Yosemite

The Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

Is just gorgeous. 

   

  

 

But a word of advice: make sure you have plenty of gas, just in case there’s a rock slide on your planned route out of the park. Otherwise you may find yourself cruising down a mountain in neutral and hoping you make it to the gas station in Wawona before your engine shuts down. 

The sun setting over Yosemite National Park

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0 to 14,000 Feet

The Mauna Kea Observatories

The Mauna Kea Observatories

There are few places in the world where you can drive from sea level to almost 14,000 feet in a matter of a few hours, but this is what we did to visit the Mauna Kea Observatories on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The path to the summit of Mauna Kea

The path to the summit of Mauna Kea

The summit of Mauna Kea stands at 13,800 feet. Mount Cameroon, which is the tallest mountain in West Africa, is 13,255 feet tall by contrast. Building the observatories at the top of Mauna Kea was a pretty controversial move. The mountain is a very sacred place in the Hawaiian tradition and there was a lot of opposition to scientists coming in and using the land. The thing is that Mauna Kea also currently has the best seeing in the northern hemisphere, with its height and location in the Pacific Basin. It is because of the observatories that are up there now that humans have been able to see planets orbiting other stars.

My dad is into these sorts of things – observatories and telescopes. In fact, he makes his living making some of the chips and sensors that make them work. So he is the one that called up the observatories to organize a tour for his family to go see the Gemini North Telescope. He was asked if he was interested in an educational or professional tour – apparently they are trying to discourage tourists from going up there. A professional tour it was.

The next barrier to getting to the Mauna Kea Observatories is that driving up there violates your contract with all but one rental car company on the island. So we rented a 4 wheel drive vehicle for the day and started on our way up. During the drive the landscape went from old lava flows to grassy hills to shrub land, until the plant life was pretty much nonexistent and it looked like we were on another planet.

Once we were up there, we faced another challenge: the altitude. We had all spent an hour at about 9,000 feet where there was a small visitors’ center and where we met our guide, Janice, and had lunch together in the cafeteria where the scientists eat. She told us that the altitude affects people in unpredictable ways: that she had taken triathletes to the top that ended up fainting from the thin air, as well as 400 pound native Hawaiians who were perfectly fine. She and my dad disagreed on whether it was a good idea to have the all-you-can-eat ice cream that was included in the lunch. My dad claimed that eating too much would make all of our blood rush to our stomachs, leaving less to get oxygen to our brains. Janice said that she thought the slight increase in blood sugar actually helped. We all (including my dad) opted for a modest amount of ice cream. In the end there was no fainting on our trip up. I would occasionally start to feel lightheaded, and was certainly concentrating on my breathing much more than usual, but none of us got too weird.

And the views were otherworldly.

The view from outside the Gemini North Observatory

The view from outside the Gemini North Observatory

America!

I arrived back in the land of supermarkets and hot and cold running water (that you can drink right out of the tap!) for my two week summer vacation two Fridays ago on July 26th. Since then I have developed a sort of elevator pitch explanation in response to the constant asking of the same questions by different people (So how do you like Africa? What exactly do you do there? What is the food like?). It has been pretty gratifying, though, to hear a lot of people tell me that they’ve been reading this blog – so thanks, guys, even those of you who don’t comment!

I have also constantly stuffed my face with bagels and cream cheese, sushi, Mexican food, and many other delicious things I hadn’t seen for a while.

A California burrito in California

A California burrito in California

Last Tuesday I drove down to Santa Monica to meet my friend, Kellye, and go have an open air food truck dinner. As we sat on the grass and munched on El Salvadorian street food and Sweet Arlene’s cupcakes, one of her industry friends came to join us. It came up that I had been in Cameroon with the Peace Corps for the last ten months, and he asked me whether I was now disgusted by American excess and consumerism. I responded almost immediately: “But I love it!”

Pretty soon the conversation moved on, but I continued to ponder the question. Ok, it was probably a little silly that we were sitting on a nice lawn in an area that gets far less annual rainfall than the North of Cameroon, and I had been constantly astounded by the amount of packaging that comes with seemingly everything in America (having no trash pickup for a few months will really make you notice that sort of thing). And it probably is excessive to have a separate car on the road for every adult that can drive – but how often have I wished for my own car and the right to drive while in Cameroon? (Answer: pretty often.) I’m not saying that the American way of life is perfect, but it sure is comfortable, and it’s home, and boy do I find myself missing it sometimes.

Last Friday I saw a friend from high school (and middle school, and oh yeah, we went to the same elementary school, too!) get married, and it was beautiful, and even more friends were in town for the wedding. By now Mary and Barry are off on their honeymoon in Italy. Best wishes to both of them! As for me, I am currently enjoying my second week in America on a family vacation in Hawaii before I start the trip back to Cameroon on Sunday.

To answer that first questions (How do you like Africa?): it is in turns really amazing and really frustrating. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t go back, but I also know I’ll be missing life here in America when I do.