Maui

After we decided to move back to Europe Loes made it clear that she wouldn’t leave the US without doing first the trip to Hawaii that I had promised her. And so, with a healthy desire of preserving domestic stability we went to Hawaii a month before leaving the US.

We arrived at Kahului Airport on the northern part of Maui soon after noon. The airport was one of the smallest I’ve been to and its lack of paranoid and unreasonable levels of security measures as well as its wooden food and rental car stalls made it look like what my imagination assumes an airport looked like thirty years ago.

We picked up our rental car and headed in the general direction of the southern city of Kihei where our AirBnB host was located. But before arriving there we made a stop at one of the various beaches along the way to lie down and relax for a few hours. This is how it looked like:

The majority of the beaches that we saw in the island had a similar characteristic: bent palm trees, clear-sky views of the ocean with the big Maui volcanos on the periphery and the sounds of the highway as close as twenty meters away from your beach spot. There are probably good reasons for building the highway so close but if I had been in charge of laying out the infrastructure of a tropical paradisiac beach I would have left a bit more space.

Our next stop was in Kihei at our AirBnB guesthouse. Our hosts, a kind, gentle and lovely couple who had moved to Hawaii a few years ago, received us warmly and gave us all the information that we could possibly need. If you’re visiting Maui and you want a warm and personal experience and gorgeous breakfast go with Carrie. She informed us that the place we stayed in, a small two stories building with a living room on the ground floor and the bedroom on the first floor, was a traditional Hawaiian building. What I will remember, though, is the meter long opening alongside the furthest wall from the bed, which was also about one meter away from the opening. If when you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom you tend to feel disoriented this type of building is not for you.

After dinner we watched the first of the various sunsets over the ocean that we enjoyed that week:

And we ended that day with star gazing in the quietness of the night.

The next day we stoked up with this delicious breakfast:

The first stop of the day was at a nearby snorkeling shop to rent gear. We then spent the following two or three hours driving all over the coast looking for a beach with calm enough waters to snorkel in. It took us a while but we eventually found a good spot. I had never snorkeled before. I don’t open my eyes underwater because I’m afraid I will go blind and once when I was about ten years old I almost drowned in the open ocean. In other words, my relationship with large masses of water is at the very least tense. And the darker the water the more my respect grows, exponentially. However after donning flippers and diving glasses and learning, right in time, that the tube attached to the glasses doesn’t really work if it gets covered with water, I followed Loes and plunged into the ocean. Immediately silence surrounded us. After a few seconds making sure I could still breathe I saw a floor of choral and a multitude of fish swimming in all directions. The view wasn’t as spectacular as some of the images I had seen on the internet before but the five-senses experience I was going through was fantastic. I lost track of time and we only got out when we couldn’t withstand the cold any longer. We snorkeled a few more times during the trip and in at least a couple of those times we got really close to beautiful and friendly turtles like this one:

The following day we changed gears and went in search of a hike at the top of Haleakala, a shield volcano (a relaxed volcano, the opposite of Pompeii-style volcanoes) that forms 75% of the island.

Something we learned that day is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in Hawaii, if you go from sea level to 3000 meters high a t-shirt and a light sweater aren’t going to cut it. When we reached the top we peeked around, wallowed in the great panoramic view but had to return because of the cold.

The next day we went to the port for a whale-watching trip. I took over a hundred photos during the ride but if you want to know how a whale looks like on the wild you will need to look somewhere else. Despite there being four or five whales below us, according to the guide, the most we could see of any of them was this:

The next day we went snorkeling again, but this time with a local guide. We ended up going to the same place that we found by ourselves but with an expert with us we went way out of our comfort zone. Our guide, Kai, was a university student with Hawaiian ancestry who worked part-time as a volunteer in the wilderness areas of the island trying to preserve autochthonous species. He was able to dive twenty meters into the ocean and offered us plenty of information about the area and life in Hawaii.

We spent the following two days exploring the Hana “highway”, which is Hawaiian for “torturous 106km road with 620 curves and 59 bridges, 46 of which are one way bridges with little visibility”. It was the perfect training track for Mario Kart but for someone who doesn’t like driving and is easily impressionable this was great fodder for the nightmares that hunt me to this day. Setting aside curves, bridges, the stress of expecting imminent crashes and the grey and rainy weather, the environment was spectacular: we were surrounded by dense jungle full of colorful flowers and trees I had never seen before.

The first day we barely had time to savor this hellish experience because we stopped early on to explore a bamboo forest. The hike took us several hours to complete and we climbed around six or seven waterfalls.

In one place we had trouble climbing a wet and slippery vertical wall with the only support of a liana. We met two couples carrying their babies on those back baby saddles that you see around but I have no idea how they overcame that vertical wall obstacle.

The second day we hadn’t had enough of Hana highway and went back for more. But this time we did so till the very end of the 620 curves. I remember thinking naively at the beginning “We are chasing the end of a rainbow! How romantic.” Now I’m a hardened man. But eventually we reached the end and there was a beach there as well. It wasn’t touristy, it was quiet and calm, but the only food stall there, which we were looking forward to, only accepted cash which of course we had none. After a relaxing break and a look around we made the grueling two and a half hours way back home.

During our final day we visited the lava fields in the south of the island. The beaches there are supposed to be great for snorkeling but we didn’t muster enough courage to overcome the fear of crashing into the rocky floor. Strangled trees set the mood for the desolate area afterwards that consisted entirely of solidified lava for kilometers in all directions.

After walking with slippers over porous volcanic rock for hours with nothing but menacing black clouds approaching us we decided we had seen enough and we made our way back. That afternoon we visited a bird sanctuary close to Kihei. At that point of the year the sanctuary had only two or three species of birds but the ranger with several missing fingers who volunteered there made sure we got to know not only those species but also the rest of the species that call that place home at some point or another throughout the year.

The next morning we took a final refreshing dip in the Pacific and headed to the airport.

I arrived with an image of Hawaii that could be summarized as loads of tourists, snobby people and Hawaiian women with flowery dresses dancing on every corner, but I left with a completely different image: a relaxing place, full of nature and life, with small but beautiful beaches, volcanos, a familiar sounding language (Hawaiian) and a mix of retired people toasting on the beach, a sizable younger immigrant population that decided to leave Europe or the US for one or another reason and a very friendly group of kind indigenous people. My most precious memory, though, will be our snorkeling forays into the ocean along with the serenity, stillness and sense of awe that I experienced and the turtle and other swimming little friends we met.

Thanks Maui!

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Baptism of fire

Last weekend we celebrated Loes’ birthday with a bike ride to a nearby park south of Cupertino, California. Our original goal was to go a bit farther than the park we went to last time. However at the junction where we should have turned left I was convinced we had to turn right. Instead of a relaxed twenty minutes ride we spent the next hour clambering 600 meters (2000 feet) elevation with 9% average grade and some stretches exceeding 18% inclination.

On our way up we overtook a friendly middle-aged korean couple three times. The first time we passed them I told myself how great it was of them to be taking on this difficult climb. The second time, after they had overtaken us minutes earlier while we were choking and out of breath, I got thinking about the hare and the tortoise and the wisdom of people who pedal slowly on a climb like this. The third time I was too ashamed to think anything else and I just smiled and wished them a nice climb.

After five and a half miles we reached the top where a gang of uncool clouds were enjoying a majestic view of Sillicon Valley’s bay.

The weather had became more and more inclement as we went up and we decided to not risk turning our descend into a Russian roulette of turns over a wet road. On the way down I burned more out of my brakes than I had done in the year and a half that I have had this bike.

The next day, while riding it to work, my bike told me that it was sorry but it didn’t have higher gears. Apparently my quadriceps had leveled up after the previous day’s ordeal and the comparatively flat trail to work had became easy peasy. Sadly the effect wore off by Wednesday.

Two years in Silicon Valley, two years in the suburbs

It has been nearly two years since we moved to the US. This post is about some of the little things that we have noticed living in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, California.

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We do the laundry in a laundry room outside of our apartment, and we have to pay $1.50 plus detergent every time. On the one hand you spend more money, on the other I think it’s good for the environment because it reduces usage. Loes doesn’t seem to approve of my last statement, thought, and she doesn’t seem to be grateful of my underdeveloped sense of smell either.

Supermarkets are super sized, hardware stores are super sized, cars are super sized. There are so many options for everything that shopping becomes a very effective way of draining your willpower. For maximum effect try going to the supermarket right before lunch.

Marketing is much more aggressive than in Europe and frictionless buying is the norm. Add to that the willpower-exhausting mind numbing options mentioned above and you have the solution to low consumption levels. Even being aware of these forces is not enough and I find myself buying significantly more useless stuff than I did before.

Most people have at least one car and most people use it. But a consequence of this car-culture is that you don’t see people on the streets. Even though the US is bigger than Ireland or Spain it’s population density in these areas is lower. Biking through the streets and not seeing people makes you feel like you are living in a village in the Wild West. Another consequence of the lower population density is that distances are longer. In Dublin I could go to a fish and chips around the corner and be back in five minutes. Here I need to take the bike and ride it fast if I want to be anywhere in five minutes.

Every day I see a lot of people running and biking on the nearby trails or on the streets during weekends. And you can see fit people and people that are not yet fit. It’s really motivating.

I have had more things break on me here than I had in Spain or Ireland. Before moving to the US I had the preconception that everything was top notch quality.

At first I found all the rave about organic and raw food a bit snobbish but then Loes taught me how to read food labels and what I saw enlightened and scared me. The following is the list of ingredients for one of the few cheat foods that you can find at our place:

Whole grain blend, enriched flour [wheat flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], canola oil, invert sugar, inulin, sugar, raisin paste, glycerin, dried cranberries, cornstarch, dried blueberries, baking soda, soy lecithin, salt, dried raspberries, natural flavor, grape juice concentrate, ferric orthophosphate, niacin amide, blueberry juice concentrate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, thiamin mononitrate.

Those are supposed to be cookies. I have seen sandwich bread with lists of ingredients twice or three times longer than that. Actively looking for organic and GMO free alternatives doesn’t look that snobbish anymore.

Silicon Valley is very multicultural. Most of the people I meet outside of work are Asian or Mexican. And at the office the majority of them aren’t caucasian either. Like in Dublin, this makes the world feel smaller.

At the gym I go they have some TVs and when it’s not set on the sports channel I see news about shootings, car chases or politics, health insurance, car insurance, cialis and viagra, or gadget ads. Something that I didn’t see much in Europe: many programs have subtitles so that even when the TV is muted you can know what’s going on.

Cars with subwoofers that make walls tremble are not just an invention from Grand Theft Auto. In my book that’s slightly above than people who remove silencers from their tailpipes but still below animal intelligence.

People are more impatient. I remember sharing an airport van ride with a guy who was mad at the van company for picking up Stanford students because going through their campus delays the trip by twenty to thirty minutes. I have seen similar scenes when renting a car or at the supermarket.

You hear a lot of Spanglish. There is a big Mexican population in this state. Actually my favorite Google cafe stand at the office is run by a great Mexican guy (“¡Roman, me encantan tus quesadillas de vegetales!”) but I’m sure Quevedo turns in his grave every time someone says “Ya te llamo babe. Thanks, adiós.”

Drivers are gentler, which I appreciate given that cars here look like tanks. If you’re walking or riding a bike tanks will patiently wait for you. Of course this could be just an effect of living in a society where suing is the norm but I like to think that it’s because people are more civilized.

Health insurance, which is highly related with the human need to feel safe, is nightmarish. We have good insurance by US standards but we still have to spend a significant amount of time reading the small print every time we go to a doctor and choosing an approved doctor, and a significant amount of time afterwards replying to inquiries by the insurance company. If you don’t have health insurance you can find yourself paying $6,000 for an afternoon at the hospital, an ambulance ride and a couple of shoulder X-rays. Or you could find yourself paying $36,000 if you happen to give birth at a hospital. Without a health insurance you are at the mercy of whatever price hospitals want to set. To add insult to injury, hospitals, among other institutions, routinely ask their patients for donations.

As opposed to Spain or Ireland many shops are open almost twenty four hours. Banks close at 5pm, not at 1pm, Supermarkets open from 6am to 11pm.

The weather is fantastic, although this is more specific to California. Being able to have lunch outside with a t-shirt mid-December is a delight.

Cell phone plans are expensive and you pay when you receive calls and SMSs. Receiving spammy SMSs or calls takes on a whole new emotional load when you have to pay for them.

The online banking experience is pretty poor. There is no easy way to transfer money from one account to the other and cheques are still widely used.

Internet access is roughly twice as expensive than European equivalents. We are paying $72 for the equivalent of a €30 to €35 internet connection in Dublin or Madrid.

There is a lot bureaucracy and government bullying, particularly against immigrants. A few months ago I had to spend a day and $400 flying in and out of the country just to go through airport immigration because of work permits. (Almost) everybody would have benefited if I had been able to pay $400 and be done in ten minutes.

Schools start very early in the day and there is a lot of pressure and homework. Kids are expected to take on many extracurricular activities which leaves them little time to live life. On top of that because of the way the public school system works you don’t get to choose to which school you send your kids, where you live determines where they can go.

The US is a suing culture. Loes had a bike accident soon after we arrived and people asked us if we sued the guy who caused the accident. There are probably many valid reasons for suing but for me a culture built on suing is a step backwards among civilized people.

The credit system penalizes people who always pay from debit, that is with money they have. Examples of this: if you don’t have a credit score, meaning that you have never paid on credit, you have to pay higher deposits when you rent an apartment, you get an Internet connection installed or your utilities set up. If you don’t have a credit score you may even be rejected when you want to rent an apartment, this almost happened to us.

I realize now that most of the notes sound negative or critical but living here also has big and important pluses: an incredible range of career options, in particular for software engineers, the healthiest lifestyle that I have been able to enjoy so far, the amount and quality of food variety after you restrict to organic and GMO-free food and the wide variety of people and cultures that you can find here.

Halloween

We are one week away from Halloween and walking around the neighborhood you can see how people are preparing for it. During Christmas it was all about overweight men flying in sleighs and red socks hanging all over the place. Now it’s all about undead people and scary stuff.

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Even this Lego lady is getting ready.

It’s interesting to see how much dedication some people put into it. And with so much land generally available in suburbs homes it’s easy to go overboard. However the rebel in me who prefers unbirthdays makes it highly unlikely that you will see me decorating our rented patch of land for cultural events like this.

Stevens Creek County Park

I currently live in the middle of Silicon Valley which is pretty much a suburban area that spans across multiple cities. However if you grab your bike and ride just a few kilometers south you will quickly find yourself surrounded by nature. Last week we did precisely that and we ended up in Stevens Creek County Park.

Stevens Creek County Park is located a couple of kilometers south of Cupertino and it shares name with the trail that takes me to work every day, Stevens Creek trail. The park’s main official attraction is a lake in the middle of it. The park’s main unofficial characteristic, though, is the sound of rifles coming from a nearby shooting range. From the moment we arrived to the park until we left about five hours later we could hear people shooting almost non-stop. The park is surrounded by mountains and makes for great acoustics. Besides that the night before we watched Jack Reacher, a movie whose plot involves a guy shooting at five people with a sniper rifle so you can imagine why I found this trait of the park memorable.

Soon after we arrived we stopped by a visitor center we stumbled upon. There we were greeted by Bob, a volunteer ranger. While he was explaining the various available routes we could see signs that warned us about mountain lions, rattlesnakes and ticks. Now I spent all my childhood in Madrid, Spain. It’s a great place for fiesta, night life and holidays but my home country doesn’t appear in any dangerous maps of the world maps that I saw as a kid. The hot areas were always in America, Asia or Australia. Now I was quite close to one of the hot zones so you can understand my excitement! Bob gave us a couple of maps, some directions and let us on our own.

The park wasn’t that big and after twenty minutes we reached the end of the trail that was closest to the lake. We decided to sit down and read for a bit. It was all lovely and bucolic. Nice shadows were protecting us from the sun, we had a beautiful lake in front of us and we were surrounded by hummingbirds, crickets, ducks and the sound of sniper rifles in the distance.

Then, suddenly, we heard a hissing sound coming from very close behind our backs. As I was turning around my brain finished its preliminary evaluation and told me that it was most likely one of our bikes unless rattlesnakes had learned yoga and were now able to exhale monotonously for more than a second. Until that point in my life I had never had tires suddenly burst on me so I naturally still expected to see either a rattlesnake or a mountain lion destroying our means of escaping. Alas that was not the case. There was no predator that we could see and the bike, resting in the shadows, couldn’t have a more innocent look over it. As far as I’m concerned the tire had lead a happy life and had decided to join his ancestors in that peaceful moment.

Loes’ parents happen to be Dutch and they recently gave me a tire repair kit which I had brought with me. However a repair kit is of little use without an air pump, fact that we briefly considered shortly after leaving home and proceeded to discard. For people who listen, their inner voices are full of advice.

We pushed away the nagging fact that we were about 15 kilometers away from home, the fact that the average walking speed is 5 kph and the fact that the deceased bike was made of steel. Instead we focused on the nature surrounding us, we spied on some hummingbirds and lizards, took more photos and read for a bit.

After some time the nagging facts we pushed away came back demanding our attention and we decided to head home and hope for a lucky encounter on the way back. When we reached the visitor center the gentle volunteer ranger from the morning was still there. He was extremely nice and helped us bring our steel bike back to life. This involved a four mile trip to a nearby bike shop but the ranger went out of his way to help us. Thanks Bob!

Our trip to this lovely park mirrored my experience so far in the US. You can find extremely polite and helpful people but there are unforgiving dangers around every corner for the unprepared.

Clarion Alley

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A few months ago while wandering around the Mission District in San Francisco we stumbled upon Clarion Alley, a small street full of murals. Here are some of them.

 

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You are half-way through.

 

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In person, with murals blending into each other the experience is even more psychedelic. If you pass by San Francisco I recommend you to make a visit, it’s close to the Bart, San Francisco’s subway.

A glimpse of nature near the bay

A few days ago we went biking near San Francisco bay, north of Mountain View and Sunnyvale. It was already late November but this part of California has a wonderful weather.

What follows is part of what we saw during that ride.

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At least in this area of California there is also a strong culture of health. During the week and on weekends I can see people of all ages and nationalities biking, running, jogging or walking their dogs at any time. It took me a few minutes of patience to get a clear shoot of this part of the trail.

 

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When we first saw this we thought it was a military airport that had seen better days. According to Google Maps this is NASA’s Disaster Assistance Rescue home base.

 

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We saw these and many other types of birds all over the place. Some of them looked like ducks, some of them looked like small vultures and some of them looked like eagles but my bird knowledge is too limited to be more precise than this.

 

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The first year I spent in the US I was blown away by the beauty of fall in the Urbana-Champaign area. Luckily, Mountain View has plenty of trees which make scenes like the one above, on the Google campus, possible.

I wish you all Merry Christmas 2012!

Update Dec 16th: my friend Andre let me know that the birds from the first three bird photos are Canadian geese, they are resident birds, expats from migration flyways which cross CA and that the forth one is a turkey vulture. Thanks Andre!