Monthly Archives: June 2014

Home Again

We’re back in the land of drinkable water and reliable WiFi. I no longer need to carry T.P. in my pocket or remember not to put it in the toilet (until my next trip to a developing country). Our trip home was uneventful, though it took almost 19 hours, door to door. Much as I love to travel, it always feels good to return home. Zelda greeted me at the door and the cats came to sniff the luggage. I spent yesterday doing laundry, stocking up on groceries, and replacing my cell phone. I already miss quinoa soup, banana chips and bread (I was able to eat baked good with no negative affects, demonstrating that something is wrong with our gluten-filled food industry).

Why am I hooked on travel? When I’m away from home, especially in a location as remote as the Salkantay pass or as foreign as the rainforest, everything non-essential is stripped away. I live more fully in the moment and let go of things that don’t really matter. Seeing how other people live expands my worldview and shows that our similarities are far greater than our differences. And another vague spot on the map becomes tangible; no matter how much I read or how many videos I see, nothing compares to actually being on location with all senses engaged.

In spite of a few travails, I thoroughly enjoyed our four weeks in Peru and Ecuador, my first trip south of the border. I would definitely like to return, perhaps starting with a Spanish immersion course. Thank you Karen, Joanne, and Nancy for joining me on this adventure; I thoroughly enjoyed your company.

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Ecuadorian Amazon

Tuesday-Friday (June 9-13)
I slept fairly well in my cube of white mosquito netting. It was nice to be able to throw off the covers without worrying about getting bitten. The chorus kept up all night long. The first night it was joined by a torrential rain and thunderstorm, which slowed to a steady rain for hours. We also had a nice breeze that night, not so for the other three.

Our days at Sani Lodge are already running together in my mind – lots of canoe rides, jungle walks, and humidity. The density of life is amazing. It rained a lot the first day; fortunately the lodge provided ponchos and “wellies”. We had sun the second day, and a mix of clouds and rain the third.

My favorite activity was riding in the paddled canoes through the lagoons and streams, especially at sunset. When it wasn’t raining, the water was so still that it provided mirror-like reflections of the sometimes prehistoric plants and trees surrounding us. It’s also when we saw the most wildlife (rarely close enough to photograph): five of the eight species of monkeys found in the area (squirrel, black tamarin, red howler, capuchin, and woolly) swinging high up in the trees, pairs of parrots squawking overhead (they mate for life), many other birds, a glimpse of a caiman, and turtles.

I also enjoyed our hikes, but breathed a sigh of relief each time we emerged from the rainforest. We saw a long skinny snake, frogs (one poisonous with blue belly), and numerous insects, many of them on our night hike – a scorpion, a tarantula and other spiders, nests of bees, wasps, termites, and fire ants. My favorite insects were the blind leaf-cutter ants marching in lines with their loads of green leaves, one ant carrying the leaf bit, a smaller one riding on board.

The plant life was dense with many species competing for sunlight. One tree has a symbiotic relationship with a fungus that stores sunlight and the “walking palm” grows roots in the direction of sunlight enabling it to move slightly each year. My favorite was the giant Saba tree with its buttress-like trunks. Our guide, Carlos, and his Suni partner, always carrying a machete, have a deep knowledge of this rainforest, frequently stopping to demonstrate or explain the uses of various plants.

The Sani Lodge is run by the indigenous people of Sani Isla, about 500 people spread across this area. They are committed to maintaining the forest as ecologically as possible and have opposed oil exploration. I hope more people visit their lodge so they aren’t temped by the oil companies. One day we visited their community center. A group of 25 women, divided into four teams, has organized various projects, including a school, agriculture, and fish farming. We got a tour and were served traditional food – a small fish and palm hearts steamed in a leaf wrapper. Some of my braver fellow tourists, Karen included, sampled the roasted larvae.

This morning we boarded canoes for the last time and returned upriver to Coca where we caught a flight back to the Quito airport. The river is much higher than we arrived, steadily eroding its banks. This time we’re staying in a hostel in Tababela, a small town only a ten minutes from the airport. Helena, a new Swedish friend from the jungle, joined us for lunch at the only place in town (arroz con pollo with beers for three only $9). Now we’re relaxing in a pleasant courtyard garden catching up on email and blogging.

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From Island to Jungle

Sunday (June 8)
Somehow what looks like a two-hour flight on paper takes all day. We left Finch Bay at 7:15 a.m. and arrived at our hotel in Quito more than nine hours later. First we took a water taxi to the pier, than a taxi pick-up truck for our tenth trip across Santa Cruz, a short ferry ride over to Baltra, a bus to the airport, a plane to the Quito airport (about four hours, counting short delays and refueling in Guayaquil), a shuttle bus to the terminal, and finally a cab ride that took over an hour. It didn’t help that our luggage didn’t make it onto the plane and we had to wait a half hour for the next plane to arrive. We’re wondering if they left the luggage truck on the tarmac and it rained after our departure, since Nancy’s suitcase and many of her clothes were wet. Fortunately, I had the book that Leanna lent me, “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams, a travelogue, the perfect reading material for this trip.

We took a short cab ride to the mall in a futile attempt to return the defective camera I bought a week ago. Karen stocked up on quinoa and we all bought more chocolate. We’re staying in a small windowless room at La Rabida. It doesn’t look like a good neighborhood to walk around in at night, so we ate at the hotel. It was quite tasty. I was so tired that I fell asleep before Nancy was done showering.

Monday (June 9)
I didn’t sleep well, primarily due to hot flashes and itchy sunburn and/or bug bites. Nancy got up before 5:00 for her flight back home to Colorado and that was the end of sleep for Karen and me. We caught an early cab to the airport, only 45 minutes at this time of day. (Did they really need to put the new airport so far from town?). We were greeted by a band, news crews, yellow balloons, and lots of electrical cords running all over the place. Rather than celebrating our departure to the jungle, everyone was excited about the Ecuadorian football (a.k.a. soccer) team departing for the World Cup.

Our flight to Coca only took a half hour. While waiting for our boat, we spotted what I hope is only the first of many monkeys, scampering across a railing. We joined eight other travelers for a two-hour ride in a motorized canoe down a liquid super highway, Rio Napo, which flows southwest to Peru and joins the Amazon River. We sped along, slowing occasionally, perhaps to avoid half sunken logs, and passed many colorful barges. The clouds were amazing, and slowly darkening.

We then walked about 15 minutes on a boardwalk through a swamp, the jungle engulfing us – numerous unseen birds and insects, the smell of damp earth, and warm sweat-inducing humidity. Next we climbed into a dugout canoe for a paddle up a small tributary to Sani Lodge, where we are staying near Yasuni National Park. Everyone fell silent in awe of our surroundings.

We were greeted with a delicious fruit drink and appetizers, assigned to cabins, and given a couple hours to relax before rejoining the group for orientation. We used the time to reorganize our bags, and now to catch up on this blog while listening to the sound of the downpour which just started.

The rain ended just in time for a late afternoon ride around the lagoon. This place is magical; I’ve never experienced anything like it. Words cannot describe. As I’m finishing this entry, I’m sitting in our screened cabin listening to the whoop whoop whoop of a frog and a chorus of other sounds. It will be an interesting night.

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Galapagos – Finch Bay

Thursday
Looks like another ship wasn’t in our cards. Instead we’re back in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, roughing it at Finch Bay, a luxury hotel. We said farewell to our newfound travel mates and got a ride in a pick-up truck (a.k.a taxi) across the island.

We ate lunch by the pool – ceviche and salad with chicken for me. Karen and Nancy choose to stay and relax while I went on a tiring walk to Tortuga Bay. The main beach was gorgeous, but too dangerous for swimming. A smaller beach was calmer, but not good for snorkeling. The highlight was seeing a sea iguana emerge fron the water near me and walk onto the beach. That and the Great Blue Herons who stood without moving when I approached. Overall not worth the 8K round trip walk in muggy weather.
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Friday
We took a day trip to South Plaza with a group from the hotel. After yet another bus ride across Santa Cruz ( always raining in the highlands) we boarded a small ship for a one hour ride. We met people from Australia, England, the U.S, and Germany. They all seem to be traveling on a package arranged through the hotel that includes daily excursions.

We were greeted by playful young sea lions on this colorful island (lots of a red iceplant-like plant). It’s a tiny bit of an island, less than 500 feet wide. Many of the rocks are white, from sea lion excrement (they prefer to go on land to avoid predators at sea), some of the rocks polished smooth by generations of sea lions. One edge of the island is a steep cliff with nesting birds – Nazca Boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, and tropicbirds. Thanks to our guide, we saw a chick of the latter hiding in a small rock cave.

After lunch, we hand the best snorkeling yet, somewhere on the southern end of Santa Cruz. Many schools of little fish – silvery, striped, yellow, red and black, etc, plus too many species of larger fish to count. One of my favorite was a spotted box fish related to pufferfish, and a white-tipped reef shark. We went into a small bay with the clearest water we’ve seen (too bad my new underwater camera sprung a leak).

On our way back across the island, we stopped to see the twin sink holes, created when gases were trapped below the surface during an ancient volcanic eruption. A later earthquake, about 3000 years ago, caused the ceilings to collapse.

Nancy and I did a little souvenir shopping when we got back; I got a little silver pendant of a sea turtle, though it haven’t seen one here yet. We were entertained by the pelicans hanging out at the fish market waiting for scraps.

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Saturday
Today we went to Floreana, my least favorite island. The rough ride in a cramped, noisy, smelly boat didn’t help. One passenger got sick on the way over. We only visited two spots – the black beach near the dock (cloudy water with few fish, though a couple people saw a sea turtle) and the highlands. A few tortoises, imported from another island, are being bred in captivity; the native ones are extinct thanks to human activity, starting with pirates in the 1500’s. A face carved into the rocks, near one on the few fresh water springs in the islands, is believed to have been carved by them, but no one is sure. Before we left home, we saw The Galapagos Affair, a documentary about early settlers on this island. It was interesting to see some of the locations in person.

I left a postcard for my son, Alex, in the barrel at Post Office Bay. Let’s see how long it takes to reach him. (These are hand delivered by whoever wants to take them). The boat was slightly less crowded on the way back and more comfortable most of the way, until the waves got rougher and we thought the pilot was going to flip the boat. The t-shirt below seems to sum up today. Tomorrow we head back to Quito.

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Galapagos – The Legend

The Legend has a capacity of 100 passengers, but there were only 61 on board our cruise. It’s larger and nicer than the one we had booked. We have been divided into four groups for excursion; we’re part of the Cormorant group, the others are albatrosses, boobies, and dolphins.

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Monday
We started out quite frustrated this morning, but ended up satisfied. We road the bus back to the airport and waited for the rest of the passengers for the Legend, a wasted morning. We then transferred to the ship and received our room assignments. One room was great, a spacious double with windows. The other was a cramped interior room which none of us could stand, including Sandra, a nice young woman from East Berlin who was assigned to room with us. We pleaded with the ship manager and finally by late afternoon he relented and gave us another window room even though he was unable to get the change confirmed by the company managing the Xavier.

We had a nice buffet lunch, received an orientation to the ship, and then boarded dinghies to Santa Cruz Island for a bus ride up to the highlands where we saw giant tortoises in the wild. I had to scramble out of the way of one who walked right towards me as I was photographing her. When another tourist approached too close, she hissed and retreated into her shell. it rained on our way back until we reached the coast. The light was beautiful on our dingy ride back and we were thrilled to see Blue-footed Boobies, both on the rocks and flying overhead. It’s warm and humid; I’m wearing shorts and sandals for the first time.

The rocking of the ship almost put me to sleep during our briefings – safety procedures and an overview of tomorrow’s excursions.

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Tuesday
I slept fairly well, in spite of the rocking and engine noise, no hint of seasickness. Breakfast was at 7:00 mainland/ship time (6:00 Galapagos time). After eating, we collected snorkel gear and headed out for two morning excursions at Puerto Egas on Santiago Island. After a wet landing on a red beach, we took a walk to see sea iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, lava lizards, and various birds. I really enjoy getting close to animals that aren’t afraid of us. Then we snorkeled. I was pleased to find that the water to be a comfortable temperature. It was a bit murky, but I enjoyed seeing a variety of fish, poorly captured on my cheap waterproof camera (which I figured out how to charge).

After lunch, all three of us napped. I made the mistake of taking the first half hour of my nap on a chaise lounge and now have sunburnt legs. Karen decided to stay behind for the afternoon snorkel at Bartolme Island. Nancy and I went, hoping to see penguins. Instead we saw similar fish to the last stop. We had time for a quick shower and change before our final outing of the day, a walk up 300-400 steps to the top of this small volcanic island. We welcomed the overcast skies, otherwise this would be one hot walk. We were rewarded with great views of the archipelago. On our way back in the dingy, our boatman spotted a few penguins, which all 15 of us photographed. (I could have used a longer lens; I’m shooting with the 35mm equivalent of a 200 mm lens).

For dinner, we had a barbecue on the deck. I’ll probably gain a couple pounds with all the food they’re feeding us.

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Wednesday
Up again at 6:30, our first outing departed at 8:00. Back to Santa Cruz, where the cactuses grow like trees, this time to Dragon Hill. We saw many colorful land iguanas. I’d say they have a face only a mother could love, except in this case the mothers abandon their eggs within hours of laying them. As with all the reptiles on these islands, the young are left to fend for themselves, and try to avoid being eaten by hawks and other birds (plus human-introduced cats and rats). We also saw a couple flamingoes in a lagoon and a couple flying overhead – my first sighting of a flamingo in flight. The weather was perfect, a bright overcast. We were pleased to find a platter of fruit and a chocolate fountain when we returned to ship. (There isn’t much chocolate aboard this vessel, so I accept every bit I get).

We attended a naturalist talk before lunch. In mid-afternoon, I joined a few other passengers for a deep water snorkel off North Seymour. Actually the water wasn’t that deep, but we went off the dingy because the shore was rocky. I saw as real small sharks and a large school of — fish. we returned in time for the end of the ice cream social – more chocolate, this time with Amaretto on top, yum.

I had time for a quick shower before my favorite outing yet. We saw numerous Frigatebirds, from fluffy white babies to red throated adult males. There were Blue-footed Booby nests; the parents take turn watching the young when they are little. We got a glimpse of a featherless baby under her mom and a mating dance. We also saw Swallow-tailed Gulls and more land iguanas.

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Thursday
Our three-language wake up call (Spanish, English, and French) came even earlier than usual. Our last excursion from the legend left the ship at 7:30. We visited a narrow beach on Santa Cruz. I went barefoot. This is one of the spots where sea turtles lay their eggs. We could see tracks where the newly hatch turtles had headed to the water. It was a pleasant to to spend an hour.

Back on board, we awaited departure, wondering what would be planned for us next. Our other refugees had already heard from their travel agents; they are all boarding our ships and most are heading to Espanola, the island that was top on my list.

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Galapagos – Arrival

I had a dream the night before last. Someone handed my a phone saying it was my mother. A voice I didn’t recognize said “Don’t get on the ship”. So it was with a sense of foreboding the I headed to the airport for our flight to the Galapagos. After an hour delay and a bit of turbulence, we reached Baltra.

A guide shepherded a dozen or so of us onto a bus, than onto a ferry, then into a van before breaking the news that a mechanical problem had been discovered on the Xavier, the ship we booked a month ago (our third booking after the Voyager crashed last December and the Nemo was taken out of service to receive a new navigation system). Hopefully the was the ship I was warned about in my dream and the next one will go smoothly.

As for a ship, we are being placed on one called The Legend for a 4 day/3 night cruise (not the 8 day/7night one we had been looking forward to). They’re not sure what they’re going to do with us after that. Instead of seeing Blue-Footed Boobies and dining on a ship, we skipped lunch, briefly toured the Darwin Center (large tortoises), and checked into a hotel on Santa Cruz island (hence the WiFi connection).

Five other passengers are on the same boat, the others were placed on a different ship. We commiserated at dinner and to vent some of our frustration, we ordered everything possible off the menu – a large salad, fish, and dessert.

Once again, I’m reminded that patience and flexibility are essential for travel.

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Quito

We said goodbye to Joanne in Lima, she’s heading home, and flew to Ecuador. We arrived mid-day at a brand new airport, with instructions to put the TP in the toilet (a change from Peru). The ride from the airport took about 45 minutes, longer than it takes me to get to SFO. For the most part, the roads looked newly paved, though we saw unfinished bridges along the way. Quito is the biggest city we’ve been in, about 2 million inhabitants, stretched out between an active volcano and a mountain. We stayed in the old town; to the north is the middle and upper class, to the south, the poor.

Our hotel room was the nicest we’ve had yet – a spacious triple corner room overlooking Santo Domingo cathedral. We were chastised for hanging our laundry on the balcony (the laundry service at our hotel is much more costly than in Peru, even more than at home). We walked over to the main plaza, saw a crowd enjoying street theater (again I wished I was fluent in Spanish), shared a yummy meal, and retired early.

The next day we took a half-day Quito “Reality Tour”. This took most of the day and left us exhausted. Our first stop was a hilltop with a statue of the Virgin Mary with wings. An impressive monument and view, though less so on this overcast morning.

For our tour of a large local market, our guide parked his car quite a ways away, to prevent it from getting broken into. We were warned to put away our cameras and jewelry and then headed uphill on foot. Nancy was still struggling; we’re over 9000′ (one of the highest capitals in the world). The market was teeming with activity with everything imaginable for sale – stolen cell phones (I didn’t see mine) and other electronics, used shoes and clothing, shrink wrapped furniture carried on the shoulders of strong young men to waiting pick-ups, more produce than I’ve ever seen in one location, roasting pig heads, and much more. I was disturbed to see many live animals confined to small cages – guinea pigs, chickens, rabbits, puppies, kittens. It was a relief to leave this crowded place.

On our walk back down, we visited a candy shop that has been in operation for over a century. Everything I tried was very sweet. We briefly walked through La Ronda, a upscale area full of restaurants, and sampled chocolates. While our guide retrieved his car, we found a small cafe and enjoyed beers and a platter of snacks (popcorn, crunchy corn kernels, and dried banana), all for about $5 (sometimes it pays to get away from tourist areas).

Our tour continued with a drive north to Museo Guayasamin. I was very impressed with this communist’s depiction of human suffering; his work was amazing (and, for a communist, he lived in a surprisingly large well-decorated house).

We had our guide drop us off at the mall where I bought a small waterproof camera (incorrectly being assured that the charger was included). We also visited the only large supermarket we’ve seen and purchased food for dinner – crackers, cheese, refried beans, olives, yogurt, bananas, wine, and more chocolate. We stayed in all evening, repacking our bags and catching up on email, getting ready for an electronic-free week in the Galapagos.

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