Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee!

More like Sandra Lee..

Monday afternoon and night, Hurricane Sandy came to Troy.  Lucky for us the portion that hit the capital district had slowed enough to fall out of the Tropical Storm category.  It was still a bad wind storm but significantly better than the forecasts predicted. RPI still shut down in the afternoon and awkward dance of "the undergraduates aren't supposed to be on campus, can I go home?" started.  Two hours after campus closed, I was finally able to go home.  Not before I had become thoroughly distraught by the day's events.

When I got home I knew there was only one thing left to do. BAKE.  This has happened to me a couple times in the past.  Most notably about seven years,  a good friend's mother had died in September but it didn't hit me until one fateful high school sociology class right before Halloween when I broke down into tears somehow managed to convince my mother to let me come home.  I baked Halloween-themed sugar cookies into the night.  With that same fervor, I set out to make pumpkin spice cookies and assorted pretzel treats.

I still haven't figured out why baking is so cathartic for me.  One nice thing about it is that I rarely want to eat whatever I make so my friends profit from baked goods and I avoid getting myself in trouble at boxing. I was recently introduced to Pinteret, for better or for worse, and refused to become one of those 'pinners' who never tries any of the things they find.  For this adventure I tried pumpkin snickerdoodles, edible eyeballs, and what I'm calling 'witch fingers'.

My family's a big fan of snickdoodles and while this pumpkin version is delicious, I don't think it has the characteristic texture of snickerdoodles so you'll hear me call them pumpkin spice cookies.  When I finished baking I was significantly calmer than when I started.  That serenity did not last me through the whole storm but I'm willing to bet that keeping busy helped a lot.  Creating something in the face of destruction is comforting to me, whether it's as simple as cookies or a series of complex travel plans.  Hopefully my labmates will appreciate my baking creations at group meeting tomorrow!  Thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Stay safe!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Places I Would Rather be on Monday Morning: Forgotten Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Okay, you got me.  Paris certainly isn't forgotten. And the Eiffel Tower is probably one of the most recognized structures in the western world.  However, I completely forgot I had taken this picture.  Just goes to show that it pays to revisit your photographs since that's why you took them.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My First Wildlife Photo Shoot

The last few days I've driven home at sunset and thought how beautiful the area around my house is.  Today I got home a little earlier than usual so I grabbed my camera and headed down to the pond to try to take pictures of the ducks.  What I thought was going to be a 15 minute outing quickly turned into an hour long venture as I played peek-a-boo with four families of forest friends.  Once a upon a time ago I wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic but I don't think I'll be pursuing that dream just yet.  Wildlife photography is a lot harder than it looks.  Over the course of this hour I learned that (1) a telephoto lens is really hard to balance in low light, and (2) animals don't like to sit still while you fiddle with settings.  I also learned that muskrats are evil creatures but more on that later. I had just about finished attempting to focus on moving ducks when a small buck and doe walked out to the edge of the pond.  Of course by that time it was dark enough and far enough that very few of my pictures came out. A muskrat has taken up residence in the pond and taunted me by submerging just as I focused a frame and finally reappearing at the exact spot I was sitting as I headed home.  Out of 99 pictures I ended up with 12 keepers.  I was so frustrated especially because I had so many good frames that didn't come out in focus.  Even though I managed to shoot my first deer (and it's bigger than my brother's first), I plan on going back soon when there's a little more light, and maybe a box to hold my camera steady.

The Ducks
My First Buck
Little Buck and a Little Doe
I really wanted a close up of a froggie but I couldn't hold the camera still enough
The Pond

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Font màgica de Montjuïc: Water Disco!

I found out about these discoing water jets through two of my sorority sisters. The fountain in front of the Palau Nacional comes to life at dusk on the weekends and boogies to sounds of "Call Me Maybe," "Circle of Life," "Chariots of Fire," and many many more complete with light display.   The Fountain was built in the 1920s for the international exposition in Barcelona, and revamped for the Olympics in 1992 but still uses most of it's original plumbing.  The website I found said there was a show every 30 mins from 9pm -11pm.  I knew it was going to be packed by 9pm so we tried to get there early with the fall back plan of hanging around until 9:30 or 10:00 to take advantage of better spots when people left between shows.  

Only problem with that idea was that people didn't leave between shows.  Over the course of three or four playlists we slowly were able to negotiate the crowds, throwing the occasional elbow, until we secured a clear vantage point.  In the mean time I was careening my camera all over the place trying to capture the show without also highlighting somebody's bad-hairdo.  In the end, we managed to escape the swarm of cranky, camera-welding spectators and trolling pickpockets with both our wallets and some good pictures.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Places I Would Rather be on Monday Morning: At the Olympics

Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys or Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc, Barcelona, Spain, Summer Olympics 1992

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

When Life Give You Lemons...

2012 has been grating on my nerves since before 2011 officially ended. To the point that I actually wrote the wrong age on my brother's birthday card because I was so focused on 2013.  Recently, I was talking to a friend who's in Germany trying to finish up his Ph.D. on about the same timeline as myself.  After adequately commiserating the old adage "When life give you lemons," popped up.  The proper ending is "make lemonade," but that didn't seem like enough of a pie in the face for Life the bully.  After some deliberation I decided that lemon meringue pie might be a suitable response.   Even while I was making this pie, I got a couple lemons; the crust wasn't coming together right, the meringue wasn't setting, and then it wouldn't seal.  I caught the pie just before it burned so it came out nice and toasted.  Hopefully everyone at lab is hungry tomorrow!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Illuminating Niagara Falls

I grew up less than two hours from Niagara Falls so my childhood was sprinkled with trips to see the falls.  One of my favorite sights was during the spring melt when we were able to see big chunks of river ice sail over the 150+ foot waterfalls. After not visiting for several years, the time seemed right for another venture, plus I was itching to try out my mom's camera somewhere other than my house before taking it on any lengthy excursion. Dave and I spent the afternoon in Buffalo with my family and grandparents before hopping across the border to spend the evening at the Falls.  On the agenda, the Journey Behind the Falls, the illumination of the Falls, and fireworks, of course.  All of which were new experiences for me. 

Niagara Falls
 The Journey Behind the Falls was a wild card.  It appeared to be very similar to the Cave of the Winds on the American-side so I was a little skeptical.  There's two forks behind the falls one leads to the portals and the other to the observation deck.  We took the path to the portals first to avoid the crowd.  The portals are just that - windows to the sheer power of the curtain of water that is Niagara Falls.  Unfortunately without being able to put it in context, the rushing water is a little underwhelming.  The tunnels that take you behind the falls were carved at the beginning of the 20th century.  Pretty impressive when you consider how much water pressure they're exposed to on any given day. We walked back to the observation deck wondering why we were given panchos and why we paid $15 to see this.  The observation deck answered both.  The deck was almost at the base of the horseshoe falls.  You could see the space between the falls and the cliff behind, creating its own treacherous natural tunnel.  It was a misty day to begin with bit the spray on the deck was intense.  I though the observation deck was worth it.  I got a few good pictures, cooled off significantly, and was able to relax.

Observation Deck at the Journey Behind the Falls
The pictures behind and next to the falls I took with my point and shoot.  Everything else I shot with the dSLR on Manual.  Not going to lie, I had to take at least twice four times as many pictures as I usually would before I had a few frames I was pleased with enough to keep. I thought taking the dSLR to the falls would convince me not to take that camera any further than on a leisurely day trip.  The only thing it taught me was, while comfortable, my mom's camera bag is inconvenient to access and store anything more than a set of keys. After a strong initial desire to throw the camera in the falls in the first few minutes of shooting in manual, I started to really enjoy the control I had in fine tuning my shots.  It was especially nice when shooting the illuminated Falls and the fireworks. I'm pretty sure I was driving Dave a little crazy while fussing with all of my shots.  Despite the extra time and equipment, I'm still torn about taking the camera to Spain or leaving it at home.

Table Rock lookout
Rainbow Horseshoe Falls
American Falls

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Happy Independence Day USA!

For the first time in years I was able to go home for the 3rd and 4th of July and spend it with my family. The third of July is probably a bigger deal here than the fourth.  We live near one of the smaller Finger Lakes with tons of lake front cottages.  Every year the houses line the water front with flares and shoot off fireworks during the Ring of Fire.  The Ring of Fire comes with BBQ's by the lake with family and friends and horrible traffic on narrow country roads. I had to dig deep into my memory to figure out the back-roads to get home in any sort of reasonable amount of time.  The Fourth is a more low key day, especially in the 95F and humid heatwave we had. One of the advantages of living out in the country is that a lot of people will shoot off their own fireworks during the encouraged lawlessness of the holiday.  I took advantage of our own firework  display to try out some of the firework photography tips I picked up this week from Bethany (Beers and Beans).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

SCUBA Julie, Part Two

Some of you will remember that I completed part one of my open water SCUBA certification back in February as part of an effort to start checking things off of my bucket list.  After six weeks of lessons , we still needed to actually go driving in something a bit bigger than a high school pool.  We're required to complete these four open water dives before we can get our certification cards.  For that reason alone, I found myself shivering on the shore of Lake George in the rain on the first weekend of July.  At 7am, fifteen of us were milling around trying to remember how to set up our gear, find a safe dry spot to stash some sweats, and dreading the initial shock of getting into the water.

Hearthstone Campground, Lake George
I had forgotten my weight belt.  I remembered every one of my lead weights but forgot the thick strip of nylon that allowed me to sink below surface and had to ask my instructor for a spare. At that point, I was really wondering if the whole SCUBA certification was worth it.  A couple hours later we took advantage of a break and the rain to suit up and start our first dive.  SCUBA gear is deceptively heavy. The weightlessness of neutral buoyancy is awesome but hauling everything necessary to maintain neutral buoyancy in the water column and live to tell the tell takes work.  After the waddle to the shoreline and balancing act to secure mask and fins, I was anxious to get on with the dive and feel less like an overweight penguin.  What I wasn’t ready for was the chill of 55°F water.  Instant chill.

Prepping for a dive
I was pleased that all of my required skills came back to me fairly quickly.  Every movement would let new cold water flow into my wetsuit so I didn’t want to move anymore than I had too.  There were a few interesting things about our two dives that day.  We saw the body of an airplane with the wings removed which had been sunk specifically for the divers.  There were a handful of fish and the thrill of staying underwater.  By the end of the second dive I was so chilled that I was mistaking fish eggs on water weeds for ice crystal coatings.

One of the hardest things about that day was waiting the necessary amount of time before I could take a hot shower.  Exposing yourself to hot water too quickly after diving can cause the residual nitrogen in your blood to be released too quickly causing the bends.  We were told that we could take “warm” showers but I didn’t trust myself to have that kind of control when I was that cold.  I bided my time by eating piping hot soup and watch shows about tropical coral reefs for several hours. Finally I was able to drain the hot water tank and raise my core temperature back to normal.

 Sunday morning came far too early and dreary.  As I made my way north to Lake George, my ears blocked due to some minute change in altitude.  When I arrived at our dive site they were still blocked.  Not good.  Until my ears cleared I couldn’t dive for fear of rupturing my eardrum or worse.  There were five other students who were nursing discomfort from the previous day too.  Three other students plus me were out of the water for at least the third dive,  I settled in to watch at least the first dive from land and quickly became bored.  There was a family of ducks that could keep my attention for a few minutes at a time.  Most of my time was spent watching everyone else’s bubbles raise to the surface.  Have I ever mentioned that patience isn’t my strong suite? I immediately went to work at getting my ear cleared.   

Navigating back to shore
 By the time my group came out of their open water dive three, I was pushing to try getting in the water and completing the course that day.  The top layer of water was slightly warmer thanks to the lack of rain that day.  My dive three was a quicker one to get me caught up with the rest of the group.  This time I wasn’t immediately frozen and found that I had an easier time controlling my buoyancy, making the dives much more enjoyable.  The fourth and final dive was trouble from the get-go.  As soon as we descended enough silt had been kicked up that it was impossible to see two inches in front of your face.  I couldn’t see my dive buddy and only saw the instructor when he suddenly appeared directly in front of my mask to test my mask removal skills.  I was so happy to move away from the cloud and then we started going deeper.  Deeper water always means colder temperatures.  It was interesting gliding along the bottom of a lake but the cold was getting to me.  At one point I realized that I was pulling my upper lip up to try to protect it from the cold and causing my mask to leak.  Not fun.  However, the knowledge that we were on our last dive made the frigid cold slightly more bearable. When we finally surfaced I was so relieved.  I had finished my PADI open water certification! Yes, stubbornness and impatience when it came to watch everyone else finish played a large role in it, but it was done!  I was also never so happy to be wearing sweatpants in June.

Certified Open Water Diver - only partially frozen
I think I’ll focus on warm water diving next.

Exploring San Juan: Tales from the Back of a Trooper

Our Spring Break adventure did not get off to the best start.  Within a couple hours of landing we had cancelled our hotel reservation and were homeless with 4 days to go before our return flight to NYC.  Thankfully one of the girls had family just outside of the city so we were quickly rescued by our adoptive Aunt and Uncle and swept away in their Isuzu Trooper.  The Trooper became the main method of transportation for the six of us. Being the oldest and very stubborn, I rode in the trunk, which slowly became more like a flying carpet with blankets and throw pillows.  I had unique view of the city with strong reminiscence of riding in a woody station wagon.  While I was never able to get my bearing, literally going through San Juan in a different direction meant I was less distracted by traffic and could see more details of the city.  The major advantage of this set up was we had Aunt Rita as a knowledgeable tour guide who was also set on feeding us until we nearly burst. So after filling us up in chicken, black beans, flan, and breakfasts that would put diners out of business, Rita managed a trooper through the streets of Old San Juan and showed us to places off the well-worn vacation track.

Action shot on the way to Isla Verde
Isla Verde Beach - Out of the three beaches we went to this one blew the rest away.  It came close to surpassing every beach I’d ever been to before.  There was well over a mile of clean sandy beach lines with coconut trees.  The surf was a beautiful clear blue and had minimal seaweed especially compared to the thick beds of weeds we found at the beaches along the main strip of hotels.  There were gazebos, showers, and bathrooms available to beach-goers.  We were all far too anxious to defrost and absorb as much sun as possible before returning to the chilly northeast that we were all scorched to varying degrees by the recent sun storms.  Workers came to groom the coconut trees as we were getting ready to leave the beach.  They cut down branches and maturing coconuts so unsuspecting sunbathers aren’t knocked out when the dense fruits fall.  Some of the girls ventured over to the truck and came back if fresh coconuts so we could drink the water and munch on the fresh meat.  As a rule I don’t like coconut, but if I have to eat it, crack open with a machete on the beach is the only way to have it.

Lifeguard station on the beach
Mid-morning snack
Río Piedras - This neighborhood was several incredibly cramped blocks of stores that opened straight onto the street.  It was not the stores we would see in Old San Juan.  These were convenience stores, accessory shops, and everyday clothing.  I wouldn’t say that it was locals only but it was starkly different than any street close to the big hotels and cruise port. Honestly those four blocks are probably where I stood out the most but were the most familiar to me.  Elements of the market street kept taking me back to similar streets and stores I had seen in Europe, or NYC, Chicago.  The wares were a little bit different.  Understanding the labels was hit and miss.  But I still felt far less intrusive and out of places than I did walking past the big hotels full of vacationers.

Fort San Cristóbal in the distance
Old San Juan - Crazy transportation encounters are the theme of this trip.  We got a tip from Rita tthat we could take a free bus from Isla Verde to Old San Juan.  Turns out it was one free bus and one overcrowded, change only bus, whose drivers stopped and threatened to throw everyone off the bus for disrespecting him, to the bus terminal at the base of the hill of Old San Juan.  This is your classic colonial center with narrow cobblestone streets leading to different squares, often with fountains, in a slightly wandering fashion.  I can’t count how many old centers of town I’ve visited over the years.  That being said, the restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, and vendors found throughout the area are worth facing the public transportation or cramped parking.  While the rest of the group shopped, I wandered with another girl to see La Forteleza.  La Forteleza is made out of two fortified buildings, Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristóbal, along a sheer cliff lined by an impressive stone wall.  The lookouts now serve as prime vantage points for point-and-shoots rather than riflemen.  We were there at dusk and running late so we didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked.  The setting sun and spring breeze looking out at the horizon felt like a scene from The Pirates of the Caribbean.

Lookout between San Felipe del Morro and San Cristóbal
Fort San Felipe del Morro