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Alaska ’16

This past April, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Alaska for USAD Nationals. Although the competition itself was also exciting (I met fellow decathletes from around the world, all of whom were very nice), the few days we spent before and after the actual testing days were most invigorating.

“The Last Frontier:” Right from arrival, I could feel the majestic land living up to this state nickname. I first noticed that my cell signal was provided by GCI, a company unique to Alaska, and not the typical T-Mobile (however, sometimes T-Mobile showed instead). Second, there are operating Blockbusters in Alaska! In 2016!!!

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The afternoon after our arrival, our team took a “wilderness trip” to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. As the age-old adage goes, the journey is more important than the destination; it definitely applied to this trip! The breathtaking Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm (named as such when one of Captain Cook’s fellow explorers was disappointed in the dead end and decided to turn again) kept me awake–monstrous mountains jutting right out of the ocean spanning miles, further than the eye can behold, a fierce rain slamming against our poorly-dressed bodies, the deadly coolness and stillness lingering in the air–brought out a distinct first impression of Alaska.

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Guiding us was Kevin, a very knowledgeable Wisconsinite (albeit without the adorable accent that typically accompanies), who definitely treated us kinder than the weather! (Fun fact: Prior to guiding tours, he was a German teacher.) From him I learned that the murkiness of the waters wasn’t from light effects or typical sediment, but rather from a special glacial silt that inhabits the Cook Inlet and its many arms and sells for high prices due to its cosmetic effects. He also told us about the best restaurants in Anchorage, including the Moose’s Tooth, Simon Seaforts, and Crow’s Nest, the restaurant on top of Hotel Captain Cook that used to be the only establishment in the area to require a dress code. The drive was fun and informative, a combination the world needs more of. Even though the sun was not to be seen behind all the grey clouds and dreary rain, Kevin shone on.

As any Discovery Channel junkie may know, there are a plethora of shows filming out of Alaska, and those of us in the lower 48 most want to see large wild animals when we are watching about Alaska. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet was filming the day we came to the center, and so we were the only general visitors admitted. No wonder the animals seemed extra lethargic–there were no innocent tourists to flaunt to!

We saw many different animals, some of whose names I can’t recall. My favorite by far was Hugo, the female grizzly bear. Even in this grim weather, she decided that she needed a mental health day and gave herself a nice bath in the stream.

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Later on in the week, at the Egan Convention Center, where all the testing and subjective events occurred, our team met Keith Cox, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), alum of our high school and co-owner of Seafood Analytics, which tests seafood products for quality of fatty acids, how long the product will last on shelves, etc. It is the first company to offer such technology! He was actually an Interview judge for the competition, for which we are eternally grateful.

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After the competition was over, the Saturday and Sunday we had left was for natural excursions nearby, the most vivid of all being Flattop Mtn. At 3,510 feet, this mountain soars into the sky. Climbing this beast was quite the challenge, the most physical exercise I have exerted in years; through this experience, I’ve learned a few lessons…

  1. Life can become difficult unexpectedly: The first few minutes of the hike were relatively easy-going, with gentle slopes, cleared paths, and a cute husky trotting back and forth. However, after this portion came a steep hill that I chose to climb (who knows why). All of a sudden, tiny pellets of snow came hurling down forcefully, and the slippery snow on the ground was no help either. The howling wind ripped at my face, clawing and scratching… like a “hangry” toddler after his Cheerios spill. Nevertheless, I persevered, only to meet another, even-larger challenge ahead of me.
  2.  One can make life more difficult than necessary: As in the little knoll, on the actual mountain, I most certainly chose paths that others did not take–the snugly-placed footsteps were wooing me to walk away from my current path, but to no avail, as I was too far away from the beaten path. Thus, I continued, but it was truly painful, especially if you’re afraid of heights and barely hanging onto a near-90-degree-gradient cliff like me! Going down, I chose easier paths and had a better time climbing down… But, that isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my way up. Sometimes the hardest paths are the most rewarding. I’d say, if I hadn’t taken such an arduous path up, I wouldn’t be writing this blogpost at all!
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  3. As true to the byline of my blog, take life one step at a time: on my way up Flattop, I couldn’t help but plan only my next few steps. It was painful to see so much ground ahead of me, but as I carefully managed to take the journey step-by-step, sooner than later, I reached the top of the peak, which took my breath away literally. 3,510 feet dwindled down to a few inches by using this technique.

As you can see, the trek was definitely worth it! These views will stick with me for a lifetime. I undoubtedly enjoyed my few days in our 49th state and hope to come back again.

Cheers,

MX

 

 

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NYC 2015!

Hey, Internet!

As I’m writing this, it’s raining, just like the majority of my family’s trip to New York City. We went a few weeks ago, starting the evening on the day school was out, but I have been busy beyond words since then. It’s now time to reflect, especially because I think this trip was a definite “eye-opener:” sometimes, here in Dallas, I like to think of myself as a New Yorker, missing the sights and sounds, but have realized nothing is the same here. Alas!

First Impressions

DFW airport has brushed up its game! The new look of American Airlines is inviting and modern. The gate-side area was also touched up, with new restaurants, work stations, and power outlets everywhere! Millennials need only two things: Urban Outfitters and outlets, nothing more.

As we arrived in LaGuardia near 11:30 PM, I could feel the squeeze. Everything IS bigger in Texas, especially our airports (DFW is actually the size of Manhattan!!!) What was most intriguing was how security guards checked each person’s boarding pass before he/she left the baggage belts. It’s to prevent luggage theft!

I’d like to say that life just moves quicker here. At once, the man controlling the taxi queue asked us where we were going and then impersonally directed us to a cab a few feet away. People kept on walking and talking and looking around. Life doesn’t stop in the city that never sleeps.

Our taxi driver was shy at first but later opened up about his life: he’s from Pakistan and has been here for 18 years. His uncle recently moved to Houston and loves the prices! This was my first glimpse into the multiculturalism and diversity that has its roots deep into the soil of the Big Apple–as I soon saw, everyone here has his/her own story to tell, and I can now understand why Humans of New York is so popular. As we finally passed through Manhattan, one thing I noticed right away was the trash—it was practically on every street corner. Then came the constant honking, which seems like the first thing they teach you in New York Driver’s Ed. Then again, I feel like it’s passed down in the genes of New Yorkers. In fact, there was a sign posted high up on a lamppost with a warning of $300 and the words “NO HONKING.” Anyways, it was 2 AM by the time we finally settled down.

First Full Day

We woke up quite early and headed off to Central Park. Wow! It’s much more of a Central Jungle or a Central Pokémon Deck–so many different things to see and do! My family started in the northwest corner and made our way down to the southeast one (Grand Army Plaza), first stopping by the Pool, which was my favorite spot, an oasis in an oasis, and fields after fields with early morning baseball games, “mindfulness” group walking (just middle-aged New Yorkers willing to do anything to not stress), and yoga classes galore. In fact, the locals here seem to do just about anything–for example, on a balmy Saturday morning, the NYRR (New York Road Runners), along with the UAE government, hosted a 10k for healthy kidneys. Next thing you know, I saw a grown man wear a tie-dye one-piece swimming suit… I’d pay to see that transformation in Dallas!

Under the midday sun, we finally arrived in the verdant city block squeezed in the hustle and bustle of Midtown—Bryant Park. There, Nigerians chess-masters sat next to millennial jugglers, who were within feet of different New Yorkers, all attracted to the sense of peace and quiet that Bryant Park offered. Pétanque, Chinese yo-yo, juggling, performing with a hat, walking in seven-inch heels were all present. Diversity is everywhere in this city; I bet I could listen to each one of these people talk about their experiences for hours, and I wouldn’t get bored. Of course, this is New York; Bryant Park still had a little buzz, just enough to perk us up, yet not enough to awaken us from the fantasy. I felt the most relaxed I’ve ever been, within fifty feet of the usual grind of a big city next to me! We later ventured into the neighboring building, the New York Public Library main branch. Unfortunately, the main reading room, quite spectacular, was closed for renovations, so we headed off for our hotel.

As the day was coming to a close, so was my energy level. We needed a quick break back in our hotel room, but not before long, we headed off westward for the High Line. Along the way, I overheard two women engaging in a discussion on street safety in the city. The mayor announced an initiative called Vision Zero, in which he plans to improve biking facilities, pedestrian comfort and safety, and regulation of the new speed limit, 25 MPH. Just another reminder of how people up here seem so educated and motivated. Anyways, I’m sure they knew the local secret about the High Line—that park wasn’t designed for the tourist load of NYC! It felt like any Manhattan street at 6pm: bumper-to-bumper traffic! However, the public art along the way, as well as nearby, made up for the congestion. The streets below were awful as well; I saw an ambulance trying to get through the rush hour jam, but it just wasn’t possible to make room. Instead, it just obediently sat at its spot, waiting for the lights to turn green again. We spent quite a while on that railroad track, and I slowly started feeling more and more faint. The remedy for such ailment? A Shroom Burger from Shake Shack! The thirty minute commute to that little slice of heaven will be the longest thirty minutes of my life. At Shake Shack, I had to wait even more, and there was no room for even a mouse in that place! Packed, like worse than China, and we have 1.3 billion people. Like everything in this city, the crowds and the wait were worth it! Shake Shack already has a location in Austin; only time separates me and my Dallas Shake Shack!

Gallery BELOW (click on any image for a larger view) 

Day Two

Ah, this is where the trip starts to become interesting. We started late today, as in double digits! First, to take advantage of the scraps of sunlight left in the day, my family and I headed for Columbia University. I could smell the cookies from Levain Bakery (OK, maybe not, but I was very close), but my nagging parents would not allow such a thing. Sigh. Maybe next time.

Through a quick stroll of Morningside Park and a few flights of stairs, we arrived at Columbia the weekend of the Alumni Reunion! (Sidenote: I think it’s great that I bumped into so many diversions from what I planned out obsessively—it just shows you how unpredictable life is. It’s that essence that I crave and that I find in New York.) The campus was smaller than I had expected, but all was good (most important: quiet) except the TV monitor broadcasting CNN right next to its renowned School of Journalism…>.< I don’t know how the students and faculty deal with that on a daily basis. Such juxtaposition.

After a tour of the college, we decided to head to Midtown East. On the subway ride to Times Square, I sat next to an up-and-coming actor who was reading through the lines of Edward, the part he was to audition for. It just reminded me of my favorite show, Friends. Again, this would never happen in Dallas. At around noon, we stopped by Times Square. I’m not sure why I decided to go there twice; it’s quite trashy to say the least. It doesn’t even deserve a big SAT word. After that mess, we walked toward Grand Central Terminal, which was, especially after that tragedy, beautiful and uplifting! Lunch was a hot dog in the station’s underground dining concourse, where the drastic inequality of capitalism, the dark underbelly, was quite evident, as in most of this city–tourists flocked to Shake Shack (I’m telling you, it’s good!) and various restaurants, taking pictures with their fancy DSLRs, while less than ten feet away, a man digs through the trash bin (New York values the sorting of waste…cough cough Texas), looking for food. Alas, everything has pros and cons. After Grand Central, it started to rain (to match with my mood), and we decided that a little trip to the Met would be the perfect rainy day excursion. That one building contained too much art for me to handle! We took a map and just flowed until our feet told us to stop. By then, it was 5:30, and that means closing time. A quick snapshot of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm and we “peaced out”… from shelter to raging Mother Nature. My feet were wet, my mood down, so my parents decided to eat at the pub next to our hotel, Tir na nÓg.

Gallery BELOW (click on any image for a larger view)  

Day Three 

I got lazy into the vacation. It’s the last full day in New York City, and the rain would not stop pouring. However, we didn’t let that stop us from having the best possible day.

My family and I ventured out of Manhattan and jumped right into Brooklyn. The storm carried over from yesterday, and it was quite dreary. The rain pummeled us, each strike stronger as the wind gained ferocity. This was nothing to dampen our spirits, however; we just had to walk much quicker than normal. We toured a little of Brooklyn Heights, snapped a few pictures, and headed for the Brooklyn Bridge. Well, only Asians are determined enough to brave the storm, and we were accompanied by a few Chinese tourists. We were laughing at each other and our mutual stupidity. Why today? After a very long walk across the bridge, we arrived at City Hall with our feet soaking wet. I couldn’t feel anything anymore, and I just wanted a piping-hot beverage. Starbucks! It shone like an angel! Wow, this is what it feels like to be those stereotypical white girls, no? The green and white mer-lady (whatever) rendered my euphoria, as well as the nice coffee she gladly provided.

After that mess, the rain subsided, and we continued our tour of the “Downtown” region. Walking along Broadway, we passed by Trinity Church with its very-creepy graveyard, Wall Street, Federal Hall (where George Washington was inaugurated), and down to the Charging Bull! Since the day was just miserable, we needed another break again: this time in Burger King. Since there are so many tourists with full bladders roaming the streets of New York City, this establishment has established quite the procedure for using the loo–one toilet for each men and women! Ordering to-go, going to the mezzanine, receipt or no, I was tired and confused, the worst combination of emotions ever. What confused me even more was the New Yorkers actually say “on line” instead of “in line.” You’re IN a line and ON the floor. I’ll let this one slide by.

Later, we passed by Ground Zero and the two memorial pools where the Twin Towers used to hug the skyline proudly. This time was a time of thought and reflection. Although I didn’t know any of the names personally, the quiet flowing of water brought a sense of respect, a feeling that I will never forget. They will always be remembered.

The last place to go on this cloudy day was Top of the Rock. I know, there was ZERO visibility, and it was worthless, but I already bought the tickets a week before, and this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was in the middle of clouds! Never will happen again.

I don’t know how or why, but I ended up in Times Square again that day–this time, at night. It’s much better when the darkness contrasts with the clashing advertisements and bright lights. Last time, I promise.

Day Four–Half-Day

Well, this morning was quite melancholy, as I was now leaving. After a quick breakfast (people are so lazy; it’s almost 9:30 AM and the room was packed, unlike just an hour before), we bid farewell to the Big Apple with a self-guided, spontaneous walking tour. My family and I just headed southward along 5th Avenue all the way to Flatiron Building and Madison Square Park, the to Union Square, where we walked back uptown via Broadway, passing Macy’s (visited some day before), Herald Square, and Koreatown, where we had lunch and visited an H-Mart, a familiar sight to us. However, this store was CRAZY small; only one person could stand in each aisle at a time, and the average man would have to slouch the majority of the time in order to go through the cramped store.

Finally, we headed for the airport. There’s not much after this except the big bright skies of home. I have returned.