Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Galapagos Excursion

Flying into the Galapagos, I quickly realized that it was nothing like I had expected. The landscape was sparse, dry, covered in leafless trees and tree-sized cacti. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations (I try to avoid Google image searching places before traveling), but somehow this still defied any mental image conjured by the word “Galapagos.”

In an effort to make a trip to the Galapagos Islands as affordable as possible, we decided to use the two cheap tourist towns as base camps for a quick visit. This allowed us a glimpse into the ecology of the island system without the price tag of the multiday cruises.

Cemented in history by Darwin’s evolutionary biology discoveries, the history of the one-time home of Lonesome George is one of exploitation and over use of resources. Fun fact: apparently tortoise oil was once considered a resource for use in streetlamps.

As humans have learned more about the finite nature of the islands’ fauna (having pushed a number of species into extinction), the island chain is now home to a plethora of sustainability and conservation efforts. These include efforts to genetically reproduce as closely as possible the Galapagos Tortoise (of which Lonesome George was the last, his death marking the species’ extinction) and to grow, rather than import, as much of the islands’ food as possible.

Seeing the ecology of the Galapagos Islands is a land, air, and water endeavor. A full day snorkel trip (the splurge of the trip) afforded us the opportunity to swim in surprisingly cold water with sea turtles, sharks, and sea lions (which I’m assured are somehow different from seals), as well as a whole rainbow’s worth of fish.

Taking advantage of the numerous free options on both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal provided the chance to see massive century-old tortoises, land iguanas with vaguely prehistoric faces, beaches filled with lounging sea lions, and birds ranging from pelicans to finches.

But, despite the full day of snorkeling and all the various museums and conservation projects, a free hike and a dip in the frigid waters of a tiny alcove provided the highlight of the trip. Donning rented snorkels, we navigated the rocks at the end of the skinny, wooden pier and plunged in. Though the fish life was moderately interesting and we soon became accustomed to the water temperature, the snorkeling was mediocre overall.

However, we were soon joined by a group of the most curious sea lions. Now, we swam with seals in New Zealand and on the aforementioned snorkeling trip, but this was something else. These sea lions seemed almost to want to play with us, zipping right up and spinning away, diving and swirling about our feet. It was absolute magic (and it only cost $5 to rent the snorkels).

Sometimes you pay a great deal of money to observe something unique in nature, and sometimes Mother Nature surprises you instead. Our Galapagos adventure turned out to be a unique, interesting mixture of the two. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Las Amazonas

My third grade teacher was big into hands-on projects, the main one being decorating the classroom as the Amazon Rainforest and holding our own Carnivale parade with homemade instruments. We spent weeks studying the ecology of the rainforest and covering the walls and ceilings with butcher paper vines, trees, leaves, and a who menagerie of animals. The teacher even brought in her pet scarlet and green macaws for a day.

In hindsight, this was a huge fire hazard, macaws are not really intended to be pets, and an incident with the scarlet macaw sparked a lifelong distrust of birds. However, this also ignited a lifelong desire to visit the Amazon and see some of these flora and fauna in a fantastic jungle adventure.

Being on my own in Ecuador seemed like the ideal opportunity to dip my toe in the vast ecological wonderland that is the Amazon Rainforest. And while an organized group tour isn’t quite the fantastic adventure my eight-year-old self may have envisioned, it is the only way to go and see this protected area.  I was also lucky enough to spend my four-day journey with an excellent group and an incredibly enthusiastic guide.

One of two protected areas in the Ecuadorian portion of the Amazon, Cuyabeno reserve covers about 1.5 million acres and, thanks to its elevation, is home to five different ecological zones. On the Hormiga River, which flows into the Amazon River and eventually all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, the reserve is also home to five indigenous groups and hundreds of species of fauna.

The Caiman Lodge, a little over an hour downriver from the reserve entrance, is an eco-friendly space of thatch and bamboo, strewn with hammocks, its observation tower stretching above the surrounding trees. During meals we were joined by a pair of green Amazon parrots looking to scavenge our leftovers (and usually succeeding); reintroduced to the wild after being kept as pets, the birds were accustomed to relying on humans.

The trip included a visit to the local Siona village to see traditional bread being made and hear a Shaman speak briefly on their customs. The bread is made entirely from cassava (yuca) root, which we harvested in the pouring rain. The root is then peeled, cleaned, ground, wrung dry, and made into a large, thin pancake cooked on pottery over an open flame. After the meal, the Shaman sat down to explain the local customs and how he (and his three brothers) learned from his grandfather the ways of a shaman. All told, it was both touristy and highly interesting.

But the main event, the magically breathtaking main event, was the wildlife. From being awoken by the calls of howler monkeys to the ever-present drone of cicadas and calls of birds, we spent four days surrounded by nature. We paddled, boated, swam, and squished through mud and water in knee high rubber boots. Massive troupes of squirrel monkeys leapt through trees, pairs of yellow and blue macaws cruised overhead, anacondas sunned themselves in branches, pink river dolphins surfaced briefly before cruising downriver, sloths existed lazily.

It may not have been exactly what my eight-year-old self pasted all over the walls of a classroom, but it certainly was an awe-inspiring experience. Definitely worth all the bug bites and early mornings. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Meow Wolf

Humans are weird and wonderful creatures. Meow Wolf art collective’s House of Eternal Return is a unique, creative, interactive embodiment of just that.

Built in a former Santa Fe bowling alley and funded in part by George R. R. Martin, the massive 20,000 square-foot exhibit has been visited by tens of thousands of people in the two months since it opened.

The permanent installation is incredible in its scale and variety. Centered around a Victorian-style home, full of relics and documents that beg visitors to uncover a story, hundreds of interactive spaces sprawl in all directions. Crawl through the fireplace, walk through the fridge, exit through the closet, and one enters other worlds.

From squatting baobabs covered with luminescent fungi to a musical mastodon skeleton and futuristic creatures, from LED light instruments in fog-filled rooms to a cartoon kitchen, Meow Wolf embraces an impressive array of visual, auditory, and sensory mediums. The interpretation and meaning are sure to be as varied as the visitors who roam the spaces, free to touch, move, and explore everything around them.

The collective also embraces other aspects of the New Mexico community. The neon shantytown doubles as a performance space. The collective puts on workshops for children. Food trucks ply the parking lot.

After a visit to such a unique space, I was left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and wonder. Kudos to artists who can collaborate to bring such variety of experience and expression to one place, and to those who can get so many people interested in going to see it. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Underground Galaxy


**Disclaimer: These are not our photos. We were not allowed to take a camera due to safety concerns (apparently selfies are a dangerous thing), so all images are from a Google image search. Don't judge me.**

Clad in a heavy duty wet suit, clunky rubber boots, and a spelunking helmet with headlamp, holding an inner tube to my backside I stand poised. Our tour guide has her hand on my shoulder, her right foot readied to sweep my feet out from under me. This is no way to jump off a waterfall. Especially in a cave, in the dark, into frigid river water.

But this is what we’re paying for. Well that and a silent, floating grand finale through awe-inspiring beauty.

I first visited New Zealand during high school. In hindsight, as an adult, traveling abroad with 30-someodd 17- and 18-year-olds sounds like a chaperone’s nightmare. Putting on my adult pants again, I can state with certainty that I did not appreciate the experience half as much as I should have. Teenagers are like that, I suppose. One of the things that did stick with me, through the quagmire of teenage drama that overwhelmed the entire trip, was the absolute, jaw-dropping beauty of the North Island’s glowworm caves.

Returning to New Zealand, I insisted that this be included on our list of activities for the trip. Not one to repeat experiences entirely, and based on the recommendations of numerous friends, we went the action adventure route to exploring Waitomo Caves. This meant doing something called Black Water Rafting. The name is a misnomer of sorts. The activity itself is more like underground cave river tubing, but I guess that’s a less catchy name.

Once again I have to say a little thank you to the humans who invented wet suits. Silly though we may have looked (we looked absurd, sorry for the lack of pictures of us specifically), with the exception of paddling with bare hands, the icy water that would sneak up sleeves, and the handful of backward leaps off waterfalls the sent us plunging and bobbing momentarily, we stayed relatively warm.

Despite learning that the “glowworms” are actually just fly larvae trying to catch a meal in the dark using bioluminescence, despite the cold water and the clumsy scrambling and occasional missteps involved in making our way through the caves, when the group of us daisy chained together and turned off our headlamps, none of it mattered.

An entire group of people struck speechless by beauty is a phenomenal thing. Floating silently through the caves was liked drifting downstream under a clear night’s sky in the high mountains, Milky Way poured out before you. Only in this case, it’s much closer, a tiny galaxy of blue-tinged stars almost within reach.

I understand why we weren’t allowed to take pictures. Not only are there no pictures that do the experience justice, but I don’t think we could reasonably have taken pictures in such an awe-struck state and also paid any attention to what we were doing as we made our way through the caves. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Swimming with Seals

If dogs are man’s best friend, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call seals merman’s best friend. Seals, much like dogs, are remarkably playful and inquisitive but can also be highly territorial. The fact that seals are pretty cute and make weird bark-like noises doesn’t hurt the comparison either.

Kaikoura, on the South Island’s northeast coast, is a highly touristic stopping point. Chockful of hotels, hostels, b&bs, and tourist parks (an assortment of hotel rooms, cabins, RV hookups, and camping spots), this is a town famed for sea kayaking, whale watching, and dolphin swimming. We, however, went for the swimming with seals excursion.

Absolutely clumsy on land as they use their strange flippers to haul and hobble themselves across rocky outcroppings, seals are graceful as ballet dancers in the water. They spin, dive, and twirl by, investigating these odd flippered and masked creatures who join them in the water.

The water was cold and choppy, the wind high, and frigid water kept leaking into the arm and neck holes of the wet suits we were (luckily) wearing. But, swimming alongside a seal as it cruised through the water was absolutely worth the discomfort. And Win really went for it, making Olympia laps with a couple of seals who seemed to enjoy his company. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016


In February 2011, Christchurch was struck by an earthquake that registered a 6.3 on the Richter scale. Centered just 10 kilometers outside the city center, the earthquake and its aftershocks left the city badly damaged, with 185 dead. At the time, Christchurch was the second most populous city in New Zealand.

Visiting Win’s family friend in 2016, it was amazing to see the CBD (Kiwi for central business district) still full of empty lots. Patched here and there with intense construction, efforts to save historic buildings, and invisible bureaucratic red tape, the city is still in partial disarray five years later. Outside the city center, many suburbs were completely red-zoned, with vast acres that were once filled with cookie-cutter subdivisions being gradually reclaimed by flora and fauna.

And in the midst of it all, endless examples of the triumph of the human spirit and the artistic response to tragedy are on display. From the transitionary church (known as the Cardboard Church) to the pop-up shipping container mall to the sprawling street art, Christchurch has equal parts physical and emotion construction underway. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Sydney: The Layover

It would be easy to assume that we travel because one or the both of us has some source of wealth that is unique and different from other people in our age bracket. Frankly, that would be lovely, but simply isn’t the case. The travel we do is funded primarily by shifting priorities and figuring out how to make the most out of what money we do have at our disposal. To put it simply, we are incredibly cheap.

Getting to Win’s sixth continent (it was on his bucket list to do before 30) posed a unique issue in that regard. Namely, while working fulltime jobs and doing fulltime grad classes, how does one justify the airfare to fly to New Zealand for two weeks between semesters? We tackled that one by taking advantage of some of the air mile hacks through various airlines and credit cards to bring the cost down to just $75 roundtrip for Win and $550 roundtrip for myself. (This was a 6-month endeavor that required planning, research, solid credit scores, and lots of dedicated effort.)

Once we had our air miles, we found that there was just one ticket option available for all of December and January from Albuquerque to Australia or New Zealand. We would arrive the morning of New Year’s Eve in Sydney, home to one of the world’s best New Year’s Eve celebrations, and have roughly 24 hours before our flight to New Zealand. 

Now, I know what I said about us being cheap and the great lengths we go to in order to afford our travel. The number of stories that include, well we did X absurdly uncomfortable and strange thing, but it only cost $Y is, well, probably roughly equivalent to the number of stories we have to tell. However, in all our travels I have come to appreciate that there’s the time and place for the right kind of splurge. (Note the “I” in that sentence; I am the one who pushes for splurge experiences. I embrace this.)

Given the fortuitous nature of the timing of our 24-hour layover, we obviously needed to find some NYE celebration in which to partake. Rather than getting off the plane and having to fight the masses for free seating, some of which start to fill up around 6 am, we opted to spend some money. And if you’re gonna spend it, why not do it right?

We booked a cheap(ish) hotel room out in the suburbs and near little Korea, but went all out for the fireworks. And I have to say it was worth spending 400 AUD (roughly $280 US) to be harbor-side at the Botanical Gardens with a three course meal and a fantastic view of the bridge, Opera House, and both fireworks shows.

Most things are worth bargaining, haggling, and bartering over, but some things are once-in-a-lifetime experiences that are worth working into the budget.