A phenomenal week aboard the Sundancer II in Belize

Our first liveaboard experience, and we came away wowed, and hungry for more! We couldn’t have asked for a more fun bunch of people to dive with. The crew was incredible too – they were ever so energetic and helpful, whether underwater diving with us, or on deck giving us hot towels and hot chocolates post-dive, and whipping up dishes of delicious snacks and meals. We were completely spoilt for a week.

Jeff and I both had amazing experiences underwater. His most memorable moment was during one of our night dives, watching a channel clinging crab feast on uni, discarding the spikes of the urchin in a messy pile by the side. I captured that scene, focusing on getting the lighting just right on the crab, but didn’t even realize what it was doing until Jeff told me post dive. For me, I enjoyed experimenting with the camera controls underwater, and gained much satisfaction whenever I successfully controlled my buoyancy and nailed a shot. Already, I see a vast improvement in the pictures from my prior diving trips; I’m already looking forward to more dive trips when I can further practice on my exposures underwater.

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

One of the many, many delicious meals we had. We were fed brownies, tacos, pumpkin bread etc after each dive, and lunches and dinners were veritable feasts

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Dive site #1: Julie’s Jungle, Lighthouse Reef… We dove at 2-3 different dive sites around the Lighthouse Reef atoll per day the first five days, and at the Black Beauty site at the Turneffe Island site Friday morning, the last day of diving. Every time we came to a new site, one of the divemasters would draw an elaborate map of the area and give us a thorough briefing of what we could expect to see. Sometimes, we dove with the divemaster, other times, we wandered around with our dive buddies Tracy and Teresa.

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First sight of dive #1: a sea full of thimble jellyfish. Happily, I was immune to their stings, seeing as I was only in a rashguard and shorts.

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As we descended, we were treated to this sight of a giant loggerhead turtle cruising about. It was the largest turtle I’ve ever seen underwater

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We saw a bunch of giant lobsters underwater. Yummy

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We had a few turtle sightings throughout the week. Always fun!

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This is one glum looking lion fish. Since they are considered invasive species in these waters with no natural predators yet, the dive masters try to do their part to eliminate those they come across, killing them with spears and feeding them to french angel fish, barracudas, groupers, eels and sharks. This one was lucky – the dive master didn’t bring a spear down that time.

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Our big 140 foot long boat had a hang bar which the crew lowered when the current got rough, so we had something to cling onto while doing our safety stop. The ride was sometimes very thrilling – we would literally be flying through the water clinging on like mad as the boat swung about in its long wide arc.

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Jeff enjoying a relatively calm ride on the hang bar

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

We spotted a few spotted eagle rays throughout the week, always in the deep, gliding its lonesome way along the wall

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Just gorgeous reef systems

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Love these beautifully patterned flamingo tongue nudibranches

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I had a close encounter with this one green moray eel. After I’d peacefully spent a few minutes photographing it, captain Megan came along with a freshly speared lion fish to feed it. It was fun watching it swim out of its hole to claim its prize, which it made short work of before gracefully ribboning its way back to its hole. Then, for reasons still unclear to me, it locked eyes on me and started heading out of its hole again, toward me. Alarmed, I finned backwards rapidly, but still it charged forwards. I had a second to decide: take a video or protect myself? Instinct got the better and I wielded my dive pointer, just in the nick of time. I swiped the side of the eel’s mouth and it retreated a few feet. I’d won that brief bout of fencing, but warily continued to fin backwards, keeping my eyes on the eel as my hearted thumped crazily. It turned back toward me again, and this time I fumbled with both the camera and dive stick. Then Megan was there, helping me ward off the persistent eel with her spear. The eel got the message, and retreated back to its hole. By then, our group of divers had had enough excitement and we decided to end the dive before the eel changed its mind again. Whew! I can tell you this: we saw more green morays after that dive, but each time I took great care to stay a good six feet away, especially when the dive master was feeding it more lion fish!

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

First night dive Sunday… we jumped into the water and were greeted by the sight of a few large tarpons cruising underneath the boat

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

Spotted eel… these little cuties I have no problem getting close to. Heh.

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Chain Wall dive. Visibility was awful, thanks to the strong currents that churned up the sandy reef bottom. Jeff and I dove with Tracy and Teresa; the rest of the group had headed off in the opposite direction early, and we lost sight of them in the murk. It was an exciting dive. We couldn’t see much, but a big grouper and barracuda hung around us for most of the dive, from the reef to the wall and back. We weren’t afraid of the grouper, and it wasn’t afraid of us either – letting Tracy pet it for a good few minutes near the end of the dive. But we were wary of the barracuda, especially since it tailed us really closely, making multiple close passes by our fins. I spent most of my time along the wall trying to keep an eye on the barracuda, until Jeff signaled excitedly to look down. Two grey reef sharks – just feet away from me! Tracy and I tried to swim as close as we dared to to get videos and pictures, while Jeff and Teresa kicked upwards to get a safe distance. We had three other shark encounters that dive; not sure if they were the same ones, but was it thrilling!

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

When it doesn’t have lion fish to feast on, the French Angel fish makes do with coral

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

Our comfortably appointed home for the week, the Belize Sundancer II. The Aggressor and Sundancer fleet have two boats in Belize, the Aggressor and Sundancer. The former costs $200 more but is smaller, with bunk-bed style cabins mostly. Very happy with our choice – it was spacious, with a huge upper deck where we loved to take naps on in between dives.

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

Another green moray, this time at the Cathedral dive site on day #3. It was our second dive, and six of us descended together. We started swimming in the opposite direction from the wall by mistake, but then decided to spend the entire dive playing around in the shallows. It was fun: there were beautiful mounds of coral reef heads to poke our noses close to, and plenty to see, including this one green moray that looked about to swim out of its hole. We were underwater for over an hour, never venturing deeper than 19 feet, and came up with more than 1000 psi to spare.

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

Gorgeous sunrise on day #4, aka Blue Hole dive day! We lucked out with the weather – bright, sunny and warm with cool breezes to take the edge off every day. It only rained the last morning as we prepared to disembark – nature’s way of empathizing with us the end of a wonderful week?

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Mooring at the Blue Hole

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Everyone eagerly awaiting the Blue Hole dive briefing

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130 feet underwater. Huge stalactites to admire, but not much else heh. At that depth, I could feel slightly pleasantly buzzed.

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Well, checked that off the list. At least we can say we went to Belize and dove the Blue Hole, though honestly otherwise it was an unexciting dive. Haha

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Our shortest dive of the trip: just 30 minutes, with under 5 minutes at the 130 feet.

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We had to do a long surface interval nonetheless, and spent the time on land, visiting Half Moon Caye Island, which is home to the red-footed boobies (its cousins, the blue-footed boobies, are found in the Galapagos, another site waiting to be marked off on our bucket list)

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It was sweltering hot on land, so everyone was excited to get back underwater. Megan brought down a couple of frozen lion fish she had speared the day before, in hopes of attracting sharks, but the takers were just this French Angel fish, and later on in the dive, a green moray eel

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

I love late afternoon dives. The lighting is just so beautiful. Though it does get chilly when we ascend, so I have to squeeze my way into a full wetsuit for the dive.

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These indigo hamlets are just beautiful. One of the divers said these were her favorite of the dive trip… that and the time she saw a giant grouper swimming along with its mouth wide open and holding a squirrel fish – we speculated that the squirrel’s fish fins might have gotten stuck in the grouper’s mouth

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The aforementioned channel clinging crab eating sea urchin

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This poor tarpon was swimming around with a hook stuck in its mouth

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Divemaster Karim, who accompanied us on the night dive, tried to unstick the hook, to no avail

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Tracy saw this giant grouper eat an unsuspecting parrot fish sleeping underneath a ledge

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The dive briefing drawings get more detailed as the week goes on

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Loved the dives at Half Moon Caye Wall. We had sandy bottoms with southern stingrays swimming about, fields of garden eels, as well as beautiful reefs and gorgeous walls. It was one of the most popular sites we were at all week; there were a group of divers on small dinghies that dropped their divers off near our mooring line, and one of them got lost from his group (merman!) and ended up swimming with us the entire dive. We brought him up to the boat at the end, and radioed around to find his group.

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Conch!

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Ocean triggerfish

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Southern stingray

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Decorated crab

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We saw hundreds of these adorable tiny puffers on every dive, usually in pairs around the corals

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Huge remora hung around us on the Painted Wall dive. Pity we didn’t see its host shark; must have been huuuuge.

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Last night dive! We did a dusk dive this time, before dinner, so we could have a proper feast with drinks. And feast we did. Chef Jerry whipped up a Thanksgiving meal, with a big turkey and ham and all the works!

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

No idea what this was, but I love the lighting and the color

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Last turtle sighting of the last dive. Boohoo.

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We hadn’t had enough of the water, so after we’d safely docked, 8 of us from the boat went on a cave tubing expedition

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It was fun – I only wish it was longer!

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Cocktail party back at the boat… a last hurrah with the amazing crew and fellow divers

From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II
From An Awesome Week Aboard the Belize Sundancer II

An evening of painting and wine

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We thought it might be a blast to have an evening of wine, painting and general merriment at home, and so invited a group of friends over.

It was fun. Everyone searched online for inspiration of what to paint, settled down with some wine and got to it. The paintings even looked good, mostly. Hehe. After, I whipped up some mee siam goreng and curry chicken for dinner, and we lounged around the table for a few more hours.

La Clemenza di Tito

After reading the news that the San Diego Opera was shuttering down after 49 years, I couldn’t help but marvel at the Chicago Lyric Opera’s fiscal prudence in filling its productions with current and past Ryan Opera Center members. Ok, so they haven’t bust their budget hiring all the international opera stars.

Yet, it’s undeniable the thrills that true operatic stars bring to the stage. Whenever Joyce Didonato as Sesto or Matthew Polenzani as Tito opened their mouth, the atmosphere in the hushed opera house was electric. Glorious!

Great way to finish up Chicago’s season. And I’m excited that I’ll get the chance to hear Didonato again in just over a month, this time in NYC (barring flight cancellations).

Jonas Kaufmann and Renee Fleming Concert at the Lyric

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Photo credits: Todd Rosenberg

What a stupendous evening it was at the Lyric’s annual Subscriber Appreciation Concert (nevermind that I didn’t actually sign up for a subscription this season; I did attend 5/7 operas though!). It’s always a treat to hear Renee Fleming perform, but it’s an even bigger treat when she brings in one of her colleagues to share the stage. In prior years, we had the luxury of hearing Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Susan Graham; this year, it was the magnificent Jonas Kaufmann.

Although the two have only performed together only twice before (Otello in 2001 at the Lyric, and Rosenkavalier in 2009 at Baden-Baden), you wouldn’t know it to see it. They had such incredible chemistry on stage, easily bringing to life the characters of the different operatic pieces they were singing. A playful nuzzle here, and short waltz there… we lapped it all up.

If Renee Fleming is the queen of sad songs, Jonas Kaufmann is the king of the tormented. I’m so happy that I got to hear him sing live the “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Werther, the performance that I missed in NYC as a result of my cancelled flight due to fog. His is a dark, vermouth-like voice that effortlessly soars into the upper reaches of the balcony, even when he sings pianissimo. Nobody does anguish quite like him.

My favorite piece of the evening was the St. Sulpice scene from Massenet’s Manon, where Fleming’s Manon successfully re-seduced Kaufmann’s heartbroken Des Grieux from taking his holy orders. For whole minutes, the concert hall fell away and we were transported into the living, breathing world of the passionate ex-lovers as she sought a reunion. It was also the most consummate acting I’ve seen Renee Fleming do, especially when comparing against her recent outing as Rusalka at the Met; her solo piece of Manon’s “Adieu, notre petite table” was also heart-rending.

Butchery class

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Last Thursday, we popped over to Butcher and the Burger, a tiny burger joint in Lincoln Square for a hog butchery demonstration.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but we had a fun evening. The dozen or so of us crowded around the gleaming metal table in the basement, and sipped at our BYOB wines and beer while we watched owner Al expertly dissect a half hog weighing maybe 70 pounds.

Wielding a small but incredibly sharp knife, Al efficiently sliced through the thick cuts of sirloin, ham, ribs etc. I even got to try my hand at sawing through a slab of chops. Hehe.

Afterwards, we trooped upstairs where the cooks whipped us heaping plates of fresh burgers and fries. Mm.

A Burgundian Blind Tasting

A recent Friday evening, my coworker David invited us and a bunch of other folks over to his place for a feast of Chinese delicacies his mother-in-law whipped up, to go along with the 4 bottles of Burgundy and 1 bottle of California Pinot Noir that we tasted blind. It was fun – as we snacked on the piping hot Shanghai dumplings brimming with soupy goodness, we sipped and swirled our glasses and tried our best to fit the wines to the tasting notes David set in front of us. The winners – ultimately Y&A and I – got to bring home a bag of frozen soup dumplings each. :D

Here are the wines and the notes that David found off the web (those in quotation marks are not my own):

1993 Grivot vosne romanee
“At first it smells a bit like wet socks, but once that blows off some bitter cherries, green tea and vegetables comes to the front. In the mouth there’s lots of acid, but also hints of sweetness and fruit.
Supple, ripe and generous with its plum and currant flavors, hinting at coffee and spice on a velvety texture. Has impressive length and well-integrated tannins.”
This was the first wine we tasted, and it was relatively easy to identify as the oldest wine because of its brown hue – very little vibrant red tones left. There was quite a bit of sediment too. Gorgeous wine though – I did pick up the coffee and green tea notes. It lasted in my glass for about 15 or so minutes and noticeably flattened out after.

1996 Perdrix – Nuits St Georges Aux Perdrix 1er Cru
“Dense, dark fruits with some oak. Maybe a touch on the modern side as this is rather polished with the oak quite noticeable. It becomes a little more integrated in the glass. Some light earthy, meaty and smoky notes. Masculine wine.
Firm structure, delicately annunciated. Deep red color, plenty of berry, jam and even a bit of tobacco at the end. Fruity, rich, gave up the goods easily”
This was the last bottle in our tasting lineup, and the one wine that I couldn’t quite place. For its age, it was still pretty red, albeit a darker, more solid red.

1998 Mysterious Cali reserve Pinot
“Displaying the most saturated ruby color, the 1998 Pinot Noir Reserve spent 14 months in new French oak, and tips the scales at 14.2% alcohol. It offers excellent plum and cherry scents along with smoky, spicy oak. Medium to full bodied, moderately tannic, pure, and nicely textured.”
This was later revealed as the Artesa Pinot from Carneros, and one of the wines I’d guessed wrongly. Gah. It was interesting though – when I first tasted it (and made my guess), it tasted hot, spicy with strong notes of tannins and tobacco. But at the end of the tasting, before the results were revealed, I went back to this bottle and oh my, it was like a completely different wine! It had become so pliant and fruity, and reminded me of those carnival cotton candy. Should have changed my mind right then about it being a Cali pinot. Heh.

2003 Heresztyn – Morey St-Denis Les Millandes 1er Cru
“This is wonderfully elegant with less earth nuances and more emphasis on fine and small red berry and cassis aromas but the precision and elegance the flavors displayed from cask are no longer present and instead, the flavors are now borderline heavy and while complex and sappy.”
Easily the favorite of the evening. My note: OMG SO SOFT! It was delicious; we returned to our glass again and again for tiny sips.

2006 Rene Leclerc – Gevrey-Chambertin Champeaux 1er Cru
“Light cherry note. After a few hours in the decanter, it really put on weight. The expressive nose shows high-toned red fruits, cotton candy, earth and a bit of orange peel. On the palate, this has fantastic acidity and the sweet red fruit is really showing well. Smooth and velvety with delicate tannins.”
My first initial reaction upon sniffing the glass was “orange peel”! Whereupon I searched the tasting notes to see if any of the noted wines had this characteristic. Badabing!

Rusalka at the Lyric

M and I scored awesome seats for the Lyric’s performance of Rusalka this past Tuesday – front center seats on the main orchestra level for 50% off. :) All the better to see the singers up close, in particular the gamekeeper, whom M has been casually seeing for the past month.

It was a long performance – almost 4 hours. But the set was visually stunning, especially the kitchen and ballroom scenes in Act 2. The singers were really good as well, with Ana Maria Martinez (who also sang Song to the Moon perched rather uncomfortably in a tree… David McVicar, the director, explained in an interview that many directors did that, since the water nymphs, according to myth, had legs and liked to climb trees… ok…), Brandon Jovanovich and Eric Owens leading the solid cast. Jill Grove looked like she was having a blast with the sinister and cackly Jezibaba.

Chicago Tribune’s review here.

Trapeze and other circus fun

Last Friday, TSNY Chicago invited us frequent flyers to the rig for an evening of fun. “Student Appreciation Night”, they called it. It was awesome. We were broken up into small groups of 3-4, and over 2 hours, rotated around the different circus-y apparatus to play on.

I squeezed in 3 turns on the flying trapeze, continuing to work on my full twisting straight jump. Happy to report that I’m making some solid progress – I’m keeping my legs tight together in the turns! Haha.

Had fun on the trampoline, did some acro yoga, and played on the static trapeze and lyra. But my favorite station of the evening was the tightwire. For the last half hour of the evening, we could play at whatever station we wanted, and I spent it all with T. on the tightwire. Everyone else was hanging out on the flying trapeze or the trampoline, so I got in plenty of practice time. Ahhh. It’s been too long, but I’ve missed it so! Personally, tightwire is so much easier than the slackline. I still can’t stand from a sitting position on the slackline, but it’s relatively easy on the tightwire.

Afterwards, most of us trooped down the street to Steve’s favorite bar for more fun and laughter, this time over food and drinks.

Landscape Photography in Flat Light

It was disappointing and frustrating to say the least – that I took the effort to go out to capture the sunset, and the light was crappy. Just the day before, Friday, the sunset – or at least the view I saw from my office – was beautiful. Clear orange skies that slowly faded into a deep indigo blue. Why is it that the weather gets crappy every weekend that I’m free to take pictures? Seriously.

Anyway, I tried to make the most of it. The black and white photo looks marginally more interesting than its original color form. That’s the nature of the beast I guess.

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Stranded in Chicago

I was supposed to be in New York this weekend, watching the opera Werther, and meeting my niece for the first time. Instead, thanks to heavy fog in New York, my flight, and all other flights headed out to NYC Friday evening, was cancelled. And incredibly, there wasn’t a single seat available in any airlines for Saturday morning. Nada.

Super bummed, but oh well. Assuming Jonas Kaufman doesn’t catch a cold, I will get the chance to hear him sing live in Chicago in a few weeks, and the niece will still be waiting when we head over again to visit in May. At least it’s just a weekend trip to NYC, and not a real vacation, like say, Belize, where our dive boat would have to cast off without us. That would really, really, really stink.

At least Jeff got out before the weather closed in.

Made the most of freed-up time at any rate. A coworker found herself suddenly free on Friday evening too, so we spontaneously decided to go out for dinner together. It was fun, getting to know her, since otherwise we haven’t interacted much at all despite sitting across from the other.

On Saturday, I slept in and lounged about in bed the whole day, reading, before donning on the layers and trudging to the lakefront to try to take some sunset shots. Alas, it was too cloudy, so the light was too flat. I waited in the cold though, stomping my feet to keep them from getting numb, until the sun officially set.

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Afterwards, grabbed dinner in the suburbs with a bunch of friends. Some climbing tomorrow before I pick up Jeff from the airport. Hopefully no more flight dramas!

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