Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My last vacation for three years

Evening palm trees in Palm Springs. 

You know you’re a miser when you consider opting out of a free vacation with your family in favour of the week’s worth of income you forgo by choosing the holiday.

Last week I was faced with this dilemma when my dad offered me his spot on a family trip because he had to work. In the end, after weighing the pros and cons, I decided to go. (Most people would think this decision a no-brainer, but with law school on the horizon, I need every penny I can get.)

Hanging out with siblings.
And that is how I came to be here in the very sunny city of Palm Springs, California.

If you are a little misled like I was, you probably think Palm Springs is a coastal city with lovely beaches. In fact, it’s a city in the middle of a desert. Luckily, I found out the truth before I arrived, or I would have been extremely disappointed.

It seems a strange vacation destination, but I suppose most people come here looking for warmth in the winter. Not the Swartzbergs though — we decided to come at the height of summer!

This African girl has been living in Canada for too long because the baking hot temperature is nice for about five minutes at a time before it becomes overwhelming. Luckily, we have a swimming pool and air conditioning to help us cope.

Lest you think that I regret my decision you come, you should know this desert city does have its charms. These are best enjoyed in the early morning or late evening though.

On Saturday we discovered the place wasn’t as deserted as it appeared at midday; when we went out for dinner the downtown was alive and exciting. Restaurants and bars were packed, and shops were still open and busy with customers. At this hour it was more believable that stars like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra would have retreated here.

I have also been able to admire an architectural style known as “desert modernism” as I pass by homes worth nearly two million dollars on my early morning runs. These properties are landscaped with palm trees, various cacti, and colourful flowers that thrive in the hot dry climate.

One of the other highlights of our trip so far was an aerial tram ride up Mount San Jacinto. Unfortunately, the state park was closed because of the recent wildfires, but we were able to enjoy the view. And the best part? The temperature was about 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler up there!

Other than that, I’ve been swimming and relaxing — something I won’t have any time for in a few weeks when school begins.

From above, Palm Springs looks like a desolate place. 
Enjoying the cool mountain air. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My Miracle Race

Mom and daughter before the race.

Yesterday I ran 21.1 kilometres in Whistler, British Columbia, and got a personal best, crossing the finish line in just under two hours. Today I can barely get up and down the stairs in my house without clinging to the handrails, but it was worth it.

I love running. I joined the cross-country running team in grade 11 because a friend encouraged me and I discovered that long distance running suited me. I’ve run ever since off and on.

At the time I didn’t really consider myself an athlete and I certainly wasn’t a sprinter, but I was stubborn enough to push through the pain and finish a long run. Also, I’m extremely competitive and so in team situations I easily became frustrated at others and myself. Since I’m not one of the elite racers, with running I’m basically competing against myself.

Sprinting to the finish after 21 km.
I run to stay fit, to stay sane (it’s a great stress reliever), and to have fun. And I sign up for races because I love the thrill of competition and because they keep me accountable in my training giving me something to work towards.

I ran my first half marathon — the Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon — in June 2011. I finished in 2:04 and when I crossed the finish line I swore I’d never run another one. However, I quickly forgot the pain and signed up for the same race the following year. Unfortunately, I got shin splints a few months before the race and wasn’t able to run it.

This year, I signed up for the Whistler Half Marathon and tried to train very carefully, only increasing my distance every few weeks. Things were going well, and I ran two 18-km training runs and two 21-km training runs which both felt fairly comfortable. However, in the weeks leading up to the race my knees began hurting to the point where it was uncomfortable to walk.

I attribute the discomfort to a part-time job that requires me to be on my feet all day, but whatever the cause, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to run. In the week and a half leading up to the race I rested (except for work), iced my knees and took lots of Ibuprofen. I also asked my dad to give me a blessing. He blessed me that would be able to accomplish the goal I had been working towards as I ran the race responsibly.

I always get butterflies before a race, but this time I was extra nervous. However, when the race began I started strong and after a few kilometres didn’t notice the discomfort in my knee (probably dwarfed by adrenaline and other muscle aches).

The course was challenging with lots of hills, but it was also very beautiful. Whistler is a ski resort town nestled among majestic mountains, and so the scenery helped to make the run enjoyable.

Participating in a race with so many other runners always adds a charge of excitement. My mother and several other friends were among the crowd, and so was my dad who ran the 10-kilometre option. It’s so nice that running has become a family activity and that we can encourage each other in our training.
The most Swartzbergs we've had run a race together - St. Patrick's Day 5K.
Anyway, by the time I had about two kilometres to go, my legs were feeling pretty heavy but according to my calculations if I kept a steady pace I would accomplish my goal. I usually like to speed up for the last kilometre, but I didn’t have it in me until a lady told me there was 100 metres to go. Then I gave it all I had and sprinted across the finish line.

I finished with a time of 1:57:50 and came 314th overall. My average pace was about 5:37 per km, which I was pretty pleased with. And although it was still hard, I didn’t cross the finish line vowing never to run a similar race again, so that’s an improvement. I’m grateful that I was able to accomplish this goal, and now I plan to let my knee heal up and then get back to training for the next event!
The whole group from Saturday. Everyone finished!

Monday, April 15, 2013

From Journalism to Law

It’s official: I’m trading in my press pass for a power suit.

This fall I’ll be attending Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School in Provo, Utah; and, if all goes well, in just over three years I’ll be a lawyer!

Several things factored into this decision, which has been in the back of my mind for a while. First, I come from a long line of Jewish lawyers and I felt someone needed to carry on the family business. (I had Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye singing “Tradition” in the back of my mind.) Second, lawyers earn more money than small town editors. Third, I kind of like school and I think studying law will be rewarding.

Obviously, you don’t just wake up one day and sign up for law school. I’ve been working towards this for a while. The first obstacle was the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), which is a challenging exam that tests your reading comprehension and logical reasoning skills.

Many prospective students take prep classes to conquer this test, but since I lived in Merritt I just studied on my own from preparation workbooks and practice exams. I had to be diligent and squeeze in as much study time as I could in between newspaper deadlines and city council meetings, but in the end it paid off. I wrote the test the day before I flew to Guatemala, which was a week after I moved back to Coquitlam. My overall score put me in the 85th percentile.

When I returned from Central America, I began the application process. This included writing personal essays, gathering letters of recommendation and requesting school transcripts. I sent applications to BYU, the University of Alberta and Dalhousie University (in Halifax).

In February I learned that I had been accepted to both the U of A and BYU, which I was pretty excited about. Choosing between the two was extremely difficult though — both had great law programs. I want to practice in Canada, so Alberta seemed like a good choice; however, my heart was leaning towards BYU so I followed those feelings. To return to Canada, I’ll have to write a few additional exams, but it’s doable.

(This week I received an email from Dalhousie that I was accepted there as well. Perhaps it’s better that the decision came late or I would have been agonizing even more about where to go. But, it’s rewarding to know that I had my pick of the schools I applied to.)

Now, I have a few months left to save up money for school before I move to Provo. I’m excited for the challenge ahead, and haven’t had time to get too nervous. I’m not sure exactly what kind of law I’d like to practice, but hopefully that will become clear as I learn.

During a communications class at BYU-Idaho, I remember someone saying that reporters were only slightly above lawyers on the scale of professionals that people love to hate. Hopefully all the angry letters to the editor I received have prepared me for the angry people I’ll encounter when I descend to the lowest rung as a lawyer.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Highlights of Toronto

As promised, here is the sequel to my Toronto travel post. The big city of Toronto offers lots to see and do, and I was on the go throughout my week-long stay. To give you a glimpse of some of the attractions I enjoyed, I’ve compiled a quick list of the highlights of my visit. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Casa Loma

Casa Loma is a huge gothic-style mansion that was built in 1911 by a man named Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. His family only lived in the home for about ten years (it’s a very sad story) and the Kiwanis Club turned it into a museum as early as 1937, which was very lucky for tourists like me since the city wanted to demolish the place. For a price, Robin and I were able to explore this building from top to bottom. We toured the tunnel that stretches under the street to access the massive stables, climbed the tall tower overlooking the city, and tiptoed up and down the secret staircases from Sir Pellatt’s study. We even gazed longingly at a lovely luncheon being served in the conservatory that we didn’t have tickets for. Casa Loma (which by the way means ‘house on the hill’) was one of the best parts of the trip. And it had a great audio tour.

2. CN Tower

Of course I visited the CN Tower. What kind of tourist would I be to visit Toronto and not check out the view from the top of the tower? The tower is 533.33 meters high and is considered one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World. We rode one of the glass elevators up to the observation deck just as the sun was setting and had a beautiful panorama of the city. We did spend a few moments on the outdoor platform, but it was so bitterly cold and windy up there that I got a brain freeze. We did not pay the extra $12 to see the world from a few meters higher in the Sky Pod — when you’re that high up already, I’m not sure it makes much difference (and I’m cheap).

3. Royal Ontario Museum

We had bought a City Pass, which included tickets to the Royal Ontario Museum as well as the first two attractions I described. I was quite impressed by the museum, but you really need a day or two to see everything (according to Wikipedia it’s the largest museum of world culture in Canada and one of the largest in North America). We only had a few hours and we spent too long exploring Asia (which had some really neat stuff) and had to race through the dinosaurs as well as ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.

4. Kensington Market

The name is a bit deceiving since this area of town is more of a neighbourhood than a market, but the community includes an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. We passed lots of cafes serving Latin American food (though there were plenty of other eats to be found as well), and lots of shops selling vintage clothes. We visited a few of the vintage stores, but my favourite discovery was Courage My Love. The vintage wear was authentic and the prices were good. They even had some pretty buttons that I couldn’t resist buying for my non-existent sewing project.

5. Distillery

The Distillery District is a great example of how Toronto mixes the old with the new. This historic area houses boutiques, galleries and restaurants in heritage buildings, which once made up the Gooderham and Worts Distillery. Interesting fact: in the 1860s, the distillery was the largest in world and produced over 2 million gallons of whisky. You can still buy alcohol here, but I opted for the chocolate instead. We sipped hot mugs of Mayan and traditional hot cocoa at a chocolate specialty shop called Soma, and I splurged and bought a really expensive bar of dark chocolate. 

6. Campbell House

Built in 1822, Campbell House is one of the oldest homes left in Toronto. It was built as a residence for Sir William Campbell and his wife, but over the years it housed various businesses and even served as a horseshoe nails factory. To save the building from demolition, the whole house was moved nearly 2 kilometres in 1972 and now serves as a museum. We had a nice little tour, which helped me learn a bit more about the early days of York (later Toronto). 

7. Fork York

Not far from Toronto’s downtown core is the historic site of Fort York, which served as a military fortification in the War of 1812. During our visit we walked through original buildings such as the soldiers barracks and a stone magazine and brushed up on some of our history. This war was an important one — the British colonists (who would later be Canadians) defended their land from American advances and eventually burnt down the White House.

If you’re still reading I’m impressed. I apologize that my “quick” list ended up being so wordy. I couldn’t help it. I had fun in Toronto and wanted to share my adventures. You may have noticed that I like history. There are lots of things to do in Toronto that have nothing to do with history, but I like to visit old places and buy old clothes.

Bonus highlight: I also visited Niagara Falls, which was as beautiful as the photographs. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Toronto: An almost foreign city

In Grade 7 I visited Alberta on a choir trip. Until recently, that was the only time I had ventured past the borders of British Columbia to explore Canada.

Beyond Canada’s border, I’ve done a fair bit of exploring including visits to four different continents and at least 13 states within America, but it’s shameful that I’ve seen so little of the country that issues me my passport.

A few weeks ago though, I accepted an invitation to visit a friend and bought a plane ticket to the big city of Toronto. It felt strange flying domestic. They didn’t even check my ID until I was through security and boarding the plane.

After a four and a half hour flight, I got my first view of Toronto from above. It looked strangely similar to my first view of view of Russia eight years ago. Snow covered the ground and the rooftops and the city appeared cold and foreign.

This subway station only looks good because
someone (not me) took a cool photo.
My first task in this new city was to navigate the transit system from the airport to reach Robin’s home near downtown Toronto. He had given me clear instructions beforehand and reminded me that in Canada people speak English and it would be easy to ask for directions. (This boosted my confidence considering I had managed for a month in Central America with no Spanish.) I found the right bus, paid my fare, and managed to take the necessary subway transfers to reach his part of town.

Even though people accepted my Canadian currency, and looked and sounded Canadian, I still felt like I was in a foreign country for a few days. The subway stations seemed kind of old and dirty — they were built in the 50s and 60s and seem like they haven’t been re-decorated since then — which also reminded me of Russia.
This fancy old house is now a Mac's
Convenience store

However, as I explored the city, passed many Tim Hortons franchises, and even visited a T&T Supermarket, the city began to grow on me and feel much more Canadian.

For one thing, Canada is a cultural mosaic and I explored that aspect of Toronto through food. I ate Thai food, Indian food, Somalian food, Peruvian food, and even good ol’ North American food with a steak dinner at the Keg Mansion.

Toronto felt much older than Vancouver, because of course it is, but I loved that it was able to maintain a flavour of history in a bustling city. Brick buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with modern high-rises downtown and converted brick row homes house people and businesses.
More old houses lining Toronto streets.
I even grew to like the transit system despite it’s 60s d├ęcor. Three dollars got me from the airport to Robin’s place (no zones!) and one day pass worked for two people on the weekends.

Finally, the people seemed pretty nice too. Though that could just be because my interactions were limited to Robin’s friends and Mormon missionaries.

Coming Soon: Highlights of Toronto

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dreaming of Placencia from rainy Vancouver

Now that I’m back in rainy Vancouver where the clouds don’t break for days at a time, it’s hard to believe that not long ago I was here:

We had such varied experiences during our tour of Central America that it’s hard to pick a favourite spot or activity, but Placencia, Belize is certainly among the finalists.

The little village of Placencia is located on a peninsula about three quarters down the coast of Belize on the Caribbean Sea (a 15-minute boat ride from Independence).

To reach Placencia from Honduras, we caught a boat from Puerto Cortes. Actually, this was the one point of our journey that was not at all flexible since the boat only travelled in this direction once a week. The D-Express was much smaller than we imagined and crammed inside with our luggage wearing the life jackets they had given us, it wasn’t a pleasant ride. The destination, however, was worth it.

 The little town had a laid-back Caribbean feel to it and seemed to retain its natural charm while being very tourist-friendly. I even preferred it to the lovely island of Roatan, Honduras, which we had visited the week before.

We stayed in an inexpensive guesthouse called Deb and Dave’s Last Resort, which was clean and comfortable and only a two-minute walk from the beach.
Actually, you can walk anywhere in the town within a few minutes. Placencia basically has the main road and then a paved footpath running parallel to the road called The Sidewalk. Anything you need can be accessed by one of the two and there are brightly coloured markers everywhere that point you in the right direction.

There isn’t much else to do in Placencia besides spend time on the beach or visit the restaurants or bars, but it felt great just to relax. We even indulged ourselves and got pedicures, which we convinced each other that we needed after wearing our sandals for almost three weeks.

The one disappointment was that because it was low season, many of the recommended restaurants were closed. We didn’t even get to try the gelato that was apparently the best in Belize. (Actually, it seemed to be nearly impossible to find ice cream anywhere in Central America.) But we did try some nice Creole dishes and I managed to find some yummy papaya smoothies – my new favourite.

After a short stop in this tropical paradise we boarded the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi to the mainland and continued our journey. Of all the places we visited, I wish I could have spent more time there, especially now as winter approaches.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jade and Chocolate

It has been extremely interesting to learn about the Mayan civilization. Their history of human sacrifice aside, the Mayans used cacao (cocoa) as money, drank chocolate during their wedding ceremonies and viewed Jade as their most precious stone, and these are things I can get behind.

We got our first taste of Mayan architecture in Copan, Honduras. This site in western Honduras, not far from the Guatemala border, is considered one of the most impressive of all Mayan sites, not because of its size, but its legacy of craftsmanship.

We entered the site through the west court of the Acropolis and the sight of the stone temples, hidden behind the trees only a moment before, was rather breathtaking.

I’m normally quite a miser, but I happily paid the extra cash to get a guided tour of the site and it was worth it to have our own guide so that we could ask questions throughout the tour. I even paid the $15 extra to tour the tunnels, which allowed us to view the temples that have been discovered underneath the ones visible from the outside. (Apparently each new ruler would build bigger temples than the last ruler. Sometimes they would destroy the old temples and other times they built over top.)

We also learned about the Mayan ball game. Though it has been hard to decipher the rules, many archaeologists believe that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed at the end of the game — an honour to enter the afterlife.

These ancient sites are a history-lover’s playground and it was amazing to explore the site at our leisure after the tour and climb to the top of the temples that were open for climbing.

Closer to the tail end of adventure we also visited Tikal in Guatemala — a site that our guide book describes as possibly the most renowned of all Mayan ruins. Tikal includes several giant temple pyramids, the largest of which rises to 64 metres above the forest floor. Thousands of other buildings dot the landscape, many still covered by trees, roots and earth.

We had read that it was possible to book a sunrise tour and watch the sunrise from the top of the temples. So we booked a tour and were ready by 4:30 a.m. for our shuttle. In fact, the shuttle didn’t arrive until just before 5 a.m.

I hear in Guatemala you have to add half an hour to all time estimates and this is all very well, except that the sun doesn’t follow these rules. The sun rose as we travelled the hour journey to the park and it was light by the time we arrived. It didn’t seem like any other groups made it earlier and the park only opens at 6 a.m., so I guess it was just a case of false advertising.

Otherwise, the tour of was great. Our guide showed us the ruins and shared facts about the flora and fauna. He picked up a big, black tarantula and pointed out monkeys and a poisonous snake.

The temples were impressive and we climbed three or four including Temple IV, the highest in the Mayan world. It was also neat to see the temples that have not been uncovered yet. I would easily have mistaken them for hills covered in plants and trees.

I’ve always secretly wanted to be an archaeologist and exploring the ruins only renewed that desire. I’m just not sure I could handle working alongside the tarantulas and poisonous snakes we encountered in the jungle. So, for now, I’ll keep the Mayan culture alive by indulging in their favourite treat — chocolate.

Overlooking one of the courts in Copan.
The Lonely Planet apparently published the same jumping photo. (Tikal)
One of the temples in Tikal.