Friday, January 24, 2014

2. Go Rock Climbing Outside in a Foreign Country

Occasionally, a new thing makes the list as a way to fix a deficiency that's been bugging me, and that is the case with this one.  I've climbed outside before, and I've climbed in climbing gyms in foreign countries before (in Nepal and in Jordan).  But it's more than a little ridiculous that I've never been outside to rock climb, particularly during the almost-year I spent in Jordan.  So, when Jon and I decided to go to Panama as our new country choice to kick off the year, it was selected in part because it has outdoor rock climbing (and at least according to the all-knowing Internet world, Nicaragua does not).
Jon and me posing at the end of the day in front of one of many carvings done by a local artists (and in front of the cliff we'd been hanging off of for the last few hours).

There's a bunch of other climbing-related New Things on the list, but most of those will require actual work to progress from where I'm currently at.  This one was just fun.  As I mentioned in the previous post, Jon and I both thought that Boquete was our favorite of the places we visited in Panama and the fact that they had not only rock climbing, but climbing on really memorably-shaped rock, helped seal the deal on its "favorite status."
Me coming down off the "memorably shaped" basalt that made the day's climbing so interesting.

Lots of times I've found that the quality of a new experience (or even a not-new one) is determined as much by who else is participating as by what we are doing.  Our fellow climbers, two father-and-son sets (one son celebrating his college graduation, the other barely started in elementary school) and a newlywed couple on their honeymoon, varied widely in their skill level but shared a common sense of fun and appreciation for what we were doing. 
Favia was one-half of the newlywed couple (Brian was on the ground below).  She was the only one of us who did lead climbing that day -- here she is, making it look a lot easier than it is.

We were all also tremendously lucky to have the founder of rock climbing in Panama leading our experience.  Cesar is not only the best climber in the country, he's the person who started the sport there, and set all the routes.  Although his demeanor is very low-key and modest, at the end of the day, when he cleaned the routes at the end of the day by free-climbing them in a very rapid succession, it was like watching a professional acrobat at work.
When Cesar took down the ropes for the day he did by free-climbing (attached to nothing).  It was a little nerve-wracking to watch, though he never seemed to skip a beat.

I still have lots of limitations as a climber, which dictated that we climbed in the easiest area, called Gunko.  But the rock, which had a strange shape -- kind of as if square and rectangle blocks had been stacked with the corners sticking out -- made the whole experience novel and fun.  As did the knowledge that we were climbing on the first-of-their-kind routes for the country. 

In Boquete, some people talk about the fear that too many foreigners may find out about what a great place it is, and overwhelm it.  But I kind of hope that at least a small stream of rock climbers will hear about the climbing and come check it out. Given the natural beauty of the setting, the uniqueness of the basalt rock, and the enthusiasm of the tiny climbing community and its leader, Cesar, my bet is that they wouldn't regret the decision (and to learn more about him. his climbing, and how he got things started in Panama, check out this video.  For me, it was a great way to crack open the sport activity side of the 2014 list of 52 more new things.
One last shot -- this one of Jon, doing some tricky moves with his feet on that stack-of-blocks basalt rock.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

1. New Country for a New List for a New Year: Visit Panama

Back in 2010 when I embarked on the original year of new things I did it by travelling to a new country, Nepal, to visit my old friend, Cliff, and his family.  It was a great adventure to start the year, and I’m happy that I am also able to begin the 2014 year of MORE new things by also visiting a new country.  This time, though, I didn’t travel solo and I didn’t go halfway around the world.  Jon has (mostly enthusiastically) agreed to do lots of the things on my list with me, beginning with this visit to a country in our own hemisphere that is new to both of us, Panama.

Though we didn’t plan it that way, we actually managed to miss a truly frigid cold snap (even for Vermont) while we’ve been away, and spent the last eight days enjoying the warmth and rain forests of Panama.  Panama isn’t a big country, with a population around 4 million people, but it sits at a terrific intersection of things that Jon and I can talk about for hours – politics (me), the natural world (Jon) and geography (both of us).  Panama features a super-narrow natural “waistline” that became the Panama Canal to form a water shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; a huge diversity of animal and plant life and micro climates; a large population of indigenous people asserting their cultural and political autonomy; and a history of a small nation struggling to carve its own destiny under the weight of the larger and more powerful nations of first Spain, then Columbia and the United States.  Dipping into this fascinating mix of people, animals and history for such a short period, we concentrated our time in steaming Panama City and the cooler highland rain forest of Boquete – with an obligatory beach day to allow us to get the requisite Gringo sunburn to bring back to Vermont.

Jon and me exploring the town of Boquete, which also happens to have some spectacular gardens.
We started and ended the trip in Panama City, spending a couple days in the city and the adjacent Canal Zone on each end, and the middle was spent in Boquete.  Getting to Boquete requires a 7-8 hour bus trip (we took a night bus the first time, a day bus the second) from Panama City to David, Panama’s second largest city.  From David, it’s a one-ish hour bus ride to Boquete.

The Purple House Hostel in David took its title very literally.  The walls, linens, plates, everything --purple.  Here we preparing for our beach day where, because of my poor tanning application skills, I broke the color code and created some big blotches of red all over my shoulders.
The feature that dominates Panama City and the zone around it is overwhelmingly the Panama Canal.  Built between 1904– and 1914 by the United States, which laid claim to the land through the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, after a failed construction attempt by the French, it was ceded back to Panama in the 1970s and actually reverted to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999.    There are plans, overwhelmingly supported by the citizens in a national referendum, to expand the Canal, and Panama views it as a key to its economic future.  The three sets of locks through which boats must pass in their 80 kilometer journey are impressive engineering-wise, but not much to look at.  When tourists are done watching the water move big boats up and down, their best bet is to do what we did, and retreat to the Casco Viejo, the section of the city that is full of old Spanish colonial architecture and is coming back as an artist-tourist district after crumbling into disrepair.
Although they're not exactly pretty, it's hard not to be impressed by the operations at the Miraflores Locks.  The ships are pulled by overland caterpillar type "tugs" with super-strong cables  and they have only TWO FEET of clearance on each side of the canal.  You can sit in stadium-style seating and watch the ships get pulled through as the Locks raise and lower.

Inside the National Theater in Casco Viejo.  Breathtakingly ornate, it feels like stepping into a bygone era of opulence.
Inside the Iglesia de San Jose, where the priests outwitted the infamous Captain Morgan when he came a-plundering.  While he was busy pulling all the riches out of the other cathedrals, the priests painted the altar black -- he thought the golden alter had already been stolen, and so he didn't take it, and a reproduction remains in the church to this day (the real one is in a museum).

Our other strong recommendation is to head to Boquete, as we did. Though a country with coasts, in addition to tropical islands, on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans might seem to be just begging for a beach vacation, anyone with an interest in wildlife, rain forests and hiking should seriously consider Boquete.  We were there for four days, stayed at one of the best hostels I’ve ever visited, and got the chance to go rock climbing, see a coffee plantation (finca), learn about the indigenous people of the area (the Ngobe-Bugle), and did some hiking with a local naturalist. Since the first two of these activities – rock climbing outdoors in a foreign country and learning about coffee in a finca, constituted new things, they will get their very own later posts. 
Jon gets the scoop on some local birds from Hans, our guide, who took us for a hike on a trail that is frequently used by the local Ngobe-Bugle Indians.

The takeaway message for travel enthusiasts is that Panama is a great destination.  In addition to the basic craven desire to escape the ridiculously cold weather being endured by our fellow Vermonters, we got a chance to see some beautiful rain forests, a bit of beach time, a marvel of the modern world, and a fascinating living lesson on the forces of globalization, and how they affect global sea trade, indigenous peoples and post-colonial states.  A great way to start a new year, and a new list.

My favorite "what is that" picture from the trip.  It's a giant fiddlehead from a tree fern.  There were lots of them in the rain forest we visited.

The hostel where we stayed in Boquete -- the Refugio del Rio was pretty great. It sat next to a river, had porches behind every room, lots of great common areas, and the most active kitchen I've ever seen in a hostel.  If you go to Boquete -- and you should -- consider staying there!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

One Last Challenge from 2013: The Streak

In late November, when I was starting to think about my list of new things for 2014 Jon made a suggestion for a challenge that he had just read about in a running magazine – a streak.  Unlike the seventies-style run with no clothes, this streak is about running for an uninterrupted number of days: the Runner’s World article advocated running without missing a day from Thanksgiving through the New Year.  Since Thanksgiving had already passed when Jon made the suggestion that was out, but the idea of running every day for a whole month definitely appealed.  I was tossing around putting it on the New Things list when a high school friend, Brad, posted on Facebook that he was about to finish his own November running challenge, the drive for 75, wherein he ran a minimum of 75 miles in the month.  He noted that he was looking for a new challenge, and I suggested this one.  Then I posted on my own Facebook page that I wanted to do a streak – running a minimum of one mile every day without interruption in the month of December, and asked who was up to join. 

We started as six, but one member, Anna, who lives in Tacoma, Washington, had a few too many family responsibilities during the month to keep her running uninterrupted.  That left five of us, three Vermonters and two in the Pacific Northwest.  On the Vermont side, I represented Burlington, and there were two Montpelier-ites, Jon and my ice skating friend Liz. The westerners were both friends from my high school days in Twin Falls, Idaho.  Claudine lives in Seattle now, and Brad lives near Boise.
Claudine joined the streak in part to get back into running regularly.  Here she is with her mom, Linda, (my ninth grade French teacher) after doing the 2009 Danskin triathlon
Jon and me at the Burlington City Marathon (my first, his fourth) last May.
Brad has done the Hood to Coast relay run in Oregon for many years.  Here he is with his team, squatting under the Saloon sign.
Liz is an athlete on several fronts, including figure skating.  Here she is in her solo performance at a local ice show midway through our December streak. 
Turns out that Facebook is a fine way for runners separated by thousands of miles to hold each other accountable to a challenge like the streak. The rules were very simple: each participant had to run for at least a mile every day from December 1 to the 31 without missing a day.  And all five of us did that, and reported in each day via Facebook to the others in the group.

Certainly, some days were harder than others, and though most of us sprinkled some 8-12 mile long runs in the mix, all of us “used” our one-mile minimum days on multiple occasions.  But we all also discovered that running a mile or two is actually a very doable thing to squeeze into a particularly busy day, at say, 5 am or after dinner, when we don’t usually think about exercising.

Some runs were particularly memorable.  Jon and I began our streak running a 5K fun run in Burlington in Santa suits with our friend Lynn, and Claudine wrote about a lovely 2.8 mile loop around Green Lake at night on Day 14 during the Festival of Lights there, amid a musical performance, luminarias lighting the path, and many people out walking while she ran. Brad wrote about his last run of the streak – going into it expecting to have a minimal, half-hearted experience and pulling out a 4 mile interval speed workout instead. Liz was universally acclaimed by the group – twice actually – for doing one-milers in boots and her winter coat with her dog in freezing weather outside on two different days when she didn’t have her running clothes on hand.

All of us had days were we reported that, absent the streak, we would definitely not have made it out the door.  December is a particularly challenging month for consistent exercise, between holiday socializing, travel and bad weather. We ran through sleet and snow and ice storms, and made use of indoor treadmills, neoprene sleeves, pet dog running companions, and bike-riding children shouting encouragement. All of us did out-of-state travel during the streak, yet everyone got in their runs, even on travel days.  In fact, one of the most interesting things several of us noted was that, once the decision of whether to run was out of the equation, the mental energy that normally went into justifications for not running on a given day was converted into problem-solving for how to fit a run into the day’s activities and circumstances.

When the streak ended on December 31, none of us tried to extend it into January.  But all of us talked about the lessons we’d learned – about how easy it actually is to incorporate a daily good habit with a bit of imagination and flexibility, about our own capacities, and perhaps especially about what a potent combination commitment and mutual accountability can be.  Ironically, I am the only person in our five streak team who has personally met all the other team members, and our running and communication happened, at different points by different people, in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Vermont, Virginia and Florida.  But we made a promise to each other and we kept it, and all feel great about ending 2013 with this challenge.  To anyone looking for a great exercise challenge – that also happens to build both character and community along the way – I highly recommend putting together a streak team.   

Here are Jon and Lynn outside my place right before we headed down to join the throngs of other Santa's for the December 1 5K that started off the streak for Jon and me.