Monday, May 28, 2012

Anniversary cruise travelogue

To celebrate our 32nd anniversary, Susie and I went on a Mediterranean cruise. This blog entry is my attempt to give a bit of a flavor for our trip. I apologize for how long it took me to write this entry, but it took some work to distill a week and almost 1,500 photos down to something anyone might be willing to read! I am trying to figure out the best place to put the photos (under 200 now) given that my preferred photo place (Kodak Gallery) is shutting down soon. 

We flew to Rome on Friday (May 11) and arrived on Saturday. As we had been to Rome before, our main goal was not to see anything in particular, but rather to try and stay awake until at least 9:00pm to get acclimated to the time zone (off by six hours). Our hotel (La Griffe) was in the middle of everything, so we spent much of the day walking to typical sights like the Trevi Fountain (which was mobbed and looked sort of like a mosh pit with some stone horses and water in the middle). We saw lots of churches and fountains as well as mobs of people including some dressed as Roman soldiers and others painted silver like statues. At the Coliseum we encountered a parade of communist protestors. They were doing lots of chanting and singing of slogans in Italian. It added a bit of festivity to our walk around the building.

On Sunday we attended an Episcopal church with services in English right near our hotel. The church, of course, was beautiful and was probably older than anything in our area. We then took a shuttle to our cruise ship. We managed to get on to the ship fairly uneventfully. I had hoped to get a table for two for dinner, but that did not happen. As I feared, we had to meet people. As I never would have guessed, we got along very well with the couple (Donna and Mark). We enjoyed spending dinner with them every night as well as doing a number of things on board the ship. As is often the case, I was wrong! They taught us a song to sing when that happens. The third couple (from Budapest) showed up one evening, but never again. I think they decided to not join our tight-knit foursome.

The first stop was on Monday in Messina, Sicily. I confess that my European geography is fairly weak. I did not realize that the distance from Sicily to Italy was only three miles. We took a tour that went to Mount Aetna, an active volcano. There was no molten lava to see, but as the bus went up the mountain, more and more of it was black from previous eruptions. The tour guide would say things like, “Over there is where the 2002 eruption happened and right up ahead is the end of the lava flow from 1998.” It was all rather surreal and hard to comprehend what it would be like to live in the shadow of a volcano. We also visited a beautiful sea coast town, Taormina. We walked down its main street, looked down or up the many quaint side streets, stepped into a number of churches, and enjoyed a bite to eat at an outdoor cafĂ© while watching people walk by. It was a wonderful day.

We spent Tuesday at sea. That meant we read, Susie climbed the rock wall, we went shopping, and I played in a volleyball tournament. In the evening we dressed up for one of the formal dinners. It was a nice relaxing day that let us get some much needed rest.
On Wednesday we docked near Ephesus, Turkey. For me, I think that stop was the highlight of the trip. The ruins at Ephesus were amazing. Not amazing in the way that the Coliseum is. The Coliseum is imposing enough that you come away wondering how was it possible that people could build something that big almost 2,000 years ago. But, the Coliseum is in the middle of a large city and it is hard to picture what it must have been like in its day.  Instead, Ephesus consists only of ruins and has enough intact or restored buildings that you can get a general sense what it was like. We walked past the bazaar, strolled down the crowded main street, walked into the library, viewed what the tour guide described as the gentlemen’s club, and saw the 24,000-seat arena. As the picture shows, none of the buildings was intact, but it gave a real sense of what it would have been like when Paul was there. We also visited a place where Jesus’ mother Mary supposedly lived for a few years, the ruins of a church where the Apostle John is purported to be buried, and a demonstration of Turkish rug making. 

On Thursday, our 32nd anniversary, we visited Athens, Greece. We had been there 28 years ago when Becky was two years old and Susie was pregnant with Nathan. One of my favorite memories of that visit was Becky sitting amongst small pieces of the stone from Parthenon saying, “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!” Back in the present, we took a tour that went to the Acropolis and some other sites in the city. The Acropolis was the obvious highlight. The somewhat intact buildings there, including the Parthenon, make a real impact. The impressive structures were largely built around 2,500 years ago. Much of the site, however, is being worked on to try and restore it. Part of that means taking down earlier (incorrect) attempts to reconstruct the buildings. There is scaffolding on many of the buildings which detracts a bit. Regardless, the buildings are quite amazing. As we were visiting, the Olympic torch was there--about to begin its journey to London for the games later this summer. While leaving the Acropolis, we somehow lost our tour group. After a few anxious moments, we were able to find another tour group from our ship and finished up with them (and their much better tour guide). Back on the ship, we had a great dinner including an anniversary surprise arranged by our new friends. 

Friday we visited Chania, Crete. The tour we took in Crete visited a cemetery of the over 3,500 soldiers (largely British) that died attempting to repel the German invasion of the island during World War II. The cemetery was beautiful with rows of gravestones, beautiful flowers, and the harbor in the background. As is often the case, it made me appreciate yet again the sacrifices that so many have made. It was very humbling. We also visited a monastery run by five monks. It was not very old and was overrun by cats, supposedly 54 of them. It seemed that everywhere we went we would hear the mewling of kittens and find them hiding behind some flowers. The tour guide described to us the history of Crete from when its Minoan civilization was Europe’s first advanced one. From there, she went through all of the empires that ruled over Crete for at least 100 years. It was an impressive list of pretty much every major power in the Mediterranean over the last four millennia. The few years of German occupation didn’t make the list. We also visited the town of Chania and enjoyed walking through its market.

Saturday was another day at sea, a day to relax, play volleyball, read, and generally take it easy. I rode a stationary bike on the ship with my Garmin and recorded my favorite “ride.” Stationary indeed!  I averaged over 23 miles per hour as we passed by the island of Stromboli

Sunday, we flew home. Between the cruise and the flights, I was able to finish four books (1491, The Ascent of Money, Imagine, and Almost Amish). All in all, it was a wonderful trip. I have to admit, however, that I was pretty tired by the time we got home!  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Two to the fifth years of marriage

May 17th is Susie’s and my two to the fifth (32nd) anniversary. That both seems like an eternity and a twinkling ago. At one level, I can barely remember not being married.  On another, it seems like just a mere moments ago that I walked down the aisle with my beautiful new bride. 

This picture pretty much sums up that day for me.  I am not very good at smiling in pictures. Sometimes, I seem to have a snarl or sneer for an expression. At others, I have some odd facial contortion that I think is me trying to make a smile, but failing miserably. In this picture, however, my smile is genuine.  And, big! I realized that I had just gotten away with it—a socially inept computer nerd (before that was all the rage) had managed to marry the most gorgeous and intelligent woman he had ever met. Whatever my flaws, I had chosen wisely—thirty-two years later she is still the most gorgeous and intelligent woman I have ever met.

I remember odd things from our wedding day. I remember playing tennis that morning with Susie’s brother, Tim. (For which she has still not quite forgiven me.) I remember how beautiful Susie’s smile was. I remember Susie’s granddad’s short sermon on the submissive role of the wife in front of a bunch of Columbia/Barnard women who did not disagree because he was so sweet while saying it. I remember our friends the Grizzles trying to sneak away from the wedding reception so there would be enough seats for folks who had shown up without sending RSVPs. I remember the bowl of flowers that was too large to sit on top of the wedding cake. I remember finding rice in all sorts of places that night. 

For all that the time has gone by so quickly, marriage is not always easy. Fortunately, both Susie and I are committed to it. We view love as something one does, not just feels. I believe that Susie is worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for. My job is to make her dreams come true. Sure, that is sappy, but I believe it and try to work toward that end.

As this picture from our vacation to Jamaica last year shows, when I’m with Susie, I still have the smile of a man who knows he has gotten away with something. Gotten away with having a wonderful life with a gorgeous and intelligent woman worth fighting for. I’m looking forward to the years leading up to our two to the sixth anniversary!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

3 State 3 Mountains Challenge

I’ve mentioned my love/obsession with cycling before in my blog. I also enjoy being able to set new goals and challenges for myself. On Saturday my cycling buddy (John) and I went to Chattanooga to ride in the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge. The ride is a fairly large 100-mile long bike ride that, as the name states, covers three mountains (Aetna Mountain, Sand Mountain, and Lookout Mountain) in three states (Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia). My guess is that there were at least 500 cyclists participating. It was a very well organized ride with rest stops along the way (at 24, 53, 82, and 85 miles). Those rest stops are essential as they provide an opportunity to get some food and water. On a long ride like this one, it is important to get in enough simple carbs (sugar) to keep up with the amount you burn while riding. 

Part of the challenge of the ride was just getting there as it was in Chattanooga which is a bit over seven hours from where we live in Raleigh. In the space of 36 hours, we drove almost 900 miles and pedaled 100. Suffice to say, I’m fairly tired and cannot vouch for the contents of this blog entry! 

As always, I used my Garmin Edge 500 to gather an extensive array of data from my ride. If you look at that page, you can see a lot of information. On the upper right is a map of the ride. The Edge 500 includes a GPS which is constantly monitoring its location. When I upload that data to the Garmin Web site, it can draw the route on the map based on those data points. The Edge 500 uses a wireless protocol (ANT+) to communicate with a heart-rate monitor I wear around my chest, a detector on my rear wheel that also measures speed in case the GPS has trouble contacting the satellites, and a detector on my pedal that measures how fast I’m pedaling (cadence). Down the left side of the page is a bunch of summary information. Beneath the map you can see graphs of my speed, elevation, heart rate, cadence, and the temperature. If you click on the "Player" button above the map, you can replay the ride and watch my heart rate go up (and my speed go down) as I climb the three mountains. 

There are a few interesting things in the data I’ll point out to give you an better idea what the ride was like. The maximum speed of 97.6 mph is just plain wrong. For some reason, the Edge 500 occasionally gets spurious readings. My maximum speed was in the low- to mid-40s. It took a lot of braking on the downhill sections to keep it that slow. In fact my hands got sore from braking. You can’t brake continuously lest the wheels lock up or the brakes overheat. So, you have to do things like braking for two seconds followed by coasting for two seconds. The downhill sections on a ride like this can be harrowing and an amazing adrenaline rush. At one point the ride organizers painted on the street, “Slow Caution Dangerous Curve.” That was enough to make me brake a bit harder. The set of ambulances on the hairpin turn waiting for someone to not take the warning seriously made me brake even harder still. 

If you look at the temperature plot, you can see that it got fairly hot at a few points on the ride. Sadly, one of those points was on the toughest hill, Lookout Mountain. There was little shade on that hill and after 85 miles of riding, it was especially hard. (Once I climbed it, the need for rest stops 3 miles apart—at the top and bottom of the hill—became apparent!) If you look carefully at my speed at about 5 hours and 15 minutes into the ride, you will see that it drops to under 3 mph. At that point, the grade was 18% and I could no longer pedal. I had to get off and walk for the final .3 miles of the hill. Lots of folks were walking. Behind me I heard someone fall down and saw them lying on the ground. Apparently, the bike was going so slowly that the person tipped over. 

As the slow speeds show, the final 15 miles after that point were fairly miserable. I was totally exhausted. John was a good friend and rode those miles with me. We got showers, ate some mediocre lasagna, and drove 7.5 hours home. I arrived home exhausted, but feeling good. 

The obvious question is, why do I do this? Even a couple of good friends that I cycle with called me crazy when I showed them the data from the ride. Why I cycle is a different question and I discussed that in my previous cycling blog post. Why do I push to do hard rides like this one when from most perspectives it is not fun? I don’t have a simple answer. Maybe I like having cycling friends think I’m crazy. More importantly, I think it something about setting tough but possible goals and accomplishing them (or at least getting within .3 miles of accomplishing them). If there is no risk of failure, then what is the challenge? I don’t really know for sure. But, I’m looking for the next challenge. Maybe the Mountains to Coast ride across NC in the Fall?