Climbing Mt. Norquay

My brother and I climbed 850 feet to the peak of Mt. Norquay in the Canadian Rockies. Forget drugs—all you need are 4 hours and 2 carabiners to get higher than you’ve ever been.

A via ferrata (“iron way” in Italian) is a climbing route of cables and metal rungs built into a mountain. They began in the Italian Dolomites and spread worldwide; today there are over 1,000 via ferratas across the globe. Our guide Kevin described them as “user-friendly ways to summit the world’s most spectacular peaks.”

We climbed suspension bridges and vertical walls and cliff faces. Every rocky ledge we ascended revealed a new vista, a sweeping expanse of lodgewood pine, alpine streams, and distant jutting peaks. Below us spread the town of Banff. Its tiny homes, shops, rivers, and golf courses were dwarfed by the surrounding rocks of Banff National Park.

You could opt for the easy climb. Plant your feet on snug metal rungs and slowly inch up the cable. Nic and I chose to leave the metal behind and climb the rock itself. The limestone was grippy and full of holds. When hand connects to rock—with adrenaline, bated breath, and scraped-up palms—you realize that you are alive and human.

Anyone can do this climb.  17,000 people have climbed the Mt. Norquay Via Ferrata and 0 have fallen.  For my brother and I, who have done some indoor bouldering, it was a great introduction to outdoor climbing. It wasn’t the climb, but the summit that took our breath away. Our future ascents will be more challenging, but I doubt that many will match the view.

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Hiking from Canada to the US

We started in Waterton, Canada and ended up in Glacier Park, Montana. My family and I walked the Peace Trail, a day hike through Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. 2 countries, 9 miles, with 25 pounds on my back (that’s far more weight than needed, but I was practicing for a September backpacking trip).

The US and Canada share this park. The governments of both countries sanctioned this park in 1932 as a symbol of peace and friendship. Today, the US and Canada have the longest unarmed border in the world: 5,525 miles. Both pitch in to maintain and preserve this vast expanse of pristine wilderness.

There are no suspicious customs agents at the border. No attack dogs, no assault rifles, no barbed wire. You clear customs before starting the hike, but once you reach the 49th parallel, you simply step across. This border conveys trust and respect. This is how all modern, democratic nations should treat their neighbors.

Every tree, river, rock, and stream in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park stands in silent protest against xenophobia. The park says, “We trust you to honor this land as you do your own.” What a sharp contrast with our Southern border! Where we build walls and detain children and shoot down innocent people fleeing desperate violence.

When the legislators of 1932 created this park, they vowed to protect a natural treasure and uphold peace and trust. When Donald Trump chants “Build a Wall,” he incites racism and mistrust.

John Muir called this park

the best care killing scenery on the planet.

But it’s more than that. It is a victory for American foreign policy, environmentalism, and world peace. Today’s government would never endorse an “International Peace Park.” But we, the future activists and legislators and artists and writers, have a model to strive towards.

 

I’m a mountain goat in Sedona

There are three colors in Sedona: red, blue, and green. The red is rust, the blue has no depth, and the green is the color of life itself. Each is the most vivid shade imaginable. The angry sun boils the rocks so each color simmers. It looks like a black-and-white Western film retouched in Technicolor. It looks like a Remington painting.

IMG_9244.jpgThe rock faces split into natural shelves—each layer representing another 10,000 years of sediment. From afar, each rock thumb looks like an unscalable slope. Up close, they are stairways with a million steps.

I sprinted along these slanted steps. The red rock face towered above me and the gaping green valley lay below. I was a mountain goat. I scampered up a jutting cliff. Climbing up was easy, climbing down was hard. I realized that limestone is a flaky, untrustworthy foothold, and that spotters are very important.

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Peru: Video

In 2016, my family and I traveled throughout Peru. We saw Lima, Cusco, Macchu Picchu, Ollantaytambo (the Sacred Valley), and, most spectacularly, the Amazon rainforest. This unforgettable trip was full of many unique, individual experiences that each deserve a post. I’ll write more on them in the future.

For now, I want to share a video that my brother and I made. It’s impossible to capture the magic and mystery of Peru, but we tried to convey its basic atmosphere. Watching these clips instantly transports me back to that life-changing place!

 

Jungle pools of the Yucatán

The Yucatán Peninsula is located on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. It is home to a robust tropical rainforest, a crystal-blue coastline, and mystical Mayan ruins. The Peninsula’s most magical natural wonder is the cenote.

Cenotes are freshwater pools in the middle of the jungle. Below them extend massive underground cave networks, many of which remain unexplored. Scientists estimate that there are over 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatán, but who knows? It is impossible to quantify a phenomenon so sacred an unearthly.

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While in Tulum, Mexico, my family and I went cenote hopping. Here’s what happens when you visit a cenote.

You dive in and the surface is bright. Light rays illuminate streaks of shallow teal. Small, flighty, neon fish dance through the water and turtles splash around the surface. The limestone walls glisten a sparkling white. You venture beyond the shallow end, from aqua green to navy blue water. The bottom, 12 feet down, is darkly visible. The fish here are grey and big and slow. Submerged stalagmites cast underwater shadows. You go several feet deeper, and suddenly the water is black. Dark passageways extend into obscurity, the stalagmites like teeth above black cave mouths.

You turn on your flashlight and see a sign staring you in the face: “Peligro. NO PASA.” You realise that there are reaches of this cave never seen by human eyes. You dart to the surface and bolt to the shallow blue happy teal turtle-splashing water.

Cenotes exude an ominous sense of foreboding. The ancient Maya were the first to pick up on it. They believed that cenotes were gateways between Earth and the underworld, and sent their human sacrifices into the watery abyss. There are still bones at the bottom.

I was just swimming around with a mask and a flashlight, but someday I will go back with scuba gear. The same sinister quality that scares me away from the dark caves compels me to return.

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Biking through Bangkok

The capital of Thailand is a swirling matrix of motor bikes, tuk tuks, careening taxis, plodding kebob vendors, overpacked buses, and boldfaced tourists. Over the din of car horns and screaming street vendors, a monotone Buddhist chant reverberates through the city. There are international smells: KFC, McDonalds, Burger King. There are local smells: home-cooked tom yum, bananas simmering on a fryer, buckets of freshly-caught prawn. One false step and you are flattened by a speeding scooter. One wrong turn and you fall into a canal, hoping the motor boats see your flailing arms.

My family and I dove head first into this human hurricane. How did we navigate it? A 5 hour bike ride.

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We cycled away from the city center. Because, you know, we like living. After crossing several bridges, back alleys, and freeway overpasses, we discovered a different Bangkok. This area was quieter, slower, with more pedestrians and fewer taxis, more canoes and fewer speedboats. I was shocked to discover that Bangkok is as much a canal city as Amsterdam. Locals get around by boat. The waterways are far less congested than the streets, and sometimes faster.We loaded our bikes onto boats and ventured further beyond the city.

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Within minutes, the city lights dissipated and we were in a rural community. I was shocked; the shift from skyscrapers to farm huts was almost instant and utterly transition-less. I would later learn that Thailand is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, with the top 1% owning 58% of the country’s wealth (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/credit-suisse-global-wealth-world-most-unequal-countries-revealed-a7434431.html). I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a rural village bordering a megacity.

We slowed our riding pace to match that of village life. At this easy clip, I was able to take in each scene of the human drama playing out around us. A fisherman reels in his breakfast. A mother hangs herbs out to dry. A group of monks ask for offerings. A young girl in school uniform bikes to class.

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Biking through Bangkok was a wholly immersive experience. Apart from one treacherous freeway crossing, it was also seamless.

Though I only glimpsed a fraction of the city, I did get a taste for its rhythm and energy. Bangkok is kinetic. If you want to stay afloat, you have to move with the current.

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Escaping the elderly

Ever been trapped in a room full of old people? You must have tried to escape. I was once in this situation, but physically could not escape. The door was locked, the key hidden, and the windows bolted shut.

I’ve done escape rooms in Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, LA, Irvine, and Boston. Last summer in San Francisco, my roommate Rachel and I booked an escape.

The building itself was tucked under a freeway overpass and hard to find. Mysterious and grungy—A good sign for this sort of thing.

The quirky “gamemaster” (as he called himself) greeted Rachel and I and told us to make name tags. I was “Chuck” and Rachel was “Cosmic Warlord.” (We later realized we missed a golden opportunity to pick really funny names, and brainstormed better ones on the train ride home).

The gamemaster told us that nine other people would be escaping with us. Minutes later, a poppin’ limo pulled up with music blaring. The door opened and disco strobe light spilled onto the street. From the limo, emerged nine senior citizens.

A bridge club from Brentwood. 

Tipsy off the limo’s refreshments, they wore matching shirts celebrating “Maude’s 75th!” They made themselves nametags: “Sherry Berry”, “Peaches”, “Wonder Woman”, “Girl”, “Mom”, “KTB”, “Davey Wavey.” A large, quiet, Navy SEAL-type baby boomer named himself “Princess”. My favorite was this one woman; she could’ve chosen any name and she chose “Mabel.” I love you, Mabel.

The gamemaster started the clock and locked us in the room. Game on.  

I reverted to my battle-tested protocol, working methodically, efficiently, quickly. The older folks, on the other hand, went nuts. They yelled and scrambled, fiddling frustratedly with each puzzle. Peaches wanted air conditioning.  Davey Wavey lost his wallet. It was chaos.

I faced an ethical fork in the road. Should I take a domineering leadership role, ignore the seniors, and solve everything myself? Escaping was our goal, after all. If I took control, we’d succeed.

But what about Maude? Would she spend her big day waiting around as some punk kid stole her thunder? Was success worth excluding these quirky old-timers? No. Our stated goal was escaping, but more importantly—fun. Good leaders do not seek victory at all costs. They help everyone show up, contribute, and learn.

I opted not to dictate, but to delegate. The seniors eagerly agreed, wanting to contribute. I had Sherry Berry, a former teacher, decode anagrams. Princess the mechanic started retooling a cryptex. Girl the accountant worked a number puzzle. I gave Mabel a blacklight to scan for invisible ink.

They worked with ardor, imbued with new confidence. Still, the plodding seniors were no Sherlocks. We had too much fun to notice. Every small victory was high-fived.

The alarm screamed. We didn’t escape the room. But I escaped my narrow definition of leadership. It’s not about winning. Despite our comic ineffectiveness, my new friends and I all contributed. Leadership is about giving Maude a great 75th birthday.

 

Looking around the library

It is 105 degrees out today. If you don’t have air conditioning and like to read, you’re at the Newport Beach Public Library.

It’s hard to find an empty chair. All the cubicles are taken, so I settle for a lounge chair. Each lounge chair has a lame circular table. What is the purpose of a table with a 6-inch-radius? Is it supposed to dignify the lounge chair? If you’re going to give me extraneous furniture at least give me a footrest.

My seat is at the center of the room. The lounge chairs and cubicles encircle me like a twenty-first century Stone Henge. No one is watching me, but I am in everyone’s peripheral vision.

My spot makes for a good observation deck. I can observe everyone around me without anyone taking notice. Some distinct characters have joined me at the library today:

In the cubicle to my right is an Asian college student who has hunkered down for the long haul. She has a 18 ounce thermos of water or tea, a Tupperware container of noodles and vegetables, a bottle of pink lotion, a calculator, a backpack, and a cooler bag. A textbook lies open with a notebook on top. She reads off her laptop, and occasionally glances at the iPhone propped up against the cubicle wall, constantly flashing with new text messages.

In the cubicle to her left is a white male student reading large blocks of text on his laptop. He focuses intently, pausing every 5 minutes to take a single bite of his protein bar. There are many bolded headings, bulletpoints, and footers. I imagine he is proofreading the bylaws of a campus organization he helps lead. It probably reads:

CHAPTER 9, SUBSECTION 3

  • The protocol for voting abstentions is as follows
      1. The voting party may abstain from procedural matters only if the requisite quorum does not meet specific parliamentary standards
      2. Such standards include, but are not limited to
        1. I really pity this kid. Get a girlfriend.

 

To his left is another student, blonde, sitting crosslegged on a spinny chair. She wears Nikes, workout shorts, and a pink tank top. Her legs will probably get some dirt on them, with her sitting like that. On her laptop, she pulls up images of small, complex diagrams which she must lean in and squint at to see. She copies them down in her notebook. She sips a Starbucks iced latte.

To her left a man sits in an armchair. He wears flip flops and ripped socks, worn jeans, and a shirt the color of dried mud. He has headphones held together with tape, and watches a screen that I infer is borrowed from the library. I cannot tell if he is homeless. He is the only person here who occasionally looks up from what he is doing to glance around self-consciously. He has met my eye a couple times so I think I’ll have to stop observing him for now.

To his left (if you haven’t noticed, I’m going in a circle) is a middle aged man wearing neon pink shorts. Somehow, it doesn’t look out of place on him. The shorts compliment the black fitted shirt, the smart, red-rimmed glasses, the Perrier sparkling water, the leather backpack, and the MacBook Air with a sticker reading “1000 Miles.” I infer that he cycled down Pacific Coast Highway this morning. His grey hair flows in waves down to his shoulders. He is very absorbed in his typing. He’s using the lame little lounge-chair table, and that doesn’t look out of place with him either.

To his left, in a cubicle, is another Asian student who has taken a nap. She wears Minion-themed crocs with pink socks.

To her left is another student who appears more Southeast Asian, her sleek black hair streaked with blonde and tied back in a bun. She wears a gold necklace, black strappy sandals, and a navy blue sundress. Of her three books, one lies open, and she types on her laptop. She’s writing an essay. She is a liberal arts student, whereas the other students are STEM. Every 15 minutes or so, she checks her Facebook.

A heavyset lady with a suitcase walks past me then disappers behind a row of books. I wonder what the story is there.

An attractive Afro-Arab looking man sits down across from me. He wears metallic glasses and Airpods and carries nothing but his phone. I infer that he lives close-by, in Newport. You don’t travel 30 minutes to go to a library and check your phone. Maybe he was grocery shopping at Trader Joes down the street, and thought he’d stop by the library for a moment of silence and a breath of fresh air. I am guessing he’ll leave in the next ten minutes, once he cools down. I am right. 

That’s all the data I collect from my surroundings. Now I analyze my empirical observations and draw conclusions.

  1. You can learn a lot about a person by what beverage they drink.
  2. Students still seem to have and carry textbooks, but never open them.
  3. I have trouble creating narratives without the help of stereotypes. It is hard for me to visualize the napping croc-wearing Asian student ripping a bong, or the white male club organizer dancing at a J Cole concert, or the Nike-wearing blonde excelling in organic chemistry. But, I mean, 2/3 of those things have probably happened.
  4. Wow, two hours have passed?

 

Gratitude and the 4th of July

I never thought I would call myself a patriot. My liberal, vegan, Southern Californian self is not the type typically associated with red-white-and-blue fervor.

That said—you can’t come back from traveling in four Communist countries without gaining appreciation for the USA. Travel has shifted my perspective.

Before, I had never reflected on the gift of uncensored internet access, independent media, the right to ask questions, or ethnic diversity. During my homestay in China my VPN frequently crashed, leaving me at the mercy of the Great Chinese Firewall. My online activity was closely monitored. WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, flagged and blocked my friend due to “suspicious activity.”

The media was shameless propaganda. Its slanted coverage of international politics, the 2016 Olympics, and the America election cycle would’ve been funny if it weren’t alarming.

Question-asking was not a large part of my experience. I would constantly toe the line of discretion in asking my host family about politics. My mom was a Communist party member who worked for a state-owned broadcasting station. When my curiosity went too far, my mom would end the discussion with a resolute, “Eat your noodles.”

Mao’s face is printed on every dollar bill, his portrait on billboards and in school hallways.

There was very little ethnic diversity. Over the course of one month, I saw five Caucasians and one black person. When I touched back down at LAX I was instantly awash in a colorful rainbow of humanity: Arabs, Mexicans, Koreans, Germans, all rushing through Tom Bradley International terminal. I had never stopped to consider the beauty of such a globalized society. That was the first of many reverse-culture shocks. My American perspective left more room for gratitude, nuance, and pride.

Unequivocally, our country is deeply flawed. In 2018 alone, cops have shot and killed exactly 99 black people (Washington Post). The Supreme Court recently upheld the Muslim Travel Ban. Our EPA does not acknowledge human-induced climate change. Our vice president endorses gay conversion therapy. Our Congressional voting districts are gerrymandered to secure the election of white ruling class. The gender pay gap, the fossil fuel industry, ICE detention centers, arctic drilling, factory farming, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the overthrow of democratically elected Latin American leaders, the Japanese Internment Camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act, slavery, the Trail of Tears, all the way back to the genocide of an entire native peoples with the colonization of our continent—we have been and continue to be awful. It is rant-worthy.

These injustices are especially heinous because they are ironic. Our country promises to uphold liberty and justice for all. Our Constitutional ideals are so noble and pure, it is all the more tragic when we break them. I am not preaching that we forget our unjust past, resign to our scary, undemocratic present, and blindly rush into an ever more chaotic future. I urge that we be grateful for the principles our country stands for. Today’s dangerous political maelstrom is a betrayal of those founding principles. When we celebrate our country’s promises and seek to uphold them, we become better Americans. And an American is something I’m proud to be.

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Funny Chinese Food Translations

[Reposted on Chineasy.com]

The English translations of these Chinese vegetable words range from absurd to adorable. I’ve listed the Chinese character, the pronunciation, the English word, and the literal translation.

卷心菜 [juǎn xīn cài] – cabbage (literally, “swirling heart vegetable”)

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菠萝 [bō luó] – pineapple (“spinach radish”)

Huh? Maybe pineapple and spinach plants appear similar in the ground.                  Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 4.58.42 PM.png

灯笼椒 [dēng lóng jiāo]- bell pepper (“lantern pepper”)

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 芦笋 [lú sǔn] – asparagus (“bamboo reeds”)

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羽衣甘蓝 [yǔ yī gān lán]-kale (“feather dress cabbage”)

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西兰花 [xī lán huā] – broccoli (“western orchid”)

Ever seen the yellow flowers on a broccoli plant? They don’t look like “orchids”, but they are pretty nonetheless.

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黄瓜 [huáng guā]- cucumber (“yellow melon”)

Native Chinese cucumbers are yellow! The word “yellow melon” describes all types of cucumber, including the traditional green.

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抱子甘蓝 [bào zǐ gān lán] – brussel sprouts (“hugging cabbage”)

Brussel sprout plants look like a bunch of tiny cabbages hugging each other.

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西红柿 [xī hóng shì] – tomato (“western red persimmon”)

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土豆 [tǔ dòu] – potato (“earth bean”)

I, too, am an earth bean.

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鳄梨 [È lí] – avocado (“alligator pear”)

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朝鲜蓟 [cháo xiǎn jì] – artichoke (“royal fresh thistle”)

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玉米 [yù mǐ] – corn (“jade rice”)

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[Images courtesy of Google.]