Salkantay Trek

For my work, a colleague and I decided to propose a new travel study course that would involve a combination of our interests – sociology of sport (hiking, specifically) and exercise science. Our original course proposal wasn’t approved, but our International Programs Office agreed to fund us to scout out a trek in Peru to improve our application and fill in details for the second time we propose the course. As a result, a colleague (Abe) and I spent a week in Peru in August of 2018. We spent a few days in Cuzco acclimating before heading out on the (Super) Salkantay Trek which covers about 34 miles (64 kilometers) in 3 days, ending in Aguas Calientes. The following day we took a bus to Macchu Picchu. This post is a brief summary of the trek.

We flew from Tampa to Miami on a Saturday afternoon and then from Miami to Lima that evening, arriving around 9:30. In retrospect, we should have spent the night in Lima and then caught a flight to Cuzco the next day after getting a good night’s sleep. Instead, we spent about 5 hours in the Lima airport (me trying to sleep; Abe pacing the airport) until our 3:50 am flight to Cuzco. The travel agency that arranged our trip included an airport transfer to our hotel which, unfortunately, wasn’t ready when we arrived at around 5:30 am. So, we kind of slept on couches in their lobby until our room was ready around 8:30. By that time, daylight was upon us so we went out exploring in Cuzco. We spent a couple of days in Cuzco exploring the city and the cuisine while acclimating to the elevation (Cuzco is at just over 11,000 feet). We visited some museums, tried a few restaurants, and even did a trial hike up to the Temple of the Moon, Q’Engo Chico, el Cristo Blanco, and Saqsaywaman.

Here’s the route we took:

Despite having spent a day in Cuzco, we could still feel the elevation as we hiked and knew it would take a little while to acclimate to this elevation.

In the afternoon on our second day in Cuzco, we met up with the rest of our group for the (Super) Salkantay Hike at the headquarters of G Adventures and met our guide, Ever. There were 16 of us total: 3 from the US, 1 from Canada, 2 from Switzerland, 2 from Denmark, 2 from South Africa, 2 from Wales, and 4 from England. We had a briefing session, had a chance to rent any gear we needed, and then were given duffels that would carry our sleeping bags and pads and any extra gear as we would only have to carry day packs during the day. Porters (using donkeys) would carry the duffels, tents, and food from campsite to campsite. Having just completed a serious climb of Mt. Rainier in Washington, this seemed like a walk in the park – let someone else carry all the heavy stuff and I just have to get myself from point A to point B every day. Elevation aside, I wasn’t expecting a particularly challenging hike.

On August 6th, we got up around 5:00 am, had a quick bite to eat at our hotel, then hopped aboard a bus that drove us out to the beginning of our hike (stopping for a more substantial breakfast on the way). We started hiking around 10:30. It quickly became apparent that we had different levels of hikers in our group, with several quickly falling behind. I tried to stay at the front as I didn’t want to get caught behind a slow hiker. Our guide, Ever, set a pretty good pace. About 30 minutes in, we started to have light rain and everyone donned their rain gear (for many, this was just light ponchos; luckily, I have complete rain gear for hiking – top and bottom). As we continued, we started to gain some elevation. The rain also started to get a little harder. As we got higher up in elevation, the rain started to transition into sleet. Eventually, it became snow. Basically, we were caught in a snowstorm on our way to Salkantay Pass, which is over 15,000 feet in elevation.

We continued our ascent and the snow got thicker. We stopped about an hour from the pass for lunch. The porters had set up a tent on about 6 inches of snow for us to dine in and had already prepared hot water so we could have tea and hot chocolate. They also made us a hot meal (soup and chicken tenders with rice). It was still freezing cold in the tent but we were largely out of the wind. I was generally warm with all my layers on (except for my hands in my light gloves), but there were many in our group who were much less prepared (one guy was in shorts the whole time). Additionally, one member of our group was slow enough that they had her ride a horse part of the way up the mountain.

After lunch, we continued up the mountain, eventually making it to the pass where most of us huddled behind a large rock to get out of the wind as best we could while we waited for the rest of our group to make it to the top. Our huddle reminded us of a bunch of penguins trying to avoid the cold.

A bunch of people in our group huddled together for warmth.

We stayed on the summit until everyone had made it to the highest point of our hike then began our descent down the other side. It didn’t take long before the wind died down. Then we descended below the snow line and were hiking in mud and light rain. We hiked until just after 6:00 pm when the first wave of us made it to the camp for the night just as it got dark enough to warrant headlamps. It was very cold and raining at the camp but the camp had some buildings with tin roofs (where we ate and the porters slept) and our tents were already set up. The stragglers took another 30 to 45 minutes to arrive in the dark with flashlights.

Here’s the route from the first day of the hike:

Per my watch, we covered 8.84 miles. Our starting elevation was about 12,562 feet; our peak elevation was 15,175 feet (highest I’ve ever hiked). The total elevation gained during the hike was 3,006 feet.

We had about 45 minutes to get our sleeping bags and pads set up before dinner. At dinner, we once again had warm drinks (which were a delight) and ate well. The guide also laid out the plan for the next day, which was the longest hiking day.

We went to bed around 9:00 but the hot drinks worked a number on our bladders. Abe got up to pee four times. I had to get up once, around 10:00 pm, to pee. Given the urgency, I didn’t put my pants back on and was caught in someone else’s headlamp in my underwear taking a piss. When you got to pee, you got to pee!

We were up again around 5:00. We packed up and were met with warm water to make tea and hot chocolate or coffee again. After our meal, we finished gearing up and getting ready for our longest day of hiking. Here’s a photosphere of the campsite:

Since we arrived when it was nearly dark, we really couldn’t see the amazing mountains that surrounded our campsite. In the morning, we had a few breaks in the clouds and realized just how amazing the location was. Alas, we only saw it for about 30 minutes before we headed down.

We had a lot of hiking ahead of us – all day. However, it was also all down hill. As we descended, we crossed from a high altitude mountain region into a wooded area and eventually into the rainforest. It was actually quite interesting as our guide said that we would know when we were in the jungle when we saw bamboo and palm trees, both of which I have in my backyard in Tampa, Florida – I guess I live in the jungle.

I tracked our hike from morning until we stopped for lunch (when I had to recharge my watch). Here’s the route:

We did 6.58 miles before lunch, descending about 4,000 feet.

We stopped for lunch for a bit over an hour. I made the poor decision to take my socks off to air out my feet to try to prevent blisters only to get bit about a dozen times by black flies in the 5 minutes I had my socks off. Terrible idea. My feet itched nonstop for the next three days!

Anyway, after a yummy lunch, we hit the trail again (though, at this point, three members of our group opted to take a van down to our campsite for the night). We hiked through a beautiful area surrounded by mountains and began passing plantation after plantation – corn, avocado, passion fruit, and squash were the major crops. We even stopped at one to break into a passion fruit:

We were hiking next to the Santa Teresa River for most of the afternoon. There was a road on one side of the river but people lived on the other side. In order to cross it, they built cable bridges and would pull themselves across, like the man in this video did:

Towards the end of the day, I was getting tired. It wasn’t hard hiking like the day before but we just kept going and going. We finally reached our campsite just as it was getting dark around 6:00 pm after hiking another 10.53 miles. Here’s the route:

Our campsite this night was basically at the far end of a town, La Playa Sahuayaco, and even had a small bar near our campsite (where we could get beer and pisco sours, which we, of course, got). There was also a hot shower here. We had another 45 minutes to set up our sleeping bags in the pre-arranged tents before dinner. After dinner, our guide explained that our porters would be headed back over the mountain the next day to prepare for the next group of hikers and from here on our gear would be transported by vehicle. He also explained what our hike would be like the next day – a steep climb up a mountain until we overlooked Macchu Picchu followed by a steep descent then a bit of a march to the train station where we’d catch a train to Aguas Calientes and spend the night in a hotel.

Our third day of trekking was as described. We had a relatively steep ascent up a mountain but it was definitely worth it. On the way, we stopped at one break area that had a pretty cool rope swing that allowed you to swing out over the mountain:

It was a short distance after this that we made it to Mirador Llactapata, which is an Incan ruin as well as a lookout spot over Macchu Picchu.

We stayed here for a bit then began our descent down the mountain. It was close to two hours of a steep descent. At the bottom, we crossed another rope bridge then walked for a bit to a train station where we had a late lunch then boarded our train to Aguas Calientes. After three days, we got to take a shower and sleep in comfortable beds. It was nice getting back to civilization. Total mileage for the day: 8.59 miles.

Our total mileage from the hike: 34.54 miles spread over three days.

LibreOffice Calc – Comparing and Aligning Two Lists Using VLOOKUP

One of the tasks I have to do regularly as part of my job is to compare two lists to see which items are missing on one list but not the other. I have been doing this by hand but figured there had to be a way to do this in Excel. I finally figured it out but don’t want to forget how to do it. So, I’m documenting it here so I can draw on this whenever I need to do it again.

Here’s the scenario. I have a list of “items” but every month or so I receive an updated list of “items” from someone else. During that month, some of the items on my list have been taken off and some have been added to it. Likewise, the same has happened to the other list that this other person sends me (I’m being really vague here because I work at a university and there are laws that govern academic records).

My list and the other list have to be kept synchronized but we have two separate databases that are used for this because… (argh, yeah). Anyway, what that means is that I have to compare the two lists and quickly find the items on one list but not the other and vice versa. Here’s how to do it quickly in LibreOffice Calc.

Here are two lists:

(NOTE: You can actually do this in two separate Calc sheets or within the same one.)

LIST 1 is in Column A and List 2 is in Column C.

In Column B I am going to create a function that allows me to search all of Column C to see which of the items in LIST 1 show up in LIST 2. Click in Row 2 of Column B then click on the Function Wizard (or start typing):

In the Function Wizard dialogue box, you’ll see this:

Search for VLOOKUP then double-click it and you’ll see this:

You now need to build the function. This is where I got confused, so I’m going to try to explain this carefully.

The first box is the “Search criterion.” Basically, this is what you want to find. In our example, let’s say that we want to see which items in List 1 are in List 2 (Hint: It’s apples and grapes.). So, we are going to put in the Search criterion that we want the software to search the items in column A or LIST 1. We do this by simply selecting cell A2 (you can do this by typing it in or by selecting it by clicking the button to the right of the box and then selecting A2 like I did below):

Next is the “Array” box. This is the content through which you want the software to search to find the items in LIST 1. Again, you can type this in or select it using the button to the right. However, there is an important change that you need to make here. If you select the array with your mouse and leave it as is, the values will change as you drag this formula down in Column B as it will assume you want to adjust the array as well. Since we don’t want to adjust the array but rather want to search through the same items in LIST 2, we need to put dollar signs before the letters and numbers in the Array which will lock the boundaries of the array into place so they don’t change when we copy the formula to other cells, as shown below:

The next part is the part that threw me off for a long time in figuring this out. The “Index” is the column in the Array you want to compare to the Search Criterion. In this case, all you need to do is specify “1” since there is only one column. But, presumably, you could have an array made up of multiple columns and want to choose just the 4th column (so you would enter 4 in the Index). Here’s how this looks:

Finally, the last box that is part of our function is the “Sort order” box. This tells the software whether the lists are ordered alphabetically or not. If they are not, enter zero (“0”). If they are, enter “1.” If you leave this blank, LibreOffice Calc thinks the lists are ordered. So, make sure you fill this out.

Once you’ve got that all entered, your formula should look like what I have above. Hit “OK” and it will search the Array C2:C7 for “bananas.” If it finds it, it will return “bananas.” If it doesn’t, it will return “#N/A” as shown below:

You can then, of course, drag this formula down. When it finds the item from LIST 1 in LIST 2 it returns that item. When it doesn’t, you get #N/A.

And there you have it. A LibreOffice Calc function for searching a list for a target and returning an indicator.

(NOTE: What I typically do after I have run this function is sort by the column where the function is located so I know which items are missing from LIST 1 and which are missing from LIST 2.)

Linux – Adding and Organizing Music with Clementine

In the almost 15 years I’ve been using Linux I have gone through a number of music playing apps. From Amarok to Banshee to Rhythmbox and at least a few more. My favorite at the moment is Clementine. I’ve grown to really like the basic interface of Clementine and it does a good job with pretty much everything I need.

The one issue I had with it over the years is that I didn’t think I could use it to add music to my music library and organize it at the same time. Turns out, I was wrong. Clementine does have the ability to add songs to your music library and organize them (into folders and renaming the files). It’s just not the most intuitive process. So, I figured I’d outline the process below.

First, you obviously need to install Clementine.

You’ll then need to set your music directory in Clementine which is where you want to store your music files. Go to Tools -> Preferences.

In the window that opens, click on “Music Library” and then add the folder where you want to store your music:

Next, to add music to your folder, go to the left side of Clementine and look for where it says “Files”:

Click on that and you’ll be able to browse to any folder on your computer.

I usually put the music I want to add to my collection on my desktop, so I navigate there, find the folder, and then right-click on it. In the context menu that comes up, click on “Copy to library.”

In the window that comes up next, you’ll have the option to change how the files are organized, both at the folder level and with the renaming of files.

You also have the option of changing the destination (which doesn’t make much sense since you want the music in your primary music folder). You also have a bunch of other options, like deleting the files after they are copied, changing the naming conventions, etc. Once you’re ready, hit “OK” and your music files will be copied into your music library named exactly how you want them to be named and organized how you want them to be organized.

Greece – Mount Olympus

Traveling all the way to Greece for a week-long colloquium for work without taking any time to do some touristy stuff seemed like a waste of a flight across the Atlantic to me. When I thought of what I’d like to do if I had a few extra days in Greece I, of course, thought about visiting some ancient Greek ruins or various museums. But then I thought about hiking. I then had the thought, why not climb Mount Olympus? When the thought initially occurred to me, I wasn’t sure what such a hike would entail nor whether Mount Olympus was the highest peak in Greece. It turns out it is the highest peak and is a hike within my abilities.

After spending a week on the Island of Lesvos for work, I caught a flight back to Athens, picked up a rental car, and headed toward Mount Olympus. I found some information online about climbing Mount Olympus, but not a lot (see here). The information I found online was sufficient to tell me roughly what to expect and where to start. But I didn’t find distances or GPS routes online (though there are maps available).

What I found was that the standard trailhead is Prionia, which is basically just a restaurant at the end of a road out of Litochoro.

A view of the restaurant in Prionia from the trailhead showing the rugged mountains in the background.
A view of the restaurant in Prionia from the trailhead showing the rugged mountains in the background.

With that information, I plotted a route on my phone and headed out of Athens. I also read somewhere that the tolls in Greece were crazy. Turns out, that’s pretty accurate. From the Athens airport to Litochoro I paid €27.65 in tolls (it’s roughly the same going back). So, be prepared with a fair amount of cash if you’re going to drive to Litochoro for this hike. (Another note: You need an international license to rent a car in Greece. You can get one here.)

Another thing I found online was that there are a number of lodges or refuges on the mountain where you can spend the night. If you’re planning on climbing Mount Olympus in a day (which would be a pretty serious hike, see below), you may not need to reserve a night in one of the lodges, but given my itinerary, I needed to do so. I arrived in Athens early in the morning (around 8:00 am), made it to the Prionia trailhead around 2:45 pm, and knew I wasn’t going to summit that day. So, I booked a bed in Refuge A for that first night (and possibly a second, since I didn’t have a good sense of how long the hike would take). Most of the refuges have websites (Refuge A and the others).

Just as I arrived at the trailhead it started to rain. I stayed in the car for about 30 minutes getting my pack and gear together. And since I don’t climb big mountains without bringing raingear, I also donned my raingear and put the rain cover on my backpack. However, just as I got out of the car, the rain stopped. I kept my rain pants on for about 20 minutes but then took those off as well. It was humid but actually quite beautiful just after the rain.

Me at the trailhead just after the rain stopped.
Me at the trailhead just after the rain stopped.

As noted, I wasn’t sure of the distances but had seen that the hike from Prionia to Refuge A (Spilios Agapitos) took one person 4 hours. Since the refuge doesn’t allow people to register after 8:00 pm, I knew I needed to get there fairly quickly. As a result, I pushed my pace a little bit and didn’t stop for many photos along the way. I also turned on the hike tracking app on my watch so I’d have a better sense of what the mileage actually is.

On one website I saw that about 10,000 people attempt to climb Mount Olympus each year. That’s a big enough number that I didn’t expect the hike to be all that rugged. It turns out, the elevation gain on the hike is pretty impressive (about 1,000 feet per mile) and the trail is pretty rugged (not everywhere, but most of it is quite rugged). This part wasn’t so rugged but very beautiful:

This is part of the very pretty forested area on the lower portion of the hike.

It took me just under 2 hours to travel the almost exactly 4 miles from the Prionia trailhead to Refuge A. Here’s the route:

And here are some additional stats from my tracking device:


As this screenshot shows, the distance was 3.93 miles (basically, 4 miles) and the elevation gain was 3,670 feet, which I’m rounding to roughly 4,000 feet. In other words, 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile, which is pretty substantial elevation gain. You can see some of the ruggedness of the trail in the photo below (which also shows the E4 trail markers that you follow all the way to the top of Skala):

Me in front of an E4 trail marker and a particularly rugged portion of the lower trail.

About two-thirds of the way to Refuge A it started to rain again, lightly. I ended up putting my rain jacket back on for the last third of the hike. I arrived at Refuge A around 5:00 pm. Never having stayed in a lodge like this in Europe, I wasn’t quite sure about the protocol. But the owners were nice and helped me get checked in and settled. It was €13 for a bed for the night. They also had lots of food, snacks, and other supplies. The refuge has a bunch of beds in various rooms (I was in the biggest which had about 20 beds in it), two dining halls, places to store gear, and restrooms. The water is ice cold and the toilets are holes in the ground.

The toilets at Refuge A are like those in Japan – a hole in the ground. You squat over them.

It’s not a 5-star resort, but it works well as a refuge. (I later realized how they got all the supplies up there – donkeys.)

Once I got to the refuge and got settled in, I realized I had quite a bit of time (lights out at 10:00 pm). I had planned for this and brought a book on my phone to read. I ordered a drink and hung out in one of the dining rooms reading. Around 7:30 I ordered dinner (the portions are huge, so I ordered about half of the regular size). They technically have wi-fi in the refuge but it wasn’t working. They also have outlets so you can charge devices if need be. I was able to get a cellular signal in one spot outside by a tree (everyone seemed to know where the one spot was) so I could let my wife know I was fine. Otherwise, I just hung out and read until it was time for bed.

Knowing I would be in a room with a bunch of other people, I brought earplugs. It was the right choice. Several people were snoring. With my earplugs in, I couldn’t really hear them. I also brought some Zzzquil just in case and popped a couple of those in to make sure I could fall asleep. (FYI, the refuge provides you with blankets, but you’ll need your own sheets. I found some lightweight sheets on Amazon that I brought with me.)

I set an alarm for 6:00 am the next morning which is when the lights come on. It turns out, I didn’t need it. A bunch of people were up right at 6:00 getting their gear ready to go which woke me up as well. I quickly packed up, ordered some yogurt and honey and a banana for breakfast, wolfed it down, and hit the trail. (FYI, if you plan to return to the refuge after going to the summit, you can leave stuff at the refuge. I didn’t think I was going to so I took all my stuff with me. This would be a nice way to drop some weight from your pack, like my flip-flops – which you need in the lodge as boots have to stay in the lobby – my towel, and sheets. That probably would have cut about 5 pounds out of my pack.)

Two other guys were headed out about the same time I was. They actually beat me to the trail while I was stretching, but I quickly caught up to them and they let me pass. From what I could tell, the people hiking to the summit from the lodge were generally pretty skilled hikers. The two guys I passed did a good job of keeping up with me over the next mile or so as I ascended toward Skala (the third highest peak in Greece and the launching point to Mytikas, the highpoint). I didn’t see them much after that point. I made it to the summit of Skala around 8:45. I had been hiking in fog for much of the time, but just below the summit of Skala, the fog broke and I had generally clear skies but clouds below me. On the summit of Skala I got my first real glimpse of Mytikas.

This is the view of Mytikas from Skala. The fog was rolling out just as I got to the summit of Skala.

Here’s a photosphere from the summit of Skala:

Not knowing how long the clear skies would last, I quickly swapped out my helmet for my hiking poles, slipped on my gloves, and started following the red blazes over the Class III section of the hike.

The red (and often yellow outlined) blazes are pretty close together, which is good when there is fog.

I had read that this section is a rock scramble that is somewhat technical. That is an accurate description. There are several spots where you are, in fact, climbing or descending near vertically. However, most of this section is not particularly dangerous and primarily requires slow, careful stepping, with about 1/3 of the time using both hands and feet. Follow the red blazes carefully and you’ll be fine. There are anchors in several spots for ropes but they are never really required. My sense, however, is that this section of the climb would be an ideal location to practice using ropes and harnesses for those who are new to technical climbing.

It took me about 30 minutes to get from the summit of Skala to the summit of Mytikas. There is one spot that is a false summit about 2/3 of the way there. Don’t make the mistake I did and get up your hopes until you see the flag waving on the top of the summit.

This photo shows one of the blazes with the false summit in the background.

I arrived around 9:15. There were clouds below me but no clouds around me, offering me pretty clear views of Skala and the surrounding area. I had a quick snack then shot some photos and videos.

Me on the summit of Mytikas.

Here’s a photosphere of the summit:

My tracking device indicated that it was about 2 miles (2.1) from Refuge A to the summit of Mytikas. It took me about 2 and a half hours to traverse that distance.

Here are the elevation and distance data from my fitness tracker:

I didn’t stay long before I headed back to Skala. As I did, fog started to roll back in. I ran into the first group of people attempting to make the summit behind me about 2/3 of the way back to Skala. It was a group of four and two solo hikers all working together (all were from the UK I believe; I’m fairly certain I was the only person from the US in the refuge the night before). One woman had gone only about 100 meters from the summit of Skala before she turned back. The steepness of the area freaked her out and, knowing her limits, she didn’t want to go any further. I mention that only to illustrate that this hike really isn’t for everyone. It’s steep and somewhat technical. Don’t be overconfident as it is a serious hike.

By the time I got back to the summit of Skala, the fog had rolled back in and I could no longer see Mytikas. I swapped out my helmet and hiking poles and headed back down the trail. I made pretty good time going down. I stopped once to put on my rain jacket as it started to sprinkle below the summits. I also stopped at Refuge A for a snack and to air out my boots for a couple of minutes. I had told the owners of Refuge A that I might stay a second night depending on the time it took to climb Mytikas and the weather. But, given that everything had gone well, I opted to hike out that day and go do some other stuff in Greece. I tried to target arriving at the Prionia trailhead at 1:00 pm but missed it by about 10 minutes.

I did stop regularly to take more photos and even some videos as the hike is quite beautiful. This shot shows how steep the mountain is (and the fog that seemed to be ever-present):

This photo shows the mountain is steep and you are regularly shrouded in fog or mist.

There are also a couple of water fountains on the hike like this one:

Presumably, you can drink the water. I didn’t. But I think it is supposed to be clean.

I restarted my tracking device on the summit of Mytikas to get a sense of exactly how far it is from Prionia to the summit.

Here is the rest of the data from my fitness tracker:

Basically, it’s about 6 miles from the trailhead in Prionia to the summit of Mytikas. It took me 3 1/2 hours to descend from the summit to the trailhead.

Some final thoughts about the hike…

This was a more rugged, demanding hike than I originally thought it was going to be. I figured the trail would be pretty even and well-worn. The trail is generally pretty clear (not always) but it is quite rugged. The elevation gain is pretty substantial (over 6,000 feet total). And the technical section at the end to reach Mytikas is serious. Even though it doesn’t require ropes, it’s not an easy section, especially if there is fog or it is raining (I probably wouldn’t do it in the rain). This is not a pleasant day hike for someone without experience. This is a grueling, 12-mile round trip hike for experienced hikers. You should budget plenty of time for bad weather and the possibility that you’ll have to turn around and try to summit a different day.

I did leave Mount Olympus with a greater appreciation for why the ancient Greeks would have believed that is where the gods lived. During the two days I was in the vicinity of Mount Olympus, I never once saw the mountains without clouds covering them. The idea that the gods live on a mountain shrouded in clouds makes a lot more sense to me. Mount Olympus is nearly constantly shrouded in clouds. I also can’t imagine ancient Greeks trying to climb Mount Olympus. I’m sure they were rugged and tough, but if they only had sandals or primitive boots and not a lot of experiencing climbing at those altitudes, it seems unlikely they would have ever climbed to the top. I think I understand why mountains were so mysterious and mystical now – they were impenetrable fortresses literally shrouded from view. Today, of course, we can penetrate those shrouds but that would have been virtually impossible 2,600 years ago.

Greece Trip – Metochi

Thanks to my work on nonreligion and atheism, I was invited to participate in a week-long colloquium (May 13th through May 20th) in Greece by LeRon Shults in which I would serve as a “subject matter expert” helping LeRon and his team develop computer models to better predict who joins atheist organizations. You can learn more about LeRon and the project here. There were about 16 people who attended in total, with about half of them being subject matter experts like myself. We spent about 6 hours each day developing the models and thinking very carefully about the many factors that contribute to changes in atheist identity and affiliation.

The colloquium took place in what was formerly a monastery on the island of Lesvos called Metochi. Metochi is actually an annex to a larger monastery called Limonos. The larger monastery is connected to Metochi via a 1.5 km hiking trail through the surrounding hills (see below for more details). Metochi has, in recent years, been taken over to some degree by Agder University in Norway (where LeRon works). Agder University updated the former monastery, modernized it, cleaned it up, and now largely runs it as a quasi-owned university extension site. Metochi still has other guests (no monks), but many of the people who visit Metochi are affiliated with Agder University. Here’s a photosphere of Metochi’s courtyard:

We would typically spend about 4 hours working on the project in the morning, have lunch, then take a break in the afternoon to either relax or go explore (the same time many of the people on Lesvos where taking a nap). Since I prefer exploring over relaxing, I typically used the afternoon break to go hiking or do something else active. Here’s a rundown of what I did while I was there.

May 14th

This was the first free time I had and I was itching to go for a hike.  Living in Florida, there are no hills or mountains to climb. Being nestled in among some hills, I really wanted to get out and climb something. One of the other subject matter experts and I hiked to the Limonos monastery, walked around there a bit, then came back. Here’s a photo of the monastery from the trail:

Limonos monastery from trail to/from Metochi

And here’s the route from Metochi to Limonos and back:

May 15th

LeRon arranged to have a local bike shop owner come out and rent us bikes. There are a couple of towns that are pretty close, including Kalloni, Dafia, and Skala Kallonis. One of Skala’s claims to fame is that it was a temporary home of Aristotle where he studied biology. I biked to Skala with a few other people, walked along the beach, then sat and chatted with one of the subject matter experts I know fairly well.

Here I am at Aristotle’s beach (it’s not actually called that, but there is a statue of him about 50 meters from here):

me at Skala Kalloni beach

Here’s the route:

May 16th

The day I arrived I noticed that there was a hiking loop that could take someone to all the monasteries linked to Limonos. I saw the information on a board right in front of Metochi.

Information board on the Limonos loop hike in front of Metochi
This is a close-up of the loop itself.

The board indicated the loop was 9 kilometers and suggested it would take hikers about 3 hours. Since my afternoon break was just 3 hours, I figured I’d have to do the hike faster than that – ideally 2 hours, but 2 1/2 would still work. I managed to do the whole thing in 1 hour and 46 minutes (skipping a few extensions of the hike along the way). My route was 5.52 miles (or 8.88 kilometres), which is pretty much the route they laid out. The hike is pretty good. There is some elevation gain (533 feet) and there are parts that are really beautiful. The route from Metochi to Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis through Dafia is actually not that great. It’s really just a hike on dirt roads and then through a town. However, the route from Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis to Limonos in particular and then to Metochi is quite lovely. I’d recommend just hiking from Metochi to Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis and back.

Here are some photos of the route:

The route is fairly well-marked by these red diamonds. There were a few spots where the distance between the diamonds was pretty far and I wasn’t sure I was going the right way but I managed to stay on course for the most part.
I’d recommend hiking down to this point if you only do the northern half of the loop as it offers really impressive views of Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis, but this is as far as I would go. Just past this you’ll be walking past the garbage dump of Dafia which is much less impressive.
Most of the route from Limonos to Mirsiniotissis is actually a beautiful rock trail like this. It’s gorgeous!
This is a shot looking at Skala bay from above Metochi (after leaving Limonos). You’re just leaving the olive groves at this point.

Here’s my route:

And here are some of the stats from my hike so you have a better sense of the elevation gain and my speed compared to your own:

I was moving pretty fast as I had to get back to my seminar.


May 17th

This day was a scheduled off day. LeRon arranged for a bus to take us to Petra which is a bit of a tourist town on the coast where we got to do a little shopping, have lunch, and walk around for a bit. I walked around with another subject matter expert and even visited the chapel that stands on top of a massive rock in the middle of town. You can see the top of the chapel in this photo:

The Panagia Glykofilloussa in Petra

Here’s a photosphere from inside the chapel:

Petra is a cute little town with small, winding streets and nice places to shop.

After Petra, we went to the Lifejacket Graveyard (informal name) where thousands of life jackets from refugees have been dumped on the island of Lesvos. The original aim of putting them there was to keep them out of sight. However, as the life jackets piled up, they became an impromptu monument to the thousands of refugees – both those who survived and those who did not. It’s a very somber experience to visit.

One of the tougher aspects of visiting the graveyard is when you see kids lifejackets, like this:

One of the many kids life jackets at the Lifejacket Graveyard.


Here’s a photosphere of the Lifejacket Graveyard:

After the Life Jacket Graveyard, we went to the castle in Molyvos. We arrived just a few minutes before the castle closed but I managed to run through most of it. Here’s a shot of the castle near the entrance:

Molyvos Castle

And here’s a photosphere from near the top of the castle:

From there, we walked down into Molyvos. I ran into one of the subject matter experts after leaving the castle and he and I wandered through Molyvos before finding a bar on the beach and ordering a few drinks. We chatted for a couple of hours before heading up to the restaurant where we had dinner reservations. The restaurant had a stunning view and the food was amazing!

The sunset from our restaurant in Molyvos.

May 18th

Metochi is surrounded by hills that are covered with large boulders. Seeing those large boulders and hills day after day but not finding any hiking trails to climb the hills, I finally decided that I was going to go off-trail and see if I could climb one of the hills. That was a terrible idea. Despite donning some of my hiking pants, my gloves I brought for hiking Mount Olympus, and all my other gear, I still had exposed arms and my neck and face were exposed. The hike started with me wading through thick underbrush. Two minutes in and I was covered with burrs, had encountered multiple thistles, and I had lost a fight with a stinging nettle bush. Ten minutes later, my arms were covered with red bumps where one of the plants I had encountered had started an allergic reaction. I made it halfway up the hill, fighting my way through thorns, thickets, spider webs, and a variety of other plants, each of which really wanted to cause me serious pain. By 20 minutes in, I gave up. I’m not one for quitting, but it was the smart choice this time. I still had to work my way off the hill and down to a trail, which meant wading through some more vicious plants (seriously, everything had thorns). A scant 45 minutes after I started, I returned to Metochi covered in burrs with dozens of bumps on my arms. Hiking off trail in Lesvos is a bad idea.

May 19th

On the last day in Metochi, I hopped back on my bike and rode with a few other individuals down to Skala again. This time, I wore my bathing suit and spent a good hour and a half wading and swimming in the bay with another subject matter expert as we discussed various research projects. We got some lemonade at a cafe on the beach afterward, then rode our bikes back to Metochi.

Waiting for our drinks at a beach bar in Skala Kalloni.

Some concluding thoughts on Metochi

I really didn’t know what to expect when I was told we’d be holding the colloquium in a refurbished monastery. I was thinking I’d end up with a small cell (6 feet by 6 feet) with a tiny bed. It turns out my room was fairly spacious. It did have three beds in it (a single and then a bunk bed), a small desk, and a closet for clothes. With the room to myself, it was spacious. It also had a nice window overlooking the hiking trail. Bathrooms were shared (there were four on my floor) as were showers (there were four of those as well, but I often used the outside showers, which was refreshing in its own way). The room and facilities were kept clean but they did occasionally smell. The restrooms and showers were cleaned every day, but the plumbing is still a little wonky. We lost water there once (and power a couple of times). Throwing toilet paper into a trash can instead of the toilet took getting used to, but when in Greece…

The rest of the facilities at Metochi were also good. We used a couple of other rooms for our workshops and seminars. There was a large seminar room that could accommodate 40 or 50 people with two projectors and screens. The room I spent the most time in was just off that room and could hold about 8 people. It had a TV for projecting someone’s computer. There were other rooms for meetings but I never went into those.

The food was pretty good. All the food was served in the dining area, which was very unique. It was like a cave with a curved ceiling and walls. We ate in there the first night but the rest of the meals we got our food there but ate outside on the picnic tables. We had the same salad for lunch and dinner every day (cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and some oil and herbs) and breakfast was typically the same as well, but the main dishes were varied for lunch and dinner. I enjoyed the food.

The one thing I didn’t love was the bugs. Obviously, being in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to be closer to nature. But I have never seen so many moths in my life. Every bathroom had like 10 moths in it at any one time. I’m sure I inadvertently killed dozens of them just by showering, closing doors, etc. They were everywhere. There were also lots of flies whenever we would eat outside. Every meal I spent a good amount of time swatting flies off my food. A fly every now and then would have been fine – that’s life. But this was a lot more than that. There were other critters, but the moths and the flies were the annoying ones.

Ending on more positive notes… I took a black light a colleague lent me and went out scorpion hunting a couple of nights. In the rocks right outside the front of Metochi I found a scorpion both nights I looked. Scorpions are there, they just hide well during the day. I also found an injured one right in front of some of the rooms (someone must have stepped on it unknowingly as it tried to climb into someone’s room after the sun had gone down). In short, there are scorpions. Check your shoes before you put them on.

I loved how there were chairs and tables all over the place at Metochi. I learned a really valuable lesson going there. Being isolated like that – with no TVs or other distractions – made for a lot of time to contemplate. I think I now understand why they called it the “contemplative life” for monks and nuns. Removing all the regular distractions (we still had internet, but we were encouraged to just get together and chat) gave us a lot of time to think. Of course, thinking too much can be a little scary at times. But I found the experience beneficial. In my busy day-to-day life, finding time to just sit and think is rare. I should do that more often.