Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Muir Woods Trail Half Marathon

One of my athletic goals in 2015 was to complete a trail running race, having done road races, triathlons, and obstacle races in the past. I accomplished this goal in May, when I participated in the Muir Woods Half Marathon and was cheered on by my parents. This race proved to be one of the most difficult races I had competed in due in large part to my lack of preparedness. I finished the course in 3.5 hours, taking 1.5 hours more than I would have taken on a road course.
The race was fairly small, with only about 100 participants doing either the 7 mile, 13.1 mile, or 26.2 mile distances. Note – anyone running the marathon distance on a tough course like this was certifiably insane!

This course starts at Stinson Beach, which is located just north of San Francisco. The road to Stinson beach is windy and one can easily get queasy. After taking off from the beach, we quickly went up, up, and up some more. The first part of the course is essentially a hike, as runners navigate narrow trails on rocks made slippery by fog and mist. Runners are also shielded from the sun by what seems like rain forest canopy – this further cools the temperature down, along with the rising altitude. During the first part of the course, I quickly realized that I had erred by not bringing 3 crucial things:  1) a long sleeve shirt 2) A water-filled CamelPak and 3) any food. I estimate that these 3 mistakes cost me up to 30 minutes in overall time, and made the experience less enjoyable as a result. And the end of a 3 mile climb, we reached a cold and windy ‘summit’ with an aid station. Unfortunately, only water was offered here, and most of us were disappointed. Deflated, I thought about going down finishing the 7 mile course. But, I decided to soldier on in the hopes that the course would become less difficult.

After this aid station, we ran downhill for another 2-3 miles. This was fun, but treacherous as it is easy to trip on rocks or roots, which I nearly did a few times! Once at the bottom, it was time to head back up. This climb isn’t as steep as the first one, and goes for another 3 miles or so. The weather warms up as it’s later in the day and the sun has come out. During the way, we hit our 2nd aid station, which offers water AND Gatorade (never have I been so happy to see Gatorade!). From here, it was another few miles to the first aid station, which never offered a feast of food options (pretzels, candy, water, Gatorade, bananas, and more!) This was the fuel we were so desperately craving, and it came not a minute too soon.

After fueling up, we ran down 3 miles back to the start. It was a tough 3 miles as our legs were weary from all the ups and downs of the previous 10 miles.

After the race, my parents and I tried an Indian / Mexican fusion restaurant (much more Indian than Mexican), which was quite tasty.

I’m glad I did this race, though cold, hungry, and miserable for most of it, and now can appreciate the challenges and benefits of of trail running. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Iran Adventure

Sitting on the plane on the way home from Iran, Neilesh and I wondered how we would describe this two week trip through central Iran. Vacation wasn’t the right term – the trip was rarely relaxing and occasionally unpredictable. Adventurous? Yes – that sounded right. During our time in Iran, we were constantly on the go, seeing mosques, palaces, walking through old villages, or interacting with locals. The bus was our home, traveling from one city to the next. We were constantly stimulated by tantalizing new sights and sounds: hearing the Azan or “call to prayer” in the evening, inhaling scents of rose water as we walked through markets, or seeing shimmering glass in palaces or mosques.

We were a diverse group of 4 Americans, 2 British, 2 Swiss, 2 Australians, and 1 New Zealander. This was the first trip to Iran for all of us except Larry, an 86-year old American who first visited Iran 50 years ago. Larry deserves special mention of the participants for his can-do spirit that should be an example to us all. As a 26 year-old, he drove from Oslo, Norway to Delhi, India with his friend, passing through Iran on the way. He considered his 2015 Iran trip as his final trip, as he now suffers from macular degeneration and is legally blind. Despite his poor vision, he signed up for the Intrepid trip and all the challenges (like walking, climbing steps, and dealing with the heat) that this trip would entail. To his credit, Larry went everywhere we did and never complained. He even climbed to the Zoroastrian temple in Chuck-Chuck (near Yazd), which was a steep climb up endless stairs on the face of a mountain. I can only hope that at his age, I’m doing the things that he’s doing. As cliché as it is, anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Larry is proof of that.

Traveling with Intrepid was an excellent way to see the country. I have traveled with Intrepid three times (Thailand 2004, Eastern Europe 2005, and Iran 2015), and have had great experiences all three times. I was especially thankful that my traveling companions were knowledgeable about Iran prior to the trip and could ask intelligent questions of our guide Mostafa. I also commended our Shiraz-e guide, a veteran of hundreds of tours, for his open and honest discussion on many topics about Iranian society in which we were interested. He also noted that it was unusual to have 4 Americans on a trip, and we certainly made his life exciting in good and bad ways.

The first question I get when I tell people that I went to Iran is “Why Iran”? That’s usually followed by “Was it safe?” The second question is easy to answer – yes it was very safe. The first question is more involved – no explanation is usually needed when you go to the Bahamas, for example. Iran has fascinated me for years, and these are the reasons I traveled there:

1       I have grown up with Iranians in the Bay Area and studied and worked with them in my career, especially in Los Angeles a.k.a. Tehrangeles. I wanted to better understand their culture.
Indian culture has been significantly influenced by Iranians , especially in Northern India. Most of this influence came during the Mughal period. The greatest example of this influence is the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jehan. Secondly, the Parsi’s are a community of Iranians who settled in India after the Islamic conquest of Iran in 642. Parsi’s have had a significant influence on India as well – some of the best known Indian companies are headed by Parsis. Lastly, Hindi uses many Parsi words. Many of these Parsi words actually come from Arabic (because of the Islamic conquest of Iran in 642). Traveling to Iran would allow me to understand more about the country that has had such a significant influence on India.

3      Iran’s place in the world is changing. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has been isolated from the world. Sanctions have crippled the economy, and one sees almost no Western brands in the country. However, I believe this is about to change, especially if the nuclear deal between Iran and global powers goes through as many expect it will. A nuclear deal will likely result in the lifting of all sanctions on Iran. Given the ingenuity and intelligence of the Iranian people, I expect the economy to flourish under the new environment. This will also mean more tourism. Traveling to Iran now allowed me to experience the country before it became more touristy. Also, it allowed me to witness a society in transition; a society that was optimistic about the future.

We spent 15 days in Iran, visiting large and small cities in Central Iran. Neilesh and I also spent 1 day in Dubai on the way to Iran, and 1 day in Dubai on the way from Iran. These were nice additions to our trip because we could re-connect with one of our HealthCare Volunteer colleagues (Adil Shafique) who runs a technology company in Dubai. It also allowed us to contrast our experience in Iran with our experience in Dubai. The two places are very different, as I’ll explain later.

We flew from LAX to Dubai on Emirates, and then the next morning flew from Dubai to Tehran. We did not have to pick up our bags in Dubai during our layover. Highlights of the trip are bolded.

Day 1: Tehran – We were delayed at immigration for about 20 minutes. Apparently, this is standard procedure, as American Immigration officials hassle Iranians in the US. This made us late to our group meeting at the Parastoo Hotel in Tehran. Later that day, we visited the Goltesan palace – a UNESCO world heritage site.

Day 2: Persepolis – We flew from Tehran to Shiraz. We visited Naqsh-e Rostam and Persepolis, the ancient Iranian capital during the Achaemenid empire around 500 BC with Kings Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes. Persoplis (which means ‘Place of Persians’) is also a UNESCO world heritage site (in fact it was elected to UNESCO in its first year of eligibility in 1979 – it’s that old and amazing). Persepolis may be the most important site in all of Iran.

Day 3: Shiraz – Today some of us did an optional tour in Shiraz. We visited Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque and Khan Madraseh, Bagh-e Eram Gardens, and Tomb of Hafez (the highlight of the 3).

Day 4: Nomad Stay – We drove into the nearby mountains to stay with a nomadic family who speaks a type of Turkish (although they are Persian). It was nice to escape the heat in the mountains for an evening.

Day 5: Eghlid – Eghlid is a small town. This stop was mainly meant to break up our journey, although we did see a Zoroastrian tower of silence.

Day 6: Caravanserai Zein-o-din  – Caravanserais are places where caravans could rest on their long journeys. Now, they have been converted to unique hotels. Located in the middle of the desert, the views were stunning. I walked through the desert towards some ruins. We also got great pictures of the sunset. At night, the hotel staff (who is from Balochistan) performed some traditional dances for us. This day was one of highlights of the trip.

Day 7-8: Yazd – Our trip continued as we drove to Yazd, another desert city. Yazd is home to many ancient Zoroastrian sites. The city’s architecture is also unique, with ‘wind towers’ to cool homes. On our 2nd day in Yazd, I took an optional tour with Neilesh and Larry to see some unique sites: Kharanaq-Chak-Cahk-Meybod. Kharanaq is an ancient and abandoned village; Chak-chak is an ancient (and the holiest) Zoroastrian temple which has water the never stops dripping. Meybod is an ancient fortress (claimed to have relics from 4000 BC, but I’m not so sure).

Day 9-11: Esfahan – From Yazd, we made another epic drive on a public bus (but a very nice, spacious one) to Esfahan. Esfahan nesf-e-jahan, as they say, which means “Esfahan is half the world.” Esfahan was rated as the best Islamic city at one point, and the stunning architecture in the main square makes it clear why. My favorite site in Esfahan was the Lady’s Mosque in the main square.

Day 12: Abyaneh - Abyaneh is another mountain village. Again, we appreciated the cooler weather. We took a nice walk through the town, and had tea at a nice hotel with good views of the valley.

Day 13: Kashan - This was our last stop before Tehran. On the way to Kashan, we passed the Natanz nuclear site. In Kashan, we had dinner with a local family, and got to have good conversations with our hosts.

Day 14-15: Tehran – We visited the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeni  (some say Imam, but I was taught that there are only 12 Imams in Shi’ite Islam and he’s not one of them). This was closed for renovations. We also visited the Iran-Iraq war memorial. We Americans also visited the former US embassy.

Over the next several articles, I hope to write in more detail about different topics: religion, language, food, etc. while weaving in my experiences from this trip. Time will tell where Iran ranks in all of my trips, but I know it will be near the top (at least in the cultural category).

I came away from my Iran trip with tremendous respect for the Iranian people and their ancient culture. I believe the country has a bright future ahead of it, especially if a nuclear deal is reached. I am excited to see what a renaissance of Persian culture will look in the coming years.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Santa Fe Revisited

After nearly 20 years, my family and I returned to Santa Fe in February 2015, this time to celebrate my mom’s 60th birthday.  The mystique of the southwest (and the unique jewelry of this region) has always fascinated my mom, and thus we thought it a great destination for her birthday. We were not disappointed. 
We stayed in an elegant, south-western themed house at the intersection of Sunset and Artist. Built by a local architect, our house location allowed us to walk into the town, which we did on several occasions.

Santa Fe sits at 7,100 feet. As such, we were light-headed in our first few days here. It’s not as bad as say, Cusco, Peru, but walking uphill for 5 minutes leaves you winded. Towards the end of the trip, however, we adjusted.

Santa Fe is a town for artists and craftsmen. In that respect, I think the city is similar to Portland, Oregon. Santa Fe also became the home of Georgia O’Keefe, the famous American artist who moved here from New York (just like the owner of our house, Justin).

On Saturday, part of our group went to Taos to the Hanuman temple. My mom and I went into the town of Santa Fe to do some (window) jewelry shopping. We scoured the plaza for stores and visited the row of Native Americans who were selling their jewelry. Twenty years ago, I despised jewelry shopping – or waiting in the stores or outside for my mom to do her shopping. This time around, I had more fun. In the last several months, I have watched various gem shows that have taught me that there’s a whole world of gems beyond the most recognized diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires. It’s a painstaking process to unearth these minerals, and the selling process is fascinating. Many of the rarest gems don’t make it to the retail market – instead, as soon as they are discovered, discerning buyers send emissaries to bid on them.

What really struck me on this trip was how our trip planning and execution differed from our earlier trips when I was growing up. In those days, we would leave the hotel / motel by 9am and drive 2-4 hours to our next destination. In a city, we would have at least 3 sites to see. Our trips nowadays are more about leisurely waking up, relaxing, and minimal car journeys. I think a balance between the two is best, but the issue with the latter approach is that you can’t learn about a place if you’re spending most of your time at home. Unfortunately, most of us got sick on this trip (stomach bugs or colds) so we were limited in how much we could explore.

Still, just before leaving, I walked down to a memorial structure in Hillside Park to try to learn something about this city. The monument is a winding upward path with brief descriptions of key periods in the history of Santa Fe, from the 1500s onwards. From reading these signs, I gathered that the city is a mix of Native American, Spanish, European-American, and Mexican influences. Interestingly, the Spanish influence seems stronger here than it does in California, where there is more Mexican influence.

Despite the sickness issues, we had a good time in the alluring city of Santa Fe. It was nice to return to a city that captivated our imagination 20 years ago. 
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