December 10, 2005

MotoLiam tackles the Snow, with Nacho!

This week was important for a couple reasons. First off, there are two national holidays in the middle of the week, Tuesday and Thursday. This means that many people took a couple days off and travelled all week! Secondly, since I wasn't getting many work-related responses before this week, I knew for sure I wasn't getting squat this week either. I had just celebrated my birthday and getting out of the city sounded like the perfect thing to do. Nacho had called me and said he was spending the week in the Pyrenees, and that if I could, I should make a trip out there and check out the mountains. Growing up in Hawaii, I have never been very fond of the cold. In fact, for all the time I spent in the Bay Area, I have only been to Lake Tahoe once -- by bus, and that was in early 1995! The majority of my cold weather experience came from driving my little truck to Reno, Nevada, once a year to race the Regional Arenacross series. . . the A-RENO-Cross! My roomate, Mario, wanted to tag along, so I agreed to pay for all the tolls we would incur by driving (his car, naturally). We packed up the car late Monday afternoon, and by 6 we were headed out of Barcelona! The sun was setting and we had a long way to go. A couple Cokes and a bag of Cheeto's and we were on our way! If you ever get the chance to buy Cheeto's in Europe, don't bother. They are horrible; super puffy and the flavoring is way off.

See the rest of this Amazing Trip in the extended entry!

I hadn't seen Nacho since the Valencia race, and I wanted to touch base with him to discuss some of the teams I had spoken with and some other possibilities I had in mind. The same way I'm into Motorcycle racing, Nacho is into Skiing. He and a couple friends rent an apartment in Baguera for the winter season. The drive took us approximately six hours, and during the drive we went through the town of Lleida, up into the mountains, and finally to Vielha, the largest village in the area we would be staying in. Our car stereo was a tape deck with two three inch speakers, and while this doesn't sound too bad, imagine having only one tape full of warped dance music. I didn't realize there were so many of them (the mountains, that is), and driving such a small car (on 13's!) was difficult. We stopped half way there at a truck stop in the hills before the mountains proper. Mario said that truck stops were the best because the food would be good, but my dinner of grease, ham, and cheese didn't cut it. Still, it was rural enough that the restaurant actually made it's own bread, and it was good! We didn't pass a single car, and our top speed on the straights was 110KMH. Going up? Sometimes we drove for twenty minutes at 40KMH. That's really slow. The snow began to fall as we approached the mountains and between the rain, ice, and snow falling, we had quite an adventure just making it through the mountain passes. Near the top of one of the larger peaks we went through a series of tunnels, 16, to be exact. Most of them were small, maybe between 1/8 and 1/4 mile long. The last one was 5 kilometres long! That's HUGE! I think it's just over 3 miles, and we collected quite a few cars behind us because they weren't allowed to pass in the tunnel. Once we were through the mountains, we crossed several small villages, each with twisty, winding roads, and tried to navigate via cel phone with landmarks, because there weren't road signs or street signs. Plus, we didn't have a map of the area -- they didn't make one! I don't know how we did it, but we managed to find the cathedral in the town of Baguera and attempted to park. It was a sliding contest which gravity won and the little car lost. I ended up pushing for a long time to get the car rotated around and into a spot. Like elsewhere in Spain, there are no parking spaces, just spots where you can be creative. You simply find a place you think your car will be safe, and out of the way enough, and leave it there. I heard some yelling, looked up, and saw Nacho waving from the top floor of this place. He came out in shorts (!) and helped get our things inside the apartment.

The apartment was unbelievable, made of stone and wood. I really like natural wood homes, and combined with the fire place, this place was sure to be warm enough! It was near 0 or -1 degrees celsius when we arrived, and for me, this was dammed cold! I met with Nacho's friends and roomates from Madrid and they were all great people, very friendly and laid back. Alejandro, in particular, was really nice, and he began teaching me how to say "slang" words from Madrid. Instead of saying "That's Cool!" , they say "Sweet!" Except, instead of the literal translation of sweet (dulce), they use the word for little pear. Perdita, I think.

Another example of how the wood beams are structured throughout the place. Very solid. Despite the cold weather, the doors and windows were single pane, and as such there were heaters in every room. Thank goodness!

I really like this shot because it shows the small stairway leading up to the attic level (where most of the bedrooms were). Lots of colorful wood and the chimney goes straight up the middle. I decided to sleep downstairs next to the fireplace, so my (potential) snoring wouldn't shake the house down. The couched fit me just fine and since we had arrived late at night, everyone wanted to go out and party! There was so much snow falling, and the weather forecast indicated the next day would be storming as well. Everyone thought that there would be poor conditions the next day (low visibility, etc) so they decided to show me some of the village nightlife.

First stop? The town of Arties, which is very rustic, but filled with modern conveniences (like hot water and bathrooms!). There's also a Parador hotel there, which I visited later, that was really nice. The Parador series was set up during the Franco era in Spain, when he decided to renovate many historical buildings/castles/forts and make them into luxury hotels. We went to a nice two level bar called La Luna, and I met some more friends, one of who was a girl named Christina Harmon (sp?) who was the Spanish National Champion 3 times for moguls. I joked with Rocio (who also was there from Madrid!) that everyone in Spain seemed to be a champion of some sort. She suggested I adopt some sort of title myself, but when I told her I was the Hawaii State High School Chess Champion she didn't think that would be very cool. Oh well. We went to another place, caught some more drinks (they were flying around pretty fast!) and then headed out to a place called Pacha. It's a world famous dance club with places in unique spots around the world, like Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ibiza, and here in the mountains, on the border between France and Spain! Anytime I see the Cherry symbol I get a little nervous. Just like a big white girl with a Rock-a-billy flair and old-school bangs, you have to be very careful! We danced all night long, I broke up a fight on the dance floor (with my mighty American muscles, haha), and enjoyed ourselves until about 6AM. The little car, which I christened the Trooper, made it back up the hill and we all went inside the house to warm up while Mario parked. I forgot to mention this earlier, but the car's heater didn't work, so it was cold rollin'!

No, it is not another beer! Since it was a long night, and I was worried about wearing myself out too quickly, we whipped up some chicken soup to help battle the elements.

I woke up the next day to a beautiful, snow filled paradise. Seeing all the snow the night before didn't do the place justice, and because we had travelled by night, I didn't realize how many mountains we'd actually driven through. Everyone was moving slowly that morning, and apparently everyone had woken up at 8AM to check the conditions and declared them to be unski-able on the mountain, because there was zero visibility. What to do? I started my day with a hot shower and took this picture from the window above my sofa. It seems like no matter how small a town or village is, there is always a church or cathedral.

Threw the big lense on my Canon and grabbed a shot of the little car, which Mario had parked in a bad spot the night before, haha! I don't know if it was because the snow had covered the no parking signs, or he just wasn't thinking, but the next morning he was pretty upset when he saw that his car had been boxed in by the snowplow. I took a shower while he went to find the snowplow driver to beg for some assistance in rescueing his wheels. Everything worked out in the end because the snowplow driver was from Argentina and Mario was able to use some native expressions to convey his appreciation (one of our other roomates is also from there).

Despite how old these villages are in the mountains (some are several hundred years old!), there is still construction going on. This ski resort area is one of the most expensive in all of Europe, and although the Alps are higher in elevation, Bequeira Beret attracts lots of rich people because of the atmosphere and relative exclusivity. It seemed like everyone but us had a nice Audi Quattro, Range Rover, or BMW or Mercedes SUV. Seriously. Please note the cranes in the background. I walked for a bit to survey the construction of the homes and was disappointed to find that they were building modern style Chateaus. Concrete everywhere and wood framing. So much for mismatched stone walls, which to me look so much better and "fit" better into the feeling of this place.

On my hike over to the new buildings I found this older home. It didn't look any different than the houses nearby, but this sign says it all. 1763. Maybe it was one of the newer homes on the block

After a bit of walking, it was early afternoon, and everyone wanted to go into town for some lunch. We stopped in Arties and had a fantastic meal with salads, Chorizo (YES!), Morcilla (blood sausage), sizzling platters of beef, you name it. I thought after two hours we had had enough, but the food just kept on coming! Since there was no skiing to be done, the only thing to do was "hang out" and have coffee, Pacharan, and good conversation. Pacharan is a spiced liquor that is really good for warming you up. Think cough syrup with some Vick Vaporub, add licorice, herbs and whatnot, and you end up with a reddish pink drink that is really nice. After our three hour lunch, which was considered normal, we headed further down the mountain to Vielha, to sightsee and have coffee and wine at a great little place. Here's a shot of Vielha's church.

I have this thing about running water. I love it! The soothing sounds, the idea that life is always moving, never stagnant. I used to fish from the rocky shores in Hawaii and have been around the water for most of my life. Despite living on the mainland for more than five years I have never gone fishing at a lake. Gross! The thought of trapped water is really depressing and dirty, and I feel bad for the water, since there is so much lost potential just sitting there.

I took this picture because I like the roofline, with all the different portals for heat and smoke to escape. I don't know how Santa is supposed to get down all these little chimneys, but he does! Interesting cultural footnote; in the Catalan Nativity scenes, there are the standard barn animals, the three wise men, baby Jesus with his parents, the normal stuff. But, there's an added person off to one side called Caga Nei (sp?), who is a man squatting on the ground and doing his "business". This is portrayed in every nativity scene and represents the Catalan "down to earth" nature.

We had relaxed almost the entire afternoon, and since the weather looked to be getting better we all decided to have a quiet night in preparation for the next day's activities! We hit the supermercado and bought some pasta and Nacho made an amazing meal with a white sauce and natural bacon and mustard seeds. Damn good, and just what I needed to warm me up and make me sleepy. We woke up early the next morning, grabbed our gear, and headed out to the mountain! One snowboard rental, a pricey lift ticket, two very long lift rides up, and we were almost at the top. Everyone was an accomplished skiier, and I have only had one other day in the snow, back in early '95, so I opted for the snowboard. I thought, hey, I can surf, right? The last time I had tried it the conditions were really bad and everything was hard packed and icey. All I remember about the first time was that I fell and fell, and then fell some more. Still, I wasn't expecting to do well today and was there to hang out and have a good time in the snow. We took a picture to commemorate our first outing together in the snow and then Nacho promptly dropped off the "course" and into wild terrain. I watched him disappear down the mountain and strapped up, anticipating my first snowboard ride down to be in the form of a rapidly enlarging snowball!

The vistas from the mountain were incredible, and I think this was the farthest I've ever been from civilization. Bequeira Beret (also know as Baguera Beret) was deep in the Pyrenees on the France/Spain border. I knew that Hannibal had crossed this mountain range with elephants, on his way to kick some ass in Rome, but I didn't know how big this place really is! I think this is as far from Hawaii as you can get (climatically), and I wonder if anyone else from Hawaii has ever been here.

After a couple trips down the hill I paused for a coke and a candy bar. This coke (which looks like the same size as the US cans but is actually a little smaller) was about $2.65. Another strange thing about the cans here is that they're beefier than the US cans, both stronger and heavier. I always get faked out when I'm drinking from one because it feels like I have a ounce or two still left in the can. I had crashed so many times that this candy bar was in a million frozen pieces. It was still super tasty and provided a small recharge for me so that I was able to go on several different runs later in the day and try to take every lift I could. At this point I was merely surfing the backside of the board and was having difficulty negotiating turns. Tricky stuff! I was having a great time, though, and with the elevation and thin air, I was getting really worked!

Late in the afternoon I was super tired, from all the crashing, hiking around, and excitement. I went to the peak of the mountain and meditated for a while. Here's a shot I took looking towards the people I love in California and Hawaii.

Another shot to the Southeast, to the people I love in Singapore.

Those of you who have been paying attention know that I have been jonesing for a bike for a while now. I've been going crazy without a bike! I mentioned this to my friends when we had lunch on the mountain and they smiled and said we had to hurry home after skiing all day to get ready for a special dinner. Great, I thought, here I am ready to drop dead on my feet from exhaustion, and I have to go drinking again! At 5:30 or so we dropped off the gear, piled back into the SUV's, and motored out! We drove for what seemed like a long time, and I curled up in the back seat and took a nap with my head against the window on a rolled up sweatshirt. When we started off-roading I woke up, and we proceeded to head deep into a valley in the middle of nowhere. Bouncing along, sliding in certain places, our three vehicle caravan finally came to a stop and I have no idea how anyone knew where they were going, since there wasn't a real road around and it was pitch black out. We piled out of the cars and the first thing I saw was this!

There were several Artic Cat two seaters and this Kawi 700cc two stroke beast! We met up with a snowmobile guide and he led us through the controls and how to operate them properly (heh heh heh). Thumb actuacted throttle on the right and left lever for the brakes. Pretty simple stuff. . . . . or so I thought! We formed a line and proceeded to rip through the hills and over little streams into the night. The headlights provided plenty of light and the two stroke power was amazing. I'd never had a hit quite like this before and the traction from the track was awesome. I didn't know you could "wheelie" a snowmobile, but even if the skids never left the ground (super long suspension in the front) you couldn't control it because there wasn't any weight on the front skis. BBrrraapppp! We stopped for a second to drop one of the guys off on the side of the "road" and continued on deeper into the night. Eventually, we came to a full stop in a secluded valley and took some time to look at the moon and the stars, the mountains, and listen to some history about the area and the people that lived there. This area was known as the Muntanya Negra (black mountains, or something like that) and was very dangerous because it was full of wolves and black bears. We were advised to turn off all the lights and not use flashlights because they would attract unwanted attention. Additionally, the lead guy's snowmobile had slipped a track and was out of commision. We rolled it over onto it's side and between myself and two other guys we managed to lever the track back into place. Thank goodness, because I had no idea where the heck I was and I didn't want to go exploring to find out. Funny how you least expect to be working on a "bike" and then here you are in -6 below conditions working in two feet of snow on something you've never even seen before. But we did it!

We had stopped at the base of a famous mountain that separated Spain from France. France! Due to all the switchbacks in the area, I didn't know how many times we technically crossed any borders, but it was really cool knowing that we could just aim north and be in another country in a few minutes, by snowmobile! How's that for international evasion! We continued along for a bit and I had fun waiting way in the back of the line, only to hit it before entering the corners to really get a feel for the machine. Woo-Hoo! After a couple turns I realized I was instinctively counter-steering and ruining my lines a little. I would be hanging off with everything I had and punching it and Sha-Zam, these things would rocket away! Awesome fun, and if I could deal with living in a cold place like this I'd definitely own one of these. We ended up at a small cottage in the trees, which was the home of Jordi Galindo, one of the top ski instructors at the resort and also known at the Yeti of the Mountain. We had met the previous day over lunch and he was really cool, full of warmth and a hearty laugh. We got in the house and tried to warm up next to the only fireplace and I walked around to take some pictures. I was really happy my camera was still working, because I fell down on it a lot while snowboarding, and I still have a huge bruise on my ribs to prove it! These old pieces of wood were hanging around and no one knew what they were for. I assume they're for pelts or making something. Anybody know what these are?

Another shot of the wood things. The house was built by Jordi's grandfather and was well set up. There was a satellite phone and a huge stereo in place and we started to party as we warmed up. We hooked up some home made skiing video's that Jordi and his friends had made and had a great time listening to music, enjoying the drinks, and waiting for dinner! One of the videos was of Sete's cousin and family getting helocopterred to a remote mountain and featured footage of all of them kicking butt and doing tricks. I guess when you're cousin is Gibernau and gramp's owned Bultaco, your family has enough time and money to become good skiiers, much less use a helocopter when you want to go somewhere!

This is Jordi, who was busy cooking all manner of things, from eggs, to sausages, to lamb chops, all kinds of things! The food was prepared over an open fire and was delicious. The courses never stopped! We had homemade Pate, butifara (a spicey sausage), more Morcilla, salads, more stuff than I can remember. Lots of wines and pan con tomate with lots of fresh garlic. The food was the best and everyone had a great time because the flavors were so potent and nothing was store bought it seemed. You just can't beat fresh, home cooked food! When everyone was referring to Jordi as the Yeti of the mountain, I thought that was just a friendly way of saying he was a real mountain man. I mean, sure, he was really big and burly, but a Yeti?

This is where Jordi got the nickname, though this says Yeti of the Month!

Here's a shot of everyone enjoying the food. It was a little crowded at the table but the conversation was lively and I could barely follow what was going on! We ate for another three hours and ended the night playing drinking games from the mountains. Everyone had a blast and being in the wilderness with such good people was awesome. I still can't believe how much good food there was, and how much Pacharan and other spiced drinks we made it through! There was a tasty lemon liquor and many of the drinks were made in the small villages, the same recipe for hundreds of years with old recycled bottles and homemade labels. Really makes me look down on Bud Light now.

Eventually the night wound down, but not before we had squeezed every last drop of life from the day that we could! Rarely have I had such a complete and mind-blowing day filled with totally new and fantastic experiences. Thanks to Jordi Galindo and Nacho for the incredible hospitality and phenomenal food!

Woke up early the next day to find another "snowed-out" morning. Had a coffee at this cute little hotel in the mountains and read some of the local magazines. Turns out in the Spring there's a BMW ride that sees 3000 riders turn up in Vielha for a rally. The roads around here are really long and twisty, and it's easy to see why one would want to ride a bike around here in better weather. Beemers are really popular bikes in Spain, and they even have a cool scooter with a roof (like the Mercedes one). The only problem with the roofed models that I can see it that the rider gets the roof and the passenger hangs on back and holds on for dear life! I'll try to grab a photo of one the next time I see one parked.

Grabbed a photo of this dog I had seen all week. He was constantly sniffing the snow and rolling around in it. I'd never seen a dog playing in the snow and it was really fun to watch. He didn't seem to mind the freezing temperatures at all, and was growling and wuffing away without a care in the world.

Had a snack at the Parador in Arties, which consisted of Spanish Tortilla (which is actually a thick omelette) over pan con tomate (which is toasted bread with fresh tomato rubbed on it, with olive oil and sometimes garlic). It was great, and was a welcome addition to my usual breakfast of cigarettes and beer! Just kidding.

It was time to head back to Barcelona, and I was tired and ready to sleep for a couple days. The lifestyle here in the mountains is for truly hardy people and with all the cold I was ready for a change. I met some fantastic people here and also from Madrid, and overall the trip to the snow was inspiring, educational, and not one I'm likely to forget. Spent some time at this stream and then pointed the car in the same direction and headed out! It was a long and peaceful drive filled with Cokes and Doritos, and the little car held up just fine. Tonight I'm watching a futbol game on tv and then going out with the roomates. Don't these people ever quit?!?

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