Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Abroad #2 The Swiss

Here is my second entry from Switzerland back to the States. In retrospect, this was my favorite part of the trip! :)

"Hello again everyone! Be forewarned, this is an extremely long email. I am at a very bittersweet time in my travels. The first half of my trip is swiftly coming to a close. This means I will have to say goodbye to Italy, Switzerland and some of the most amazing people I have ever met. The girls in my group and the professors that have taught us have all touched my heart in ways that are too difficult to explain. While many of my dearest friends here are continuing on to France and the UK with me, I will dearly miss those who are headed back to the States.

Enough of the sappy stuff. I believe the last time I wrote I had left Italy and had arrived in Interlaken, Switzerland. Our adventure in Interlaken, a small valley-town in between two lakes (Brienz & Thun), started with a full day of activities. This town is full of outdoor sports, many being a bit extreme for my taste. I think someday, when I have grown the nerve (or lost my mind) I will attempt to paraglide or skydive. No worries mom, according to every local and visitor I talked to, it is the safest place to try it. That morning we rode a bus to a nearby town called Beatenburg. The town is home to the St. Beatus' caves. We wound our way around the paths that surrounded a beautiful, rushing waterfall. We met our guide, who was born in Switzerland but lived for many years in Canada. He guided a group of about thirty people, half Swiss and half American, through the cold and dripping caves. Stalagmites were randomly popping up around all of the caves with reflection pools around each corner. The climb was exhausting, but well worth the efforts. The caves we were "spelunking" through were almost 350,000 years old. I remember spelunking when I was young in the North Carolina Mountains and this was very similar. Only this hike was uphill the entire way. Needless to say my thighs and calves are looking mighty nice!

Later that afternoon we got a group together and went horseback riding! My horses name was Nora and she had a hunger problem. Every time the guide let her go she dipped her head to the ground for a snack. Eventually we made it to the river bed and watched the azure blue water rush by. It was gorgeous and so refreshing! The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to the post office (for those shipping gifts home), the craft store (for supplies for our photography projects) and NAPS!

The next day we rode trains, busses and gondolas through the Swiss countryside to reach the tiny town of Gimmelwald. We made a stop in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland where you can find the infamous Trümmelbach Falls. This is where water from the three famous peaks of the Berner Oberland region (Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch) melts in the summer and create the rushing falls. We initially took a small indoor gondola/elevator halfway up the mountain. Then we began to hike up by foot. The farther up we climbed the more soaked and cold we became. But seeing the churning pools and breathtaking falls was well worth it! I took a lot of pictures so I'll be sure to share when I get home! The water at the bottom was so blue I dipped my nalgene bottle in for a taste. It was a nice pit-stop on our way to Gimmelwald.

Gimmelwald required a gondola ride, which was my first time in a true Swiss gondola. After we reached the top, I believe my jaw stayed dropped for the next two hours or so. Consisting of only about 6 namesakes, the town was straight out of Heidi movie. We saw cows, hens and some of the most beautiful wild flowers I have ever seen. When we turned around we had the most phenomenal view of snow-capped peaks. It took my breath away. Thus far Switzerland has been my favorite part of the trip. We stayed in a lovely hotel owned by an elderly man named Walter. I stayed in the infamous loft on the top floor with about thirteen other girls. Our room looked like the dwarfs room in Snow White. My friend Maggie, who is 6'1", had a difficult time fitting in her bed. We all gave each other dwarf names. *Bryan, I told them the Yo-Po story and my dwarf name appropriately became "Pumpy."* For those of you, who don't know the story, ask Chesley or Bryan. The showers at Walter's were, for lack of a better word, an adventure. It costs 1 ChF (Swiss francs) to get 5 minutes of "hot" water. The first night I took a shower, this consisted of 3 minutes of SCALDING water. It was so hot that I could not get my body under the water. The next adventure with the shower consisted of 5 minutes of water that was straight off the glacier. I couldn't really win these battles so I washed my hair in the sink the next day.

Our full day in Gimmelwald was dedicated to a "hike." Our hiking began around 8:30 that morning after a "full breakfast" (bread, jelly and water). We walked, uphill, around winding roads to a town called Mürren. Again, this town had no cars and was very quaint. We took a forty five minute break for girls to order engraved Swiss Army knives and to go into our beloved Co-Op (the greatest grocery stores ever – Ashley, it rivals Ukrops) for our picnic lunch. I grabbed some tomatoes, cheese and focaccia with some of the most delicious peaches and raspberries I have ever put in my mouth. After we refilled our water bottles, we continued through Mürren straight uphill (notice a recurring theme here?) to the next town. Allmendhubel was the next town that we reached after passing cow, sheep and goat pastures. This is the point of the mountain where all human life ceases to exist. The last bit of electricity we saw was in a small restaurant we passed by. Along this hike, in the rain, a few girls had asthma attacks and serious knee issues. I am proud to say I survived and somewhat led the pack up. Only 7 of us made it to the top of the mountain where we found ourselves above the clouds. It was pouring rain, extremely cold and this was THE COOLEST thing I had ever accomplished. We took Rocky Balboa pictures on the top of some rocks and a historically appropriate rendition of the Von Trapps running through the fields. After our thirty minutes of triumph we remembered we had to walk all the way back to Gimmelwald, in the rain. And I am here to attest to the fact that walking down a steep hill proves just as difficult as walking up it. When we finally made it back to Walter's my bed called my name. I took about a three hour nap. We regained our strength enough to stumble down four floors for a delicious hot meal. After dinner we sang for Walter, Rosemary (the house maid) and Tim (a sketchy British man who quits his computer job every summer to bum around the Swiss Alps). For some reason all of our hosts enjoy the pain caused by our singing. But we've gotten "Lean on Me" down to a science (choreography and all). Tim, who was outside on the phone, came in during our dessert to let us know that in the 15 years he's been visiting Walter's he has never seen the peaks across the valley so clear during a sunset as he did just then. After a mad dash for our cameras, I caught a few shots of the most majestic mountains I have ever seen. I find it hard to call the Alps mountains, because when I think of mountains I think of Beech Mtn. or Grandfather Mtn. Those are babies compared to the peak of Jungfrau. Our night ended on a very sweet note.

The next morning we had a hard time leaving Walter's, knowing we are the last group that will be able to stay in his hotel. One, the Swiss law has changed and based on the plumbing in the hotel he can only host a certain number of people. And two, Walter is extremely old. Our director, Dr. Oatsvall, seems to think he may not make it to next summer. Maggie, Kala and I protested our departure by getting in our dwarf beds. Unfortunately, our departure was inevitable. We made our way back down the mountain and made it back to Interlaken. Once back to Interlaken Ost, the train station, we arrived in metal rock nation. Unknown to us, The Greenfield Fest '07 was occurring in Interlaken this very weekend. I have never seen more Thrasher and Marilyn Manson shirts in all of my life. The Co-Op was decorated black for the afternoon, sporting a one-in-one-out situation at the front door. You know when there's security at the local grocery store, Marilyn Manson is in town. Me being an all around music fan was impressed with the lineup: The Smashing Pumpkins, The Killers, Marilyn Manson, Incubus, Slayer, Queens of the Stone Age, The Hives, My Chemical Romance, Sonic Youth, Manic Street Preachers, Stone Sour, Flogging Molly, The 69 Eyes, Five O'Clock Heroes…the list goes on. It is pretty much like a hardcore, Swiss version of Bonnaroo. We made our way through the masses of punk teens to our hostel…

That night we bunked in the infamous Interlaken hostel, "Balmer's." This was the ultimate hostel experience. My "bed" (a three inch pad on a plywood plank) was amongst 31 other "beds" with three shared sinks. I found the secret stash of clean showers upstairs, which was my saving grace for the next 24 hours. That afternoon we wrote in journals and hung out until we got picked up for our white water rafting adventure. I was very nervous about this. I had never rafted before so I was excited too. We got picked up in a big van by a short, New Zealand guy named Koryn. We were told upon arrival to find a grump old guy named "Tony." We found Tony quickly and signed our "death pass for our inevitable fate." Then we suited up in the nastiest wet suits ever – getting in these was almost more of an adventure than the rafting! We took a twenty minute ride up the mountain with the river outside our window. Koryn gave us a run down of instructions. Our boat was guided by two Swiss guys who spoke little-to-zero English (and they were supposed to be taking commands from our English-speaking guide). So we had that going for us. The ride began with a blind leap into river and we were off. The river was fed by the Trümmelbach Falls we visited a few days earlier, which made the river 4 degrees Celsius! Rafting is the biggest rush ever! We had to park and move the boat out of the river because there was a portion of the river protected for the fish (gotta love those tree-huggin' Swiss). The next portion of the river we tackled was class 4 rapids. Adults, ask me the name of this portion later. We survived it and on the calmer part of the river we were allowed to jump out! I about froze my tushy off, but it was so worth it! I can now say I have been swimming in glacier water! WOOHOO! Eventually we made it to Lake Brienz where the water temperature went up about 20 degrees. After another quick swim, we hauled the rafts out of the water, back to the bus lift and went back to the base. We were met with hoses, beer and bread. We feasted on our snack as we watched the pictures come up on the big screen (a photographer followed us down the river on a Vespa). She was pretty cool and gave us a discount on a full disc of pictures, which I'll be sure to share when I get home. After rafting, we headed back to Balmer's for dinner, happy hour and showers. Balmer's is known for their club "Metro." We all got dolled up and went clubbing, only to run into our beloved rafting guide, Koryn. The night was amazing and we were all sad about leaving this place.

The next day we caught a midday train to Lugano, Switzerland. It is a tourist town on the border of Italy and Switzerland; we call it "SwItaly." The people here speak and act just as the Italians do. Our digs here are the best yet. We all have our own apartment style rooms (full bath, desk, wardrobe, mini-kitchen furnished kitchen w/ a fridge). We are living the luxurious life compared to all of the bunked beds I've seen over the past couple of weeks. We also have access to a washer and dryer, which my pruned hands are very excited about. Our first two days here were spent going down a sign up list to de-nastify everything we own. Lugano is a lake surrounded by mountains. We are being hosted by Franklin College, an international school (smaller than Meredith College) but the cost of Wake or Duke. We eat breakfast and lunch at a cafeteria called the Grotto. Our food is good and the school is pristine. The lawns, everyday, look like Tiger could sink a birdie on them. Hydrangeas decorate every garden, with palmettos sprouting up in random spots. Most of our week has been intensely academic. My photography class has four final projects due by the end of the week, including an Italian Alphabet book. I cannot wait to show you all my work. J

Monday, Maggie, Kala, Emily and I will depart for our independent travel week in Paris, France before we start our half semester in the UK. I'm sad to leave this part of my trip behind, but I am so grateful for the places I have seen and the people of I have met.

I hope everyone is doing well! I'm glad to see my Tar Heels are in the finals of the College World Series! GO HEELS! I hope y'all have a good time at BackBeat this weekend for those of you going. I love you all and I'm looking forward to sharing more stories with you. I will probably write again toward the end of my time in Paris. Please send me emails about what you all are up to! For those that have been doing so, thanks for taking the time to do it – it really helps with the homesickness.

Love always,

Katherine Lee

PS: I got a row K ticket to see Orlando Bloom's stage debut in England for "In Celebration." Ladies, be jealous. :)"

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