Showing posts with label animals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label animals. Show all posts

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. 

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. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Viñales: Caballos y Tabaco

Viñales is only hours from Havana, but a world apart. Its lush rolling green hills are dotted with fincas, lines with dirt roads, and sprinkled with massive limestone mogotes. The rich soil and unique microclimate make Viñales home to the world’s best tobacco.

As part of Cuba’s tourist trail, Viñales overflows with casas particulares, a guesthouse-homestay hybrid, restaurants, and tours to the surrounding farms and caves. This provided us with the ideal opportunity to go for a horseback riding tour, my first and last.

For years Win has been trying to get me to go horseback riding, and there have been no shortage of chances to do so. I have always been vehemently opposed, as I find horse to be unpredictable in a way that terrifies me. Now, I know there are plenty of people who absolutely love horses and horseback riding. We all have our things.

But, confronted with the beauty of Viñales and the chance to face a fear and try something new, I agreed (albeit begrudgingly).

As a novice horseback rider, wracked with fear, our Spanish-speaking guide gave us the following instructions once atop the horse: left, right, stop, walk. My small, young horse, not being a car, did not respond to commands as such and promptly freaked out. She panicked, I panicked, she tried to buck me off, lost balance, and fell over, taking me down for the ride.

That’s when I found out that the quickest way to win an argument is to have a horse fall on you. I also learned that Cubans are not wont to take that crybaby bullshit, so I ended up riding a horse (a calmer horse) for the next four hours.

It was four hours of blind fear, riding through gorgeous landscapes, limping around farms and caves, and thinking of ways to combine my scant Spanish skills to ask our guide nicely to slow the hell down. We gained some insight into the tobacco growing process, as well as how communism and farm life interact (hint: 90 percent of the crop goes to the government). 

We also met whatever this creature is.

In the end, I spent the rest of our vacation in various states of limping and healing (partially due to the fact that horses are heavy and partially to the fact of having ridden a horse for that long in general). But now I know that I can get back on the horse, in the most literal way imaginable.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Layover of the Pharaohs

Seeing the pyramids has been high on my bucket list since before I was old enough to know what a bucket list even was. By third grade I was hooked on all things Egyptian. Fact or fiction, the strange images of the hieroglyphics, the unique vision of the afterlife, the mummification process, the myths, legends, and curses, the reverence for cats, eight-year-old me soaked it up and longed to see the pyramids.

Almost twenty years later, my inner child was silently squealing with joy as we touched down in Cairo International Airport.

Let’s be blunt, our decision to extend our layover in Egypt from six hours to three days evoked some strong reactions. The 2011 Revolution, the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the continued travel advisories from the US State Department, none boded well in the eyes of family and friends. Emails and phone calls, when Egypt was mentioned, dripped with concern. But, to Cairo we went.

Egypt was immediately striking and unique, a city that runs abruptly into the pyramids and the desert, as though divided by invisible walls. From the strangely silent and solitary camel ride through the desert to the massive, warehouse-like feel of the Antiquities Museum, everything felt incredibly, well, Egyptian.

And then there was everyday Cairo. Revolutionary street art and the incredibly welcoming and warm Egyptians themselves.  A ubiquitous presence of stray cats. Savory kofta, falafel, lamb, and pita sandwiches available from street carts for next to nothing. Men, young and old, lounge about in sidewalk cafes, drinking tea, playing dominoes and smoking hookah.  

Smiles, conversation, and advice abounded. Hello. Welcome to Egypt. Ah, I love America. Close your eyes, pray Allah, and keep walking; it’s the only way to cross the street in Cairo. We were made to feel safe and welcome. Even the tanks parked outside of the museum felt nonthreatening, like slumbering giants, aware but not on guard. 

We had braced ourselves for the worst, for the possibility of having to stay holed up inside the airport should we have arrived to a Cairo in distress. Instead, we had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Thank goodness we listened to the Rachel of third grade instead of all the modern day Debbie downers.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Rhinos, and Tigers, and Bears! Oh My!

We started running. We started running while trying to be as quiet as possible. On gravel. Toward the supposed location of a rhinoceros.

If you had been present for the morning debriefing on how to behave in the event that we were attacked by a tiger, sloth bear, or rhinoceros, you would be questioning our decision to run at a dangerous animal. I know I was.

After a leisurely canoe trip and two hours walking through the jungle, plunging through towering, eight-foot-tall elephant grass, and following meandering paths to check various watering holes, our “guarantee 100% you see rhino” was beginning to seem less and less likely. And the heat of the Nepali plains was gearing up, inching its way up toward 110. So when another tour guide alerted our guide about a nearby rhinoceros, running commenced.

Now, as awe-inspiring as it was to crouch in the underbrush watching this armored truck of an animal, one of only 503 known to be in Nepal, it was also slightly distressing. And I do mean in more ways than only the fear of being charged by such a behemoth.

Who are we to be invading this creature’s space? To be building resorts and campgrounds within their territory? To be stalking them as they lounge in a murky pool trying to beat the midday blaze? What hubris allows us to think we are powerful enough to stalk them unprotected and on foot?

Nature Reserves and National Parks are not zoos. Perhaps if the animals are not easily visible from the safety of a vehicle, we should leave them be. After all, I don’t go tracking grizzlies unarmed in the U.S. National Parks carrying only a walking stick.