chilling feet

chilling feet

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Vietnam: The First Half of our Vietnam Trip

(Most of our trips revolve around trying to eat as
much of the local food as we can. Vietnam was
no exception and did not disappoint. Here we
are eating in an alleyway where some women had
set up shop - delicious)
As mentioned in our last post, Sarah and I have been looking forward to visiting Vietnam and Cambodia for quite some time now.  After a trip to Thailand we decided we wanted to see much more of Southeast Asia.

We booked our trip through a website, that in turn set us up with a company called Getaway Halong Sapa, a Vietnamese travel agency.  They planned out a North to South Vietnam experience with all sorts of fun adventures.  This was our first time using an agency to plan our trip for us and it was quite nice.  There was plenty of time for us to go off on our own to seek out various interests, while most of the more sought after locations were all planned out for us.  Airport transfers, hotels, tours, and all other details of this kind were meticulously planned out and ready for us to just show up.  When we had questions or our schedule needed to change due to weather, a person from Getaway was always super helpful.  I cannot recommend them highly enough should you find yourself planning your own trip to Vietnam and you want some help.

(Taken at the Hoa Lo Prison while looking at a
sculpture representing the many prisoners who
were held in this place over the years for
one reason or another)
Arriving in Hanoi at nighttime was kind of fun.  After an interesting ride watching the traffic patterns of mostly mopeds and vespas zip around in a seemingly "anywhere I want to go" sort of flow, we very much enjoyed being able to lie down flat and put our feet up after the long flight over - seriously, on both sides of our trip that first night in a bed is fantastic and something we look forward to eagerly.

The next morning we woke up and went to enjoy a free day in Hanoi.

The capital of Vietnam is home to around eight million people or so, it is a city busting from the seams with mopeds, the smell of food everywhere, and people selling anything you might be looking for in almost every direction.  First on our agenda was learning how to cross the street, which is actually much easier than it seems upon first glance.  The trick to it is really just walking out into traffic, within reason of course.  One must simply give the traffic enough time to merge and meld around you.  After doing this for a few days, Sarah being much better at it than I was, I realized watching her one day what that mental itch was I had been feeling.  Seeing her walk brazenly out into traffic and watching as the traffic flowed around her effortlessly, I had been reminded, though it took me some time to figure out of what, of the underwater scenes when a predatory shark or dolphin attacks a school of fish all grouped together.  The shark enters the ball of fish and the fish seamlessly morph around the bigger intruder.  Walking through a busy street in Hanoi looks just like this!  The mopeds just flow around you as you walk out.  Sarah made it look easy!

(One of the dishes we wanted to eat in Hanoi was
 Anthony Bourdain. The rec was
really good and we enjoyed the food)
All that to say, we made it across the street successfully to arrive at the first of many temples we would visit during our trip - Ngoc Son Temple.  Walking across a nice bridge that leads to this Buddhist temple on an island in a lake in downtown Hanoi is quite interesting.  The smell of incense fills the air as all of the other senses are overloaded in trying to take in the visual spectacle that we found most temples in Vietnam to be.  Ornate in architectural design and with bright colors covering every wall, roof, ceiling and in many cases floors, the temples are interesting to walk through.  They are so entirely different from the Judeo-Christian buildings that are scattered throughout our entire country, that I found myself thinking and feeling many unexpected things.  It is easy to become enamored by the mysterious symbols and statues strewn about the temple, at times in what seems like overly numerous representations of something clearly important but distinctly odd to my western mind.  With this temple as with many more we would visit, the number of tourists or other people visiting most certainly detracted from a person's ability to enjoy the sort of atmosphere that should exist at such a place, but I guess that goes with the territory.

(While visiting the ancient capital of Vietnam,
Sarah stops for a picture with a water buffalo)
Our first day was amazing.  We visited a quilt store Sarah had read about (she loves quilts and made one for the first time while we were at the South Pole), went by one of the many old propaganda stores (they sell copies of communist propaganda from the past, most of which are very interesting to look at), had our first local beer and cider, ate our first dish of real Vietnamese food on the street (pictured above with Sarah, this food was delicious), we went to one of the big markets in town (Sarah DID some shopping), stopped by at St. Joseph's Catholic church (where we stopped to listen to some people singing hymns in Vietnamese - amazing experience), visited a rooftop for another drink while overlooking the church and the square in front of it, and then made our way over to Hoa Lo Prison.  We got our walk on!

I pause at Hoa Lo Prison because this was the first of a few places we visited on our trip that were connected to the Vietnam war in some way.  This prison was used by the French to hold political prisoners and then afterward by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.  I thought it was quite the unique experience to visit sites like this as an American who learned about these events through a much different lens than the Vietnamese, especially in the North.  A very thought provoking visit, our time here started off a series of questions and a challenge to clear the historical cobwebs of what we were taught back in school.  Mostly we were just trying to remember our history lessons.

(From Tam Coc, this was taken during our
peaceful boat ride up a river to see these
wonderful mountains)
We finished our day by checking one of the Vietnamese foods we wanted to try off our list.  Bun Cha was the meal and I had read about online, as the picture above suggests, about a time when President Obama and Anthony Bourdain had eaten this very dish at a particular spot.  So we sought out the spot, were seated within about five seconds, ordered the bun cha with some drinks, and sat back to enjoy looking around the restaurant.  Small and with plenty of photos now hanging on the wall to commemorate the afore mentioned visit by famous guests, we very much enjoyed ourselves while we were there.  The food came out speedily, was super delicious, and the bill for the two of us (if memory serves) was only around two dollars each!  They certainly have not raised their prices since the their infamous visit and Bun Cha Huong Lien was well worth the trip.  Wish I could have some more right now.

For the most part I think we started off Vietnam in a pretty decent way.  There was surely some shopping and maybe even a water puppet show that first day I neglected to mention, but there is no lack of things to see or do in Hanoi.  The second day of our trip put us into full tour mode as we were beginning the first of many little excursions planned by Getaway Halong Sapa.

(Also in Tam Coc, taken during our bike ride)
The first of these took us up to Hao Lu (the original capital of Vietnam) and Tam Coc (a beautiful area with some great natural landscapes to see).  Our time a Hao Lu was nice as we wandered through a few ancient structures left over from the time when the capital of the country had been there.  We had a guide, Chi, who told us much about the history of Hao Lu and the people who ruled there.  The picture of Sarah riding the water buffalo was taken on the grounds at Hao Lu. 

Once we were done at Hoa Lu we jumped back in our tour van and drove for a little while until we arrived in Tam Coc.  Here we started our time by getting into a small boat and heading up river.  As soon as our boat made it about 100 meters up the river, we almost immediately felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere.  If not for the other few boats going up and down the river the scene would have been complete.  The picture above of Sarah in her hat gives an idea of what this was like but fails to capture the overall mystery this place seemed to posses.  To complete the slightly odd but interesting aspect of this area, the people rowing our boats mostly did so with their feet!  I had never seen this done before but they had pretty much perfected the technique.  When our boat ride was over we jumped on some of the most ridiculously rickety bikes I've ever been on to go out and explore the countryside.  Like being in the boat, this gave us another way to see an extremely breathtaking part of this world.  While it was too muddy to take some of the roads we were hoping to explore, the few we did wound their way through rural countryside of Northern Vietnam and they were fascinating (see the picture of Sarah riding).
(Halong Bay)
Once our time in the Tam Coc countryside was over, we headed back to Hanoi and went out to our first night market (I think almost every town we stayed in had their own version).  Sarah could have stayed for days shopping these stalls.  I tire quickly of shopping but as long as we stop periodically for some food or a cold drink I can usually muster up some strength.

(Sarah and I in Surprise Cave in Halong Bay)
The next day we were off to Halong Bay, which our guide told us means "descending dragon" - pretty dang cool.  Before our trip I was most excited about seeing Halong Bay because as I looked at pictures of the places we would be visiting, and the images from this bay resonated with what I love most about traveling.  Seeing a place for the first time that is so significantly different from what I am used to seeing, that experiencing this new location forces a person to consider themselves seriously in relation to a greater world.  The world is bigger than the quaint lake my family lived off of when we grew up in a small town in Ohio, though somehow taking in the mysterious mist ridden islands of Halong Bay (oh and there are just under 2,000 islands in this bay) somehow allows memories of a place like my childhood lake to be that much sweeter.  For the big movie watchers, anyone who has seen the movie Kong: Skull Island will recognize Halong Bay as it was the home for one of the most infamously giant gorillas of all-time.

(Tough to get good pics of us while kayaking)
While we were in Halong Bay we stayed the night on a boat, which was pretty much the only way to see the bay except for maybe by helicopter.  Relaxing, taking in all of the unbelievable views, gliding through Kong's lair, and eating delicious Vietnamese food on the boat was way too much fun.  We even started off our second day on the boat with a morning of Tai Chi, which was really neat and invigorating.  Mostly just watching the sunset and the sunrise were the outright winners of our time on the bay.

There were two stops, one at Hang Sung Sot or Surprise Cave, and the other at Dao Ti Top Island.  Between the two, the cave was something quite special.  It was enormous (picture of the two of us above) and we were enthralled by the size of a cave as it seemed to be almost the size of the island it was on.  It was truly huge!  Our short visit to to Ti Top Island was fun because we could look out over some of the islands, but overall the cave and our time on the boat was the real deal for this part of our trip. 

(One of the many shopping streets in Hanoi)
Our trip to Halong Bay ended with a wonderful morning of kayaking around a few quiet islands.  It was a perfect way to end our time in a place of such memorizing beauty.  None of our pictures really quite captured it.  Then it was back to Hanoi for a night of some time on beer street, and some more shopping the markets before we headed off to our next excursion.

Next on our stops, and I'm trying to be more concise in my descriptions because I know this is getting long, was Sa Pa.  Sa Pa is a smaller town with a lot of truly beautiful countryside around it - the classic rice fields tiered on flowing hills of green and flowers.  When we were there we could not see as many of these fantastic vistas as we were hoping due to some massive amounts of fog/mist/clouds, but we could still picture it in our mind's eye and see just enough of the countryside to know what we were missing.

And sometimes the fog would life just enough for us to see portions of the wonderful views.  The best portion of our time in Sa Pa was spent hiking down to one of the villages outside of the town, guided by a few of the ladies who lived there.  We were hiking to the Black Hmong village of Lao Chai.  This hike began on the edge of the roads leading out of Sa Pa, winding on dirt roads up and down hills.  We slowly worked our way further from town until we descended into some of the tiered rice fields (like the ones behind us in the picture), and then our hike to the village became much more interesting.  Mud, tricky footing, a little bit of precipitation, laughing as the ladies made jokes for us and helped us along, and overall trying not to fall as we kept glancing around at everything surrounding us.

(No I do not have brown boots, but look at that
background! What a special place)
I am pretty sure Sarah enjoyed the hike down into the village as much as I did.  At one point, while we were negotiating a small crossing of some rice fields, my foot slid a little bit off the path as my weight carried with it the ground I had stepped on.  In just the brief moment before I could counter with my other foot I had sank into just over my boot in deep, thick chocolate milk like mud.  It was still sinking when I countered and lifted it back onto the path (the picture shows the kind of consistency and mud we are talking here).  Slipping into the mud, ducking under thick and opposing branches, jumping over a small creek, and negotiating all of this trek was what made it more enjoyable.  Finally some proper Vietnam countryside experiences.

While we were hiking this amazingly proper Vietnamese countryside path, which all of the women with us were navigating way better than us, I thought a few times back to books I have read or movies I have watched depicting the Vietnam War.  As Americans visiting this country only a mere fifty years after such a terrible conflict, the concept of the war and its effects were always close to the surface.  I know that most of the Americans who experienced the Vietnam I was now gleefully hiking through did not have the same joyful time I did, and neither did the people who were trying to repel their presence.  A sadness would seep into the joy I was experiencing while looking around at such beautiful landscapes, knowing full well that similar sites such as these had been terribly laden with traps, ambushes, and massacres. 

(Sarah poses for a picture with all of women from the hike down into the village, with the village in the background. Such a fun group of women - and very helpful during our hike)
(When we hiked down to the village this was one
of the many beautiful views we saw)
And yet, just look at the faces of the women who helped us down to their village.  While there is a regrettably horrific past in the recent Vietnamese/American history, after knowing what country we were from people all over the country would still welcome us openly and kindly.  Not once did we ever experience a cold shoulder or witness any negative interactions, though quite frankly I was expecting at least some.  We had one guide in particular, who I will talk about more in a future post, who talked more openly about the war and the current feelings of Vietnamese people about America, but even he said much forgiveness has flown through the hearts of Vietnam people.  It was really quite amazing.

(Back up in Sa Pa after our trek
down to the village, I paused for a
pic at the church)
At any rate, we hiked through their village and stopped off at a few places along the way to see particular sites - some to get warm and have a drink and others to buy some small souvenirs.  It was fun to see what one of the small countryside villages away from most of the more modern conveniences looked like.  This was a good way to see a slower-paced side of Vietnam, especially compared to the bustling streets of Hanoi.

One of my favorite parts of this tour out to Sa Pa was having some time just walking through the countryside.  It was refreshing, even in some damp weather, to get away from the cities we had been visiting and walk down dirty trails through fields and rolling hills.  There was a distinct quietness that rested over us and allowed us to enjoy the small conversations with our guides.

"What is your name?"  "Where are you from?"  "How old are you?"  "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

(Sarah posing with her egg coffee)
These were some of the questions we would be asked, and in return ask the women walking with us down to the village.  They always seemed to ask these questions with a giggle or a smile, amused at our responses and perhaps at the chance to converse in English some.  Of course when we arrived in the village we were given the opportunity to present the women with a tip or to buy some bags/clothing/etc that were all made by them specifically, a point of emphasis for them to share.  So, as Sarah pointed out later, I overpaid for a small bag and a few other small items.  I did not barter them down because I felt like it was a nice way to tip them for their help and time.  After all, it was quite nice to have their company and assistance in the more difficult parts of the trail, not to mention their smiles!

(Another site in Sa Pa) 
Once we finished up with our hike, we headed back up to Sa Pa to get warm and ready for our bus back to Hanoi.  We had just enough time to explore some and headed down to see a church I had seen on our way in and out of town - The Notre Dame Cathedral.  Unfortunately at the time it was closed, so we looked around a little bit and then did the next best thing.  We headed back up the road and had our first egg coffee in Vietnam.  Yep, it is pretty much what it sounds like, though slightly more than just coffee with an egg in it too.  And wait for it...  It was delicious.  Well, I liked it more than Sarah but I think she liked it too.  We made sure to have one once back in Hanoi (as that is where you are "supposed" to have one) just to be mainstream, but they really are tasty drinks.

Ok.  First post on Vietnam done.  There will most likely be at least one more post just on Vietnam and then a separate one on Cambodia.  Sorry for length, but then again, maybe I am not sorry for sharing so much about our fun trip to Vietnam.  We really did love it.  On each of our posts I am going to share this short section below for those who might be trying to plan their own trips, or just for those who want to cruise through the web and look up fun things.  Thanks for reading about our journeys.


A list of top things to see/do in Vietnam:

1.  Food - we loved all of the food we ate, with the exception of a few poorly made Ban Mi sandwiches, but I think that is because we had two that we so delicious.  I recommend you search what foods to try in each city.  It was more fun to try and eat dishes a particular area or city that was known for making it - such as egg coffee in Hanoi for example.

2.  Halong Bay - I had looked forward to it and it one of the most beautiful places we visited.  It was a bummer that there was a little bit of trash floating around but we also saw boats of people picking it up - nice.  I could have spent more time here!

3.  Hanoi - Originally I did not think I would enjoy having as much time as we had built into our schedule to be in Hanoi.  When we left Vietnam I wanted to go back to Hanoi.  There is so much to do and see!  From food and drinks to temples and museums to countless streets to shop on, Hanoi was very enjoyable for us.  We highly recommend spending some time here.  We walked a lot!  But we love to walk, and it was a great way to see the city.

4.  Hoi An - We very much enjoyed our time in Hoi An. Unfortunately we could not visit one of the highlights for this time, the Cham Islands, because of weather.  But we were thrilled with some food that is specifically Hoi An (seriously one of my favorite food spots in our Vietnam travels), had some dresses and a suit made here, and bought more than a few of the hand made lanterns (the prices are super good).  We liked Hoi An and you should go to there. 

5.  Mekong Delta - The delta was an interesting trip.  We got to spend a lot of time on the water and visit some fun places.  Coconuts!  This one I will talk more about in our second blog post on Vietnam, but it's a fun way to spend a day.

6.  Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon - Again, we enjoyed the time we spent in this big city quite a bit.  Breweries, food, rooftops, more food, and mostly just walking through the city to get a feel for Vietnamese city-life.  Quite the adventure.

7.  Hoa Lu/Tam Coc Day Tour - We enjoyed this tour but it took a long time to get there.  And while very beautiful the guides who rowed us up the river were a little bit pushy about tips.  Though it did not sour the experience it sure made it weird.  It is a nice area but if you were pressed with time I would visit Halong Bay or something higher on this list.  Still worth seeing and experiencing if you have the time to see more of Vietnam.

8.  Cu Chi Tunnels - This is lower on my list only because it was difficult to tell if we were actually traversing any of the tunnels that were used during the Vietnam War.  I would hazard a guess - no.  But it is the same area and if you are into history this is a must see place.  I will write more about this in our next post.

9.  Sa Pa - So I actually wrote a lot about Sa Pa in this post and though we did like it I rank it lower on our list because our weather was so damp and dismal.  I do believe if we had had a clear day this very well could have been a highlight of our trip.  We did enjoy it and it is worth seeing but it does take quite a bit of time to get there.  You should probably go to Sa Pa, however, if time is short I would not feel too bad at having left it off your list.

10.  Cao Dai Great Holy See Temple - This is last on my list for a few reasons.  It is on my list because through all of my religious studies in college and in seminary, this temple is quite unique.  I will write more about it in the next blog post, but what an interesting place!  I wish we could have spent more time there with someone who could have explained what was happening during the portion of a service we witnessed.  Watching any religious ceremony in another language is difficult, though still fascinating.

Some of the most memorable things we did, which I hope I will include in these posts, are things we stumbled upon or one of us discovered while researching what to do in certain areas online.  Go read up on these places by people who have been there and find some off the beaten path places to explore.  And make sure you won't end up missing something right near where you are traveling!!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Leaving the South Pole via New Zealand and an Asheville Thanksgiving

(As we waited for our plane to prepare for our plane, which
you can see in the background)
A little more about our Antarctic departure.

I did not think I would come to a point where leaving the South Pole would feel like leaving home - well a home away from home.  But the time spent walking to work during our long winter, certain community events, spending more time with my wife on a daily basis than we ever have before, and other various factors made living at the end of the world quite appealing.

When November finally came around, so did the time for us to leave the South Pole.  This was an odd time for me.  When Sarah first went to Antarctica I was unable to join her as I could not procure a job.  The second time she left for the frozen continent and I was again incapable of finding a way for myself, and the place I had spent so much time reading about began to leave a bitter taste in my heart.  She would come back, clearly changed and moved by her time in Antarctica, leaving a gap of sorts between us.  This was a place that separated us.  And yet it was a place she always longed to return to and was always sad to leave, which was difficult for me to say the least.

(She might having a hard time keeping her eyes open during
her last visit to the geographic South Pole, but she was very
excited to visit one more time.  One last visit!)
So when we tried for a third attempt at an Antarctic adventure together, I was a little more than jaded and doubtful.  Until the moment I climbed down out of a plane at the South Pole, I honestly thought any number of the countless different obstacles that could keep me from making my way would suddenly spring up out of nowhere.  "Ha ha, nice try Brett.  You got organs removed and did your best but you're not going to the South Pole you punk!"  Stepping onto the glacial ice just outside of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station was a surreal moment for me - not so much an achievement as a thing finally achieved.

While Antarctica had become a small divisive force in our marriage up to the point of us both arriving at the Pole to winter-over, it did not take long for it to become one of the most unifying forces of our ten years being married.  Sharing ten months together on the Antarctic plateau gave plenty of opportunity to live and grow as a married couple.  Mostly, though, it was being able to spend so much time together that was so nice.  The lack of normal distractions allowed us to more aptly experience and enjoy our time at the South Pole together.

(I will leave these jokers unnamed for the weak sake of
anonymity - this shot was taken on our layover in
McMurdo on a short walk over to the Kiwi station Scott
Base nearby.  They guys...)
The planes started coming and our time at the Pole was coming to an end.  We packed, shipped back some of our belongings, devoured the few pieces of fresh food that came in on the planes that transitioned through the Pole, said our goodbyes to everyone on station, and took as many last minute photos as we could - we literally drug one of our friends out to the ceremonial pole only minutes before our plane was supposed to leave.  During this time of preparing to leave, a feeling of sorrow and sadness began to creep into my heart.  As excited as I was to depart, I discovered what Sarah always tried to explain to me when she arrived back had begun making it's way into me as well.

So I found myself feeling unexpectedly nostalgic the day we stood waiting for the LC-130 to land on an ice runway to take us home.  While I felt the pull of family and friends we had not seen in so long, I also felt a feeling of loss seeded deep in my gut.  Though I was ready for some tasty food and copious amounts of sunshine, I knew I would soon find myself missing the oddities that make living at the South Pole memorable.

And yet it was time to leave.  We looked ahead to some time in New Zealand and some much needed family time.  One wonderful part about leaving, that did not happen on the way down, was Sarah and I were fortunate enough to fly together.  This made our departure, transitional time at McMurdo station, and our flights much more enjoyable.

(Should have got a shot together in the sulfur version of the
pools as they are a little cooler looking but this is the one
where we got a team Baddorf photo)
New Zealand!!  I shared some in our last post about the time we were able to spend in New Zealand on the way back home.  I wanted to add a few more photos of our time there - so much good food, amazing wines, relaxing moments together when we could just enjoy the New Zealand landscapes, and overall a time of rejuvenation.  Last time I shared about our hike through Arthur's Pass, so this time I thought I might post a little bit about our time at Hanmer Springs and the New Zealand Air Force museum.

While driving around this go around in New Zealand, we tried to visit as many places as we could we had missed during our year of living there.  One of these such places was Hanmer Springs.  This little town was not on the way to anywhere we went to on our previous adventures, and we had definitely missed out for having never been there.

A cute little town, this haven of hot springs offers a way to enjoy the water from the springs in the form of a park.  This enabled us to experience water from the springs in various pools of different temperatures and forms.  Some of the pools were in their natural sulfuric state, while others had been chlorinated for a more clean way to soak in the healing waters.  There were plenty of fun little shops in the town and a good sized hill nearby that offered lots of nice hikes.  I ran a few of them and we hiked one of them together.  We really enjoyed this out of the way nook of peace and tranquility.

One of the last places we visited before leaving to fly home was the Air Force museum.  We have a definite love of airplanes and always enjoy getting to spend time around them.  This museum is a must for anyone who enjoys airplanes and/or museums.  The Kiwis have always played a role in major wars, and learning of their dogfighting skills that came from flying in a country full of wild winds and cropdusting mountainous terrain was intriguing.  We took a free behind-the-scenes tour of planes that were not quite yet ready for the main museum yet, learning even more about the process of how the planes are acquired and made ready for visitors.  We both enjoyed our time at this museum and could have easily spent a few more hours enjoying ourselves learning about the history of planes in New Zealand.  What a nice visit.

(Seals!! Sarah poses with a seal who is also posing. A couple
of posers. Man we could look at these guys for hours)
One last New Zealand note - the seals!  While we were hoping to swim with the seals, it was not quite the right time of year to jump in the water with the dogs of the sea.  Even so, we spent some time in Kaikoura and made sure to visit an area where seals come ashore to sunbathe.  It is not the same thing as swimming with them, but watching seals, or any marine wildlife in it's natural habitat, is one of our favorite pastimes.  We always have to resist the urge to attempt taking one of them home as a pet.  I am quite certain we might just come away with a few fingers less if we tried to act on these impulses, but we still think about it quite seriously.

Thanksgiving!! This year we spent our Thanksgiving with the Williamson side of the family in a cabin not far outside of Asheville, North Carolina.  What a way to enter back into our lives here in the United States!  We enjoyed several beautiful hikes through the mountains, visited numerous waterfalls, caught up with our family, and played countless games late into the night.  Some of the highlights from this week are Mount Mitchel (the highest peak east of the Mississippi), visiting Biltmore, and of course hanging out with Bubba - Gordon and Miriam's boxer.

(At the top of Mount Mitchel enjoying the view. What a
great day for a hike.  Our previous hike at the mountain
offered only clouds for scenery)
Mount Mitchell boasts hours of hiking on trails that are magnificently maintained.  The summit offers a stellar panoramic view as far as the eye can see.  Other mountains, small towns, countless trees in every direction - the mountain truly offers a commanding view of the area.  We did two hikes that started on Mount Mitchell and enjoyed both of them immensely.  If you ever find yourself anywhere near this mountain, go and hike as much of it as you can!

Biltmore was almost as unbelievable as the view from Mount Mitchel but in a very different way.  While the mountain offered a fantastic view of God's creation, the Biltmore house showed what human ingenuity (which I believe is placed in us by the Creator) can achieve with resources and creativity.  It was easy to be impressed by the vision of George Vanderbilt while walking through the house he built for his family.  A monumentally sized house, every aspect of life there was built around the concepts of art, beauty, history, and maximizing the aesthetic value of a home.  Extravagant yes, but also magnificent.  Apparently in all of the excitement of looking around at everything I neglected to take a single picture.  Oh well.

Bubba - well I'll just share this one last photo.  This is a pic of us hanging out and snuggling.  It probably says about all a picture needs to say about the nature of our relationship, and Bubba's personality.  He's a big time lover dog.  And as it turns out he's an avid hiker who likes climbing mountain trails maybe even more than I do.  What a guy.

Well thanks for dealing with my missing Antarctica so much I posted again about it, and a brief walk through of our journey back to the United States.  Now it's time to celebrate Christmas Memphis style.  By the way, Merry Christmas!!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Antarctic Rearview and Vietnam in Sight

(One last photo shoot at the Pole the day we left. The plane had literally landed and people were waiting to get on - so we ran to the Ceremonial Pole and took some photos. Thanks Andrew!!)
November ended our time at the South Pole.  Sarah and I were fortunate enough to fly out together, unlike our travel down which was done separately.  It was quite nice to experience the last part of our Antarctic journey together - the flights on the LC-130 and C-17, the short stay in McMurdo, and then coming off the plane together in New Zealand at the same time.

Something has to be said about the first steps we took as we arrived back to the world.  After having spent ten months in a place where the wind is always a frigid bite at the skin and the temperature was constantly cold enough to easily kill us, the first few steps onto the tarmac in New Zealand were beyond description.  I will certainly always remember the warm embrace of the breeze as it caressed all of my exposed skin.  Instead of recoiling from the weather and climate, as was now my custom, I embraced the kind welcome of Christchurch.  It was the perfect temperature for walking around with a short sleeved shirt on all day long.  I just think I might remember this experience for the rest of my life.

(Sarah was having trouble letting go - literally
 of the Pole. We enjoyed our time at the South Pole
 and were were a little bit sad to be leaving, maybe to
never see it again.  Who knows?!)
Sarah and I had planned to make our way to Australia and dive the Great Barrier Reef during our short stop off before heading back to family for Thanksgiving; however, due to being a few days late off the ice and our schedule being as tight as it was, we did not have time to follow through on these plans.  Instead we spent our time driving around our beloved New Zealand.  There was delicious food (oh the food was so good after eating frozen food for so long!), spectacular wines (again the wine was stellar after such a small and less than perfect selection at the Pole), waterfalls and good hikes, and just driving through the beautiful countryside of New Zealand.

The main highlight of the trip was a hike we did in Arthur's Pass.  Without all of our hiking gear we were not able to do a hike that would take us a  few days, so we instead did a decent hike in a spectacular area.  Arthur's Pass is a part of the country that always stood out to us during our last stay in New Zealand.  Though on our previous trip we only drove through the area in a rush to somewhere else, this time we made some time to stop and hike.  After reading about a bunch of hikes that all said they were 6-9 hour strenuous alpine jaunts, we settled on doing a 3-4 hour hike called Mt. Aicken.  This is a fantastic hike that heads almost entirely vertically up the side of the mountain.  Of all our New Zealand hikes it was the most abruptly steep for the entirety of the venture.  Wonderful vistas overlooking the pass and mountains, a great sandwich kept for a nice stay at the top for an outdoor lunch, and a challenging hike that proved to give us a good workout.

(Once at the top we celebrated our climb. What nice weather
and the views were stunning.  Definitely worth the climb!)
Our time in New Zealand was short but sweet.  It was nice seeing a good portion of the country we both learned to love a few years back. We enjoyed our short stay and turned our eyes towards home.

We are now back in Memphis and our Antarctic adventure is over. We spent a refreshing time with Sarah's family in the mountains outside of Asheville, NC for Thanksgiving.  Being back is nice and there are plenty of people we still need to see and catch up with as soon as possible.  Seeing our families and spending time with friends has been revitalizing.  And yet this rest is just that - a short break before our next venture, as has become our custom for now.

While it will not be as long as the ten month stint in Antarctica, we are very excited about a trip we booked to visit Vietnam.  After one of Sarah's trips to Antarctica, we visited Thailand and had an amazing time seeing as much of the country as we could.  While we were there we decided we wanted to visit more countries in the general area.  So this January we will be going on a trip we booked to see as much of Vietnam and Cambodia as possible.

(Halong Bay - picture taken from the Getaway Halong Sapa website. Very thrilled to see this place!)
Usually we do our own booking of events and planning as we work through a country, but we were wanting to try out a particular website we had been watching for some time for another trip - and so we used it to buy a trip to see Vietnam.  This put us in contact with an in-country traveling agency called Getaway Halong Sapa .  As we have been preparing for our trip so far, it has been nice to have the help of Getaway Halong Sapa.  They have sent a full itinerary of the trip and we are both now more excited about our visit than we were when we purchased it.  The details of our daily schedule have increased our anticipation and desire to see the country.  One of the greatest helps they have been so far has been with our visas, which they sent to us today!  No worries, no fuss and all taken care of for us.  I count this as quite a benefit.

In reviewing our agenda it has also been comforting to know we will be seeing and doing some things I think we would definitely have missed if not for the expert help of a group that knows which parts of their country need to be visited.  We had certainly found some of the sights we will visit through our research of where to go and what to do, but we had missed some sights that now are some of the ones we are most excited to visit.  And it will be nice to have all of our accommodations planned out for us!  We cannot wait to go to Vietnam and experience the trip Getaway Halong Sapa has planned out for us!!

As this trip takes place, we will take copious notes on what is amazing, and will of course be excited to share some photos and stories about how this adventure goes.  Till then - Memphis!!  We plan to enjoy our time here and to not be distracted by our future ventures.  Family, friends, birthdays, Christmas, and seeing all of our favorite Memphis places is just some of what we are excited about.

Hopefully all of you had a rest filled Thanksgiving.  We would love to hear about the trips any of you might have been on that we should go and experience.  Enjoy life and creation!    

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

South Pole Running and a Weird Decision

Most of this post was sent to Memphis Runners Track Club for their monthly newsletter. The beginning is an addition:

There is a fun tradition I think I have mentioned on the blog before. The South Pole was originally discovered and achieved (meaning they made it there) by two groups of men in the early 1900's.  This meant that these men hiked/sledded/pulled/climbed the nearly 850 miles via their own power and some animal power (one team more than the other).

At any rate, to encourage exercise while we are here during the winter at the South Pole, there is a "Back to McMurdo" challenge. A person keeps track of the mileage they have done on the treadmill/outside/on the rowing machine/on the bike/etc. There is a conversion chart for those who are not running or walking, so one can easily determine how many miles to add to the chart. The chart is a long banner hung in the workout room where anyone participating writes their name and their miles marked next to their name.

This brings me to the horrible decision I made. In mid-August I made it to McMurdo. I felt a little bit of satisfaction and then I thought, the guys who did this originally came from McMurdo to the South Pole and then turned around to go back. Crap. I already knew what I was going to do and I was not happy about it. Did I have enough time to make it back to the South Pole, thus completing the entire journey? Only one way to find out.

Thus began the last two months of two-a-days, and often three-a-days, just to make sure I could get enough mileage in to finish this silly goal. This past Saturday, with a tired body, I finally achieved enough miles to make it back to the South Pole. All my miles were done through running and rowing. The rowing gave my body enough rest to continue a ridiculous amounts of miles at times - there were times when I was hitting 22 to 26 miles a day. 

My secondary goal to this whole fiasco was to finish in time to get back to my normal routine before leaving the South Pole. It was a journey of almost 1700 miles. There were a lot of workouts when I definitely considered how entirely stupid the quest truly was.

I guess at the end of the day the only rational thought I had was that if I needed to actually attempt to make my way back to McMurdo on foot I would be ready. This is unlikely as the planes are pretty good at getting here but you never know.

(Below is what I shared with Memphis Runners - I believe they shared it in their August newsletter. This was mostly about my attempt to run a marathon on the treadmill)
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits upon two miles of glacial ice at the bottom of the world.  It is one of the most remote places on this planet, over 800 miles from the next closest station. 
A group of people gather in this unusual location to help support science being done by the United States Antarctic Program. The United States has had a presence at the South Pole since 1956.  More than a few support staff are needed for the scientists to complete their work and a small community forms. During the summer the population can soar to over 150 people, a teeming metropolis compared to the less than fifty who hunker down the long winter months.
It is odd being one of forty-six people at the South Pole. Antarctica is not necessarily a place I saw myself ever visiting. Before we got married Sarah had at one point mentioned she wanted to go to Antarctica one day, but that is the sort of thing people say. Little did I know my wife is not most people.

So I find myself living on a glacier and spending the entire ten-month Austral winter at the South Pole.  Traveling and running is always difficult. Routine is broken. New places, while intriguing, sometimes offer odd dangers – getting lost, running into the wrong neighborhood, not knowing local laws. I’ve certainly found myself attempting to figure out the whole running deal while traveling for the past few  years, and yet Antarctica has offered some fresh challenges for me.

In route to the Pole I was waylaid for three weeks at McMurdo, a station on the coast that all planes fly through on their way to ninety degrees South. At this point it was the end of summer and the weather was really not too bad. I was able to get in a number of runs outside, enjoying some of the last sunshine I would run in for quite some time. I ran around Observation Hill and trails that lead past Robert Falcon Scott’s hut from when he and his team sought to earn the prize of the South Pole.  It was not until I left McMurdo and headed to the Pole that I encountered the most obvious and main two obstacles I would experience while in Antarctica - the extreme cold and being at altitude.  

The South Pole sits at 9,306 feet. The real issue is barometric pressure changes on a daily basis. Today we feel as though we are at 10,817 feet, though for the past two months we have spent most days over 11,000 feet. When combined with the dry air we breathe in here, Antarctica is technically a desert, the acclimation time for running took me quite some time.

Then there is the cold. I grew up in Ohio before moving to Memphis my senior year of high school. I have run in cold temperatures while training for track during the winter months.  Though this part of me became quite accustomed to Memphis winters, I had experienced bone chilling temperatures. Well, I thought I had. Arriving at the South Pole was a little bit of a rude awakening. I managed to get two runs in before the sun disappeared. Both were short and terrible. There is an almost constant wind ripping across the Antarctic plateau that our station sits on, and it is not forgiving. Negative fifty degrees with a strong wind is not pleasant. It was fine running with the wind but at some point one has to turn around. I have never felt wind cut through multiple layers of clothing (more than I had ever worn to run in my life) so easily. I froze.

With the sun promising to disappear for four to five months and temperatures dropping I had only one valid option before me. It is an option I have avoided at all costs in the past.  The treadmill.  The treadmill has always been a tool I have loathed. Boring. Mundane. Unchanging. Pick the negative word and I have most likely associated it with the treadmill at some point in time. Yet there was this damned machine and it was my only option if I wanted to run. So a few months ago I hopped on the treadmill and began a strange journey.

There were some immediate problems that arose. I had eliminated the problem of the extremely cold temperatures, but the altitude and dry climate still persisted in offering their resistance. The treadmill itself was everything I had expected of it. I made the decision early on to watch television shows or movies while running to keep my mind distracted, and maybe to keep my sanity intact. While keeping my mind occupied was not a replacement for running the trails at Shelby Farms, it did help stave off the sheer boredom of running in place for thirty minutes to an hour. The one aspect of treadmill running that has bothered me the most has been my inability to run the paces, according to the machine, I am accustomed to running. Until only recently, I have been at least one minute slower per mile and there is not much I have been able to do except for attempt to push a little harder to lower pace. Is it the altitude? The dry air? My hate for treadmills? A combination of everything? Or just some mental block to running on a machine?

It has been months since my decision to take advantage of the treadmill. I have been slowly making my way through our extensive television series library. And, contrary to my expectations, I am beginning to like the treadmill. It could be like learning to enjoy the company of an unwelcome running partner simply because he is your only current option.  But after he keeps showing up, run after run, as a faithful running buddy, a person can learn to like him. Running itself has always been this way with me. I ran hundreds of miles before I learned to love running. Even then the relationship was dicey at best, though usually running has been a joy. Learning to be content with my current running circumstances has not been easy, but the treadmill is becoming a close friend. The development of my new affinity for the treadmill, though welcome and surprising, has also opened the door to me making an absurd decision.

I am going to run a marathon on the treadmill.

(Planes started arriving at the Pole! Just going through but soon they will
be taking some of us with them. Yay)
Here is the issue. As any serious runner travels, she looks to the opportunities afforded to her in the running world. I have done the same with my time here in Antarctica. There are a few different chances to run a marathon on continent. Unfortunately none of them overlap the time during which I will be here. This was sad news to process. How perfect would it be to get in a marathon while on the continent? How many people have run one on all seven continents? With two continents under my belt it was sour grapes to see this opportunity slipping through my fingers. But did it have to be this way? I stared at the treadmill and considered. Could I even bring myself to make such a decision? The answer is apparently yes!
As many of you might be thinking already, there are concerns with this marathon attempt. Does it really count if it is on a treadmill and not out in the elements? Surely anyone could run a marathon in a hotel in China and count the entire continent of Asia. I have my concerns on this issue, and yet should I allow these concerns to keep me from achieving what I might never have another chance to do in my lifetime? I made the decision to go ahead and begin my training, which meant also pushing all doubts and naysayers to the side – including myself. It is what it is and there is nothing to be done about it.
So here I stand, with a goal I would deem absurd if anyone else mentioned it to me. This week I completed my longest run on a treadmill to date. Twenty miles came and went, along with multiple episodes of The Wire. Thanks to a homemade running gel (made of honey, water, salt, and molasses – I cannot just head down to the local running store) and being way more conscious about taking in plenty of water I felt much better than I thought I would. Previously anything above twelve miles has been quite a struggle. I have been mentally working past some of my previous issues with the pace on the treadmill, though I am still not working out at paces I am used to running the full marathon distance at in the past.

In two weeks I will be attempting to run the full marathon. I am still debating on my pace goals. At this point I am fairly confident I will be able to finish this distance. My body has been responding decently to the twenty miler this week and I’m getting excited about seeing what will happen when I try to tack on another six miles. I never could have imagined running any of the distances I have completed on the treadmill, let alone a full marathon. I would say it is ridiculous but at this point it is just beginning to feel normal to me. It is as though the part of my brain that hated treadmills has been slightly worn away, as if a grinder has been slowly wearing it down.
Running in Antarctica has been a challenge. I never would have thought the treadmill would be a friend in a time of need. I do look forward to the return of the sun and weather that will not sear my lungs, leaving me with a bloody cough for weeks.  Even more so, I cannot wait until I fly through New Zealand and have the chance to go for a run in a much more accommodating climate. And yet I have this peculiar feeling that when I leave I might just miss my new companion.  I will always be grateful to the machine I once despised, but between the two I will always choose a nice trail outside. Perhaps the South Pole can be my exception.
For now the treadmill is a glorious machine enabling me to run, even while wintering-over in a place where the normal ambient temperature outside is around negative eighty degrees Fahrenheit – this does not include wind chill. The treadmill is my safe haven. Like many other tools in running the treadmill, however reluctantly I say even now, does have its place. Ok treadmill, let’s do this.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

South Pole: Changing of the Flags, Sunrise Dinner, and Life

(Sarah and I take a moment after the flag changing ceremony to pose for a picture at the ceremonial South Pole)
The winter has been long, and though we have truly enjoyed our experience at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, living in such conditions can be arduous. There are so many wonderful things to experience, like the auroras and night sky (which I talk about extensively in previous posts), but at the same time, Antarctica is simply not the kind of place that welcomes humans with open arms. We constantly joke that Antarctica is motivated by some sort of malevolent force to wipe out all human life, as if she is a living entity. It certainly feels like this at times. This energy that is innately a part of this ice covered continent, seems to bend its entire will at working against our existence here.

A quick example. We have giant doors (vehicle sized) attached to the LO Arch, where I work on the daily. These doors have been closed during most of the winter due to the inclement weather we can experience. We do, however, have to open these doors when we need to bring in materials from the outside storage berms, or for other various purposes. This past week, we spent the better part of a few days shoveling out the snow that sneakily seeps in through cracks of the doors. It wisps in, as the unstoppable force it is, and creates giant pillars of bulky snow on the inside of our doors. We cleared this entire area out and, rightly so, we were quite proud of ourselves (see last post about shoveling). The doors were swung open, smiles all around, and then the rest was cleared with a machine from the outside.

And then... Antarctica struck. "She took back her space," one of my co-workers mentioned. The winds picked up and the temperatures dropped down close to negative 100 F. This meant we now needed to close our doors because those temperatures could negatively effect some of the work spaces in our arches. Guess what? We could not close our doors due to the extra snow. So after a few hours of work to clear the area, we were finally able to close the doors we had worked so hard to open. Only a few hours later I walked back past these very same doors. The dreaded snow pillars were already reforming, a visible monument to Antarctica's relentless pursuit to remain untamed. I can hardly wait to work on opening those doors again - well, yes I can wait.  

(Our station manager says a few words before we took down the flags that had flown the long winter night)
One unique thing that happened in the past two weeks was the changing of the flags. The ceremonial pole is home to the flags of twelve different nations. These nations were all a part of the original Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959, and this is honored by their country being constantly represented by the flying of their flag at the ceremonial pole. Countries included: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Russia, England, and the United States. These countries all had some sort of investment, or interest, in Antarctica at the time of the treaty, and the treaty ensures certain protections for the continent as a whole (since then more countries have joined the treaty - click anywhere to read more about the treaty).

The changing of the flags was a fun event for us. We took the new flags out and each person was assigned to a particular flag. Our station manager made some comments on the significance of the flags and the countries represented, and then each person attempted the difficult task of removing and replacing the flags. It was challenging due to performing this task in the extreme cold. Our warmer and more protective mittens make such a task somewhat problematic, and I know the only way I could negotiate the metal clasps was to take those off. This makes for attempted quick work, fumbling with numb fingers, and I know I heard a little bit of frustration being expressed as those around me worked diligently to put up their new flag. In the end, we did manage to successfully hang all of the new flags that will soar for the rest of this year and most of 2018. As I did not have a designated flag, Sarah was nice enough to share hers with me. She was changing out the New Zealand flag, which has special significance to us. We lived there for a year, thus the title of this blog, and we absolutely love the country.

After the changing of the flags it was time to get inside and warm up our hands! 

(Working together to change out Sarah's flag)
Sunrise Dinner!

Our chefs really outdid themselves on this one. The theme was food trucks. They set up stations all around the room and even decorated in various ways. Viktor was serving drinks, Hunter was making Cubans, Sugar Bear was serving up some sushi, and Zak was making Indian food. We sampled it all and found that each person had truly made some delicious food. I think we ate pretty heavily off of the sushi bar, but we made sure to leave room for something special from the other chefs as well. It was definitely the best food we have had in a while!! Good job guys.

Each year there is a box o' goods that are shipped down for us all to open around Mid-Winter. Some of those things filtered out into the crew around this time, but some of it got sidetracked for various reasons until now. A table of various goodies (books, knickknacks, dried fruit, etc) was put out for anyone to take. One of the guys noticed there were some LED badminton birdies. He went and set up the gym for what would later be badminton in the dark with our new light up birdies. This dangerous...but mostly fun. There is a picture below that shows some of what it was like to play in the dark. Sometimes the birdie would turn off after being hit, making it impossible to return (other side cheers in victory, once it is the birdie is discovered on the other side of the net as no one could tell where it went). The real deal was making sure to watch your teammates, especially once the game included over half of the people on station, so as to not hit or be hit in the face by a racket. Lots of fun.

Overall a great night. Sarah and I finished it off by playing a game with some of our friends (also pictured below). Moments like Sunrise Dinner are a highlight for certain. They not only mark a moment in the winter as being a time passed on our way toward redeployment, but they also tend to lift the spirits of everyone on station (for the most part) as well. 

(Sugar Bear rocking out the sushi rolls - they really were delicious!)

One other memorable event was paired up with Sunrise Dinner. Traditionally each year the flags that are taken down are then raffled off to members who are wintering over at the South Pole. This includes the twelve flags already mentioned above, and then also two more American flags (flown in other locations on station) and the NSF (National Science Foundation) flag. It can be a big deal as you win a flag that has flown at the South Pole, and some people find that to be exciting. We certainly were thrilled about the idea of having one of the flags. Certain flags tend to be more desired than others, though it depends on the individual for obvious reasons. The American flags, Norwegian flag, and the English flag are usually the top choices. The Americans generally all like the idea of taking home one of American flags. There is historical significance for the Norwegian and English flag as the explorers, Amundsen and Scott, were Norwegian and English.

Unfortunately, even though we technically had twice the chance to win over a single person, we did not win a flag. It was disappointing but it was also fun to watch the enthusiasm of those who did win a flag. The Norwegian flag, pictured below, was claimed by our station manager. He is planning a trip to Norway when he leaves the ice and part of his journey will take him to see the boat the Fram, which was the boat Amundsen and his crew used to reach Antarctica on their way to the South Pole (it was also used in many other voyages in the Arctic). He asked if we would all sign the flag so he can present it to someone while he is in Norway. What a fun way to celebrate a little bit of the history about the South Pole as we prepared to eat some tasty food.

(The Norwegian flag ready to be signed by the station crew. Pictures of the Fram are hanging on the wall above the flag)

That is about it for our South Pole update for now. We have a few more events planned for the rest of the season, but for the most part we are through with the major events like Sunrise Dinner. As of today, September 30th, I have only thirty-six days left on the ice (it can always change). Sarah has roughly thirty-nine days left. It is so crazy that we are this close to being done with our time at the South Pole.

Well, I guess I better get back to shoveling snow. 

(The Materials Team poses for a picture. Steve was quite proud of his dress. Kim actually made it for him. He was the only one at Sunrise Dinner in a sundress. Go figure)

(Photo by Daniel Michalik - badminton in the dark)

(Photo by Daniel Michalik - ending our Sunrise Dinner night with a game)

(And yes, the sun is up completely now - really fun watching it come up. Soon it will be so bright we need to wear sunglasses again while working outside. Today is pretty close - not pictured here)