Archive for the Video Clips Category

(12.58 miles walked)

Despite going to bed at about 2:00 a.m., after such an awesome night on the town, my internal clock woke me up at 7:00 a.m. on the dot, and I decided I better quickly hop through the shower, since there were only two located on this floor of the hostel for the 20 beds.  I ate the free hostel breakfast in the restaurant next door, and then figured that I better get my bicycle packed so that I could spend the rest of my time in Rome without worrying about it.  I headed back to the Mailboxes, Etc. store where I purchased the cardboard box and packing tape, and tried to ask for something I could use to fill in the spaces around parts in the box.  I was hoping to find some old newspapers, or a roll of butcher paper that I could crumple up to fill up some volume, but the store only had a large roll of bubble-wrap at a price of seven euros per meter, which would have been way too expensive for my needs. Outside the store though, there was a little stand with free real-estate magazines, so I grabbed a stack and headed back to the hostel.

I was able to cut down the sides of the box and re-tape the corners to make the box a little smaller, and then I crumpled the paper until little balls filled all the open spaces. I also wrapped some of my dirty laundry around the bike, since my panniers had been right at the weight limit on the way over, but the bike box had had some extra weight allowance. I put the bike box back in luggage storage, and grabbed my camera to head out for the day of sightseeing.

Roman Column of Light, The Pantheon

Roman Column of Light, The Pantheon

The previous night, I had forgotten to bring my GPS data-logger to geotag my photos, so I brought it with me today, and started the day by retracing my steps to see the same sights in the daylight.  I quickly realized that Rome does not seem to have any public restroom facilities, or at least they were too hidden for my discriminating eyes during the at least fifteen hours I spent wandering the streets. At the height of my need, I stumbled into a McDonald’s but one of their restrooms was out of order, and there were 10 grade-school kids waiting in line ahead of me for the remaining one. I’m not sure what they were doing in there, but after ten minutes of waiting, there were still at least 7 ahead of me, and I decided to give up and keep looking. My search brought me to the metro station across from the Colosseum which also didn’t have any facilities. I will refrain from providing details, but what happened next, we, in science, like to call a “soil percolation test”.

The sun was high in the sky by this time, and beating down with such intensity that I started to worry about having forgotten to put on sunscreen before leaving the hostel in the morning. Despite the heat, which was easily in the mid-70s, I kept my jacket on, to at least protect my arms and to allow the collar to give partial neck protection. I found a great spot in the shade on a grassy ledge over-looking the Colosseum and decided to take an hour break for some people watching, and to listen to the Rick Steves Colosseum walking-tour podcast. I was also able to capture time-lapse photos of the activity in the plaza below, to use for making a pseudo-tilt-shift video.

When I decided to move on, I walked around the Palatino to the Circus Maximus, which was little more than a circular grass field surrounded on all sides by hills and being used by various natives and tourists for a little walking, jogging, and group aerobics. I followed the river north, until I crossed a bridge and made my way to the Vatican, although by this time in the afternoon my feet and legs were starting to get really tired from all of the walking I had been doing, and the sky was starting to get pretty dark. I took a single photo of Vatican square, but just couldn’t get up the motivation to do any more exploring.  I grabbed a cup of gelato while leaving the Vatican and started the two mile walk back towards my hostel. About halfway there, the rain hit, but it wasn’t too bad, and I quickly made my way through the streets to the dry shelter of my hostel’s common room.

Before leaving the hostel in the morning, I had talked to some of the roommates about getting dinner together that evening, and I arrived back at the hostel with about an hour to spare, before our appointed meeting time. When everyone showed up, we walked down the street, checking out restaurant menus and stumbled upon an internet cafe, which was perfect, because I needed to print my boarding pass for the next morning’s flight.  Despite not needing to access the internet at all, since I had my boarding pass saved as a PDF on a usb thumb-drive, the place required that I give them my passport so they could copy down all of my information, which seemed strange and a little disconcerting to me, but there wasn’t any way around it from my questioning, and I had to give in, since my friends were waiting. We ended up choosing a restaurant almost directly across from our hostel.

We wanted to sit at a table outside, on the sidewalk, and they ended up seating the six of us with a man and woman who were closer to finishing their meal. Our table was basically attached to their table, and I felt a little sorry for them that this (comparatively) loud group of people was intruding on their meal and space.  But they seemed nice enough, making jokes with the waiter and members of our party, so hopefully we didn’t disrupt their evening too much.  Although I was eyeing the omelet on the menu, I ended up choosing a pizza with ham and pineapple. This restaurant, like many in Italy, brought us a small basket of bread when we sat down, and we saw in the menu that they were going to charge us a 1.30 euros per person for bread, plus a 12% gratuity, whether we ate the bread of not, so we made sure to eat and enjoy every last scrap of it.

Dinner was all about the sharing of ideas on an international scale, and everyone in our little group was so willing to listen and be respectful even when it was clear that they did not necessarily agree with what was being said. Once again I was amazed at how fluently everyone was communicating in English, despite it not being the primary language for anyone but myself. And yet, I was also lamenting the fact that most people in this world will never get the opportunity to travel and experience cultures other than their own. Our group had been lucky– blessed with enough money and personal freedoms to widen our horizons, and in doing so, we were connecting and sharing in a way that would negate stereotypes.  It was the perfect way to spend my last night of an epic journey.

Sestri Levante to Romito Magra (56.14 lies, 6 hours 21 minutes moving)

The day started off wrongly. After a good night’s sleep and a quick packing of my gear back onto the bike, I decided to check my email quickly before taking off. My cellular modem wouldn’t make a connection, but there were no error messages to tell me where the problem was. I bought the refurbished modem on eBay before my trip, wanting a cheap, unlocked (so I could use a SIM card from any country), and Mac-compatible one, and over the past few days, it hadn’t been working quite as solidly as when I was in Portugal. Sometimes it would need to be plugged into the USB port a few times before the dialer software would recognize it, and now that it wasn’t working at all, I wondered if I had just wasted 25 euros on an internet connection that I wouldn’t be able to use with a broken modem.  There wasn’t much I could do about it though, execpt hope that I’d pass through a town with a Vodafone store during the day’s ride.

What a good thing that I hadn’t tried to continue on to a campsite further down the road the previous night though! From my campsite, the road continued another 9 miles uphill, until I had crossed the 615 meter high Passo del Bracco.  Even with legs freshened by a night’s rest, I struggled to turn the pedals, even in the easiest gear, and became frustrated as my speed dropped from 6 miles per hour down to 3 miles per hour at the steepest portions.  Not having been able to find a good map of Italy to replace the useless one purchased in America, I had not known about or expected this endeavor.  Other cyclists rode past me as if I was standing still, smoothly gliding up the pass on their lightweight carbon-fiber racing bikes, and at that moment, I was actually contemplating just chucking all of my gear and panniers into the woods.  Logic prevailed though, as I don’t have the money to “credit-card” tour from one hotel/B&B/hostel to the next across Europe, and with the exception of a few things, I have been carrying mostly items that are being used, or would be needed in an emergency.

By mid-afternoon, four hours after starting the day, I had only covered about twenty miles. After stopping for a grocery store in the town of Lévanto, I started the climb out of town, once again, and was so very tempted to quit for the day when I saw a road sign pointing the direction to a nearby campsite.  I was heading towards the “Parco Nazionale dell Cinque Terre” which I had heard was one of the most beautiful coastal areas of Italy though, and thought that if I could continue on, the “Cinque Terre”, named for the five hillside towns connected by a remote walking trail, would give me a motivational boost.

Unfortunately, as I have been finding out, some of the most beautiful views do not have  nice flat roads leading up to them, and this road through the park was no exception. It wound back and forth along the cliffs, the road surface towering high above the miniscule towns and shore below. Clouds rolled up the mountainside, enveloping the nearly-deserted section of road in a blanket of nothingness. The air was chilly, but the work of climbing gave me an instant layer of sweat, which soaked my clothes. As I climbed, I found myself pulling so hard on the handlebars for leverage that my palms felt as if they were forming blisters under the pressure and wetness of my cycling gloves. At the top, before each short descent, I found myself having to put on my rain shell to keep my sweat from freezing, and then the process would start again at the beginning of the next climb.

Clouds envelope my world near Riomaggiore, Italy
Clouds envelope my world near Riomaggiore, Italy

The views, from what I was able to make out through the slits and sporadic breaks in the clouds, were magnificent though, and worth the detour off the easier and faster traveling SP1/SS1 road. From above, each of the little towns looked like miniature railway models, attached to the cliffside and retreating backwards along the natural landscape of the coast. The clouds and reduced visibility added an extra jolt of adrenaline as my bicycle sped down the small ribbon of road weaving serpent-like closer to the town center. The white shroud had the effect of removing the distant distractions from the landscape, and allowed me to focus on the details speeding into view around each turn. Upon reaching the town of Volastra, I was greeted with a large banner commemorating the stage 12 (time trial) of the 2009 Giro D’Italia, the famous bicycle race, that had been held on the same route (Sestri Levante to Riomaggiore) that I had just bicycled. To me, it was 60 kilometers of torture, punctuated by moments of joy and awe at the view, but to the pros, it had probably been just another day in Italia. They would celebrate with feasts of food to replenish calories burned, possibly enjoy some wine (or not) and sleep in their team-provided hotels or busses, while i still had to continue almost twenty miles down the road to a campsite.

Thankfully, after I left Cinque Terre, the road was much more flat, and I was finally able to pick up some speed. As I descended into La Spezia, I saw that it seemed to be centered around a large port, with several military warships at dock. I made my way around the port and back out of town (after stopping for a sack of ice at a bar), and the sun set as I was leaving town. I navigated the streets by the light of dusk until arriving at two campsites just before 9:00 pm. The boy standing at the corner didn’t speak English, but seemed to understand my Spanish when I asked which one was better. He pointed at the first and said it was one-star, and the 2nd was two-star. I wheeled my bike into the two-star site, figuring it would have better facilities to recharge my batteries.  Boy was I wrong! The shower/toilet block was the grossest I have encountered on this trip. There was water dripping everywhere on uncleaned floors littered with dirt that had become mud (or at least I hope it was mud!). This was not a place to hang out and write and my cellular internet wasn’t working, so I retreated to my tent, exhausted from the day of climbing, but looking forward to the planned short 36 miles to Pisa and then a rest day after that.

Capmany, Spain to Sigean, France (73.36 miles, 6 hours 49 minutes moving)

I slept terribly overnight, worried about what a stupid mistake I had made, to not secure the cover to my bike in such strong and gusty wind. When it became light, I headed back downwind of my tent and resumed the search for my bag.  I was having no luck, and figured that in the 8 hours it had been gone, it could be halfway to Barcelona, at the rate the wind had been blowing.  As I was heading back to my tent, a dark black shape caught the corner of my eye, and it was the cover!  I triumphantly brought it back to my tent and I was so overjoyed that I had to tell someone.  I walked over to Birre from Holland, whom I had met last night and bragged about my good/bad luck.  I broke camp in a much better mood after a nice hot shower, and despite the fact that it was 10:30 a.m., there was still no activity in the camp’s office.  With no prices listed and no drop box, I was forced to hit the road without paying.

As I rode towards the Pyrenees, I wondered how long the climb would take.  I hadn’t done any real research about which pass to take, and was just going to stick with the N-II road that I had been following yesterday. The wind was still strong and right in my face, making it difficult to climb any faster than about 6-8 miles per hour, but at least the sun was shining, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  This, along with finding my cover,was doing wonders for my mood, as was the hope that I would be leaving my bad luck in Spain when I crossed the border.

I wish I could brag about how tough the pass over the Pyrenees was, but it wasn’t very bad, and was rather anti-climactic. It was just over 10 miles from my campsite to the top, and I was able to ride it in just over an hour. It was certainly much better than my experience the day before. There was no fanfare or confetti or even a little drive up window where you could get your passport stamped. The only visible change was that all of the signs were now in French. I had passed a road sign that said “France 1km” but figured I would get a photo of a sign that said “Welcome to France”, but there wasn’t one to be had.  It’s somewhat funny that in the United States, you get a nice “Welcome to…” sign overtime you pass into new state, but they couldn’t put up a nice one at the border of a completely different country! There were, however, loads upon loads of little touristy shops lining the last couple hundred meters to the top. On the descent down, I didn’t even really have to wear out my breaks, because the head-wind kept my speed at a comfortable 17-22 miles per hour.

When I reached the city of Perpignan, I pulled off at McDonald’s and ordered my first McD’s meal since starting the trip.  I had read online that all of the McDonald’s in France were offering free WiFi internet, and sure enough, they were right!  I quickly tried to catch up on emails that had piled up in the last 36 hours without, but ended up spending more than an hour there. I may become rather friendly with McDonald’s over the next few days…

The Vineyards of France
The Vineyards of France

The rest of the day was spent riding on a mixture of highway shoulders, dedicated bike paths, and small-city streets.  I loved to see the abundance of bike paths, but the design and planning left a lot to be desired for long-distance touring, and after a few miles, I relegated myself back to the roadway.  The paths, despite having a good surface, would take half-mile jaunts away from the path in order to cross perpendicular streets, and it was frustrating for me, not only because of the added distance, but also because the signage along the paths almost never had arrows pointing to upcoming towns, making it difficult to know which way to go when I reached forks or mini-roundabouts.

By 6 p.m., the realization that I had eaten through most of my food supply set in, and I started looking for a supermarket to stock up on bread, yogurt, water, and more sweets like candy bars. The first two times I pulled off the highway, I was unsuccessful, but the third time I found a market, although unfortunately I had to backtrack more than 2 miles to get back on the highway. Nevertheless, I was in good spirits with the knowledge that I had food and water for tonight. I’ve decided that there are perhaps three occasions in the day of a long-distance bicycle tourist when they feel most happy and content. The first is when they do the math and realize that they should reach their stopping point for the night soon, or at least in plenty of time before dark.  The second is when they have just secured all of the remaining food supplies for the following day, and the third is when the tent and campsite are set up and it is time for a nice dinner before bed.

The sun went down when I was still about 2 miles from the campsite, marking the third time that I would be putting up my tent in the dark in as many riding days. The campsite reception closed 40 minutes before I arrived, so I chose a place for my tent and hoped that I wouldn’t have any trouble signing in and paying in the morning.  It was after 9 p.m. when I had my tent up and my possessions inside, leaving only a little bit of time to check my maps for tomorrow, write, and download/tag photos, as has become my nightly routine. Hopefully my good-fortune in France continues!

Tarifa to Granada (30 miles, 3 hours)

I’m not going to lie, I’m not having a good go of it in Spain, and it’s all because of Easter. It’s now been 3, going on 4 days that I haven’t had a cellular Internet connection because no stores are open, and none of the campsites have had free or working wifi. Without the Internet, I can’t check train or bus schedules or get coordinates and information about campsites or hostels down the road.

Today, I rode about 20 miles through Tarifa (saw Africa across the strait of Gibralter) and then on to Algeciras where I hoped to catch a train to Valencia, or at least somewhere that could get me to Valencia. When I got to the station, they told me there was no way to get there today, but I could go to Granada for 20 euros. It would be a pretty draining mountain pass back to Tarifa, so I elected to go the Granada route, figuring that I could probably catch a train from Granada to Valencia on Easter Sunday.

View to Africa Across the Strait of Gibralter
View to Africa Across the Strait of Gibralter

The train tracks from Algeciras to Ronda were closed for repairs so we had to take a bus to Ronda and then get the train to Granada from there. This means I had to take all of the panniers and gear off my bike and place them in my large nylon bike bag, and then fold the bike to store it under the bus. The process went rather smoothly though, and it all arrived in one piece when I transferred to the train. The train passed through some gorgeous countryside and the fields were the brightest shade of green I have ever seen in my life. Add to that the mountainous backdrop, and you have panoramic vistas which can’t be accurately captured from the window of a moving train car. I tried nonetheless.

When I got to Granada though, the sun was just setting and it was still another 4 miles to the closest campsite. At the train station ticket counter, they told me the trains to Valencia were full both Easter Sunday and on Monday, and they suggested I check the bus station the next day. I couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck in Granada, not putting some miles in on the bike for two more days and wasting another day after that on travel.

Sunset Station, Granada
Sunset Station, Granada

There was a grocery store across the street from the train station that was still open for another 10 minutes, so I hurried through, trying to buy enough food to last until Monday, since I knew it would be an issue finding anything on Easter. Unfortunately I forgot bread, and I had already annoyed the checker when I hadn’t weighed and put prices on my fruit at the fruit aisle, like I was supposed to. I didn’t want to have to relock my bike and show my face again, so I forged on. By now it was completely dark, I didn’t have my hi-visibility green reflective vest to wear, because somehow it fell off my rack the day I arrived in Spain (foreshadowing of the time I was to have?), and I had to rely on my three flashing lights and reflective patches on my bags.

Many of the streets were barricaded and closed to vehicle traffic and there were hoards of people enjoying the cool spring air. I was not enjoying it. Once again, I only had maybe an hour of gps battery life to get me to somewhere to sleep, and “Nigel” kept leading me astray at almost every turn.   I really hate trying to navigate and bike in the cities. It’s so unsatisfying, because you keep having to stop and don’t cover any distance quickly, there are never good street signs to know where you are, and I end up having to u-turn every few blocks because the GPS sucks. I could try navigating by city map, but it’s much more difficult to follow and read quickly at bike speed compared to pedestrian speed.

I tried a few hostels as I passed through town, but they were all full. It was 10:30 p.m. when I finally arrived at the campsite in Zubil, 4 miles south of town. They showed me to a spot that looked like concrete in the light of my headlamp so I set up my tent without the stakes that hold the rainfly away from the tent, and prayed that we wouldn’t get rain. Once again, no wifi. I read my online bike research that I’d already downloaded to my laptop and found out that the roads out of Granada to Baza didn’t even allow bicycles, nixing my idea of at least getting out of town on the bike.

I awoke at 4:44 a.m. to the pitter-patter of rain on my tent. Ugh! I just wanted to scream and cry and go back home, where I knew where I’d sleep each night, had a fridge for food and could buy a week’s worth at a time, and could get information from the Internet anytime I wanted. I was reaching the breaking point with frustration and sadness.

El Puerto de Santa Maria to Tarifa (71 miles, 6 hours and 16 minutes moving)

I got up at 8:30 a.m., showered, packed up camp, and set my GPS to direct me to “The Phone House” in El Puerto de Santa Maria.  When I reached the “centro”, the streets were packed with people, and I found myself in the midst of a parade, complete with shrouded and hooded “Ku Klux Klan”-costumed people. To my dismay, it must be Good Friday, which I will forever have to refer to as “Bad Friday”.  Most of the stores and supermarkets in town were closed, including the cell phone store. I had to bike out of town, stopping at a gas station to pick up some more junk food since my food supplies had been completely exhausted the previous day.  I was kicking myself for not finding out exactly when Easter was and making plans accordingly in the food and internet-access areas.  I could have purchased a SIM for my phone at a kiosk in the Seville train station, but I figured the “Phone House” people would be more knowledgeable about the available pre-paid wireless internet plans available, and figured I could wait another day at the latest.  But now I was completely out of luck, not having been able to let my family know that I had made it safely into Spain.  The only thing I could do was hope that the campsite in Tarifa would have internet like their website had said.

It was a long day of biking.  Finally I passed through a town with an open supermarket!  I locked up my bike outside in the shade and headed in to buy two large rolls of bread, three bananas, two apples, two cheese wheels and some slices of Gouda, four yogurts, and a can of Pepsi!  My whole stash should last me at least two to three meals and cost just under 10 euros, and I was happy that I had finally gotten a good break for the day.  I packed my purchases on the bike and downed the Pepsi and two yogurts, but had to hit the road because I had a lot more miles to cover today.

At the 34 mile point, there was a long and hard climb up to the town of Vejer de la Frontera. The view of the Spanish plains from the top was worth it, and the town itself looked like a great little place for a vacation, with lots of hotels, restaurants, and a beautiful fountain in the center of town.  One woman approached me and asked where I was from and if she could take a photo of me.  She was curious about the solar panel I had strapped over my rear panniers, and was the second person today to ask about it.  After she took my photo, I gave her my camera, and her friends crowded around to join me in the photo!

New Friends...
New Friends…

Leaving town, there was a descent that was at least twice as steep as the ascent, with a portion that was a 10% grade. I was worried that I was going to burn off all of my brake pads, and I was back at the bottom in a few minutes when the ascent had taken me 35 minutes. How quickly my altitude gain had been erased, with only my mental photos and the few actual photos I had taken on my camera to remember it by.

Around 3-4 p.m. I pulled off the road into the shade of an abandoned gas station and had half of one of the huge rolls with some slices of Gouda, and it was just that- “Gouda!” Delicioso. No matter how many calories I took in today, they probably wouldn’t be enough. At the 50 mile point my pace slowed a bit as I had to turn into a headwind and started to reach some long slow climbs.  The scenery was filled with rich greens underneath a blue, cloudless sky, and there was a valley that was absolutely filled to the brim with spinning windmills.  The two-lane road that I was traveling had a nice shoulder for me to ride on, but the last twenty miles to the campsite was tough.  Finally I came over  the last ridge and could see the ocean and Africa in front of me!  When I checked into the campsite, I found out that it would cost me 15 euros for the night, the most expensive camping fee that I’ve paid yet, and I think it was inflated because of the holiday.  I found the campsite’s open wireless signal with my iPhone and was excited to be able to finally send word home of my safety, but no connection to the internet could be established.  The woman at the front desk told me that their wireless internet wasn’t working because they had been fixing their phone line.  Ugh. What a perfect end to “Bad Friday”.

Setubal to Porto Covo (67 miles, 5 hours 55 minutes moving)

I’ll be brief in my narrative for this day.  The stupid Garmin GPS turned off without my knowledge, and I found myself way inland on the wrong road.  I had to ride for about five miles on the shoulder of a 4-lane interstate to get back on the coastal road, and added about 10 miles to what was already going to be a long day of riding. Thankfully the view of the ocean was beautiful as I arrived in Porto Covo, and I can see why there are so many surfing schools in the region.  The waves are huge! I’d estimate at least 10 footers from what I saw.

Sunset in Porto Covo

Sunset in Porto Covo

I got to the campsite just before sunset, and after setting up the tent I went back to the reception office to sit and perform my daily photo-downloading/tagging/device-recharging ritual.  I had quite a fright though when I plugged in my short power extension cord and there was a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and the circuit breaker in the office tripped, turning off the lights and radio.  There was black char on my 3-to-1 outlet splitter, and the only thing I could figure out was that the 220V current had blown the little LED light bulb in the end of the short extension cord.  Closer inspection of the cord reveled that it was for 120V power, although I’m not sure why it didn’t happen in the previous four days I’ve been using it to plug in my devices.  Thankfully I hadn’t plugged in any of my actual electronics when I plugged in the cable, so everything else was fine and we flipped the circuit breaker and got back to work.

(20 miles, 1 hour 55 minutes moving)

I took advantage of the big breakfast again this morning, this time talking to the pilots I had met last night, and two German girls, one of whom had absolutely amazing English.  When I complimented her on her “awesome English”, she quipped back “You too!” I hope that my English is good after nearly 28 years of practice…

When I got to the ferry terminal and tried to purchase a ticket, they told me that I was at the wrong terminal and I needed to go about a kilometer up the road.  This confused me because I really thought that the research I had done on the internet the night before had told me the name of the right terminal.  Apparently I can’t read Portuguese even a little bit.

I biked to the other terminal up the road, bought a ticket, and decided that I also better hit the ATM in case it was a while before I’d come across one again.  As soon as I finished my transaction, I started hearing bells and horns ringing and I realized that my boat was getting ready to leave, with or without me!  I quickly walked/ran my bike up the gangway and got onboard just in the nick of time. It was a quick trip across the river on this catamaran-style ferry and when we reached the other side, it began pouring rain.  This was exactly how I dreamed my first real day on the road of my European bicycle adventure would start out.  I propped my bike under the awning and began the process of putting on my rain jacket and pants, and my water-proof shoe covers in place, and then made sure that the garbage bag “rain cover” for my shoulder bag was securely fastened in place.  I finally figured out how to get the shoulder back attached to the rack with a carabiner holding it tight to the seat-post bag and it felt much more secure (and much better to not have the heavy bag on my back).

I decided that I’m going to have to brave the rain somedays, and it might as well be now, and I was off. The route for the day was pretty easy and I started to get pretty good at navigating the roundabouts. It was only about 20 miles total to Setubal, where I was going to spend my first night camping.  It was raining when I arrived at the campsite and I started setting up my tent on the beach side, but the camp attendant came out and told me there was a chance of strong winds tonight, so he suggested I move to a nice grassy area with a picnic table behind the reception office. I had to wait about five minutes for a break in the rain and then I made a beeline for the spot.

Beach at Setubal

Beach at Setubal

I had the tent up and the bike folded, locked to the picnic table and covered pretty quickly and then I went into the reception area to plug in my laptop and charge my other various batteries. The campsite attendant was so nice that he ran an extension cord out to my picnic table so I could move out there, without my even asking, and for no extra charge!  It got dark at about 7:30 pm and without any more light than my headlamp, I decided to go to bed early. It rained a few times overnight, but my tent kept me dry, and I slept for almost 12 hours!

I stood outside for 40 minutes, at 10:00 pm, after sleeping for only an hour earlier in the evening, hoping that they hadn’t forgotten me. I was about to embark on what might be considered one of my most anticipated Guatemalan adventures, and if the minibus somehow forgot to pick me up and left town without me, I would have been devastated.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I finally saw its headlights bouncing down my street and they pulled up alongside the gate. But I should probably go back to the real beginning of the story.

A few weeks before coming to Guatemala, I was thumbing through a guide book, and checking out internet sites, looking for things to do on the weekends when I wasn’t in clinic or in class.  One website for an expedition company called “Quetzaltrekkers”, detailed a two-day trip to climb the volcano, Tajumulco, which has the distinguished honor of being the highest volcano or mountain in Central America, and with a peak of 13,845 feet above sea level, the 24th tallest in the world.  I had never climbed a mountain before, although I had flirted with the idea of climbing Mt. Mitchell (the tallest mountain East of the Mississippi in the United states) in North Carolina last fall, but my plans had fallen through.

And so, I knew that I needed to make time for an excursion to Tajumulco during my short four weeks in Guatemala. A week and a half ago, I climbed Santa Maria, a Volcano outside of Xela which is a little over a 1,500 feet shorter, but has a much steeper slope, and boy did I struggle with that climb. I vowed that I would try not to make some of the same mistakes in preparation again.  Although my family still isn’t packing me a lunch to take to school, I made sure to “top off the tank” with extra calories on the Friday and Saturday before the climb.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and showered, and my host mom made me a breakfast of eggs, beans, and tortilla, which I ate in entirety.  I retreated to my room to do some reading and writing, and about an hour and a half later at about 9:45, there was a knock on my door and I peaked out to see that the elderly lady in the house had made me breakfast.  I tried to explain to her that I had already had breakfast that morning, just a little over an hour prior, but I wasn’t seeing that flicker of understanding on her face, and decided that it would probably be easier to just eat “deysayuno dos”. Unfortunately, just as I was finishing the meal, the host mother came home and saw me eating it, and I’m not sure she was entirely happy. I would probably feel worse if I was getting anywhere near close to the three meals per day for which I am paying and which are required by my school’s home-stay arrangements.

After my second breakfast, I took a dose of acetazolamide, which is a medicine that is supposed to help stave off acute mountain sickness and altitude sickness.  The symptoms include headache and dizziness, and I was hoping that the medicine would keep me symptom-free during my day of climbing, since the only cure for the symptoms is to get down off the mountain.  I didn’t want to have to do that before reaching the top!  Unfortunately, now that I’ve taken acetazolamide a few times, I’ve found out that I don’t really like the way it makes me feel. It actually gives me a bit of a headache, and makes me feel like the skin on my face is being stretched more tightly (which sounds weird, I know), and I think I will try and refrain from taking it in the future.

I did some more reading and writing, and in mid-afternoon I headed to the “paiz” or mall to get some supplies at the grocery store. I picked up bananas, “Granada” chocolate bars, which are inexpensive at about 10Q for four, compared to the 8.75Q I paid for a genuine Snickers bar, and two pieces of white cake with frosting, which I had been craving for at least a week! I also got a 1.5L bottle of water to fill my backpack’s water bladder, so I could stay well hydrated during the hike.

I finally tried to go to sleep at about 8:30pm on Saturday evening, but set my alarm for 9:50pm so I would have time to get dressed and be ready for the van.  After waiting outside for about 20 minutes, I was starting to get scared that they had forgotten about me, but it turns out they got a late start at the school because another student had fallen asleep and didn’t show up for. Unfortunately, no one knew his phone number or where he lived, so he was left behind.

We finally left Xela by about 10:50pm, and started the twisty drive northwest to Tajumulco. I wanted to try and sleep, but I was too excited, so instead I chatted with my fellow student hikers and gawked at the deserted, sleeping towns we passed through on the way. When we finally arrived at the start of the hike, our guide, Mynor, handed us little containers of breakfast to put in our packs for after the summit, and made sure that we had our water bottles filled.  We started hiking at about 1:30am at an elevation of 9,990 feet.  We had to hike about a mile and a half at a gradual uphill slope before reaching “Tajumulco proper”, and one of the students was sick with an upset stomach, so we didn’t cover the distance as quickly as we otherwise would.  We had to take frequent breaks to regroup, and during those breaks, we marveled at how full of stars the sky was. We picked out some constellations like the Big Dipper and Orion, and I was absolutely ecstatic to see the Southern Cross, low on the horizon! It was the first time I have seen it since I was traveling in Australia six years ago! We also saw some absolutely brilliant shooting stars, or lluvia estrellas (raining stars) en español, according to Mynor.  A few were quick streaks of light, but two or three seemed to just hang in the air.  I saw at least six shooting stars during the course of the night, so my wish jar is plenty full now– I just hope some of them come true!

After an hour of walking, Mynor said that we were only about one-tenth of the way to the top, and we started to worry that at that pace we wouldn’t reach the summit in time for sunrise, which would take place at approximately 6:27am.  Two hours in, we had reached the mountain, but the trail was difficult to follow, even with our headlamps, and we lost it a few times.  Our guide had to stay with the student who was struggling, but we had almost reached a point where we should have been able to reach the summit without him, so he gave me some instructions, which I am paraphrasing in English.  “Go straight up the trail in front of you, without going right or left.  You’ll come to a ridge where you can see the lights of San Marcos on the other side of the mountain, and then follow that ridge until you see a shack that has been blown down by the wind. Near there you should see the field where Quetzaltrekkers camps for the night, and at that point they should be starting to make the final push for the summit, so you can follow them. Call me on your cell phone ever 15 minutes to check in.”  It sounded easy enough, but I could tell that we were a little weary about leaving our guide on this dark and cold mountain. I marked his position using my iPhone’s GPS, and also pulled out my magnetic compass to try and get a directional bearing that we should try and follow up the mountain to the ridge.  Because none of us had ever traveled the trail before, or even knew the main features of the mountain, we were certainly “navigating in the dark”.

And so, the four of us students set off. The directional bearing we had gotten for the compass was a little too easterly, and we soon found ourselves completely off the trail, and scrambling straight up the side of the slope.  We were pulling ourselves up three-foot drop-offs, slipping and sliding on loose dirt and rock, and realizing that the easy hike had turned into anything but.  At some point during our scramble, we had yelled down to Mynor that we were no longer on anything resembling a trail, so he scurried after us, reaching the ridge a few minutes later.  He was surprised to see that our little shortcut had saved us about 15 minutes. He left to go back down to the sick student and a few minutes later we received a call from her, telling us that she had heard Mynor yelling for her, but that the yelling had stopped, and she didn’t have Mynor’s phone number to tell him.  By this time, the cold wind whipping across the ridge was starting to freeze the sweat on our clothes, and since we weren’t moving, we were getting cold.  We took shelter a few meters off the ridge on the leeward side while we played a little game of telephone until Mynor had found the student and we were given permission to continue the hike.

From here until the final climb to the summit, the trail had rocks and logs that were spray-painted with blue paint every twenty to fifty meters, but even so, we ended up getting about 20 meters to the right of the trail at one point.  We were demonstrating how easy it would be to get completely lost on the dark mountain at night. At about 5:00am, we started to see the headlamps of other climbers higher up on the mountain, and we knew we were generally heading in the right direction, and by 5:30am, we had reached the campsite. Dawn was to start at 6:07am, and we tried to kick our ascent into high-gear in order to make the summit by then!  The last twenty minutes of climbing cut through a decently steep field of small boulders and rocks, and we found ourselves using both arms and legs to successfully navigate the path and pull ourselves up to the next step.

The Last Bit (During daylight)

We were starting to pass some of the other climbers with Quetzaltrekkers, as they were weighed down with packs and sleeping bags, and with about 300 meters to go, I said “Hola” and “¿Como estás?” to one of the girls I was passing. She greeted me back, and on a whim, I asked “De donde eres”, and she replied “Los Estados Unidos– Iowa”.  I immediately broke into English and told her incredulously that I was also from Iowa!  What a small world, and what are the chances that one of the two people I randomly talked to out of possibly ten to fifteen that I passed on the final climb, would come from Iowa? And to top it off, she was actually from Cedar Rapids, a town which is only twenty-five minutes from Iowa City, where I currently reside.  We chatted a bit more and I found out that she was currently living in Guatemala City, teaching fourth grade. I didn’t get her name, but I hope she had a safe trip back down the mountain and to Guatemala City.

One of the Quetzaltrekkers guides gave me a high-five as we reached the summit, and I quickly set to work getting my camera equipment set up to capture some photos and video.  The wind was blowing at least 20 mph, and it was freezing on the summit.  I forgot to bring my little keychain thermometer, but it definitely felt colder than the summit of Santa Maria.

I set my small point-and-shoot on a mini-tripod on the highest rock I could find, and started it taking a photo every ten seconds, with the plan of combining all of the images into a time-lapse high-definition video. (See the video at the bottom of this post!) Once that was running, I started capturing some beautiful images of dawn and sunrise with my Nikon D200 DSLR.

Renewed Spirit

I wanted to get at least 300 time-lapse images, so I ended up staying on the summit longer than anyone else (my first time-lapse image was captured at 6;09 and the last at 7:09).  While I was just enjoying the view, and waiting for the time-lapse to finish, I started talking to another guy who turned out to be a guide for Quetzaltrekkers, and he told me that he had done this 182 times, and it still gives him a renewed sense of spirit and a high!  What a job that would be, to encourage and help people conquer their demons and “reach new heights”.

 360 degrees of Tajumulco

When I was finally able to pack up my camera equipment, I could barely feel my fingers and toes, except for the dull pain signals they were sending to my brain.  I thought back to the hypothermia and frostbite lectures we just received last month during my ER rotation and hoped that I wasn’t doing permanent damage. (Don’t worry, Mom- everything is good!)  I made my way back down through the rock-field and found the rest of my group lounging on some boulders, enjoying the warming rays of the sun while taking in the delicious blue sky and green foliage after just having finished eating breakfast.  I didn’t want to keep them waiting for me to eat, so we started the descent. The distance from the peak to where we parked our van is just over three miles “as the crow flies” with a vertical difference of nearly 4000 feet, according to the GPS, but with all of the twists and turns on the trail, we would be hiking much more.  Thankfully it was pretty easy-going except for a few sections that had very loose terrain which caused everyone to fall on their butts at least one or two times.  The mountain offered gorgeous vistas in every direction as we hiked down, and I was in heaven.

 After the Summit

When we reached the section of trail below the ridge that we had scaled the night before, we all had a good laugh for probably five minutes about how far off the trail our shortcut had taken us, and how much harder (albeit faster) we had made the endeavor.  It took us about three hours total to make our descent, although when we were about halfway down, we stopped again to enjoy the sun and the view for a good thirty minutes. I took that opportunity to eat my breakfast surprise, which was a mouth-watering mix of yogurt, granola, bananas, apples, and raisins, and it was an absolutely perfect meal for the morning!  The rest of the hike was uneventful, and we stopped about a half mile from the van at a place where we could take a group photo with Tajumulco in the background.  All in all, it was an amazing experience, and I was very happy that I didn’t struggle and become as tired as I had during the Santa Maria climb.

Most of us fell asleep during the two hour ride home, waking up for the occasional leg cramp, or the ever-present Guatemalan speed-bumps, although I think we all had earned it!

Last night was the 107th annual Carver College of Medicine Aesculapian Frolics. The competition brought an even higher level of quality than previous years, and the Class of 2010 winning streak was ended, much to our chagrin, but to the delight of all other classes. The Class of 2010 (joined by a PA2) did manage to bring home the awards of “Best Band”(3rd year running) and “2nd Place Overall” There was an amazing amount of talent showcased on the Englert stage.

It was difficult this year to work around the schedules of our classmates, many of whom were on away rotations outside of Iowa City. But our show came together, due to the hard work of so many people, and the audience was treated to corny jokes, bright costumes, men in leotards, and even a few tears.

Here’s a QuickTime video of our 36 minute show, for your viewing pleasure. It’s a pretty large streaming download (111 MB), so it may take a little time before you can see the whole thing. If you think you may want to watch the video more than once, please consider using the link below and downloading it, rather than re-downloading it and viewing it in this web page each time.

To download this video for your computer or iPod/iPhone, right click this download link and choose “Save target as…” or “Download linked file…”.


New World
A new dawn brings this ward to motion
A new sun starts to light the sky
My secret’s concealed in my white coat
I can fly, I can fly

It’s this one morning
The morning before it all becomes clear
And on this one morning
We’re soon to receive the page of the year.
Just a split-second
And just when it’s time for me to impress
The end is in range
And my tal-ent will show

And Oh- another life’s in danger
Below- disease’s evil hand
And We didn’t know
That the M-threes would have so
‘Many lectures to attend
But we will defend
It’s our new world

I met a patient with chills
Slept three hours at most
You choose a calling you’re sure to achieve in
You think you’re on the right track
You reach the start of your life
You have the future in hand

But then a mistake hits
And the truth closes in
Then you realize you didn’t know anything
Nobody told you the best place to hide
When the day starts to blow

And oh- another life’s in danger.
All of a sudden
And things aren’t going as you planned
And you’ll have to stay ‘til your patient feels okay
‘Til you’re sure of what will be
Then you’re fine’ly free

A new dad watches on with wonder
A babe’s cry pierces through the air
A new world just around the corner
We prepare, in our lair

A he-ro- can’t escape the sirens
Ev’ry he-ro, hears your secret plea
M-4 year closer every moment
Wait and see, wait and see!

Oops, I did it again!
I think I did it again.
I broke sterile field.
I cut the wrong end.
Oh baby, I feel like I’m all thumbs.
With so little sleep, I’m delirious.
And to pass out while scrubbed in
That is just so classic M3.
Oh, baby; baby.

… I did it again.
I cut it too long,
Zoned out in the case.
Oh, baby; baby.
Doctors think I am dumb,
But I’ll never give up.
I’m not incompetent.

You see my problem is this:
I feel like a waste;
Wishing that I had a purpose and fit.
I cry standing all day
To hold back the pannus
Or support a leg.
And to stutter while rounding
That is just so classic M3.
Baby, oh.

… I did it again.
I cut it too long,
Zoned out in the case.
Oh, baby; baby.
Doctors think I am dumb,
But I’ll never give up.
I’m not incompetent.

Teach me or leave me
Every single day, I show up early. Round on patients still sleeping, so sweet. Ever since beginning, I report perfectly. Labs, Is, Os, and vitals, la-dy.
So be kind and enrich my mind. Please remember, I’m just an M3.

Take me for what I am, who I am meant to be.
And if you give a damn, teach me, lady, or leave me.

Teach me lady, or leave me. A resident at work, can rarely see the sun. I don’t mean to be a jerk, ladies. It’s not fun! I’ve got so much to do. Soon you’ll all be in my shoes. Then you’ll see that I’m not cruel, young ladies. Use this time to study and unwind, ‘cause as an intern your candle will burn at both ends, ladies.

Take me for what I am, who I am meant to be.
And if you give a damn, take me ladies, or leave me.

No way can I learn if not taught.
And, hey, don’t you want us to rock!
Don’t whine. Don’t get upset. Would you rather be on call or in bed? Call? Or home in bed? Calm down ladies.

I want work. I never ever weep. Study daily with discipline. I make rounds without sleep. Lady, what’s my sin? Never quit, I follow through. I take notes ‘cause I love to. What to do if I am confused, lady?
I’m a prize – I work hard and I’m wise, but I need a guide, I’ll stay by your side, to learn what you’ll teach me.

Take me for what I am, who I am meant to be.
And if you give a damn, teach me, lady, or leave me.

That’s it.
The straw that breaks my back.
I quit!
But then you’ll never pass.
Clerkships! What is it about them? Can’t learn with them or without them.

Take me for what I am.
Who I am meant to be.
(Who I am meant to be.) And if you give a damn
(and if you give a damn then, lady).
Teach me lady. Teach me or l-l-l-leave me.
Take me lady, or leave me.
I’m not leaving.
Come on!

Put a Nuva-Ring in it
All the single ladies.
All the single ladies. (All the single ladies.)
All the single ladies. (All the single ladies.)
All the single ladies. (All the single ladies.)
All the single ladies. (All the single ladies.)

You’re growin’ up, actin’ tough, ready for the birds and the bees.
Some take the pill, take it willy-nill. They could care less what I think
The Nuva Ring stays in three weeks, don’t pay it any attention.
It’s safe, and it works, prevents unwanted births. Use a condom to prevent STDs.

If you like him, you should put a Nuva-Ring in it.
If you like him, you should put a Nuva-Ring in it.
Be prepared, so you don’t have a kid from it.
If you like him, you should put a Nuva-Ring in it.

O-o-oh. O-o-oh. O-o-oh, wo-o-oh.
O-o-oh. O-o-oh. O-o-oh, wo-o-oh.

If you like him, you should put a Nuva-Ring in it.
If you like him, you should put a Nuva-Ring in it.
Be prepared, so you don’t have a kid from it.
If you like him, you should put a Nuva-Ring in it

Kung Fu Fighting/Future Finding

Everybody was future finding.
Fighting disease and dying.
At the time it was a little bit fright’ning.
But the faculty kept us trying.

We were confused what to do and confused what to be
Confidence was building up. And skills developing.
In the allopathic arts, everybody learned their part.
Orthopedics to OB, medicine to surgery.

Everybody was future finding.
Fighting disease and dying.
At the time it was a little bit fright’ning.
But the faculty kept us trying.

I’ve got superhuman strength – retract for days on end
I can cut through the big stuff. Let’s get it on!
No faster scalpels in the land, than my flying metal hands.
A bleeding patient’s on the list? Get hemostasis from wrists!

Everybody was future finding.
Fighting disease and dying.
At the time it was a little bit fright’ning.
But the faculty kept us trying.
Oh yeah.

Oh-o-o-oooooh. Peds!
Oh-o-o-oooooh. Cards!
Oh-o-o-oooooh. Surg!
Oh-o-o-oooooh. Gyn!
(Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on.)

Everybody was future finding.
Fighting disease and dying.
At the time it was a little bit fright’ning.
Make sure that you keep on trying.

Future finding. Fighting disease and dying.

Bui Doi
This poor young boy
Now ends his strife
We bid farewell
And mourne his life
He’s the misgiving reminder
Of all the good we failed to do
We can’t forget
Must not forget
That they are all
Our patients too

Like all physicians, I once thought
When they’re gone I won’t shed a tear
But now I know I’m wrong
I’m so naïve of my fear

Life isn’t over when it ends
The faces never leave your mind
They are the mem’ries of the patients
Whose lives we intertwined

This poor young boy
Now ends his strife
We bid farewell
And mourne his life
He’s the misgiving reminder
Of all the good we failed to do
That’s why we learn
Study our arts
‘Cause they are all
Our patients too

I must not let them see me cry
To let the tears flow down my face
Emotions trapped inside
They’ll never be re-placed

I never dreamed I’d see such need
And futures looking so forlorn
But then I saw a ward of patients
Who made me feel reborn

This poor young boy
Now ends his strife
We bid farewell
And mourne his life
We search for meaning, trust in science –
We’re learning things we never knew
Because we know
Deep in our hearts
That they are all
Our patients too

These are souls in need
We have much to give
Mark our words today
Just one chance to live
Help me try

This poor young boy
Now ends his strife
It’s not farewell
He changed our lives
He’s the unliving reminder
Of all the good we want to do
That’s why we know (That’s why we know)
Deep in our hearts (Deep in our hearts)
That’s why we know
That they are all
Our patients too

It’s that time of year again… Nope, I’m not talking about the time of year when you break out the long-underwear so vital organs don’t freeze and fall off in the short walk between your car and a building. Today was the Mr. Iowa Medicine Pageant, in the MERF atrium. Devin Smith, last year’s Mr. Iowa Medicine (MIM) 2007, was kind enough to invite me to join him in my role as MIM 2006. for a little performance to close the show. As luck would have it, Jeff Beck, MIM 2005, was actually in town, so he brought his voice and stage presence/energy into the mix, and special guest Jen Lowry, an M3 friend of mine lent her sweet violin skills to our group!

Also, congratulations to my brother, Neil, who competed in this year’s pageant, and he definitely showed the Carroll spirit with his DDR-playing Wookie talent!

iPhone Video Link