The Roof, the Roof… The Roof of Africa

I’ve been putting off this post for a while now. On some level, it’s the ever present self-doubt whether I’d have something new to tell you guys, but mostly it’s a big-ass project to try and fit all that information into one manageable post. On the other hand, I saw a few other accounts about this trek, which were the exact opposite of my experience on so many levels that it finally became apparent that I should tell another side of it. Here goes.

I will spare you the details about how we chose to actually do this, I’ll just tell you it was on a whim one drunken evening. 🙂 Our willingness to go, however, was still unwavering the next few days so I started the research and we bought our tickets to Tanzania a month later.

Mt Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world lies just south of the Kenyan border and is one of the most popular hikes in the world. One reason being that you don’t need any special climbing skills to scale it.

No special skills does not mean no skills at all, but the fact the people between the ages of 7 and 87 have successfully done it only goes to show that a skill you definitely need is patience and determination. Here are the main things you need to prepare (for) in order to succeed in this challenge (plus some context 😉 ):

Positive thinking and trust in yourself (and others).

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I don’t mean to downplay this or pretend to be stronger than I am, but there was never a doubt in my mind that we will reach the summit. It’s important that you have that resolve in you but at the same time to be aware that just wanting it might not be enough. There surely will be at least a couple challenging moments during your climb, and what is important in those moments is to remind yourself that you are strong and that in life you have to push yourself a little bit further, get out of your comfort zone. Mostly you should have the good sense to take a step back, take a break when needed, recuperate, and then press on with a clear mind and focus.

A Good Team

As you would learn from any other account about this climb, the mantra on Kilimanjaro is “pole, pole” – [‘po-le ‘po-le] not [pəʊl pəʊl] – which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly”. You’ll be hearing this from everyone in Tanzania – from your mountain guides to the salesperson at the souvenir shop. Basically, there is no rush in Africa, so take your time.

Sometimes though, just taking your time is not enough. Which is where the second most heard phrase on our climb comes into play – Hakuna matata! Most of you will instantly recognise it from the Lion King movies (Yep, that whole story takes place in Tanzania. Whaaat! 🙂 ) and some of you might even remember the meaning, namely, be positive. Hiking for days on end is a challenging task, even when you stay at your usual altitude. When you’re going up towards thinner and thinner air, it could be grueling.

This is when you need to get back to that resolve you have forged and say “I will not give up; I will, instead, admit I’m having a hard time and get stronger through humility”. A mouthful, I know, but not everything in life has to be short and easy and convenient.

Which brings me back to the point that there were no worries in our little group (of five) at any time before 5000m. Granted, we are all reasonably fit – each of us trains at least two different things regularly, and the one who was less active made up for it by hiking steep treks in order to prepare – but we also know fitter people than us who didn’t manage to reach Uhuru, thus overconfidence was considered a vice outside of group pep talks. What we trusted most in was the expertise of our guides. We rarely tried to walk faster than the pace they were setting for us and never rushed to get to the next camp, even if we were taking a longer break than needed.

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My first fried bananas. Delicious! 🙂

Pole, pole, we would get from camp to lunch to next camp right on time for a hot lunch (on some days) or hot water for washing up and tea/coffee and some snacks waiting for us.

This is the place to say that the team we had – thanks to Kandoo Adventures –  was excellent.

When I started the research, I was advised by a couple of people not to go for the cheapest option. Mostly because of theft stories – those stories involved people stranded on an unknown mountain with little if any equipment. So we opted for a company that offered a higher price but also had a good amount of excellent reviews online. Do your research, you won’t regret it.

We were definitely happy with our bunch of people. Our main guides, Richard and Deo, were very positive, had a good sense of humour, and generally took great care of us. Our third guide, unfortunately, had to go back down around the 4th day due to AMS (aka altitude sickness). He had spent too much time up at the crater the week before and it got to him. It only goes to show that even the most trained body could cave under extreme circumstances.

The porters also seemed to be mostly in good humour despite the heavy load they were schlepping  uphill. We had little actual contact with them, mainly because we were starting at different times and were hiking at radically different paces. We’d start right after breakfast, which the chef and his team had prepared for us while we were waking up and packing up our stuff for the porters to carry. The rest of the group would stay behind to pack up our tents, including the dining tent we had all to ourselves during meals and down time, the kitchen tent, the portable toilet, their own equipment, and they would then take us over somewhere en route, get to the next camping spot long enough before us to set up so that when we get there, there’s already a camp there with tea and coffee waiting for us. How amazing are these guys?!!

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Close to 8 am, everyone is hard at work packing up. Simba Camp (2671m)

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Our “dining room/lounge”. Very posh compared to our expectations.

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The whole team @ Mawenzi Tarn Hut (4302m)

Picking you travelling partners is also something that you should choose with some care. Spending 6 or 7 days with someone practically 24/7 can be straining. There’s a good amount of stories out there of couples fighting when they reach high altitudes, friendships threatening to fall apart, etc., etc. Fortunately, we had very good weather and we were all in good shape so there was little opportunity for animosity to settle in. Also, we were really well fed all the time, hence hunger wasn’t an issue.

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Luckily, the few times the weather was not great, we were already in the camp.

Food

Keeping your energy up is important. If you get a good team with a good chef, like we did, you will not be lacking food. We had brought so much snacks – energy bars, chocolate&fruit bars, nuts, berries, etc. – we brought half of it back. And we were full all the time. There were soups (excellent to DSC_0742keep you hydrated without forcing yourself to drink tasteless water), there was rice, pasta, potatoes, veggies and meat (separately, because we had a vegetarian in the group), and there was even cake in the end! How they managed to bake a cake in a tent, I’ll never know, but it was awesome!! :))

Another sign that we were acclimatising well was the fact that we did not lose appetite at all. Not until we reached the ridge anyway, by which point no one was even remotely thinking about food. I’m saying it’s a good sign because we were told on every other meal that we should eat well to have energy because any day now, with the rising altitude, we’re probably going to lose appetite. At least that’s what happens to most people. We were making jokes about it, but it might have proven crucial as there was little chance for snack-breaks on summit night. Some of the guys said they’d managed to eat on the go, but it wasn’t possible for me so I only had one tiny chocolate bar somewhere on the way and they say you burn as many as 4000 cals during the summit – mostly because of the cold and the low oxygen levels.

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Snack break w/ excellent view of Mawenzi

Equipment

We have to mention equipment. I can’t imagine anyone planning to embark on this kind of trip not prepping for it properly, but just in case let’s accentuate how important having the right stuff is.

An example – one person from our group opted for a summer-temp sleeping bag + a warm liner in stead of a good high-altitude sleeping bag and spent at least one night very uncomfortably until he managed to “hack” the system with a down layer. Another complained it was too hot in the proper sleeping bag (for -15 to -30°).

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N. testing the full coverage of the sleeping bag

The key is to know your preferences but also know your equipment. If you can get your hands on an extreme sleeping bag (N. and I borrowed ours), it’s not a bad idea to test it out – sleep out on the balcony if it’s cold enough, for example.

 

Keep in mind that having at least one bottom and one top piece of base layers is a must anyway, so you can (and probably will) sleep in those once you get to 4000+m. I know I did 🙂

Speaking of base layers – do have them, but don’t overdo it with the clothing. All of us brought back clothes we hadn’t put on once. It was mostly the fact that we stocked up on merino clothing so we didn’t need to change every day, but it’s also a pain to have repack your bag every day, plus your porter will probably be grateful for every pound you spare him. Anyway, base layers are very important – that is bottoms, a long sleeved shirt, and socks and gloves as well.

Hand warmers! I had a pair of thin merino gloves underneath my skiing gloves and my hands were freezing the last couple of hours. Also, I had conveniently forgotten the hand warmers specifically bought for the occasion – do not make that mistake. The ones that
react with oxygen and last for hours are about 5gr per bag, so carry a couple with you regardless of whether
you need them or not. If you do, they’ll really make a difference; if you don’t, you might be able to help out a fellow climber or just plain not use them.

IMG_20160316_095403Shoes! You must already be aware that shoes are crucial. Get comfortable, durable shoes. I went with my good old Boreals that I’ve had for 8 years (and have used during at least 4 of them, hehe) and I did not have any troubles  But if you’re only getting proper trekking boots now, wear them in at least a couple of months before the trek and stack up on good socks. From our experience, it’s better to have a spare pair or two of socks than a spare t-shirt. On summit night, I had two pairs of merino socks and there was a time when my feet were also pretty cold. Now, I have pretty bad circulation so my hands and feet get cold easily, so again, know yourself but be prepared. Plasters and anti-blister sprays or sticks should also be part of your emergency kit.

Trekking poles. I almost forgot about this but you should definitely not! They might not be of huge help on the way up – although I did rely on them a lot whilst dizzy and sleepy – but they will be of huge help on he way down. Your last day will start around midnight (practically the day before, if you’re anything like me who rarely goes to bed before midnight) and it will consist of 1000 or a bit more metres elevation going up and then more than 2000 m down (to Horombo hut at 3700m). I will not post a picture of it, but exactly one month later a third of my big toenail is still purplish-black and I can tell you exactly when that happened – on the way to Horombo, on a seemingly flat but actually covered in very uncomfortable stones path. I was wearing my lower, lighter shoes, which don’t hold  the foot by the ankle, so my toe got bruise from the hours of repetitive ramming in the same spot. Even if those shoes are also excellent and have served me well on four continents now, the length of the descent and the stress builds up for all your parts. So do your feet, knees (especially), and even spine a favour and use your walking poles.

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Sunrise at Horombo Hut

Hygiene

I read in a post somewhere how gross it was and how hard it was to not have a shower for six days, and I have to tell you… Oh, just grow a pair! All it takes is a pack of baby wipes and you’re good to go. If you want some extra cleanliness, you can do what I did and bring additional packs of antibacterial face and intim wipes, even wet toilet paper. (TP is generally a good thing to have – be it for standard usage or sudden nosebleeds). Also, liquid disinfectant is a no-brainer. As for showers, trust me, you will not be wanting to get wet above 3000-3500m anyway, so just figure out an in-tent cleaning routine. I used to bring rose water and cotton wads with me on camping/festivals but you run the risk of it freezing higher up on Kili. Our team also provided hot water and soap for washing up every morning/evening and TP as we also had a portable toilet (which we mostly skipped whenever possible, but we had it all the same) so you can check with your company about that if you don’t want to over-prepare.

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Morning walk to the camp WC pay-off (4300m)

Medicine

And speaking of bodily functions, you should definitely have at least basic medication with you. For us, luckily, only some pain killers were needed, but anything from Nurofen or the likes for headaches and stomach aches to Imodium, antihistamines, etc. should definitely be thought of. As should vaccinations and malaria medication, but that is something you should take care of with a doctor, so I will not be giving out any advice about it. Definitely go consult a specialist for any medical concerns you might have!

One very important thing – NO ASPIRIN if you’re going to be taking Diamox for AMS. Why? Short answer – it’s dangerous. Long answer: “Large or regular dosing with aspirin and other salicylates should be avoided as acetazolamide can potentiate salicylate toxicity by causing metabolic acidosis and enhancing the penetration of the salicylate into tissues. In addition, salicylates decrease the elimination of acetazolamide, which could result in CNS toxicity.”  For an even longer or more extensive one, click here or just google it.

As for the Diamox -a lot of people say that you can avoid taking it if you just drink enough water, but I think that is highly subjective.  Talk to your guides about the symptoms of AMS – such as headaches or dizziness – they should have a good idea how to apply the Diamox if unsure. The key thing is that, if you get severe symptoms, it’s useless to only then start taking it, but if you’re only getting mild discomfort that is obviously caused by the altitude, you can start taking it. That’s what some of us did and we only had more pronounced symptoms at the very top (or on the way down as it was for me). A friend who’s done the climb himself said we were taking too small a dosage, so make sure you talk to a doctor about it. The big downside of the Diamox is that it’s a diuretic and you have to drink at least 3-4 liters of water a day. 2+2 = a lot of pee breaks and getting up at night.

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Our solitary camp at School Hut (4800m)

The altitude sickness itself, I did not know what to expect. I keep coming across stories about people hallucinating and losing awareness of where they are and what they are doing, and it sounds kind of scary, to be honest. What I felt wasn’t exactly new, just the circumstances were. As I was dragging myself down a dusty scree, which was uncomfortable even in the best of times, in my mind, I kept going back to my teenage years when we’d get so drunk (I’m from Europe, it’s OK! :D) that walking in a straight line would become a challenge of its own. You know, that nausea and the headache that just won’t go away; you’re fluctuating between wanting to and dreading that you’ll vomit because you’re not sure it’d help at all. So you just keep trudging forward because you’re only chance is to manage to get to a bed or a sofa, just not the nearest bench, and sleep it off. Well, I had a full day of walking still ahead of me so my options were more than limited. The thing is, the only thing that could really help me at that point was just going low. As soon as I got to around 4500 m everything was soon back to normal. The headache was gone, my appetite was back and we could finally bask in the sense of achievement because WE’D BLOODY DONE IT! WE CLIMBED MT KILIMANJARO!!

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The exhilaration was stronger than the fatigue 

Well, this is my “list” of things to think about when planning to climb Kilimanjaro and partially my account of our climb. A more literary account might appear at some point, but I’m not making any promises. I hope you enjoyed this, please use the comments to tell me if I’ve left something crucial out or just to share your experiences. Ta!

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The chameleon and the mountain

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Another view of Mawenzi peak (5100m)

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xx, y.

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99 In the Shade*

Ah, just when one thinks – and by one I mean myself – she’s getting back on track – and by back on track I mean writing/posting regularly – and here she goes, off for a while again.

I am not simply taking time off because I’m lazy – there are plenty of distractions ruining my schedule as it is – but because I’m off on a new adventure this week. On March 13th, a few friends and myself are setting off to climb “the highest freestanding mountain in the world” – Mt Kilimanjaro (5896m).

I will, of course, dedicate a special post about it as soon as we get back – even if there are already so many stories written about it  – but in case you are curious about the way our ascent is going as it progresses, you are free to check it out on the “live” page of the people who are helping us do this: Kandoo Adventures Live. The group will probably be called “Yoanna’s group” 😛

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Since I am about to embark on a journey
to the highest point I’ve ever been, I thought it appropriate for this post to be about the lowest point that I’ve ever visited. And since this is in the USA section, you must already know I’m talking about Death Valley!

On the picture on the right, I hope you can spot that arrow pointing at a tiny white speck circled off on the rock because that white speck there is actually a sign and it says “SEA LEVEL”.

Not only would it look awful had I zoomed in on it, but it would have completely ruined the effect, hence the poor Paint job (excuse the pun :P). This is how far below sea level Nikola and I were that scorching April afternoon, standing at the edge of Badwater Basin. I didn’t check it then, but according to Wikipedia (so it must be right), we were 86 metres (or 282 feet) below sea level.

And what’s at the bottom of the continent, you wonder? I still don’t know myself if the answer is astonishing or underwhelming. Either way, it’s salt.

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And it’s called a basin because it does actually sometimes hold water. Someone had, in fact, dug up a hole to show there is some water at the bottom of it all. You can’t quite tell if there’s anything in there because of the blazing sun, but I kinda got the urge to dig some more while I was standing beside it 🙂

My goodness, the heat in that place. Just to think how hot it must be all the time to turn most any water that finds its way into Badwater Basin into and endless field of salt. How anything manages to flower in these conditions is just one of those miracles of Mother Nature that we sometimes hear about.

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So what other intriguing spots does Death Valley hold? My personal favourite was this:
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Nice, huh? And how extremely weird salt can be. Who knew!

As advertised, it was very hard to walk over that terrain, so we didn’t wander too far away from the road. The other reason for us not to linger in a vast barren field of jagged salt formations, despite the special ring to its name, was the aforementioned heat. IMG_20140430_170544

And so you don’t have to take my word for it, here is what our lovely, air-conditioned companion had to say on the matter. Granted, it’s Fahrenheit, but this is still close to 40° Celsius. It went up to 105 but it seemed pointless to document it further. That was enough for me.

*For those of you who get the reference – you can’t judge me; for those of you who don’t – ah, how young you are. (I’ve pretty much been an 80s kid all throughout my teens, even if I was only born in the late 80s)

Soon enough, we were sun-kissed, sweaty, salty, and, quite frankly, a little overheated to spend more time a dangerous distance away from any substantial shade (or a water source for that matter), so we went on our way.

Before we left the famous valley, we made a couple more stops – each hotter and sandier than the other, but still they were fascinating enough for us to look around. I am leaving you with a nice stitched up panorama of one such sandy but fascinating spot.

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And with this, I am wishing you an awesome month of March as I won’t be back before mid-April. Weather is seems to be (temporarily) back to Winter here in Switzerland, with almost a metre of new snow that just fell days ago, so to those of you int he area – have fun in the powder! 🙂

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The Antelope, the Bear, and the Heart

Planning and prepping for another big trip (I am going to tell you more about it, but not today :P), it’s hard not to reminisce about old ones. In addition, I still have so much to tell you about the USA, so here is the next day of our cross-country trip, and we’re still in Page, Arizona.

After compensating the disappointment of Monument Valley with a nice sunset at the Horseshoe Bend, we spent a night in what I saw as a typical American small town hotel. We drank a 40 ( that is 40 oz, which is a standard size for a bottle in the US, apparently) in the room, discussing what it might be going into Antelope Canyon the next day.

We were hoping we might get one of these moments:

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Source: Wikipedia

You know, the-ones-from-the-brochure kind of shots. And we had planned accordingly – we booked the time slot that would get us in the canyon around noon when the sun is high enough to peek through the crevices  at the top. It was almost the perfect time slot.

I say “almost” because in order to have the actual perfect slot you need to be in the photographer’s group. We, however, got the slot right before the “pros”. I didn’t really mind – I had a tiny point-and-shoot camera and a mobile phone with me, so I didn’t have huge ambitions about the pictures I was going to take. Also, as I have mentioned before, I’m more about savouring the moment while in it rather than taking a million of identical pictures of it, so not being able to capture that most awesome picture was not such a huge deal.

That said, being herded along after mere moments in one place because we “need to clear the shot for the photographers” was not what I had in mind when I was sipping Corona in the hotel room, envisioning the marvel of the smooth curves and mesmerising colours of the famous canyon.

That amazing shot above? If you’re just a tourist and haven’t coughed up another $100 or so for the Photography Tour, that shot would probably look something like this:

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So, now that I have all the disillusioning out of the way, time to get to the good part.

And the good part is, the canyon really is amazingly beautiful. The crowds were basically the only downside. I didn’t even care that I kept shaking out fine red and yellow sand from my shoes and even my shorts’ pockets for weeks after.

The tour guides we pretty cool too – since they’ve seen the rocks a million times in all sorts of weather, they knew every clever angle along with the camera settings you need to take a less-than-obvious shot. They would point out the shapes that you might miss in the commotion and this one particularly tall at least parts native American guide personally helped me out with taking a better picture of “The Heart”:

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He also pointed out these amazing curves (and I promise, there hasn’t been any psot-processing on any of these):

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But “The Bear” was all me:

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I love this shape – the mighty beast reaching upwards out of the canyon… I might not have gotten that ray of light on the canyon floor, but radiance in this one makes me not care. Also, it might be less than great but I don’t care because it’s mine. And, most importantly, I had the time to enjoy it in person too. So you do that, too, enjoy that moment when you get the chance.

Here are a couple more shots I managed to sneak in before I was rushed off around the next rock and out of view. Bye…

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Oh, P.S.: We only visited Upper Antelope Canyon (pictured above). You enter this one through a cave entrance that is worthy of a mention in a children’s story about thieves and treasure. There is a Lower Antelope Canyon where, as far as I know, you more descend underground through a crack in the sandstone, which also sounds really cool!

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A Horseshoe for Good Luck

It’s been sooooo long since I wrote a blog post about travelling, this feels almost like my very first one. Because it’s been that long, I am sad and embarrassed to admit that all illusion of continuity and wholeness of my USA trip is probably gone. But since I am working towards diversifying anyhow, I will do what any life coach or about-to-be-ex-partner would advise me to and I will take this as an opportunity.

I will thence use the newly acquired opportunity to show you a couple of pretty pictures and tell you a short story about a sun-soaked afternoon.

So, back in April 2014 – geez, it’s been this long already?! – my man and I did a little cross-country trip in the US. We spent some time in New York, got sunburnt in Miami, then stopped in Colorado for a few days, after which we spent more than a few days among various types of sand.

Last time I reminisced out loud – that is, in writing – about it all, I mentioned how finally we were fed up with the sand (or more specifically we didn’t want to risk our car being fed up with it and leaving us stuck somewhere in Monument Valley), so we skipped 15 of the 17-miles scenic road and headed off to…

More sand. The thing is, when you’re somewhere between Utah and Arizona, and on your way to Nevada, you have limited options on the landscape. So you gotta make the best out of it. Lucky for us, whoever designed that place did have in mind the wanderers who were to pass through that great empty space, and left little gems every here and there for us to look at and marvel.

One such gem – the Horseshoe Bend:

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One piece of advice – if you want great pictures, either go early morning or wait until the actual sunset. Since we cut our Monument Valley visit short, we arrived at the Horseshoe bend at the wrong hour, photography wise. Especially since we’re bad tourist and don’t pack too much heat when it comes to wide angles and lenses. I have since vowed to be taking the GoPro everywhere because some views you just can’t stitch up.

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These are the best pictures I could manage, but, honestly, I’m not even worried about that. I just scrolled to pages of identical photos Google Image search yielded, and apart from the post-processing, they really are all the same.

That is not to say that I did just as good a job with my phone as the photographer who waited for the perfect light with his professional ecquipment, of course not. What I mean to say is that this place is not something you can just take a picture and move on from it. If you go to the Horseshoe bend – and it will probably not be a random pee-break on your road trip – just take your time. What I really wanted to do was wait until all the tourists were gone, all the photos were taken, and silence had once again descended over the desert so I could hang my feet off the edge and just be still for a while – a tiny spec of a human on the edge of this serene meandre and its beautiful colours. How often would you get an opportunity like that nowadays?

Well, I didn’t get to have the place all to myself, but I did get to hang around on its edge for a while, and I think I did get some inner peace out of it. And on that note, despite the unfortunate start, I declare that day a success! 🙂

P.S.: One of the few more interesting photos I found was one made from a radically different vantage point. I’d love to be able to experience that shot:

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Credits: Ann Torrence Photography

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Me Before You: A Review

Another one you probably read as 15507958soon as it came out because there was so much fuss about it, how could you have not. To be honest, I feel it was that same fuss that put me off a little.

I’ve never been a huge popular fiction reader, nor was I one to go after the “trendy” titles. It might have started as my own unconscious teenage rebellion – while all my classmates were reading Paulo Coelho, I was reading Terry Pratchett; while they were lamenting having to write on a quote from the Bible for our mid-term paper, I was unperturbed because I had already read a large part of “the Good Book” a few years before, you know, just to see how it goes 🙂 I had my own speed when it came to choosing literature.

So when reviews and praise about Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You started pouring in, I was intrigued by its success, but the urge to rush to the closest bookshop or order it online never came over me.

The decision to finally pick up this book is a little undermining, but I don’t mean to offend anyone, least of all the author. It’s just that I started listening to audiobooks a few years ago, and it was very hard to “learn” to do that – my mind would wander while shopping or commuting and I’d miss out on big chunks of texts. Then I’d have to rewind, sometimes I couldn’t be bothered or didn’t have the free hand to do that, so I’d just skip that part and see if I can deduce what I’ve missed. Because of all that – and because, as a writer, I like to take my time exploring things like sentense structure in books I really like – I started choosing the books to get on audio from the bottom of my list. That is to say, books I’d like to have read, but I’d rather actually read something else. So one day I stumbled upon Me Before You on audio and thought ‘What the hell, I’ll just listen to this while I’m running or doing the dishes’.

I’m happy to say that: First, I’m now much better at following the book I’m listening to, and second, that I really enjoyed listening to this one. This was, in part, thanks to the great voice cast who brought the story to life.

The main character, Lou, is faced with a reality most of us never have to face – what it means to be a quadriplegic. When she starts a job as Will Traynor’s care taker, Lou discovers a whole new world of hardship that some people must live with. She also gets a little glimpse behind the curtain of posh society. Lou comes from a simple home she shares with her parents, her grandpa, and her younger sister and nephew. She is forced to take the care taker job after she loses her humble but satisfactory one at a local café. She goes in to the Traynor house with next to no ambitions of her own – not for this or any other job, nor for the future in general. The lack of motivation – and life experience, even at 26 – makes it all the more difficult for Lou to start off on the right foot with her ward, Will Traynor – a formerly successful businessman and daredevil with acerbic wit and little patience for anyone.

If you’ve already read the blurb,  you know it’s a love story. I don’t mean to sound jaded, but we all knew what’s about to happen with Lou and Will, so there weren’t many heart palpitations for me on that account. There weren’t any real twists or surprises, but that does not mean it was a bad or simple story, not at all. Jojo Moyes turns attention to something much more important than having to deal with a grouchy boss or even falling in love with him.

It was very much engaging to follow along as Lou learns how to deal with her new responsibilities, balancing her ordinary but demanding personal life, learns a lot about quadriplegia and, mostly, learns how to work Will. It’s a book well researched and well written. There are a couple of subplots that give more dimentions to the characters and touch on social issues at the same time.

There are several hard choices put in front of Lou, and she comes out a little bit stronger on the other side of each one. I enjoyed the character development, and there were a few moments that were pure fun. I did start off disliking Lou, even being annoyed by her – she came across petulant and stupid in the first few chapters but, thankfully, that was phased out later on. The ending was quite clear early on, even if there was a short moment when I wished there might be a twist to it.

I’ve read a lot of praise and teary comments about this book online, but I’m afraid I will not be joining the club with this one either. Looking back at the book, I did enjoy it, and I think it was very well written, but it’s still a poplit book that neither gave me a pause, nor a big lump in the throat. It’s OK if you want to call me cold or a cynic because of that, I guess I might be. Me Before You is a good story about love, life, compassion, and companionship that I would gladly leaf through on any sort of vacation, but it’s not a great story that would stay with me for a long time.

 

 

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Wool. The real down under.

I am definitely late to the party with this one – this book, not only with creating a dedicated place for reviews – but “Better late than never” is a saying for a reason.

I’ll get right into it because I’ve been itching to write this review since I was half-way through the book. Or should I say half-way through the series? Or is an Omnibus not a series per se?

Wool Cover

This is the only confusion that Wool has left behind. As for how good the book is – there are no misunderstandings whatsoever. It was brilliant! The very few times I set aside the book in order to do something else were instantly regretted when I picked it back up. Especially as things finally started to unravel. But let’s not rush ahead.

Starting at the beginning, for those of you who might be even more behind on the Silo-hype (I don’t think that’s a real thing but who knows, I’m rather invested already) than I am, it all started with just the one story, the first of five that compile the Wool Omnibus, namely “Holston”.

We tune in on Holston’s last day as sheriff and first as a death-row prisoner – a fate he chooses himself, professing the highest taboo in the silo: He wants to go outside. Throughout the story, we get better acquainted with Sheriff Holston, learning more about his life, his now dead wife, and also a little bit of the history of the silo.

This story got me hooked like I didn’t expect. I still love the fact that it is very much a stand-alone piece, too. It was one of those short stories that make you look to the ceiling and sigh an audible sigh as you finish the last page, a story that leaves behind a little bit of tingling inside you.

Usually, at the end of such stories, I think to myself “Damn, I wish there was more to this story” and, in this case, there was. I only gave the ending of Holston a few moments to settle in before I turned the page.

The next four parts of Wool are more cohesive, going deeper into the story behind and beyond Sheriff Holston’s fate.

Early on, we understand that the people of the silo are The People. That is it. The outside is more than hostile, it’s unsurvivable, which is why people are born, live, and die in this huge underground complex. Spanning 144 floors, the silo is split into three sections called simply “the up top”, “the mids”, and “the down deep”. It’s almost a human version of an ant-farm – the different levels are connected via metal staircase spiraling top to bottom through the centre of the silo. It’s a challenging trek to get from the up top even to the mids, but in the second part, Proper Gauge, we follow the elderly Mayor Jahns as she undertakes a trip all the way to the down deep together with Holston’s deputy. In the days it takes them to reach the bottom third of the silo we learn more about how everything around there works – the mechanics, the politics, the laws, the social order and peculiarities of a people that lives entirely underground. Much like the ant-farm, everyone in the silo needs to do their part for the sake of the entire silo.

The story rapidly escalates when we meet Juliette, a.k.a. Jules – a talented mechanic from the down deep who makes a couple of exhausting trips from level 130-something to the up top and back again, ending up the next person in line to be “sent to cleaning” only a couple of weeks after Sheriff Holston was. The only spoiler I’ll give away is that the story does not end with Jules going outside.

There are lies, conspiracies, murders, and secrets mixed together in a dynamic, addictive cocktail of a read. It only gets more intense the more you learn about the dystopian future Hugh Howey describes with such ease and in such detail. I liked the fact that things like water and food supply has been given enough attention to show that this sort of life is indeed sustainable; production of all sorts of commodities is addressed subtly but effectively. I would say, the overall feel of the world of the silo is very well-formed and the characters are interesting and multidimensional. The only thing that took me a while to get the right image of was the spiral staircase and its shaft. I kept imagining a wide empty space with the stairs snaking along the wall on the outside of it, whereas it is actually meant to be wound around a pole right in the middle.

Nevertheless, I am well pleased with this book, and I’m already on the hunt for Shift (the hardcover is not as easy to find as I’d hoped). If you’ve read Wool and think I have not done it justice or am overselling it, you can tell me so in the comments. I never turn down a book discussion and welcome constructive comments.

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January behaving… OK

Welcome back – more to my scattered self than to you, I guess – to my cyber-nook.

This blog is named Yoanna vs the World for a reason. We all know how the world tends to get in our way while we are struggling to achieve whatever we’ve set out to do. At the very beginning, this was partly the motivation for creating this little space where I could share my challenges, my experiences, my wins and woes. If you’ve happened to stumble upon my last post, I apologise for that. Now you know this could be a space for useless rants as well. Even I can’t always know exactly what’s going to come out when I start rummaging around in my brain.

messy1

Now that January is behind us, though, I can promise that ranting about a dry-spell of any kind will not be becoming a habit of mine. In fact, even if January wasn’t the most productive month I’ve had writing-wise, 2016 is starting off much better than December had me thinking it would. So…

I, if no one else, hail the new more positive, more motivated, more readerly-writerly year of Yoanna vs the World!

First order of the day would be to announce I’m getting more and more busy with new reading and writing, hence the recent lack of travel stories. This, however, does not mean I am going to stop writing those, just that priorities are shifting here on the blog, but it is definitely for the better.

One thing I have taken more to heart than inoriginal_deadlinesnavyframe previous years are the challenges. After finishing – aka “winning” – NaNoWriMo, I realised challenges are a very good substitute for self-assigned deadlines, especially if you tend to constantly extend or forget about them alltogether as even great writers do *ahem* →

And the best part is the accountability – you have “only” yourself to disappoint because it’s a challenge you set for yourself. When you promise someone else to do something and then let them down, it’s rather easy to make excuses for it and be forgiven, isn’t it? It’s not that easy when you have to make excuses for yourself. Because, after you’ve done all the explaining, however truthful and believable the story and the regret you’re feeling is, you still know. Deep inside, you know that that’s all it is – a story, an excuse. 11327937_876146865798603_1096791405_n

And the only way to quiet down the little voice inside your head that’s pestering you about not finishing that story or that book review or that 15-minute exercise you promised you’ll write today is to simply do the work.

Which is why, after signing up for Goodread’s 2016 Reading Challenge and upping my last year’s goal of 35 books to 40, I thought some additional inspiration might help me out with that.Reading challenge

 

So I went back to Pop Sugar. Last year
I was really keen on doing their 2015 Challenge but, sadly, it never made my list of 2015 achievements. This time around I not only downloaded their 2016 Reading Challenge, but I’ve printed it out and stuck it to my trusty cork board so that it can loom over me at all times as a reminder I have made a commitment (of sorts).

I also put it up here to illustrate I have already been working on it and not just planning to.

Conveniently enough, this challenge has exactly 40 books in it. I’ll aim to tick only one box per book, unless I run out of time/ideas/motivation to read another 600-page book because the first one fit another category better.

I don’t think I’ll be writing a review for all the titles I go through, but in case you are interested, I’ve written a couple already.

You can find the review of A New York Times bestseller here, that of A book that’s becoming a movie this year here (I’m quite excited about this one actually), and a very short one for a short book (under 150 pages) here.

As for the any new reviews, I will give them their proper space. First one to come will be that of a dystopian novel. But in order to get to that, I’m gonna have to finish the book first.

And on that note, off I go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What is wrong with you, December?!

I’m serious, there is something radically off about the past couple of weeks and the only common denominator that comes to mind is that they were both in the month of December. IMG_20151211_174049And so that you don’t get any wrong ideas, it is not the spirit of Christmas or whatever. I am the last person you will see in a Christmas jumper and Christmas-tree-ornament-earrings or any other festive style accessories. The closest thing to that would be my alcohol-themed necklace, courtesy of my most awesome girl friend – Cheers, Gabs! 🙂

So could this be a post-NaNo thing? Because I have not been able to sit down and write a coherent page since November ended. Or is it a post-London depression, because I just spent a few days there and I’m always a little sad when I have to leave again. Or could the P in PMS also stand for “post”? And if things like that can pile up, well, right before the holidays is one hell of a time to get that going! Because we all know what a relaxing time the winter holidays are. Not! (Just in case someone didn’t glean the sarcasm)

So what is wrong with December? Is it something about sun-eruptions or geomagnetic storms that makes everyone especially resistant to productive concentration or is it something that only turns my ADD into something suspiciously resembling my university years exam-weeks?

exam-weeks_o_1061628

That is pretty much how I feel about my time management these days. What this had made me realise is that I became so invested in the book I was reading for work (sort of) and the tv show I was watching for pure entertainment (The 100) that everything else became a low priority story. Including my own!! How awful is that? And now that both the book and two seasons of The 100 are done – finished on the same day too! – my life is in that well-known limbo again.

I don’t want to say “writer’s block”, but this is pretty much the most my daily creativity would amount to this week:

 

writers-block

Picture: source

 

Only it’s not as bad ass as this. On the bright side – the house is spotless now, and I’m almost packed for a my visit back home for the aforementioned holidays, so that ought to count for something, right?!

Ughh, I know, I know, I’ll try and do better next time…

 

 

xx, y.

P.S.: Oh, and might I add, the new WP editor is the worst! It’s one of the reasons I’ve been putting off writing the next travel post – inserting pictures and making the post look in a specific way has become impossibly user UNfriendly. I’m not happy.

Posted in On a slow day..., Procrastination, Shit Happens | 1 Comment

#NaNoWriMo – results & consequences

Ding-dong, the month is done!

Yes, the equally anticipated, boycotted, and ignored in the writerly world month of November is already behind us, and with it a lot of pressure for some people out there.

A couple of weeks ago, I managed to get away from the obsessive-compulsive idea that all the words I’m writing should be going towards my NaNo overall word count, and composed this post summarising my experience so far.

Now that NaNoWriMo is officially over and I am officially a “winner” –
yes, I won, even though I don’t necessarily feel like bragging about it yet – here’s a short afterthought.

The reason why I wouldn’t brag about winning NaNo is neither because I want to downplay my or anyone else’s achievement, nor because I’m “too cool to talk about a win”, nor still because I don’t really feel like I’ve won yet. The latter, however, would be closest to the truth.

For me, the National Novel Writing Month was a personal challenge and a way to sit my arse down and get a good chunk of this story of mine out. It was also a way to finally have some external motivation to write every single day in order to develop a good habit (for a change).

So, am I a novelist now? Hah! Sorry, NaNo people, but as much as you keep telling that to all of your participants, the answer is “No”. Not even close. Anyone with any reason in their head knows that it’s impossible to come out with a ready for print novel in a month of sprinting against the clock. If you’re very good, very talented, and very persistent, you can probably have a nice looking first draft. And that’s optimistic. I, personally, am not nearly close to finishing that first draft. Because as I go along and I’m thinking “Oh, I have these couple of chapters here to get to the culmination”, it turns out there is so much more that pops up and demands to be explained and understood. Characters refuse to die or stars don’t line up right when you need them too… It’s a complicated process.

Do I still consider myself a winner NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Squarethen? Absolutely! This is my real gain from this month – not only am I more than 55,000 words closer to finishing my novel but now this story, thinking about it, writing it, is such an integral part of me and my every day that I know I will finish it. It might not become a bestseller, it might not even get published at all, but it will come into existence, and I will have NaNoWriMo to thank for that in a big way.

Long story short – because I am yet again short for time, due to some travelling that needs to be done in an hour – at the risk of sounding very, very sentimental and overly dramatic, NaNoWriMo might just have been the best thing I’ve ever done for my career as a writer. Only time will tell.

So, if you’re someone who’s ever thought of doing NaNo, but got dissuaded, because they didn’t think they’d manage to “win” – attempting something is already so much more victorious than never even trying!

And to those who discard the notion on the basis that the platform feeds unrealistic ideas of becoming a novelist overnight, or because they think it’s just a crazy dream:

  1.  You always have to rely first and foremost on your own reason – think for yourself and trust your own judgement, don’t just follow blindly other people’s ideas or convictions. That goes for life in general.
  2. I believe every writer needs a little bit of crazy, a little bit of unrealistic dreamer, and a little bit of naivety inside them. I might be wrong, but… I’m not known for that among my friends 😛
  3. Oh yes, I’m also pretty sure that writers do need to be cocky and unapologetic sometimes. Sometimes 🙂

xx, y.

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What I learnt from #NaNoWriMo 2015

For starters, 2000 words is not that much.

I often get to about 1000 words writing my travel posts and I think “OK, this is enough for today, wouldn’t want my readers to scroll through the post and think ‘Gosh, this is endless, I’m not devoting that much of my time to this girl!'” (And to those of you who do give me your time, a big thank you!)

But it’s not the same when you’re writing fiction (or non-fiction) but especially when it’s long form, let’s call it for short “a novel”.  When writing a novel you need the word count in order to even be able to call it a novel. If you look into it, there are standards for the length of novels in different genres, too: Like these or these just for a “for instance”.

What NaNoWriMo is great for in this aspect is the word count. It’s a race to get 50K down and out of you in 30 days. It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It’s not a little, I’ll tell you that, because I’ve tried doing NaNo before, and I didn’t “win” (which is what they call it if you manage to get said word count within the month of November). What they do to motivate you, though, is break it down for you and convince you to take it just one day at a time. Broken down, those 50 thousand words are just 1667 words per day!

That might not sound so little either, but NaNoWriMo is not just a race, it’s a marathon; it’s meant to take you a long distance, not just out of your comfort zone for a day. And this is where my new-found knowledge started to take form.

I have read many a wise saying by many a famous author, and the one thing they all have in common is that if you really want to be a writer, you should be writing every day. From here on out the disagreements start – some say you should do a thousand words minimum every day, others say 400 is enough (just FYI, Hemingway was a 400-word kind o’ guy).

For me, writing every day became the goal I was working towards. Because you always read or hear about these people who can’t go a day without writing. They write on the train home, and on the can, while they’re breastfeeding or saving kittens from a burning building. And I’m thinking “Am I such a poor multitasker or am I just not cut out to be a writer?!” Which is, for many young writers, the point in time when panic starts to set in.

So NaNo has a two-fold function for me: 1. Facing my fear – do I really have a story in me, would it actually make sense once it’s out of my head? and 2. Sitting the fuck down and writing every goddamn day! 

And guess what! I am now, some days, one of those people – I’m the one who writes in-between laundry loads; the one who fits in an hour of writing before training; the one who takes little surreptitious notes on her phone late at night, because her significant other has pinned her down and she can’t get to her computer or pen and paper at the moment. That is not to say that I can’t go a waking moment without it – I still take my time with my coffee in the morning and take TV breaks in the afternoon because…uuuh, I’m human and I’m flawed?! But now, after not even two weeks, writing every day is what I do. What I want to do.

Getting back to the 2000 words mentioned in the beginning (because that’s how I started, and I’m in a mode where I silence my inner editor, so what you’re reading here is basically a first draft with the typos fixed), it’s not a completely random number. See, I know I tend to flake out on goals that I have set for myself, so when they say: “You’ve got to write 1667 words a day on average” my mind goes: “Yeah, I’ll never make that if I’m going for it.”

Then my slight OCD kicks in and another voice in my head goes: “What kind of a fucked up game are you playing? Giving me a bloody prime number to aim for! Bastards!” So I round up like a third-grader – not to the next zero-zero number like 1700, but to 2000. Why 2000? Because even if I go back on myself and do about three-quarters of that, that’s still 1500 words. And at that point it’s just plain stupid not to put in another 200 words. This is my way of having my cake and eating it too – I slack off and don’t reach the target word count, but still I have done the necessary minimum. Ha-ha! 😀

But here comes the surprise: apart from the two days I spent getting wasted in the mountains with friends, there’s only been one day that I have not surpassed that 2000 words a day self-set target. Because 2000 words is not that much! Of course, at least a third of the 20-something thousand words I’ve written since the beginning of the month are going to be scratched off with disgust come Christmas time, and that’s positive thinking, but as all of those wise authors with the pearls of wisdom say: you can edit a shitty first draft, you can’t edit a blank page. If, at the end of the day – or the month – I can edit those 2000 shitty words down to 500 or even 200 great ones, I’ll be a happy writer.

And this takes me to the second crucial thing I have finally come to experience for myself: writing is a job like any other. I’ve heard about this, we all have. I was doing an interview with a writer many moons ago, and he was telling me how people keep having this romantic idea of the writer who sits by the window with a cup of steaming hot beverage, leering into the distance until his Muse finally comes by to smack him on the back of the head and get him to write his fucking masterpiece!

At that time, I was still doing my bachelor’s in journalism, and being a writer had not yet fully formed as a plan in my romantic green gourd. After all, not long before that, I was the girl who’d, in a fit, run out of the room in the middle of a class, clutching only a torn off notebook page and a pen and write tortured poems on some steps somewhere around the school. That is to say, at that time, I was still a defender of literature’s equivalent of Newton’s apple. And I was also waiting for it to hit me on the head.

But that’s not how it works. And if I wasn’t sure before, now I know that nothing happens until you put that pen to paper or you open that blank document and start typing. It’s not your muse, who has to come a-knocking for you to start writing. It is you who gives your muse a good shake in the morning – or nudges a glass of wine in its hands in the evening – to start writing. And once you do, you get to see that there’s so much more going on in that story than you thought – it’s amazing!

Writing is like reading a really good book – you think you know what’s going to happen, but the characters often surprise you 🙂

And the best part about being a writer? Forget the fact that you might have to work for free for a while, or the glorious feeling that is being able to work in your pajamas. The best thing is that whatever happens, whatever your social or professional situation, you can always, always write.

So if you have the yearning, go for it, write, you’ve already got 1/9 of what you need to write a novel 🙂

xx, y.

Posted in It's been on my mind, On a slow day..., On Writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments