We built an igloo, and these happened.


Once in a while, we take trips that become part of the story of our lives. It’s the trip we tell others over and over again during lunches, dinners, and coffee breaks. Punch lines and embarrassing moments from them doesn’t become less funny over time. We recall memories from pictures of these travels when we are sick or couldn’t sleep at night.

I have been blessed to have visited many beautiful places in 2016, but the trip I talked about the most is the one I made with three other friends for a weekend to hike up in the alps, build an igloo, sleep in it, and hike again the next day. From fear of memories fading away, and to revive the life out of my own small cabin on the internet, I’ve decided to write about one special weekend when we built an igloo and these happened..

Brother : “But you are going to an Igloo Fest, right? So there will be lots of people there?”

Me: “Errr… no not really. It will be just be four of us.”

We met at 7:00 in the morning in front of the office. Packed with 2 days worth of food, clothes, water, sleeping bag, mat, duct tape, and a myriad of other hiking equipments, Girl A, Boy 1, Boy 2 and I drove to Melchsee-Frutt – a small village near Kerns, Switzerland. We took a quick gondola up a certain altitude and from there snowshoed our way to where we built an igloo.

Part I – Snowshoes

The first time I saw snowshoes was the day before the Igloo trip while renting them from the shop near the office. They are a pair of over-sized plastic (normally) with some metal spikes one wears under one’s hiking boots to be able to walk on soft snow without basically sinking. They are really cool, although as of writing, I’ve never snowshoed without a backpack behind my back and fully within hiking trails, so I could so far only associate snowshoeing with exhaustion and sledging. Why sledging, you wonder. I will get there in a sec.

Anyway, speaking of trails, Boy 1 is not much a fan of them. So instead of taking a normal hiking trail to reach our location, we snowshoed our way up and down to what felt like an eternity until they realized I probably wasn’t going to make it. Up to this day, I still don’t understand how we managed to get to our chosen igloo location without looking at a map.

Rescue number one – my loud breathing gave me away. As a first time hiker, I underestimated how much I would have to carry on my back for 2 days / 1 night of staying outdoors, considering I brought only things for myself. The relatively adventurous snowshoeing took its toll on my small Asian body and finally I couldn’t hide the fact that I wasn’t fit enough to carry everything on my own and walk at the same time. My hiking mates, whom I’ve known only for 3 months or so, decided to take everything that is not cotton or fleece from my bag and split my luggage among the three of them. For someone who has been living alone since 17, this was really embarrassing. But it is still less embarrassing than giving up and going home so I sucked it up and continue.

Part II – Sledging

Somewhere along the snowshoeing up and down off-trail came a fence-like border of rocks which we had to step over and continue from the other side. The other side, however, was not exactly flat. And one needs to slide a little bit to the left while sitting down after the fence of rock in order to be able to walk on two feet again. In this very small “slide”, I manage to screw up and instead of sliding to the left where Boy 1 was waiting, I just slid straight, 50 – 100 meters down say a 30 – 45 degree slope. (These numbers might be exaggeration, forgive me). It’s tough to assess exactly how long it was for the only thing I could remember is that I tried not to scream and when my snowshoe has gathered enough snow to stop me from sledging “free” further, my heart was pounding and I couldn’t move or do anything. Not because I was hurt, but because the experience was completely new to my brain. 5 year olds would probably call it fun, but for me it was a life and death situation.

Rescue number two – thanks to my unreasonable fear (at that time) of the beautiful powdered snow around me, Boy 1 had to run towards me, take my backpack and walk me back to the path we chose to take that day.

Part III – Igloo Building

Shortly after lunch, we finally stopped at a location where we would build our “organic” accommodation for the night. We wasted no time and started our work immediately. I don’t recall any proper lunch break after the exhausting snowshoeing part of the day. Fortunately, as a woman, there’s not much really I could do building the igloo because 1) I do not have the power to saw blocks of ice from the ground 2) I do not have the strength to carry blocks of ice sewed from the ground 3) I do not have the engineering capacity to build an igloo from blocks of ice. What I could only do was assist Boy 1 / 2 in providing powdered snow as glue to connect the blocks of ice together or in polishing the igloo with powdered snow as soon as the blocks are in place. I also provided assistance in handing their water / food when necessary.

At the end of the day, we managed to build a sturdy igloo with a small cooking and dining area in front.

Part IV – Sleeping

We were very luck with the weather for the sun was always out and the sky was blue the whole day. As soon as the sun sets though, the temperature dropped too low to the point that it’s not safe to stand still anymore, rather better to move around in order to keep one’s blood circulation going. We cooked vermicelli noodles with chili con carne for dinner (not very good combination, never having it again), boiled water for some tea and decided to call it a day. Oh wait, we managed to do some star gazing but at some point got dizzy using an iPhone app to match which constellation we could see from our visible share of the night sky.

We retreated to our well made sleeping beds and tried to sleep. Yes  – it was cold. Very cold. Perhaps it was because on my left was Girl A, and on my right was big wall of ice. Above me was also a ceiling of ice. I tried the fetus position, wrapped myself with 3 layers of clothing (which I know now as also a big mistake), but still couldn’t sleep. It was cold, very cold, but I couldn’t complain because 1) It is not in my Asian nature to do so 2) No one forced me to be there. It was too cold, however, to believe that I could survive to see the sun the next day.

So I looked up at the ceiling and recall thinking “Boy 3 was right (He didn’t join after experiencing the 1st igloo fest) – I’m going to die tonight.” I wanted to say goodbye to my new friends so I turned to my left to see if anyone else was awake. Indeed. Boy 1 was already looking at my direction, waiting for me to send the signal of defeat for God knows how long already, and asked me the question “Are you cold?”.

Rescue number three – (continuing the draft after a year or so). Apparently, I should have changed my clothes before getting inside the sleeping bag in order not to sleep with all the sweat, which will be cold water if not ice, I accumulated during the day. I was too shy to do this given there was no proper toilet around. So instead of asking to have the igloo to myself for 5 minutes to change, I simply ditched the suggestion. I then had to change in the middle of the night with everyone in the igloo. My igloo mates provided me with extra socks, hand warmers which I had to use as feet warmer and fed me tea. We switched positions so I get to be in the middle of two warm persons. With all these help, I finally managed to sleep. Until..

After two hours, I woke up again. This time, the father instincts of Boy 1 and 2 kicked in immediately and asked me if I was still cold. “No.. I’m hungry”. I ate my trail mix as quietly as I could, had some tea, and all of us managed to fall back to sleep fast enough until..

At 4:30 A.M., in the middle of the Swiss alps, inside an igloo built with our bare hands, with no heating except for a candle, no electricity, and no WIFI, my alarm from the day before set off waking everyone – again.

The funny thing is, despite all the hassles I’ve caused to these three people during the trip, they ended up to be the best buddies I would have in this foreign land I called home for the past 2 years. We went on to have more winter, summer, and autumn hikes together. As a matter of fact next week, fingers-crossed, we will attempt to have Igloo Fest 2018 🙂


Vanie Castro Takes Pictures

Lamp Posts – Colmar, Alsace, France

In case you haven’t received a mail, or have not been forced to look at it on my phone or in a computer, then you probably don’t know about..


It’s a new domain dedicated purely for photographs I took and soon will take. Thanks to 500px, it doesn’t take too much resources now to set up a fancy web site like this. I couldn’t be happier that finally, my photographs have found a new home where they can be shared to everyone instead of living in the dark shadows of my hard and online drives.

Photography and I go a long way back. As a child, I recall looking through the pages of interior design catalogs or hanging out at bookstores browsing through books I could not afford. But it wasn’t until university years when I learned about this wonderful world called the internet that I realized how much time I could spend looking at and searching photographs. Back then, or even now for some, flickr was the site to join if you are a photography enthusiast. I spent quite some time on flickr explore, seeing the rest of the world through the eyes of other photographers. Someday, I used to say, I will also travel, take pictures, and bring a smile to someone’s gloomy day 🙂

I still have 2 accounts on flickr, one I couldn’t recover because Yahoo decided to disable my account which I haven’t used in years in favor of gmail. Fortunately, even as a teenager, I knew better than to post unnecessary images online.

I worked as a Software Engineer for Canon after getting my bachelor’s degree. Due to non-disclosure agreements, I can’t really share what I worked on, but I can tell you that they involved looking at high quality photographs. 🙂 I still have professional images of Moscow and well prepared still life table arrangements in my head which we used as test data. Working in Canon also means every other person is a photography enthusiast. People who goes to business trips and long term assignments would post beautiful pictures from Japan on social media which I envied looking at every time. As of writing, I still haven’t been to Japan, but it is at the top of my travel list. Finally, we used to get discounts on Canon products as employees, which is most likely why all my 3 cameras are Canon. I don’t think I will ever switch brands. 🙂

I was 22 years old when I got my first camera. It was from the Canon PowerShot line, but I couldn’t recall the exact model. It was pink and silver, and I paid CHF 140 for it. It died a natural death after a few years, and just before I left Canon, I managed to ask someone  to buy another candy bar point-and-shoot from Japan for me. This time, it was a purple Canon Ixus. I still have it and even brought it with me to Switzerland. I don’t use it anymore, but I think it still works perfectly fine.

Around 2012 when I bought my first DSLR. It was a Canon EOS 650D. I bought it in Singapore, but since I would prefer that it documents my family’s life (whom at this point I am 3.5 hours flight away), I left it in the Philippines after my first visit. I couldn’t afford to buy another one for myself so I kept photography at the back of my head. A year later, I couldn’t help it anymore and I bought myself a Canon EOS 700D, which I still happily use as of today. Despite my love for photography, I never sat down to understand the jargons of lenses, so I stayed with the kit lens until December 2016.

I have been very lucky to have found new friends who could figure out easily what brings me joy, or perhaps because I tell them anyway. They gave me a Canon EF-S – 24 mm – f/2.8 STM lens last Christmas! It is a prime lens that is sooo light, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring my SLR to hiking trips anymore. 🙂 It was after I received this gift that I realized again how much I enjoy taking pictures. I had the impression that Flickr doesn’t inspire me as much anymore, so I moved to 500px. And it is from there that I am able (with a fee and some fiddling) to create http://vaniecastrophotography.com.

Have a nice week ahead!

Human-Centered Design and The Wallet Project

*leather wallets from Chinatown Singapore, photo taken by yours truly

What comes to your mind when you hear the word design? Color, shape, packaging? In many industries, design is often misinterpreted as the visual layer of a product. The fact that aesthetics is the most obvious aspect end-users see in a product is perhaps the reason why product teams give it more attention. Indeed, how something looks like is part of design, but the functions, why and how those functions are made available to end-users are equally important aspects that are less discussed in many product design process.

Continue reading “Human-Centered Design and The Wallet Project”