China Part 2: Zhangjiajie

After a week and a half of exploring the major Chinese metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, it was time to head deep into Hunan Province for a taste of real China and its natural beauty.  We caught a flight from Shanghai to Changsha and met up with our tour group, which would guide our every minute for the next 6 days through Hunan Province.

 

On the way into Changsha, a city being rapidly built and supposedly soon to have the world's tallest building.

On the way into Changsha, a city being rapidly built and supposedly soon to have the world’s tallest building.

At this point, a description of Chinese tour groups is in order.  Our first taste had been in Beijing where Donna, Diane, and myself toured the Forbidden City & Great Wall and it turns out that the tour in Hunan would be like that but on steroids.  In China it seems like everybody tours everyplace in these organized tour groups, and for us there would be no exception thanks to Jenny organizing everything for the rest of us.  Wherever we went in touristy places in China we’d see a guide gingerly leading a large group of usually-but-not-always Chinese people around; you could spot a tour group from afar because the guide would hold up high a colored flag so that their flock can easily spot them.   When you’re on a tour, you have absolutely no say in what the activities are as the guides stick to a strict schedule and don’t seem to understand the meaning of “I don’t want to do that”.  My take on this is that in China people are less argumentative of authority, which makes sense given their political upbringing. The days would be long: you’re woken up from your slumber around 6:30 by a wake-up call pre-ordered to your room and then you’d get ready, eat breakfast and be off and onto the bus by 8am.  Then the many activities would then begin and they really pack a lot into each day, usually visiting 2 or 3 different sights or shows, and of course also including some “shopping”….

 

Life on a tour bus

Life on a tour bus

What do I mean by “shopping”?  Well, one good thing about these organized tours is that they are cheap.  Our Hunan tour included 6 nights of upscale hotel stays, 3 meals per day, entrance to all activities, plus the bus — all for $600.**  The key to the low price is “shopping”, by which I mean that about one-third to one-half of your time will be spent going to activities that are really glorified sales presentations where they hope you will drop $$ on whatever it is they are talking about.  We went to: a massage house where they rubbed our feet and tried to sell us various reflexology products, a tea house where they tried to sell us tea for 10x the price you could get it in a store for, a silk place where they showed us how silkworms make silk and then tried to sell us bedding, and a couple of places with awesome but expensive jade and pearl jewelry.  The tour guide gets a 4% commission of everything you buy, which is actually his primary form of compensation — and in our tour some of the older Chinese-Americans went bananas and spent thousands of dollars, so I am confident our guide did well!  To illustrate how important the shopping prsentations are to the whole operation: one time I hid in the bus because I didn’t want to go to a tea presentation and the guide flipped out on Donna and Mom when he realized I was gone because the vendors do strict head counts to ensure everyone they hope to sell to is present!  All that being said, the presentations are actually fairly informative nice and the products are high quality and in many cases, like the silk bedding, much cheaper than you’d be able to find in the West.

 

The ladies furiously negotiating pearl and jade prices with the store operator

The ladies furiously negotiating pearl and jade prices with the store operator

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Donna checks out a necklace and earrings while I do what I did during most of the shopping experiences

 

** The shadiest part of the whole operation was that originally the price was $350, and once we were all on the bus for 4 hours on the first day, heading to Zhangjiajie, the tour guide informed us that to do “all” the activities, we’d have to cough up an extra $250, otherwise we’d be left out and forced to wait in the bus.  And obviously these were the more desirable activities, not the shopping!  People were pissed, including myself and many of the other tour patrons; it felt like a total bait-and-switch and I simply wasn’t going to let myself be screwed by some shady Chinese tour guide.  But in the end, Jenny’s cooler head prevailed and she paid the additional money for Donna and I, correctly reasoning that this was likely the only time we’d be in Zhangjiajie and we should make the most of it.  And the reality is, even after paying the extra $250 it was still a good deal when you consider the overall price of $600 was completely all-inclusive.

 

In the end the tour in Hunan was awesome and worth it.  Sure there were gruellingly long days, a shady bait-and-switch sales tactic, tons of forced shopping presentations, 3 meals a day of the-same-every-time Chinese food that left me not really wanting any more Chinese food, and a general feeling that you had no control over your schedule.  Also the tour guide spoke entirely in Mandarin so my Mom and I couldn’t understand a lick, but fortunately we had Donna and Jenny to translate for us.  But despite these gripes, looking back I realize I never would’ve been able to so many great Chinese places and pack so much into so little time,  especially in a country like China where a laowai like myself is a lost guppy.  As the following photos will demonstrate, we saw many amazing places and took in real Chinese culture.   Organized Chinese tours may not the way I prefer to travel, but like they say, when in Rome do as the Romans do, and in this case we “did China” like the Chinese do, and it was a great time!

 

So, on to the fun part, where we went and what we saw…

 

Changsha

 

We flew into Changsha and stayed in a nice hotel in the area.  There is nothing too awesome about Changsha, its just a big, rapidly developing city.

 

Fenghuang, aka “Phoenix”

 

The next day we made a long bus ride to Fenghuang, arriving around dusk.  The drive there was interesting because for much of of it we were on small roads and were able to see a more rural version of China.  I was impressed with how clean and advanced the Chinese way of life seemed; I guess I was expecting everything to look more poor as it does, for example, in rural Latin America.

 

Fenghuang is an ancient city built along a river on the western side of Hunan Province.  At night, which is when we explored the waterfront, all the buildings are lit up and the city comes alive.  Jenny, Donna, Mom and myself cruised around on a Friday night, checking out the shops, enjoying a drink, and taking photos of the cityscape.

 

Zhangjiajie, aka “Avatar-land”

 

The next morning we got back on the bus and headed east to Zhangjiajie.  When speaking to friends about what this place is, I would tell them I am going to “Avatar-land” because the National Park that we would be visiting there has unique limestone formations that inspired the “infamous floating islands of Pandora” in the movie Avatar.

 

There were 3 main areas in the National Park that we would visit.  The first was Tianmen Mountain, which accessible via a long gondala ride directly from the city of Zhangjiajie.  At the top of the mountain we were able to walk around the mountain via a glass bottom walkway and then we descended to check out the famous Tianmen Arch, which is so big that the Chinese version of the Blue Angels (not sure what they’re actually called) have flown in formation through the arch!  We descended back down via a windy road that I kept thinking about how fun it would be to race a Porsche up.

 

The next day we checked out other parts of Zhangjiajie National Park.  The first was Baofeng Lake, where we did a short hike that led us to a cool boat ride on a the lake surrounded by the classic limetsone mountains.  After that the second spot we went was called the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.  First we took another gondola to the top where we could view the epic limestone formations from the top.  The weather was somewhat foggy which was kind of a bummer for the sightseeing, but it was still amazing.  Then we took a bus to another area where we could view more and more of the formations.  I felt like a Navi walking around the floating world!

 

There were a few additional attractions we saw on our tour of Zhangjiajie.  The Yellow Dragon Cave was a cool walking tour where huge stalagtites and slagmites were lit up in fluorescently colored lights.  Also we saw a show at the Xiangxi Theatre that featured short performances with themes from various subcultures in Hunan Province. An interesting point about Hunan Province is that it’s where most of the Chinese minorities live today. And of course we went to various shopping outlets, where the ladies were stoked on buying pearl necklaces and pieces of exquisite jade.  At an art boutique Donna fell in love with sand tone painting technique pioneered by a local Hunan artist named Junsheng and I bought her a beautiful scenic painting depicting ancient rural life in the Zhangjiajie area, something we could take back with us and enjoy forever!

 

Back to Shanghai and Out of China

 

The five days flew by and before we knew it we were back in Changsha and then on a flight back to Shanghai where we would spend only half a day.  At this point Donna and I would break off and head to Singapore for INSEAD’s Admit Day, where we would tour the Singapore campus and meet her future colleagues.  Meanwhile, my Mom would head back to southern California and Jenny would head back to New York.

 

It was an amazing time in China and I feel super lucky to have experienced it with Donna and her Mom, who could translate and make everything so easy for me!  My Mom and myself were stoked!

 

 

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Categories: Zhangjiajie | 2 Comments

China Part 1: Beijing & Shanghai

China Introduction

A couple of months ago, Brandon, his mom, my mom and I all decided to do a mini-tour of China together. It would be East meets West in more ways than one! It would also mark the first time our mom’s would meet and the first time Brandon and his mom have been to China. Rather than just dipping our toe into the introductions as is normally done over dinner or a drink, we would have our mom’s hang out continuously for two weeks! In order to arrange the tours, my mom worked directly with the tour groups in China to organize our trip, which would be spoken entirely in Chinese. Kudos to Brandon and his mom for their patience and willingness to participate 100% regardless of the language barrier. Over the next two weeks, we would be visiting Beijing, Shanghai and Zhangjiajie (inspiration behind the floating mountains in Avatar) in Hunan Province.

Beijing

Brandon, his mom and I landed in Beijing from San Francisco on October 15th after a 12.5 hour flight. Out of luck and the connection of my dad working at United, Brandon and my standby seats turned out to be in global first class from SF to Beijing. Unfortunately we weren’t able to upgrade Brandon’s mom, Diane, to global first as she booked an actual economy class ticket – that said, the head steward on our flight hooked up Diane with glasses of fine wine and champagne throughout the long flight! Once we arrived in Beijing, we were immediately picked up by the pre-planned tour guide at the airport. From there, we were escorted by a van to the simultaneously elegant and kitschy King Wing International Hot Spring Hotel, which would be our home for the next three nights.

Global First champagne upon arrival to our seats!

Global First champagne upon arrival to our seats!

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Brandon catching up on the business news.

 

The following two days would be jam packed with Beijing tourist activities. The first day, Brandon, his mom and I (as jetlagged as we were) received our 6am wake-up call to start the day. After an enormous buffet breakfast consisting of both East and West style foods, and several cups of coffee,  we were loaded onto our tour bus and headed off to check out our first stop: Tian An Men Square. That same day, we visited the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.

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Brandon and myself with Chairman Mao nuzzled between us

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Our hotel in Beijing had a ridiculous name: King Wing International Hot Spring Hotel

 

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In front of the Tiananmen Gate Tower, which serves as the main entrance to the Forbidden City and is characteristically adorned with a portrait of Chairman Mao.

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I’m not sure what this huge flower pot is in the middle of Tiananmen Square is supposed to symbolize, but Diane and I felt compelled to get a photo in front of it!

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Throngs of people in the Forbidden City

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Brandon hiding behind an old and valuable sculpture of some kind.

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Fun photo with Diane!

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Since the tour guide spoke only Mandarin, Brandon was happy to have his an automated tour guide explaining to him in English what all the buildings in the Forbidden City were used for

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Hey Lauren Willis – Can you guess what those Chinese characters mean? … if you guessed “Starbucks” you’d be right!

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Rickshaw driver

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Great architecture in the Forbidden City

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We visited the Summer Palace, which is surround by a vast and beautiful lake

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Brandon and I took a rickshaw ride in Old Beijing

On day two, Diane and I went to visit a small section of the Great Wall about that was an hour drive outside Beijing. Diane and I climbed to the top of one section of the Great Wall and received personalized medals to prove it! We both agreed that heading down was much harder than walking up. China has a famous saying about the Great Wall: 不到长城非好汉 (He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man). Brandon did not make it to the Great Wall with us that day 😉 He had prior obligations to meet his friend, Roger, who has been running a Chinese peer to peer lending business in Beijing. Brandon’s friend, Colin, also joined us in Beijing. The boys spent the afternoon nerding out and discussing the potential for business opportunities in China before an epic dinner of Beijing’s famous, Peking Duck.

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Brandon’s mom, Diane

 

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Diane and myself climbed all the way to the top of what you see in this picture and earned medals for our achievement!

 

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That’s a long wall!

 

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At the Forbidden City

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Diane in front of the Beijing Olympic Stadium

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Me posing with the strange Chinese mascot for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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As with pretty much everyplace in Beijing, the classic Nanluogo Lane shopping street was completely packed with tourists.

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Brandon was happy to find a good beer spot to have a drink at!

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Found this guy all dolled up along Nonluogo Lane.

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Brandon and Diane toasting to a refreshing beverage along Nanluogu Lane.

 

At the offices of Pandai, a Peer-2-Peer lending company run by Brandon's friend Roger in Beijing

At the offices of Pandai, a Peer-2-Peer lending company run by Brandon’s friend Roger in Beijing

All in all, it was a fun and eye opening trip to Beijing. We were lucky with the weather – the first two days were blue skies! The pollution skyrocketed on the fourth and last day we were there (411 on a scale of 1000 – extremely hazardous). It also happened to be the day of the Beijing marathon… turned out that 80% of the runners didn’t finish the race. Although Beijing has a lot of character and thousands of years of history, the pollution makes it difficult to live there. However, it’s certainly worth a visit if you haven’t been before!

Shanghai:

Our next stop along the tour de China was Shanghai. This place was my jam. After having spent three and a half weeks in a future INSEAD classmate’s centrally located Shanghai apartment earlier this summer, it was the one city in China I sort of knew. I had only scratched the surface of the city in that time period, but I liked what I saw. I had made great friends there who showed me the ropes and gave me a chance to experience the real Shanghai from the perspective of a young adult. These guys knew how to have a good time and it was my turn to show Brandon, his mom, Colin and my mom, who I was most excited to show the new Shanghai!

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Bullet Train station in Beijing.

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The bullet train brought us from Beijing to Shanghai at a cool 306 km/h. That’s 190 mph.

 

My mom was born and raised in Shanghai from the mid 50’s – late 70’s before moving to Hong Kong and ultimately New York with her family. It goes without saying, her city has undergone such massive changes over those years that, were it not for street names remaining the same, she wouldn’t have recognized her childhood neighborhood! It was a strange feeling to know more about my mom’s hometown than she did, but that simply shows how rapidly Shanghai has developed in the last couple of decades. It’s now considered the business capital of China with a population growth rate of 20% per year. At that rate, it’s no surprise that high rises and retail shops can be seen for miles on end in every direction you look in Shanghai.

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The classic view of the Pundong business district which sits just across the Shanghai Huangpu River from The Bund.

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None of those high-rise buildings existed when my mother lived in Shanghai 30 years ago.


 

We lucked out on our Airbnb accomodations in Shanghai, staying in a 4 bedroom luxury apartment overlooking the famous skyscape, The Bund. Every morning my mom picked up hot Chinese breakfasts for us all before we went exploring the city. We took pictures along The Bund, rode a ferry across the river to Pudong, walked through Old Shanghai, and checked out an aggressive fake market where you could buy everything from faux-(ro)lexes and drones to iPhones and chopsticks. At one point, we found Brandon getting chased down the aisle by a fake rolex merchant after a negotiation went wrong. The price started at 600rmb ($100), but Brandon asked for 150rmb ($25), at which point the chase commenced. Brandon won the negotiation, but ultimately lost in the end when two out of four of his fake rolexes stopped ticking under 30 minutes after the purchase. Luckily he was able to get a refund for the two broken Rolexes!

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We were on the 8th floor of this luxury apartment building thanks to AirBnB!

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The view from the breakfast nook inside our Shanghai luxury pad.

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The Old Shanghai market

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Brandon and Diane in the Old Shanghai market

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Useless but fun trinkets abound in Chinese markets

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Brandon and Colin found these drones for sale in Old Shanghai and bought 2 of them, plus 5 extra batteries. They provided hours of entertainment.

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It cracked us all to see that Budweiser is still one of the beers of choice in China.

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Looking to the West along The Bund, the original heart of Shanghai

 

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Group shot at from The Bund with the Pundong skyscape in the background

 

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Fun photo at The Bund

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How inappropriate!

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Brandon couldn’t resist mounting a golden elephant statue he found in Pudong for this ridiculous shot

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Hooters has truly gone global, with a location right in the heart of the Shanghai business district in Pudong

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View of the Oriental Pearl Tower from the 38th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel.

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Posing in front of the Oriental Pearl Tower

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At the center of the biggest mall in Pudong… you guessed it, an Apple Store!

 

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An assortment of $25 Rolexes that look good enough from a slight distance to fool anyone… that is unless they notice that they aren’t ticking

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With the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, Brandon got to work hacking the Great Firewall of China and getting an MLB.com post-season package so that we could stream the game live to the TV in the Shanghai apartment!

 

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Walking with the madre’s from our Shanghai apartment

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Group Pic after the amazing acrobatics show!

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Brandon and me under the spot light at a movie premier my friends got us into during fashion week in Shanghai!

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Monnie bartending at the movie premier after-party

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Movie premier with famous Hong Kong actors who we didn’t know – we got into the premier with badges that said we were working for my friend’s ad agency!

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Brandon’s first haircut in China – luckily they didn’t give him the Asian styled faux-hawk, which is the latest trend there

 

Other highlights of Shanghai include an impressive acrobatics show after dinner at the famous Old Jessie restaurant. My mom also made a Chinese feast of epic proportions for us all one night at the apartment. It was then that Brandon realized I should be a good cook given my roots, but I haven’t yet shown him my capabilities. Thanks to my mom, the bar is now set quite high! On one of our final nights in Shanghai, my uncles Jack and Franck, treated us to a delicious dinner at Jade Garden restaurant in Xin Tian Di, which is a very trendy area of Shanghai. The entire family was together to enjoy each other’s company over good Shanghai-style food and wine that I had brought from California. It was great to see Jack and Franck. Brandon and I will be seeing more of them next year in Paris as they spend quite a bit of time in France.

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Epic family shot at the Jade Garden restaurant, with Uncle Jack and his husband Frank, Mom, myself, Diane, Brandon and Grandma

 

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My Mom (Jenny), my Grandma, and me

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Nighttime view from the apartment of The Bund with the Old Shanghai shopping area lit up in the foreground

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My Mom went shopping in the local markets and grabbed all the ingredients necessary to cook an authentic Shanghai meal

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Eating the excellent Chinese meal prepared by my Mom

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These were the two drones that Brandon and Colin bought. The one on the bottom was the first one purchased and eventually broke due to constant abuse at which point Brandon dissected it to see how it was built.

 

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On our last evening in town we stopped by my friend Monnie’s apartment, where I lived when I was in Shanghai the previous month, and enjoyed the whiskey and company of Monnie and a few of her friends!

We left Shanghai for Zhangjiajie with many wonderful memories of the city and of the time we spent with family there!

Categories: Beijing, China, Shanghai | 3 Comments

A month in San Francisco

Brandon writes the Intro:

 

On September 15 Donna and I met each other at the airport, our flights from separate hemispheres landing only an hour apart.  I arrived from Chile to SF after nearly 24 hours of travel on 3 separate flights smelly and disheveled.  Donna arrived from Shanghai after a luxurious 12-hour jaunt in Global First class on United Airlines.  With her well refreshed and myself a smelly wreck, clearly things were the way they should be!

 

The reason we were scheduled to return to SF mid-September was to attend the epic Indian wedding of Donna’s friend, Jess Sawhney.   We got back to SF on a Tuesday and the wedding would consist of a serious of parties and ceremonies occupying all of the coming weekend.  Besides the wedding, several of my family members, sister, mom and dad, all planned to visit me in SF and I also wanted to spend some time working on my 30-foot sailboat, Joyous, in preparation for future adventures and her eventual sale.  During the time Donna planned to visit her family on the east coast and begin preparing for our eventual move to France.  Overall we both looked forward to spending almost a month in SF doing things that we never found the time to do when we actually lived here; it would be a refreshing pitstop before another 6 weeks of travel to China, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

 

Donna writes about the Indian wedding:

 

Two days after Brandon and I returned to San Francisco, we drove down to the Dolce Hayes Mansion in San Jose for my good college friend, Jess Sawhney’s wedding. This would be our first Indian wedding and we were very much looking forward to it. My friend would be marrying her best friend, Ganesh Subramanian! Weddings are always filled with a reunion of good friends, good food and overall good fun so we were excited to have 3 days of celebrations ahead. The first night of celebrating would be the Mehndi party where the girls would have their palms painted in henna followed by folk dances lead by Jess’ Sikh family members. Their wedding would have almost 300 friends and family flying in from all over the world. The second night would be similar to a rehearsal dinner though it had more than twice the guests than any other wedding I attended to date! The dinner was followed by more dancing and singing performances, which was lively and fun to watch.

 

The third day, Saturday, was the main event. Because Jess’ family is Sikh and Ganesh’s family is Hindu, the wedding had two ceremonies. Jess’ Sikh ceremony started at 9am at the Sikh temple where the tradition was to have all guests cover their head and shoulders. Even Brandon sported a red scarf on his head! The Hindu ceremony was held in the front lawn at the Dolce Hayes mansion. It was a beautiful setting for a wedding. The reception kicked off immediately following the Hindu ceremony with endless amounts of delicious Indian food and all the drinks you can imagine. I was in heaven. For those who know me well, you know how much I love to put back Indian food! Overall it was an amazing wedding and it was so great to see so many friends from Emory, many of whom I haven’t seen in years!

 

Brandon writes about family visits:

 

With the impending international move, my family thought it was a good chance to come to SF for final visits before we left for who-knows-how-long.

 

First came my sister.  She was in SF on business for a marketing conference but took an extra day off to hang out with Donna and I.  First Donna, myself and Jannika had dinner at my favorite Indonesian restaurant, Borubadur, on Wednesday evening.  The next day Jannika wrapped up her business and we had brunch at Brenda’s, which served excellent southern style comfort food.  The food was filling and I didn’t need to eat anything except this one meal the entire rest of the day!  Afterwards Donna left and Jannika and I went to the Metreon to catch an IMAX 3D showing of a childhood throwback, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We were the only ones in the theatre which was great because I could be as loud and obnoxious as I wanted during the film, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style.  I took Jannika to the airport that evening and figured I’d probably see her next in Florida for Christmas.  She was doing well in life and work and it was great to catch up with her for a day!

Jannika enjoying being the only other person besides myself at the IMAX theatre showing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Jannika enjoying being the only other person besides myself at the IMAX theatre showing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

 

A week and a half later my Mom  came to visit.  Exactly one year prior she visited SF to spend time with me and her good friend Liz Lawhead and all of us had a great time going to the Bluegrass Festival.  This visit would be a repeat of that trip, except with Joyous now in excellent sailing condition we also planned on to get out on the Bay.  She arrived and Liz, Donna, myself and Mom all went out for a meal at Delancy Street on the Embarcadero.  The next day the surf was good and there was a  late afternoon Giants playoff game to watch, so I didn’t join Mom and Liz at the Bluegrass Festival and instead got some waves and relaxed at the house enjoying awesome Indian Summer weather.  The Giants game ended up being an epic 18 inning affair that kept me busy until it was time to head to Zazie in Cole Valley for a repeat dinner with Liz and Mom.  Up to this point I had only been to Zazie for brunch, but I highly recommend the dinners there too!  While at dinner I kept sneaking out of the restaurant to check up on the baseball game and I was stoked when Brandon Belt hit a homer to take the lead in the top of the 18th and the Cardinals were unable to answer.

The next day was the highlight of Mom’s visit.  I had been working on Joyous in Tiburon for the past 2 weeks and she was finally ready to be moved back to her normal berth at Pier 39.  Donna, Mom and myself concocted an epic bike-sail-bike plan.  First we would ride from Ocean Beach across the Golden Gate Bridge and through Marin to Paradise Cay in Tiburon.  Once there we would load the bikes onto the boat and sail back to Pier 39, passing right by Angel Island, and then from Pier 39 we would ride back to Ocean Beach.  The weather was amazing and my Mom was a huge trooper, handling the 25+ miles of biking like a champion.  We left at about 11am and didn’t get back to the Sunset until after 7!  It was an amazing experience and I was glad to show Mom all my work on the boat and that everything went smoothly with the adventure.  That night we all slept like champions and the next morning I took Mom to the airport, but our goodbye didn’t need to be that serious because she’d be joining Donna and me in China in just 2 short weeks!

 

The last weekend before we would leave for China was Fleet Week, which meant the Blue Angels would be in town.  Ever since I was young my father and I have loved going to Air Shows.  Growing up in Orange County we’d go to El Toro every year and this was certainly the reason that for so many years growing up I wanted to be an Air Force pilot.  Now that I had my boat working and the free time, it was the perfect opportunity to convince Dad to fly from Florida to SF for the Fleet Week weekend.  We spent the entire time together and even slept on Joyous on Saturday night.  He was impressed with my work installing the diesel and was glad to see Joyous in good sailing shape.  We both took a ton of pictures of the Blue Angels with our high powered telephoto lenses and generally “nerded out” talking about planes, politics, and computers — the way it’s always been between Pops and I.  I was also glad that he got to meet a bunch of my friends while we were sailing.  Good times!

 

Donna writes about visiting her family on the East Coast

 

Knowing that next year will be extremely busy with school, I wanted to give myself a chance to hang out with my sister and grandparents in Florida while I had some time in the US. So my sister, Arlana, flew down to Palm Beach from New York while I flew out to meet her there from SF. Brandon would spend most of his time in SF working on Joyous’ epic makeover.

 

My grandparents had recently moved from the Breaker West Community in West Palm Beach to a new house in Palm Beach Gardens to be closer to my Aunt, Rorrie, and her husband, Robert, who are building a house in the same Palm Beach Gardens Community. Their house had just finished construction when I arrived, so we were able to see it before they planned to move in the following week.

Arlana and I enjoyed relaxation by the pool

Arlana and I enjoyed relaxation by the pool

 

It was a very nice trip to see my grandparents. My grandfather is turning 90 next February, a birthday I will unfortunately have to miss so it was important for me to see them now. Even at 89.75 years old, albeit slow, my grandfather doesn’t walk with a cane or need any other help. I hope to be in the same shoes when I reach his age! My grandmother is also doing very well. She made her famous sicilian style pizza for Arlana and me one night – always a delicious treat that brings back memories of our childhood visits to their house in Old Brookville (Long Island). We also went to Rocco’s Taco’s on Thursday night for a round of Margarita’s and guac and tacos. Needless to say, we were spoiled with good food on this visit.

Rocko's Tacos family night!

Rocko’s Tacos family night!

 

On the last night before Arlana and I were flying back to SF and NY, respectively, we drove down to Fort Lauderdale to have dinner with Sartaj, my friend and future INSEAD classmate. Sartaj and I met at an INSEAD forum in SF back in April and immediately hit it off as friends. When I knew Arlana and I were visiting South Florida, we made plans to meet up at a sushi restaurant – between Argentina and China, there were very few opportunities to have sushi so I was stoked! Even with his busy days helping to run his family company, he found the time to give Arlana and me a tour of Fort Lauderdale. It was great to see him in his home town.

 

After several days of rest and relaxation, Arlana and I flew back home. It was so good to spend time with Arlana and my grandparents. Brandon and I will see them all again in Florida over the Christmas holidays!

 

Brandon writes about working on Joyous:

 

I spent a lot of time working on Joyous during our time back in SF.   It had always been a priority of mine to work with my friend Jonah on re-rigging Joyous so that she’d be much improved for sailing.  Partially this was functional but also a big part was for me to learn from Jonah how to put together rigging on a a sailboat.  Jonah is a professional rigger and I would pay Jonah for the job but also work alongside him like an apprentice.  So over the course of about 2 weeks we tore off the old clutches, boom, mains’l track and other hardware and replaced it with new and improved stuff.  I learned how to cut and fashion alumnimum, how to install deck hardware, and how to paint with epoxy-based paints.  I also finished up a few odds and ends from the repower job that I had completed with Jonah just before leaving to South America.  I found the process and learning actually pretty fun as I do enjoy working wth my hands and getting to use the finished product of my work; it feels satisfying in a very different way compared to my usual computer work.  The end result, sailing with my Mom, Dad and friends, made it all worth the time, money and effort.

 

Brandon writes about lots of other stuff we did, in no particular order and just for memories sake

 

  • Thanks to Eddie Choi for letting Donna and I stay in his apartment for the first week we were back while he was visiting New York chasing hurricane surf.  Famous Donna quote: “if we had a nice apartment like this together, I would be down to live in the Sunset”
  • I managed to take Joyous to 2 Giants playoff games, both against the Cardinals, reminiscent of 2010 and 2012 !!
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Watching an NLCS day game from the Cove on Joyous.

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Motoring into McCovey for an NLCS game

  • I got a couple of fun surf sessions as the first swells of the winter season appeared.  Two were on big days and I surfed alone on my 9’4” Brewer; it was like longboarding 10 foot faces, so fun.  I also surfed with my friend Greg Davis and it was good to get a session with him after so many missed opportunities.
  • On our last night before leaving to China, Donna and I had dinner at Marina Sushi with many of Donna’s friends, including Margaux, Natalie, Jess & Ganesh, and Lauren Williams.

 

Picture of two Marina Sushi going away pictures

Picture of two Marina Sushi going away pictures

 

  • I met with my former Blackrock colleagues.  I hung with John Prins at his awesome apartment on the Embarcadero, had lunch with Jon Baker, and got a random Saturday morning call from Pablo, who worked in the London Blackrock office, letting me know he was just around the corner hanging out on Ocean Beach.  Donna and myself met up with him for brunch and planned future visits to London.  Also I attended a dinner gathering with many of the old GMSG crew hosted by Dave at his epic Lower Haight house.  Mad props to Stephanie for creating amazing food, as usual.
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Pablo with Donna and me

  • Bruce, Wes Parks, and I attended the SF premier of Jeremy Jones’ epic backcountry snowboarding film Higher.  It is inspirational to see the gnarly mountains Jeremy climbs up and skis down.
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A photo of a photo… this is Shangri La, the epic Himalayan mountain that Jeremy descends for the finale of Higher

  • Donna, Jonah and myself had an awesome daysail in Joyous with GoPro dude Ruben and his wife Marie.  Ruben likes to drive racecars and wouldn’t take his hands of Joyous’ tiller; the guy lives to drive.  Jonah and Ruben talked a lot about badass cars, especially Porsches.
Sailing on Joyous with Ruben, Marie, Jonah, and Donna.

Sailing on Joyous with Ruben, Marie, Jonah, and Donna.

 

  • I was getting ready to surf one evening with Haroldo when Kelsey came into the garage still in her wetsuit and with a broken nose!  She had been whacked in the face by her board while surfing and so I took her to UCSF; she was amazingly brave and took it all in stride, what a tough chick!
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Molica and Kelsey at UCSF… Kelsey is one brave lady!

  • I made 2 trips to the Chinese Consulate and succesfully obtained a Chinese passport

 

Me at the Chinese consulate

Me at the Chinese consulate

All in all it was a great few weeks in SF.  Donna and I kept talking about how we should be feeling nostalgic while cruising around SF for the past month.  However, didn’t feel that the nostalgia had set in yet.  The reason must’ve been that we weren’t gone long enough yet.  Rest assured, given enough time and change, as friends move away and the character that we perceive of the City morphs due to the passage of time, we will come back and have that nostalgic feeling of just how great our all our time spent in SF was.

Categories: San Francisco | 2 Comments

Surfing and Snowboarding in Chile

Currently Donna and I are back in SF, with our respective South America and Shanghai journeys completed.  We spent this past weekend staying at the Hayes Mansion in San Jose attending the traditional Indian wedding of Donna’s friend Jessica to her now-husband Ganesh. It was fantastic!

 

I owe everyone a post about my last week and a half in Chile, which I spent searching for good surfing and snowboarding.  I was fortunate to find both!

 

Immediately upon renting the “Chevrolet” Trooper* I contacted a friend-of-a-friend who lives in Santiago with his wife and 2 young children.  Sebastian used to live in San Francisco and while in SF he met my good friend Haroldo, with whom I used to work with at Blackrock, while the two of them were surfing at Sloat Street at Ocean Beach.  When Haroldo found out I was heading to Chile, he graciously offered to put me in touch with Sebastian, who is an avid surfer and snowboarder, but who also works in Chile as a Financial Advisor, which meant we had a bit more in common than just being “surf bros”.  One thing I learned early about travelling is that a local connection can be a huge boon for getting dialed into the information one needs to know to find success adventuring in a new location or country.  Therefore I took Haroldo up on his offer and got in touch with Sebastian and, as expected, he proved immensely helpful and more importantly I made new lifelong friends with him and his family!

* Car people might know that Isuzu makes the Trooper, not Chevrolet, but for some reason the vehicle I rented for the low price of $23 per day had Chevrolet branding all over it.  This was a first clue there was something funky and untrustworthy about this car, but at this point in time I was mostly stoked to have some wheels!

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The “Chevrolet” Trooper

 

Upon calling Sebastian on a Saturday and letting him know I’d like to meet up with him, he suggested that the following day I drive to meet him at a town about 2 hours north of Renaca called Pichiquy, where he was staying for the weekend with his family to surf.  Without hesitation I got up early the next day and headed to Pichiquy.  By Sunday the beautiful, sunny weather I’d experienced in Renaca for the past two days became gloomy and the weather forecast called for on-and-off precipitation over the next week and higher than normal winds.  Fortunately there was still plenty of swell on tap (there’s hardly ever a shortage of swell in Chile!), which meant finding good waves would require being in the the right locations given stormy conditions.   On the coastal drive north that Sunday morning I passed many beaches and rounded many headlands, but didn’t see any appetizing surf and saw no surfers anywhere in the water.  However, as I came down the hill towards Pichiquy, I saw a sea that was smoother and lightly groomed by offshore winds with a small pack of surfers enjoying some excellent looking beachbreak.  I watched the surfers for awhile and then met up with Sebastian at the house he was staying at.  He explained to me that in Chile the incoming weather caused north winds and that north winds generally wreck most of the good surf breaks in Chile, especially the copious left points south of Santiago.  However, he told me that this particular location, Pichiquy, is a swell magnet and that north winds are good for the waves, which is why he was spending the weekend here with his family.  Local knowledge at its best!  Pichiquy also is home to two big waves: La Marmola breaks in the middle of the long beach and Punta Docas is at the north end.  The area that was good while I was there was the break in the middle of the beach, just north of a few exposed rocks.

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Great waves when I first saw Pichiquy

 

That morning I ate a light breakfast with Sebastian and met his family.  His wife, Magdalena, speaks great English, is also loves to surf and snowboard.  The two of them had two young sons, aged 2 and 7 months, named Andres and Beltran.  During typical weekend they would head either to the mountains or the beach with the family to enjoy board sports and the Chilean countryside.

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Sebastian and his 7-month old son, Beltran

That day I surfed 2 sessions, the first with Magdalena and Sebastian’s brother, and the second with Sebastian.  Afterward we ate a spaghetti meal together and Sebastian gave me a 6’6” rounded pin surfboard to use for my time in Chile!  I was super stoked to get the board because I didn’t have one and there didn’t seem to be any easy place to rent a good board.   Further, buying a good board would cost at least a couple hundred bucks and would be difficult to sell when it was time to go and impractical and expensive to bring back with me as airlines generally charge at least $150 each way for travelling with a surfboard.  Thanks Sebastian!

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The 6’6″ pintail rocket ship Sebastian lent me

 

The next day was Monday so Sebastian was back in Santiago for work, but I drove back to Pichiquy and surfed all day.  I got up early, packed a bunch of food and drove out, waiting to surf my sessions in between when the few packs of locals would paddle out.   It was off-and-on again raining and putting on that wet wetsuit over and over again was most unpleasant, but the waves were good and plentiful.   At the end of the day the clouds parted and I was treated to a brilliant sunset.

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Very nice A-frame

 

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Good barrels were out there!

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The waves got better and better throughout the day

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Panorama sunset pic, Pichiquy

 

On Tuesday the swell picked up a bit and I was pretty tired from the previous two days of being in the water for 5+ hours each day, so I slept in and decided to explore closer to Renaca.  I discovered a good plan for learning about where to surf when in a new place is to go to the local surf shop and hang out and I figured it would also be a fun place to practice some Spanish.  Right in front of the beachbreak at Renaca there is a surf shop and the owner and his friend were cool and they took me along with them to check the wave called Cap Ducal at the estero of the Vina del Mar river.  The wave looked like it had potential and there was even one guy surfing but they call this river “crap river” for a reason and things only seemed presently much worse due to the recent rain.  There was no way I was going to surf this wave because the water was greenish brown and I could smell the poo 50 feet away from the water.  I really couldn’t believe that one surfer, who was pretty good, would risk hepatitis surfing it.  The two locals from the surf shop didn’t want to surf it either and they took off to do a gym workout instead and said I might find waves somewhere to the north of Renaca.  I saw a few people surfing at a few spots in the Con Con area, but none of the waves looked very good and I ended up just driving around and taking photos.

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Cap Ducal, the rivermouth wave in Vina that can be very polluted after a rain

 

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Random wave shot, a few bodyboarders were here having some fun

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The locals were out surfing this wave in Con Con, not good but a place to get some bumpy rides.

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At the northern part of Con Con there were two bodyboarders tackling this closeout whomper

Wednesday the swell dropped and Renaca started to look pretty good.  I surfed two sessions one in the morning and one in the evening.  The craziest part about when I surfed Renaca were the overly friendly, borderline hostile sea lions.  There was a huge colony and they did not seem at all concerned with surfers as they swam all around me, getting very close and a few times even touching my board or booties.  It was actually pretty creepy — if one of these guys bit it would hurt like hell and give me who-knows-what diseases!  As far as the surf went, for most of my stay the wave was not really that good, most rides consisting of a quick, steep drop where you’d hope for a section to hit or if you were really lucky maybe a short barrel.  But I caught a lot of waves and had fun and I can see the potential for epic waves at Renaca under the right swell and sandbar conditions.

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Best waves I saw at Renaca were mid afternoon on Wednesday.

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The weather was rainy and there was no good place to dry my wetsuit; I ended up putting on a cold, wet wetsuit before every session, so miserable!

 

Wednesday night was the 3-year anniversary party at Delirio and I had a lot of fun with Matti and Berner, but staying up late was not conducive to an early rise the next day.   Matti, Berner and I ended up not even leaving the house until after 3pm.   This was the day were drove down to Quintay and later had a nice Thai dinner in Valparaiso, which I wrote about in my previous post.

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The Delirio 3-year anniversary party

 

On Friday I put into effect my plan for a Chilean roadtrip.  My rough idea was to spend the next 10 days or so chasing surf and snow in the region of Chile that starts just below Santiago and extends another 300 miles to the south to Picon.  After the downpour over the previous few days the weateher was forecast to revert back to the normal pattern for at least a few days, meaning generally south winds and clear skies.  The wave forecast called for a few medium sized pulses of swell, so I decided my first destination would be Pichilemu, the surf capital of Chile.  I was on the road from Renaca by about noon and drove south, purposely taking a more coastal route rather than jetting south via the main highway.  Google had me taking some seriously back roads, some of which weren’t even paved, and there were points where I certainly would have gotten lost if it weren’t for real-time GPS on my Samsung S5 phone overlaid on the cached map, which would quickly reveal if I made a wrong turn.  I wound my way through a few coastal towns, the largest of which is called San Antonio and made it to Pichilemu by about 6pm.  I had time to search for the ideal place to stay and found a hostel called La Sirena Insolente that was very close to Pichilemu’s headline surf point: Punta Lobos.  At the hostel I met Nick, a young surfer and computer programmer who had been traveling through Chile and South America for the last few months.  He’d been staying at this hostel and surfing for several weeks and seemed to have the place well understood.  There were also a bunch of other young foreign travelers from Santiago staying at the hostel just for the weekend and we all went to dinner at a nice, cliffside restaurant.   Staying at a hostel for the first time in awhile reminded me of how easy it is to meet other travelers at hostels.

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After a week of rain and clouds, there was nice weather on Friday when I left Renaca.

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Overlooking Valparaiso

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Looking north towards San Antonio

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Chile can be beautiful and green in the winter. This is a shot from the car during my drive.

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Me plus the random hostelers. Nick is the guy closest to me. The rest were a mix of Germans, English, and Americans who were from a Spanish language school in Santiago and were visiting Pichilemu for the weekend. Average age was probably 23.

 

The next morning Nick and I checked Lobos early but it wasn’t looking too good so we decided to take the Trooper and explore an area to the north of Pichilemu near a small town called Navidad that was rumored to have a really good left point break.  This is one of my most favorite things to do: searching for good waves.  We wound up at a small beach pueblo called Matanzas and we felt like we were definitely on the right track to find the wave.  Then when I employed my strategy of befriending the local surf shop owner.  The owner was gregarious surfer dude and he invited us to come surf it with him later when the tide was lower.  Nick and I found this surprisingly amazing; most surfers are super protective of the “secret” spots but this particular local gingerly invited us along with him.  It is risky business to invite traveling foreigners to experience your local good waves because in these days of the Internet and easy communication a secret spot could easily be exposed and overrun with surfers.  Obviously though, Nick and I were stoked on the invitation and went along and we were treated to the best waves of my trip at this fast and hollow left point.  I caught a handful of good ones and found two barrels, but not all was good.  First the current at the spot was ripping and so constant paddling was required to clamor back up the point after catching a wave.  But worse for me was that about 2 hours into surfing, on one wave I successfully got a first barrel and then was greedy and went for a second barrel but ended up wearing the lip of the tubing wave on my shoulders.  This compressed me into my board and minorly re-injured my right ankle which I had sprained a month before.  I had to stop surfing and realized I would need to take it easier; my fragile ankle was not yet healed enough to surf intense waves requiring late drops or or intense curls.  I swam slowly to shore and after about 20 minutes I felt strong enough for the 45-minute walk back to the town where our car was parked.  Along the way I began thinking that it might be prudent to end the surfing portion of my Chile road trip.  I felt good after the day’s discovery and my surf session despite the ankle injury I was stoked.  Plus, I figured the silver lining was that instead of surfing I could go snowboarding, which is much safer for my ankle because my boots provide firm support.  It felt great to be in Chile!

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Nick looking at a set wave breaking just beyond the famous Punta Lobos rocks

 

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The left point at Matanzas showed some potential.

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Nick knows the perfect fuel to power a long session is ceviche from the shack on the beach!

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So much potential for waves in Chile

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secret spot

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secret spot

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I saw some amazing homes built on the cliffs overlooking the beach on my walk back to the car

 

That evening there was an amazing sunset.  Back at the hostel I enjoyed an amazing dinner cooked by a Chilean/Italian guy named Dino who was friends with Juani, the hostel owner.  Dino cooked a seafood risotto using a large disco over an open campfire flame.  Besides Matti’s chiken mole this was the best meal I’d had in Chile thus far.  In fact, upon reflection I realize that all the best meals I had in Chile were home cooked.

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Sunset on Saturday evening on the way to Pichilemu

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Dino making seafood risotto on a disco over an open camp flame. It was DELICIOUS

 

The next day was Sunday and I took it easy and took some photos of the inside part of Punta Lobos in the morning.   The swell had dropped and there was nothing happening outside the rocks, but the morning saw clean conditions and a relatively light crowd.  I should’ve paddled out then, but instead I went for a surf in the afternoon.  Punta Lobos gets crowded on the weekend as all the Santiago people head west to the beaches for some surfing.   Most of them don’t get up early, which I think is why the morning is less crowded.  During my afternoon session my ankle was still feeling weak and I found it difficult to get in the right position to avoid a late takeoff given the crowds, but I caught a few waves nonethless and enjoyed the pleasant day and being in the water.

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Smaller swell results in only a few mutant waves breaking right on the rock shelf at Punta Lobos

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Ripping the inside wave at Punta Lobos.

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Punta Lobos

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Club de Surf, every great spot needs a surf club

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Dog chewing on a bone at the shack I was taking photos at.

 

On Monday I decided I would head to the mountains.  Based on many conversations I had with various people the place I wanted to check out was Nevados de Chillan.  This mountain is the Mount Baker of South America as it consistently receives more snowfall than pretty much anyplace else.  Furthermore, the backcountry access is amazing and there is a 10,000 foot volcano to ascend.  I was stoked to check this place out as Monday and Tuesday were forecast to have some snow followed by low wind and sunny skies for the rest of the week, perfect spring skiing conditions.  And so I hit the road on the Trooper and quickly again Google had me in the backwoods and I followed plenty of sketchy dirt roads, the whole time hoping that the Trooper wouldn’t fail me.  But the car was a 1996 and had well over 180,000 miles, so I was concerned…

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The drive from Pichilemu south was very scenic

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One of the many dirt roads I found myself on thanks to Google Maps

 

 

Fortunately I made it to the main highway, Chile’s Ruta 5, before disaster struck.  The first thing I noticed was the temp gauge had crept up from about ⅓ to just over ½ between the “C” and the “H”.  I was concerned, stopped to check the oil and add water to the overfill tank, and then I kept going.  Shortly later I started feeling the engine lose power and the temperature hadn’t back down to normal, so I decided I stop and call the owner.  I stopped near an exit and the engine wouldn’t start again.  Crud, most definitely NOT GOOD.  I called the owner and he told me to stay put, that he’d send a mechanic, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen as I was solidly 5 or 6 hours away from Santiago.  With the sun going down, grabbed all my stuff from the car and began walking down the highway, off the first exit and into a town called Parral.  The strange looks I got as people saw this gringo with 2 backpacks and a snowboard bag with a surfboard strapped to the top were pretty classic.  I asked around for directions to the bus terminal, where I knew I could find taxis and hopefully a hotel, or worst case just take a bus to Chillan, which was only about 90km to the south and would certainly have everything.  A taxi driver pointed me to Residencia La Igualdad, which is run by a nice family.  It was like a 2nd and unplanned homestay.

 

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I was heading towards Chillan when I broke down. I’m the blue dot.

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After breaking down, this is the view from the car out the window looking toward the town of Parral. The sun was setting and it was shortly after taking this photo that I decided to carry all my stuff into the town and abandone the Trooper. I was lucky it was a big town!

 

Over the next 48 hours I dealt with the bad situation I’d been dealt and what made the experience so pleasant was the family I was staying with, especially the owner Rene.   I had to speak entirely in Spanish, nobody here spoke English, and I explained to Rene what happened.  Upon hearing the car was still on the highway, he grabbed his truck and was able to tow it back to his house where I was staying.  He also went to work fixing the engine and discovered the car had no water in the radiator.  WOW that was clearly my problem; I had been adding water to the water tank but I should’ve been adding it directly to the radiator.  The battery was also dead (2nd time this happened; previously I’d found someone to jump me), so Rene got an extra battery and we were able to get the car started.  The root of the problem was revealed when we say the water we’d just added to the radiator leaking profusely out of the motor; clearly there was a coolant leak that caused the engine to overheat.  I conveyed all of this information to the owner and had confidence that we’d get the motor fixed in Parral and perhaps I’d even be on my way the next day.

I spent all day Tuesday hanging out with Rene and working to get the motor fixed.  That morning we drove the car a mechanic the knew both Rene and the owner.  Within an hour he found the root of the problem: a pipe from the water pump which had already been patched once had broke again causing the coolant leak.  So Rene and I drove around town until we found a welder who could fix the problem.  By 4pm the mechanic had the car fixed, but there was still a problem: lots of white smoke never stopped pouring from the tailpipe indicated a head gasket leak was likely allowing coolant to enter the cylinders.  The mechanic did a pressure test and confirmed this was the case; this engine was murio: dead.  Really not good.  The original problem being that the water pump pipe broke clearly wasn’t my fault, but I did feel just a little responsible for driving the car that extra few kilometers when there was a heat problem.  I called the owner and we talked.  He seemed understanding and said that he’d drive down tomorrow AM and we could tow the car back to Vina del Mar together, as he’d need me to steer the dead Trooper.  I agreed, but told him I wanted my rental deposit of 100,000 pesos (~$180) back before I’d go on the journey with him.  He agreed.  I stayed another night at the Rene’s house and had a nice meal with the family, where I watched Chile defeat Haiti in a soccer match.  Also I listened to Rene’s young son play the harpsichord, one of the most unique instruments I’ve seen played before me.

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At the auto shop. This is the mechanic who figured out a faulty water pipe was the cause.

 

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Rene fond this guy at a welding shop to fix the broken pipe

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This is the broken pipe after being fixed. The guy cleverly used dry ice to cool down the aluminum peace and fit the steel piece into it. Welding was not possible since the pipe was made from aluminum. You can see the rubber hose that was the original repair that broke.

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In Parral you could buy a bunch of different types of dog food.

The next morning I woke up to an e-mail from the owner stating that he changed his mind and he actually wanted me to pay him $1000 for a tow truck to take the dead Tropper back to Vina, plus another $1000 for the engine repair.  Welp, no doubt I wasn’t going to do that: besides being lied to by the owner the previous day, I really didn’t feel completely responsible for what happened.  Plus I didn’t like the way he changed his mind so suddenly and was demanding money after I had spent so much effort making sure the car was taken car of.  So I decided to just leave back to Santiago on a bus and ignore his requests for money.  The broken Trooper was the owner’s problem, afterall, and Rene and myself even spoke with a police officer who confirmed the same.  I had no responsibility to bring it back so Rene and I took it to a safe place, the gas station near the higway.  This was a bummer for the Trooper, but I really didn’t want to deal with the unreasonable owner it made sense to leave.  My goodbye to Rene and his family was heartfelt and I can reflect with sincere gratitude how nice they were to me and how much they helped me navigate this thorny situation.  I will always be thankful to them.

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In Chile stray dogs are not quiet as stray as they look. Chileans like to put sweaters on dogs to keep them warm through winter and generally people make sure no dogs suffer unnecessarily.

 

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Rene’s son Francisco playing the harpsichord

Back in Santiago I stayed at a hostel owned by the same guy, Juani, who owned the surf hostel at Punta Lobos.  He told me that there was a shuttle organized a couple times a week which would take people from the hostel early in the morning to Valle Nevado, which is in the Farallones mountain range, which is the range that is only about 1.5 hours from Santiago.  So I signed up and on Thursday was up in the mountains getting run after run at the uncrowded resort.  The snow was not very good, nothing fresh, and very icy in the morning but softened up by the early afternoon.  I found some awesome, long groomer runs.  Just after midday I skinned over to El Colorado resort and to the peak for a good view and a fun run back to Valle Nevado.  All in all it was a good day.

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The Valle Express chair leading me to the top of Valle Nevado. Coverage and conditions weren’t great, but improved as the snow baked in the sun and softened.

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Selfie at the top of El Colorado after skinning up.

 

On Friday I went back to Renaca to hang out and say goodbye to Matti, Berner and Matias.  It was a relaxing day and I had dinner with Matti at Delirio.  That Saturday morning we were lazy, had a nice breakfast and we said our goodbyes.  I headed back to Santiago and checked back into the hotel.  My flight was on Monday morning so my plan was to take advantage of what was likely the last powder day of the season the next day snowboarding with Sebastian.  He picked me up at the subway station and we went to his house in Santiago and then we drove up to Magdalena’s parent’s cabin at La Parva.  It was ski in / ski out!

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One of the few photos I took while back in Renaca to say goodbye to Matti and Berner

 

Sunday was an awesome powder day in the Farallones and at La Parva.  Sebastian’s kids were being watched by Maria, the nanny, and so the 3 of hit us it hard all morning and into the early afternoon.   Magdalena and Sebastian knew La Parva like the back of their hands and led me immediately to a long powder run on the south facing part of the mountain.  We lapped the route 3 times and carved out many fresh tracks.  For one run I took out my GoPro and captured a few sweet surf-inspired carves Magdalena laid down on the snow banks.  Such great style!  Also I saw a few people in the backcountry and some amazing places to ski just off-piste, most notably The Chimney – a long couloir that is the most prominent feature on the north side of the resort.  The snow warmed up by 2:30ish and I was tired so headed back, but first having one beer in the sun with a few of the mountain and Santiago in the background.  A very nice day!

surf and snow road trip-47

Andres and Beltran watching their parents get ready to shred the mountain.

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Magdalena, Sebastian and myself heading up for a powder descent

 

A fantastic day of snowboarding fresh snow ended my trip in Chile.  That evening was my last in Chile and I left my hostel early on Monday morning and commenced a 24-hour journey back to San Francisco.

The month and a half I spent in South America confirmed what I thought I knew already: this is a place that I could live; a kind of California in reverse.  While here I formed so many fond memories, learned, meet new family members and made new friends.  All of this will serves to build a strong desire to return and explore more!

Below are some more pictures from the mountain.  It was really great to see Magdalena lay down some sweet surf inspired carves!

surf and snow road trip-48

La Parva has the best Poma lifts I’ve ever used

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Magdalena’s boss Scott at the end of the Chimney couloir. Next time I return I definitely want to descend this couloir!

surf and snow road trip-51

GoPro stick action

surf and snow road trip-52

This run was awesome!

surf and snow road trip-54

Having fun!

 

surf and snow road trip-57

Sequence 1

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Sequence 2

surf and snow road trip-60

Dropping a small snow berm

surf and snow road trip-61

Such style!

 

 

 

 

Categories: Chile, Farallones, Parral, Pichilemu | 2 Comments

A Taste of Shanghai

I decided the most efficient and guaranteed way to brush up on my Mandarin speaking, writing and reading skills was to leave South America early and move straight to the heart of China’s largest commercial city.   I flew back to SF for 42 hours to pack my bags for Shanghai. Although it wasn’t my first choice to skip out on exploring Chile with Brandon, in the end, the impromptu visit to China paid off. Shanghai is an incredibly vibrant, international and vivacious city where you can get just about anything you want at your fingertips. I was fortunate enough to explore a small fraction of the city over the past 3+ weeks.

Cityscape - The Bund

Cityscape – The Bund

The greenest street I saw in Shanghai happened to be just down the street from my apartment!

The greenest street I saw in Shanghai happened to be just down the street from my apartment!

To be honest, I thought these were going to be a rather mundane and tedious few weeks of re-learning how to read and write Chinese. It turned out to be everything but dull and redundant! A few days before arriving in Shanghai, I had reached out to Jacqueline, a future INSEAD classmate living in Shanghai, on Facebook to see if we could meet up during my visit. Ironically, she would be traveling to Argentina at that time, but she so generously offered for me to stay in her room in Jing’An, Shanghai – essentially as central as it gets in Shanghai! Her roommate, Monnie, was the first person I met in Shanghai, and she couldn’t have been more welcoming or well connected in Shanghai, having moved there two years ago from Hong Kong. Monnie also had one of her good friends, Melissa, staying at the apartment for two out of three of the weeks that I was in Shanghai which was a treat for me. Melissa and I would spend hours chatting in Mandarin and exploring Shanghai – mainly she was correcting my poor grammar and laowai enunciation – through her, I learned a lot about life in Shanghai and China. And finally, our last roommate, Tanaka-San, was always excited when we decided to have a low key night at home.

My roommate, Monnie, and me enjoying a Hong Kong styled desert on our way home!

My roommate, Monnie, and me enjoying a Hong Kong styled desert on our way home!

 

Tanaka-san, doing what she does best in her comfortable Jing'an apartment - lounging.

Tanaka-san, doing what she does best in her comfortable Jing’an apartment – lounging.

After taking one day to settle into Shanghai, intensive Chinese classes began. I spent the first four hours of each weekday in a Mandarin school called Miracle Mandarin, which I found through a simple Google search online. The 30 minute walk to and from class was a daily battle between the endless cars, scooters, bicycles and flexible traffic laws, which I’m happy to report I won simply by surviving! In addition to learning Chinese reading/writing at a rapid pace, I met a few new friends at the school from Germany, England, Venezuela, Indonesia, Brazil and Spain who were fun sidekicks to explore the touristy aspects of Shanghai. We visited the Bund to execute an ice-bucket challenge, and also to visit Shanghai’s fake markets to have custom jackets made  and bars to get a taste of the ex-pat culture in Shanghai. You’ll see from the two photos below of The Bund.   Although I’m told the pollution in Shanghai is significantly better than Beijing, there is no hiding the fact that the city does struggle with some pollution particularly during the hot and humid summer months. In one of the photos below I had to increase contrast because the smog was dampening the colors!  By the end of my stay in Shanghai, I had two days of blue skies and even saw stars on my last night in the city! 

Executing the ice-bucket challenge along the Bund!

Executing the ice-bucket challenge along the Bund!

The Bund looking beautiful at night!

The Bund looking beautiful at night!

Enjoying a nice meal along the Bund with a light show across the river

Enjoying a nice meal along the Bund with a light show across the river

Through Monnie, I met many of her friends who grew up either in Shanghai or another large city in China. This was by far one of the coolest parts of the trip. I would spend hours talking to them in Mandarin, learning about their life and culture in Shanghai over a steaming bowl of hotpot (similar to shabu-shabu, but way better!) or a traditional Shanghai styled restaurant. Shanghai’s culture is centered around the enjoyment of good food, drinks, company and of course, KARAOKE! On my last day in Shanghai, Monnie and her friends threw me a surprise farewell party at a swanky Karaoke (pronounced Ka-La-OK in Chinese) Bar so that I could experience one of their favorite outings with friends. We sang, we ate and we drank Tsingtao beers – I had to sit out during the Chinese songs this time, but I look forward to the time when I can also participate!

Chinese styled hot pot (i.e. shabu shabu, but better!) with one side spicy, one side mild.

Chinese styled hot pot (i.e. shabu shabu, but better!) with one side spicy, one side mild.

Hong Shao Rou - Slow cooked pork belly

Hong Shao Rou – Slow cooked pork belly

Making peanut brittle in the most authentic way possible!

Making peanut brittle in the most authentic way possible!

Sampling Crazy Chinese Fruits for Desert. (Edible part of the Lotus Flower)

Sampling crazy Chinese fruits for. (It’s the edible part of the Lotus Flower)

Swanky Karaoke Club Entrance. When it comes to Karaoke, China ain't horsin' around!!

Swanky karaoke club entrance. When it comes to Karaoke, China ain’t horsin’ around!!

Another highlight was a weekend “getaway” to Hangzhou Melissa (Monnie’s friend), who is originally from Fujian province in the South of China. I was hoping to escape city-life for a weekend, but it turned out that “getting away” got me to a city that had more people than NYC and all of it’s surrounding boroughs combined. Hangzhou is a city about 100 miles outside of Shanghai, though it only took us about an hour to get there by train. At one point on the train, I looked up and a saw a sign that displayed our current speed: 296km/hr. Impressive! China has something like 16-18 high-speed trains; the U.S. has some work to do to catch up! With 1.4 billion people, 24 million in Shanghai alone, I understand China’s commitment to building efficient modes of public transportation from their subways to high-speed trains that run like arteries throughout China. Once we arrived in Hangzhou, we explored around their famous Xi Hu (West Lake) and their historic temples dating back thousands of years (though many have been restored in the last decade).

 

Melissa and me exploring West Lake in Hangzhou during our weekend getaway

Melissa and me exploring West Lake in Hangzhou during our weekend getaway

stone buddah and me

Medicine Buddha in Hangzhou

Medicine Buddha in Hangzhou

Practicing my kungfu moves with the ancient stone statue. Statue 1, Donna 0.

Practicing my kungfu moves with the ancient stone statue. Statue 1, Donna 0.

Stone Lion from Hangzhou

Stone Lion from Hangzhou

My time in Shanghai flew by and I felt that I had hardly scratched the surface. The good news is that I’ll be heading back there with Brandon, my mom and his mom in a few short weeks to show them a few highlights in the city before we take a local airline to Zhangjiajie for a week long tour. Shanghai has changed significantly since my mom lived there nearly 30 years ago, so I am looking forward to showing her, Brandon and his mom the new Shanghai that I so fortunately had the chance to explore with the amazing friends that I met here over the past three weeks!

 

 

 

Categories: China, Shanghai | 1 Comment

Welcome to Chile

Have some down time (read: surf isn’t good today) and thought I’d share a post about my leaving Bariloche and heading to Chile.

 

After hiking back to reality from Frey everyone was down for what Argentina does best: a big steak cooked at a Parilla.  If you are in Bariloche then the go-to spot for a charred hunk of meat is El Boliche “de Alberto”.  The entire crew ate dinner there and followed it up with a few beers.

 

A must stop in Parilla experience in Bariloche

A must stop in Parilla experience in Bariloche

The complete crew together at Alberto's.  Tsungsu, myself, Luke, Kevi, Tom, Barbara and Vincenz

The complete crew together at Alberto’s. Tsungsu, myself, Luke, Kevi, Tom, Barbara and Vincenz

 

The next day I had just one goal, to buy a bus ticket.  My plan was to head to Osorno, Chile and along the journey decide if I wanted to head to Nevados de Chillán for more snow chasing at the mountain in South America that consistently receives the most snowfall (it’s like the Mount Baker of the Andes) or if I should head to Reñaca where my cousin Matti lives.  The economic turmoil in Argentina leads to frequent strikes one of which was scheduled by bus drivers for the next 2 days, but the Chilean companies were still operating, so I was good to go.  That evening I relaxed at my hotel, La Luna, and reflected on what an awesome time I had in Bariloche, meeting amazing people and taking in the sights at such a gorgeous place.  I have no doubt that I will one day return to Bariloche!

The hosteleria & cervezeria La Luna, where I stayed for over a week

The hosteleria & cervezeria La Luna, where I stayed for over a week

The view from the hotel room after returning from Frey

The view from the hotel room after returning from Frey

Lake Nahuel Huapi

A serene view of Lake Nahuel Huapi from the bus stop by La Luna

 

One thing I have to say about buses in Argentina & Chile: they are awesome.  Obviously buses are slower than flying, which for an American spending their 2 weeks-a-year vacation in South America makes them a poor choice, but the plus side is they are cheap and really comfortable and perfect for someone where time is less of the essence.  I spent just over $20 to get to Osorno and during the ride made the decision to head to Viña and meet up with Matti instead of journeying to Chillán via 3 more bus rides.  This seemed to me a more simple and relaxing plan, plus I’d get to spend more time with Matti.  My subsequent bus ticket to Viña de Mar was a whooping $37 for a cama seat (cama means bed and implies the seat fully reclines).  Of course the entire journey took about 24 hours including a 8 hour “layover” in Osorno, but the price was right!

 

welcome to chile-8

Monster buses are comfortable and cheap for getting around South America

 

 

One other tidbit about travelling internationally that is a relatively new development and worth mentioning is how easy modern cell phones enable connecting with people and finding your way around a foreign nation.  Before leaving on my trip I bought a Samsung Galaxy S5 unlocked phone.  That it is unlocked is key because it enables me to go to new countries and just plug in inexpensive pre-paid SIM cards, which gives me a local cell phone number and data access!  Having a local number is more convenient and way, way cheaper than dealing with international roaming.  Firstly, people in the country you’re visiting can text and call you with no problem whereas they won’t make an international call to your US number.  Secondly, its much, much cheaper: in Argentina I spent a total of about $20 for the entire month and with no problems was able to use 10MB per day of data.  I made calls to hotels and sent texts to people I’d met.  The first stop Donna and I made in Argentina was to the cell phone store and once I got to Osorno I ditched my Argentina SIM card and bought a Chilean SIM and plan for $10 so now I had a Chilean number and 200MB of data to use for the next 15 days!  The convenience is amazing — I’ve been using Google Maps to get directions and pinpoint my location while on the road, I’ve sent texts with locals to meet up at surf destinations, and I’ve been in constant communication via WhatsApp with Donna (in Shanghai) and Matti.  Also the coverage, especially for data, has been surprisingly good and speedy throughout all the places I’ve been so far.  Furthermore, international calling is no problem anyplace with halfway decent Wi-Fi, just use Skype and pay nothing to call other Skypers and about like $0.02/minute to call normal phone numbers anywhere in the world. All of this would have not been easily possible 8 years ago when I was last backpacking around the world and it is a development I really like!

 

The journey was uneventful.  I spent my layover in Osorno getting my Chilean phone number and then in typical digital nomad style: relaxing at a coffee shop with Wi-Fi and outlets.  Before I knew it 24 hours had past and I was getting picked up at the bus station on Friday morning in Viña del Mar by Matti and Berner.

 

Matti, Berner and myself

Matti, Berner and myself

 

This was my first time meeting Berner, Matti’s husband of ~3 months, and my first time seeing her new life in Chile.  For those of you who don’t know, Matti is my first cousin on my dad’s side (daughter of my dad’s sister Anneleis) and she is Dutch, having lived in Utrecht for most of her life.  Matti met Berner about a year and a half ago because they both worked at the same restaurant in Holland as chefs.  Yes, they both cook awesomely well and I’ve been eating like a king since arriving here!  Berner is culturally Dutch and has lived in Holland his entire life, but both of his parents are from Chile and much of his extended family lives here in Reñaca.  Shortly before starting to date Matti, Berner and his brother Mattías, who like Berner had lived in Holland his entire life, took the opportunity to buy into a family-owned restaurant in Reñaca called Delirio.  Reñaca is an upscale, beachside, tourist town just adjacent to Viña del Mar, which is just adjacent to the larger port city of Valparaíso, which is about an hour or so from Santiago.  The landscape in Reñaca reminds me of southern California, with green hills dotted with condos and homes and a nice whitesand beach with good surf.   Upon buying into the restaurant, Berner first moved to Chile and then Matti followed him about 3 months later and within a year and after some visa issues, they got married.

 

Renaca has the look and feel of a SoCal town like Laguna Beach.

Renaca has the look and feel of a SoCal town like Laguna Beach.

The view from Matti's apartment balcony.

The view from Matti’s apartment balcony.

There is a good surf spot at the north end of La Playa Renaca.

There is a good surf spot at the north end of La Playa Renaca.

This is the restaurant that Berner and his brother Mattias bought into and are now running.

This is the restaurant that Berner and his brother Mattias bought into and are now running.

Matti has adjusted quickly to Chile within the 7 months she’s been and here and her Spanish is already way better than mine.  Since getting a job seemed out of the question (restaurant worker jobs pay very little in Chile), Matti and Berner decided to open a to-go sandwicheria right next door to Delirio.  They are calling the place “Matti”, which I think is a good name as it lends personality shop and is easy for Chileans to pronounce.  The plan is to sell sell a variety of high-quality lunch items and dessert items to the affluent and increasingly health conscious local populace.  Matti noted to me that these kinds of establishments are already sprouting up in Santiago, so she is extrapolating the trend to the Reñaca and expecting that there will be demand for high quality foods amongst the tourist, well-to-do residents, and blue collar workers of Reñaca.  The sandwicheria is not ready for business yet and both Matti and Berner have been working everyday to finish the remodel and they plan to open the doors by mid-September (right around when I leave, bummer!)  I’ve had the tasty job of helping Matti test some of the new dulces (desserts) that she is going to sell at the new restaurant.  Luckily I’ve been completely able to self-entertain while they work, exploring the coast for good waves!  I find it very admirable what they are doing; I hope to one day be an entrepreneur and build something from scratch, and here is my younger cousin, taking a huge risk moving to a foreign country where she doesn’t even speak the language and starting her own business.  I wish her and Berner the best of success and from what I can tell they will find it!

 

The new spot

Matti showing me the inside of her sandwicheria, Matti

 

They used salvaged wood for one wall in there shop and here Matti is cleaning it before applying a finish.

They used salvaged wood for one wall in there shop and here Matti is cleaning it before applying a finish.

Berner painting the outside of Matti

Berner painting the outside of Matti

Matti whipping up desserts for testing purposes. I was stoked to be a taster!

Matti whipping up desserts for testing purposes. I was stoked to be a taster!

Chile is a long country, measuring about 2,600 miles from north to south but averaging only about 110 miles wide.  The Andes rip through the entirety of the eastern portion of the country so skiing is good and of course that long coastline is rife with surf opportunities.  The buses are great, but if you want to surf a variety of waves you pretty much have to have car.  Thus I knew I needed to rent something and obtaining a suitable vehicle for surf & snow strikes was priority #1 for me upon getting settled in Reñaca.  Luckily for me, Berner was able to dial in a local rental company which offered up a 4×4 for the great price of $23 per day.  The downside is lowsey gas mileage of about 17 mpg and with gas prices ~$8 per gallon, it will be expensive to keep her going.  You win some, you lose some.  At any rate, I’m glad to have the 4×4, you know, just-in-case…

 

This is my whip in Chile.  Not bad for $23 per day!

This is my whip in Chile. Not bad for $23 per day!

A view towards the north and Renaca from central Vina del Mar.

A view towards the north and Renaca from central Vina del Mar.

 

One evening Matti and I headed to Valparaíso to get a have a nice dinner.  I knew nothing about the city, but we landed in a pretty cool neighborhood called Cerro Alegro.  Valparaíso is a city of hills and this particular hill had a very Bohemian feel to it, a destination for artists with many shops selling artwork and a number of cute restaurants all connected via a maze of cobblestone streets.  Matti and I got lost for a bit walking around in the labyrinth of cobbled alleys decorated with colorful murals.  The food was only so-so; Chile is simply does not compare to neighbor Argentina in the culinary arts.

 

Cerro Alegro

Valparaiso is a city of hills. This is the view north from Cerro Alegro.

Valparaiso

This was a particularly cool alleyway staircase in the labyrinth of Valparaiso

 

I’ve spent the last week or so driving around in the Jeep and getting familiar with the coast surrounding Reñaca.  The weather has been pretty poor since I’ve arrived, with only the first two days I was here being sunny and the rest being cloudy with off and on rain showers.  It has rained at some point everyday for the past 5 days but still the surfing has been fun.  I’ve found some good waves and I am learning what wind and swell conditions mean for the different spots, all good information that enters the surf database I maintain in my head that will come in handy every time I come to Reñaca.  I’ll save the pics and details of what I’ve found surf-wise for another post…

 

The more typical weather during the bulk of my stay in Renaca thus far.

The more typical weather during the bulk of my stay in Renaca thus far.

We took a roadtrip to a small seaside village called Quintay south of Vina del Mar where scuba diving is a common activity.

We took a roadtrip to a small seaside village called Quintay south of Vina del Mar where scuba diving is a common activity.

Two nights ago (as I write this on the morning of Friday, September 5) was the 3-year party for Delirio.  What was noteworthy for me was the many compliments I received on my functional Spanish.  I’m definitely very gringo when I speak, but as I was meeting many friends of the family of Berner I was completely able to having meaningful conversations.  It felt good!  Also it was great to meet the many new people who make up my new extended family, I already feel very connected here in Chile, which is a great country rich in opportunities for both adventure and business!

 

Finally, last night Berner, Matti and I went back to Cerro Alegro in Valparaíso to eat at Samsara, the Thai restaurant Matti and I meant to try the previous time but couldn’t because they had no tables for us.  The food was pretty good, although surprisingly Chile doesn’t like spicy food, so the curry sauces were overly sweet compared for my liking, but it was still very good.  I’ll finish with the below picture of Matti and I.  Today I take off on a Chilean road trip to look for surf and snow.

 

We had a nice Thai dinner at Samsara in Cerro Alegro.

We had a nice Thai dinner at Samsara in Cerro Alegro.

 

Categories: Argentina, Bariloche, Chile, Reñaca | 1 Comment

Refugio Frey

From my good friend Grant Gary I learned that in the mountains behind Bariloche there exists a refugio, or mountain hut, open to all and surrounded by epic backcountry ski terrain.  A quick Google search confirmed its existence and awesomeness.  Called Refugio Frey, the hut is operated by Bariloche’s Club Andino and it even has it’s own Facebook page (check out here).  Even more incredible, I learned that the hut is open year round and operated with a fully stocked kitchen where the refugieros will make you breakfast lunch and dinner and even serve beer and wine, all for a very reasonable price. Of course you can also bring your own food and just pay a small fee for use of the kitchen, or even just camp outside the hut and pay absolutely.   The hut is extremely popular in the summer for trekkers and rock climbers but is also increasingly very popular in the winter as off piste skiing grows in popularity.  At any rate, this sounded like heaven on Earth to me and I knew I would surely pay Refugio Frey a visit while in the Bariloche area.

 

Refugio Frey and beautiful peaks that surround the isolated mountain hut

Refugio Frey and beautiful peaks that surround the isolated mountain hut

 

Originally the plan was for Donna to come along as well.  She was fully prepared with backpack, touring skis and sleeping bag, but, as revealed in her previous post, she made a last minute decision to go to China for intensive, full-immersion Chinese school in order to ensure acing INSEAD’s foreign language requirement exam.   Donna was very disappointed to miss out on a trip to the Frey as her backcountry skills were enhanced and love for ski touring fostered during an adventure last May to the West Fjords of Iceland (see this post for a sneak peak trailer of an eventually-going-be produced video that adventure!) It would have been awesome to share the experience with her, but rest assured she is having a great time in Shanghai!

 

donna bootpacking iceland

Donna bootpacking up an Icelandic snowfield

donna skiing iceland

Donna earned her turns in Iceland. She loves backcountry skiing!

 

After Donna left I did two more days at Cerro Catedral on my own.   The weather forecast kept calling for rain which resulted in me hesitating on hiking into Frey.  The first day at Cerro there were gorgeous clouds both covering Lake Nahuel Huapi below and whisping above the resort. It was clear to me why they named the crown jewel chairlift of Cerro Catedral Nubes, which means clouds in Spanish!  The second day the upper part of the resort, the only part with skiable terrain, was completely enveloped in the cloud and there was basically no visibility; I just did 6 groomer laps on the Nubes chair with my friend Miles and called it day.

 

The view from the top of Nubes chair on a cloudy laden day give credence to its name

The view from the top of Nubes chair on a cloud-laden day give credence to its name

Gorgeous pic, I've been impressed with the quality from my Samsung S5

Gorgeous pic, I’ve been impressed with the quality from my Samsung S5

 

After getting skunked with no visibilty on Friday and having been tricked by the weather forecast again, I decided to hike to the Frey rain or shine the next day.  I packed up my backpack with the “essentials”, which for me is way too much stuff as I still haven’t effectively learned the minimalist approach.  My back paid the price due to an overly heavy pack!  I walked from my hosteleria to the hitchhike spot and got a ride from a local to the ski resort.  I found the trailhead behind the main parking lot and began the 4 hour hike in.  The hike was beautiful and I greatly enjoyed the solitude and being surrounded by nature.

(remember you can click on a photo on the gallery and then browse through the photos in full res!)

 

 

I arrived to a hut that was bustling with activity.  First I met the refugiero, Vasco, who told me to pick my bunk by throwing my sleeping bag on it.  I took a short siesta and came down to socialize.  There was a group of 3 Argentinian men that I shared cheese with who had trekked in and toured the area on snowshoes.  Then I met Luke, a 30-year old American from Atlanta who has been living in San Rafael, Argentina for the last 8 months as he is working to produce a film based on an adaptation of a Daniel Fermani novel. Luke had hiked in with Vincenz, a 24-year old German who is spending the summer snowboarding in South America before he starts a masters program in Stuttgart, Germany.  The two young guys had met each other at a popular Bariloche hostel, although Vincenz would just hang out at the hostel to socialize since he was couch surfing (which means staying for free on a local’s couch! … www.couchsurfing.org  enables this was the genesis of the hugely successful AirBnB company!)  Vincenz and Luke were speaking Spanish to each other, but once I entered the scene the language naturally switched to English.  I wasn’t really happy about this as I should’ve been practicing my Spanish, but my discipline in forcing myself to speak Spanish at all times is rather weak.  It seems English is always the common denominator in mixed groups, which can make it that much harder to learn a foreign language whenever hanging with other foreigners.  After drinking some mate in walksKevin, a 37-year old avalanche forecaster hailing from Jackson Hole who I had met the previous day through I sign I put up at Club Andino in order to find backcountry ski partners.  Kevin had chosen to get to the Frey via the shorter route, which entails going up to the top of the Nubes chair at Cerro Catedral and hiking along the ridges in order to come in the back way.  I had heard this was possible, but you have to be kind of a badass to do it without a guide for your first time; Kevin fit that bill!  That evening I had a huge pizza prepared by Vasco and slept like a baby.

my ghetto note

The ghetto note I put up at Club Andino when I was desperate to find backcountry ski partners. Turns out all I really needed to do was go to the Frey!

The next morning was foggy and we were supposed to have some weather.  By about noon it was lightly snowing!  Since it was Sunday and the next day was a work day, most of the Argentinians cleared out.  Vasco mentioned that we were lucky that there would only be about 6 people in the Frey that night because lately it has been very crowded, including almost 40 people just 2 weeks prior!  By 11am Vincenz, Luke, Kevin and I ventured out to go exploring.  We made it pretty high up, exploring the higher Laguna Schmoll area and had a decent run down. Visibility was bad so there wasn’t much “getting after it” to be done, but the whole time spirits were high as we saw snow accumulate.

 

 

Back at the hut by mid afternoon, I chilled out.  The snow stopped falling and we had a few new arrivals.  First a British couple in late thirties, Thomas and Barbara, arrived.  They have been in South America since about April chasing good rock for climbing and skiing. They showed me pictures of a Sprinter van they bought a few months back in Santiago and had converted into a camper, complete with a wood burning stove!  They’d been living in the van for the past few months while they traveled around; super cool!  You can check their blog out here.  The other arrival was Tsungsu, a 33-year old Taiwanese guy whose been living and working in Germany for the past decade.  I had also run into him a couple of days back at Club Andino in Bairloche and thought he might show up.  We had quiet the eclectic international crew staying in the Frey that evening!

 

Around 4pm the weather cleared a bit and Kevin, Luke and Thomas decided to climb the Principal chute and then skit down.  The rest of us watched as they slowly made their way up the ~1000 foot slope but we couldn’t see the decent as clouds moved back in!  Spirits were good though as we had about 4 inches of new snow and bluebird skies expected the next day.

 

 

We were not disappointed.  The next day I skied 2 couloirs and did a few more runs in the La Piedra Inclinida area, laying down fresh tracks on every run.  I was out all day and came back to the hut around 4pm exhausted.  The photos speak for themselves, but the one bit worth mentioning is that the dust-over-crust snow conditions made for difficult skinning and somehwat treacherous boot-packing.  The skinning conditions were as difficult as the crust just below the soft powder wasn’t conducive to edging so bootpacking was really the only way to get up the 30+ degree couloirs.  I didn’t have crampons so I took my time and followed already laid-down bootpack trails.  Slipping in some areas would’ve been disastrious as the slopes were steep and I had no way to arrest making impact with rocks likely in many areas.  Next time I go into conditions like that I will have crampons and an ice axe for sure!

 

panoramic-1

Panorama looking over the backside of Principal

Panorama from the top of La Piedra Inclinada.  Cerro Toronador is highest peak in the area and visible to the right.

Panorama from the top of La Piedra Inclinada. Cerro Toronador is highest peak in the area and visible to the right.

By the end of the afternoon a bunch of more people showed up, probably because of the good conditions for trekking and the allure of some freshies.  Thankfully we had done our best to track the couloirs out!  Our tight knit group of 7 was suddenly sharing the same space with 20 more people!  The entire operation was run amazingly efficiently as Vasco and another refugiero whipped up enough pizzas and pasta to feed everyone.  Those guys are incredible!  One of the groups that arrived was a guided tour of 6 Americans and Canadians who were accompanied by two pro skiers: Eric Hjorleifson and Chris Rubens.  It was cool hanging out with the two pros, they were very down to earth and I didn’t even realize who they were for awhile as we talked about Argentina, skiing and surfing.  I also played a few games of chess and won my first two, which made me el champeon until the point that Vasco caught wind of my success and challenged me.  He handidly beat me within about 25 moves.  Later in the evening Vincenz had the cool idea of taking some long exposure photos to capture the images of the stars and Milky Way.  During the 30 second exposure one person would run out in front of the camera and pose while someone else would quickly shine a light on them for a few seconds, which made for some cool shots.

 

 

The next day it was time to go.  I probably would’ve stayed an extra night or two, except I had only brought 1000 pesos (or about $75) with me and I was close to that limit on my tab, so I had to leave.  Everyone else in our group had the same vibe, having scored great conditions the previous day and being somewhat put off by the newly arrived crowds.  Luke, Kevin, an Tsungsu decided to exit the “short” way along the ridge but I didn’t want feel like scaring myself with such a heavy back on gnarly Andes ridgelines, so I walked out with Vincenz and a Singaporean girl named Athena who had walked in the previous afternoon.  The hike was actually kind of gnarly with so much ice on the walkway and I again wished for crampons, but managed to navegate with falling.

 

All in the experience was awesome.  Refugio Frey is an amazing place and it is great to know that places like this exist in the world.  To the refugieros who run the hut I send my most sincere respect and good tidings!

 

 

Categories: Argentina, Bariloche | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Exciting Changes

 

Although Brandon and I had a rough plan drawn together for our year of travels, we were gifted with good news in Bariloche when I learned that INSEAD admitted me into their program beginning January 2015!!

 

insead logo

 

a toast to celebrate

Upon learning the news just after Spanish school on a Friday, Brandon immediately bought a bottle of Champers to celebrate!

 

So what does this mean for the Radical Sabbatical? Some changes. Firstly, the one-year of uninterrupted travel is now 5 months as Brandon and I move to Fontainebleau, France in early January where I start business school. Secondly, I have left Argentina early and I am currently in Shanghai to brush up on my Mandarin in intensive reading/writing/speaking classes for the next three weeks. Brandon will continue to ski and surf his way around South America, hiking to Refugios in Patagonia before making his way to Santiago to see his cousin, Matti and finally the coast of Chile to surf. I expect that we’ll see some amazing photos in his next post!

From there, Brandon and I meet again in mid September in San Francisco for Jess Sawhney and Ganesh’s wedding!! I’m looking forward to celebrating their big day with so many good friends who will all be gathering in the Bay Area. We are also looking forward to seeing many of you in San Francisco during the second half of September!

Next up from will be a post from Shanghai !!!

 

donna cheering in front of centro civico

Heel kicks of happiness in front of Bariloche’s Centro Civico

 

donna cheering in front of lake nahuel huapi

More heel kicks of happiness in front of Lake Nahuel Huapi !!

Categories: Argentina, Bariloche, INSEAD | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Beautiful Bariloche

It’s difficult to know where to begin writing about Bariloche to give the place the description it deserves! My hope is that through the writing and photos in this post, you will all have a good understanding of a few things this amazing place has to offer and that you will one day visit. There’s something for everyone here!

As I write this, Brandon and I have enjoyed just over two weeks in Bariloche, Argentina, which falls in the northern section of Patagonia. We decided to give full immersion Spanish learning a try in Bariloche, signing up for a homestay and Spanish school. We lucked out with our decision – Mara (our homestay mother) welcomed us into her home with open arms. Every morning, we woke up to breathtaking views of Lake Nahuel Huapi from her balcony followed by a light breakfast and every flavor of tea you could imagine. For mate drinkers, there’s no shortage of mate in Argentina. Every night, Mara home-cooked a massive spread of dinner ranging from traditional empanadas and pizzas to Argentinian beef paired with potatoes and Argentinian-styled shepards pie. I will certainly miss her cooking.  Naturally, I befriended Mara’s cat, Poncho, spending many hours relaxing with him at the house. It was a full house. In addition to the two of us and Mara, her two daughters, Belen and Paula were also living there for the ski season which made it a lot of fun for Brandon and me to learn about life in Bariloche. Additionally, Mara is renting another two rooms to Martin, an Argentine who works as a ski instructor, and Gonzalo, who returned to Bariloche from Buenos Aires to work at Cerro Catedral for the South America winter. Nightly dinner discussions ran the gamut from conversations around their healthcare system to the government’s decision two years ago to limit the possession of USD among the Argentinians. On the lighter side, we learned about the history of Cerro Catedral and where to ski. We also learned about Bariloche in the summer: epic mountain bike trails, white water rafting, sailing on Lake Naguel Huapei and accessing hidden beaches, and waterfalls along day-long hikes through the mountains. For nature lovers, it’s breathtaking and all here at your fingertips to enjoy!

Panoramic sunrise captured from the balcony of our home stay: Casa de Mara

Panoramic sunrise captured from the balcony of our home stay: Casa de Mara

View from the dining room. Pancho is a lucky cat and he knows it.

View from the dining room. Pancho is a lucky cat and he knows it.

Brandon in front of our Bariloche homestay: Casa de Mara!

Brandon in front of our Bariloche homestay: Casa de Mara!

Fine wining, dining and conversing in Casa de Mara! We enjoyed a traditional Argentinian Asado (bbq) cooked by Gonzalo!

Fine wining, dining and conversing in Casa de Mara! On this night we enjoyed a traditional Argentinian Asado (bbq) cooked by Gonzalo!

Looking regal and majestic, this is Pancho, the king of Casa de Mara!

Looking regal and majestic, this is Pancho, the king of Casa de Mara!

 

Fireworks on the last day of a SnowFest celebration in Bariloche. The Cathedral is beautifully lit on the right!

Fireworks on the last day of a SnowFest celebration in Bariloche. The Cathedral is beautifully lit on the right!

Sunset from Casa de Mara!

Sunset from Casa de Mara!

More Bariloche sunsets!

More Bariloche sunsets!

Surf-able waves on Lake Naguel Huapei!

Surf-able waves on Lake Naguel Huapei!

 

Brandon and I filled our weekday mornings in an intensive Spanish school at the Academia Bariloche (muchas gracias to Mike Stewart for the recommendation). My Spanish went from hola and gracias to a few full sentences and Brandon’s has improved drastically! Because Brandon was the only intermediate student signed up for the course the last two weeks, he had private lessons with his Professor, Sol (pictured below). For my first week, I had solo lessons with my Professor Fatima before Stefano, an Italian, joined my class the second week. Although Stefano and I had the same number of hours learning Spanish (approximately 15 hours EVER), he picked up the language as if he knew it from a prior life. Clearly because Italian is so similar to Spanish, those speaking Italian can pick up Spanish faster than English speakers! Overall the Spanish school was challenging and I found that I enjoy learning a new languages and I hope to continue to study Spanish over the coming months.

The last day of class was interactive as we played guessing games entirely over Spanish where I overused the phrase, “Como se dice en espanol?” Also on “graduation day,” we learned to make beef empanadas, so when Brandon and I return to SF or visit any of you in your respective cities, we promise to whip up some homemade, piping hot empanadas!

 

Interactive Spanish Learning. Do you know what we are??

Interactive Spanish Learning. Do you know what we are??

Brandon's Spanish teacher, Sol, explaining to him the difference between the Objeto Directo and Objeto Indirecto at Academia Bariloche

Brandon’s Spanish teacher at Academia Bariloche, Sol.

 

Learning to make empanadas with our classmates on the last day of Spanish school!

Learning to make empanadas with our classmates on the last day of Spanish school!

 

A Bariloche post wouldn’t be complete without discussing the massive quantities of beer that this town produces!  When we decided to come to Bariloche it was primarily because we wanted to check out northern Patagonia and do some skiing.  Unbeknown to us, Bariloche also happens to be a beer connoissuer’s heaven, which certainly made Brandon very happy.  In the Bariloche area there are no less than 20 ceverzerias.  Here, being a ceverzeria means that you make your own beer, which is kind of like a micro-brew in California, except the beer they make here they call “artesenal” and it is basically homebrew.  Each of the ceverzerias makes an assortment of different beers, with negros (black Stouts and Porters), ales (pale ale, IPA, blondes), and rubias (reds, Scottish) being the most popular.  Brandon has tried about 30 different kinds of beers so far like he is on some kind of crusade to try them all.  Also, for us the beer is cheap!  Everyplace has happy hours that begin around 6pm and go until about 9pm and you can get pints for $2.  So awesome!

A colorful assortment of Patagonia Cervezas!

A colorful assortment of Patagonia Cervezas!

Brandon enjoying a Cerveza at one of our favorite Cervezaria's in town, Manush. Beer flows like water in this town (and costs just as much)!

Brandon enjoying a Cerveza at one of our favorite Cervezaria’s in town, Manush. Beer flows like water in this town (and costs just as much)!

Cervezaria Manush

Cervezaria Manush

Brandon having (another) Cerveza on the coast of Lake Nahuel Huapi.

Brandon having (another) Cerveza

Finally, one last fun activity that filled an afternoon was biking El Circuito.  This was about a 25km ride that loops around the western part of Bariloche, half of which is a protected, undeveloped forest.  The glacier carved land here is rather with frequent ups and downs which made the ride a tad harder than perhaps we expected.  During the ride we visited the famous Loao Loao hotel, made frequent stops to “take it all in”, found Lago Escondida (Hidden Lake), and were able to get a real feel for the land.  I think I originally thought that everything would be too cold and snowy for biking here in Bariloche, but the lake is only about 1500 feet in elevation and so even in the winter it has proven warm and nice enough to go biking.  I love Bariloche!

 

Taking in the beautiful views from our cycling tour

Taking in the beautiful views from our cycling tour

Brandon taking in the Bariloche landscape

Brandon taking in the Bariloche landscape

Biking!

Taking a panoramic break along El Circuto.

View from the top of our bike ride... and I thought SF was hilly...

View from the top of our bike ride… and I thought SF was hilly…

Categories: Argentina, Bariloche | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing at Cerro Catedral

Donna looks up at me near the top of Nubes with gorgeous Lake Nahuel Huapi in the background.

Donna looks up at me near the top of Nubes with gorgeous Lake Nahuel Huapi in the background.

There are two reasons you need to come to Bariloche, Argentina and a 3rd reason why you need to come right now.  The first is that Bariloche is an epic beer town.  More on that to come in a different post, but suffice to say, there are over 20 cervezerias that each make their own assortment of “artesenal” homebrews.  You could literally drink a new beer here everyday of the year, it’s awesome.  The second reason is what this post is all about: Cerro Catedral is a big, bad-ass ski mountain, with over 2,800 acres of terrain and easily accessible off piste terrain if you’re willing to hike or skin a little.  Finally, the reason you need to come right now is that Argentina’s economic woes mean your dollar is stronger (and more needed here) than ever; see this article for more info for why you can get 35% more for your dollar if your bring Benjamin’s down here and exchange them at the so-called “blue rate”.

Cerro Catedral is the reason most people make the trek to Bariloche in the winter months.  It’s pretty much the Aspen of South America, which means its a big ski destination but with its own quirks and a distinctively Latin flair.  One of the oddest quirks is that it is a right of passage for graduating high school students from around Argentina and even Brasil to come to Bariloche for a spring-break-esque week of drinking and partying along with a stop at Cerro Catedral for a taste of skiing.  You can tell the estudiantes because they rove in large packs around town or at the mountain all wearing the same jacket so the supervisors can keep track of them.  Our friends Belen and Martin are ski instructors and detest the influx of obnoxious teenage partiers, mainly because teaching them to ski really sucks.  I guess the only bright side to their presence is that they bring lots of money to the town.  It’s like Bariloche is the equivalent of Cancun for Argentinians.

Large groups of Argentinian students roam Bariloche and the mountain on their right-of-passage bing-drinking trip upon graduation

Large groups of Argentinian students roam Bariloche and the mountain on their right-of-passage bing-drinking trip upon graduation

The most notable bit of Latin flair is that the lift lines are a kind of organized chaos.  Unlike in the US, where line separators keep things organized and groups of people take turns when merging, here it is just a huge free for all.  Get used to getting your skis or board stepped on and having to be a little aggressive at times to keep your place!  Another nuance is that trails aren’t really well marked, unlike in the US where everything is mapped out perfectly.  I guess in both these senses, the resort “feels” more European.

Lift line choas

Lift lines in South America are chaotic. You’d better be somewhat aggressive!

 

The other thing about Cerro is that it often closes lifts and sometimes almost the entire mountain due to high winds.  This is Patagonia and it is windy here.  The lift technology is, well, generally less awesome than the Doppelmayer high-speeders that you see everywhere at a place like Vail, and the mountain has had lift issues in the past so for safety’s sake they just close things down if there is too much wind.  If you’ve bought a ticket, too bad.  You need to watch weather forecasts closely to ensure you don’t get skunked.

The setup in Bariloche and Cerro Catedral is very Tahoe-ish.  There is a big gorgeous lake and a ski resort with picturesque views of said lake.  Like in Tahoe, the hope is always that the weather will stay cold enough for snow to fall instead of rain when precipitation comes, so it is ever important where what the freeze altitude will be.   Also like in Tahoe, all too often the freeze altitude is too high and you get rain on the mountain where you want to it to be snowing.  Unlike Tahoe, the town of Bariloche is pretty low at an altitude 900m (3000 feet), so it is rare to see town covered in snow.  The base of Catedral is at 1150m, mid-mountain is at 1650m and the top gets up to about 2100m, which is lower than the highest Tahoe resorts.  One shouldn’t be too scared by the initial view from the first chairlift from the bottom of the base, there is snow up top!

 

This is Patagonia and bone dry at the bottom is common.

This is Patagonia and bone dry at the bottom is common.

The conditions for our first day of skiing were great.  We skied on a Sunday and 2 weeks prior had seen about 6 feet of snowfall at the highest elevations.  The previous week while we were in Spanish school there were some epic days (read here) with even more new snow and then on Saturday night it snowed some more so there was a nice layer of about 6-8 inches of pulvo (powder) up top.  Donna and I woke up early and Canzalo, a housemate at Mara’s place, showed us how to take the collectivo to the mountain.

Speaking of the collectivo warrants a small side discussion about the difficulties getting to Cerro Catedral from town to ski.  First off, there isn’t a whole lot of accommodations at the base of the mountain so unless you’re willing to pay more well over $200 a night you won’t be ski-in / ski-out. Donna and I are on a budget, so that isn’t an option.  The real issue is that the mountain is a good 18 km from Bariloche proper and isolated at the end of a 10 km road, so you need to drive there.  So ideally you rent a car, but that’s at least 60 USD per day, so again not the best option for the budget traveler.  That leaves 2 remaining options: the collectivo or hitchhiking.  The collectivo is great, but only 1 per hour runs and it gets super crowded, so unless you are at the beginning of the line (as Mara’s house is) then it may just blow by you if its full.  Hitchhiking also works and the spot to get picked up is at the beginning of the 10 km road.  We did that on our second day of skiing.  It is great to see that hitchhiking still works; it has a bad rep in the USand its a shame that a few bad seeds can destroy such an amicable and useful way of getting around; but in places like Argentina has less of a stigma and that’s great because otherwise I don’t know what we would’ve done!  Getting back to town from the mountain can be just as tricky, but there is one big collectivo line and we had more luck taking the collectivo back to town.  Finally, given that it is a big pain in the butt to ride a crowded bus or hitchhike with skis, poles and boots, it is worth mentioning that many people pay ~$6 / day to leave their gear in lockers at the mountain.  There are tons of lockers and this is a smart play if you are doing multiple days in a row without a car.

So Donna and I arrive early on our first day and have no problem getting tickets.  The mountain didn’t feel that crowded and we were up on some runs by about 9:30am!  The snow was great and it was bluebird… what more could one ask for!  We spent the first half of the day cruising around.  The view from the top of Nubes chair is breathtaking.  In the mid-afternoon we put on our skins and headed to the off piste area known as La Laguna.  There were guys throwing some big hucks back there that day the terrain was unreal, unlike anything I’ve seen so easily accessible from a resort except for at Revelstoke in Bristish Colombia.  We explored the area and then finished our day with a hot chocolate at a mid-mountain lodge before heading back down to the base via the gondola. 

Below is a gallery of pics from the first day.  Click the first pic and then you can browse through the remaining pics in full screen.

 

Over the following week it got significantly warm (40s at mid-mountain!) and there were also a couple of days when the mountain was altogether closed due to high winds.  We were in Spanish school, so it didn’t really affect us, though, but we hoped to be able to ski again that weekend.  The mountain ended up being closed both Saturday and Sunday, but Monday had gorgeous weather and so we hit it again.  At this point we had left Mara’s and were staying near to the beginning of the 10 km road, so we hitchhiked up with our gear, thanks to the nice Brazilian dude who picked us up.  We got to the mountain a little late, at like 10:30am, and did not not anticipate how fricken’ crowded it would be.  Apparently that Monday was an Argentine holiday and combined with the mountain being closed all weekend, there were lots of hungry skiers.  Additionally it was WARM and the mountain looked significantly more barren thanks to melting over the previous week.  It was a total spring condition day, so being late wasn’t actually that bad since the snow softened up nicely for us by the time we got our first run in around noon.  Yes, it took 1.5 hours to get to our first run after arriving as the line to buy lift tickets was 45 minutes and then the base to mid-mountain chair line (pictured at the beginning of this post) was another 45 minutes.  But we had a great day nonetheless, cruising the mountain and getting nice turns on the non-icy northwestern aspects.

At the end of the day we headed to the Catedral Apres-Ski, which is more like a club.  They literally shut out the light with huge drapes and rage like its a 3am discoteca in Buenos Aires from 5-8pm.  Pretty hilarious, really.

Gallery from Day 2 at Cerro Catedral is below.

 

Also here is quick GoPro edit of some skiing / boarding action from Day 2.

 

 

Next up I look forward to getting more into the backcountry, as there is seemingly limitless terrain to explore and lots of like-minded ski tourers to join in the fun!

 

 

Categories: Argentina, Bariloche | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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