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There's a subset of male Japanese tourists that seem to derive a lot of pleasure from taking their immaculately made-up and demure girlfriends and putting them in degrading situations. I saw it many times in Italy – I saw several men put pigeon feed in their girlfriends' hair and then take pictures as the rats of the air landed on their screaming heads for a bit of a snack. Perhaps they fancy themselves the directors of one of the many extreme game shows that form the bulk of Japanese TV.

In any case, there's one Japanese tourist who brought his poor girlfriend along to the bungee jump I did. She was dressed in a short skirt with stockings and heels, almost as if she had been directly airlifted out of a major city tourist attraction into the outdoor sports paradise of Interlaken. It's actually fortunate her skirt wasn't longer because then the bungee harness leg loops would have scrunched it up into a goofy pair of leg wings. Prior to the bungee jump there was a weigh-in.

Woman: “I'm 59kg.”
Bungee operator: “Please get on the scale.”
Woman: “I'm 59kg.”
Bungee operator: “We need your exact weight. It's very important. You could get hurt if we set the bungee wrong.”
Woman: “I'm 59kg.”
Bungee operator: “If you don't get on the scale, you can't go.”
A few seconds pass. Woman gets on the scale.
Bungee operator: (Loudly) “67kg. Put her in group B!”
Bungee operator 2 (Loudly): “67kg. Got it!”
Bungee operator: (Loudly) “Yep, 67kg!”

Socially constructed embarrassment vs physical danger... Ah, priorities.

I talked to her after the jump and she said she liked it, though she could have just been saying that to be
polite. She screamed a perfect horror-movie scream on the way out of the gondola.
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It's been an interesting four months.

p1090325 by you.

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Say what you will about the inefficiencies of government-subsidized small-scale alpine Swiss ranching efforts... these are the best conditions I've ever seen for any livestock.  The cheese is fantastic too.

p1090347 by you.
Note the paraglider in the background... I had to squeeze in another Swiss cliche


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I did the last of the three extreme activities on a rough day that promised an afternoon thunderstorm. Because I had a train ticket out, I had to go with a morning hang gliding session in order to avoid possible storm delays.

I chose hang gliding as my last activity because it would provide the closest possible experience to flying. In a hang glider, you are suspended horizontally, Superman-style, next to your tandem pilot. There's no motor, so your experience of floating above the hills is completely quiet. Hang gliders have an incredibly simple control mechanism. They are completely fixed-wing; you dive, climb, and turn just by shifting your weight and thus the hang glider's center of gravity.

The takeoff was incredibly smooth. The pilot and I started running down a hill and quickly found ourselves airborne. I giddily looked around at the landscape opening up below me, trees pointing their pointy tips up at me. It was a fairly relaxing experience. I didn't get any fear of heights as I felt securely strapped in.  Because of the lack of thermals, the flight was fairly short, and the pilot only had time for a couple of steep diving turns before landing. I was hoping to do more, but conditions didn't allow for it. I did get to experience enough that I know I'd want to play more with hang gliding in the future.

I'm amused that it took me several hours to realize why the hauntingly beautiful song “Walking in the air” had been stuck in my head all day. Here's the original version from the Snowman cartoon, and the rather good goth/metal version done by Nightwish.

It was very pleasurable and serene to finally fly nearly unencumbered like I occasionally do in my dreams.


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The act of bungee jumping lasts only about 15 seconds or so. However, these fifteen seconds are the orgasmic moment at the crux of the several hours' preparation and reflection, the focal point of the day's conscious thought.

Because of this intense mental pressure and the massive sensory stimulation during the jump, my memory of the actual event was sketchy and had to be pieced together after the fact. The normal conscious thought processes broke down as my mind was overwhelmed with data. I was only able to piece together the experience in retrospect.

First, some background: The jump is around 400 ft high, about the same height as the Golden Gate Bridge. The jump is done over water, allowing the bungee operators to take risks with how close they get you to the water's surface. Based on your weight, the stopping heights of previous jumpers, and current wind conditions, they can roughly estimate what height your jump will end at. They can't guarantee a dunk, but they can try to get you as close as possible to the surface, leaving an element of surprise in place. Stories of people who survived suicide attempts off the Bridge often describe the last-minute revelations (usually a re-evaluation of their decision to commit suicide) of jumpers. This jump essentially allows you to experience the sort of thing these people go through (minus the expectation of death), with a life-saving deceleration at the end.

Here's what I experienced:

(countdown to 0)
T+0. I'm jumping backwards to heighten the experience. Thus, I'm facing the people in the cable lift as I push off into a backflip.
T+1 (-15ft) Mountains show up upside down, along with beautiful alpine lake above and the sky below. I'm screaming a nice primal scream The weightlessness and mounting rush of air as I'm disoriented and falling away from my field of view are intense. Prolonged weightlessness is a very unusual feeling, and it's something most of us (with the exception of skydivers) are not prepared to deal with. It's rare as an adult to get a completely new physical sensation.
T+2 (-60ft) Facing the water now. I stop screaming. Nothing's really under conscious control. This is interesting because I didn't scream on roller coasters, tandem skydives, or even my first bungee attempt. Going backwards is definitely more intense.
T+3 (-135ft) The smooth ripples of the wave equation happening below in the alpine lake are a nice aesthetically pleasing gooey spread of mathematically derived wrinkles. Huh. Time to start screaming again.
T+4 (-240ft) Wrinkles are growing fast. Might hit the water soon. I should get in position. Arms locked in a fist above the head. Face pointed toward the horizon so the top of the head hits the water instead of the face. Fists should break water first, then head. (Do not under any circumstances be looking at the water when you hit it. You'll look like a bunch of hoodlums beat you up)
T+5 (~-350ft) Really slowing down. Damn, looks like I won't touch the water. Not even close. I hear the a voice from the boat on the water surface radio “12 meters”. I'm going up.
T+6. (~-350ft). Gotta look at the cable car for the photographer to get a good photo. Tiny little cable car far away.
T+7-T+40 For the next several seconds I bounce up and down, and as planned, I use some of the momentum from the intermittent acceleration to get myself in a bit of a spin. Then the operators gradually lower the line until I've landed in the boat.

Everyone who had jumped was miraculously transformed into a relaxed, happy soup of endorphins. We all sat around making pleasant conversation.

Here's the one pic that actually came out well:
dsc_8063 by you.

A couple of people actually dunked. I captured one on video. Here's what it looks like:

As I mentioned earlier, I was interested in reliving my jump experience from the summer of 1998 when I was 18.  Both jumps had a theme of power and purpose, but the experiences of the jumps were very different.  I've changed, and the jump has changed.  (The old 250ft jump I did was taken down in 2000 after a ride operator mistakenly used the wrong bungee and sent the jumper to their death.  The company offering the jumps went out of business but later reincorporated as Outdoor Interlaken.  To this day they do not offer bungee  jumping.)

Me in 1998:

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In Interlaken, I blew a very substantial allocation of cash on several extreme activities, but I worked to get the most from my money by choosing three fairly orthogonal experiences. They were:

2.Bungee Jumping
3.Hang gliding

First, I'm going to talk about canyoning:

Canyoning is the act of following a river down a canyon by whatever means possible.  It was the most dangerous of the three activities, the most hands-on, and the longest. I chose the special advanced course, which warned that I would have to be very physically fit and fearless. I had only done canyoning once before in Arroyo Seco with some friends a couple of years back. During that trip, I had enjoyed the challenge of having to perform under fear -- doing difficult jumps into a watery minefield filled with various underwater rocks.

I was the oldest person in the group by probably around 6 or 7 years. My all-male compatriots primarily consisted of fresh graduates from a couple of colleges in Nebrasks and Florida on a parental-sponsored Europe trip. They had the standard macho guy thing going on, with rapport-building conversation topics centered on strip clubs, drinking, sports, and MTV-Jackass style jokes, but it was interesting to watch the nuances of it. For example, it became clear that most of the group was actually scared by a lot of the stuff we were doing, and that much of the bravado was actually the male version of the caring support network that groups of women tend to more visibly form. I managed to sort of fit in and then share some of my favorite memes about how people should allocate their expenditures on experiences and acquiring free time instead of buying more stuff in order to achieve a more lasting happiness. They were receptive.

The actual canyoning activity was centered around a steep ravine carved by a glacial mountain river. The river water is periodically filled with silt from glacial runoff, so it quickly (geologically speaking) grinds deep holes in the mountain. The combination of this grinding water and hard unbroken rock has led to the formation of steep natural waterslides, many of which are exactly the right size for a person to go down. Some of the slides came with instructions like “Keep your arms crossed in front of your face because this slide tends to want to turn you around and try to bash your face against that rock over there.” A couple of slides were so intense and so fast that I ended up not being able to see anything due to water in my eyes.

There were also a lot of jumps into the water. At up to 40ft high, these jumps were substantially higher than any jumps I had done before, and I was looking forward to facing them and having to overcome my fear. However, the guides were experienced in human psychology and needed to keep the group moving, so they gave everyone a countdown for each jump. It basically didn't give you any time to be scared, forcing you to skip any deliberation and meet a very rapid deadline.

Onee of the more intense activities was a combination jump-slide where you had to jump across a small ravine, turn in midair, inelastically collide with a nearby vertical rock face, and then slide down it about 15ft into the water. There was also a Matrix wall, which was sloped 45 degrees and curved. We were challenged to run as far as we could on the wall before falling into the water below.

Overall the experience was very impressive, and I was happy I was able to et a sense for the level of canyoning you can do when accompanied by advanced guides in a less sue-happy country than the US.

Here's the website (with video) of this canyoning course:  (You have to click on Chli Schliere to get the video of the advanced course I did to play.)
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So it turns out that the extreme sports were even more extreme than I thought.

The canyoning included a huge number of very high jumps (up to 40ft) and fast natural rock slides, as well as odd things like a place where you had to jump over some water onto an opposing near-vertical rock face and then (without stopping) slide down into the water. It reminded me of parkour videos.

The 400-ft bungee jump was over a lake, so they could afford to do jumps in which we came extremely close to the water before rebounding. A couple of people even ended up dunking a bit before rebounding. (I have a video I'll post)

I went out of the gondola backwards and did an immediate backflip. This made the experience far more intense than my last jump at age 18. I did return to the site of that jump and looked at its now-defunct cable car. The memories of that time in my life resurfaced with an intensity stronger than other self-intersections of my past trip and I felt a connection to a past self that was undergoing a dramatic transformation.

Since I'm still alive, I figured I should do something fun tomorrow, like tandem hang gliding. The terrain here is incredibly beautiful -- it's almost in the same league with places like Yosemite. It should make for some excellent viewing.
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I'm back in Interlaken, Switzerland. This is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Swiss have more or less lovingly turned the mountainous regions of their own country into a giant nature theme park. There are scenic train rides, cable cars to amazing vistas, bike trails, walking trails, and support for a wide variety of extreme sports. It's all very well maintained and appears to be minimizing environmental impact. It's probably one of the most successful ecotourism operations on the planet, and has been for much longer than the word ecotourism.

Anyway due to the timing of an incoming storm, I will be doing both the extreme advanced canyoning and the extra-long 134m bungee jump tomorrow in a combined extremaganza that will deplete my cash reserves by more than a week's worth of travel in Vietnam. If you don't see any more entries for a while, it means I'm probably in a hospital somewhere. :-) But seriously, I think it will be fairly safe doing canyoning with experienced guides and a reputable company.

The paragliding is very tempting too.
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I went to to the most famous chocolate shop in Zurich. The small chocolate truffles were excelleent, though no better than you could get at Cocoabella. In addition, their selection was much smaller than Cocoabella. Finally, they had very few bars on offer, and I was sad to see they were selling Lindt there. Lindt is decent, but there are far better brands. I did find a large gourmet supermarket with a better selection, but so far the best chocolate I've had is called Cafe Tasse, which I've found in Riga and nowhere else. It's a Belgian brand. (cue digression on Swiss-Belgian chocolate rivalry and much chocolate-eating)
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In Zurich I finally intersected my path from my post-Freshman-year trip to Europe. This is exciting because I have finally managed to verify firsthand that the world is in fact round. I've now traveled to the same location by going east from the US as well as by going west.

There have been various other things I've felt the need to verify firsthand:
- The atomic bomb (saw the damaged buildings in Hiroshima)
- The Holocaust (saw the remains of Auschwitz)
- The destruction of the world trade center (was in NYC in 2002)
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Phase shifting.

When I was 18 and spending a summer running around Europe, I enjoyed the shock value of taking night trains between Switzerland and Italy so much that I did so several times. The stereotypes of Switzerland and Italy are cultural polar opposites in just about every way – clean/dirty, organized/disorganized, reserved/gregarious, low corruption / high corruption, secretive / wide open, uptight/laidback. It's a social transition, though there are certainly visual elements to it.

This time, I did the train ride during the day. The scenery was absolutely stunning, as the Swiss more or less constantly had to either use bridges or tunnels for a good 200km of the route. I sat, patiently waiting to slide across the Swiss/Italian continuum. It ended up being somewhat discontinuous. At Lugano, a city that at least from the train rivaled Santorini in natural beauty, a gaggle of Italian speakers entered the train and it was instantly livened up, much to the chagrin of the curmudgeonly British vacationers across from me. (They're going to Florence. Good luck with that.)

So a few days later I went back to check out this little transition point. For you bay area folk, Lugano is like an Italian version of Sausalito, run efficiently by the Swiss, and with much more mountainous terrain. (For the rest of you, Sausalito is a pricey but cute and chill seaside town across the bridge from San Francisco) It's balmy enough that palm trees can grow naturally here, lending the plae a vaguely tropical feel. It's quite possibly the best of both worlds... Italian food and liveliness with Swiss beauty and efficiency.
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When my friends from home visited in Turkey, we had a whole long conversation about how cool it would be for future archaeologists to uncover a 20th-century museum, and place blurbs on the old blurs explaining 20th century museum customs.

In Warsaw the Communists had turned the main cathedral into a Museum of Atheism. When the Russians were kicked out in 1989, the church unsurprisingly got the cathedral back. I'm a bit sad though... I wish I could have seen what a Russian museum of atheism looked like.

Well, I did finally get to see a museum of a museum in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. Back in the 1930s, one section of the building had been set up a a museum of some family that lived in some castle. This exhibit was closed for several decades but not taken down. Eventually, enough time had passed that the way the objects were exhibited became interesting, so they reopened it unchanged as a museum of 1930s era museum practices.

The exhibits were crammed close together like a grandmother's living room and very light on description... in fact, almost evety exhibit simply had a number on the cabinet. People at the time either had pamphlets or were shown around by a curator. I imagine it was something akin to wandering through the personal collection of an old professor, with the professor stopping every few seconds to say things like “now this is a most extraordinary find... the Hussite peoples in the 12th century were ...”

There's something a lot more interesting and closer to home for most of you. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles looks and acts like a museum but it's actually an art piece exploring the nature of the museum experience, the act of imbibing information, and the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. The subect matter of the exhibits is interesting, only partially true, and somewhat irrelevant to the point of the experience.


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February 2011

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