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All trips have high points and low points. This much is inevitable. Usually my lowpoints are days of low energy or moodiness – those moments while being a tourist when the only fix is food, caffeine or alcohol. My last week in Lebanon, however, marked the most definable low points in traveling that I have ever experienced. To be fair, they were coupled with equally memorable highs. Regardless, week 12 of my travels will be unforgettable.

We began the week with a trip up to Harissa, a religious monument to Our Lady of Lebanon in the mountains with a stunning view of the coast. You take the teleferique, a ‘gondola lift,’ from the coast to the mountains, which covers a fair expanse of mountain and highway alike. We had the unpleasant experience of hopping on board just before the power cut (which happens for a couple hours every day), and were left, swinging precariously, directly over the highway. After a few panicked minutes, the generators kicked in and we continued to our destination.

Monday was my first definable low – we had a relatively low-key day, baking and relaxing before returning  to Beirut for the rest of the week. After a while, I realized that my phone had been missing and found it in the soapy depths of the sink where it had been sitting for several minutes. Try as we might, there was no revival, which was mildly concerning considering the fact that I was to spend the rest of the week alone in the apartment in Beirut. That evening, we toured downtown Beirut, which was abuzz with Eid lights and celebrations.

Tuesday was one of the most incredible days of my entire summer; Hady picked me up early in the morning, and we headed to his favorite spearfishing beach, further north even than Byblos. We arrived at a completely deserted stretch of pure, turquoise Mediterranean. We spent the day snorkeling, sunning and sipping chilled rose, before returning to Beirut for dinner and drinks. Never before have I experienced a beach like this one – water so warm it was like swimming in a spa, and so clear you could see the pebbles on the bottom from the rock formations above.

Wednesday we wandered Beirut by day, spending time in some of the lesser-known areas with uncharacteristically low traffic and pollution, and architecture that could pass for Paris or Rome. Wednesday night was another lovely party in the mountains, where I reunited with three of my favorite Lebanese from Caux, Hady, Joy, and Eliane.

Temple of Bacchus, my favorite Roman deity

Thursday was a day of recovery and relaxation before heading inland for our final and most incredible adventure, Baalbek. When I planned my trip to Lebanon, Baalbek was the one must-see item on my list, and the one adventure that seemed to keep getting foiled. Cars to borrow and rent were in short supply – it seems that, with the influx of Syrians to Lebanon due to political upheaval, cars were being rented and not returned. After a week and a half of trying, we finally found out that we could take a bus, which was pleasantly cheap and convenient. I had been feeling relatively ill for the past few days and wasn’t exactly excited to sit in a small, smoke-filled bus for two hours, with no possible exit along the way, but once we were on the road, things started to improve.

Raja, if you look very closely, and the six remaining columns of Jupiter’s temple

After a mere hour and a half, two bus rides and a taxi later, we found ourselves agape at the threshold of Baalbek, the largest Roman temple of Jupiter, which was built on a site that has been continuously settled for as many as 9,000 years. Baalbek has been built upon and occupied and excavated by generations of empires, from pre-Romans, to the Romans, to the Mamlukes, to the Ottomans, and even the Germans, and was apparently a Hezbollah target in the 2000’s. Remarkably, the event that did the most damage to the ruins was an earthquake, which demolished the majority of the 54 columns of Jupiter’s temple, to the point that only six remain. Columns and mosaics were taken to the Hagia Sophia, but the grandeur remains, and I was just as amazed as I had hoped and expected. Our guide was incredible, regaling us with stories and history, explaining the symbolism of the architecture and details of the epic parties of the priests and vestial virgins in the Temple of Bacchus, and of course, professing his love for us. The tour was incredible, made more so by a know-it-all priest, the rare breeze, and the constant cacophony of a nearby military training ground. These sounds were initially highly unnerving – Baalbek is, after all, only 30 km from the Syrian boarder – but quickly faded into the background.

There are two kilometers of underground caves and passageways, currently filled with wine.

After we’d taken in our fill of the ruins and snacked on cri cri, my favorite Lebanese nut (peanuts roasted with a crunchy shell), we boarded yet another bus, heading west to Ksara, one of the biggest wineries in Lebanon. We tasted the wines and were given a tour of the caves, remnants of the labyrinthine passageways that the monks who previously inhabited the site had left behind. We began our return trip to Beirut, and after an hour or so of sleeping, I awoke feeling distinctly unwell. We made it back to the apartment before I became sick in earnest, but then spent the rest of the evening vomiting what was surely every bite that I had eaten in the country. My saint-like friend Raja stayed with me until I finally fell asleep, and I awoke a few restless hours later to the news that my grandmother had passed away. While I had made my peace with my grandmother’s inevitable death before I departed in June, the news, and the proximity to my return, were upsetting, and I have never been so happy to land on US soil as I was the evening of the the 26th.

While I will always remember my two weeks in Lebanon with fondness, I am overjoyed to be home, reunited with my friends, family, wine shop, and dog. As mind-blowing and amazing as this journey has been, I am happy to remain in California for the foreseeable future and make my time here as incredible and adventurous as my three months in Europe and the Middle East.

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Recently, some friends and I took a winetasting expedition. Although it wasn’t quite the spontaneous and utterly random trip of last year, this trip was highly educational, about both wine and Swiss culture. Locating the winery was perhaps the most adventure-like component of the trip. Although there was an address on the website, it didn’t match the directions given on their map, or by my contact. So we hopped off the train at Epesses, a 15-minute train ride from Montreux, and walked, with the hope that we were going in the right direction. It turned out we were, and we found the winery, Testuz, without a problem, which was perhaps a disappointment in its own, as getting lost always adds to the excitement of being found.

Regardless, we entered the tasting room to be told to wait our guide, Katherine. Katherine arrived, looking distinctly harried, and hurried off again. After waiting 15, 20 minutes, she arrived and told us that she only had time for a 20 minute tour, which is quite a bummer after you’ve been waiting around for longer than that. The winemaker, Markus, however, came to our rescue and volunteered to show us around.  Although Markus was passionate about his profession and product, it soon became clear that he was not the person accustomed to giving tours. Most of the time, reps will give you a brief tour, talk about what is unique about the wine, and then you’ll taste. Not so with Monsieur Markus. We toured the entire winery, and were talked through everything from the different varietals of the lavaux and the rest of Switzerland, to how the grapes are harvested (sometimes they use helicopters!), to how they are pressed and fermented, how that differs from old methods, and how the cellars are ventilated and the stainless steel is kept chilled. We were shown the ancient oak barrels that are no longer used, the newer ceramic ones, and the current stainless steel. Despite the incredible technicalities and details, we found the tour fascinating (though I probably couldn’t pass a quiz on the finer points). After about an hour, we were led back to the tasting room, where we were treated to two chasselas (a Swiss varietal that drinks like a soft but very subtly bubbling sauvignon blanc), two roses (one, translated, is called “The eye of the partridge,” because the color matches perfectly, apparently), a chardonnay that was just a touch too oaked for my liking, another Swiss specialty, dezaley, a gamay, a beautiful pinot noir, and an entirely overoaked red blend.  Our tour over, we meandered back to our train stop, munching on crackers, salami and goat cheese. We wandered down to the beach when we realized that we had quite a long wait for the next train. Although it was overcast and muggy, it was still warm enough to dip our feet in the lake, and we enjoyed a few minutes in the lake before we realized that we weren’t alone on what we thought was an isolated beach. Slowly looking over, we saw that there was a man, in what appeared to be a circle of rocks. This wasn’t entirely surprising, considering that we were on a very rocky beach to begin with, but what was odd was that he looked like he was hiding. Suddenly, my friend’s words came back to me; she had told me that Epesses was a lovely beach, but to watch out, as it’s privacy tends to attract many nudists. Just as I turned around to warn my companions, our nudist friend stood up, confirming my suspicions. We turned and ran away, most likely giggling madly, and we spent the rest of our wait on the other side of the tiny dock, trying to avoid getting nibbled by ducks. Despite the easy trip and surprise nudist, we had a wonderful, and highly educational, winetasting. 

Although every winetasting experience is different, you know what to expect when you enter a tasting room; you’ll get glasses, and the person behind the counter will pour you 1-2 ounces of their flight of wines, which is generally between 4 and 10 different wines, and give you a brief description of each one, sometimes the history behind the vineyard or winemaker. Last summer, however, some friends and I discovered that this formula does not apply overseas. We had an experience winetasting in Switzerland that will rival any and all for years to come.

There are few days off when you work at the Caux Summer Conferences, so two of my friends and I planned meticulously for weeks so that we could coordinate this voyage. We took the train from our mountain village over to Vevey, a lakeside town several miles away, where we picked up the funicular, a train that moves vertically up the mountain. (As opposed to the zig-zag that one takes to Caux.) Funiculars are computer operated, and we hadn’t realized that you push the button for your stop, so we actually missed our destination, Chardonne, the first time around. We eventually got there, however, and found ourselves in a tiny, rustic town, which conjured images of Hansel and Gretel, or maybe medieval knights and princesses.

Despite it’s size, Chardonne is home to some 15 or so wineries, and plays host to the family-owned bakeries and dairies that one expects in Switzerland.

Unsure how to proceed, we wandered cautiously at first, before working up the courage to knock on a door. Finally, a local woman took pity on us and dropped us off at a winery. The winemaker himself answered, but was busy, so let his 17-year old daughter take us through the tasting.  I’m not sure how many bottles she opened, but between our broken French and her rough English, we managed to work our way through quite a few, learning a bit about the history of the village and the deep ancestry that unites most of the winemaking families. She sent us off with a bottle of wine, though didn’t let us pay for the tastings, and we found our way to a second winery, La Bacchanale. 

There wasn’t a clear front door at La Bacchanale, but we could hear voices from the garage, so we knocked there. The two men, the winemaker and his friend, were not as enthusiastic to share with us at first, but quickly engaged when we expressed interest in their wine. They spoke even less English, but somehow we all managed to communicate. More of their friends joined, someone’s wife and toddler, and quickly our brief tasting turned into a party. Out of nowhere, the clouds opened up and one of those intense summer lightning storms began; we were stuck, and there was nothing to be done but open more wine. Before we knew it, we found that we had been there for hours. As quickly as the storm began, it ended, and we decided it was time for dinner. Our hosts promised to take us to dinner and the Montreux Jazz Festival if we would buy them beer once there, a deal we couldn’t turn down.

Dinner was at one of those local restaurants where they pour wine before water, and the host and waitstaff know everyone in town. The American, Canadian and Lebanese girls stuck out like sore thumbs.

After a bizarre yet delicious meal (smoked salmon with potatoes and onions), we made our way back to Montreux, where our hosts would not let us leave without several bottles of their wine, and indeed seemed insulted when we attempted to pay them.

All in all, this experience was the highlight of the trip. You would be unable to replicate this experience anywhere due to sheer luck and randomness, the combination of bizarre weather and incredible hospitality. More than anything, the kindness and generosity of the winemakers was overwhelming. The wines themselves were spectacular, but the experience was made by their eagerness to share their craft and passion.

My sister’s text said it all: “Memorial Day 2012: Mammoth, men, mountains.” Although we didn’t make it up to Mammoth (it snowed!! I am just as confused as you are), the rest of the text was entirely accurate.

My sister, her boyfriend, and myself packed up her station wagon and headed to Thousand Oaks on Saturday morning, where we were met by the other five members of the expedition, a 12-seater van, a breakfast of eggs and sausages, and six and a half pounds of raw beef to prepare. After much packing and maneuvering and eating and chopping of onions, we loaded ourselves into the van, and were off.

the party van

Destination: unknown, but we were prepared with a grill, a propane stove, a 12-person tent, and 50 beers. We were limited only by our meagre bladder capacity, and so stopped for lunch as soon as some of our party had to pee. At Los Olivos market we found out that there were campgrounds a mere 12 miles away, and so made that our destination.

After 30 minutes of windy, one-lane mountain road, we located Figueroa Campgrounds, a sheltered outcrop of manzanita and oak trees nestled in the rolling hills of Santa Barbara County. We felt lucky to have found a spot, and erected our 12-person tent and portable hammock. The wine, beer, and scary stories flowed as we feasted on what was supposed to be kabobs, but ended up resembling misshapen meatloaf. Although the night was frigid, we slept well and awoke to prepare for our main activity of Sunday, a hike. 

Although coffee took an hour to prepare over the propane stove, we were fed and caffeinated, and took off in search of a trailhead marked on our map. Our destination ended up being an hour away, but the hike itself was beautiful, and we lunched by (or, some of us, in) a creek.

Sweaty and smellier than before, we made our way back to civilization, to the town of Los Olivos, which, it turns out, is home to about 50 tasting rooms, and proceeded to wine taste.

We began at Qupe, a winery I was excited to see because their Marsanne did quite well at the store last year. We were immediately put off, however, as they saw the size of our group (and most likely, noted our appearance and scent) and tried to shunt us off to the back room. The tasting, however, was lovely, and we proceeded to Alta MariaDragonette Cellars, and finally, Stolpman. We had a great time up until our final destination; pourers were friendly and admired our attempt to combine camping and winetasting, giving us extra pours, offering advice.

Stolpman was an entirely different experience. It was apparent that the gentleman behind the counter was tired of pouring and that we had come way too close to the 5 pm closing time, and his impatience combined with the building rambunctiousness of our group had a disastrous effect. Instead of composing ourselves, completing the tasting and going home, several of our members let their instincts and personal needs take over, and before you knew it, board shorts became short shorts, an already deep v-neck was ripped into something that resembled Andy Samberg’s belly-button baring shirt, and planters became benches. All in all, we exited Los Olivos quickly but triumphantly, and returned to our campsite, pausing quickly to frolick in a field before settling in for our last night.

Bacon-wrapped hotdogs completely redeemed the cook, and we exhausted our stores of scary stories and marshmallows, turning in for one last, and much warmer, night. We packed up and left much faster than anticipated the following morning, and made it back to Los Olivos market for our first encounter with running water since Saturday morning, and a quick breakfast that lasted for several hours and included a couple bottles of champagne. The return trip to Thousand Oaks was not the fast drive of Saturday morning, and we managed to listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe at least 20 times. Although I was thankful that we made the trip without any serious incident (there are a few fears of poison oak, and quite a few scrapes and bruises), I already miss the party van, though the scent of campfire lingers on.

Winetasting is one of my favorite activities. Perhaps this is because I grew up with wine- my father works for a wine distribution company and my childhood was peppered with his tastings and winery visits. Wine is an art, an expression of culture and agriculture, the past and the present, the land and the winemaker.

Two summers ago, my high school best friend and I backpacked through Italy. We did not have a plan, but met in Rome with the vague intention of working our way either north, to Cinque Terre, or south, to the Amalfi Coast. Since Cinque Terre offered more stopping points along the way, we took that route, and only realized that we were in Chianti after a few days in Siena. Since both of us are lovers of vino, we decided that we should make an effort to taste. I emailed my dad, with the hope that he would respond with a list of winemakers who would love to take us on a tour, but was met with the sad response that all of his connections were at the beach, as it was August after all, and really, isn’t that where we should be?

On a whim, I emailed a woman I’d worked for the previous summer, one of the Senior VPs of the company (and also, coincidentally, a Wellesley woman!), and we found this approach far more successful. On our last night in Siena, I got a call with details of what bus to take from Florence, and the promise that he, Tim, the winemaker, would be there to pick us up.

We made our way north to Florence, and then hopped on a local bus. Although the bus was filled with the sort of local color you expect, and stopped every five minutes, the hour-long journey itself was so beautiful, it seemed photoshopped.

The winemaker was indeed there to pick us up, and he was the sort of big-hearted, fatherly American that any travel-weary 21-year old would be thrilled to see. He drove us to the winery, Il Molino di Grace, (which literally means “Windmill of Grace”), regaling us with tales of living in Panzano as a transplant American, the history of the hundreds-year old vines, the Etruscan paths that run through the property.

We finally reached the winery, full of the sort of rustic beauty that you expect in Tuscany, and began our tour, including the barrel and tasting rooms. I’ve always loved barrel rooms, but this one was truly fantastic, long and dark, reminiscent of the history that Tim had told us about.

I’m not sure how many wines we opened that day, but the Sangioveses and Chianti Classicos flowed freely. Tim took us back to the bus stop, where we wandered the tiny village, and wondered what other gems we were missing out on because they were not large enough to have their own hostel, for Greve in Chianti was truly one of the most charming towns I have ever visited.