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My Skydiving Tandem at The Parachude Center, Lodi, California in May 2012

In California, I discovered a new passion for extreme sports: skydiving. Too bad we don’t get to watch more extreme sports at the London 2012 Olympic Games*, but at least we got a taste of the extreme with James Bond and Queen Elizabeth’s heroic jump with a parachute from a helicopter over the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony.

Mike and I in freefall from 13,000 feet over Lodi, CA

With its all-year-round perfect weather and scenic views, California is a paradise for both first time skydivers and licensed skydiving enthusiasts. The Golden State has the largest skydiving community in the States and one of the highest number of drop zones worldwide.

I jumped for the first time in a tandem at the Parachute Center, Lodi, CA. To tell you the truth, parking the car in front of the drop zone was the most terrifying moment of the whole experience! My pulse had almost stopped and there was not even a drop of blood in my face. My legs felt like melting cheese as I was putting on the jumpsuit, and my mouth had frozen in a crooked horrified smile as people around me were cheering for me and saying that I’ll do great. My instructor was going to be Mike, a white-haired man with over 10,000jumps.

As I was walking to the airplane, I was silently cursing Ethan who persuaded me to do it. I had already accepted my doomed fate as I was watching the airport below us become smaller and smaller. At 13,000feet (4,000 meters), my instructor tightened the straps that secured my back to him and gave me a signal to go up to the door. I remember thinking: “Whatever. Just do it!” … And we jumped.

These were the most amazing 60 seconds of my life!

Pure adrenaline rush!

Pure bliss!

If you’ve never been in freefall, you don’t know what you’re missing! The speed and sound of the air rushing past you in the first moment and the sight of the airplane flying away somewhere above you. Then the sensation of floating or even being lifted up due to the air friction and the view of the blue sky, the thin horizon, and the fields and mountains below you. Time stretches, and for those 60 seconds, you are very aware of everything you see and feel. Just take it all in!

When Mike opened the parachute and we went under canopy, my first thought was “WOW, this was awesome!” From there, I just enjoyed the relaxing flight over Lodi and then a perfectly soft landing.

My Solo Jump at Skydive Sofia, Bulgaria

Most people say that they would like to jump at least once in their lifetime. A small portion of them really do, and they love it! An even smaller portion of those love it so much that they want to do it over and over and over again!

About a month after my first tandem jump, I had already completed AFF, the Accelerated Freefall Program, at the Parachute Center, which enables me to solo jump. The program consists of seven jumps with an instructor who at first only holds you stable during the freefall, and later only watches you from a distance while you maintain a stable position and perform basic maneuvers in the air. My AFF instructor was Zak Tessier, check out his skydiving, wingsuit flying, and BASE jumping with Team Go 4 It!

Take a look at Ethan’s TheExtremeEJDe video blog on YouTube as well for more from the world of skydiving, scuba diving, and motorcycling.

When I came back to Bulgaria after my California trip, I immediately went to jump at Skydive Sofia. As the skydivers in Sofia say, “Don’t worry about the fear.  Worry about the addiction.”

And although there isn’t a skydiving competition in the London 2012 Olympic Games, we all saw who arrived at the Opening Ceremony with a parachute – James Bond and Queen Elizabeth! They have already done it, and so should you!

Blue skies!

 

*Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing skydiving, water ski, scuba diving, power boating, auto racing, or motorcycle racing in the Olympics any time soon because the International Olympic Body deems sports with an element of motorization to be ineligible for the Games.

By the way, the closest I’ve gotten to an Olympic gold medal is when I won three ribbons at the intramural swimming competition at Boston University. Read about it in the link. 

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Seals are such beautiful creatures. They are big and mighty when they argue, nudge and shove each other, but then become gentle and peaceful when napping cuddled together. They are very clumsy on the shore, but fast and graceful in the water.

During my trip, I saw elephant seals, sea lions, and common harbor seals everywhere from the beaches of Big Sur and Carmel to the harbors of Santa Cruz and San Francisco. These are some of the pictures I took.

Pier 39, San Francisco

Elephant Seals by San Simeon

Seals by Santa Cruz

Seal kiss by the Santa Cruz harbor

I also went to the San Diego Zoo, which is one of the biggest zoos in the world. It’s marvelous how they have recreated the natural habitats of various animals with unique plants and environments: the pandas are in a bamboo forest, the alligators are in a swamp, the kangaroos are in an outback-like desert, the exotic birds are in a jungle. They also have many animal-themed shows and performances such as the Chinese Theatre we saw near the Asian section of the zoo. Thus, the San Diego zoo combines an animal park, a botanical garden, and an entertainment center where children and parents can observe, learn about, and interact with nature.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best aquariums in the world.

Monterey Bay in California holds an abundance of interesting, unique ocean animals and plants, which make the region a paradise for scuba divers and ocean explorers. At the Aquarium, I saw a bunch of interactive exhibits where biologists were feeding the otters, the deep sea fish (imagine a school of thousands of herring moving in giant tank along with hammerheads and sharks), and the inhabitants of a kelp forest. I also saw a sea horses exhibit, a jellyfish exhibit, and a playground where you could touch various creatures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the San Diego Zoo, I encountered several California species that I had never seen in the wild before: blue jays, a humming bird in Mount Diablo, seals, otters, two scary snakes, a herd of very friendly elk by Grand Canyon, redwoods and giant sequoias in Yosemite, and of course, the yellow California poppy. So my number one advice to travelers is: always combine sightseeing in the cities with exploring the local nature and wild life!

A dead Giant Sequoia at Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite

A herd of elk came just a few feet from our campsite near Grand Canyon

The golden poppy, the state’s flower, welcomes us to California


Roman pool, Hearst Castle

 

As Shakespeare said, “Two houses both alike in dignity…” and eccentricity. 

While traveling on Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, I visited two almost equally peculiar “homes”, Hearst Castle and Madonna Inn.

Hearst Castle is the mansion of the notorious American media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Built between 1919 and 1947 near San Simeon by architect Julia Morgan, “La Cuesta Encantada”(the Enchanted Hill), as it is also known, today is a national historic landmark . It is a huge castle build on a hill with a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by open fields that used to be orchards and a private zoo for exotic animals.

Indoors mosaics pool, Hearst Castle

Yes, exotic animals. Hearst was a millionaire and a very eccentric person. Together with Julia Morgan, he designed an eclectic, flamboyant castle that combines many architectural styles and epochs in one. Inspired by the wonderful cathedrals, castles, palaces, fortresses, chateaus, and villas he had seen while traveling through Europe with his mother as a child, Hearst incorporated everything in his mansion. “The Ranch”, as Hearst himself called it, has an ancient Roman mosaics pool, Medieval tapestry, Gothic hallways, a collection of antique furniture and Mediterranean art, a modern movie theatre, church-like bell towers, painted and wood carved ceilings, marvelous gardens and patios, and much more.  It is architectural madness and genius at the same time. It used to be frequented by the political elite and the highlife of Hearst’s time like Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Dining room, Madonna Inn

Hearst Castle is magnificent, no doubt about that, and it does feel like something out of a dream about the Mediterranean. Still, I would recommend to anyone, if possible, to visit the European palaces and learn about the Mediterranean cultures that inspired Hearst to build his dream ranch.

Ladies’ Bathrooms, Madonna Inn

The second peculiar mansion I visited in California was the Madonna Inn. It is a hostel on US Route 101 near San Luis Obispo  built by construction magnate Alex Madonna. The Madonna Inn is famous because each of its 110 guest rooms is uniquely themed: heaven, whisky factory, desert sands, caveman room, rock bottom, safari, love nest, old mill, Bridal Falls, jungle, flowers, cloud Nine, amusement park, etc.  The outside of the Inn looks like a palace-chalet from a Swiss alps fairytale – adorned with decorative rocks, a giant fireplace made up of boulders, stained glass depicting the owner’s businesses with construction, cattle, and limber, hand-carved stairs, a dining room that looks like a hot pink flower cave, and bathrooms resembling an underwater cove.

This time, I only went in for a few minutes, but I bet that staying in this landmark resort hotel is an experience in and of itself.

Hearst Castle and Madonna Inn reminded me a lot of the palace in Cintra, Portugal. Take a look here

 


I’ve always dreamt of doing a road trip around the States! So after my Graduation, I spent  a month and a half trekking and touring the West Coast.

For the trekking portion of the trip, my Bulgarian friend Irinka, who also just graduated from a university in the UK, and I booked a professional service, TrekAmerica. We joined a group of fourteen internationals from Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and Ireland for a two week adventure. We traveled by van and camped all over California, Nevada, and Arizona.

I’ve created this map in Google where you can follow my trip as I upload more posts and pictures. I’ve also included some side trips that were not part of the organized tour as well as posts about things that made an impression on me in California.

So buckle up and off we go! First stop: LA!

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