el capitan

“Climbing is all about flirting with the impossible and pushing the boundaries of what you think can be done,” says Tommy Caldwell who, together with another professional rock climber, Kevin Jorgeson, made history by completing the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall in January 2015.

The Dawn Wall is a notoriously difficult section on the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. That’s the one shown in the picture above. It is the steepest, tallest, blankest section of El Cap.

El Capitan is considered the largest granite monolith in the world, being formed from a single chunk of granite.

Masood and I had the chance to admire this imposing rock late last year, so when I first read the news of these two rock climbers, I immediately got interested and followed their progress.



yosemite valley

Would you believe that I haven’t edited this picture except for adding the frame? El Capitan is the granite rock on the left. This is called the Tunnel View.

Summer is when Yosemite is most busy, specially during school break. We visited during autumn which, as I have observed, isn’t really the best time to visit because the water levels are very low, with waterfalls (including Yosemite Falls) containing little or no water, and also because Yosemite is not known for having spectacular fall colors because most of the trees are evergreen. The best thing about visiting in October-November is that students are back in school, making the park less crowded.

yosemite valley in fall

I walked a few steps back to capture this photograph of the same place so that you may see excited tourists taking in the breathtaking view of the valley. The weather was great – the air crisp and pleasantly cool, the sun nice and mild.

So we stood there, an hour before dusk, admiring El Capitan. We have joined a dozen or so other tourists on a day-trip to Yosemite. Our driver/guide was a friendly young man who was very knowledgeable and passionate about everything California related. He let us borrow his binoculars and pointed out three of the climbers who were half-way through scaling El Capitan.

el capitan in yosemite

“That is crazy!” said the eyes of the Japanese lady who did not speak English. She and her husband were the only tourists on the bus with us that did not speak English. Although the couple appear to be enjoying themselves, I couldn’t help but feel sorry that they could neither partake in our friendly conversations nor understand the interesting facts our guide was sharing with us.

I walked towards the Japanese lady, handed her the binoculars, and asked her to look through it. I pointed toward El Capitan and made an effort to explain that there were people climbing the rock. My hand gestures may seem ridiculous but it successfully conveyed the message and the lady was definitely astonished and amazed with what she saw. Later, she gave me her warmest smile.

el cap

A typical ascent can last from seven to ten days, but here’s a fun-fact: you can actually get to the summit by hiking 13 kilometers up the back. That’s how the family members and reporters got to the top to meet the rock climbers who made history.

I had a classmate back in university who spent 90% of his free time climbing rocks. I thought his hobby was crazy considering that we hardly got any free time away from books and classrooms, plus how did he, on a student budget, even manage to afford traveling and buying ropes and the paraphernalia needed for the rock climbing?

While I’m sure I won’t be climbing any rock formation that is more than three feet high, I can’t help but sometimes admire the courage and determination of those who do it. We all have different goals and dreams in life, and these people love what they do and they work and practice hard to achieve their goals.

There are, unsurprisingly, those who think rock climbing is dumb. There are hilarious comments left on NY Times, for example:

“Tom Cruise did something like this for that movie Mission Impossible, not sure if it was the I or the II, but he definitely made it look easy. I actually canceled my own trip to El Capitan after seeing that film, and instead went bow hunting for lion in Kenya. Maybe this year I’ll give it the old spin.” – Patrick

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pacific ocean

When a blue whale dives into the water, its head is already deeper than most scuba divers dare to go before its tail leaves the surface of the water. Close your eyes and try to process this fact for a minute. Amazing, isn’t it?

Masood and I found ourselves in Point Lobos State National Reserve without having had prior knowledge this place existed. Poor planning and lack of research on my part, for sure, but then we were pressed for time and couldn’t afford to visit every park and reserve that came our way between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

drive from san francisco to point lobos

“Whatever you do, do not miss driving on the Pacific Coast Highway when you visit California,” says everyone who has driven on this twisting, cliff-hugging, 200-kilometer route along central California.

Also known as Highway 1, this route is considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. Prior to our trip, Masood called someone he knew had been to the US several times to ask about his opinion about this drive. “Yeah, I’ve done it but it’s been so long ago and I don’t remember much.” I promptly told my beloved that I do not believe this guy. Nobody forgets about their Highway 1 drive.


We stayed overnight at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a lovely city roughy 200 kms south of San Francisco. The town has a total population of only 3,700. Carmel is known for its natural scenery and rich artistic history. Apparently, a lot of writers and poets from the early 1900s came here to derive inspiration from the beautiful landscape.

Our plan was to simply stay overnight in Carmel to rest and then resume our road trip early the next day. However, due to my consistent demand to always start early in the morning coupled by the fact that the Apple Store in Cupertino was closed when we visited (we had, otherwise, allocated a good three hours for shopping), we arrived in Carmel way ahead of schedule. This turned out to be quite fortunate, of course. The nice gentleman running the motel we stayed at suggested we visit Point Lobos State National Reserve.



Australian landscape artist Francis McComas discovered this scenic town and called it “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.”

I believe this artist and, if only we had the luxury of time, would definitely have loved to stay at least two days in Carmel to explore and learn about the diverse flora and fauna of this place.

And although we visited late last year, it was hot. There’s a great hiking trail within the park but we drove around since I don’t particularly fancy perspiring in my hijab. Plus hiking takes time, which we did not have. But mainly, as much as I hate admitting it, I just did not want to intentionally get tired before reaching my destination.


See those steps? I did not climb those so I have no idea where they lead to but they surely do make a good subject for a photograph.

But in my defense, I did end up walking – from the car park to the museum about 1 km away. Since we did not do any research, I had no idea there was a museum here. While walking on a tree-lined path, we came across a cute little cabin that reminded me of fairy tales, like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.

Except there wouldn’t be a nicely paved, concrete road like this in the fairy tales.

whalers cabin point lobos

whale museum in carmel

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Whalers Cabin Museum.  The cabin overlooks Whalers Cove and Carmel Bay just as it has for over 160 years.

Once upon a time, a small group of Chinese fishermen and their families moved to Carmel and built their residences, one of which is this museum. The year was 1850, making this cabin one of the oldest wood-frame buildings of Chinese origin remaining in Monterey County.

More than the existence of this ancient house, I am astounded by the fact that the Chinese traveled all the way here by sea, in the 1850s. I tried Google Maps to see how many days it would take me to travel by sea but it only gave me the option to travel by air, as if dismissing the idea of a journey by ship preposterous.

beijing to carmel

Point Lobos State Reserve reflects a resplendent, natural harmony between land, sea, and sky. There is an area within the reserve known as the Whalers Cove. It consists of a sandy bottom with dispersed rocky outcroppings. Thick beds of giant kelp cling to these rocks. And where you find thick beds of kelp, you find sea otters napping.

The Whalers Cove is about 30-foot deep and is great for snorkeling and beginning divers. Please bear in mind, however, that only 15 scuba-diving buddy groups are allowed into the park each day, ensuring the reefs remain pristine and the marine life unmolested.

the cove

nature in whalers cove

A flock of Western Gulls have made this part of the Whalers Cove their bathroom.

Anyway, going back to our story, the Chinese lived peacefully and quietly for four years. This was rudely interrupted by the operation of a granite quarry at the mouth of the cove. Few years later coal mining begun in nearby areas and since the only economic way to get the coal out of the area is by the sea, a coal chute was constructed in Whalers Cove.

As if these activities weren’t enough to destroy the natural beauty of Carmel, the Portuguese soon joined the party. But they weren’t interested in coal or granite. Instead, it was the annual gray whale migration that attracted them. They set up residence in Whalers Cove, and about 15-20 men were part of a crew that hunted Gray whales that migrate along the California coast between mid-December and May.

Open-top boats were rowed out to sea where men would try their luck with harpoons. If a whale was killed, it was towed back to the cove, hoisted out of the water and its blubber sliced into large strips. Next the blubber was cut into smaller chunks and melted in large iron cauldrons called “try pots”, to produce oil used primarily for lamp fuel.

iron cauldrons

whale oil


whalers cove

Whale skeleton that is 100 years old.

Fortunately for the whales, with the advent of kerosene lamps in the late 1880’s, demand for whale oil slacked off and the local whaling industry fell on hard times.

By 1920, a group of scientists and foresters arrived to study the Monterey Cypress trees growing at Point Lobos and at Cypress Point on the north side of Carmel Bay. They realized that these trees do not grow naturally anywhere else in the world.

Monterey Cypress trees

The museum opened in 1987.

Archaeologists and volunteers conducted an archaeological dig in the cabin’s floor and they found evidence of Chinese and Japanese occupancy. They also found whale vertebrae serving as the foundation. Thanks to the farsightedness of A. M. Allan, the last owner of Point Lobos, whose family sold the land to California State Parks in 1933, designating it to be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. (source)

There were several interesting things on display in the museum and there’s a recorded sound of the whale playing in the background. We were highly impressed by the friendly, very enthusiastic and knowledgeable docent who helped us understand the history of the place and told us very interesting facts about whales.

the pacific ocean

We truly appreciate the work and dedication that goes into the preservation of life in Carmel and would highly recommend visiting this park if you’re in the city.

And although the whales decided not to show themselves to us that day, we returned home inspired to study about them. We learned, for example, that fin whales pee the equivalent of about 3 bathtubs per day.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Route 1, Carmel, CA 93923

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It’s been around since 2008, but it wasn’t until October last year that I’d first started looking for a place to stay in using airbnb. Masood and I had planned a two-week trip to San Francisco late last year and I had wanted to experience living with the locals.

For those who aren’t aware, airbnb is a platform that connects hosts (people who want to rent out their home/room) and travelers (people looking to rent home/room). When I signed up—because you can’t book a place without being a registered user first, and that is just fair—I was asked to take a picture of a valid ID and upload it to the website. Both guests and hosts verify their IDs by connecting to their social networks (valid email address, Facebook account, LinkedIn, etc) and scanning their official ID or confirming personal details.

Once my account was verified, I was then able to check availability of the rooms as well as contact their respective owners. Airbnb’s website is nicely built and very user-friendly so I ended up spending hours looking at pictures of other people’s homes. I remember it felt strange in the beginning; it was as if I was peeking into other people’s private residence. I suppose that’s what makes it fascinating. It’s not the same looking at hotel room pictures on the web.

Picture taken from airbnb

Our comfortable bed for the next 4-5 nights. Picture taken from airbnb because my own was blurred.

After spending a lot of time going through countless photographs of various private properties, reading hosts’ profiles, and studying the reviews left by guests, I found a place that looked perfect for us.

It’s called the Cole Valley Suite, being hosted by an Asian-American lady named Nancy. Masood and I wanted an affordable room that offered complete privacy – own entrance, bathroom, etc. so that I can walk around without having to worry about hijab. Wireless internet connection and access to public transportation were also our requirements.

I sent out a message to Nancy through the airbnb website and she responded as soon as she could, taking into consideration the timezone difference. We exchanged a few messages and, once I felt satisfied, looked into paying for the room.

“Are you sure that’s safe?” asked Masood, his tone filled with suspicion, as he peered over my shoulder while I made the booking. I don’t blame the man; it was his card I was using to pay for after all.

airbnb san francisco

The spacious cupboards with lots of hangers, fresh towels, extra pillows, etc. Picture taken from airbnb’s website because … well, I’m not sure why I hadn’t taken any pictures of this. I blame jetlag.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 1.10.49 PM

From the top shelf: board games, cutlery/cups/plates/glasses, microwave, coffeemaker, fridge. This picture is also from airbnb because … jetlag.

We took a cab at the airport and found ourselves standing in front of Nancy’s house by 3pm. The car drove away, leaving two jet-lagged, SFO first-timers on the roadside – with our heavy suitcases next to us. The neighborhood was quiet and we were the only ones standing on the road.

“Are you sure this is the house?” asked Masood. Well, I wasn’t but I wasn’t going to admit that out loud.

It is one thing to be arriving at a hotel where the name is clearly visible and there’s a dedicated reception area where you can ask your questions. It’s completely different standing outside a stranger’s house and wondering if it’s the correct one.

I dialed Nancy’s number. She immediately picked up and informed us, much to our relief, that we were, indeed, standing in front of the right house.


Don’t be fooled by that innocent chair. It’s so heavy, only Thor can move it.

Nancy came out in a couple of minutes, her warm smile and friendly face immediately making us feel comfortable. She welcomed us and enquired about our flight. We were led to our room (which we promptly fell in love with) and shown where things were located.

With two more hours of free time before she needed to head back to work, Nancy asked whether we’d liked to be shown around the neighborhood. We hesitated, thinking why bother the nice lady. She assured us it was no trouble at all since it was time for her to walk her dogs anyway.

I was feeling drowsy by this time and wanted nothing more than to simply crash on the inviting bed and wake up three days later. Masood, after having lived with me for so many years, immediately picked up on my mood and thought it best that we took that walk. “We need to follow the current timezone and stay awake until at least 9 pm,” he said.

I don’t really remember clearly but I think he had to drag me out of the house.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 1.11.19 PM

Yay for super clean and stocked bathroom! This picture is also from airbnb’s website because after 15 hours of direct flight, no one has the strength to take pictures of the bathroom.

Nancy and her dogs walked ahead, all three of them filled with energy and enthusiasm. “You’re lucky,” she said cheerfully, “the weather’s perfect today!” Masood and I followed them, both of us red-eyed and languid.

“Are you guys also planning to go out of town?” she asked.

“Oh, yes. I’d love to see Yos-mayt Park,” I said.

“Oh, Yoh-SEM-it-ee Park is beautiful!” she said.

What is she saying? I wondered, my eyes and mind heavy with sleep. “That’s right. We thought it might be nice to camp overnight at Yos-mayt Park.”

“Have you made reservations?” asked Nancy, “because the camps at Yoh-SEM-it-ee are almost always fully booked.”

WHAT IS SHE SAYING? I thought again, trying to shake my foggy brain. Only then did it register that I had been mispronouncing Yosemite Park!


Okay, this one is taken by me.

We walked around the neighborhood. Nancy showed us restaurants, the grocery store, the park, the bus stop, and the place where she worked. I told her she’s extremely lucky to have her workplace at a walking distance from her home. We made a quick stop at a shop to buy MUNI tickets because we decided to use the public transportation while in San Francisco. This turned out to be a great idea, considering how difficult it is to get parking in the city.

On the way back, Masood suggested we bought dinner. We thanked Nancy for showing us around and headed to the supermarket. It did not take us long to make our purchases: I only had to decide between the light brown bread with less grains and the dark brown bread with more grains. I also picked up a tub of my favorite spicy hummus.

Walking home, I thanked God we weren’t carrying heavy bags for it was an uphill climb all the way! For someone coming from a very car-centric country like the United Arab Emirates, walking in San Francisco felt like working out in the gym – there are almost no horizontal roads; it’s either up or down.


There is cable television and Nancy kept a number of movie CDs you could play but why watch TV when you have books to read!

Finally, it was 7 pm and all I wanted to do was sleep. Masood still refused to let us sleep, however, saying we’d be up by 3 am if we slept now. He was randomly changing channels and commenting something about how the viewers are bombarded with obtuse, unimaginative, and mind-numbing reality shows. You see, we rarely watch TV at home so we’re both out of touch as far as TV shows are concerned.

So here, in Cole Valley, with almost two hours to kill, he was browsing the channels and getting annoyed. I, on the other hand, picked out a book from the shelf and began reading. Twenty minutes into reading Anthony Bourdain and my mind went numb with lethargy. The sentences began to merge with each other making me go back and read them all over again, trying to make sense. Eventually, the letters got blurry and when I turned to announce that I was calling it a day, my dear husband was already fast asleep. So much for waiting until 9 pm.



DSC_3200The street on which Nancy’s house was located was a quiet one and, except for the occasional dog bark, the night was peaceful. Actually, scratch that. Masood and I just returned from Hajj, like three days ago, and we’d been coughing our lungs up all night. The kind of hacking cough that woke us up from our slumber and forced us to sit up, making us feel as if our lungs will burst and our ribs will crack any minute.

Nancy lives with her two dogs upstairs and I worried that our non-stop coughing would wake them up. I’m not sure whether their sleep was interrupted or not, or whether she was bring polite – either way Nancy did not say anything.

Masood and I were usually out and about by 9 am and wouldn’t return until 8 pm. There was a note in the room for us to leave used plates and glasses outside the room. It felt impolite doing that but since we didn’t have a kitchen sink to wash the plates and glasses in, I put them outside as instructed. It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise when we returned home after a particularly tiring day to find that the plates and glasses were washed and dried. Not only that, there was a plate of very delicious and moist, freshly-baked homemade pumpkin bars as well!

Hotel vs Airbnb

With airbnb, we got to live with a local in her own home. We were lucky to find a warm and friendly host who respected our privacy and responded promptly to our queries. Masood fell in love with San Francisco so much that he abruptly decided to extend our stay. Unfortunately, we could not stay in Nancy’s house because another guest had already made a booking. So after four wonderful days and nights in Cole Valley, we moved to Holiday Inn hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf.

When you book with airbnb, you stay in a home – with or without the hosts. While hotel rooms are generic, airbnb’s apartments or rooms have character. They tell you a little bit about the people who live in them. You get to make new friends who can give you valuable tips to make your stay in the city an exceptional one. Some of the hosts would even love to dine with you!

Since you are living in someone’s home, you need to be respectful about the host (and whoever else is staying with them, like family, for example) and the property. This was, at times, a little stressful for me because I would not be able to step out of the door before making sure the place was clean and tidy. On the other hand, I can leave the bed unmade and the used towels on the bathroom floor when staying in a hotel.

While our first experience with airbnb was definitely pleasant, I would certainly advice for everyone to be careful when making a booking through them.

We all understand the difference between booking a hotel room versus renting from some stranger on the web. While airbnb tries to verify information from both guests and hosts, it can not possibly run thorough checks on each individual. Therefore, we need to approach renting through airbnb with caution and common sense.

There are a lot of guests that report being happy and satisfied with their renting experience with airbnb. Brendan was pleased with the room he rented in Manila, Brianna and her friends where extremely delighted by the tastefully decorated flat in Boston, and then there’s Bart and Sanne who stayed 30 consecutive nights with airbnb!

Remember, there are horror stories too so we need to be careful. Rent intelligently by doing research. Know your renter by going through the reviews left by other airbnb users, talk to them (ask questions, send emails, etc) and learn a bit more about the hosts. Check the prices and do a little research to know whether or not the range is fair with the city it is located in. The law of “too good to be true” should apply to Airbnb listings, so when the rent is ridiculously cheap, have doubts.

Ready to book your first apartment through airbnb? Go through Paul’s list of 5 tips for the first time airbnb guest. If you have had experience renting with airbnb, let me know how it was for you!

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