Day 8 of my vacation: Crappity Crappity Crap.

Most of you are aware that my vacation got cut short by a day of travel hell on the embarking leg. It has now been effectively cut short by two days on the returning leg too. Alex, whom I was hoping to meet up with on Friday and Saturday had his return flight from Indiana to Boston cancelled and delayed so that he doesn't get back until midnight the night before I have an 8 am flight.

All my friends that have couches to crash on in Boston are out of town, so I've had the impoverishing joy of treating myself to two nights at hotels in a city that I enjoy but devoid of people I want to see.

And I'm hungover.

Best. Vacation. Ever.

Day 1 of my Vacation: Crappity Crap


I was supposed to leave for Boston today. My plans, it seemed, were not meant to work out. Last night I decided to stay up late so that I could crash on my cross-country flight and sleep through most of it. In the morning I made it to the airport with plenty of time, but in a rather groggy state. I go about checking in and find that there's been change to my intenerary, and in my groggy state all that I notice is that the flight is leaving an hour later, which is fine. I press to complete my check-in and I'm greeted with an error message saying that the earliest I can check in is 24 hours before my flight departs. "Wait a minute", I think, "my flight leaves in two hours, what's going on?".

The flight that I was now booked on was leaving in two days. My original flight was cancelled. Let me put it nicely and say that I was not in the best of moods, especially considering I was scooting about on four hours of sleep. I spent the next 3 hours in the airport going through lines and pleading with receptionists at various carriers. Air Canada seemed to be staffed with very helpful people that got me on a plane a day earlier than I would have done with American. And this time I get to make a decently long layover in Toronto! 


In the end this will all be water under the bridge and I'll be enjoying myself in New England by tomorrow night. However, Boston is slated to get some more snow so I could get stranded in Toronto. Maybe I can sneak in a hockey game? 


Someday


Skiing Big White
Originally uploaded by minniemouseaunt
After several months in the sunny suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley, we finally got our first rain. It poured for almost three days here, and the news started carrying stories about how this will turn into the first big snowfall of the year for California's ski resorts. I felt my first yearning for some good skiing in a long, long time.

One thing I've always noticed is that there's something that makes me subtlety happier whenever I'm around mountains -- especially on them. I remember growing up in New Hampshire and how during my elementary school years my dad and I would take days to go skiing at local resorts. I remember the school trips I would take to the local ski areas on Friday afternoons in January. I remember waking up at 4am on the weekends excited to get to the slopes as soon as they opened.

Living out here on the west coast I really hope I can someday move close enough to the mountains so that popping out on a weekend with good weather is almost heading out into my backyard.

Someday.

Launching Off

I'm about to start rebuilding a decent chunk of code at work that I've been working on the past couple of months. I had no hand in creating this beast originally -- its horrid architecture is no fault of my own. And we have finally hit a spot where the framework is halting further development. Thankfully there's a silver lining.

Rebuilding pieces of software is generally a bad idea, and means the developer is being lazy with regards to learning how an existing system works. However, in the few chances when it's a good idea you have the opportunity to fix old mistakes -- rebuild anew. It's a bit like redemption for software. While I'm sure I'll get frustrated later on, right now I feel as if I'm launching off of the old and weathered in to the clean and open.

Gas for Under Two Dollars! Forget Energy Independence!

On my bike to work today I saw two stations that had gasoline for under $2. While this reflects a signifigant drop in the demand for gasoline (hooray!), I only hope that most Americans won't revert back to their methods that caused the spike in gas prices in the first place.

A Nerdy Tangent

Function parameter lists should be specifying required and optional keys in an arguments hash table, not an argument list

World of Warcraft is the next Golf


Some of you may or may not have heard that the next co-chair of the FCC transition team for the Obama administration plays World of Warcraft. This, in and of itself, is not news. But the way in which he plays does make a difference. It signals a major transition of what social activities men use to keep up with each other.

More often than not, a generation or two ago, golf was the major shared activity that lots of men used to facilitate hours of social interaction. There are entire literatures based on the bonds made over a round on the links. Massively-Multiplayer online games share many of the same attributes as golf, but allow for people to get together from anywhere in the world to play together. They both take a few hours to complete, involve a good amount of social interaction with your fellow players, aren't particularly physically challenging, and appeal to wealthy-enough people that can afford the necessary tools for playing (clubs or computers).

I won't go into way too much detail because this topic has been covered by people paid to write well about it, but I will say that I have noticed this trend quite a lot amongst my peers. One of the big reasons I play World of Warcraft is to keep in touch with a couple of close friends that live in Boston. We often fire up our computers, set up our headsets and microphones, and talk about any sort of thing while we work together to kill a big dragon. 

Now that I'm out in California it gives us some common ground to talk about, which keeps the lines open and leads to closer, more personal conversations about things above and beyond just the game.

Burst

An ear-splitting bang sounded out around 2pm this afternoon at the office. A woman shrieked, thinking a gun had been fired. I can't blame her because it was just that loud. I wasn't scared, however, because I had heard the sound of a bicycle tire burst before. I had left my bike within 10 feet of a window, and the sun had just lined up to cook the air inside the tires of my bike this afternoon.

I headed out to the nearest bike shop, a 3 mile roundtrip walk, to get replacement parts. It wasn't cheap, either because it wasn't just the inner tubing that burst but the external tire, too. It's not cheap to get a replacement for a very specific kind of racing tire.


And to top it all off the walk to the bike shop goes through what could courteusly described as low-income housing. I got rushed by three large dogs (hooray for fences), and almost got peed on by another through a fence if I hadn't noticed the raised leg and dodged away.

Fun day, especially when you've only had 3 hours of sleep because you like video games too much.

Squashed into the Ground


Footwork
Originally uploaded by inqurious
I did my first Saturday of drills/games/court sprints out here at the Stanford courts. It's fantastic that the assistant coach to the men's team runs these clinics (and plays in them too). I sprinted, lunged, and twisted around a squash court from 9 to 1 this morning. I feel wrecked, and I love it so so much.

Teefpaste?


I'm sorry, I just can't stop laughing at this.

Proposition Huh?

In California this year there is a Proposition to amend the California constitution stating that marriage is only between a man and a woman. I've seen a lot of silly advertising on both sides since it's such a highly-charged issue. Things have gotten dirty as voting day approaches, as you could expect when one side sees their religious views under fire while the other sees bigotry nearly put into our state's constitution. Claims on both sides have been crazy, but minutely based in truth.

In a word, bullshit.

One good thing about the past 8 political years is that I've developed a sophisticated bullshit radar. It's so strong that I have just learned to turn off any program "covering" news save the ones that make fun. My radar failed me today when I couldn't ignore an online advertisement that completely took the cake. 




Huh?
What?
Marriage is between a woman and a man?
... that woman and man?
Vote Yes on Proposition 8 so Joe Biden and Sarah Palin get married?

What the hell?

Putting out Fires

This week at work has been pretty crazy. On Monday I coded up a tiny change to a tiny little thing that over 4 million people use. This change made the tiny little thing a little more dynamic, which required a little more processing power on our end. Multiply that by four million and you get this:


The kicker is that this tiny little change was only showing up for half the users (an A/B Test, in industry parlance). 


Monday very quickly became time to scramle. I had to quickly revert the change and figure out a way to make the same change but oodles faster. Staying at work until 10:30pm paid off this Monday because the rest of that graph includes the same change for all users. Note how on the second time I didn't double our bandwith intake.

Fun!

Getting out of the Moral Matrix

I posted a TED talk a while back without much explanation about what it was, other than it was talking about "... the real difference between Liberals and Conservatives." and nobody watched it as far as I can tell. A headline like that coupled with what people probably expect of my political views easily led to the impression that the talk is just one-sided rhetoric. That was my fault -- I packaged it misguidingly.

As we are now just a few weeks away from a critically important election with political tempers at a fever pitch, I implore you to take some time and watch this talk. It is not politically charged, but instead gives a powerful case for how liberal and conservative forces act in unison to progress societies. Watch it and respect the basis of the political views from the other side of the tracks.



edit: it appears a few people had watched it the first time. 

Say "I do" With Grandma on Your Finger

Little did I know when I went in to work this morning that I would stumble upon a website that does something both macabre and fascinating: Life Gems

What is a LifeGem®?
The LifeGem® is a certified, high-quality diamond created from the
carbon of your loved one as a memorial to their unique life, or as a symbol of your personal and precious bond with another.



You read that correctly: Cremate a dead loved one and they'll compress the carbon into a diamond. Frankly, I think they're underreaching. Off the cuff I can imagine a powerful market for these death diamonds in one key area: prestige auctions. 

Imagine the market for diamonds made from historical figures. Who wants to bid on an original Monét when you can bid on the actual Monét (in diamond form)? As long as you have a clever grave-robbing team you can make millions as you tick off lists of historical figures.


Update: thanks to some detective work by Erin, I've been told that LifeGem is in fact already creating diamons from historical figures.

A Happy Dose of Perspective


Visiting with Gabriel
Originally uploaded by ehurson
In a previous post I talked about my penchant for always pushing forward to the next Big Thing. While I enjoy the excitement of always working towards something, a little perspective popped in on the radio this evening. I don't remember the exact words, but the singer was crooning about "breaking out of this small town", and it lead me to a happy thought.

I'm a software developer at one of the top startups in silicon valley. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I live in a lovely apartment with a lovely woman. I live in the same town as my brother. I get to play squash a couple times a week. I love what I do for work. I get along great with my coworkers. I can bike to work. I eat well. I broke out of my proverbial small town.

This is not a comparsion between my life and anyone else's or judgements on people who made different choices from me. I just need to remember every now and then that I'm doing well.

Rose-Colored Snow Goggles

Erin and I went up to San Anselmo in Marin county last weekend to see a production of Moonlight and Magnolias, which was a wonderful evening. What struck me, however, is how rosy my rear-view mirror has become. The playhouse was an old-tymey barn, it was a little chilly, and I noticed another audience member sipping hot cocoa. Whenever it gets a little chilly I think fondly of New Hampshire in the winter, despite my disinterest whenever I spend more than a handful of days there.

If I sit back and think about whether I'd be happy living there, the answer is no. There's just not enough varied things going on for my tastes. But it's wonderful to know that there is somewhere out there that feels like home, even if I get restless within a week.

Free Energy Drinks at Work

Most of the time having snacks and drinks around is a good idea to get that little bit of blood sugar at low times when you haven't eaten in a while. Certainly one must exercise restraint when they are provided by your company for free. Most of the time I have no issue refraining from living off of candy during the work day. But every other week or so I have to re-learn the lesson with energy drinks and their caffeine level:

Much like alcohol, if you don't regularly metabolize caffeine it can leave you seriuosly batty. I currently feel like a mixture of the following two cats. 





























I am looking forward to coming down.









Yay Monterey Bay!

Although a long drive south, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is really something else. While large, it's not the size that makes the aquarium so interesting. In nearly every exhibit, the presentation was fantastic, affecting the viewer with the sense you'd get had you gone to see these creatures in the wild.

A kelp forest, found here in the Monterey Bay, was recreated complete with waves to move the kelp around, providing the necessary churn for life. The key was that you got to see it full-size, wrapping around you. You got a sense of really being suspended right off shore.

The exhibit showcasing the crashing cacophony of tidal pools didn't just tell you about what it's like in a storm, they tossed crashing waves over your head!
The jellies exhibit was yet another great example of fantastic setting. In essence jellies are almost otherwordly creatures, floating around in the deep. If you were the first explorer to stumble across a giant school of them floating by, I'm sure the experience must have been completely surreal. The lighting and layout of this exhibit was almost science-fiction in nature. It fit wonderfully.
 
The deep holding tank was far and away my favourite, however. The sense of a vast ocean full of life right in front of you was beautifully recreated. I stood in front of it and was a child again -- curious and full of wonder at all the world's possibilities.

Laura Visits, We Learn How to Host


Laura came by for a long weekend, and we tried out this whole hosting thing. Like parents with their first child, we got some things right and some things wrong. At the heart of the issue is that we're still kinda new here and don't entirely know all the good places to go yet.
 

We like to show people San Francisco, but there's still loads of things about the city that we're learning ourselves. 
  • Fisherman's Wharf is kitschy tourist-trap. 
  • Golden Gate Park is really big and open with a few neat attractions, but perhaps it's better if you're going with a large group using the open spaces. 
  • Museum tickets to popular exhibitions should be purchased well in advance, otherwise you head in to downtown San Francisco and end up with just a short tour.
Before anyone gets worried that visiting us is a terrible idea, keep in mind that the weekend as a whole was in fact a great time. I've got proof.



Fall?

I got in to work this morning and noticed that google had changed it's logo to celebrate the first day of fall. I quickly realized that the warm, sunny bike ride in to work today didn't feel the slightest bit like fall weather.



If the current weather forecast for San Mateo is "fall" weather, then I could get used to living here.

More Meltdowns

Like many failures in a market economy, poor decisions come from the mis-alignment of motivations.

There is one major problem on Wall Street, that until solved, will result in meltown after meltdown in future years. I can't say if the meltdown monkey will hit every 2,3, 5 or 10 years. But I can say with certainty that it will happen again. Why ? 

Because Risk and Reward have been decoupled for CEOs on Wall Street

I Suppose it Was Inevitable


Sarah Palin and John McCain certainly make an interesting ticket for the Republicans. After the American voter gave them a failing grade with the 06 congressional elections a ticket that is supposedly a conservative brand of change is a clever strategy.

The RNC needs to convince people that they can reform themselves. After watching some of the Republican Convention's speeches I noticed they were railing against the usual Straw Men: Librul Judges, Librul Media, Arugala Eaters, People That Will Force You to be Gay,  and so on. John McCain and Sarah Palin would reform these Librul Pussies. This is all pretty laughable, from a purely rational standpoint, but we all know that elections rarely operate on rationality.

My fear is that this works. That it will convince people who don't look at what is being used to back up the titles of "Reformer" or "Maverick" (read: nothing since 2000) that John McCain and Sarah Palin will indeed bring change to the country.

The Obama campaign is trying to shed some light: (cnn article)

Shut Up and Multiply

Altruism isn't the warm fuzzy feeling you get from being altruistic. If you're doing it for the spiritual benefit, that is nothing but selfishness. The primary thing is to help others, whatever the means. So shut up and multiply!


It's Full of Stars


I slipped under the surface, in to a world of pure ideas with music that let my inner abstraction astronaut launch outside the gravity well of reality's obligations. I played with numbers and logic -- universes of my own creation.
 
Every now and then I really love my job.

A Great Hike

I'm not sure how many of the people that read this blog are in a position to go on a demanding four-day hike in the mountains of New Hampshire, but if you are I can't help but recommend this circuit my father and I discovered in the fall of 2006.

We took a four day weekend around Columbus Day and decided to wander all over the Presidential Ridge, often described as one of the best part of the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail. We tried to maximize the amount of time spent above treeline since you get some of your best views there. We also tried to minimize the amount of duplicated trail -- no point in hiking the same stretch of trail twice if you can help it.

Click on the map to see an interactive version.



The terrain we picked varies from really quite steep at times (about a class 3) to nothing more than strolling along alpine meadows. The varied landscapes take you from the exposed ridge tops to quiet river valleys. The only real constant is that you'll be putting in around 10 miles of serious hiking each day, which is at least twice as far as the average weekend warrior prefers to do. That being said, pretty much all of the active people I know who read this blog could do it and enjoy it (I'm looking at you, athenaHuck).











(full set of photos from that weekend are here)

Meeting the Neighbor's Cat

A cat landed on our balcony this morning at 5am whining to come in. We live on the 4th floor. Thank god the phone number on the cat's collar worked. Too bad the people on the other end of the line didn't pick up until I had walked all the way over to the address on the tag, which was significantly out of date. The address on the tag was half a mile down the street, the real address was 3 doors down in the apartment complex.

Had to turn on computer to use google maps to find the adress on the tag. Thought I'd blog about something that's not a wedding.

Cute cat, but at 5am no animal is all that welcome, even if they can get up on the roof and down on to any balcony.

groggy ben saves cat. groggy ben goes back to bed.

The Upside of Biking

Despite the previous post, I've spent the past few days really enjoying bicycling. This may have something to do with my new bike which is very much not a PoS like the one I mentioned earlier. This time it's brand new, made completely of carbon fiber, and was fitted for me when I purchased it.

It was certainly expensive, but I ride 12+ miles a day commuting to work so the benefits are worth the money. The carbon frame and slightly-wider tires dampen a lot of the vibration that you find riding on the road grid from pebbles and cracks. The handlebar is also a little bit raised so I'm not bent so far forward that I can't see the cars around me. And good lord is it light. I accelerate out of stoplights faster than most cars, and it makes climbing hills much nicer.




I made a map of some of the routes I use to get to and from work. Click here to have a look at it. One of these times I'll bring my camera along to get some views of the SF Peninsula hills. I get chills and shocks at how lucky I am to live here each time I go riding in them.


First Week at Work: Things Can Only Improve

It's now Friday, the end of my first week back at work, and things can only get better. I took a test bicycle ride to work and back on the prior Sunday to see how long it takes. The bike performed without issue and everything seemed good to go. On Monday I was all ready to head in on my bike that I picked up used for not too much money. It even came with a free lock!

After riding along for 3 miles past the road construction that wasn't there the day before, I started hearing a clicking noise at regular intervals. I looked down at the bike and just chocked it up to the rear derailleur being a little old. But after a minute I was certain the noise was new, and noticed that my rear tire was completely flat thanks to the enormous nail sticking out of it. Thanks, construction guys.

Meanwhile, Erin was peacefully at home in bed until she was woken up by a phone call -- me needing to be picked up and driven to work. Oh what a wonderful way to start the week. She'd also have to come drive in to pick me up after work, leaving her celebratory first-day dinner plan in ruins.

Over the next three days at work I would freak out because I was under the impression that I needed to finish the project that I received on day one by day two, and I hadn't yet. Doubts about whether I was up to snuff for silicon valley crept in. I had never used a single tool (language, framework, IDE, etc.) in use at my new job before, but I still had the amazing ability to conjure a sickening fear of failure. Completely unfounded, but debilitating nonetheless.



This morning I found out that I was a day ahead of schedule, much to my relief. I popped out of work to pick up a patch kit and some spare bicycle tires near work and was all ready to bike in on Friday. Little did I know my bike was old and busted, a lemon about to really surprise me late after arriving home from an evening at my brother's house.

It's midnight and I need to fix a flat. I've got spare tubes and a pump so I figure I'll just pump up a new one and fix the punctured one some other time. This goes awry when I find that the wheel in question has been wrenched so tightly in place that I can't get the wheel off for the life of me (yes, it's old enough to not be an easy-release wheel) . I have bruised hands from trying. Somewhere around this time I start wondering if I should have purchased a new bike.

After a little thinking I wiggle off the tire and tube while the wheel is still on the bike and manage to patch the hole. It's now 2am but at least I'm getting somewhere. I proceed to put everything back together and pump up my two tires. Everything is finally going to work, I think. I roll the bike along to see if everything's working. I notice that the wheels have become off-center, brushing up against the brakes periodically.

After trying to center the wheels for a good 45 minutes of trial and repeated error I realize through my exhausted stupor that the frames are simply bent. There's no re-adjusting I can do to this junker to get things running smoothly. The bike was advertised as getting new wheels within the past year, but I know now it was just the tires. As I'm resigning myself to riding a shoddy bike 6 miles in to work on 5 hours of sleep the next morning the air is ripped open with a bang louder than any firework I've ever heard. The rear tire, which I have just finished patching over a terrible 2.5 hours, has just burst.


In the end all I ended up with was stress, lost sleep, a plan to purchase a new bike in the morning, and an extremely expensive lock.



(no, that picture is not my bike, just what I'd like to do to it).

Local Food

There's something affirming and warm about going to local farmer's markets to purchase produce straight from people who grew it for cheaper than you can find in the supermarket. With all the markets all over the bay area (there are two per week in San Mateo alone) it makes for some great shopping and exploration.


The photo here is from the smaller one on Wednesdays. Even browsing an hour before closing sends you on a produce expedition. Start with staples, explore some outliers, and end up finding the weird and the beautiful.

Getting produce from farmer's markets has both cut costs and increased tastiness. You can make some really great pasta salad for no more than a couple bucks a pound.

A Celebration of All the Wrong Things

Erin and I went to see Mamma Mia this afternoon and I was hoping to enjoy it since musicals can be pretty fun -- song, dance, and escapism. Unfortunately the only escapism I experienced today was the urge from the very beginning of the movie to get the hell out of the theater.

From the first cracked-out ABBA number to the credits there was one overarching theme to the movie that pissed me off: Women are always fabulous and men exist only to be fools who fawn over them. The maddening part is that not a single one of the characters in this film were worth fawning over.

Every single woman portrayed was a cracked-out, batshit-crazy princess complex waiting to break out in to tears or song. Whichever happened really depends on whether they were either (a) reminiscing about their fabulous youth or (b) mourning how difficult and emotional their life has been. And then they hope for a rich, perfect man to solve their problems. Lady, a rich man won't solve your problem. You are your problem. AND SHUT UP WITH THE ABBA SONGS OH GOD.

The three potential fathers are all nothing more than stereotypes of the Ideal Middle-Aged Man. One was a rich banker, the other a suave architect, and the third an adventurous travel writer. The message this movie sends to women is that they should expect nothing less. The message it sends to men is that we should be nothing less. As a man from reality I was insulted, and afraid for the husbands of all the women in the theater.

This was a terrible movie. Those who liked it (far too many in my theatre) need to take a look around them and understand that just like men, women are not the stronger sex. Delusions of grandeur never suited anybody, especially women looking for someone else to solve their problems. Women looking for someone of my gender to fit their dreams least of all.

The one moment of sanity came surprisingly from the twenty-something husband-to-be. His fiance did something batshit crazy and didn't tell him about it. When he found out she somehow concluded that his frustration meant he didn't love her. He turned around and said "I do love you! I just wish you told me!". I don't know what his character was doing in the film.

I can only hope that this was somehow a subtle satire of the chick-flick, "aren't women fabulous? Why don't men get it?" genre. That would be far too kind to the creators of this film. They are ABBA fans, after all -- is nuance really their thing?

Whatever you do, do not see this movie. Let it burn a slow death.


Disclaimer: I do not hate women. I love women. I just can't stand the hyperbolic versions portrayed in this film

Back in the US


The Ben is back
Originally uploaded by ehurson
Walking around the SF Bay Area and calling it home feels pretty good. After moving and traveling for so long there aren't many places in the world whose little touches and subconscious mutterings convince me that they're home. Northern California, however, cheated and started whispering to me when I was very young.

For the first five, impressionable years I called a place north of here home. Part of me never stopped. It's akin to seeing someone on the street that you thought you recognized. It's vaguely like deja-vu. I love it here.

Gone Camping


Me on Moses Rock Ridge
Originally uploaded by inqurious
Erin and I popped out to take in some local scenery and topology by camping and hiking at Mt. Diablo State Park. We were dissapointed to find that there were no devils on the mountain, just some nice views of the surrounding area.

I operate in an area much better if I have something of a three-dimensional map in my head detailing where I am. Scaling a mountain that's around 2000' higher than anything within a hundred miles or so really helps with that. The views are pretty good, too.

I've uploaded a bunch of photos here.

Getting There


I'm confused...
Originally uploaded by ehurson
Hello, whirlwind. The frequency of activity is still what it was on the trip, but now there's a lot of heavy lifting, too! In the past 4 days Erin and I have:
  • signed a lease
  • rented a uhaul
  • drove to a storage facility and moved our stuff in to our uhaul
  • bought 10 pieces of necessary furniture from Ikea
  • unloaded all of our stuff (old and new) in to our new apartment.
  • constructed 10 pieces of furniture
  • re-bought all the non-essentials we gave away in Cambridge
  • unpacked an apartment
  • took the train in to SF
  • went to a july 4th party
  • spent the night in SF with Hilary
  • walked around 6 miles in SF wandering and book shopping
  • had an internet connection set up.

We live in a very serene spot that makes me feel happy. But god damn am I exhausted. We're up on the fourth floor with a balcony looking in to a lovely grove. My arms are still pretty sore from carrying all of our moving boxes across said grove.

Maybe I need to take a day off and go sit by one of the two pools in our complex or read in the park next door. Oh wait, Kurt's throwing a party in downtown SF tonight.

Back on the whirlwind. One of these days I'll be able to sit down and digest what happened in this first week.

What's Next

I'm not one to lament something until it's gone -- I tend to gaze forward. There's plenty of value in recognizing the value of where you _are_, but I'm at a point in my life (hello twenty-something male with ambition!) where I'm much more focused on where I _could be_. I also seem better at it. In more direct words: I don't feel very sad about this chapter ending. I look forward to the coming adventure in California.

There are plenty of good things that happened on this vacation. I have seen some amazing natural beauty, visited some stunning ancient architecture, learned how much I need to stand up for my own needs, and met the buried grace of the Khmer. I'm sure after I peruse my photos again I'll be reminded of other bits I enjoyed.

I grew a lot as a person, but not all of the trip was altogether _fun_. I realized that a good deal of my enjoyment of China was the self-affirmation I received from social success with the other western students, which was markedly absent. And that I expected some of that experience on this trip but it was notably absent. Erin and I had some bitter moments finding new balances of control in our relationship. Finally, what was on my last trip to Asia a quaint fondness for a bartering/swindling economy was now a frustration that soured many an experience. The bad and the good made a strong concoction that wore me down, and I'm generally an extremely patient and enduring person.

On the bus ride home tonight Erin began lamenting to me about how much she will miss this slice of the world. I realized that I really don't share that sentiment. I liked my trip here and all the ways I learned and grew. But there were growing pains this time out. Overall I'm pleased to move on to what's next.

Late Afternoon Jaunt


Evening Sun and Sky
Originally uploaded by inqurious
As the sun started to leave the upper regions of the sky Erin and I headed out for a late afternoon ride up in to the mountains east of Pai. As with many forays into the wild on this trip our planned destination was not the highlight. An afternoon drive up in to some hills covered in farmlands breeds some breathtaking views.


The waterfall, which was merely a set of cascades now that it's the driest point in the year, was really quite pretty.



But the scenery on the drive up and back was far and away the best part.

Mom, Dad, I found where the Summer of Love went!


Pai Streets
Originally uploaded by inqurious
Pai, a relatively remote village in the far north of Thailand, makes me think that all the aging hippies-cum-yuppies left San Francisco and moved here. As the guidebook says, it's not really a Thai village so much as an international tourist destination full of organic restaurants serving up whole wheat toast alongside wheatgrass-infused drinks next to spas and bars playing Cream or Iron Butterfly (of Inagodadavida fame).

It's precisely the sort of place that a fifty-something boomer would come to "get away from it all and re-center" alongside the 19-year-old who wants to smoke pot in a beautiful mountain town. To be clear: I'm not complaining about it at all -- the town is absolutely beautiful. The only downside is that it's the low season so almost every single bar closes down at around 9pm.

I think my parents would love it here. They once asked me if they would prefer Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand. I'm pretty sure the answer to that is that they'd like _northern_ Thailand the most, Especially Pai. Mornings and evenings at adorable little restaurants that run from tacos to Thai food and back again with daytimes spent cycling (or motorbiking) in the hills to all the hillside temples, waterfalls, hot springs, and elephants. Or they could go on multi-day guided treks or overnight rafting trips.

The only downside is that you could get a little bored with the town after a week or so if you need activities outside the natural beauty and a bar or two. Especially during the low season.

Elephant Play


After our first toss off
Originally uploaded by ehurson
Erin and I played in the river with an elephant today. We only went for about an hour but that was plenty! Although from the ground these great animals seem a little goofy and cute, there's really nothing too amusing about them when you're nearly twelve feet off the ground and riding bareback on a swaying beast.

One of the things that I didn't expect was just how prickly Asian elephants are. Being mammals they are covered in hair, but it's a very thin covering and each hair is only about a centimeter long and mostly inflexible. It was like there was giant stubble all over the elephant and it dug in to your legs pretty substantially, magnified by how tight you had to hold your legs to the elephant's sides to stay balanced.

Our ride essentially took us from the elephant camp to the river, about 1km away, where we played around for a while. Once we got to the river and the elephant trainer/guide asked for all our valuable possessions we realized that we wouldn't exactly be fording the river with the elephant under us but rather swimming with her.

Getting tossed around by Jasmine, as Erin decided to call her, was a pretty big barrel of laughs. We'd get on, the trainer would give the command to shake us off, after which we'd get unceremoniously tossed to the bottom of the river. And then we'd repeat the whole ordeal. I picked up on what was going on pretty quickly, but played the fool and kept getting back on because it was just so darn fun! It was definitely worth doing, just not for too long.

Homeward Bound, But not Yet

Erin and I have precisely one week before we land back in California, and it's starting to affect our mindsets. Thoughts of setting up an apartment, finding a car, exploring the parks, grocery shopping, and cooking our own food are dangerously close to distracting us from our last week spent in the relatively remote mountainous region of Northen Thailand.

We've just arrived in Pai, which has become something of a artist/hippy traveler's mini-mecca. Everywhere you look you can find cozy bungalows, bars, or art/trinket shops. The surrounds are very pretty with steep mountain ranges within a few kiliometers in every direction and a quiet river running through town. One can easily see how artists like to come here and "re-center", or something -- the landscape alone can easily give you a sense of removal from the burdens and obligations of whatever life you came from. I just hope Erin and I won't be too distracted by where we're going to while we're here.

Erin and the Banana Waffle


Erin and a Banana Waffle
Originally uploaded by inqurious
Near the summit of Doi Suthep was a temple up a long, steep flight of stairs. After hiking up the stairs, seeing the temple surrounds, and enjoying the great views of the surrounding countryside we headed back down to the road and village.

Along the way Erin had the presence of vision to notice a sign saying "banana in a waffle on a stick". This photo, dear reader, is the end result of that sighting.

Offroad Shopping


Slowed to a Tickle
Originally uploaded by inqurious
The plan for the day was to rent a motorbike and head off to Doi Suthep national park, centered on a mountain just outside of Chiang Mai. Once we had the motorbike it seemed like a good idea to go get breakfast at the Tea House Erin wanted to try out since it was a long walk but a negligble drive. Nothing wrong with a nice breakfast before hitting the mountains.

Along the drive, Erin spotted a gold jewelry shop. As she's been keenly trying to find a charm from this trip to put on her gold hoop necklace we decided to make a stop there after our breakfast.

Once we arrived at the tea house, Erin noticed something else: The tea house sold some really nice dishware. Ten minutes and about twelve plates and tiny bowls later saw us making a run back to the guesthouse to drop off her (Erin assures me using this direct pronoun is correct) newfound loot, after which we stopped by the gold shop we saw earlier.

It only took about one minute in the gold shop to realize that something charming wasn't going to be found there. It was very obviously a Chinese owned festival of gawdyness. Erin wouldn't leave the day without a charm, however, for we were unaware that the shopping hadn't ended yet.

After driving up to the top of the mountain we found a tiny little village near the summit temple with... wait for it... a jade factory, complete with a large shop. After watching the informative five-minute video about jade and a short tour to see them cutting the jade, Erin finally found a charm! A cute little jade elephant that will sit around her neck once we get back to the states.

After getting food at the temple, it was about 4pm and we then went to check out part of the national park. The late afternoon sun was gorgeous. I can only wonder what the early morning, late morning, noon, or early afternoon sun would have been like.


disclaimer:
Erin's not a shopaholic, she's just making sure she picks up the stuff she wanted before we head back to the states. It was kinda funny how a day planned for a trip to the national park ended up being a day mostly spent shopping, tea-housing, and driving.

Afternoon Waterfalls and Cascades


Afternoon Pool
Originally uploaded by inqurious
After ziplining through the canopy for a few hours our group headed to a series of waterfalls that extended up for at least 2k. I'm not sure how far up they went, just that after an hour of going up the steep paths around them we had to turn around for time.

The waterfalls were extremely pretty, especially once the afternoon sun started playing through the banana leaves.

Ziplines


Erin Likes Ziplines
Originally uploaded by inqurious
We spent this morning going along ziplines in the high Thai rainforest. We had a good group of about 10 that made for some really good conversation while waiting on the platforms up the trees.

It was quite exhilirating the whole way through and our two guides were both really fun to be around. For any of you who care about our safety and wellbeing, worry not: We were always clipped in to something.

Little good it did for my stomach when descending down 100 feet facing down. Being unable to see your restraint makes it a good source of adrenaline.

The Zoo. Sweet.

Erin and I got up this morning and planned to go back to the national park around the nearby mountain for most of the day. There are supposed to be many waterfalls, temples, views, and hiking trails. We decided to also check out the zoo for a couple of hours since it was on the way and seemed promising when we saw it on the way to the waterfall the previous evening. We showed up to the zoo, started exploring, and never made it to the national park. It was just that good.











We saw the most adorable koalas. They were hanging out on branches (a baby koala too!) and munching on Eucaliptus. Absolutely take-them-home adorable. There was exhibit after exhibit, all built in to the side of the mountain the zoo was on. You could see they were rapidly expanding in almost every area. The zoo was especially fascinating for Erin and I since all the animals were from around Asia and Australia -- stuff we had only read about in books.







One of the major attractions was an aircraft-carrier-sized open aviary. A cage roughly 200' high, 500' wide, and half a mile long was packed full of birds, paths, streams, and jungle. Recall that this was an open aviary -- nothing between us and the birds but trees. We even saw a little cockatiel-like bird using the man-made stairs instead of flying. Species interchange all around.










Far and away the most interesting of all the exhibits were the big cats, and not because of my partiality to the feline genus. As far as raw collection goes it was pretty great: white lions, white bengal tigers, leopards, and jaguars (check my flickr for photos!). The show-stealer, however, were the leopards and jaguars. Firstly, for around $0.80 you could feed them with a piece of meat on a loooong metal pike. Just like my kittens in childhood these majestic beasts would leap up to great heights to grab pieces of food. It was amazing! But that's not the real kicker... meat is apparently an aphrodisiac for jaguars.







After getting food, the two jaguars went to one of the corners of their cage near the watchers and went at it. Lovers, not fighters. Watch the video.