A New Year's Reading Challenge

In the end of December 2014, I had been reading some posts on Reddit where people were talking about their New Year's resolutions. One of the individuals wrote about their journey of aiming to read a book a week for the entire year. They succeeded too! This really resonated, not only because I love reading good books but also because I have stack of them that seems to grow faster than I can get through it. In order to get through it I would have to have a challenge such as this in place. And so I decided in that moment that I would challenge myself to get through a book a week for all of 2015. That would get me through 52 books but could I really get that much reading done?

Well, the year went by and I have to admit I failed the challenge but am not disappointed at getting through 41 books in total. I learned a lot through the experience, not only from the content of the books, but also about how to manage a goal such as this.

There were times I had planned to get lots of reading done, such as my summer holidays, but I barely got any reading done then—only one book over the course of a month. I was too busy sailing and exploring Italian & Greek villages (not that I minded that!) The key to getting through so many books is reading every day. If you read five pages a day then in a year you’ll have read 1825 pages. How many books is that? A lot. It’s 1825 pages 99% of people won’t ever read. Most people don’t pick up a book after age 20. It’s also important to focus on reading books. It’s so easy to get caught up reading junk on the Internet…this blog doesn’t count ;) So stay focused and read quality writing worth your time rather than something that hasn’t even been met by an editor. If you want a place to start just pick up one of the “classics” you’ve heard about. There’s a reason they stand the test of time.

Most of what I read is non-fiction. Throughout the year I read seven fiction books. There were also a handful of audiobooks that I “read”. Most of them were quite enjoyable and helped pass the many hours I spent on the treadmill while training for my ultramarathon that I ran in October. Additionally there were six books that I started but never finished, either because I lost interest or priorities changed. I intend to finish some of them. The others will be forgotten and I'm okay with that.

I kept a record of all the books I read on a spreadsheet. I gave the books all ratings on a scale of 10 and usually included a few notes about the books and why I chose to read them. This felt like a tedious process most of the time but it was good to have for reference afterwards.

I’m not going to post the entire list of books here but if you’re interested to know more about what I read then feel free to ask me. I will share a few of my favourites though…

My favourite fiction book was The Martian by Andy Weir. I had heard all kinds of great things about this book and listened to some podcast interviews with the author beforehand. I had high expectations for the book and it fulfilled them. I read the book at the end of March. I was looking forward to the movie that came out later in the year but was really disappointed. If you haven’t seen it yet then save yourself a couple of hours and read the book instead. If you like science and adventure with a bit of humour thrown in it will be a pleasure.

My favourite non-fiction was An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything by Chris Hadfield. This was the second book of the year I read and was a Christmas gift from my parents who got to see Chris’s public presentation, meet him afterwards and get me a signed copy! How lucky I am! He’s one of my personal heroes and an all-around incredible guy. I would recommend this book to anybody.

Another book that I would recommend to anybody is Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life - Living the Wisdom of the Tao by Wayne Dyer. This one I took my time to read, as suggested by the author, reading one chapter a day for each of the 81 verses they focus on. Most books on religion bore the hell out of me (pun intended) and while this book isn’t “religious” it is completely spiritually-oriented. That’s a genre one has to be wary of but I can tell you that Wayne Dyer is one of the authors that really can be trusted. During the time I was reading this book Wayne Dyer passed away and the world lost a great human being. If more people read this book the world would be a better, kinder place.

I also really enjoyed reading The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure by Jacques Cousteau. It was published in 1953 and is a fantastic telling of how Cousteau and his comrades developed the aqualung and other advancements in scuba diving, discovering the incredible world below the surface of our oceans.

My favourite audiobook was Revolution by Russell Brand. As I listened to this running on the treadmill in the gym it had me laughing out loud and I’m sure the people around me thought I was crazy. I didn’t care though, I was enjoying Russell’s comical telling of how the system isn’t working and the corrupt governments behind it. This is one of those books where the audiobook is better than the written version because you get to experience the comedic voice of the author himself. My second favourite audiobook would have to be Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know. It’s the autobiography of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, one of the great world explorers who is still alive. The adventures he tells of and even his current challenges he undertakes in his 70’s will inspire you to never stop. Age is just a number.

One last book I’d like to include is the one I finished the year with; The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life — Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process by Thomas Sterner. I’m always trying to improve my discipline and focus and this book is full of great advice on how to change your outlook for your benefit and achieve mastery. Recommended for anyone interested in self-development.

So this year I’m tackling the challenge again. So far the books I’m reading are amazing and I look forward to successfully completing the challenge! If you have any amazing books you'd like to recommend, please let me know. :)

Return to Mauritius

Marie Pierre drove me to the airport in the late morning. The week had gone by so quickly and it felt strange to be leaving already. Ahead of me I had the short flight to Mauritius, then a couple of hours at the airport there before continuing the six and a half hour flight back to Dubai. I'd then get back home around midnight and have to get straight back to work on the projects I left behind a week ago.

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While checking in for my flight I was surprised to see Richard & Tamar, the friendly couple I met on my flight to Reunion a week earlier. We were on the same flight back too! So while waiting to board the aircraft we were able to catch up on each others' stories from the week on the island and, of course, details from the race! They were both running the Trail de Bourbon race, and Tamar was writing about her experience for a women's health & fitness magazine back home in South Africa. They also had an incredible week on the island and a memorable experience in the race. It's great to connect with other runners like them.

For the flight back I had another Japanese runner seated beside me, he had done the Diagonale des Fous, and it took him 52 hours. He's a semi-professional ultradistance runner so wasn't quite as beat up as me, but he was still tired! There were quite a few athletes on their way back home on the flight, most of them moving slowly, just like me.

Merci à mes hôtes merveilleux!

A warm thank you to my wonderful hosts Marie Pierre, Sébastien, & Louis, for my week on Reunion Island. It has been an incredible week of adventure, challenge, and fun! It was a fantastic experience to be able to meet a pen-pal of five years and be treated to such kind hospitality, delicious food, fun excursions, and language exchange. Merci beaucoup pour les expériences à La Réunion!

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Exploring Mountain Trails on Horseback

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The morning was action-packed with paragliding but there was more adventure to come for the afternoon—a trek through the mountain trails on horseback.

It was my first time to ride a horse. It's easier than riding a camel, but you still end up with a sore derrière after three hours on the saddle!

We had rainy weather for most of the ride but it was very refreshing and something I miss on occasion in Dubai.

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A guide took us out on the trails that led up to a lake in one of the valleys. My horse's name was Brel. He might have been named after Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer/actor. He's the only "Brel" I know of. Marie Pierre got a horse named Appy. That's French for "Happy". ;)

'Appy the 'orse

'Appy the 'orse

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Before mounting the horses we had to put on a hairnet and pick out a helmet. The helmet selection was pretty gross and I was glad to wear the hairnet, as dorky as it looked.

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We had to cross a main road to get to the trails just outside of the stables. Thankfully, Brel understood what I wanted him to do. It was kind of that same feeling you get when learning to drive a manual transmission car over the train tracks for the first time, hoping the car's not going to stall. Along the trails, Brel was pretty well behaved, though he was voraciously eager to eat grass and leaves any chance he could get.

Getting off of the horse at the end was probably the hardest part, considering how my body was already feeling from the stress of the race two days ago. It was nice to get back home and get showered up after an afternoon in the rain.

 

 

 

 

 

Cabri Masalé et pois du cap avec riz pilaf

Cabri Masalé et pois du cap avec riz pilaf

Tasting the green mangos to see if they can be used for the meal!

Tasting the green mangos to see if they can be used for the meal!

For the evening we would all have dinner together at the house, but as they don't have their oven yet, Marie Pierre's mother was glad to prepare us a nice Créole meal—Cabri Masalé et pois du cap avec riz pilaf (Masala goat stew with cape peas and rice pilaf.)

Saturday Morning, Post-Race

I didn't sleep great, but I slept enough that I could at least feel a little recovery from the extreme fatigue I had been feeling from being awake for two days and running for over half of one of those!

I was looking forward to breakfast—my first meal in three months where I wouldn't have to think about controlling my portions of carbohydrates. Bring on the croissants and sweet fruit! :D

Tonight for dinner I could eat pizza too! Yes, please!

Tonight for dinner I could eat pizza too! Yes, please!

After breakfast we all drove around the coast to St. Gilles for the dolphin & whale-watching tour. We were a couple of minutes late arriving for the tour and the employee from the tour company wasn't interested in accommodating us, so we got bumped to another tour an hour later. To pass the time we walked around the nearby area of the village. It was a beautiful morning and the heat of the summer was fully present.

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Our boat arrived and took us six kilometres out to sea where we got to see plenty of dolphins swimming, but no whales. On our way back when we were coming in over the reef we kept an eye out for turtles but didn't see any today. I haven't included any photos of dolphins. Without a zoom lens they're just specks in the photograph.

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It was great to get out on the water again! My first time since my month of sailing this past summer.

It was great to get out on the water again! My first time since my month of sailing this past summer.

A Visit To The Sugar Mill

After getting back to the house from the race I had enough time to shower and have a quick snack before we had to be on our way to the nearby sugar factory. It was the only chance I would have on the trip to visit, so although I was completely exhausted I chose to continue with the tour.

Cameras were only allowed on the tour if it had a neck strap as all items must be emptied from the pockets. Alas, I wasn't able to take any photos to share, but I can tell you a little about it...

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All over the island you see bright green fields of sugarcane like in the photo above. Sugarcane was first imported to Reunion Island during the 18th century and it has been the island's primary crop for more than a century. The plantations now occupy 26,500 hectares, covering 54% of the island's agricultural land. Currently there are two mills on the island that process the sugar and produce an approximate annual output of 200,000 tons. The processed sugar accounts for 90% of the island's exports. It's not only your typical sacs of table sugar for the kitchen that is the end result of processing, but other by-products include molasses, filter cake (fertilizer), bagasse (for energy production), and alcohol. Every year seven million litres of rum is distilled, 75% of which is also exported. Sugarcane provides 22% of the island's electricity, this is produced by burning the bagasse (the dry pulpy residue left over after juice is extracted from the sugarcane.) The harvesting season for sugarcane runs from mid-June to December. There are several weigh stations around the island which you can see big dumptrucks off-loading sugarcane to where it is then sampled and weighed, then transferred on to the mills.

We took the evening tour of the factory and got to see the different stages of the process, and also sample the end results. At this mill they had white sugar, about three different types of brown sugar, a couple different syrups, then all kinds of sweets, jams, and drinks the gift shop provided.

I'm glad we took the tour, but by the end of it I was ready to call it a day. My body just needed some rest!

Touring the Vanilla Garden

The plan for the day was to just take things pretty easy; to stay well rested before the race. I just went on a very short run to shake things loose—only twelve hours to go until the race. For the late afternoon we visited Provanille.

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Provanille is a cooperative made up of 120 vanilla producers based in the eastern part of the island. It was first established in 1968 and continues to be active in all things involved in the farming and processing of local vanilla. The organization provides guided tours of the vanilla garden and workshops. Most of the vanilla available for sale in stores on the island is actually from Madagascar, so the local vanilla is better valued. The vanilla plants are grown in the island's forests, on unspoiled volcanic lava flow fields—a process that has been handed down from generation to generation.

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During the tour, our guide explained to us how the vanilla is planted, how the pods mature, and are processed in the workshops.

 

 

It ain't cheap!

It ain't cheap!

If you want to see more, check out the company's website here.

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Morning in Saint Pierre

Day two started with another road trip, this time to the southwestern part of the island to a place called Saint Pierre. The race package pick-up was happening here in the park in front of the old town hall. It took about an hour and a half to progress through the long line-ups of racers. It was a beautiful day though with blue skies, warm sun, and a nice breeze from the ocean.

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After I got my race jersey and bag of freebies it was time for some lunch. Louis has the week off school and Marie Pierre had taken work holidays so we were able to make the trips together and they could take me around to these places on the island, which I really appreciated. Sébastien was busy working during the week but would be able to join us on the weekend. For lunch we went to a place on the waterfront. I tried "un filet dorade coryphène avec sauce vanille" a fillet of fish with vanilla sauce. I had never had vanilla with fish before, but it was an interesting taste and I liked it.

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Flying to La Réunion

The flight to Reunion from Mauritius felt so easy. 35 minutes in the air. I tried to nap for the flight but didn't quite fall asleep before we got the message from the captain that we were already preparing to land.

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One seat over from me on the flight was a man from Japan who had come to run the Diagonale des Fous race. With the language barrier between us we couldn't have a very detailed conversation but we exchanged contact details and wished each other luck on our respective races. He looked to be in his mid-50's and certainly wasn't making any excuses about his age stopping him from running. Read that last sentence again.

On approach for landing at Roland Garros International Airport.

On approach for landing at Roland Garros International Airport.

The three-letter ICAO airport identifier for Reunion Island's airport is "RUN". It could be a considered a coincidence or an omen. Upon arrival proceeding through the border control the agent stamps your passport and kindly wishes "bon courage". None of us runners have to explain why we've come to the country, they already know the reason and are glad to have us there.

Mauritius Arrival

Though the departure from Dubai was delayed by about a half hour, the flight landed close to its scheduled time at Mauritius airport.

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When I walked out of the airport I was greeted by fresh air and a beautiful sunset but also a swarm of taxi drivers eager to pick up a fare. I really didn't feel like getting scammed right off the bat and was keen to stretch my legs and walk a bit. I didn't get very far before another taxi driver chased me up. Considering my lack of time I decided I'd take a short drive with this guy just to see a bit of the surrounding area rather than sit at the airport and stare at a screen.

Mauritius really reminded me of Sri Lanka, just cleaner and wealthier. It shared many similarities to the clusters of shops, the people about, and the chaotic driving practices, among other things.

It would have been nice to spend some more time in Mauritius, but I had other things on my mind, and was eager to get to Reunion Island.

After collecting my luggage I walked out of the airport to be greeted by an amazing sunset!

After collecting my luggage I walked out of the airport to be greeted by an amazing sunset!

The Island

At the moment I'm writing from an altitude of 8,600m and speed of 950 km/h, seated somewhat comfortably aboard the Emirates A380 flight from Dubai to Mauritius. With only another five and a half hours to go I thought I'd make good use of the time and get some writing done.

The last few weeks have been very busy for me and these last few days even crazier with having to tie up all the loose ends on trip preparations, performing several evenings, band rehearsals, completing required work on a couple of on-going composing projects, all while squeezing in some fun for my birthday this past week, and keeping up with demanding race training! Whew! It's feels nice to relax a little bit now... or as much as I can with the excitement in my system for this trip to Reunion Island, and my big race coming up on Friday.

Some of you might be wondering where Reunion Island is, and if you don't know, don't be embarrassed—five years ago I hadn't heard of it either. Just dust off your atlas if you still don't know what Google Earth is, and turn to the page of Africa. Reunion is only a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean but not too difficult to find if you can locate Madagascar. From there direct your eyes eastward where you'll see Mauritius and Reunion Island. Around the year 1507, Portuguese explorers came upon the uninhabited island. A century and a half later France occupied the island where they decided to keep mutineers & other bad eggs for a short time, then colonized it in 1665, when it was known as Île Bourbon. Then in 1793 the island was given the new name of Île de la Réunion to commemorate the union of revolutionaries from Marseille with the National Guard in Paris. The island's name was changed again when Napoleon Bonaparte decided to get involved but then switched back to Bourbon after another invasion. Then after the fall of the Bourbons during the 1848 French Revolution the island once again claimed it's name of Île de la Réunion. If the name Reunion Island seems to ring a bell for you it may be because of this past summer's news about the piece of missing aircraft from Malaysian Airlines washing up on shore there. Or maybe you just paid attention in geography class. If that's the case, pat yourself on the back. You might also know then that the island covers an area of just 2500 square kilometres and on the eastern end is the Piton de la Fournaise ("Peak of the Furnace") volcano. Apparently it's sometimes called a sister to Hawaiian volcanoes because of the similarity of climate and volcanic nature. It's already erupted a few times this year, most recently at the end of July.

Reunion Island

Reunion Island

So how did I come to learn about Reunion Island? Well, I little over five years ago I was fairly active on a website called PolyglotClub.com It's an online language exchange community for people (and nerds like me) who want to learn multiple languages. It works like this: you sign up, fill out the forms asking what languages you want to learn and which ones you can teach, then you find people with complementing knowledge to correspond with. I've kept in touch with quite a few people over the years from all parts of the globe, but there's one person whom I've maintained semi-frequent contact with who just happens to be from La Réunion. Her name is Marie Pierre.

Writing to her, I do my best to communicate in coherent French, she then responds in English and provides corrections on my French and then I respond to her email correcting her English (much less work than what she ends up with I'm afraid!) We've kept in touch via email and only recently connected on Skype where I got to meet her family. Her husband Sébastien is originally from France but now enjoys the island life, and her son Louis, who is now 16 years old. They also have a dog, Icare, whom I'll get to meet when I arrive tonight. They have so kindly offered to host me during my week on the island. 

Making a journey to a fascinating place such as Réunion to meet a pen-pal in person is already an exciting opportunity, but the other part of the draw for me in this case is something called Le Grand Raid...

Around the time when Marie Pierre and I started corresponding, I was getting into running. It was spring 2010 and I had heard some rave reviews of the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall so decided to give it a read. The book has since become an icon in the running world. If you haven't read it, I do recommend it, even if you don't think of yourself as a "runner". It might just turn you into one. The book puts a lot of focus on the mechanics of running, analyzing our natural tendencies & techniques and looks at how the invention of thick-soled running shoes has (negatively) impacted how we run and leads to myriad injuries. Mr. McDougall explains all of this while simultaneously weaving it into a fascinating story of an ultra distance race in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. Before reading this book I thought that marathons were the greatest feat a runner could aim for. I had never heard of an "ultramarathon". But this book opened my eyes to that. Yes, it sounded crazy to me that people would want to (and even could) run for these extreme distances longer than a marathon (42.2 km). I was still trying to figure out how to run more than half an hour without a sore knee, ankle, or shin splints! After finishing the book there was something that stuck with me—a feeling, a thought, that maybe one day I could actually achieve that—become an ultrarunner.

Within a few weeks I had signed up for my first race, the Whistler Valley 10K Trail Run, and I was on my way to figuring out how to train my body (and mainly my feet) to run 10 km. There were certainly some sore days and periods of extended recovery, but in the end I crossed the finish line with a respectable time. In a letter to Marie Pierre I told her about my running and the trail race I took part in. She wrote back telling me about this big event that happens on Reunion every year—an ultramarathon! The Grand Raid. If you're wondering what defines an ultramarathon, I will explain...

The traditional marathon distance is 42.195 km (or 26.219 miles fer y'all still on Imperial.) Ultramarathon distances are then anything longer than that but typically are 50 km, 100 km, 50 mi, and 100 mi in length. They can be single day events or multi-day, covering up to 1,600 km. They're not anything new, but ultrarunning is definitely a growing sport. 

There are three races that are part of the Grand Raid de la Réunion; the Diagonale des Fous (Madman's Diagonal), the Trail de Bourbon, and La Mascareignes. The event has been celebrated on the island since 1989 and draws thousands of participants, mostly locals, but a fair number of international runners too (yay!)

In a future post I'll write more about the details of my race in particular, La Mascareignes.

I haven't had much sleep in the last 72 hours so right now I'm going to have a nap!

À bientôt,

Dale

The New Blog

Welcome to the new blog and my new website. It's all a work in progress so if you have any comments or suggestions, please share. This is my first test post to make sure things are working properly. I've bought back the domain name dalenichols.net that I first owned about 11 years ago. I wanted a new platform for my travel blog to share with family & friends and whoever else might be interested in reading about my adventures. I have ported my old blog here from Tumblr and everything seems to have found its place.

Al Badia Sunrise

Al Badia Sunrise

I went for an early morning walk yesterday and enjoyed watching the sunrise, listening to new music, thinking about life, and getting some fresh air early in the day.

 

Audentes fortuna iuvat; ad astra!
— The Latin phrase I used to have stamped on my old blog.