided to veer off-course I though "Oh crap, this is where I die..."

We followed a well-worn trail that meandered up a hillside and back around to the watering hole. Going uphill was intimidating, forcing us to hold on in order to not slide backward. Downhill was scarier, with the sensation that we would fall right over the front of her head. However, after awhile I was able to follow our Swedish guide's advice and actually relax. By the time we had completed the circuit I was actually comfortable being 10 feet up in the air on the back of a 9,000 pound animal.

We made our way to the watering hole, which Mae Noi entered with us on her back. She then "Melong"ed, and allowed us to hop off. After a bath in the watering hole, and a hose-off at the garden hose

We then went for another short ride and posed for a group photo.

While intimidating at first, it was a marvelous opportunity to experience something truly unique, and at the same time help these amazing animals.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Mi Amigo Cubano

From essentially the instant I landed in Ecuador I was on a mission. I am an occasional, unsophisticated cigar smoker. I can't handle the Swisher Sweet type, but truth be told I probably couldn't tell the difference between a $2 and a $20 cigar. Nevertheless, I appreciate the opportunity to sample life's delicacies when they present themselves.

So I was on a hunt. There is a certain category of cigar, from a country that rhymes with Tuba, that is of questionable legality at home. In the rest of the world they are recognized as being the world's best cigar, but as one of the last legacies of the Cold War they remain unavailable in my homeland. While in Ecuador I asked about their availability several times, including on a walk-about tour of our host town. My poquito Spanish skills certainly didn't help, but I completely struck out in Ecuador. I hoped I might have better luck in the tourist areas of the Galapogos.

We got to the hotel in Puerto Ayora and I was introduced to the Concierge / Bell Hop / Office Manager, a gracious fellow who happened to be Cuban. He saw my Oakland A's cap, we talked a little baseball, and then I asked him if there were, uh, "Tuban", cigars in Ecuador. Well, I didn't say Tuban but I'm trying to avoid prosecution so please pardon the poetic license.

He told me, in what is apparently the proper local response, that there was a place a couple of blocks up the road. But he then proceeded to wax poetic about a particular cigar that is only made in the mountains of his homeland. In his own words they are the finest cigars made. Unlike Cohiba's, or some of the other brands you may have heard of, they are not exported. They are only for local consumption. He promised to bring me one when he came in to work the next day.

I thought it was a gracious gesture, but didn't expect anything to come of it. Instead, that night after dinner Amy and I went walk-about through the town. We would poke our heads into a store, ask about availability, and be offered a cigarillo (cigarette) instead. After more explanation we were invariably told that a store two blocks to the right would have them. We reached the top of the hill, were told that a store two blocks to the left would have them, and then bagged the whole exercise. I was to leave South America empty-handed.

Much to my surprise, the next afternoon shortly before checkout my Cuban friend saw me wandering the grounds. He had indeed raided his secret stash and had brought me one of his prized cigars! I was genuinely blown away. He wanted nothing more than to share a bit of his homeland's culture. My ear-to-ear grin was thanks enough apparently. We took a quick photo, I thanked him profusely, and I walked away with a great memory.
One happy Gringo 

Amy and I went on one last trinket-shopping excursion into town, and I found an appropriately tacky hiking hat. At that point, with my head suitably protected, I decided to return the favor for my new amigo. As we were getting ready to board the bus out of town I poked my head into his office. We talked a bit about the A's, and our mutual interest in Yoenis Cespedes, a Cuban player on the A's. At that point I told him that I wanted to give him a little gift in return, and offered him my A's hat. He was every bit as excited at receiving the hat as I had been about his gift of the cigar. That called for one more picture with my new Cuban amigo.

A fellow A's fan

Hypothetically speaking, of course, I'm saving this cigar to celebrate the impending birth of Amy's first grandson. Hypothetically, of course, because I wouldn't want to run afoul of the law...

Saturday, September 21, 2013

How I spent my summer vacation, Part 1

"We flew to Ecuador to learn more about being frugal". Hmmm, somehow that description doesn't quite resonate. The irony police might issue a warrant. Since essentially the day I signed up for this trip I've struggled to explain exactly what we were attending.

The seminar we attended was described as being a "week-long Chautauqua where we'll discuss happiness, freedom and wealth". Here's a link to the overview. In reality it combined many of my favorite things into one vacation:

  • the chance to explore a new, exotic place
  • learning more about personal finance and early retirement from some of the blogosphere's leading voices
  • a chance to share experiences with like-minded people drawn from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico
  • and finally, the opportunity to share the experience with Amy and expose her to places and ideas she's never had the opportunity to see. 
A first-of-its-kind offering, I signed us up about 30 minutes after finding out about it. Over the last eighteen months I've gone from dreaming about early retirement, to actually retiring, to getting divorced and needing to go back to work, to finally working again and dreaming once again about early retirement. Circle of life, I suppose. Regardless, combining interesting people, a new, fascinating place, and the chance to speed up my path to re-retiring seemed like an ideal vacation. If I could come home with one investable idea then the trip would pay for itself. 

We had four presenters and 22 attendees, and as I had  expected the network effect from all of the interactions was even more powerful than the actual presentations themselves. 

The four presentations, while all different, dove-tailed nicely to tell a story of maximizing happiness and freedom in our lives. 

  • Cheryl Reed, the event organizer and our host, talked about the Science of Happiness. I live in the San Francisco area, the granola capital of the world, so I've heard more than my share of New Age touchy-feely psycho-babble. Cheryl's presentation was based on scientific research and included actual steps we can all follow in our own lives. She also weaved in stories of her own life, and how she went from stylish-and-miserable to buying her own farm in Ecuador at the age of 32. She's a concrete example of living life on your own terms.
  • Mr. Money Mustache is possibly the most popular personal finance blogger on the Internet. He retired at age 30 by applying principles of frugality and intelligent money management. No lottery winnings or high-tech IPO millions for him. No deprivations either. He and his wife life in a paid-off 2400 sq ft house in Longmont, CO. He describes his life as being preposterously abundant and after spending time with him I absolutely agree. He also writes in a highly entertaining style populated with the occasional f-bomb. Each column he writes is like a little gift. If you have any interest whatsoever of escaping the rat race then I can't recommend his website highly enough. Start here. This should be mandatory reading for anyone just entering the workforce. Mr. MM's actual presentation was about the relationship between money and happiness. Rather than diving into details or tactics, it was a fascinating view of how to maximize your happiness. (Hint: it doesn't involve buying jet skis).
  • Jim Collins created his blog as a series of letters to his daughter. From there it has grown in just two years to become an encyclopedia of investing wisdom and common sense. I have already begun to restructure my portfolio based on what I've learned from him. Jim is also one of the most engaging  and interesting people I've ever met. Five minutes after meeting him it seemed like we had been friends forever. His series on stock investing is must-reading for anyone interested in growing their wealth. I'll have a follow-on post about this later. 
  • JD Roth created Get Rich Slowly, to document his path out of debt and on to financial independence. He then sold the blog and created  More than Money. JD is a fascinating guy who lives his life as an epic adventure. His ability to live life as he sees fit is truly inspirational. JD gave a moving presentation on the Power Of Yes, and identifying what really matters in life. Several of the attendees were moved to tears.
It might seem that we spent all of our time on difficult mental exercises, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our days were filled with excellent meals, stimulating conversations and several interesting outings. We visiting an orphanage for local children with AIDS, made a trip to the Otovalo Market, hiked around the local countryside, had lunch and a boat ride inside an active volcano, observed a Shamanic Cleansing, and drank many, many bottles of wine.

My fellow attendees were a fascinating group. Somewhat surprisingly, given our universal interest in early retirement, most people actually seemed to enjoy their work. Nights were spent telling war stories and typically ended with sore cheeks from all the laughter. It was a wonderful group. I truly hope that we've made a lot of life-long friends.

Cheryl will be doing this again next year. If you have any interest in early retirement, seeing a fascinating country, or meeting interesting people then I'd highly recommend that you attend. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Summit Day

12:15 a.m. The time has finally come. A year of training, planning, and thinking. 5 1/2 days on the mountain. As much as I've told myself that I'm here for the experience, and as much as I've enjoyed everything we've seen and done, not summitting would be a bitter disappointment. And now it's time to see if we can pull this off, if we can stand on top of the highest mountain in Africa...

I'm not feeling real optimistic as we start off. It's already been a rough night. We got to base camp in the early afternoon at 15,000 feet.  Just the simplest tasks make me feel like I'm breathing through a straw. I unpack my duffel and have to lay down to catch my breath. Walking the 30 yards from my tent to the mess tent makes me double over.

We had lunch, took some time to relax and prepare our summit gear, and then had an early dinner at 5:00. The "plan" was to sleep from 6:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m., have a small breakfast, and then hit the trail at midnight. The wind picked up as the night progressed. I laid in my sleeping bag listening to the wind buffet my tent and convinced myself that things would calm down once the sun went down. No such luck. As the night went on the wind just got stronger and stronger. At some point in the darkness the mess tent came crashing down. I heard the poor porters yelling in Swahili as they ran around trying to put the pieces back together.

Silt that blew into my sealed tent
Several hours into this attempt at sleep I gave up on the idea of even attempting the climb. I was much more worried about my tent collapsing and blowing me down the mountainside. The tent walls shook violently. The roar of noise was just nuts. The best guesstimate was 45 MPH winds. Even attempting to climb seemed like lunacy as I laid there bug-eyed. My alarm went off at 11:00 p.m. I hadn't had a minute's sleep, but I figured I'd be back in my bag shortly. I went through the motions of getting prepared. I'd made a summit-day list ages ago with all the special things that only applied to this one day:  iPod prep, hand warmers, 5 layers of clothing that had been packed in a special bag.

I waddle out of the tent and make my way towards the mess tent, which the porters had somehow managed to resurrect. I see Zack, our Mountain Guide, and a few of the other trekkers. I ask him point blank -- "Zack, have you ever attempted the summit with winds like this?" He assures me that yes, he has, and with weather colder than this. Crap. I guess I have to give this a shot. Sleep will have to wait for awhile. I decide in that moment to harness my one true athletic gift -- pure pigheaded stubbornness. There are only two reasons I'm coming down this mountain: medical necessity or because I've reached the summit. Quitting won't be an option.

After a few false starts we finally begin the summit climb. Robert has faithfully followed the "Pole-Pole" method, Swahili for "slowly-slowly", all through our adventure. Today it's Pole-Pole-Pole. I didn't know it was possible to walk this slowly. It's also as fast as I'm capable of walking.

Early on we reach a fairly technical section of trail. At sea level it would be no big deal, but at 16,000 feet I don't have any oxygen to spare. We pull ourselves up small boulder hops, and I feel my heart racing. I make a point of taking several deep breaths and using the pressure breathing method as much as possible,  but I still feel like I'm barely holding the pace. Each irregular step seems like a struggle.

After about an hour we get through the technical stuff and Zach lets us know the trail is much simpler from here on out. We're hiking under an almost-full moon so we turn off our headlamps and hike only by moonlight. It was utterly amazing to be hiking through the darkness, the glow of the moon lighting both the trail and the mountain summit. It seemed to add to my energy. The view of the mountain, with the moon directly over the glaciers, was postcard worthy and took my mind off the difficulties of the moment-to-moment tasks on the trail.

Two hours in we finally take our first break, and I quickly realize that summit day is not like our other days on the mountain. We had 5 minutes to do what we needed to do: Try to make a pit stop, get something to eat, make any adjustments that might be needed, actually rest for a couple of minutes. Three problems with that though. One, I'm wearing four layers of clothing. Stripping off gloves and then digging through all those layers trying to find my turtled-up little buddy took 5 minutes all by itself. Two, I became more and more brain-addled the higher up we went. Three, 5 minutes is not nearly enough time to do all of that.

The "rest-stops" became exercises in frustration. My rain pants outer shell just frustrated the crap out of me. I couldn't figure out how to zip them back up. On two different occasions a porter came up and pulled my pants up for me. I couldn't get my gloves back on so I'd need help pulling them back over the wool liners. I am truly a feeble moron. I never seemed to have time to eat. In the 7-1/2 hours to the summit I had one small granola bar and two gels. I really felt like having a meltdown and just kicking the crap out of something, but I just didn't have the energy for a hissy-fit. Irritability and fatigue are apparently symptoms of mild Acute Mountain Sickness.

At the 2nd rest stop Zack comes by and asks me how I'm doing.

 "I'm a little wobbly" I tell him.

"What's 3 + 4" he asks me.

Well that's easy. It's, um, er, "7?" I respond in much too slow a time.

He fires back "What's 7+7".

"14". -- Nailed that one! He tells me I'm fine and just tired. Off we go again.

The  night progresses ever so slowly. One switchback after another. The wind has not calmed any. Still gusting to 45 MPH, with a wind chill somewhere below 0 degrees. Grit and dust everywhere. We turn into the wind and I pull the balaclava (kinda like a ski mask) over my mouth and nose. We turn away from the wind, I pull down the balaclava and suck in as many deep breaths as possible. Zack makes a comment about Stella Point, where we reach the crater rim. I channel my inner Marlon Brando and holler out "Stellllaaaa...". Damn I'm funny. But that gets no reaction.

There's not much conversation in the darkness. The wind dominates the sounds, and nobody has excess energy for chit-chat. I look ahead and see that Graciella has given her pack to one of the porters. Not a good sign. I worry  that she won't make it to the summit. We continue on. Up ahead we see headlamps. Way up ahead. We still have a long way to go. As the night wears on the sky grows incredibly dark. The moon hides behind the mountain and we return to hiking by headlamp. It's always darkest before the dawn, never more true than on this night.

One of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen

I see the very first hint of light. It's like a mirage at first, and then, unmistakeably, a thin line stretching across the horizon. As it transitions from purple to orange to yellow I find my emotions getting the better of me. It reminds me if the view of sunrise from space. It's quite possibly the most beautiful thing I've ever experienced. After climbing all night the crater rim is in sight. We're all going to make it to Stella Point. That realization, along with the astonishing beauty of the surroundings is more than I can hold back. Tears run unashamed down my cheek.

Sunrise on the roof of Africa
Shortly after that we finally reach Stella Point, the crater rim of the Kibo cone. The hard part is done.  The fatigue of the last several hours vanishes in a swarm of joyful emotions. The whole group is just elated. We take pictures, enjoy the sunrise for a few minutes, stare down into the crater, and then saddle up for the last 45 minutes and 600 vertical feet of hiking to the summit.

On the summit with Greg and Bev
The fabulous green summit sign that I've seen in countless blogs is finally in sight. It's real. It actually does exist. We follow up and around the crater rim, seeing the glaciers up close. And finally after over 7 hours of climbing we reach the summit. There is no ribbon at the finish line, or spectators to cheer us on. No marching band or TV cameras. It's just us and the rest of the summit group. It's incredibly beautiful, but not a place to hang out and have a picnic. The 45 MPH winds are still with us, With the wind chill it's below 0 degrees, and we're at 19,340 feet in the air, so after a bit of celebration and some photo opportunities we head back down the mountain.

There were countless other stories on summit day, some of which I'll hopefully catalog here, but the most important story is that all 8 of us in our group made it to the summit and down safely. We all got to experience one of the most beautiful sights in the world. We challenged ourselves and were all up to that challenge. Later than day after descending to Millenium Camp, 7400 feet below the summit, we looked back up at the mountain. It seemed unreal that just several hours earlier we'd been standing on top of the largest free-standing mountain on earth. On the highest point in Africa. But we had.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mt. Whitney video

More details to come, but I put together a picture slideshow of our adventure on Mt. Whitney, along with a video I took at the summit. A truly remarkable day, full of challenges, struggles, and 6 successful summitteers. A short video of the first view of the summit And another one at the ridge crest, looking down the face of the mountain.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Little Cottonwood Canyon

I make a fair number of business trips to the Salt Lake City area. It's just a beautiful location, with the Wasatch Mountains overlooking the valley. I've been meaning to go hiking out here but either the weather or my schedule never allowed for it. With the Mt. Whitney hike coming up this weekend I decided to see if I could sneak in an after-work hike while I'm out here this week.

One of my work friends suggested Little Cottonwood Canyon (thanks Shannon!). I checked online and settled on a short-ish hike to Cecret Lake (not a typo). It was a little, um, warm today. Like 101 degrees when I left the office. So I wasn't planning on doing anything too adventurous. By the time I finished driving up the canyon, past two ski resorts, and a couple of miles of gravel road, the temps had dropped to a perfect 81 degrees.

So I start hiking along a trail straight out of the Sound Of Music. Mountain wildflowers everywhere, babbling brooks, unreal scenery, and of course the fresh mountain air. The thin
air doesn't seem to affect me much, and before long I've finished the mile long hike to Cecret Lake, a beautiful little alpine gem. I wander around the lakeshore, take a couple of pictures, and decide that I haven't really done enough hiking. I see the ski lift from the resort off to the side and decide to follow it for awhile.

As I'm hiking straight up the access road I'm pleasantly surprised at how little effect the altitude has on me. I see the top of another lift off to the side and make a detour over to it. 10,200', it says on the lift. I see another trail to the very top of the ridgeline and the highest ski lift, so I head off in that direction. Before I know it I'm at the very top, 10,500 feet, and shoot this video.

Wow, what a special spot. So I start heading down the mountain and I see a little shortcut trail running through the trees. As I get about half way down the trail I look off to my left and see a full grown female Moose, literally 50 yards from me. I'd prefer to not get

trampled by a spooked moose, so I casually snap a couple of pictures, avoid direct eye contact, and make my way the rest of the way down the trail. The adrenaline rush from my wilderness experience gradually wears off, and I start to think..."Hmmm, a full grown moose out at sunset. I wonder what else might be out here. Bears, perhaps? It seems like every other school out here is named Cougars, or Pumas, or some other euphemism for a mountain lion. I wonder if there are any of those???"

I get a little spooked and decide to high-tail it down the mountain. It's not quite trail running, but it's pretty close, and I don't see another soul until I'm almost back to the lake. Once I make it to the lake I exhale a bit and figure I'm probably not going to die a horrible mountain death at the hand of a wild predator. At least not yet.

I also can't find the trail from the lake. So I start wandering down in the general direction it's supposed to be. I finally realize my only option is to boulder-hop down a pretty steep mountain wall in order to get back on the trail. I don't know where the normal trail was, but let's just say I couldn't find it. Death-defying stunt #2 in the books, I finally sync back up with the trail, and make my way back to the car.

All in all, not a bad way to blow off a little steam after work. With the Mt. Whitney climb coming in 5 days I'm feeling pretty good about things!