Showing posts with label water. Show all posts
Showing posts with label water. 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. 

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. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Barrier Reefed

So we all know that I am never going to be a professional scuba diver (is that a thing?). But I have come to really enjoy snorkeling, even though it took a couple of tries before I got comfortable with it. I might not be able to swim, but I sure can bob around in a life jacket and flipper my way along among fish and coral.

And what better place to snorkel than at the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest reef system?As our last unvisited Central American country, Belize made the perfect jumping off point for a nice day of snorkeling.

We bobbed along with the tropical fish as they darted in and out of coral structures of endless color, shapes, and variety. Some wore outlandish, flamboyant colors; others sparkled in massive shifting schools.

Sea turtles cruised along silently, grazing on sea grass here and there. Massive rays hovered along the sandy sea bottom. Nurse sharks cut through water, searching for food, chased by our sinewy, sun-darkened guide, who was seemingly half-fish himself.

Snorkeling, while common, still fills me with awe. It is a glimpse into a world wholly separate from our own, a universe unto itself. Thank goodness I overcame my fear, at least enough to allow me to observe this place from just below the surface.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Sopping Wet Songkran

For the past four days, every time we left the house, whether for a simple chore or to go eat a meal, we came home in sopping wet clothes. Now, it is not monsoon season and we aren’t being hit with freak thunderstorms. Our inability to return home in dry clothes is due to the Thai New Year celebration of Songkran.

For Thailand, and much of Southeast Asia, this is their New Year.Held every year from April 13-15, Songkran is a time to wash away negative influences from the past year and start anew. And what began as a small ritual practice of pour water on family members to represent this cleansing has become a massive, nationwide, three-day water fight. 

As our first year actually being present in Thailand during April, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. This was particularly true of being in Chiang Rai, which has far less gigantic, public, tourist-attracting Songkran festivities. We were ready for anything. But then, we went out for lunch on the 12th and I returned as a soggy, dripping mess. Had I known that they start a day early here I may have reconsidered the ankle-length skirt and purse full of electronics.  

See, here in Chiang Rai, it’s not so much of a water fight in the sense of a huge crowd gathered somewhere armed with waterguns and buckets. It’s more that the whole city is a war zone; there is nowhere to hide; there isn’t an option of non-participation. It's as though those crowds seen in Bangkok and Chiang Mai are instead deployed to roadside stands and the backs of roving pickup trucks, positioned alongside massive barrels full of water, constantly at the ready. Defenseless, those on motorbikes get the brunt of it, as water is thrown on them from both the streetside soldiers and the roaming pickup truck gangs. 

That being said, everyone is respectful of both the elderly and the smartphone held up as a shield.

Everyone is drenched. And, the whole thing is fueled by massive injections of blasting music, whiskey, dancing, and beer (though obviously there are age limits on a couple of those). I’m amazed that that many of the Thais can make it through four days of this intense partying. We made it through one day, complete with plenty of whisky shots and a brief baby elephant cameo, and left the rest up to the Thais.

Songkran is clearly a beloved holiday here in Thailand, and it was quite fun to participate and to see how much the Thais enjoy themselves for those three or four days. But I have to admit, it was nice to go get lunch today and not get a surprise bucket of water to the face. 

*Pictures courtesy of google image search, as we do not own a waterproof camera and we love our camera too much to break it just before a new round of travel begins.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Open Water


I wanted to be able to share a harrowing story about conquering fear. I wanted to tell everyone my aquatic rags to riches story, the story of going from a non-swimmer to a scuba diver over the course of several years. I had truly wanted that to be how the story played out. But, just because something makes a beautiful narrative doesn’t mean it will come perfectly to fruition. Life’s not like that.

This is instead a story of surrender for some and triumph for others.

In 2010, lifejacket cinched and snorkel in place, I went into the ocean off Koh Tao knowing full well that I’d never really learned to swim and came out moments later in complete panic. Several attempts in calmer water later and I was, well not happy and content in the water, but more capable of being less panicked and enjoying the view of fish.

After several years, I have grown far more comfortable in water. Sure I still hold my nose if I go underwater, but wearing fins doesn’t feel quite so much like some sea monster is trying to drag me to a watery grave and breathing through a snorkel was moderately less claustrophobic.

Surely that’s a good enough base to go for a SCUBA diving course.

Armed with the knowledge of how far I’d come, I was ready to give it a go. I assumed that, even if I wasn’t a perfectly strong swimmer, at least the knowledge and know-how of taking a course, the technical information about the equipment, and the guiding hand of a competent instructor in a small group setting would readily combine to make for an easy, fun diving experience.

And it did. In the classroom.

We then went out on a boat, got all SCUBA suited up, leapt into the water, and I learned several things about myself.  The most relevant of which was this: I hate being underwater. Everything about it felt unnatural.

After swimming into the shallow cove for our confined introductory session, we started with some basics. But even the most basic of the basics, such as breathing through the regulator facedown or sitting underwater with no more than a foot of water overhead, were absolutely, excruciatingly panic-inducing for me. Try as I might, and I did try, repeatedly, I just could not force myself to stay underwater.

I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the slow, suffocating grip of panic winding its way around our ribcage, twisting its fingers around your throat, but I’ll tell you this it’s not pleasant. Our instructor was kind and encouraging. Win was patient and helpful. But it just wasn’t happening. Much like my first time snorkeling, the day ended with me in tears, stress smoking on a boat.

Now, to the dive school’s credit, they then offered to do a one-on-one session to try again. Of course, to me this sounded like torture. Especially because once you get past the being fine breathing underwater part, you get to practice things like losing your breathy bit and taking off your mask. It’s like a course that was built to make me cry.

So, I quit. As much as I hate to admit defeat, and as far as I try to push my boundaries, I had reached my limit. I know I missed out on seeing some beautiful things, and I hear that feeling weightless is incredible. But a 4-day learning curve just wasn’t going to get me to that level of comfort with being underwater.

And that is the story of how Win got SCUBA certified and I spent two days reading on the beach.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Double Double

On the island of Sumatra lies the world’s largest volcanic crater lake, Danau Toba. Within Lake Toba sits the Singapore-sized island of Samosir. And, if you’re quite determined, high up in the alpine trees of this double island, there are several smaller lakes. If you have the kind of bucket list we have, there’s just no resisting seeing a double lake on a double island.

On rented scooters, we set out to circumnavigate the island, turn inland and head up an over the island in search of said lake. We headed past remnants of the island’s animist history, palm trees on one side of the road, pines on the other. Through rice fields and rocky hills dotted at random with the massive, colorful multistory graves unique to Samosir.

We lost ourselves in towns, through markets filled with staring Indonesians. After some false starts, kind strangers eventually directed us onto the road that would lead us on a quick jaunt across the island. Stop at a lake, click of a camera, back before dark. Or so we thought.

“Hati, hati” and “Palan, palan” are two oft-ignored warnings in Bahasa Indonesia. Slowly and Caution mean very little in a land where driving is reckless, passing is nonchalant, and speeding is a given. So when told to drive slowly and be careful, we assume it’s because we are white and suspected of ignorance about driving motorbikes.

As pavement became pockmarked, giving way for wide expanses to dirt and gravel, we figured it couldn’t last. Wouldn’t maps indicate a dirt road? The road did, indeed, wind its way past the lake, the x on our treasure map. But that's about as far as our luck lasted. 

Eventually, you go too far to turn back and must forge on ahead. Even as you are driving at a snail’s pace, the sun inching closer to dusk, trying a dip and dodge around innumerable rocks and potholes,  scooter rattling and scraping all the while. At some point we crested the top of the island, some 3,000 feet above sea level, to see the island ring road a thin snaking string along the coast, far below us.

Much in the way that all good things come to an end, so too must the harrowing. After a brief pavement fakeout (which had us so assured we were done with dirt that we stopped for a victory break), the dusk trickled into dark, pavement back into rock and dust, leaving us to crawl back by the light of a barely-functional headlight.

Aching and dusty, we finally pulled up to our hotel. Soothing pizza and beer were applied to our wounded spirits. Bed was crawled into early. But, sometimes it’s not easy to reach your destination.  Especially if you’re looking for a lake on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Source

Everything has a beginning. Alright, the Nile River actually has several. But, being the world’s longest river, we can cut it a bit of slack.

Winding north through Sudan and Egypt, and into the Mediterranean, the Nile (specifically the Victoria or Blue Nile) begins its journey as a bubbling underwater spring on the edge of Uganda’s Lake Victoria, from where it travels 6,700 km in roughly four months.

The spot, marked with an uninspiring plaque, makes for an equally uninspiring sight, as it looks like nothing more than a lake to your left and a river to your right. However, there is some value in the knowledge that you are standing at the spot where a mighty force begins.

A bust of Mahatma Gandhi also adorns the area, as this marks one of the places (in fact one of the only spots outside of holy areas in India) where his ashes were scattered.