La Gatilla: My Costa Rican Companion

In January, I left the beautiful concrete jungles of Europe for a real one. I found my wilderness in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, one of the most remote regions of Central America and the gateway to Corcovado National Park. I began my trip as a volunteer on a turtle project, living in a tent on the beach, 45 minutes by bike from town on a dirt road riddled with potholes. After two weeks of turtle patrol, I left the sea for the mountains where I worked as a volunteer at La Tarde, an ecolodge situated on the buffer zone of Corcovado National Park in what National Geographic calls “one of the most biologically intense places on Earth.” It was there at La Tarde that I met my Costa Rican companion: La Gatilla. 

La Tarde happens to be home to the most famous cat in the Osa, La Gatilla, an ocelot, which the owner Eduardo, who five years ago turned his finca (farm) into a rustic ecolodge, brought to the property after she was found abandoned in town. The ocelot was adopted by the family dog who raised her, protected her, and taught her to hunt, until the time she began to wander off into the woods alone. 

I first met La Gatilla during a day-trip to La Tarde with Mike Boston, a family friend and renowned Corcovado guide. We were 20 minutes into a jungle hike with Marcelo, the resident guide and biologist at La Tarde, when Marcelo stopped in the middle of the trail, turned to me, and asked whether I would like to meet the famous ocelot. I said that I’d love to, if we could find her, at which point, Marcelo laughed and then called out into the trees, “Venga, Gatilla.” 

We stared into the woods, waiting for the cat to appear. Marcelo called again. Nothing. Then, out of the hollow of a nearby tree trunk, sprang the ocelot. She jumped down from her perch and made a B-line for Marcelo, curling herself around his legs. He bent down to pet her and she bit affectionately at his arm. A moment later and he was wrestling with her. When he stopped, she came to me. I bent down to pet her and she nipped at my arm and set her claw on my chest. I wondered whether she could feel my heart beating. 

That night, I went home with a pair of scratches, a bite mark, and a red arm that throbbed. But it didn’t matter, because I had been wrestling with an ocelot. I was going to have the best scar story around. 

Two weeks after that visit, I went back up to La Tarde, this time to stay. I was given a guest tent which had remained unoccupied after the ocelot opened the tent flap and jumped on a guest’s bed. Eduardo warned me about tying the tent string, but I decided against it. If the ocelot wanted a cuddle buddy, I was happy to oblige. 

Three nights later, my wish came true. I was fast asleep, when I heard a rustling from outside the tent and the sound of the zipper sliding up. I sat up in bed, Leatherman in hand, awaiting an intruder. In the dim light of the moon, I saw the spotted nose and silky coat of the ocelot. She loped around the tent, the light of the moon on her back. After exploring the tent, she doubled back, sprang up on my bed, and settled herself at the end of my mattress. I watched her lick herself, before I fell back asleep.

I woke up the next morning to the croaking calls of the mantled howler monkeys and the light seeping through the screen of my tent. The ocelot was gone. 

I stretched out, kicked off the sheets, and got out of bed to get water. The sun had just come up over the trees and the ground was still wet with dew. I went to put on my sandals just inside the tent entrace, but they weren’t there. I checked again, this time under the bed. But they were gone. Unworried, I headed across the lawn barefoot to the open-air kitchen. From a distance, I heard the growls of the ocelot and smiled thinking back to her late night appearance. She was in the kitchen, stretched out on the floor, belly up, tossing her head back and forth. As I approached, I saw she had something in her mouth. A moment later, I realized: she had taken my sandals. I ran forward, but I was already to late. One sandal was tossed to the side, completely untouched. The other was in shreds. As I wrestled the shoe out of her mouth, she clawed at my leg, inviting me to play. 

That night, I kept the tent door open, hoping she’d return. But she never did. She’d already had my sandals. Besides, nighttime was for hunting. In the morning I’d often see her walking around the clearing licking her chops or still eating what she’d killed in the jungle – lizards and rats. She was getting wilder by the day, and becoming less of a companion. I missed my friend, but I knew she was where she belonged.

The Foodie Fifteen

My Food Tour of Europe

screenshot_20161227-1747372Yesterday, four days after I returned home from three months in Europe, I asked my dad if I had put on any weight while I was away. “Give it to me straight, Dad,” I said. “You’ve always been honest with me, and don’t sugarcoat it.”

He hesitated.

“C’mon, Dad,” I said again. “I want the truth.”

“Weeelll,” he cleared his throat. “Aidan, ah, I think you might have put on a few pounds.”

I looked at him again. “Dad,” I said. “You’re not telling me something.”

“Well,” he said again, trying to build up his courage. “You might have put on the Freshman Fifteen.”

“The Freshman Fifteen!?” I asked incredulously. “But, I am not even in college.”

“Then, call it the Foodie Fifteen,” he replied, before adding with an apologetic smile, “but, that’s what you’re supposed to do in Europe. You’ll take it off in no time.”

I glared at him and ran upstairs to check the bathroom mirror. From the front, I looked exactly the same. Maybe a little bustier, but no real change. Then, I checked the back. My dad was right. My butt was significantly bigger. Europe had given me an ass.

It all began in Italy. I fell in love with Italian food over my first dinner in Rome, and my love affair with Europe’s food didn’t end until I left Stockholm, Sweden just before Christmas.

In the wilderness, I ate to live. In Europe, on the other hand, I lived to eat.

In Rome, I finally found a dish that rivaled caribou heart when I broke my year-long vegetarian diet and ordered pasta all’Amatricianaguanciale (cured pork jowl), pecorino cheese, and tomato sauce. In Florence, I mourned the death of American democracy and the election of Donald Trump as the airy crust of a real Margherita pizza melted in my mouth. In Switzerland, I learned that a backpacker’s budget doesn’t go far in a country of bankers and discovered the wonderful simplicity of a supper of Swiss chocolate and a plate of rösti (hashbrowns). And, in Budapest, I substituted Thanksgiving dinner for two cones of gelato and Lángos, a donut deep-fried in animal fat and topped with sour cream and grated cheese.

These days, as I sit eating my salads in my newly purchased curvy jeans, I dream of my European meals. I think of the pastas and pizzas and spiraling cones of gelato and my stomach gives a long mournful growl. I may be back to salads and long ski workouts, but I don’t regret a single pound. As I discovered in Europe, sometimes the best way to see a country is by eating your way through it.

 

A Christmas Scene Shattered

I went to Christmas markets in every European city I visited, but my favorites were in Berlin. Each night, after dinner, Naomi and I would wander through colorful stalls, sipping steaming Glühwein, stopping frequently to sample fried apple, lebkuchen, and currywurst. We would linger at stalls selling cuckoo clocks, painted nutcrackers, and hand-carved music boxes before pulling ourselves away. On our second night in the city, we found the Berliner Weihnachtszeit Market and sat under the light of the giant Ferris wheel, eating crepes with Nutella and watching the ice-skaters make their way around the rink. A group of older German men stood at a pavilion nearby, drinking mead out of clay jars and singing along to the barrel organ music. I could see their breath in the air as they toasted and clanked their mugs. In that moment, I felt like joining them. I wanted to toast the Christmas market itself, the feeling of camaraderie and joy and warmth that emanated from the men drinking and singing in the cold, from the couple ice-skating and holding hands, from the little boy and girl squealing as the Ferris wheel rotated in the air. 

When I heard about the attack on the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin, I thought back to that experience, to the snow and the carols and the crowds of people from dozens of different countries, buying gifts under the lights. It was so real for me.

I count my blessings this Christmas to have seen a piece of the world and to be back home, safe and sound, and surrounded by the people I love.  

Bad Night in Barcelona

Alaska made me strong. My first summer, I worked for a month building a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. For seven hours a day, I peeled ninety 25-foot log poles using only a drawknife. In winter, I snared snow-shoe hares along the frozen Coleen River and trekked through tundra at 40 below. At age 16, I backpacked over the Brooks Range, paddled a whitewater river to the Arctic Ocean, and spent three days trapped on an island with a polar bear. Each experienced tested me, both physically and emotionally. At times, I felt afraid and doubted myself and my abilities. But, over time, I became more and more competent. I saw myself not as a 16-year-old girl following her father’s lead, but as a confident, independent woman.

But, in Barcelona, Spain I learned what it was to feel helpless.

It was our first night in the city. Naomi, my longtime friend and traveling companion, had picked out a tapas bar in El Born, a festive neighborhood known for its restaurants and bars. We got dressed up and walked through medieval cobblestone corridors beneath balconies leaning out into the street. It was a Saturday night and the bars were already overflowing with people. As we passed one, a group of men whistled at us. We ignored them. Both of us had experienced Spanish cities enough to know what to expect when two American girls walked alone. I had never found it flattering, but I never found it aggressive either. This time though was different. It persisted. Every bar we passed, we were verbally harassed.  I thought of the mace my dad had given me sitting on the bed of the hostel and wished I had thought to bring it. Finally, we found the tapas bar, a hole in the wall, and headed for the entrance. A group of rowdy guys moving in a pack intercepted us. They were American, and they were drunk.

They stumbled toward us and moved in front of our path. As we passed, eyes straight ahead, one grabbed me and started laughing. I shouted and twisted away. We sped up, their jeers following us to the door of the bar. But the bar was closed and the men were still watching us. We turned and headed down another street without any idea of where we were going. All we wanted was to find a taxi and go back to the hostel, but the farther we walked the emptier the street became. Finally, I saw a taxi ahead and took off with Naomi following behind me. She stumbled on the cobblestones in her boots. “Run it down and hold it,” she yelled after me. I kept sprinting. I was fifty feet away when the taxi took off. Cursing, I started to walk back to Naomi when I saw two guys on skateboards turn up the street toward her. There was no one else around. The first guy spread out his arms to block her path. The second guy circled behind her. The first one said something and the second one started laughing and moved in closer, while Naomi stood quiet, clutching her purse, frozen against the wall. I ran toward her, holding my steel water bottle over my head. “Leave!” I yelled. The first guy turned. “Leave!” I screamed again. The second guy raised his hands and started backing up. “No — Wait,” he said. Naomi pushed past him. We left the alley and followed a couple ahead of us until the street widened and we reached an intersection. For fifteen minutes we stood on the side of the road, trying to call a cab, but none stopped. Men continued to whistle at us, some with their wives sitting right beside them. As we hailed a cab, one car pulled over to the curb and trailed us as we ran down the sidewalk, the passengers calling after us.

When we got in the cab, Naomi was crying. I was too stunned to feel anything. I thought of the guy with the skateboard in the alley and the look on his face when I yelled at him. He had looked guilty, but also as if somehow he wanted to explain. In the moment, it was all a game: faking Naomi out, circling in, the laughs. I don’t know if he ever meant to do any real damage. But he made us feel powerless.

Riding in the cab through Barcelona, I thought back to my experiences in Alaska. There, I was often afraid. In the Arctic wilderness, it’s hard not to be. But, I had never felt weak or helpless. Instead, my fear, and overcoming it, had empowered me. Bathing in the ice-cold Coleen River, butchering a caribou in the half-light of winter, battling the rapids and the wind in the foothills of the Brooks Range, that gave me grit.

But that night in Barcelona, I felt lost. A part of me wanted to be done with my adventure. I thought about taking a flight back home and camping out in my parents’ basement. But, I didn’t. The next day Naomi and I got up and went out to explore the city; we were reluctant, but we knew that giving into our fear would be worse.

Back In Amsterdam

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Two summers ago, I had the chance to visit Amsterdam on a trip to Europe with my 84-year-old grandmother. During my two days there, I fell in love with the city and swore that one day I would make my way back.

A year and a half later, I am on a train winding its way through the Dutch countryside toward the lights of Amsterdam. For the past six weeks, I have been backpacking around Europe’s great cities as part of my gap year, or, as I like to call it, “My Year of Living Adventurously.” This September, instead of heading across the country to my chosen college campus, I left the U.S. for the sun-soaked beaches of Southern Spain. Since then, I have found myself in Alicante, Barcelona, Rome, Florence, Milan, Bern, Zurich, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, and now Amsterdam, and I still have Copenhagen and Stockholm to go before I head home for Christmas. For those out there who worry I have gone soft, don’t fear; I have not forgotten grittygal. The fact is that in a number of the cities I visited, my grit was challenged more than I ever expected. In Barcelona, my friend and I were escorted from our youth hostel at four in the morning after being threatened by a crazy-eyed man shooting heroin in the girls’ bathroom. That experience alone made me long for the remote wilds of Arctic Alaska.

In January 2017, I will be returning to my roots, when I head for the hinterlands of Central and South America. But, in the meantime, grittygal will be temporarily overtaken by citygal. So, in the meantime, get ready to hear about beer crawls in Barcelona, romance in Rome, face-offs in Florence, and a body bag in Budapest.

Stay tuned.

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Back in Boulder

Biking Flagstaff Pic

My mother turned 52 this month, and she seems to have found the fountain of youth.

For my dad’s tour for his new book, Braving It, our whole family piled into our Toyota van and went on a whirlwind road-trip of the West, kicking off the tour in Boulder, Colorado, my mom’s old stomping ground.

To introduce me to her former home, my mom decided to rent mountain bikes and take me on her favorite Boulder biking route, a relentless, 45-minute climb on steep switchbacks up Flagstaff Road to a point overlooking the Boulder Valley. After living in the car for two days, my legs were stiff and my lungs, at altitude, felt like they had been crushed under the weight of the mountains. But I was not about to refuse the invitation. We made our way to Flagstaff Road, my mom in the lead, pointing out places from her past, reclaiming the town as her own. I struggled to stay in earshot as I huffed and puffed up 6th Street. My mother seemed to be gliding on the thin mountain air, sitting back on her seat, surveying her city.

When we reached the beginning of the ascent, she glanced back, smiled, and took off climbing, her legs taut and strong as she stood up on her pedals and curled over the handlebars. I followed, attempting to keep her in sight as she took the switchbacks seemingly two at a time. Each bend she rounded, she’d hold up her hand and wave like the queen looking down on her subjects. All I could do was grimace. I may have backpacked over the Brooks Range and paddled to the Arctic Ocean, but I was no match for my mother on a bike. There would be more rides over the course of our week in Boulder – Sunshine to Poorman, Old Bill, Lee Hill – and I would get stronger, but it was on this first ride that my mother staked out her territory, letting me know that Colorado was her home long before I entered the world.

Me and Mom in Idaho

Elliot At Altitude

Elliot at Altitude

Move over, Cheryl Strayed. I have a new role model.  Her name is Elliot Singer; she’s 14 years old, writes an amazing blog at Elliot At Altitude, and eats mountains for breakfast.

I’ve known Elliot since I was 11 years old, and if I’ve learned one thing about her over the years, it is that you should never underestimate her. At four foot, eleven inches, and no more than a hundred pounds, it’s hard to imagine this girl doing much damage. That is, until she shakes your hand. She has the kind of iron handshake that could make a grown man tremble.  Her callouses are hard and well-worn, developed over the years from summers spent scaling the Sawtooths, biding her time before she was ready for the high peaks of the Himalayas. This spring, Elliot finally had her chance, and with five-time Everest summiteer Melissa Arnot as her guide, she traveled to the Khumbu Region of Everest to attempt three 20,000 foot peaks. She had been training for the trip for months, waking at 5:00 am to run at the gym, wearing a 20-pound weight vest around the house, and practicing her breathing techniques for the paper-thin air of the high Himalayas.

This trip was a test, not just of her skill as a climber, but of her character. Few teenagers have the patience or the perseverance to be a mountaineer. An ascent of 20,000 feet takes every bit of physical and emotional strength you have, and, sometimes, you don’t even get the reward of reaching the summit. But Elliot is a quick study.  In the Khumbu capital of Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the high Himalayas, Elliot discovered the value of being “chill,” of entering into a meditative state in which you prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and settle for something in the middle.  Armed with Bob Marley and a pocket full of Coconut Crunchies, she successfully summited Island Peak, slept 20,000 feet atop Lobuche Peak, and entered into the unknown territory of Kyajo Ri. With each ascent, she set the bar higher, proving again and again that she is absolutely fearless, one of the grittiest gals I know.

Recently, when faced with my own small challenges, I have started to ask myself a question, “What would Elliot do?”

Elliot, I don’t know what the future holds for you, but after standing at the summit of a 20,000-foot mountain, the sky is truly the limit.