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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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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