Sunday, February 23, 2014

My experience wandering through the Dominican Republic

Parque Colón and the West's first cathedral
I just got back from a wild nine days in the Dominican Republic.  It was my first time going there.  I had time to go on my second international trip in three months because I still hadn’t started working yet.  But this trip was unique, as I'd never set out on a similar venture by myself.  I ended up in Nicaragua by myself after my friend Brit got injured in Costa Rica back in 2012, but I didn’t plan it that way.  And last December I traveled to Guatemala and Nicaragua alone…but then I spent the whole time visiting friends, so that was completely different.  
In planning this trip, I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country that wasn’t too far away (not South America or Spain) and that I hadn’t been to before.  It seemed too soon to go back to Central America, so that left the DR and parts of Mexico.  I started looking at fares, and then it just kind of happened.  My goals for the trip were to get to know the culture a little bit, including the food and language, as well as visit some of the historical sites.  I also wanted to relax and enjoy my last little bit of vacation before starting work. 

I did all of those things, but certainly couldn’t have anticipated all the little twists and turns that happen over a week of wandering alone in a country like that, flying by some combination of the seat of my shorts (it was too hot for pants) and advice from locals (which fluctuates wildly), with the occasional contribution from Google.

Here are several things I learned or experienced, in an order that’s not all that particular:

  • They do speak Spanish down there, but it’s very different from Mexican or Central American Spanish.  Some of the Dominicans speak clearly enough, others speak way too fast and don’t enunciate at all (and I mean AT ALL), and others don’t really even speak Spanish, because they’re from Haiti, or severely lacking in education, or due to another mysterious cause or combination of causes.  And things get particularly unintelligible when they’re arguing around a dominos table in the park!
    the guy in purple was my teammate
  • Speaking of dominos, it’s a national craze!  People will gather daily around official tables in the park, or on a street corner.  They play, they argue, they get very animated, speaking very rapidly using lots of slang.  It’s basically impossible to understand them.  I played a few games with one group in Parque Colón (Columbus Park), and the opposing team became more and more incensed as a rather outspoken character sitting next to me shared his approval or disapproval each time I grabbed a piece to play. They thought he was cheating because he could also see one of their team member’s pieces, and that player started laying his down flat and peering underneath so no one else could see.  My team won three games in a row with some beginner’s luck (and maybe a little cheating) before I gave up my seat.  I saw the same group playing every day in the same place until I left the area, only skipping Sunday.  
  • Locals repeatedly asked me where I was from (a few of them postulated Argentina, Spain, or Germany), and they almost always acted surprised when I said the U.S., subsequently asking how I could speak Spanish so well.  This happened over and over again, several times per day, becoming a running joke (that only I was aware of).  I told a handful of people I was from Argentina or Spain just see if they would believe me, and they generally seemed to, at least at first.  
Faro a Colón
  • I spent the first five days or so in Santo Domingo, the capital, which is on the southern coast.  There is a ton of history there, much more than I realized, dating back to Columbus.  They have the first cathedral, first fortress, and ruins of the first hospital in the Western Hemisphere, all within easy walking distance of my dominos-playing friends.  They also claim to have Columbus’s remains in a big lighthouse (that doesn’t look like a lighthouse).  Spain also claims to have his remains. 
  • Parque Colon is a fun little hot spot, right next to that “first cathedral”, with a big statue of Columbus in the middle.  It also has a ton of birds, which flock to all the people who are paying a tuppence for a bag to feed them.  I walked right through veritable flocks as they barely even got out of the way.  
  • One night in the middle of Parque Colón I borrowed a kid’s guitar, we shared a few songs with each other, and then he wanted to improv a duet, which we did.   
  • The last night in Santo Domingo I stayed in a crappy local hotel, a little out of the touristy area, to save some cash.  It was ridiculous—sink faucet didn’t work, no light bulb in the bathroom, no toilet seat—but still fine, really.  And cheap as all get-out. 
random bball game in Sosua
  • I didn’t see anyone playing Soccer the whole time I was there.  Apparently they’re way more into baseball, which makes sense since a bunch of Major Leaguers have come from there.  They also claim that volleyball (which I saw people playing) and basketball (which I never saw anyone playing) are popular.    
  • I took buses from Santo Domingo up to Puerto Plata, on the northern coast.  Some locals I spoke with at the penultimate bus stop said they’d help me find the easiest way to my destination, Sosua (a nearby beach town) without getting ripped off (lots of locals liked to warn me about foreigners getting overcharged, which I was well aware of by this point).  Once we got to Puerto Plata, they flagged down a motorcycle, whom I thought they were just asking for information.  Then they said he would take me to the car stop (like a bus stop, but with cars), and I was like, “what about this luggage”?  He grabbed my suitcase and laid it in front of him on the motorcycle, after which I hopped up behind him with my backpack and murse.  We proceeded to weave through traffic as I was mildly scared for my life.  At one point my hat flew off and got run over by another motorcycle before I picked it up.  He left me at the car stop, where I got in the back seat of a small car before three more people piled into the same back seat, and we headed off to Sosua.  
Sosua beach
  • Once in Sosua, the moto-taxis were everywhere, in bunches, and I couldn’t walk by without a few propositions.  I utilized them a few more times when I got tired enough of walking, always thinking how dangerous it was (nobody wears helmets) and that I should never do it again.  Until I got tired enough of walking again, that is.    
  • A few people I talked to seemed to end every sentence with “comprende?” or “entiende?”, which got annoying really fast.  I talked to a girl who said it in a drawn out, mostly rhetorical way at the end of every sentence.  Even after I made fun of her repeatedly she still couldn’t stop herself from doing it.     
  • I never saw any normal, everyday, fried plantains.  I only saw the dry, boring kind called “tostones”, and a mashed plantain dish, which I just learned is called “mofongo”.  I tried that once and didn’t like it, but I’ll have to give it another chance since it was at a dinky fast food place.  Overall I would rate the plantain usage in the DR as: disappointing.  
  • My last night in Sosua, the doorknob to my hotel room stopped working.  The desk clerk proceeded to dismantle it and force the door open with a hammer and screwdriver.  I slept that night without a doorknob. 

I could go on, but this is probably excessive already.  I had a lot of fun, learned a lot, and found that going to a country like that without knowing anyone (or staying in all-inclusive resorts as many visitors do) makes for a non-stop adventure.  Every day is full of surprises and memorable anecdotes.  I’d do it again, I just wouldn’t stay in the first hostel where my tablet and cash got stolen (oh did I forget to mention that?  Fun times indeed.).  Though that did lead to a couple of scary-but-fun rides on the back on a police motorcycle...

 More pictures from my trip can be found here and here

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Weight Loss Chronicles, Volume 1

After being a little overweight for most of my life, in recent years I’ve had some success with different weight loss methods.  Actually, it’s really all one method, at least so far, but it encompasses various principles that can be emphasized or discussed.  After I lost 25 pounds over a few months in 2008 (which I only partially and very graaaaddually gained back as discipline waned and habits changed), I thought on multiple occasions that I should write a blog about what I learned.  Turns out, I never got around to it.  I guess I wanted it to be a “be-all, end-all” type of entry, which was daunting, so I never even started.

Well, now I’m gonna take a different approach.  Today I’m going to compose an entry about some of the things I’ve learned recently about losing weight.  It won’t be comprehensive, and I may follow it up later with other entries.  But it’s a start.  And it’s volume 1.   

Why now?

I recently participated in this new gimmick called a “diet bet”.  It’s a pretty cool idea, and if you’d like to understand it better you can watch the video on their website.  Basically you pay a fee to enter, you have 4 weeks to lose 4% of your body weight, and if successful you split the pot with the other winners.  Based on my smallish sample size, usually about 50% of people win, so the return is about 40% for winners after the website takes its commission.  

Kind of a cool idea, right?  And by the way I won.  That’s why we’re here today.    

So anyway, what did I learn during the past four weeks while participating?  Let me mention a few practices that aided me, and may help others.   I already understood some of these things, but they’ve been re-emphasized by this new experience.  

1.  If you have a deadline that you can't change, you do what it takes to succeed

I had 4 weeks to lose 4% of my body weight, and I couldn’t change that.  I could do it and make a little money, or give up and lose my investment.  Now, it wasn’t really that much money, but once I’d started I was determined to succeed, at least partially because a chunk of change was riding on it.  There were obstacles—for instance, I couldn’t exercise very much during the challenge because of a chronically swollen left knee—that increased the level of difficulty, so it took an extremely high level of discipline to do it.  But, once I had a firm commitment in place (again, facilitated by the immutable deadline), it really wasn’t that hard.  I wasn’t even tempted to break the rules.  It was more about figuring out how to do it, rather that wondering if I had the willpower.  I systematically did what it took, day by day, meal by meal.  And it was kind of fun, a chance to be creative.  

2.  Portion Control is key

Cutting entrees down to size goes a long way.  And what did I do with all that empty space on the plate where the heaping pile of pasta used to be?   Low-calorie, high-nutrient side dishes, which usually means fruits and veggies, maybe a salad.  I used other things too, but the point was to control the calories and keep each lunch or dinner to around 500 calories (breakfast is usually more like 350).  I didn’t even stick to healthy food all the time, I just controlled the portions.  When I cooked up a frozen pizza, I was only allowed to eat one fourth of the pizza at a meal, along with some healthier side dishes, and saved the rest for later.  The calorie count was still around 500.  Calorie count is key, as The Twinkie Diet taught us.  But since I hate counting calories, I accomplish roughly the same thing by limiting portion size (and having a rough idea of the calories in different foods).  Here are some examples:

with pizza
with a sandwich

with pasta
 It's also important to use a red plate.  And as you can see I was on a cottage cheese kick as well.  I still am. 

3.  Exercise Consistently

Like I said, I couldn’t exercise that much during the game because of my knee.  But I did anyway.  Most days, at a minimum I did a routine of stretching (dynamic and static), some muscle warm-ups (e.g. a few minutes of shoulder rotations), and an abdominal and back routine on the floor.  So I barely used my knee but I put in a 20 minute workout anyway.  I also got in the pool and started easing back into the elliptical.  I found a way.

Exercise is important for about 1000 reasons.  It’s how you use up all the stored sugar (glycogen) in your muscles from your last meal so that your next meal doesn’t just turn into fat.  It’s how you avoid losing all your muscle (atrophy) when you’re eating less, and thus turning into a flabby weakling.  It increases your metabolism in the short term (initially) and long term (as you do it consistently) so that you can keep losing weight and / or eat a little more.  It also lowers your risk of a million different diseases and illnesses.  Literally.  So don’t make excuses, just do it, consistently, even if you have physical limitations, as I do.  

4.  Eat slowly

easily lasts 20 minutes of a good show
And I mean slooooooooooooooooooowwwwlllyy.  That way, you can eat a smaller quantity of food, and get just as much enjoyment out of it!  Think about it.  So chew.  And keep chewing, and don’t stop, and don’t swallow yet, keep cheeeeewing and saaaavoring each bite.  I did this, and my meals started lasting twice as long as usual.  It also helped that I was watching tv while I ate, which motivated me to prolong my meals.  Highly recommended, unless you eat with your family and try to be social and stuff.  In addition to getting more enjoyment out of a smaller amount of food, you also give satiety a head start.  By the time you’re done with a smallish meal, you don’t feel like eating anymore, the way you would if you’d gluttonously scarfed down heaping portions in a fraction of the time.  So sloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwww down.  Thank you. 

5.  Have a positive plan

It’s ok to think about what you won’t do, but mostly it’s deciding what you will do.  I planned how big my three meals would be, roughly what would be in them, and what types of snacks were allowed the rest of the day.  And I stuck to it, making adjustments as needed.  I also had those things in mind when I went shopping.  As I fastidiously stuck to my plan for the whole month, I thought about food a lot.  You might say my days revolved around food, which is kind of funny since I was eating less that usual and less than most other people.  But I enjoyed my meals, I savored them, I looked forward to them, and I never, ever skipped a meal.  Skipping a meal is an egregious sin because it makes you feel like you’re starving yourself, and it makes you want to give up.  I may also make you want to binge later.  Dieting is not about starving yourself, it’s just about being in control.  

So there it is.  Those are some of the main principles that were highlighted by my recent experience, and some of what contributed to my success.  Feel free to comment if you think these ideas are good, bad, or mediocre.  Then again, don’t knock it till you try it.  And I just made about $75 just by losing weight.  Can you say the same?  

For my next trick, I’m thinking about trying a low-carb diet for a while.  Thinking pretty seriously, since I bought 30ish pounds of chicken and 9 pounds of almonds at Costco yesterday, among other proteinacious things.  I’ve never tried anything like that before, I’m gonna see how my body reacts.  

Till next time.