Category Archives: Friends

Twenty Years

It took a while, but eventually I kicked my marshmallow addiction.
It took a while, but eventually I kicked my marshmallow addiction.

Twenty years ago I arrived on the University of Guelph campus with several boxes full of most of my earthly possessions. Those that stayed behind at my parents’ house were, I thought, either unimportant, or not befitting the hallowed halls of my new home away from home.

As my parents dropped me off at Mills hall, I remember feeling nervous and excited. University was a giant unknown. Will I be able to handle the courses? What if I don’t fit in at UofG? My roommates were, save for a short phone conversation earlier in the summer, strangers. Will we get along? What if they think I’m some sort of weirdo? The City of Guelph was completely new to me. What if I don’t like it here? What the hell is a Guelph anyway?

I learned answers to most of those questions rather quickly. Orientation week was enough to make me realize that the University of Guelph was the right choice for me. And while I wasn’t as successful in some of my courses as I should have been, I still managed to do well. Beyond that, I found a group of people who not only accepted me for me, they helped me strive for the best version of me.

Wow. Just wow.
Wow. Just wow.

My roommates through the years ran the spectrum of weird and wonderful to just plain weird. There were those who locked themselves in closets whenever company came by, and those whom I woke to find standing awkwardly staring at me in the dark1. More importantly, however, there were those roommates who were (and remain) the most amazing and closest friends I could ever ask to have.

And as for the City of Guelph, how could I not fall in love with it? It was easy to see even twenty years ago that Guelph was and is unique. The people, the culture, the Guelph-iness of it is like nothing I’ve ever experienced anywhere else.

If you had asked the 20-year-ago-me where I’d be 20 years later, I’m not sure I would have answered Guelph. Nor would I have expected to be working as an Assistant Professor in the School of Computer Science. I wouldn’t have imagined the changes that have happened on campus (does anyone remember the Chemistry & Microbiology building, the Barn, or when the Bullring was a club?), nor those that have happened around the city. So many physical changes to an amazing University and an amazing City.

There is nothing in this world that justifies that hair or shirt. NOTHING.
There is nothing in this world that justifies that hair or shirt. NOTHING.

And yet, despite all the changes on and off campus, the University and the City haven’t lost the Guelph-iness that makes them what they are. In fact, it seems that they’ve both become even better versions of themselves. This isn’t just happenstance. It’s the result of so many people who care about what happens here. The City is a haven for volunteers. The University students are constantly striving to improve the world in new and amazing ways. With each passing year I see more and more people getting involved, making a difference, being awesome.

Being awesome – it seems to be the life-blood of our city.

I’m damn lucky to call Guelph my home. After 20 years, I can’t say I regret a thing. Well, except for maybe my hair and style choices.


1 I wish that were a joke.

Curse You Temple

On the ridge of Mount Lady MacDonald (~2600 metres above sea level) with Rick and Paul.
On the ridge of Mount Lady MacDonald (~2600 metres above sea level) with Rick and Paul.

Mother Nature has foiled us again. After much discussion, plotting, and organization, she decided to throw a huge wrench into our Mount Temple conquering plans. With winter conditions and blowing snow, Rick, Paul, and I decided for safety reasons that we should postpone our Temple adventure until next year.

Nuts.

For those of you who don’t know, this marks the third attempt in three years to climb Temple. It has officially become our nemesis. We shake our fists at you Temple. We shake them long time.

Fortunately, being the easy-going lot that we are, a back-up mountain was found. May I introduce you to the splendor and beauty that is Mount Lady MacDonald – a steep 7 hour hike with an elevation gain of 1.2km right next door to the town of Canmore. The peak offers an excellent view of the town and surrounding area, and it also offers an epic knife-edge ridge walk. On one side of the mountain is a near vertical drop to the valley below. On the other side, a very steep drop to rocks and scree below. To put it another way – a straight plummet followed by death if one were to fall away from Canmore, or a long painful fall across mostly flat rock and death should one fall towards Canmore. Exactly what we were looking for!

Me and Paul at the start of the ridge.
Me and Paul at the start of the ridge.

We started the hike at 10am and quickly fell into a good rhythm. Every so often we’d stop for water or snacks, or to catch our breath given our angle of ascent, or to snap photos of the area. The weather varied from sunny and hot, to cold, cloudy, and windy. Extra layers, rain gear, gloves, and toques were added as necessary. Fortunately the snow and wind that had accompanied us part way up the mountain dissipated, leaving blue sky and sunshine as we reached the summit (about 3.5 hours after we started).

The views were breathtaking. We sat for a time at the top of the mountain taking everything in, comfortably resting in the safety of a small plateau. Of course, we didn’t sit too long before we debated the safety of the ridge walk. The photos we snapped only provide a small sense of what we were facing – vertical to near vertical drops on either side, and only a narrow path to follow. Part of the path looked wide enough to walk on, but other parts were quite literally the apex of a triangle. Walking on these areas would demand that we keep our bodies low to the mountain, finding footholds on either side of the peak to secure ourselves. Whatever lay before us, we knew that one misstep would be more than enough to send us over the edge to a rather splendid end.

After a short rest and after snapping several photos, it was agreed – we were doing this.

Leaning over the edge of the ridge of Mount Lady MacDonald.
Leaning over the edge of the ridge of Mount Lady MacDonald.

I took the first steps onto the ridge and realized pretty quickly that this part of the adventure was going to be amazing. I walked upright for most of the first part of the ridge, getting low where necessary. Rick and Paul followed behind. In some spots I was quite literally straddling the mountain – a required move to figure out where next to put my hands or feet. Looking down to the valleys on either side of the ridge was incredible. With every step away from the security of the plateau I found myself feeling more and more blessed at having the opportunity to experience the world in this manner.

We continued on, pushing further and further along the ridge, inching closer and closer to the end of the path. Of course we snapped numerous photos. When we could we walked upright, moving cautiously but confidently from rock to rock, ignoring the potential disorienting effect caused by our peripheral view of the valleys below.

Sadly our adventure was cut short. In the distance I could see another storm coming towards us. We debated the safety of continuing to the end of the path, but ultimately decided we should turn back. This was probably the smartest thing we did all day. As soon as we reached the safety of the plateau we were hit – ice pellets, strong winds, and cold temperatures. Turning back was very much the correct decision. I can’t imagine what the ridge would have been like if we were caught on it during the storm.

Traversing the ridge.
Traversing the ridge.

We quickly made our descent to escape exposure during the storm. Despite the ice pellets and wind, screeing down the mountain was still a blast. By the time we reached the safety of the trees the sun had returned and the temperatures climbed. We rested for a few minutes, lost a few layers of clothing, and began our long descent back to the car.

To be honest, while we’re a bit disappointed in not being able to conquer Temple for the third year in a row, our adventures really have very little to do with any specific mountain. The time I get to spend in the mountains laughing with Rick and Paul is far more important. So thanks nerds for yet another excellent adventure. We’ll get Temple next year.

Homesick

Sunrise at Huashan, China.
Sunrise at Huashan, China.

Before I left for my epic adventure to China I was asked by several people about the possibility of experiencing homesickness while I was away. Given the length of my trip – approximately 5 weeks – the question was a valid one. The question was often repeated while I was away – from friends and family, and even by my hosts in China.

Having the opportunity and luck to have travelled a lot (although not nearly enough in my opinion), I wasn’t exactly worried that I’d suffer homesickness. I’ve been on longer adventures; sometimes with friends, and sometimes solo – and I’d never felt homesick before. Why, I thought, would China be any different?

And truth be told – it wasn’t.

Sure, I was in a completely new world that seemed to offer new experiences and adventure with every corner I turned. I didn’t speak or read the language, and the culture was often very different than home. The food was different, the air and sky were different, the traffic and pedestrians were different. Every experience, every visual, every smell reminded me that I wasn’t home. It makes complete sense that I should have been homesick. But I wasn’t.

After so many people asked the same question, I got to wondering if maybe it was odd that I wasn’t (nor have I ever) felt homesick. Don’t get me wrong, there have been many adventures where I’ve experienced something new and thought so-and-so would love this. There have been many moments when I’d hear a friend’s voice in my head, commenting in the way that only they could, about something I was about to experience. But none of this led to homesickness.

Perhaps my lack of homesickness is related to the fact that I know that I’ll more than likely see everyone again (unless, you know, I die in some gloriously magnificent adventure-gone-wrong spectacle1), or perhaps it’s because so many people come to mind while I’m travelling. I guess in some way I never really feel apart from the people who matter. While some might call this missing people, I don’t perceive it as something negative. Quite the contrary – the image of these friends in my minds eye is nothing but positive. 

What I find interesting, however, is that I tend to feel homesick after I return from my adventures. Maybe this has to do with a reduction in adrenalin. Maybe this has to do with returning to the real world and the reality of bills and reports and meetings. But honestly I think it has more to do with missing the people I’ve met along the way. In most cases the friendships burn short and bright because they are usually built on intense experiences. But there are also those people who I’ve met on my travels that leave an indelible mark. I miss them the most because I’m not sure – despite our stated commitments to keep in touch and meet up again – if I’ll actually see them again. And because there is an unknown element here, the missing comes with a sense of sadness and loss. 

So to those friends I made while I was travelling China, know that I miss you, and in some weird way I’m homesick. 


1 If I do die in this way, know that I’ll die happy. Also, know that with my last breath I’ll be cursing Rick for not being there to prevent me from doing something stupid. Ha!

Beijing – A Litte Bit Different

Street dinner with Till.
Street dinner with Till.

Beijing has been a little bit different from the previous cities in China I’ve visited, but that doesn’t mean it has been any less amazing.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I opted to stay at a hotel while in Beijing, mainly because the hostel I wanted wasn’t available, but also because the hotel deal was too good to pass up. The problem, however, with staying in a hotel versus a hostel is the type of people who share accommodations with me.

Hostels are mostly filled with travellers and backpackers; people who don’t mind getting dirty, sharing bathrooms, sleeping in bunk beds in 6 or 8 person dorms with complete strangers, and randomly striking up conversations that begin with Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? These conversations always seem to develop into some sort of instant friendship, and before long, you and your fellow traveller are out experiencing the city together, writing crazy new adventure stories to tell at the next hostel.

No admittance? Pfft. Whatever.
No admittance? Pfft. Whatever.

Hotels are mostly filled with business folks and tourists; people who expect a certain level of pampering and sophistication, room service, and guided tours. Any conversations are limited and short, and have rarely led to adventures (at least in my experience).

Why is this problematic for me? Well, tourists and business folks aren’t likely to strike up a conversation with a random dude travelling on his own. And as has been my experience, they don’t necessarily open themselves up to a random dude striking up a conversation with them. Don’t get me wrong – they talk back – but it’s usually limited to casual chatting and small talk. Backpackers and travellers ignore the small talk and get to the stories. That’s how I met so many great people in Xi’an and Shanghai.

However, this doesn’t mean that I’ve not met some amazing people while in Beijing. I randomly met Brian – the second person from Nashville I’ve met while in China – while touring the parks next to the Forbidden City. He was almost caught in a selfie that I was taking, and that of course led to hello, some laughter, and before long lunch, beer, dinner, and wandering the city at night. We also managed to explore Tiananmen Square, spending part of our time getting photos with locals, and the rest of our time trying to figure out where Tank Man was last photographed as he stood defiantly in front of a line of tanks in 1989.

Photos with Brian and a troupe of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square.
Photos with Brian and a troupe of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square.

And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I spent a few days on a gastronomic adventure with Till. From Peking Duck to silk worm, scorpions, and spiders, we tried pretty much anything we could. We enjoyed beers while chatting about travel, education, and other random things. We compared cities, and the people of China to our expectations and experiences at home. And we talked about Munich – where he’s from.

When I explored the Great Wall I met Arneau and Rihanna – travellers who had the exact same idea as me when we saw a sign that informed us that the public were not allowed beyond said signage. Clearly this was meant to be ignored. And so the three of us trekked on and found ourselves probably 1km or more beyond the no-admittance declaration, along a section of the wall that hasn’t been repaired as of yet. It also afforded us some amazing views of the wall as it ascended and descended the various mountains we could see. Breaking the rules – always the best decision (that’s a rule – you should write it down – ha, see what I did there).

The Great Wall is really great.
The Great Wall is really great.

Last night I had dinner with a Brazilian that I met who’s in Beijing for only 2 days on business. Having been to the city numerous times, he knew of some great restaurants. We ended up eating at La Pizza, where I had western food for the first time on my trip – seafood pizza if you’re curious. While eating, the sky decided to open up and pour for the first time since I’ve been travelling. The rain brought with it thunder and lightning, and apparently sent all of the cabbies into hiding. After eating we did our best to stay dry, but I ended up soaked and having to walk about 3 km before I was finally able to hail a cabbie to get me back to my hotel. Fortunately it was a warm rain and ultimately refreshing given how hot and smoggy it had been that day.

Anyway, while the people I’ve met here have been no less amazing than those I’ve met elsewhere, the ways in which we met have been vastly different. Regardless of how we met, Beijing has been an amazing experience and I’m definitely going to miss it.

Hello Beijing

Thumbs way up to Shanghai.
Thumbs way up to Shanghai.

After saying goodbye to Andrew and Sass this morning, I returned to my room to start packing. My adventures in Shanghai have been fantastic and I’ve met some great people, but Beijing awaits.

This adventure will be slightly different for several reasons.

Reason the first: initially I was going to spend the bulk of my time in another really cool and highly rated hostel, but having waited a minute too long to book, it slipped from my grasp. Fortunately a last-minute deal at a five-star hotel dropped into my lap that I couldn’t turn down. So for about $10 Canadian extra per night, I’m going to be spending the next 5 days and nights wrapped in whatever luxurious luxury the Beijing Prime Hotel Wangfujing offers. I may even order room service.

Hello bullet train.
Hello bullet train.

Reason the second: for most of my trip I have travelled between destinations by plane. Today’s 1200+ km trek will forgo the plane as I have opted to see the country from a first class seat on the bullet train. The train promises speeds up to 300 kph. The price is essentially the same as the flight, but affords me views of the countryside that I’ve not really had as of yet. It also means I don’t have to deal with the same type of security, nor do I need to arrive at the airport several hours in advance. So, even though the train will take about 5 hours to reach its destination, I think the time commitment will be about the same.

Watching the countryside fly by at 300 km per hour.
Watching the countryside fly by at 300 km per hour.

What does Beijing have in store for me, other than luxuriously luxurious accommodations and the amenities that come with said luxury? Well, I’m not sure to be honest. I know that I’m going to be checking out most of the touristy things that I can, but I’m also going to try to find the not-so-touristy things. I’m definitely planning a trip to the Great Wall, and I’m going to walk Tiananmen Square, and probably snap about eleventy-billion photos of the Forbidden City. But I’m also going to be looking for markets and artisans, random clubs and eateries, and anything that might be described as uniquely Beijingian. I’m not sure Beijingian is a word, but I’m going to go with it.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

I have no idea when all this will happen or what other adventures I’ll find myself in, but that’s part of the fun. I also have no idea who I might meet on this the almost-last-leg of my great China adventure. What I do know is that China has been incredible so far. I have no doubt that Beijing will also deliver.

Good-Bye Shanghai

On my way to Beijing!
On my way to Beijing!

Today I said goodbye to Shanghai and the various people I’d met there over the past 8 days. I’m very much going to miss the city, especially the part where I ate street food almost every night after enjoying a tipple or three with the folks I was fortunate to call friends during my stay. Originally I had planned to leave Shanghai Tuesday, but those plans were thrown out the window on Monday eve. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On Monday afternoon I said farewell to three of the people I had spent the last few days hanging out with. There was Ben, the other professor in our merry band of misfits, and Andrew and Sass, two 20 year-old students from Australia who have been dating for the past two years or so. After I said goodbye, I relaxed in the lobby of the hostel looking forward to a quiet night. I had a beer, got somewhat caught up on email and world events, and was fully expecting to head to bed early.

And then in walked Andrew and Sass, both looking a little rough around the edges.

So deliciously delicious.
So deliciously delicious.

I clearly had a very confused look on my face because they immediately started laughing and then began recounting a rather harrowing adventure that began with a police ticket for the cab driver, and ended with their flight being canceled. In between they were involved in a car accident on the highway that wrote-off the car they were in (fortunately all were okay save for some stiff necks). If that weren’t bad enough, the substitute cab had a faulty door which was only discovered while careening down the highway at speeds in excess of 120 kph. Apparently it’s not normal for the door of a vehicle to just swing open. Who knew? Fortunately Ben – who was travelling to the airport with Andrew and Sass – got things under control (and I think managed to make his flight home). From this point, however, things went from bad to worse for Andrew and Sass.

At the airport, Andrew and Sass were initially faced with flight delay, after flight delay. Eventually they were told the Military were conducting operations, the airport was essentially closed, and they should return to the hostel. They were given a slip of paper saying they’d be able to get a flight on Wednesday around noon.

The gift for the friend who has everything?
The gift for the friend who has everything?

Despite the day they had, they walked into the hostel with very few gripes and a lot of smiles. After listening to them recount their adventure, I started thinking that my time in Shanghai wasn’t quite finished. We chatted about plans for the next morning (technically check-out was at noon, and I had the entire day to get to Beijing) and decided to head out for food and some drinks. We had a great night chatting and exploring several dishes at a nearby restaurant, laughing at some of the Chinese to English translations. Dinner led to drinks at a local bar which was fortunately stocked with some deliciously delicious scotches. I already knew Andrew was a fellow scotch drinker so it didn’t take much for us to sample a few drams. After several drinks we returned to the hostel, but not before a feast of street food. Scallions wrapped in some sort of gluten/soy blanket, bacon wrapped something-or-others, fish-on-a-stick, mushrooms, and a bowl of spicy crawdads – or whatever the Chinese equivalent might be. All of this was washed down with a half litre of beer for the outrageously low price of 5 yuan (less than a dollar Canadian).

On Tuesday morning I awoke early to extend my stay an extra day in Shanghai, and modify my booking in Beijing. It took all of 5 minutes.

Golden Buddha.
Golden Buddha.

After some coffee, the three of us jumped in a cab and made our way to the art district known as M50. I was expecting a market with local artisans showing off trinkets and such. It was nothing like that. The area reminded me of the Distillery District in Toronto, but larger, and filled with various different artists. The works ranged from absolutely amazing – we all seriously considered buying some prints by the artist Sanzi – to downright creepy (hello naked baby painting). Some were quite practical, such as the handcrafted tea sets, to completely outrageous. Why would someone want a 7 foot purple corn-on-the-cob? Or for that matter, a giant angry silver baby riding a tank? Perhaps I just don’t get art.

We had lunch in the area then walked to a nearby temple to see a beautiful jade Buddha. The temple – appropriately called the Jade Buddha Temple – was stunning. We wandered the temple for about an hour, snapping photos and taking in as much of it as we could, before we grabbed a cab and returned to the hostel for a nap.

Deliciousness and tasty beverages can be found here.
Deliciousness and tasty beverages can be found here.

The day led us to the French Colonial section of town. From the street I’d never have known this place existed, but down a particular alleyway pointed out by our cabbie, we were presented with pedestrian walkway after pedestrian walkway, each filled with pubs and eateries. Given our success of the previous day, we opted to repeat history. Several drams of scotch were ordered for Andrew and me, while Sass opted for some rather beautiful and delicious cocktails. We chatted about travel and school, life in general, and even statistics. At one point I found myself explaining degrees of freedom and multicollinearity. It was weird and wonderful and completely unexpected. Feeling a bit wobbly from all of the scotch, we returned to the hostel and the same street vendors. We couldn’t have our last night in Shanghai not include more spicy crawdads and fish-on-a-stick.

It tastes way better than it looks.
It tastes way better than it looks.

I’m glad I decided to stay an extra day. Andrew and Sass are exactly the type of people I like meeting when I travel. Adventurous, open to new things, and willing to laugh at the weird things that happen instead of getting upset. What could have been the death-blow to their vacation, they turned into a grand adventure. Instead of pouting and whining, they decided to give Shanghai one last hurrah. How could I not have stayed?

As we hugged farewell today I knew that I wanted to keep in touch with them. I’m really excited to know where their adventure-filled life will take them.

Hello Shanghai

Leaving our mark at one of the local pubs.
Leaving our mark at one of the local pubs.

Today is laundry day, so what better thing to do than write a few blog posts.

I arrived in Shanghai on Wednesday last week. The flight was a bit rough but ultimately uneventful. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to Xi’an, but other adventures were calling my name.

To save some cash and get a sense of the city I opted to take the No. 2 Metro line from the airport to a station close to my hostel. Fortunately signage was both in English and in Chinese which made purchasing a ticket (4 Yuan, or about 69 cents Canadian) and making my way to my destination rather simple. At least in theory. In practice I failed to consider my own stupidity and exhaustion. After falling asleep on the subway, I woke to find I’d missed my first stop and had returned almost all the way to the airport. Feeling like a twit, I quickly corrected the situation and was back on my way to my home away from home for the week.

Scotch on top of Shanghai
Scotch on top of Shanghai

After checking in, I decided to saunter around the neighbourhood. Within about 5 minutes I stumbled into Andy whom I’d met in Xi’an the week before. Having been here for a few days already he gave me the lay of the land, and then we went in search of food.

Since then, I’ve hung out with him and several other travellers – the Brits Laura, Chloe, Sam, and Hugh, the Aussie student-couple Andrew and Sassica, and the Americans Jack, Ben, and Lauren. Various subsets of us have opted to explore the local pubs and clubs together, and that of course has led to some rather late nights/early mornings. From the dark and dingy yet strangely inviting and friendly C-club, to the overpriced but entertaining Cheers, to the posh techno shoulder-to-shoulder deafening thump-thump and visual assault that was M18 and Myst, and to the not-so-crowded, not-so-loud techno thump-thump and free booze of SoHo, we’ve pretty much been all over the place.

Street BBQ is the new crack.
Street BBQ is the new crack.

Between bar-hopping, I’ve managed to make my way to the financial district – where fellow professor Chris and I celebrated with a scotch on the 87th floor overlooking the nightlife of Shanghai – to the Bund, and to the major shopping district of Nanjing Road. I’ve been amazed by the contrast between old colonial buildings and the new modern flash of skyscrapers. The street BBQs have turned into a staple after-bar snack. I’ve snapped my pic with an M&M dressed as a panda, I’ve enjoyed fresh coconut water and probably too many dumplings, and I have been entertained by the various Chinese to English translations that I’ve read. The people, as in Xi’an, are exceptionally hospitable and welcoming.

In short, this city is vibrant and amazing and has so much to offer, I think I might just be in love with it.

Good-Bye Xi’an

The moon over Xi'an
The moon over Xi’an

While I’ve technically be in Shanghai for 5 days already, I’ve been out having too much fun to sit down and write. I figured that I probably should write a little bit about my experiences today before I find myself looking at the city from my seat on a bullet train to Beijing.

Before I get into my adventures in Shanghai, I thought I’d offer up a huge thanks to Xi’an and the people who call that city home. Xi’an was amazing. So much so that I extended my stay a few days so that Peter and I could conquer a mountain. There was seriously so much to do in that city, and I can definitely see myself returning there in the future. Exploring the Bell and Drum towers, eating my face off in the Muslim District, cycling the walls of the old city, and visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors were all highlights of the trip. My adventure to the top of Huashan and subsequent plank walk were icing on the proverbial cake.

But it wasn’t all site-seeing and history. The city also connected me with some amazing people with equally amazing travel stories – some profound, others hilarious, all fascinating. There were nights spent sitting in the streets with locals and two students from France, drinking beer until the early hours of the morning, and other nights wandering the city with no particular goal in mind.

Adventuring with this nerd was clearly a blast.
Adventuring with this nerd was clearly a blast.

On one particular eve, Peter and I found ourselves looking at the almost-full moon through a massive telescope that someone had set up near the Drum Tower. We also found ourselves sitting and staring at the Drum Tower, amazed at its simplicity and beauty, amazed of where we were and how we got there, all while listening to a local musician play what we assumed was traditional Chinese music. It had all the makings for a cheesy romantic date-scene in some equally cheesy romantic movie – but all that was quickly shattered when we realized the musician had switched into Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. Obviously laughter ensued.

I’m definitely going to miss Xi’an. And I’m definitely going to miss the band of misfits that I got to call friends for a short period of time. With any luck, I’ll meet up with some of them again on some random adventure in some random city in the future. If travel has taught me anything, it’s that the world is a rather small place, and stranger things have happened.

So long Xi’an, and thanks for everything.

Conquering Huashan Part III

All smiles before we walk the planks.
All smiles before we begin our descent to walk the planks.

The hike to the top of the east peak of Huashan was the first of three specific adventures that Peter, Gavin, and I had set out to do on Monday night. Watching the sun rise over the Yellow river valley after spending the night at the top of the mountain was the second. The final adventure was the descent of the mountain and a detour to brave the infamous plank walk.

For those who aren’t aware, Huashan is known for its treacherous and deadly paths. Despite chains and fences that have been put in place, alternate routes up the mountain, and the construction of a rather amazing set of lifts, people continue to die while attempting to summit. Where most of the deaths occur I have no idea, but my guess is that it has to do with the plank walk.

Situated more than 2km above sea level and at approximately 1 foot in width, the planks look like nothing more than dilapidated wood that may have once graced the side of a barn. Three separate pieces of wood make up the width of the planks, and these run the length of a shear cliff face.  The planks appear to be held together by glorified staples. Beneath them, mostly air until you hit the base of the valley far below. For the faint of heart it might be a paralyzing view.

For us, it was a must-do adventure

It's a long way down.
It’s a long way down.

Before beginning our climb down an almost 90 degree incline, we were strapped into harnesses. In theory the harnesses provided some measure of safety – but I’m more convinced that these were a money-making scheme above all else. While I have had some training with carabiners, I’m not so sure the 30 second demonstration provided most of the Chinese tourists attempting this now well-known path was sufficient. Nor was I convinced that the harness was actually set up to do what it needed to do should someone slip off the edge.

Of course that didn’t stop us.

Nor did the fact that the one-way path was, at least for that day, a two-way highway. As we descended, others climbed around, beside, and sometimes on top of us. It was chaotic, at times a bit frustrating, but more than all of that, it was amazing. Whenever I could I leaned out from the mountain wall to look down. The view was spectacular.

Eventually we found ourselves at the base of the rock-face – or at least the part where we would start traversing the cliff. This meant working with footholds that had at some point in time been carved into the mountain. Some were large enough to rest more than half a foot in, others not-so-much.

All along the path Peter and Gavin and I attempted photos of each other and ourselves. I leaned back several times as far as I could and held the camera above my head to capture the most perfect selfie possible.

Leaning back from a cliff wall is the only way to take a selfie.
Leaning back from a cliff wall is the only way to take a selfie.

At this point the two-way traffic became a bit bigger of a challenge. While it was perfectly comfortable to traverse the cliff via footholds in a single-file-moving-one-direction way, oncoming traffic added a new element of thrill to the entire venture. Without communicating a word we learned that returning traffic had to stay to the outside of the mountain. That is, they had to traverse the cliff-face by leaning out and around us.

Amazing! I won’t lie, I was pretty stoked to try this on my way back.

Before long we were at the planks. More oncoming traffic had us dancing with many other people – some more frightened than others – and all making their way around us back to the safety of where we started. The experience on the planks was exhilarating. More photos, lots of smiles, and lots of laughs were had as we gazed over our shoulders or turned around completely to face the valley below.

Shortly after the planks we found ourselves climbing up a final set of stairs. These were very narrow, not very deep, and filled with a stream of fellow plank-walkers who were returning to home base. This meant that the three of us were stuck in place as 10 to 12 people maneuvered around us. For those who were far too nervous to descend confidently, I took the time to guide their feet, tell them when and where to stop – allowing me ample time to unbuckle their carabiners one at a time, releasing the second once the first had been reconnected to the available safety lines – and then giving them instructions to continue on their way.

After what seemed like an eternity hanging out on the very narrow stairs, we were able to climb up and over to find an open area that was home to a small Buddhist temple. Again we laughed at what had just happened, thrilled that we’d had the opportunity to walk the planks.

It had to be done.
It had to be done.

Of course, we still had to return to home base. Which of course meant that we were on the outside path of the planks as we maneuvered around those who had begun the trek to the temple after us. I had thought that I was going to find this scary, but in all honesty it wasn’t. There was ample room to move, and while I wasn’t so confident in the harness I was wearing around my neck, I was cautious and safe, and I was confident in my ability to do what needed to be done.

After returning to home base we were all smiles, because holy shit, we’d just completed the plank walk. And once again I couldn’t help but shake my head smirking, thankful for the opportunity to do something so incredibly amazing with two great guys.

The rest of the morning was spent exploring the remaining peaks and finding our way down the mountain. I was tired and weary, desperately in need of a shower and food, but energized by the adventure that was Huashan.

Thanks again to Peter and Gavin for making Huashan such an amazing experience. This adventure wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Conquering Huashan Part I

Silhouetted crowds at the East Peak of Huashan - around 3:30 in the morning.
Silhouetted crowds at the East Peak of Huashan – around 3:30 in the morning.

Monday marked the day after my adventure with Peter biking around the city walls of Xi’an. Much of the day was spent figuring out the next legs of our respective adventures. At one point I was going to join him on his journey to Chengdu, but that opportunity seemed to flit away as soon as we realized that the buses, trains, and planes were all full – save for a few late night options.

We also were beginning to wonder how we were going to fit in Huashan – the epic mountain climb I had mentioned in previous posts – given the remaining options available to get Peter to Chengdu to see his friends.

We decided that Huashan would have to be a night climb. This way we’d be able to meet all of our schedules and take part in a very unique experience.

Figuring out how to get to Huashan was our first challenge. Trains were booked. Buses were booked. Renting a car would be too pricey. Everything was working against us. That is, until the opportunity for two standing only tickets were made available. We rushed to the train station with all of our hiking gear to purchase our tickets, only to find out that the train was indeed full. Fortunately for us, the ticket agent offered us two first class tickets on the high speed train. We gladly purchased these and were on our way – sometimes reaching speeds of almost 300kph.

As we raced towards the mountain, we chatted about the coming adventure. Specifically, we discussed the fact that we really didn’t know how to get from the North Huashan train station to the mountain, and the fact that our conversational Chinese was limited to saying hello, thank you, or asking for the bill, and the fact that we didn’t know how we were going to get back to Xi’an the next day. We probably should have been nervous, but what’s an adventure without a bunch of unknowns coupled with poor communication skills?

As we exited the train station, we were greeted by a very lively scene; people snapping whips (seriously), and a very large number of taxi drivers fighting to take us to the mountain for insanely inflated prices.

And then we met Gavin.

Gavin, from the US, had also decided to hike the mountain. Like us, he also wasn’t fully prepared for what was about to happen, but in a different way. While we had no idea how we were going to get to the mountain and home, or how to communicate with the locals, he had no idea what the hike involved or what equipment he might need.

Fortunately between the group of us we somehow formed a kick-ass team.

Gavin organized the taxi and got us to the mountain. Peter and I helped get Gavin up the mountain. It was a win-win situation.

Waiting for the sun to rise.
Waiting for the sun to rise.

After buying a twelve pack of beer (because why wouldn’t we want a twelve pack of beer for hiking a mountain?), and purchasing our entrance to the park, we started on our big adventure. The time was about 10pm and the way was lit only by the moon and the headlamps people were wearing.

The trek started simple enough – along what is known as the Soldier’s Road. The incline was gentle and the path was composed of a very well constructed set of stairs; stairs that went on. And on. And on. And on. And got steeper, and steeper. Oh, and steeper.

We weren’t alone on the trek. It seemed that thousands of locals were making the trek with us. Up and up we hiked. We stopped from time to time to catch our breath and give our legs a rest, and to enjoy a beer. We commented on the variety of people making the hike – some looked early on as if they weren’t going to make it, others looked strong and determined. Our collective goal – the east summit, where we’d be able to watch the sun rise around 5:30am.

In some sections the stairs were narrow – very narrow. In some sections the stairs were only big enough to put less than half your foot on. And in some sections the stairs were so steep (80% incline) they looked more like a wall with notches carved into it. And yet still we hiked, higher and higher up the mountain and into the night.

Eventually we found ourselves face to face with the steepest section. Imagine if you will a wall that leans out slightly towards you. Imagine three chains hanging down from above – setting up two lanes for potential climbers. Imagine stairs that are about 1 inch deep. And imagine people attempting to climb them, freaking out, and having to climb back down while others attempted to climb up. It was a bit chaotic. It was a bit insane. It. Was. Amazing.

Of course, it wasn’t necessary to take this route. There was a way to bypass it – and many people did. We talked about it, but I knew immediately that I was doing it. I hadn’t come all that way to wuss out. Peter and Gavin felt the same way. We were going to crush this.

All smiles as the sun starts to peak above the mountains.
All smiles as the sun starts to peak above the mountains.

As I approached the wall I simply took a breath, got my footing, grabbed the chains and started my ascent. I looked down, often, because why wouldn’t I? With each step closer to the top, I smiled more and more. With each step I took a moment and thought out my next move, then confidently made it. And it felt amazing. I fully expected some fear, but there was none. There was just an awesome sense of crushing the challenge.

And just like that we were past the wall and heading the rest of the way to the peak.

After about 4.5 hours we reached the eastern peak. The moonlight provided enough light to see that the valley below was expansive and incredible. The sky was huge and decorated with countless stars. It was an amazing moment and it was great to share it with both Peter and Gavin. We sat there, smiling, taking in everything, and celebrated with a couple beers.

We spent several hours chatting and napping on the mountain as we waited for the sun to rise. At some point I just sat there listening to the sounds of nature, and marvelling again at how lucky I am to be able to experience something like this.

I am the luckiest bastard I know.

All The Feels

Sleeping Elliot cake, complete with Ardbeg, Starbucks, greek letters, and the Blerch.
Sleeping Elliot cake, complete with Ardbeg, Starbucks, greek letters, and the Blerch.

Last Tuesday I celebrated the fourth anniversary of my PhD defence. It’s hard to believe that four years have passed already. As with most of the anniversaries I celebrate, I marked this particular event with a dram or two of scotch.

As is custom, I also marked the event by taking some time to think about the changes in my life since the big day just over four years ago. To be perfectly honest, when I began reflecting on the events of just the last year, I found myself thinking did all of that really just happen in one year? 

While I won’t get into all of the details, the highlights have included the Farm To Fork crowd-funding campaign and launch, numerous talks – both invited and contributed – on things ranging from community engaged scholarship, to pedagogy, to statistics, to public health, and to social media. I’ve been interviewed several times, and I’ve written for other blogs. I’ve watched as the Farm To Fork project has grown from a simple idea to an amazing tool to fight food insecurity. And I also received a teaching award – which sits proudly in my office.

Amazing detail. An Ardbeg
Amazing detail. An Ardbeg “garnish” for my cake.

But the thing that I find myself dwelling on – the thing that makes me the most happy – is something that really has, in my opinion, little to do with me. The thing that makes me smile the most has been watching the success of the students that I’ve been so fortunate to work with over the past 20 months. These men and women are amazing, and every day that I get to spend with them I find myself loving my job even more, smiling a little bigger, and feeling blessed that I can watch as they become even more incredible people. Their dedication and creativity are inspiring. Their desire to give back, to improve the world, and to help improve the lives of people in our community and abroad, are my armour against the daily onslaught of negativity that the media often presents. I honestly can’t begin to describe the profoundly positive effect they’ve had on my life in such a very short period of time.

This weekend I invited the students – my minions – over for an end of semester celebration. This was to be a thank you from me to them for all of the hard work they’ve put in over the past months; a small gesture to express my gratitude for the opportunity to work with them. Instead, they arrived with one of the best gifts I’ve ever received – one that I won’t soon forget. If you know me, you’ll know that their gift – a sleeping Elliot cake – was perfection, right down to the smallest details. It’s not often that I’m speechless or overwhelmed with emotion, but last night’s thoughtful gift left me in exactly that state.

Starbucks, the Blerch, and greek letters.
Starbucks, the Blerch, and greek letters.

After the minions left and I tidied up, I sat down on the couch, and waited as Elliot went through his routine of pawing at my belly before nuzzling in for his evening snuggles. As I sat there I thought about the night, and the past year, and I once again came to the conclusion that I am one lucky bastard. I smiled to myself, content, happy, and completely overwhelmed with everything.

So a huge thank you to my minions for making last night an amazing night, for constantly putting a smile on my face, for making me laugh, for inspiring me, for challenging me, and for making my job the best job in the world.

To my minions who are graduating this semester – your graduation will be bittersweet. I know that I will be beaming as you walk across the stage to receive your degree, but there will be a small part of me that selfishly won’t want you to be leaving. You are all amazing individuals, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.

So Many Things

The Farm To Fork team - all smiles after the big funding announcement at the Big Show.
The Farm To Fork team – all smiles after the big funding announcement at the Big Show.

I can’t believe the coming week marks the end of classes for the winter 2014 semester. I won’t lie, I’m actually pretty excited to see it come to an end. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a blast this semester, however, it has been far busier than I was initially expecting and I know that I’m definitely ready for a break.

The last two weeks have been particularly busy, but they’ve also been absolutely fantastic for a number of reasons.

On the 17th I was invited to speak to students in the Masters of Public Health program at the University of Guelph. My talk was on social media, and how – in my opinion – it could and probably should be used as a tool for public health. It was great to speak to a new class of students, and especially fun to talk about Twitter, Facebook, and other social media in an academic setting.

Later in the week (Saturday, March 22nd) I got to play judge at CollabNow, an event put on by the Entrepreneurship Society of the University of Guelph. The event brought together business, computer science, and engineering students from both the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo. Student teams were tasked with developing solutions to deal with the expected population growth in the City of Guelph over the next 17 years. Although they were given only about an hour or so to develop a solution, the students came up with some great ideas that were supported with real data.

Corey and Lee-Jay. Still smiling. Still laughing.
Corey and Lee-Jay. Still smiling. Still laughing.

The very next day (Sunday, March 23rd) I joined the Farm To Fork team as we ventured to Kitchener to celebrate the launch of the Farmer’s Kitchen Table website. I was invited to speak at the event – specifically on Farm To Fork and the importance of sufficient sustainable healthy food on every table, especially in the case of tables where food is often absent. While Farm To Fork has garnered attention outside the borders of Guelph (thank you social media and word of mouth), it’s always great to bring the message personally. Thanks again to Anne Marie, founder of the Farmer’s Kitchen Table, for letting us speak at the event.

Tuesday the 25th was one of my busier days. The day began with me helping to host one of Google’s engineers who was invited to the school to talk to the students. Immediately following that I got to watch as several student groups presented the mobile apps they’ve been developing – and holy hell some of them were super cool. After their presentations I had to jet to the River Run Centre to join the rest of the Farm To Fork team for the Big Show. For those not in the know, the Big Show was a showcase for the 52 ideas submitted to the Elevator Project to make Guelph an even better place to live. At the event Farm To Fork was announced as one of the top 15 ideas, and we were also awarded over $10000 in funding. While we knew before the event that we were in the top 15, we were floored when the funding announcement was made. Talk about an amazing way to end a Tuesday!

Speaking at the Farmer's Kitchen Table launch party.
Speaking at the Farmer’s Kitchen Table launch party.

And the Farm To Fork team got together again this weekend (because apparently we can’t get enough of each other). Yesterday we were in Centre Wellington for the Food For Thought event. There, Danny gave a phenomenal talk about what inspires him, and he also introduced the audience to the Farm To Fork project. To say they were excited would be an understatement. And you can only imagine how awesome that left us feeling – especially considering the high we were still on from Tuesday night’s big announcements.

Today the team gathered with some of my other students to spend the day coding our butts off. It was a long day, but a lot of fun, and I think in the end we managed to accomplish a lot. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.

Corey and Danny and the Farm To Fork table - part of the Farmer's Kitchen Table launch event.
Corey and Danny and the Farm To Fork table – part of the Farmer’s Kitchen Table launch event.

Despite the crazy schedule, the last two weeks have been fantastic. And as tired as I am, the feedback and support that Farm To Fork has been shown has reinvigorated me; it’s reminded me of how far we’ve come, where we are, and what still needs to be done. And I know we can do it.

Fortunately, I’ve got an amazing group of people working with me, and an equally amazing group of friends supporting me. Thanks to everyone for keeping me (relatively) sane. I promise I will get some sleep – soon.

Untitled II

I’ve spent the last few days feeling rather low, confused, angry, and so many other things because of the act of one or more ignorant cowards. Whatever his/her/their intention, I’ve found myself feeling apprehensive; carefully monitoring myself lest I say or do something I presumably shouldn’t, or worrying that in some unknown way I’m going to bring about the interest of someone I clearly don’t want around me.

I woke up today thinking that I wouldn’t let this person or group get to me. I would move past it like I have so many times before. But this is easier said than done.

When I got to the office I found my stomach in knots as I approached the mailroom. This scenario repeated itself today when I checked the mail at home, my mind immediately dreading what I might find. And I realized while running tonight that I was far more tense than I should have been; jumping at any noise that in previous weeks and months wouldn’t have garnered so much as a second glance.

This might seem like an extreme response to a letter I received in the mail. I won’t lie – I think it is too. But it’s a response that has been sadly etched into my psyche one word, one abusive taunt, one threat, one physical attack at a time. I’m not writing this for pity or sympathy; while all of these are things that I’d not wish on even my worst enemy, they have in ways – for better or worse – shaped me into the man I am today. They are my reality.

But I know this behaviour isn’t me. At least, it’s not the me that I want to be. It’s the me that someone else wants. And unfortunately for them I can’t – I won’t – subscribe to their vision of my life.

For those of you who know me well, you’ll know that I don’t get this upset easily. I’m a rather easy-going person; I try to laugh at my fears and face them head on; I try to enjoy life to the fullest because this world truly is an amazing place. And it can be even better if we really want it to be. We – I – have to remember that those that would try to bring us down are few, those who would work to make the world better are many.

Fortunately, I know that this checking over my shoulder behaviour isn’t going to last. I won’t allow it. Because I won’t allow some person or group to have that kind of control over my life. Yes, they may surprise me from time to time, they may sneak up on me when I’m least expecting it, but I know that I am far stronger than anything they can throw at me.

I also have something that they likely don’t; an amazing group of friends who have sent me support, and love, and so many kind words over the last few days. Countless emails, and texts, and Facebook messages, and tweets, and phone calls from people – some whom I haven’t talked to in far too long – sending me their support, and words of encouragement, and everything that makes me know that I’m not alone in this fight.

So to all of you amazing people – thank you for checking in on me; thank you for the extra tight hugs; thank you for letting me vent; thank you for taking me out for pie; thank you for playing the I’m not your mom, but I’m still a mom and I want to make sure you’re okay card; thank you, thank you, thank you.

The last few days have been long and, for someone who is normally up, quite low. But I know they won’t be this way for long. How could they be with this many people cheering me on?

Untitled

This post will likely end up darker than most of what I’ve written previously. For those who came here expecting my usual fare, I apologize. I should also apologize in advance because I’m likely going to drop the f-bomb. Trust me, each and every one is in my opinion warranted. Mom, you may not want to read any further.


I’ve been struggling over the last 24 hours about how I wanted to address something that happened yesterday. In fact, I have been torn about whether or not I should write about it at all. But, given that this blog is often an outlet that helps me sort through the comings and goings of life, I’ve realized that if I don’t write something I’m going to pretty much drive myself insane.

When I arrived on campus yesterday I opted to check my on-campus mail – an entirely unremarkable and typically uneventful habit that usually has me finding the odd memo, but more often empty space. Yesterday I smiled as I saw what I assumed was a much delayed Christmas card – a small envelope decorated with a peace dove; a small berry laden branch in its beak.

The envelope was addressed to me – appropriate title, full name, and including my middle initial. However, it was also addressed to an office that I haven’t had since 2010, so the original office information was scratched out and updated accordingly by the fine folks from Math & Stats who would have handled the mail.  There was no return address, and after reading the contents I would scan the envelope again to identify that the Canadian stamp hadn’t been post-marked by Canada Post. That is, the letter was hand delivered to campus.

I returned to my office, settled in, and happily opened the envelope. Inside I found a tattered and stained pamphlet. There was no note; zero indication of who sent it to me. It was just a pamphlet.

Without getting into the details, I scanned the pamphlet and immediately felt my stomach knot, and my heart rate jump. I was instantly overwhelmed with a feeling of dread, of unease, and of maliciousness. My mind raced to plausible alternatives, and the best I could come up with was that someone I knew found this pamphlet, thought I might find it hilarious, and decided to send it to me. There’s a huge part of me that hopes that is the case.

But, I reasoned, why no return address? Why no note reading Dan, read this bullshit. Can you believe people are like this? If this were a joke, wouldn’t the punchline be obvious. Wouldn’t my reaction be this is hilarious?

Instead I kept returning to the pamphlet and the words within; words like blasphemy and heresy and anti-Christ. I’d like to say this is the first time I’ve received something like this. I’d like to say that it doesn’t bother me. And I’d like to think that I won’t ever receive something like it again. But I can’t honestly say any of those things, because history – my personal history – has taught me that I would be foolish to think such things.

To be honest, it has been a very long time since something like this has disrupted my life. It’s been many years since I felt like my feet have been swept from beneath me; like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me; like the world in which I live is a dark and scary place – full of threats and fear. And I loathe this. I loathe these feelings so much because I would rather choose to live in the light, to believe that we all have something amazing to offer this world.

So to whomever sent me that note – fuck you. Fuck you for spreading darkness and fear. Fuck you for trying to intimidate me. Fuck you for being a coward. Fuck you for thinking that your vitriol would change me. You may have hit me when I wasn’t expecting it but I’m not so easily defeated. I know who I am and I know I will come out of this the better man – because I have been through much worse than your pathetic attempt to bring me down.

To the family and friends whom I’ve chatted with about this, thank you for your support, thank you for your concern, and thank you for just being amazing. While I’m likely going to be out of sorts for a day or two, know that you are the beacon that will keep me on course.

To anyone out there who has to deal with bullying, or harassment, or homophobia, or sexism, or any of the many other horrible things we do to each other, stay strong, focus on the helpers, and know that you are stronger than those who would choose to make you feel small.

Happy Goofiversary

63.3 km later, enjoying our shiny new bling.
63.3 km later, enjoying our shiny new bling.

It’s amazing to think that this weekend, last year, I would have found myself in the Sunshine State of Florida running 63.3 km over a roughly 29 hour period.

Honestly, it seems like a lifetime ago that I laced up with Mark to run the first of two epic runs through the parks of Disney World. The first being the Donald Duck Half Marathon, the second being the Mickey Mouse Full Marathon. It was an amazing adventure, and one that I don’t think I could have done without Mark by my side. He kept me focused and motivated, and encouraged me when I needed it the most.

Now a year later, I find myself looking back and thinking to myself How the hell did I manage to do that? I’m not asking this because I don’t think I could do it again – I know I could, and I will. I mainly ask because I’m back at the starting gate: learning to run long distances, conditioning my body in the way that it needs to be to accomplish such feats of craziness, and building my strength to take on new challenges (in this case, the Toronto GoodLife Marathon, and the Niagara 50km Ultra Marathon).

Some days, looking back and seeing where I was compared to where I am now is a bit daunting. After my ankle injury and the running break that it required, my current challenges seem so out of my realm of reality. They represent long arduous kilometres into the future. They’re the peak of a mountain that I’ve only just begun to climb.

But I will climb that mountain. It’s not going to be easy, and I know there will be days where I will curse myself for deciding to take on crazy new adventures, but those will pale in comparison to the feeling of reaching the summit, breathing in the accomplishments, and reflecting on those moments that brought me to my goal.

If the Goofy Challenge taught me anything, it’s that I can do whatever it is I set my mind to. I know this because through all of my training, all of my moments of doubt, and even during the race, I had so many amazing people cheering me on, pushing me forward, and leading me to the finish line. And more than that, I had an amazing friend to experience the thrill, exhilaration, and feelings of holy eff we just ran 63.3 km with.

So thank you to everyone who has supported me on my silly little adventures. But most importantly, thank you to Mark – for running by my side for 63.3km, for encouraging me, and for being the amazing man you are. The world needs more crazy people like you.