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Day 16 - May 14, 2005 - Hopfgarten, Austria

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I had the privilege of sleeping in until 9:00 am that morning.  It was indeed a great feeling to not have to pry myself out of bed for the first time in over two weeks.  I ate breakfast and fulfilled my "dishy" duties.  First on the list of the day was our mountain biking.
 
We met outside in what was more or less the driveway of the chateau.  They then opened a garage to reveal that it was completely filled with mountain bikes.  They went over some pretty unnecessary instructions on how to use a bike.  I hadn't ridden a bike in probably ten years and I didn't find the instructions to be informative at all.
 
We each selected a bike and a helmet and then began our ride, which was over 20 km.  There was an easy path and an intermediate path.  I think everyone chose the intermediate.  We made several stops along the way, I think mainly because there was such a vast difference in everyone's speed.  We stopped at a water spring and had some of the best tasting water ever.  Okay, it probably had something to do with how thirsty we were, but it was exceptional water as well.

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THE STREAM NEAR THE LUMBER YARD

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SCENERY FROM THE BIKE PATH

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AND SOME MORE

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YET SOME MORE

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MATT AND I AT ONE OF THE STOP POINTS

At the halfway point, we stopped for lunch.  It was at a strange restaurant in the middle of nowhere.  The food itself wasn't strange, but the actual restaurant was.  It was almost as if it were a house.  The "chef" was cooking on a grill in the backyard, and there were many tables in the main room of the building.  Since it was such a nice day, we all ate outside.  We had our first German food of the tour: Bratwurst.  It was very enjoyable and definitely different than anything we had thus far on the tour.  The only thing I didn't enjoy was the salad.  It was just shredded cabbage.  Some of the tour mates insisted it was sour kraut, but there was no flavor at all.  It was literally raw cabbage.
 
After dinner, we had some time to kill.  We did what we always did in that situation.  We played hacky sack.  Our game consisted of Matt, Aussie Justin, Steve, myself and even Rex for a bit.  The hacky sack came dangerously close to landing on the roof several times, despite having an endless amount of space to play in.
 
I previously mentioned that the restaurant marked the halfway point.  While this is true, it was all uphill the way there and all downhill the way back.  For this reason, it took us a fraction of the amount of time to get back to the chateau.  Caution had to be exercised on the way down.  We reached fairly high speeds and, at times, there was no guardrail keeping us on top of what was said to be 50 meter cliffs.

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MORE SCENERY

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MORE OF HOPFGARTEN

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STILL MOUNTAIN BIKING

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STILL

Not long after we arrived back at the chateau, we were scheduled to be picked up for our paragliding adventure to keep our action packed day going.  Someone from the paragliding company was supposed to pick us up in a van at the chateau.  I waited with Yoon, Aussie Justin and Steve.  The van arrived at the exact time it was supposed to.  The timing couldn't have been more perfect.  The whole group consisted of Yoon, Aussie Justin, Vanessa, Steve, Kale, Leoni, Kat, Jocalyn and myself. 
 
The woman who drove the van was the craziest driver I have ever experienced!  I've been in cabs in New York City, I've witnessed the infamous Arch De Triumph circle in Paris, and "optional" traffic lights in Italy.  This lady, however, was the most insane driver.  I felt blessed to step out of the van after arriving at what was a ski resort.
 
We had to wait for a while, as paragliding is not a timely activity.  While waiting, I ordered a pretzel and an ice cream in a comical and horrendous attempt at speaking German.  At least the cashier got a kick out of it, as he was probably not used to seeing many tourists in his small store. 
 
Upon returning to the rest of the group, they couldn't figure out how I was eating.  I then realized that most of them were notably nervous about what they were about to do.  Since I had previously been skydiving, this was only half the excitement.  For that reason, I wasn't nervous at all.  In fact, I wouldn't really look forward to it as much as I really should have until I got on the ski lift.  Don't get me wrong, I'm no daredevil.  It's just that paragliding is skydiving without the best part: the freefall.  It's like a roller coaster without the drops.
 
Soon enough, I was fitted into my harness, helmet and jumpsuit and I entered the ski lift.  My partner was Jocalyn, one of the members of Team Canada.  In the ski lift were Jocalyn, the two instructors and myself.  Each of the instructors spoke minimal Enlglish, but enough to engage in conversation.  Both lived in Austria for their whole lives.  Surprisingly, neither of them had ever been skydiving.  Still to this day, I can't figure that one out.  They had a lot of questions for me and Jocalyn and it seemed like they were sincerely interested in our tour and not merely making chit chat.
 
After reaching the top, we exited and waited for a few people in front of us to jump.  I think one of those people were Aussie Justin.  There were chickens running around at the top of the ski slope.  There were also patches of snow, marking the first time in my life I touched snow in May.  It was clear as could be and you could see for miles.  Someone said we were looking at Germany and Italy in the distance.  I thought it was interesting how I was looking at Germany a whole day before I would set foot in it.

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FROM THE TOP OF THE SLOPE

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GREAT VIEW

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ONE MORE

Eventually, it was our turn to go up to the slope.  Jocalyn and her instructor went towards the left side, while we went to the right.  My instructor, who was more than a foot shorter than me strapped our harnesses together.  He told me when he gives the command, to run down the hill as fast as I possibly can and don't slow up or stop, no matter what.  His instructions, although straightforward, seemed to be a bit primitive seeing as what we were about to do.  After I thought about it though, there were really no other crucial details; simply run and that was it.  I suppose in comparison to skydiving, there was relatively nothing to it.
 
Both Jocalyn and I had to wait for the right wind conditions for a seemingly long time.  She went first.  She and her instructor sprinted down the hill as their parachute gradually lifted itself into the air.  After about ten seconds, they were airborne. 
 
My instructor asked if I was ready.  I assured him that I was and I waited for the command.  However, I quickly became concerned about something.  Initially, it wasn't important enough to inquire about.  As I was waiting though, it became more of a concern for some reason.  I was worried that, since I was so much taller, that I would run too fast for him and he wouldn't be able to keep up.  There were hundreds of gigantic evergreen trees just below us and I didn't want to end up in the top of one.  Just as I was pondering several different disastrous scenarios, he screamed, "Go!  Move it!  Don't stop!" as loud as he could.  I ran, but I didn't run as fast as I could.  I had the image of him being dragged behind me burned in my imagination.  He yelled at me louder, "Faster!  Speed up now!"  Right when I picked up my speed, we lifted off the ground.
 
The ground very quickly descended beneath us.  Within seconds, we were hundreds of feet up.  Just as it was for my post freefall skydive, it was the most peaceful feeling ever.  There's no way to describe the intricacies of soaring through the air with a parachute on your back.  I love how the wind subtlely flows past you, but yet so loudly at the same time.  I love being obsessively compulsed to check that my shoes are tied tightly.  It truly one of the most surreal feelings I've ever felt, and I had the privilege to experience it for my second time in the Alps.
 
Soon, after some roller coaster maneuvers in the air, we landed and concluded one more of now countless amazing experiences while on this tour.  I still had a week left and I couldn't help but wonder how it could possibly get any better, or at least finish the way it started.

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AIRBORNE

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HOPFGARTEN FROM ABOVE

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AFTER MY SAFE LANDING

Kale was the last to go.  After we all finished, we hesitantly got back into the van with the crazy driver.  Honestly, the van rides to and from were more frightening than the paragliding was.  As the nine of us sat in that van, I felt a sense of superiority over the rest of our tour mates.  A lot of them backed out of the paragliding due to the price.  I cannot stress how much I think that was a mistake.  I think Rex said it best while leaving London at the beginning of the tour when she said, "Do everything you want to do and worry about the credit cards when you get home.  Some of you may never see Europe again."
 
The driver was supposed to drop us off back at the chateau, but everyone in the van wanted to go to the trout farm in town.  Most of our tour mates who didn't partake in paragliding were there for the day.  The crazy driver dropped us off in town, we thanked her and she sped off.  The eight people I was with went to the trout farm, while I walked around town to find an ATM.  I found one and, unlike James', mine was not out of service.  I headed back to the chateau on foot.
 
On the way back, I passed the lumber yard and saw Yvonne walking towards me.  She was on her way to town to get a phone card.  Since I didn't really know where anyone else was, I considered going with her.  However, I decided I should take advantage of the downtime and catch a nap, so I continued back to the chateau.
 
I searched for Steve and Neil, but they were nowhere to be found.  By the way, at all the Contiki accommodations, only one room key was issued per room.  This was inconvenient many times, as you would need to track down your own key.  This, however, would mark my first and only time that I would be locked out of my room.  So much for a nap. 
 
I ran into James and he was headed into town.  The bikes we used earlier were still available for us to use at leisure.  We grabbed two bikes and rode towards town.  Suddenly, a car came zooming around a curve.  I attempted to move closer to the side, but my wheels were parallel to a long, small bump in the road.  I went head over handlebars and James almost ran me over.  I can't believe that, after ten years of not riding a bicycle, I was able to successfully complete a 20 km intermediately ranked bike run.  Then, during a mile long ride into town, I managed to fall.  I escaped with virtually no injury though.
 
First, we went to a tobacco store, a place that many of our tour mates had purchased phone cards.  It was closed.  We then went across the street to a supermarket.  They didn't have them.  We conceded that we weren't going to get a phone card in Austria and we would have to wait until the next day to buy a German card.  I bought some delicious Swiss chocolate.
 
We took some time to relax in front of the supermarket.  It was then when James told me some bad news.  He said he spoke to his family and learned that his infant cousin had drowned.  They told him to try and not let it affect his trip too much and to not worry about going home.  I don't think he was very close to his cousin, and he mentioned that the hardest part was that his immediate family was so upset.  He also stated that he wasn't sure if he wanted to finish the tour or not, but implied that he would, since there was only a week left.
 
We rode back to the chateau and Steve and Neil were still missing in action.  I went to the office to explain the situation and they gave me a spare key, but told me I needed to return it as soon as I unlocked my door.  After returning the key, I relaxed in my room by updating my journal.  I even fit in a quick nap before dinner.
 
Matt, Neil, and Steve eventually came back and prematurely ended my nap.  We all went to dinner at 7:00 pm and sat with Joanne, Hayley and Leticia, who was from Australia.  For the last time, I completed my "dishy" assignments and accepted my free shot.
 
Next I went to the bar and grabbed a drink.  I sat with Yoon, Vince, Yvonne, Kim, Kent, Freddy, Olivia and Kent.  They told me about a very interesting debate they had earlier when I was paragliding.  The topic was if it matters if someone you don't know dies.  There were some seemingly opposed stances on the matter.  Being generally interested in a good debate, it made me wish I was there for it.  I kept stabbing at it, trying to stir up the topic again, but they all refused to give in.  Apparently, it was very intense and even heated at times.  I remember Kim and Yvonne shared the opinion that it doesn't matter to them if someone they don't know dies.  They stated that it's not that they don't care, but they've become desensitized to it by the media, or something of that nature.  Vince disagreed and said that every death does matter to him, regardless of who the person is.  From a neutral standpoint, I concluded that they ironically agreed with each other, but they were just using the wrong words to explain their opinions.  I think, to an extent, I was correct.
 
They all refused to continue the debate, but everyone was motivated to conjure up a new interesting topic.  The first to come up was religion.  Vince surprisingly refused to take part in this discussion.  He was concerned he would offend someone.  I really wanted to hear his beliefs, but at the same time, I didn't want to press a sensitive issue.  I explained my belief, which falls somewhere between atheism and agnosticism.
 
Next, the discussion moved onto movies.  I probably was responsible for this shift.  I thoroughly enjoyed our movie talk in France, and we hadn't really continued it at all since.  I remember talking about Magnolia and Alien, but there were several others as well.
 
Coincidentally, it was video night in the bar.  The film of choice was Meet the Parents.  Since we had all seen it, we didn't want to waste time watching a movie, even though we just spent what was equal to the duration of a movie talking about movies.  We congregated in the lobby and decided to play Asshole, since we hadn't played since Florence.  Some of us had to do a few things, so we planned to meet back in the lobby in half an hour.
 
I went up to my room to find Matt, Neil, Steve, Sally, Aussie Justin and Vanessa playing blackjack, just like we played the previous night.  I really wanted to play, but I had already made plans.  Also, I had been spending more time with the Australian crowd and less time with the Asian crowd (used for descriptive purposes only, no offense intended), so I wanted to even it out a bit.
 
We all met back in the lobby and then snuck into the dining room.  Well, we thought we were sneaking in.  We were being as silent as possible to avoid being thrown out.  Eventually the staff came in and asked if we were having a good time.  We then realized we were allowed to be in there.  I think we all assumed it was off limits, because the lights were out and all the chairs were on the tables.
 
So there I sat with Vince, James, Yvonne, Kim, Freddy, Olivia, Kent, Karen, and Hayley, playing Asshole.  Yoon was there as well, but he didn't play.  It was very frustrating keeping the game together, since some of them never played before.  They started to suggest disregarding certain rules and adding others.  Despite the confusion, it was loads of fun.
 
I told them the story behind the Delaney rule, a rule that my friends and I from home play.  Andrew Delaney was someone we went to high school with.  I don't remember his significance but somehow, we invented a minor rule and named it after him.  So Andrew, if you're reading this, your rule has been followed (and broken) in five countries now.

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PLAYING ASSHOLE

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STILL PLAYING ASSHOLE

I made it to bed relatively early again at midnight.  On the way up, I was concerned that either my door would be locked or they would still be playing cards.  They did plan on going to a club in town, and I asked them to try to remember to leave the door unlocked.  Luck was on my side, and my room was unlocked and unoccupied.