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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

I first saw the gleaming metallic skull, then the horn, then the silver headlight. A few men sat nearby on foldout chairs, not minding my presence. The bike was gorgeous, even among a row of similar-style cruisers. One of the men motioned behind him, and pointed out the bike’s owner, who then noticed me and bolted forward. His name was Juan, and he looked about 60.  Like the other men, he wore a black leather vest, decorated with scores of pins—various military insignia, Puerto Rican flags, and a seaming hodge podge of affiliations. He rummaged through his wallet to try to find a card that identified his bike club—they meet every week, and he’d been working on his bike for eight years, he said. He spoke in a mix of Spanish and English, and even though I could’ve answered in Spanish I inexplicably chickened out, and mostly nodded my acknowledgement throughout the conversation. He couldn’t find the card, but asked if I’d come tomorrow. The crew would be there again. I said I’d try.

(Further investigation revealed the club is called Dueños de Bicicletas, or Classics Bronx Bicycle Club. A bit of background (and a shot of Juan circa 2007), here.)

Juan and his Schwinn, painstakingly built over 8 years

Juan and his Schwinn, painstakingly built over 8 years

This was my second time visiting Orchard Beach, located in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. The first was this winter, and unsurprisingly it was empty then—sad and dirty looking. But yesterday? Yesterday was a different scene. Every few feet a group of four of five sat on foldout chairs along the promenade, listening to salsa music, with those standing moving their hips ever-so-slightly. Looking out towards the water, I spotted several girls wearing Puerto Rican flag bikinis, and paying a bit more attention, those groups on the promenade? Most had long rods attached to their chairs, flying the Puerto Rican flag. Vendors sold shirts that said—“Orchard Beach—the Riviera of the Bronx,” and “Orchard Beach—little Puerto Rico.” All of a sudden I was in a Spike Lee joint, feeling more New York than ever.

We came to Orchard beach on the recommendation of the May issue of Backpacker Magazine. Hidden behind the party atmosphere lay Pelham Bay Park.

Sample rocky coastlines, beachside boardwalks, and brackish wetlands on this five-mile dayhike in Pelham Bay, the largest park in New York City“

I’d only heard the name during traffic reports ”…bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Pelham Bay Parkway,” but nary had an idea where or what it was. Turns out the shoreline and accompanying rocks out-date the Long Island Sound by millennia; the quartz, garnet, and feldspar bedrock exposed by moving glaciers during the last ice age. It’s the largest park in the City, however only a small fraction navigable by human foot. Wildlife, however, seem to feel quite at home in the salt marshes, coves, and along the crop of islands. We walked inside the ranger booth to ask about the trail, and the enthusiastic man inside told us to go around the perimeter of Hunter Island, that it was his favorite spot in all of NYC. Animals seen en route: herons,  breeding horseshoe crabs, horses (ok, those were technically in a stable where we parked), and one very peaceful looking rabbit. Worth the trip from Brooklyn? Most definitely. Am I sorry we didn’t instead go to Bear Mountain? Nope.

Detailed trail map and GPS coordinates, here.

View from Twin Island

View from Twin Island

View from Hunter Island

View from Hunter Island

Horshoecrab mating season @Orchard Beach

Horshoecrab mating season @Orchard Beach

More pics and a vid of the crabs getting all crazy: here.

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It’s been two years since Dmitry and I returned from studying in Barcelona, and I just realized that the last entry in this blog is dated July of 2010: graduation.  Dang, has it been that long? We call NYC home now, but there are still lots of road stories left to tell so I figured I’d take this sucka out of hiatus and start scribing. Hope we can inspire a few of you to visit a place you hadn’t considered, or at least shut down your computer and get out of the house for a few hours. Better still, maybe you’ll pick up the phone to say hello, and ask to hear all the gory details.

Last weekend we clambered out of our wintry cave to observe the rebirth of the natural world. Destination: Lemon Squeeze trail in Harriman State Park,  a painless 50 mile drive north of the City.

This Spring has been unseasonably warm and we’d been itching to get out of town. The flowers and trees blossomed early in the year, and served as a reminder that nature is back on. I started monitoring the weather on Wednesday, sticking my head out on the patio each morning, marveling at how each day was lovelier than the last. Alas, Sunday’s forecast did note bode well for our outdoor plans. Weather.com warned of a 50% chance of rain, which unnervingly inched several percentage points each day leading up to Sunday, finally stopping at 70. By the time we left, it was 1:30PM under gloomy skies, threatening but not yet menacing. Abysmal late start on our part, but we figured we’d take our chances.

From within the park, the trail was surprisingly tricky to find so I recommend you peep these directions, and pay attention to the following: from the parking area, cross the big field down the center. We accidentally ended up on a different trail because we followed a couple who crossed the field on the right side.  Once you get on the trail, turn left and walk a few paces (not right as the instructions indicate). Look out for the wooden sign with the arrow that clearly reads “Lemon Squeeze,” and then it’s all uphill for a while.

Along the way you’ll pass “Island Pond,” which is really a very beautiful lake. We made a pit stop to watch a few men fly fishing, and passing a bright red Ford truck, Dmitry stopped to explain the things hanging off the back:

Are you sick of looking at side steps and bug shields?
Want a REAL auto accessory?
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Truck Nutz

(If you are a clueless Yankee like me, look up Truck Nutz).

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

We spotted a handful of other hikers on the trail: a group of mid 60’s Korean ladies, briskly making their way down,  holding walking sticks in each white gloved hand; several packs of teenage boy scouts joshing one another as their dads trudged behind;  and a triad of Latino youths, tugging along a happy but exhausted looking Bolognese pup. The trees were still mostly bare, but we saw bursts of  life: saplings popping out of old logs, moss that looked like it had recently re-carpeted the surrounding boulders, bright orange polyporus mushrooms that spiced up the grayish brown surroundings, probably leftover from the Fall.

Vegetation springs from every nook and cranny

And the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the Lemon Squeeze. There’s a scramble! There’s body wedging! And a fairytale forest hovering above. It started to drizzle as we approached the hike’s grand finale, but having come so far we decided to keep going. It began to pour so we took cover in a nearby cave and ransacked our bags for the hoard for the snacks we packed that morning. We hiked back in the mud, sopping with joy. Sitting in the car on the drive back to New York I couldn’t tell if it started to rain harder, or if the rain simply felt like less of a nuisance back in the woods.

The Squeeze

We came a bit too early to see the flowering trees, but no matter. The hiking season has just begun.

Check out more pics here.

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Blankets of Rain

Friends frequently ask what crazy, exciting things I’m up to in Barcelona.  So, here is a short response I recently wrote a friend:

Winter here has been really rainy and I’ve officially gone and come back from being stir crazy.  Our apartment, like the majority here, aren’t centrally heated, so even though it never really dips below 40F, its chilly and I find myself hiding under a blanket quite a bit, which, as you can imagine, is not particularly conducive to studying. I returned from my madness yesterday, because the sun came out, and Dmitry and I took the first train out of the city to visit Sant Cugat, a medieval town lying beyond the Barcelona hills, famous for a 13th century monastery. We saw an old man sketching a beastly form within the cloister.  He’d apparently painted nearly all of the 100 columns, according to his friend, also an elderly gentleman standing next to him, seemingly busy distracting our painter with off-color jokes. It made me wonder how my own parents will be spending their retirement years…

Last weekend the city celebrated Carnaval. Its nothing crazy like Brazil, but there is a small gay-friendly sea-side town about 30 minutes away called Sitges that throws a killer parade each year, so we went out to take a peak. Let me tell you, you CAN combine glitter, with faux leather chaps, and velvet. It was pretty awesome. But now, its back to being rainy, so under the blanket I go.

Within Sant Cugat Cloister

Park in Sant Cugat- those support beams have been there since 1970!

Dim gives the Sant Cugat Merce Dolls a Squeeze

Carnaval in Sitges

Drinking mate with our guest Josep at home at 3AM, post dinner paaarte

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Montserrat

A light descended from the sky and illuminated a spot hundreds of meters above Barcelona’s sea level where the holy virgin mother was sighted over 1,000 years ago. Right there monks built a monastery. Montserrat, which literally means the serrated mountain because of its jagged outline, is the epicenter of Catalan culture and history.

The Virgin of Montserrat

During the Franco dictatorship it was refuge to Catalan revolutionaries, and contains a pretty creepy wooden Virgin statue with baby Jesus on her lap that is considered Catalunya’s patron saint. Tourists and natives make pilgrimages to rub a little ball she holds in her right hand, for good luck. Why would she be holding a ball you ask? Right…no idea. The rest of her is encased in plexiglass.

The church is gorgeous, with detailed mosaics of saints and animals in bright azul, green and gold; silver sculptures of lions and monks, and cast iron candle chandeliers that seam to float down from the dome.

Mosaic

Flanking the abbey are huge mountains which we wasted no time in climbing. We hiked up the 1,200 meter peak of Sant Jordi (the other patron saint of Catalunya) with out labyrinth companions Dani and Yi-Hsiu, and her super cool Japanese friend visiting from Madrid. Along the way we spotted formations in the rocks that I took to be a penguin and a camel. The original plan was to go proper mountain climbing in the area with a group from Dmitry’s uni, but that’ll have to wait for another day. Can’t just waste good company. We did spot some climbers at the peak though. One very tired looking guy smoked up while eating a bag of hazelnuts, which he said helped open up his lungs a bit. Nice! The other one was completely baffled to learn that we were from New York and told me about a few other famous climbing locales in the Pyrenees, but said that for lack of funds he and his friend were staying local.

The Gang on Top of Sant Jordi


We got lost on the way down, and separated from our peeps. Fortuitously, we stumbled upon a funicular, and took it back to the monastery. It’s not cheating if it’s not a competition. Mwhahaha.

Surrounding Mountains


To balance all of this wholesome goodness on Friday we patronized several notable Barcelonese bars– the first which foolishly put out free tapas. We hung with my bud Ieva and her classmates. Students on a budget+free food=loss in profits for bar. I introduced Ieva to the bloody mary, which she added to her repertoire without much opposition. She then showed us her favorite Barcelona dive– a place in Raval that smells like cats and sports mostly torn dumpster furniture BUT also pours out cheap and tasty caipirinhas. Worth the trek across town.

I’m beginning to think of one-upping Lonely Planet and writing my own guide to the city.

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Up in the Pyranese

This weekend was pretty special thanks to an invitation we received from our friend Josep to come visit him at his home in Molló, a small town in the Pyranese mountains, about 2.5 hours north of Barcelona.

Molló, Spain

Molló, Spain

We met Josep this past summer at a hostel in Mendoza, Argentina, and traveled on a hiking trip together in  the surrounding Andes for several days, where he proved to be an expert mountaineer.

Molló is a quaint Catalan mountain pueblo, containing a mere 300 residents, which swells on weekends and holidays with city-folk nostalgic for the casa pairal (traditional rural farmhouse) of yore.

This Saturday, coinciding with the Catalan national holiday of La Diada (which oddly celebrates the fall of Barcelona to the French in 1714), the town was host to its annual Trumfa Festival, celebrating the region’s potato growers. The main square was bursting with local produce stands, baked breads and pastries, freshly stuffed sausage, local honey, and other items. To our mild horror, we learned that the stout horses we spotted in a nearby coral, mingling with more familiar Arabian breeds, are a common food staple. Perhaps for the better, the sausage stand ran out of horse meat, so that delicacy will have to wait for another time.

A troupe of over 50 came to town to wow spectators with a quintessential Catalan torre, or human pyramid. As dark storm clouds moved closer and closer, configurations of children were hoisted on top of one another, held firm by a base of adult men and women, intertwined in human gridlock.

The day prior Josep introduced us to his friends, and organized a trip to a favored spot in the mountains, where we barbecue’d, gazed at the stars, and listened to the distant sound of cowbells. What a difference a few hundred kilometers makes. Next time, we take a side trip to nearby France. I hear they still have castles over that way.

Coca for sale (pie)

Coca for sale (pie)

Josep demonstrates his guitar skillz

Josep demonstrates his guitar skillz

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Thought we´d finally make it official: this fall Dim and I are both starting grad school. After years of late night conversations about making it happen and thanks to a kick in the pants with the down economy we´re making good use of our time and furthering our education. Whee!

We both got accepted into our schools of choice and are really psyched to start. Dim is getting his MBA from ESADE in Barcelona, while I´ll be in the Masters of Political and Social Sciences program at the University of Pompeu Fabra, also in Barcelona.

It´s going to be really weird switching from a hectic NYC work life in marketing and IT consulting (you know who´s who!), but after months of travel down here in South America and meeting loads of people from around the world, its very clear that a Masters, another language, and international experience are really going to be important to our futures.

We´re back in New York August 1st and around until the end of the month, so come for a visit before we take off! We´re going to be clearing out our place, so if there is anything you´ve been eyeing, like, oh I don´t know, those square bookshelves, college Econ texts, or the taxidermy´d pirhana, come and get it. Also, now is that time to plan your much desired Barcelona trip. You have an official crash pad.

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Top of the Rock

Excerpt from an email I just sent my dad:

Today we made it to Aguas Calientes, which is the town directly below
Machu Pichu, and tomorrow we make the ascent. The Salkantay trek was one of the hardest I´ve ever done in my life. Most days, we´d wake up at 5:30, and be on the road at 7, walking until 6PM or so (about 20km). On day two we ascended to to 4650 meters through the Salkantay pass, which was sooooo exhausting but incredibly beautiful. Dim, Johnny and I made it through like champs, thanks to the power of the coca leaf. No joke! No altitude sickness here. The mountains flanking our sides were covered in snow, we even saw an avalanche, and up above were blue glaciers. That same day after lunch we descended to the (techincally upper) jungle, with loads of fruit trees and vegetation.

Last night camped in Santa Teresa, where the owner of the palce had a pet monkey. It bounced around all afternoon from palm tree, to people´s arms, to the inside of a local van parked nearby, to our dinner table, from which he had no qualms helping himself to a generous scoop of sugar. Now Dmitry wants to get one as a pet and I´m in a bit of a quandary since I have no better ideas for his upcoming birthday. We bathed that night in very well maitained and toasty thermal baths, which were amazing since we had been cold and sans running water for the previous three or four days.

In our group we have six American girls, of which four are doctors and two are in the navy. Pretty bad ass. Unfortuantely for them, this did not help four of the girls from getting a horrible stomache bug and vomiting like mad for several days, while the fifth twisted her ankle. Such drama! The rest of the crew is a super cool family from Chile.

Today everyone was healthy and in good spirits and for one of the girls birthdays the cook made a cake, which is incredbily considering the bare bones camping facilities.

Sorry for the lack of updates the last few weeks. Since we made it up to Bolivia internet has been a big luxury, but now that we´re almost at Machu Pichu I had to share the news.

Really looking forward to being home soon–August 3rd! and seeing (hopefully) most of you all.

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