Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fuji Dreams - 9 people, 2 days, 1 goal


After months of planning, we finally got to the day where nine of us would hike up the most climbed mountain in the world. And it almost didn't happen. 

What started as a crazy idea between two people branched out to include a friend from New York, her Japanese friend, her brother, his girlfriend, my fiance, my brother, and another friend from Melbourne who wanted to properly conquer Mt. Fuji after an aborted attempt 15 years ago. In total, we were 9 people, only 1 of which had ever hiked Mt. Fuji before. Making us cumulatively quite "wise" according to the proverb.

The official climbing season starts July 1st, and this year 2 of the 4 routes were open on time. But the route we chose, Gotemba, was not scheduled to be opened until July 10th due to heavy snow during the 2014 winter. With 4 days between the opening and our climb date, we were cutting it close. Then Typhoon Neoguri dominated the news and made us fear extra snow on the mountain. But it turned out that it helped our cause and sped up the melting process. It was not until the day before that we got confirmation we could get to the summit via the Gotemba trail. 

July 13th - Bus from Shinjuku, Tokyo to Gotemba, a town at the base of Mt. Fuji



We hopped on the bus at Shinjuku, Tokyo on July 13th. Sara was blown away with excitement!

The weather forecast predicted severe wind on July 13th (85 kph) and then rain with 45 kph on July 14/15 when we planned to hike; not promising.  It was misty and cool when we arrived in Gotemba. We couldn't see the mountain at all, but the hospitality of the locals kept us from feeling too uneasy.

We stayed at Hotozawean - a traditional Ryoken (hotel) with a mini Onsen (hot spa). The tatami mat rooms were cozy but suited our purposes and we took over the main lounge room to plan our hike the next day. We had more food than we needed and seemingly enough rain gear. It seemed like the plan was coming together. 



July 14th - Bus from Gotemba town to the New 5th station Gotemba Trail head Mt. Fuji

The next morning we checked out at 9AM and headed to the bus station. The hotel offered a van service to take us there (included in room fee), thankfully, because we had a lot of luggage between the 9 of us. The hotel we were staying at the second night offered to collect our baggage from the bus station, a convenience one could only expect in this land of consideration. If I had planned properly from the beginning, it would have been the same hotel, but I added the extra day late, so everything was already booked and we ended up with two different hotels. Having Japanese friends made this much smoother: thanks Christina and Eriko! 
Public bus to the New 5th Station. Gotemba Trail.

The bus ride was 40 minutes, as advertised and cost 1500 yen. We passed the Japanese and American bases on the mountain as we rode up. That resolved the mystery of the booms we had been hearing: artillary exercises.

Halfway up the mountain, we bid farewell to our bus and surveyed the conditions. The sun had burned off the mist at our elevation, but we could see nothing below as it was covered in clouds, making us feel like we were floating above everything. There were a few scattered shops selling souveniers and even high-end trekking gear for those who forgot the essentials, like shoes. There were toilets set in the mountain like bunkers to make sure they survive landslides and snow.

Peak of Mt. Fuji shrouded in clouds above the bunker toilets at the New 5th Station. Gotemba Trail.

Convenience shop at 1400m (halfway up). Adam and Christina with requisite vending machines.

Group eager to get started, walking sticks ready, acclimated to altitude - so far.

Lesson #1: Pack it in, Pack it out: including anything you buy ON the mountain, like water bottles, food packaging. Etc. So leave room in your pack if you plan to buy stuff. There are NO trash cans on the mountain, even at the stations. The toilets have VERY small ones.

There were walking sticks (made of untreated pine) available for purchase for 680 or 860 yen depending on the length. A unique souvenier that also served a good purpose. .




There were also UV sleeves to cover your lower arms, which I was tempted to buy, but avoided as I already had a lot of gear to keep track of and I didn't want more trash. My hands suffered a bit from that decision as they were exposed holding the walking sticks

At the bus stop there were friendly old Japanese at a folding table asking for 1000 yen "donation" for hiking the mountain. In exchange we got a stamp in our passport and a booklet detailing our climb and offering useful suggestions to make it a good one. I wish I had been able to get that PRIOR to arriving at this point, but it makes a good reference and I will share it here for those coming after me.

View of all Fuji trails, note the green Gotemba trail is the longest.
Everything went according to schedule up to this point and we began our ascent
at 11:54AM. Starting from 1450m after acclimating to the altitude for 30 minutes.

The trail was steep and sandy, making it hard to get traction or keep a good pace. Within 30 minutes we reached a "tea house", where we stopped to get brands on walking sticks and a quick rest. Trekking with a large group gets tricky, because each brand takes 5 minutes to apply, so with 4 sticks getting stamped, we spent over 20 minutes there. When the guide book quotes 205 minutes from the New 5th station to the 7th station, they aren't calculating that much time for breaks. So we were already a bit behind schedule, but the day was sunny and mild and we were in high spirits.

Lesson #2: The labels of the stations/huts are not consistent or clear. The oft referred to "7th station" on some maps is not actually open. It marks one of the branches to take down Sunabashiri, but there is an open station not far from it that we THINK is the 7.4th station. There are abandoned stations: 6th (near where we encountered the "closed" sign) and the New 6th station further below. There is NO shelter at the abandoned stations, although the ruins do provide a bit of privacy for a potty break while trekking with a group. In the end, there were only 3 operating stations on the Gotemba route: 7.4, 7.5 and 7.9. The last one is also often referred to as the "8th" station, but the true 8th station is a bit above 7.9 and is abandoned. There is no 9th station in operation, but there are facilities near the summit between the Gotemba and Fujinomiya trails. In the end, it is phenomenal to me that there are facilities at all, and we could not have made it without them, no matter what they are called.

Gotemba (green) has only 3 operating huts at the higher elevations, 7.4, 7.5 and 7.9. Compare to the Fujinomiya (blue) trail which has many more.

The trail from then on was steady and steep, big switchbacks that made us feel we were making fast progress. We stopped for plenty of group photos and moments to take it all in. We could see Mt. Hoei, the result of the last eruption in 1707, off to our left, and we watched many groups ascend and descend (with whoops) the mini-Mt. Fuji while we slowly trudged up the big one.

We came to a cross roads labelled Jirobo. There was just a small sign marking the intersection with the Sandrun (Sunabashiri) and we stopped to watch some hikers running down easily what we were puffing to get up. The soft sandy trail made ascent like a sisiphean task, but descent was like skiing down on powder.

Shortly thereafter we reached the marker for 2,000 meters. We stopped again for photos and celebration of our achievement. 
 
We made it to 2000 meters, piece of cake!
Trudging up the sandy Gotemba trail.
When we reached the ruins of the 6th station, it was getting darker. We were losing light and we had been hiking for 6 hours. The switchbacks snaked as far as the eye could see below and above. We should have been to the 7.4th station by then, and we had our booking to sleep at the "8th" station, another hour above that. We had stopped for too long at too many points - we were getting tired and it was hard to move a group of our size quickly.

Almost to 3000!

One of too many stops from New 5th to 7.5th stations.
We were surprised to discover that insects were still pests at these elevations. There were only the occasional sturdy plant at this point, but still we'd have to swat away various flies and bugs of an unknown variety. Some were quite colorful - like a bright green beetle I found. Perhaps it had been blown off course from its usual leafy surroundings.

Bright green bug in a barren rocky land

The mists were blowing around us, making an eerie scene, and the coolness soothed our sun and wind burned skin. The landscape was barren and stark - but stunning nonetheless. Some of us were sweating too much, some had not applied enough sun screen or lacked a sun hat - but we soldiered on. We had enough water and food and we thoughtlessly assumed the stations couldn't be that far off. We could see them in the distance after all.

An hour later, we reached a branch, and the signs pointed down and to the left. There was a big red X across the trail leading up. Closed. The sun had gone down, we were walking in twilight; all the signs were telling us "go back down". 

So we pulled out an old fashioned Japan Rentafone flip phone and were pleased to find it picked up a signal. The numbers for the huts we had was wrong, so we called the hotel that made the booking for us and got through to the huts eventually. Thankfully, our Japanese friend was able to navigate the conversation necessary to figure out whether the route was actually closed and whether we could sleep at the 7th station instead of the 8th since we clearly could not reach our original destination in time. 

Sun setting behind the Mt. Fuji peak, somewhere up there is shelter.

Lesson #3: Bring a phone that can pick up a signal and phone numbers for the huts on the mountain AND most importantly, someone who can speak fluent Japanese.

Message from the men on the mountain: "put on all your clothing, it is getting dark and it will get very cold. Go back down the mountain." Turns out, the day before was incredibly nasty on the mountain, with 85 kph winds and rain, not good to be out in. We on the other hand, were blessed with a clear night with little wind. We had our snow gear and none of us were cold. 
Our response: "if we make it to the 7th station, can we sleep there?" When we got the "Hai" (yes) we were looking for, we pulled out our headlamps, kept calm, and carried on.

The switchbacks were tight at this point, we could see the lights of a station above, calling us like moths to a flame. We passed the 3,000 meter marker sign and trudged on, no stopping, no celebration. 

As we ascended, so did the moon. The most stunning moon rise I've ever seen. Big and red on the horizon, nothing blocking our view. Probably the most memorable vista of the climb for me.

As I called to Adam to look at the view, he swiveled his head quickly and the naseau that had plagued him was unleashed as he vomitted onto the trail. Eriko had brought cans of oxygen, but it did not seem to make a big difference. He was clearly suffering from altitude sickness; the way down was long and treacherous, the only safety was up, yet the worst thing to do when you are suffering from altitude sickness is to go up. His retching continued, but he carried on, refusing to consider alternatives. Realistically, there were none.

Lesson #4: When you set an irrational goal (i.e. "Let's climb the hardest route of a mountain over 3000 meters high"), people get oddly irrational about achieving it. So they tend to be difficult to dissuade, even when the conditions are not ideal (i.e. they are suffering from altitude sickness, in pain/exhausted from the climb, etc).

It was an hour of trekking in the dark from the fork before we reached the 7.4th hut at 3,100 meters. The first operational hut since the tea house at 1,500 meters. The lights were on and there were staff there. We discussed whether to stay there, or carry on another 10 minutes to the 7.5th station where there was more space and food. Some of the group were so tired, it was a bit of a debate, but ultimately we decided to go the extra 10 m up.

The decision was a good one, there was far more space and the people at the 7.5th station were very accomodating. We shared the space with military men there for training; we were the only foriegners. We were there late, we arrived around 8:30 at night, lights out at 9PM, but they set out the tables and made us dinner - Ramen!! It was hot and salty and just perfect after a long day out in the elements. Then they cleared the space and laid out futons and blankets. Who cares how often they are washed! Using our clothes as pillows, we curled up and attempted to sleep.

Some of us slept under the bunks, some out in the main area with the moon light shining in.

I was running on adrenaline by then and quite warm from the exertion. I didn't even wear a coat to go out to the toilets, just my polartec. The wind was picking up and the moon was bright as I found my way around. I had been warned to bring coins for the pay toilets, but that is advice for the other trails. Here, the toilets come with the cost of staying at the hut (7,000 yen for dinner and the rest) but there are donation boxes for those who just pass asking for 300 yen. 

To answer the question I'm sure is on everyone's mind: Yes, the toilet seats are heated on Mt. Fuji. They are sustainable pit toilets, so no water, but there is power, and rain water is available to wash your hands outside. After some analysis we realized the heated seat was less a luxury and more of an economical way to provide comfort: far cheaper to heat a seat than the air in the toilets. 

We considered our options. The sun was supposed to rise at 4:37AM. We were at least 3 hours from the summit, more like 7 at the pace we had been going. Our plan had been to watch from the peak, but the locals at the station told us that our current location was actually the best spot to view the sunrise. There were many benches lined up out front, to underscore his point that this was the place to enjoy the view.  We tried to figure out how we could make it to the summit by sunrise anyway (see earlier point about irrationality), but the howling winds at 1AM put to rest any thought of venturing further at night. 

Adam slept near the door in case he needed to throw up again, but thankfully he was able to rest through the night with no incident. The guidance was for him to remain at the station while we ascended to the summit and then join us for the descent. 

The dawn came clear and calm, at 4AM the light through the windows woke us. We stumbled out to the benches and stood in awe as the first piercing rays of light broke through the clouds. 

The moment we had anticipated for months, the sunrise from above the clouds.

Devin and Joanne began their climb early and watched from the 7.9th station. The rest of us watched at 7.5, then had breakfast before packing up for the final ascent.

Adam returned to bed and 6 of us took to the trail under the glaring heat of the new sun. We baked as we climbed, but the distance to the 7.9th station took us only 20 minutes. The power of well rested legs. From there the trail got stepp and tricky, the rocks were big and unstable. At one point the trail was only about half a meter wide, with the slope to one side and snow to the other. Clearly this was the section that had kept Gotemba closed until the 10th. 

We had stayed together between the 5th and 7th stations, but from the 8th onward we spread out at our own paces. The switchbacks stacked on top of each other and we could see each other above and below. The air was thin and my head ached. I didn't find myself gasping, it was more like my energy was drained and every step took effort. I settled into a steady pace and just put one foot in front of the other, resting for a breath at each turn with a pause to survey the scene - bright and clear, but down below a blanket of cottony clouds lay on the land. 

We met a number of climbers coming down as we went up, including a monk of some type in orangish robes. But we were the only ones going up.

Devin and Joanne kept up a good pace and made it first. Eriko and Sara were the first in the second group. Followed by Issac and I, then Jeff shortly after. Christina struggled; she hadn't slept much for the last two nights and the exhaustion combined with the altitude caught up to her, but within 20 minutes of our summit she arrived.

We were exhilerated, but a bit dissapointed by the view. Thankfully, we had not pushed to the summit the night before, it really was far better to be at the 7.5th station for a good view of the sunset. The crator was a massive hole, which we had planned to walk around, but the conditions (icy) and being behind schedule meant left that for another time. 



We took our photos and then realized we were not yet at the peak. Another 70 meters up to the weather station was required to properly achieve the 3,776 m mark. The hill was not friendly to hikers, it was a working road meant for catapillar-type tracks, but we were determined and made it up anyway.

Weather station at Kengamine Peak behind me, just a little bit further.
The crator view from that angle was even more stunning and we could see the 9th station at the top of the Yoshida (most popular) trail on the other side. 

Issac, Jen and Sara made it to the ultimate Kengamine Peak: 3,776m
Our original plan was to walk around the crater, but it was still dangerous with snow and we were way behind schedule. Something for next time.
There were young men taking off their shirts and posing for their gopro. There were workers focused on the tasks that had to be competed during the brief summer months. We were grateful to have avoided the hoardes we read about - although it is too bad we couldn't buy a can of Mt. Fuji air. 

My final activity at the summit was a jump shot in front of the gate marking Gotemba, including the "closed" signed keeping the normal Mt. Fuji hikers away. I did about 3 jumps to get the right shot and that's when it hit me. Jumping takes a lot of energy when you are at sea level, but it clearly required more oxygen than I had available and I suddenly needed to get down. Issac and I began the descent to the 7th station and I couldn't move fast enough. My head throbbed - I wasn't nauseas, but it was the worst headache I've ever had. 

As we picked our way down the trail, the military men who shared our hut the night before were running UP the trail in running shorts and tank tops. What took us 3 hours to ascend took them less than 30 minutes. Good training for a marathon I suppose. The sun made us hot, the winter gear we had was good to protect against the wind which had picked up, but it was a challenge to keep comfortable. 

I remember the taste of the air as I got lower, it was like drinking from a clear stream. Cool and fresh and full of oxygen. It was heavenly.

After a quick stop at the 7.9th station for a toilet break I carried on ahead of the pack, still driven by a pounding headache. I arrived at the 7.5th station and stripped off my snowboarding pants and jacket and collapsed beside Christina on one of the futons. She had descended earlier, desperate for more sleep. I rested my eyes for a bit, but knew we didn't have time, so I opted for some food (chicken and egg over rice) and some ibuprofin for the headache (didn't work). 

Some people refilled water, Issac from the rainwater (they do not recommend drinking) and others from the bottles for sale. I had no more room for bottles, so I drank what I could over lunch and planned to get to the bottom before drinking more. 

Lesson #5: Bring more water and less food. I had 2 L of pure water and 1 L of electrolyte infused water. I drank it all on the first portion of the ascent because we took so long. I purchased 5 more bottles (650 mL) along the way and drank it all. I did not eat all the food I brought, mostly because of the food provided at the huts. They have fresh eggs and rice and miso soup and curry. More options than you'd expect - simple but so good under the conditions. 

Lesson #6: CASH ONLY!!!!

Seven of us gathered just below the abanoned 7th station at the fork to the Sunabashiri. Devin and Joanne had gone on ahead, and we assumed they were waiting for us at the New 5th station. 

We began the best part of the trail at noon. The Sandrun (Sunabashiri) is the straight path down that avoids all the switchbacks that lead up and takes just 1.5 hours to get down what took us 8 to get up. 

Sandrun (Osunabashiri) in the mist. Almost to the finish line - getting dirtier with every step.

The mist came in again, thicker than the day before, so we had to be careful to stay within sight of each other (or at least sound). Christina was feeling naseaus, so she couldn't run. Others were taking advantage of the soft ground and racing down. Only two of us did face plants. We had amusing exchanges through the mist with people we couldn't see on the trail going up and we watched dropped items roll on ahead of us faster than we could catch them. 

My shoes filled with rocks, but it was worth it to be able to take long soft strides down, racing to the finish line and a proper night's rest at Gotemba Mars GardenWood.

The day after we descended, the news outlets were spreading a story about "Mt Fuji due for eruption" - so far not a rumble from the wise Fuji-san that we saw, but we are glad we tackled it when we did. We seem to have appeased all the local gods with our paid respects at various shrines; many thanks to Fuji-san for a successful journey and for the chance to acquire the kind of wisdom that comes from being so foolish.


Still alive and smiling the next day - ready for the next stage of the journey.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Preparing for Mt. Fuji

Many months ago, when the summer sun was still shining on Australia, I suggested climbing Mt. Fuji, as a jest to a colleague over lunch. When he responded with "let's do it", I couldn't very well back down and so the planning began...

As I told people of my planned adventure, I discovered there were many people who found the idea appealing. It turns out that over 300,000 people climb Mt. Fuji (aka Fuji-san), the tallest mountain in Japan at 3,776 m (12,388 ft). It is the most climbed mountain in the world. Probably because you can take a bus from Tokyo, climb to the top and be back that night to sleep in your pod hotel in Tokyo.

But we didn't want to take the easy way. We wanted a challenge. So after reviewing the crowded options, we settled for the lesser known trail of Gotemba on the other side of the mountain. We will climb the day before, sleep at the 8th station and arise at 2AM to summit and watch the sunrise. Steeper, longer, and with less rest stops, Gotemba trail seemed the perfect way to experience the deep lessons of Fuji-san. It also has the fastest method of descent, the Sand Run.

Lesson #1: A wise man climbs Fuji-san once, only a fool climbs it twice.

So what better way to learn about how to survive the most tourist friendly summit over 10,000 feet? Why to read a book written by a fool. Gary J Wolff, has climbed all of Japan's peaks once, and Mt. Fuji twice. He runs a website with critical information on Mt. Fuji and recently released an eBook which I highly recommend for anyone considering the climb, at $4 it is a steal.

I've done my training - I've acquired the gear - I've read about Altitude Sickness. I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be. I will be joined by 8 adventurous friends who share my desire to see the world from every angle, even when it involves 8 hours of hiking up 2km of elevation.

An Epic beginning to my 2.5 months sabbatical, after 11 years with Experian, thanks to Australian labour laws, this will soon be me:





Monday, April 21, 2014

Dogs on a Plane

When I told my frequent international flyer friends that I was flying American Airlines, they told me I'd picked the wrong alliance. The epitome of first world problems, I figured it couldn't be that bad and I was right. Turns out, American Airlines has upgraded their domestic flights to be quite comfortable. I think this has been my best cross-country flight ever, and that's from the girl who moved from California to the East Coast at the age of 17. 

But the funny thing about the flight was the number of dogs INSIDE the cabin. I travel about 50% of my time and this is the first time I've seen 3 dogs on a plane and no kids. And even odder, none of them barked, left a little present or otherwise disturbed fellow passengers. Apparently there are now very loose rules regarding the definition of a "helper pet" so more and more people are bringing their dogs on planes. This may also be correlated with the rise in people getting dogs rather than having children. So far, I prefer the dogs to children on planes.

This trip back to my old home of 8 years was one of my better visits. I chose to avoid the hectic - catchup-with-everyone-I-possibly-can-for-5-minutes - approach to my typical NYC visits. Instead I tried to be there as if I was still living there and did some of the simple things I used to do. And coincidentally, Spring arrived when I got off the plane from London, so I had two gorgeous Spring weekends bookend a freezing cold work week.



I had bagel brunch and Rosa Mexicana brunch with my girls. And we are over our cupcake phase, so I walked past Magnolia Bakery without stopping.

I discovered an Australian cafe called "Little Collins" on 54th and Lexington that served Flat Whites. Anyone who's been to Melbourne and misses the coffee should go. The beans aren't perfect, but the barristas know how to froth the milk.



I went to a broadway musical: Violet. Which made me clap, smile, inspired me to love me despite my flaws and made me cry at the happy ending. Everything you want from a musical.

I spent a sunny afternoon on the lawn in Central Park under a cherry tree in full bloom and chased my friend's 2 year old as she pursued her obsession with other people's kites.

I had dinner with my NYC bestie at our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant where you are crammed together like family and get judged when you order a medium bodied wine.

I ran around the Central Park reservoir, twice, and this time I wasn't running to escape emotional pain. I was running because I'm training to hike Mt. Fuji this year. (Not climb, mind you, important distinction).

I spent an evening planning my Japanese trip with friends who are willing to meet me on the other side of the planet, a rare and precious thing.

And I just finished reading "What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding" by Kristin Newman, an advance copy courtesy of Peggy - the story telling and book maker. This book was written with me as it's target audience. It references "Eat, Pray, Love" and also has a happy ending. I enjoyed her stories of adventure and self discovery. I have come to similar conclusions as she did, but took less drugs and slept with less men to get there. I appreciate that she included Jordan and Whitsundays in here destinations - favorites of mine. My favorite line: "but the networks all balked at a show set in another country. Americans, they feared, wouldn't relate to people who wanted to do something as crazy as leave America." Indeed, craziness!



Read it when it comes out if you are the type who is either still single and seeking - or if you are settled and looking for a story of adventures so you can live vicariously and justify your choice at the same time.

I feel so lucky to live in a time when people can bring their dogs on planes and women can travel alone around the world and come home and write fun books about it. 

And now I'm on my way home to my best friend and perfect travel companion who I only met because I was willing to go out and have an adventure alone. Is it time for me to write my book?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From Wicked to Engaged in 7 Years

In 2007 I visited Melbourne for the first time. I spent a week here for work, but managed to get in a trip to the theatre, where I saw Wicked. I admit I am a shameless fan and even own the soundtrack. That, along with many other experiences made me want to live in Melbourne someday, and 4 years later, I was able to fulfill my dream.

I packed everything I owned into a few boxes and a shipping container and left my old world behind in March of 2011. I left a lot behind; a city that I loved and the people who grew up with me. I desperately needed an adventure and a new outlook on life, but I knew I would have no one on the other side to lean on. The thing that gave me confidence was that feeling I had when I visited Melbourne that first time, that it was a place you could really LIVE in.

I was so lucky that a few people I knew made the leap with me. Sangita Patel was the best roomie a girl in a foreign land could have. In fact, she was the reason I was at the Thanksgiving dinner party in East Brunswick that fateful rainy night in November 2011.

When we couldn't get a cab home a nice guy we'd been talking to, named Adam, offered us a ride. He dropped us in the city and we exchanged numbers since he seemed like a good guy to know. From friends to dating to roomies to engaged happened in just over 2 years. It feels like forever that I've known him because I've been living the adventure I came looking for and every day is packed full of LIFE (and lots of FOOD).

Daylesford Lake House - really good steak dinner


We started a food blog (thechickenscene.com), we've travelled around the world, and we've made a home in the #1 most livable city in the world.

Petra, Jordan
Melbourne, Australia





















New York, USA


Last night we shared our joy with some of our amazing friends on the Australian continent. And now the planning begins for how to celebrate with all the other people we love spread across this world, that is so big, but feels so close when we think about the friends we've made on our adventures, as individuals and together.

Gifts from our engagement party

Monday, December 9, 2013

Lost in Jerusalem



Many months ago I got it in my head that we should be part of an underground supper club.

Maybe I had eaten too much fried chicken, or simply gotten a foodie high from all the collaborative dinners with friends. Whatever the reason, when I found a little article about Once Upon A Table, I wanted in.

We missed the first event in Melbourne but signed up to hear about the second one. So when the call went out for a new venue, I messaged Adam from Japan and said "we have to do this!". I had no idea what I was getting us into. Always the best way to start an adventure!

Adam took the lead while I finished my APAC travels and much was done by the time I met all the girls. Led by Angie Ma and Vittoria Chiarilli, the team consisted of a lovely bunch of talented and energetic women: Bridget, Aurora and Sophie - along with their amazing families who pitched in along the way - especially Vitti's young daughters.

The planning and imagination involved was clearly more than I anticipated. Bridget and Aurora planned the scene, Angie and Vitti concocted the menu - all based on a middle eastern theme. The title was "Lost in Jerusalem". This resonated with Adam especially as his father was born there. 

Adam contributed three dishes: Shush Barack (lamb dumplings in yogurt sauce), Mjaddara (Rice and Lentils) and Hummos (which I made to his recipe). I helped prepare the Fattoush (lovely dressing of lemon juice, pomegranate, olive oil, sumac, salt) and the sweet potato latkes.


The menu was a smorgasbord, which is the whole point. Vitti and Angie and the team put their hearts and souls into everything. Labne from scratch, fresh flatbread with Za'tar, grilled eggplants, and the sardines were a surprise favorite of mine.

The meal was paired with wines kindly donated by the Tasting Table and each came with a story - half from Isreal/Lebanon, half from Australia. The Chateau Musar was truly unique! There were local beers thanks to Kwencher, which I didn't try. The produce was thanks to Pino's Fine Produce and was fresh and beautiful.


For me the biggest surprise was the effort put into the decorations. I had no idea that our home would be transformed into another world. You can see some of the professional shots on facebook.



Inside the fabric draped from the ceiling under the direction of Bridget; six months  pregnant and standing on the back of my couch to hang fishing wire, I was impressed. Rugs covered the floor and cousins and poofs created an exotic ambiance. Sophie made muddled vodka/cherry cocktails with sugar laced rims. I served smoked trout wrapped in cucumber as the guests entered.


Outside on the rooftop terrace we were given the most gorgeous Melbourne day - the kind of legend since they happen so rarely. Clear blue skies, no wind, and the warmth lasted even after the sun set. We had heaters on standby but never needed them. The guests arrived at 7 and sat down to eat around 8:30.


Aurora was the mastermind of the outdoor decorations, inspired by the souks (markets) with items hanging above the guests and lights and flowers brightening every spare space.


The plates were donated by Royal Haman - gorgeous tourquois with exotic patterns. Aurora's sister Sammie made the little placename pots with olive branches, rosemary and jasmine. The table sat 24, and I got to be one of the lucky guests.

Our day started at 9am when the tables and chairs were delivered. We worked all day and I got to sit around 9pm to join the guests, but the rest of the team worked the rest of the night. I felt a bit guilty, but enjoyed the company, ambiance, food and wine. Oh, and the weather, it was a magical night.

After all the wining and dining was complete the guests left happy with homemade baklava wrapped with a bow. And we got started with cleanup, at midnight. We had to crash a bit before 2am. 

Our flat looked like a tornado from Arabian Nights hit it. But on Sunday the cleaning fairies came (Angie, Sophie and Vitti) and day by day we are putting it back together.

I have to admit, I kind of wish we could have kept the fabric up a bit longer. In the end it was more work than I knew and so much more fun. I feel lucky to have met these amazing women and to have a partner who was willing to go on this adventure with me. Next time - he gets to be the guest.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Weekend in Sydney

This past week I participated in our Australia launch events for our new Cross-channel marketing platform. Melbourne was first, obviously, and Sydney was second. Since the event was at the Taj Blue at Woolloomooloo, I decided to stay at the hotel. It turned out to be a good choice for an unusual trip to Sydney.

The weather had just turned from deep winter to early spring and we made the most of it. It was good to see old friends and make new ones. I finally feel like I'm figuring Sydney out a bit, not as much like a tourist these days, but still plenty to explore.

I took this weekend to enjoy my new toy (Lumix GF6) and discovered a fun setting that makes your scenes look like miniatures. So I enjoyed bringing the iconic harbour down to a different size.

Friday night we revisited our American diner favorite Jazz City Diner in Darlinghurst. Saturday we slept in, a delightful experience these days. JC had us over for dinner and showed us the view that must be seen on NYE to properly appreciate, but was still stunning. My new camera didn't let me down and took decent shots without a tripod.

Sunday was a leisurely day starting at the Fish Market - a bit of a let down if you've ever been to any other fish market but still it had good food and some unique seafood on display.

We wandered over to Darling Harbour and watched the families play in the fountains as the Father's Day fireworks were setup. We hid from the sun in the National Maritime Museum that had an exhibit of Ansel Adams and photos from the Elysium Antarctic expedition. Both were wonderful, but I felt the Ansel Adams photos were not well lit; too much glare. Still, there is nothing like seeing an original print from the master of the art. All black and white, all water themed. It made me nostalgic for Yosemite (and sad it is burning) and the California coast of my childhood. I was pleasantly surprised to get a blast from the past in a city so far away.

We took a water taxi back to the hotel and I still had enough daylight for an evening jog around the botanicals with a sunset view of the bridge and opera house. Dessert came from a shop boasting the best Gelato in Australia - and I cannot argue this point.

It was a very restful and beautiful visit. I'm glad I took the time to appreciate Sydney more, Melbourne still has my heart, but there is plenty to enjoy in this Northern metropolis.





















Thursday, June 13, 2013

Security Theater

I travel. A lot. I fly mostly international and I've gotten into a reasonable routine. I still remember the first times I flew as an adult, the feeling of being rushed and lost and crammed into a small space.

But now I am mostly zen about airports. They are what they are, massive, complex systems that churn through millions of people and are somehow some of the safest places in the modern world. You don't get to retain your privacy or personal space in this context and it is all better once you accept that.

But there is one thing I take a stand about: Body scanners in US airports. They represent to me all that has gone wrong post 9/11 with the over reach of a "security at all costs" mentality. They are not actually known to be make us more secure (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/business/public-pours-scorn-on-airport-body-scanners.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0), are very expensive and it is unclear what the additional radiation means for your health (http://www.infowars.com/more-lies-tsa-says-it-will-commission-independent-body-scanner-health-study/)

Note that staff are not required to go through, but are sent through the metal detector. If it does no harm, why make the exception?

I'm not usually one for theater, but in this case, since I have the right to opt out of the screening, I always do. My minor way of taking a stand. And since I am a seasoned traveller, I'm on time and not in a rush, so their pressure tactics don't work.

The first thing they do is give you a sour look. Then they make you stand somewhere away from your bags which have now gone through the x-ray machine and they call for a "female assist". This is when the shame and grope punishment goes into full swing.

The request for the assistance takes time, enough to consider, if I were a terrorist, what could I accomplish with my bags inside the "secure area" and me (unchecked) on the other. Not much I conclude. But then they open a gate, next to the old fashioned metal detector they send staff through and usher you into the secure area WITHOUT any check!

At this point I could have brought a gun through without detection. And because they treat you with disdain (this is a punishment for not following the rules, not actually enhanced security) and not mistrust, they do not keep an eye on you at all times. I'm guessing a criminal worth their salt could pass a weapon to a partner easily.

The female assist then asks me to point to my bags (without touching them). I have typically two carry-on bags, a laptop and removed shoes. That is 4 items to pick up. This is where my revenge kicks in. She has to pick up these bulky items and awkwardly carry then to a side table. Note that she is distracted and laden with my baggage at this stage, so my compliance is essential to this process. Another opportunity?

Safely at the side table she begins her speech. It is a dry tired thing describing in painful detail the embarrassing but "professional" pat down she is about to perform. Sometimes I smile through, sometimes I rush her on.

Her blue gloves are applied with firm pressure over every surface of my body. It is a slow pat down, and far more lingering than necessary unless you are looking for pre-cancerous lumps. And trust me, I have had pats downs in London, Germany, Dubai, Beijing, Singapore, etc. those are quick and to the point, "confirm you do not have a lumpy weapon like object on your body" is their objective. Not so in the US.

It is a show, to make me uncomfortable standing out, and uncomfortable from touching that is just on the edge of what they can call "professional". They even put their fingers in your waist band and run along, front and back.

Then they scan their gloves for residue and waive you on when the machine clears me. Like a lover who has suddenly lost interest.

It makes me sad that America suffered a massive terrorist attack on 9/11 that involved airplanes. But we cannot fix that moment in time. No other country in the world I have been to has found this necessary and many of them have been facing terrorist threats for far longer. I would feel better if studies showed cost effectiveness and safety. But the avoidance of accountability is clear enough to me.

I hope more people choose to take 10 minutes of their time and opt out. If not on principle than at least for your own health.

Today the TSA agent in Miami said "are you opting out because of radiation? Because we turned it down". That's comforting: before it was too high because no one bothered to check. Now it is lower, but still there are no independent tests showing lower is safe and all I have to go on is a security agents' assurance.

Thanks, but I'll take the light massage instead.