Friday, September 7, 2012

(mis)adventures in backpacking, part one.

I don't usually blog about non-international travel (hence the woefully long hiatus between posts). I feel that it's a slippery slope from these sorts of posts to interminable exhibitionism and self-aggrandizing shouts into the unsympathetic ether-- that is, the modern online world.  However, sometimes my travels within California seem as foreign as those to other continents.  Sometimes they seem even more so.  This story in particular simply begged to be shared... so I will write of it cautiously, and ask all of you to hold me accountable in the event that I slide into twittering, instagramming, or anything else of the sort.

It all started weeks ago when JM was nagging at me to find a time in my schedule when we could go camping, just the two of us.  We'd done it a lot last summer, after we'd first started dating, and I admitted that I missed the time alone together and away from civilization.  I'd also been looking for an opportunity to try out "legitimate" camping-- away from campsites, water taps, and even the most primitive of toilets.  Many of my friends regularly go backpacking in various gorgeous areas of California; it's so common that I felt ashamed to confess that I'd actually never gotten past car camping, which is typically disparaged as "not real camping."  Determined to rectify this, I headed to REI and got myself a REAL backpack that could hold 60 liters of gear, together with a few other things we deemed necessary.  We pored over the internet to find the perfect spot, watching videos on how to bag your food so the bears can't get it, reading articles about the Leave No Trace principles.  JM, though he'd done one or two backcountry trips, was not very experienced in it either.  That was probably mistake number one.

Mistake number two was my insistence that I could not miss crew practice on Saturday morning.  We had an important race coming up, and I was adamant that we could not leave on Friday (or indeed until 9am on Saturday).  So at 9am on Saturday, JM picked me up from the boathouse, our small rented car stuffed with food and gear.  What I hadn't anticipated was that I'd be bone tired and soaking wet from a tough workout.  I spent the three-hour drive east stripped down trying to dry out-- forget about napping.

At around noon, we reached the Summit Ranger Station at the border of Emigrant Wilderness.  We'd chosen this spot, a 170-mile-patch just north of Yosemite, for its majestic scenery, tolerance of campfires, and for its lack of a quota for campers (we couldn't be bothered to reserve beforehand). Plus, it was free!  The ranger asked us for our tentative plans; we stabbed at a few random areas of the map, which he duly wrote down.  He commented that we were coming at a good time; the mosquitos weren't too bad, it shouldn't be too hot, there shouldn't be too many people.  Excited, we drove the next eight miles or so into the wilderness.

Mistake number three: we passed a gas station just before the ranger station, at which JM had decided NOT to stop.  As we neared the edge of the wilderness, I glanced over at the gas meter-- it was below empty.  Apparently, he'd misjudged the amount of gas the little car would need to climb all those hills.  At this point, we were almost at Crabtree trailhead; I was furious, but there was nothing for it but to go ahead with our plans.  We slathered on sunscreen and bug spray, hitched up our packs, and strolled off into the horizon.

The first few hours were actually quite pleasant, though the hills were steeper and the terrain more broken than I'd expected.  The heat, though intense, was tolerable, and the scenery powerful and majestic.  We made our way past Camp Lake, Lily Pad Lake, and started the descent into Piute Meadow, with only a modicum of wrong turns and short tempers.  As we approached a small stream, we noticed a sharp increase in the number of mosquitoes.  We attributed this to the approaching dusk; however, after my morning row, the six miles we'd already hiked was as much as I could handle.  We figured the bugs would pass, and we started scouting for a campsite somewhere in the meadow.  The mosquitoes got worse and worse as time passed by, seeming to take no notice whatsoever of our 40% DEET (mistake number four was not springing for 100% DEET-- fear? squeamishness?  I don't know).  Eventually, the mosquitoes got so bad that there was nothing for it than to pitch our tent and hide until they went away.

...but they didn't go away.  The incessant high-pitched drone of the bloodthirsty little savages was a constant reminder of what would happen the moment we unzipped our tent.  We napped miserably until full darkness fell-- probably 10pm-- and only then could we venture out.  Even then, a bunch of them were still hanging around; we had to light a campfire to smoke them out.  We cooked some rice pasta and added pesto and sardines, not thinking about the fact that it would make both our mess kits smell and taste like sardines for the rest of the trip.  After cleaning up, we realized Mistake Number Five: only about half of our food fit in the bear canister we'd borrowed from a friend.  I'd wanted to pack it before we headed into the wilderness, but JM convinced me that the canister was so big that there was no way we wouldn't be able to fit everything.  Bears aren't supposed to be a huge problem in Emigrant, but I didn't want to take any chances and insisted that we hang the bag in a tree.  However, the only trees nearby were pines.  With their high density of branches, most of which were close to the trunk (i.e. NOT effective for bear bagging), it took us close to 45 minutes to sling our rope over a high enough branch, haul it up, and tie it properly (we used the PCT method).  Cranky, tired, and dirty, we went to bed, planning to get out of this seemingly cursed meadow as fast as possible and find a better campsite the next day.


(All photos are from the interwebs... I was too busy swatting mosquitoes to take any myself)

A sample of the majestic scenery of Emigrant Wilderness

Camp Lake (the first lake we encountered)

Piute Meadow.  Only death awaits you here.

Lily Pad lake-- actually quite lovely.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Lot of Bridges (Italy part the third)

I have only a few sketchy details in my journal from my final days in Italy, over a year ago now.  In the interest of completeness, I'll post these before going on to some (relatively) more recent adventures!


On my last day in Udine, I had breakfast with a British professor named Bernard, who had a dry wit and a skeptical attitude that came out in some almost hostile questions after the not-so-solid talks.  Bernard played the bassoon in an amateur orchestra in Germany (?), which I believe was where he worked.  Before heading over to the conference, I walked a few blocks north to withdraw more cash from the ATM, but on my way there I was stopped by two tiny Italian women, who immediately started chattering at me.  I understood enough to know that they were asking if I believed in Jesus (it helped that they were offering me what looked an awful lot like Italian tracts).  Relieved that this was all it was, I assured them in broken Italian that yes, I did.  Either this didn't satisfy them or my Italian was just too bad, because they looked concerned and just kept talking.  "Christian?" I offered.  No response.  "Presbyterian?"  Still no reaction.  One last try.  "Presbyteriano...?"  All smiles.  "Ah, Presbyteriano!" they said.  They smiled and waved me on my way.

The last few talks were concluded by noon; pasta salad and promises to keep in touch were shared by all.  I packed my things and walked down to the train station, where I was supposed to meet the two Swedes with whom I'd be travelling... the previous day, I'd found a great deal on an apartment in the heart of Venice, which-- shared among three people-- came out to about 30 euro per night per person.

Despite getting lost in Udine on the way to the train station, I managed to find Karl, Mathias, and Marian, another young-ish conference attendee who was heading to Venice for a few days.  On the train ride, we passed breathtaking mountain scenery, and not one but several castles.  Marian stayed in a hostel somewhere in Venice; we proceeded to Santa Croce, in the heart of the city, away from the biggest tourist traps.  After several twists and turns, we emerged in a sunny side street, where cheerful flowerboxes poked out of every window.  We retrieved our keys from the landlord, and settled in to our fully equipped, nicely furnished apartment (see pictures below)!  We couldn't believe our luck.

From here my journal goes into even less detail; I can only assume that I was having far too much fun to scribble everything down.  I ate gelato sitting on the railing of the Rialto Bridge, with a big goofy grin on my face.  I ate pasta full of clams and mussels in a back-alley place called Al Nono Risorto, where some semi-celebrity teen sports team was celebrating a win (they looked like American fratboys, with popped collars and fauxhawks).  I ate a tiny baby octopus covered in breading and oil.  I ate chocolate croissants every day for breakfast. I ate handmade tagliatelle pasta with spider crab in a delicate white cream sauce, seated under a canalside grape arbor in the moonlight... light-as-air panna cotta with frutti di bosca and a demitasse of dark espresso for dessert.

Things not involving food: seeing a huge collection of artwork at a museum I can't remember, gaping at the interior of the Basilico San Marco, poking at relics in the Ducal Palace, and taking the ferry over to Murano, where we window-shopped for odd glass trinkets and took a walk through the island's glass museum (where the placards were in Italian, but the English translation cards were all missing).  I remember that on our last day in Venice, we kept encountering people running at top speed through the narrow streets; they looked like they were in some kind of race.  As the day went on, the runners grew thicker and thicker until it seemed like there were hundreds.  Finally, we followed the runners to an open plaza where there was a brass band and a big crowd waiting to welcome them to the finish line.  I can't be sure, but I think that the race was a fundraising effort for some kind of disease (much like the charity 5K runs that are common in the U.S.) and the objective was to cross (in a set order) all of the bridges in Venice.  And just so you know... Venice has a LOT of bridges.

And that's where my journal stops.  More must have happened-- I did get home, after all-- but I can't remember it, so I guess what happens in Italy stays in Italy.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend an international scientific conference, and for the chance to start a professional network with whom I can adventure around the world!

Our apartment: score!

Peeking out into the alleyway in Santa Croce

Canalside at sunset

Sitting on the Rialto Bridge

Breathtaking art, as is the norm in Venice

Some ancient version of the double bass

View from the top of St. Mark's basilica

Columns and Swedes

The rooftops of Venice

The Bridge of Sighs, turned into a giant billboard :(

i Gondolieri

on Murano, home of the glassblowers

Tiny glass orchestra; each figure was the size of a pinkie

Aperitivo, with spritz!

At least they admit it.

Just what I wanted!

At the Da Vinci museum

Leonardo dreams of his flying machine

Dessert on our last night-- delicious!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Onward to Udine (from April 2011)

My journal is slightly more detailed here, so I can provide a somewhat vague account of what I did for three days in Udine on the taxpayer's dime (thanks IGERT!). Please bear with me if I forget the details.  Again, I apologize profusely for posting this over a year after the events occurred.

The train from Venice to Udine took two hours, if you took the express. My utter ignorance was exposed when the conductor came to take our tickets. After she figured out that I was a moronic American (apparently), she explained in no uncertain terms that you must validate your ticket before boarding the train-- and then proceeded to fine me 50 euros. (I found out later that this was a rather heartless and uncommon thing to do... I must have projected an aura of some nontrivial unpleasantness to cause the conductor to dislike me so.)

I arrived in Udine at around 7pm and attempted to find my way to the conference center using only the low-resolution cobbled-together Google Maps printout I had brought from the States. This turned out to be a not-altogether-terrible idea, as I made it to the general vicinity of CISM (Centro Internationale di Scienze Mecchaniche). I eventually had to use my exceedingly poor Italian to ask for help finding the place; to my credit, it was an almost-unmarked door in a nondescript stone facade. However, I made it to the guesthouse next to the conference center and checked into my room on the top floor. It was fairly spartan, and definitely the accomodations of an academic. However, after a long and sweaty day, it was more than enough for me.

That night I met up with Gabriele and some of his Swedish friends from KTH, Karl and Mathias. We ate at a little place on a charming square-- gnocchi with spinach for me, and then gelato (of course). This was my first of many encounters with the rose-sellers that seem to permeate both Udine and Venice: they are middle-aged Indian men who aggressively approach diners to try to get them to buy roses. We hypothesized the existence of some kind of Rose Mafia, perhaps.

Day 1 of the conference began with a quest to find one of the few banks from which I was supposed to be able to make fee-free withdrawals. Of course, this later turned out to be untrue (more evidence of the corporate evils of Bank of America), but I had a lovely morning walk, in any case. I stopped at a cafe and learned the Italian word for croissant (in case you were wondering, it is "corneto"). The day's talks were interesting and relevant, though I understood maybe half of what was being explained. Gabriele (my Italian friend who worked in our lab last fall) presented some of the results from our experiments; I had helped him prepare the slides the previous evening.

After the finish of the afternoon's talks, I walked around Udine with my new friend Karl to see "old things", which included a cathedral, a castle, and other important buildings. The younger conference attendees (i.e., those who were still students) met at 6pm for aperitivo, where I had my first spritz-- an Italian evening cocktail made from prosecco (a sparkling white wine), mineral water, and Aperol or Campari. We then met up with other conference attendees for a pizza dinner, where I sat at a table with mostly Finns and Swedes (including one of the other women at the conference. together, we made up 50% of the female attendees). The banter, though it began enjoyably enough, took a turn for the worse as one of the men at the table began to make increasingly sexist (and explicit) comments. Most were attempted and failed humor, but by the end of the evening I was genuinely uncomfortable. This is (albeit slightly more severe) the same brand of misogyny I have encountered throughout my career thus far in academia-- no one comes up to you and says "girls can't do math," but they make all kinds of stereotypical comments in the name of humor. Gentlemen: this is almost worse than outright discrimination. It diminishes and patronizes us, dismisses our accomplishments as people, and just makes us angry.

The second day of the conference was much the same as the first--fascinating talks from which I understood most of the concepts but few of the details, in the company of interesting people and delicious food. This second night was the "social dinner," held at a castle atop a hill overlooking the city.  The five-course meal (paired with five different wines) was an unbelievable example of what seems to be the typical Italian attitude toward food.  During the appetizers, I received a bonus lecture: a full-fledged seminar on the history of Berkeley by one M. W. Reeks, a British attendee of the conference.  It was thoroughly entertaining and interesting, much like his talk earlier that day.  After dinner, the young people (together with some of the younger professors) hit the bars.  I could definitely feel that I was the only woman in the crowd, but in contrast to the previous evening I felt no disrespect or stereotyping.  It was a fun evening, and a good reminder that scientists are people too!

Gabriele and I, at CISM (Centro Internazionale di Scienze Meccaniche)

Tree-lined streets of picturesque Udine

A church in the center of town

Karl, on our quest for old things

A meta-moment with an unknown photographer

an old well

the view from the top of the hill-- beautiful rooftops and streets

dessert for the last night... yum!

(all photos from my camera)