Monday, November 19, 2012

A NOVEMBER GIRLFRIEND RIDE

There are many different kinds of bike rides.   There are solo rides for contemplation and renewal.  There are club rides with route sheets and a destination.  There are multiple day rides where your luggage is carried in a SAG vehicle, and you ride from inn to inn.  There are fundraiser rides for a notable cause that offer good food and excellent road support.  There are slower rides on flat terrain when you are just getting back in shape, and harder rides with hill repeats that aim to make you stronger.   I love them all, but especially when I do them with my girlfriends.  

   
Catching the 8:09 train



So last week I asked some of my girlfriends to join me on what I would describe as a ride that nurtured my soul and lightened my heart.   With our bicycles in tow, one girlfriend and I boarded the 8:09 train to San Francisco where we met two other friends who were saving us seats in the bike car.   They are much more savvy about taking their bikes on public transportation than I am, but this is my third or fourth time on the train, so I'm getting the hang of it finally. 
Bike Geek


The dedicated bike car was filled with an assortment of bikes -- road bikes, mountain bikes, recumbents and folding --  some caked in mud and others clean as a whistle.    I love being among young commuters, especially the techie types who roll on with their bikes  and plug in their electronic toys for a solitary commute.  An hour later the four of us arrived in the city and disembarked the train at Fourth and Townsend and headed out to the street to begin our ride.


It takes a focused rider to navigate the busy city streets, especially at rush hour when everyone is in a hurry and moving quickly in various directions.  There are drivers anxious to get through the yellow light before it turns red, and jaywalkers running to catch the bus.   As a cyclist it's important to keep your wits about you, look in all directions before crossing the street, and avoid tire-puncturing debris and nasty potholes that jar my fragile neck.    City noise drowned out my friend's voice as she called out directions from the front, so I followed the others and took up the rear.

Another good friend, who lives in Marin County, brought her bike over on the Larkspur Ferry and was waiting for us at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero where we stopped for coffee and looked at the map to see how we were going to ride to the Golden Gate Bridge.  
My Girlfriends

Loaded with sufficient caffeine, we headed north along the waterfront and tried to avoid the construction in preparation for the 2013 America's Cup.   Just past Fisherman's Wharf and after Aquatic Park, I shifted into low gear and pedaled slowly up a steep grade that eventually led us down to Fort Mason and along the Marina Green.




I'm always struck by how much detail one can observe while riding a bike that you don't see from a car.   Although I've driven by this spot many  times,  this was the first time I saw the Marina  Green Fitness Court,  an outdoor exercise platform where people were doing workouts normally reserved for an indoor gym.   


Along Chrissy Field, we came across a "baby brigade" with a dozen carriage-pushing mommies jogging toward us on the paved path. I couldn't get my camera out fast enough to take a picture, but instead shouted out, "You go, girls" at the top of my lungs and one of them shouted, "You go, girls," back at us.  We probably wouldn't have seen this maternal parade if we had been riding in a car.



At photo op at the Warming Hut






Golden Gate Bridge on a perfect day

A potty stop and a photo-op were well timed at the Warming Hut which has a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Owned and operated by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, this cafe and bookstore provides hot drinks and baked goods for joggers, walkers, 




 bikers, and wind surfers, as well as books for people who want to know more about the ecology of the area.










Note directional signs on the walkway
Riding your bike across the Golden Gate Bridge is very exciting and a lot of fun, especially when you have perfect conditions like we had -- a bright blue sky,  only a little wind, very few pedestrians, and almost no tourists on rental bikes.   Collisions between walkers and cyclists have been known to happen, so the Bridge Authority has painted signs on the sidewalk designating where pedestrians are supposed to walk and cyclists are supposed to ride. 



No explanation needed

Another sign on the bridge really shocked me.  Since1937 when the bridge opened, approximately 1500 people have jumped to their deaths.  In an effort to reduce the number of tragedies, the Golden Gate Bridge Authority has put up signs along the walkway aimed at desperate individuals who think suicide is the only solution.



After navigating steep Alexander Avenue, we rode into the waterfront town of Sausalito with spectacular views of San Francisco across the bay.  Here again, biking enables you to observe little things, like small but highly visible signs in every block,  each written in a different language -- French, Italian, Spanish and German --  asking  people to use receptacles for disposing litter.     





snowy egret in the Marin marsh
My bike computer said we had ridden about15 miles when we left the main road and shifted to bike paths and trails that were just beginning to dry out from a high tide.   We stopped on a small wooden bridge and saw some rowers on one side and a snowy egret feeding in a tidal marsh on the other.



A tidal inlet off San Francisco Bay





The Blue & Gold Fleet
We rode another ten miles into Tiburon where we had lunch outside and marveled at how lucky we were to have such beautiful day for a November excursion.    With the ferry terminal right in town, we checked the schedule for our return to San Francisco, and then said goodbye to our Marin friend who had ten more miles to bike home.   

As a qualifying senior I paid $6.25 for a one-way ferry ticket to San Francisco via Angel Island where we picked up a bunch of noisy seventh graders returning from a field trip, and via Sausalito where a dozen or so tourists boarded with their rental bikes.  We were sure glad we didn't see them when we were riding on the bridge.  


A view of San Francisco from the Tiburon Ferry


When we docked at Fisherman's Wharf around 3:30 pm,  the sun was pretty low in the sky and traffic was coming at us again from all directions,  but I felt relaxed and calm knowing what to expect.   We hopped on our bikes and rode a couple of miles in heavy traffic to the station where we boarded the 4:19 train heading south.    

What a wonderful adventure (27 miles and 950 ft. of cumulative climbing), perfected by outstanding weather, beautiful scenery, and, of course, my girlfriends who made this a very special day.  








Tuesday, November 13, 2012

SNORKELING WITH WHALE SHARKS




"Hey, Pami," Bruce called out to me as he was leafing through a Wilderness Travel brochure about a trip to the Philippines, "What do you think of this?"  He continued reading out loud.  "Pristine beaches, soaring limestone cliffs, miles of spectacular coral reefs and opportunities to swim with whale sharks."     Whale sharks?"  I questioned.  "Won't that be dangerous?"   The first part of the trip's description brought back vivid memories of beautiful white sandy beaches when we visited the Maldives, and I won't forget the jaw-dropping sunsets from sailing in  the Caribbean.  However,  swimming with whale sharks was another step closer to the edge, which was happening more often with adventure trips to tribal Ethiopia, exotic Papua New Guinea, and the endangered Arctic in the not too distant past.   After realizing that this could be a very special trip,  I said,  "O.K. I'll be a good sport and take another look."    

Six months later we packed a few clothes, our wetsuits, fins, snorkels and masks, and with seven adventure-seeking friends, we flew to the Philippines to spend two weeks in Palawan,  a stunning archipelago in the heart of the Indo-Pacific Coral Triangle, which is the most biologically diverse marine region in the world.   

The Philippines (Palawan is in the lower left quadrant above Malaysia)


After a rest day in Manila, we flew to Luzon Island to visit the fishing village of Donsol, which is often called the "Whale Shark Capital of the World" since it has the largest number of recorded sightings of whale sharks anywhere on our planet.  Known locally as buntanding, whale sharks are the world's largest living fish, and while they are rarely seen in groups, they come to the Bay of Donsol in the spring and congregate in the shallow coastal waters to feed on plankton.


Pam and Bruce all suited up


Spotting for Whale Sharks

Swimming with whale sharks is definitely a unique experience of a lifetime, but I admit that initially I was not sure I'd have the courage to do it.   Snorkeling with playful sea lions in the Galapagos sounded intimidating too, but after a few minutes in the water,   I became so involved with them that whatever fear I had seemed quickly to disappear.   The whale shark expedition was similar in that once I jumped in the water, there was no fear , but this experience was different because it required good swimming skills to keep up with the fast moving whale sharks, and a strong body to pull oneself back in the banca (Filipino outrigger) many times in the course of the day.  

Banca Boat

Our local Filipino guide gave us minimal instructions:  "Sit on the edge of the banca, so when we spot whale sharks, you can jump right in and we will guide you to them.  Don't worry.  We call them gentle giants.  They won't even know you are in the water.   They are here to feed on plankton, not on you."  





Waiting to hear "Let's Go"

We perched ourselves on the side of the boat with our masks tight to our faces, snorkels in our mouths and legs dangling off the side.   We waited for the guide's verbal signal.  After a few minutes and without any warning,  one of the guides hollered "Let's Go."   Without wasting a second, we bolted into the water, flailing our arms and legs, not knowing exactly what to do or where to swim.  I felt one of the guides grab my arm and pull me through the water.  I moved my legs as fast as I could, and suddenly there was a huge whale shark coming straight toward me.   She was  really big, about 35-40 feet long.  Within seconds I was swimming right above her head.  



I could see her beady eyes located on the sides of her head, and her very large oval-shaped mouth was open,  so she could scoop up the plankton as she swam.  I started swimming very fast, in order to stay with her.   My excitement measured off the charts.  My heart felt like it was beating out of my chest, and I was very winded, but I wasn't scared.  I  kicked my legs as hard as I could until I was over her dorsal fin and within a minute she was gone.  It was over.  A much faster swimmer than I,  she disappeared beneath me. 






Three of us popped our heads out of the water, removed our  snorkels and yelled  "Did you see her?  Did you see her?" as if any of us could have missed her.  I reached for the boat's rope ladder, took off my fins and struggled to pull myself up into the Banca.   Everyone was "high fiving" each other and anxious to get back in the water.  

While the boat quietly motored to another part of the bay, we renewed our positions on the boat's edge and waited for the signal that more whale sharks were in our vicinity. For the next few hours we were in and out of the water at least four or five times.  The procedure was the same.  We would dangle our legs over the edge  and wait for the call  before we jumped in.  Soon we were in the water following whale sharks again.  I only saw one at a time, but was close enough to observe their grace and the beauty of their dark gray bodies with white checkerboard spots.  We never felt nervous or scared -- only the exhilaration and thrill of a once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with the largest fish in the ocean, whale sharks.  



All photos by our masterful guide, Lee Goldman









Sunday, November 4, 2012

NOSTALGIA




My year book picture 1961
A few months ago while rummaging through some boxes labeled "Pam's mementos",  I came across a tattered address book that dated back to my life in the 1960s and 70s, when I was marrying my first husband,  moving out West for graduate school,  making new friends in California and staying in touch with old ones in New England.






My bridal attendants in 1963


Flipping through the dog-eared pages and reading the faded names I had written in pencil brought back warm memories of a very different life I once lived.   One name jumped out at me from the page.  It was a guy named Russ whom I'd been friends with more than fifty years ago, but after my divorce in the early 80s, we completely lost touch.  He had been a high school buddy of my ex-husband,  and I guess I figured he would take sides after we split up.   I began to think about all the fun times we'd had as teenagers in the 60s,  and suddenly I found myself missing him and the times back then when we were both goof offs trying to act grown up.   He worked construction in the summer and skied his ass off on Canon Mountain in the winter. 




Dayton's photo of White Mountains of New Hampshire
With nostalgia welling up inside me and feeling homesick for a life long past, I decided to see if I could locate Russ on Facebook.  My search was daunting.  There were so many people who had his same name.  Eventually I found his smiling face, and although he didn't have the same hair line I remembered, I was pretty sure it was him.  I took a leap of faith, clicked the "Friend" button and waited to see what would happen.   In a couple of hours he friended me back, astonished as much as I was to reconnect after all this time.  He was still married to wife number one and skiing like a mad man in the winter.  He would post status reports on Facebook from time to time, and people would make comments but not from anyone I knew.  Then someone with an unusual name I recognized made a comment.  I was pretty sure Dayton was the same fellow from the small mill town where my ex-husband grew up, and although I barely knew him back then, I sent a private message on Facebook that said, "Hey, do you remember me?"  The answer I got back was "Heck, yes," and that brief exchange was how I began to reconnect with my youth and my friends from my New Hampshire past.  


I'm the fourth from the left and Cynthia is second from the right
Dayton was living on Partridge Lake where I used to swim and waterski as a kid.  He had hiked all the White Mountain peaks and posted photos on Facebook of the Presidential Range.   He sent me the email address of a girl I used to pal around with, and soon Cynthia and I were emailing about life since junior high.   I was surprised I could still remember her parents' first names -- Percy and Edna.  Percy owned a brush handle factory just up the road from Perkins Motel where I lived.  In a two-hour phone call, Cynthia told me how she fell in love with one of her high school teachers, and after raising a bunch of kids, went back to college and now loves history and genealogy.  





Janet's yearbook photo 1961
 Cynthia reconnected me with Janet who had been my best friend from eighth grade all the way through high school and college.  We were inseparable.  An early memory that stays in my head is of the two of us lying on her bed listening to Marty Robbins sing  A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation and talking about boys in our class we had crushes on.   I'll never forget eating peanut butter and Velveeta cheese sandwiches and reading the juicy parts of  "Peyton Place" out loud to each other.   She talked me through a doomed relationship and helped me recover when I found out he was engaged to someone else.   I wiped her tears when a boy she always hoped to marry broke up with her.   She was a bridesmaid in my wedding.   Sadly,  we didn't see much of each other after that.  

 How do best friends lose touch with each other?  After I got married and I moved far away, she got married and moved away too, so we were no longer living in the same town.    Maybe we became so absorbed in our new lives that we forgot to look back.  Or maybe after we married, we made new couple friends and our old classmates got lost in transition and were left behind.     It seems to me that it wasn't easy to maintain long distance relationships back then.  We didn't have email or Facebook,  and the only phone calls we could afford were the obligatory calls to our parents.    I guess it really doesn't matter why we lost touch.  What really matters is that we have reconnected again.  

 I have read Janet's recent email three or four times and each read takes me back to a different time in my teens.    It is 1959.  She is trying to convince her older brother into driving us to Forest Lake Casino, a somewhat trashy dance hall where there was more drinking and making out in the backseat of cars than dancing under the stars.  "Bucky, please take us with you," she pleads,  but he had no interest in chauffeuring his little sister or her best friend even though he and I were flirting like crazy.  

In Janet's email she painstakingly detailed aspects of her life for the last fifty years -- a life different from mine but yet there are many similarities.  Like me she became single but not by choice.  She has children.  I have none.  We each struggled living by ourselves, but both found the love of our lives as a result.  She too has traveled the world and sees more adventure in her future as long as she is physically able.   Like me she is proud of her successful career and her ability to be financially independent.  Her love of reading fiction probably means she enjoys the same novels I do.    

The emotions that all of these memories have aroused in me underscores how important my childhood friends still are, and that I have strong bonds with them even though we haven't seen each other in more than fifty years.   For someone who never had children, I cherish and love my friends who are as precious to me as my family.