28 August 2010

Interlaken: The Gospel According to Mark

Our usually reliable guidebook described our hostel in Interlaken as a loud, nonstop party amidst an island shipwreck. However, reality - as you learn again and again while traveling - does not necessarily bend to the will of guidebooks. We arrived to find a quiet, beautiful hotel, our room opening to a wonderful balcony with a view of a slowly melting glacier and the breathtaking, towering, jagged peaks of the Swiss Alps.

The man who checked us into the hostel was unnecessarily nice and helpful. He immediately convinced us not to go whitewater rafting - since there was apparently much better rafting elsewhere, and, by his own argument - we could do it at home. He was more in favor of ice climbing or canyoning, the latter of which is illegal in the United States. Canyoning involves a day of rappelling down rock faces, jumping off of huge cliffs into freezing water and riding rapids over slick rock faces like water slides. This sounded like brilliant fun to me, but unfortunately, with my ribs still pulsing from the Barcelona incident, there was no way my body was going to be able to withstand that sort of abuse. We picked up a pamphlet on paragliding.

Our first dinner in Interlaken consisted of Thai food, both because we were craving a dose of Asia and because the international foods in Switzerland are by far the most affordable. (Which isn't saying much.) At dinner we ended up speaking to the couple at the table beside us, discussing the relative heat of the peppers in this Thai food compared to what gets served up on the streets of Bangkok. We eventually found out that this couple was not only from our own city, but that we also shared some personal connections. The world is infinitely smaller and more connected than we often convince ourselves it is.

In a rare American moment for us, we realized that a bar across the street from the Thai restaurant sold Sam Adams beer and we immediately resolved to partake in a little bit of patriotism. Strolling confidently through the door, the first thing I noticed was that the bar was packed. With women. Only women. In fact, we were the only two men in the entire establishment.

Now, I realize that as two single guys, this moment should have been a revelation, a gleaming light shining through the clouds to bless our weary souls. A decisive victory. Standing above the battlefield, swords in hand while the soldiers we have been leading gather to sing our praises.

But, it turns out, that is not at all what went through my head. All I could think was:

"We have just walked into a lesbian bar."

I stared in bewilderment.

Sensing our unshakable confusion, a worldly blonde with a wry smile took pity on us and chimed in.

"Ladies night. We're all watching Sex and the City II. These are all the local girls."

She was a Canadian base jumping instructor. Like so many residents of Interlaken she'd left home to pursue a life of risking her life daily with no better goal in mind than to make sure she'd milked the maximum amount of excitement she possibly could from that same life she loved to hurl from the towering cliffs. (The more I travel, the less crazy that goal sounds.) Ladies night was her vacation from impending tragedy. She mused to us that some people want to do something crazy for a vacation, but when your job is to strap yourself to a stranger and jump from a mountain, you long for a movie night with the girls.

We didn't stay for the film. No one actually asked us to leave, but it was clear that we would be unapologetically ignored as soon as Carrie graced the screen. I'm sure it was a lovely piece of cinema.

The next morning we took a small train further up into the mountains to a little village called Grimmewald. From Grimmewald we took a gondola ride for twenty minutes up the side of the mountains to a place called First, with a population you could probably count on your fingers (with fingers to spare.) First is situated at about the same elevation as the clouds over Switzerland. That is not a metaphor.

It's worth noting how disastrously unprepared we were for Interlaken. The city was a bit of an afterthought on our part, and we certainly hadn't packed any appropriate equipment for serious hiking. I was wearing one of my two sweaters a pair of jeans and my thin, canvas Vans. The only thing a pair of Vans has in common with hiking boots is that they encompass your feet.

Regardless, we came to this mountain to hike and that is what we were going to do. The clouds shrouded the area in a thick white fog that pushed up the mountain like waves washing on the shore as the tide moves in. We stepped to a ledge and a flock of black birds swarmed past us, coming from nowhere and flying away into more nowhere.

As we walked we could often only see a few yards ahead, surrounded by the eerie ringing of bells around the necks of grazing cows and goats that would have been infinitely lost in the mist without them. It felt a bit like being in Purgatory, walking the mountains for eternity along a beaten path, never able to see where it leads, never able to see where you came from. Staring at the forks in the road with no idea what the next road will offer. No choice but to keep walking on.

The path we chose was not easy, but we pushed ourselves upward, showing our inappropriate shoes no mercy, eventually making it high enough to be above the soupy clouds. The view of the valley opened to us and we sat for some amount of time that may have been brief or may have been hours, just staring. Blinking was not an option.

We still climbed up further from there, finally stopping to have lunch on a waterfall, at the line of the mountains where only the hardiest lichens could grow. My legs were jelly and the air was noticeably thin. I took my empty water bottle and filled it in the pristine water cascading down the mountain. The snowpack water instantly numbed my hand.

After a lengthy descent we found ourselves in the evening back at our hostel and learned about a happy hour that we were strongly encouraged to attend. The description made it sound like it was just on the patio of the hotel, but was we stepped outside we saw nothing. We heard some faint music and walked further back to a very dark parking lot and still found no happy hour. There were two guys having a cigarette there, so we asked them if they knew where this place was and they said we just had to keep walking.

We weren't convinced that there was anywhere left to walk, but we pressed on and eventually found a yard with a bonfire and a tent, which was opened up to house a small bar. The bar was run by another Interlaken transplant and the patrons were more or less limited to the group of locals that worked at the hotel and a few curious guests.

One of those patrons was a very, very drunk Englishman named Mark. Mark asked me about our trip and our lives back in the States. I laughed and told him that I had recently moved to a new city for love, but the love had since left my life and I was now paying for my trip with a fund of money I had once been saving for that love's engagement ring and future.

Mark got serious as I told him that story.

"Yeah, I really understand that. The same thing more or less happened to me back in London."

He stepped back and thought quietly for a second.

"If there's one piece of advice I could give you - and I'm only saying this because, you know, it sounds like you're coming from a similar place - is that you need to leave on a high note.

And, you won't want to. This is the freedom trip and it's amazing and the more freedom you get the more you want and you never want it to end. But eventually the money runs out and you have to either get a job or go home. And, if you're like me you get the job to try and stay even longer, but the money still runs out.

And all my mates back home, they're all pretty upset with me too, that I've been gone so long, that I haven't tried to come home. Those people are important too, don't forget, and when you leave home you leave them.

End on a high note while you can.

Wow, sorry, that was a bit heavy, wasn't it?"

Mark then finished my beer, smoked a cigarette and explained why any serious bartender should always carry two lighters.

The next day we woke up early and booked ourselves a paragliding trip for the afternoon.

The driver that picked us up to take us up the mountain turned out to be a much more sober, more quiet Mark. In a worn baseball cap.

"If there's any advice I'd give you, it's to not take a job like this. I came to Interlaken because I love to fly, but if it's a good day for flying, I am driving people all day, and if there's no people to drive, it's probably because the weather is no good for flying. Don't choose a job that by definition keeps you from doing what you love. That's probably common sense, but I guess I messed it up, didn't I?"

It isn't common sense, but it makes sense. End on a high note.

Paragliding is essentially skydiving without falling. You go high up on a mountain and strap yourself to a parachute on a gentle slope. As you run down the slope the parachute becomes a much more serious version of a kite, the updrafts of wind lifting you off of the mountain high into the air.

The most terrifying part of this whole process, in my opinion, happens before you ever get strapped to the parachute. As the van jumped a curve turning off of a bridge in town, we knew that the driver (no longer Mark, once we had picked up the instructors) wasn't invincible. The roads we drove on were narrow, barely big enough for our van, and winding. Guardrails do not exist in Switzerland, as far as I can tell. Looking out the window, I couldn't see the road, only the steep hillsides we were careening up. Occasionally we had to stop and back the van back down the hill to let another car pass.

"How are you all feeling, are you nervous?"
"No, we feel good! Excited!"

I wiped the sweat from my hands. The van took a quick hairpin turn. One of the instructors put on some German hip hop music. (I swear, it exists.)

My instructor was nicknamed "Dangerous Dave." Dave made sure we were the last pair to take off. Before we left he made a few adjustments to the parachute lines, shortening them a bit. He laughed and said something in Swiss German to himself and told me that this would make it more fun. Too late to have doubts. Thumbs up.

All the other groups had taken off by walking and lightly jogging in a clean, straight line down the hill. Dave and I started with the chute to our side, taking 3 rapid running starts and stops, apparently waiting for the perfect wind gust.

When we got it, we sprinted and the force of the wind tore us off of the mountain side and hurled us into the air. The ground below seemed unimaginably far down, getting rapidly further as we sailed into the sky.

The flight was surprisingly smooth, we floated around a set of cliffs with strong updrafts of wind that keep pushing you higher into the air, so that you don't have to actually come down to the ground until you're ready. We flew for what seemed like both forty minutes and forty seconds. I have no idea how long it actually lasted. (A common occurrence here, apparently.)

When we finally started to come down, headed towards a landing in a park in the middle of the city, Dave asked in excitedly broken English, "Do you like roller coaster?"


We spun to the ground like a carnival ride. I realized that flying the chute was actually incredibly complicated. We found out later that just to fly alone took thirty solid days of lessons. These guys had been flying for 15 years.

Taking off the harnasses, D and I looked across our landing zone park and saw that we had floated down from the wild Alps to land in front of a Hooters. We had chicken wings and beer to celebrate, another rare patriotic moment.

Interlaken is a quiet city, and the locals tend to generally keep to themselves. They will happily recommend bars and nightlife to the travelers, but inevitably, the only places they will offer are tied to the local hostels and hotels, much in the same way that I imagine surfers are infinitely protective of the best waves in the area. That being said, the ladies night bar we stumbled into on our first night seemed to be the only locals-oriented establishment we could find in the town, so on our last night we decided to return.

We ended up speaking for quiet awhile to the woman that owned and ran the bar. She was originally from Long Island. She fell in love and married a skydiving instructor and had been in Switzerland so long that she struggled a bit with her English. She sold bagels with cream cheese. She said that the girls were already insisting that the ladies night become routine.

We met two girls here (the crowd actually being mixed gender this time) and went dancing with them until much later than we should have, considering our early departure the next morning. Again, my feet were generally confused and my hips just couldn't quite sway properly for the salsa, but it was fun and maybe I am getting marginally better at the whole dancing thing. Marginally. Once enough toes had been crushed, we finally left the clubs and said a hazy goodnight and goodbye, ready to shed our sweaters and head south into Italy.

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