Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Galápagos, Part 2: Swimming with sharks, etc.

The last part of my Galápagos trip was on Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galápagos with five active volcanoes. (It's the island on the map that looks sort of like a seahorse.)

I flew to Isabela from San Cristobal on this 8-seater plane:

I was directly behind the pilot.

(By the way, I WALKED to the aiport in 15 minutes in San Cristobal and WALKED from the airport to the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island in ~25 minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever walked to or from an airport in my life.)

I stayed in the town of Puerto Villamil, which is tiny and relaxed, with a dirt road as the main road. Using Puerto Villamil as a base, I went on three excursions, one hike around Sierra Negra Volcano and two snorkeling + animal-viewing trips. 

The Sierra Negra Volcano was active in 2005! This volcano doesn’t spew lava like Mt. St. Helens, rather it sort of just gurgles lava when it’s active. When it was active in 2005, people could still hike around the crater and observe it. This is a picture of our guide Daniel (originally from Quito) in front of the enormous crater with a diameter of ~10 miles (the 2nd largest in the world).

On my snorkeling excursions I swam with sharks, sea lions, sea turtles, seahorses and more!

I swam with this shark! The sea lions were my favorite. They swam in circles around me and one looked at me directly in the eyes as if s/he wanted to play. (Sadly, no pictures of this.)

I saw many more animals endemic or unique to the islands, including the blue footed booby, the Galápagos penguin, and the famous giant tortoises. Also rare animals like flamingos.

Above is a nest with two baby blue footed boobies, which don't yet have blue feet (they get them after puberty... that is, if they survive through puberty; usually only one of the two babies survives to adulthood). Here's a short video I took of a booby "in action"!

After my time on Isabela Island, I took a speedboat back to the island where I started my trip - Santa Cruz - and spent about 24 hours visiting its beaches, lava tunnels, huge inland craters and the Charles Darwin Research Station before flying back to mainland Ecuador. 

In total, I spent time on three different islands: San Cristóbal, Isabela and Santa Cruz, and flew in and out of a fourth island Baltra. Even though I really enjoyed my time on the farm with the family in San Cristóbal, Isabela was my favorite island. I loved the wildlife, the gorgeous views, the volcanoes and the tour guides, who managed to be champions of the islands while at the same time being laid back and friendly (all the guides were Ecuadoreans). 

I am now back in Quito. Quito is a great city and there's a lot to explore here in mainland Ecuador, but I'm having a little bit of post-Galápagos depression. It's hard to say goodbye to such a unique place.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Galápagos, Part 1: On the Farm

My mind is blown by this place. I'm still processing it all, but I want to share some photos and impressions with you while they're still fresh in my mind.

First, the farm. But before I talk about the farm I have to explain a tiny bit about the geography of the islands. When hearing about the Galápagos, most people think of this:

But volcanic rock and exotic animals are only part of the Galápagos. Two of the eastern islands - San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz - were volcanoes millions of years ago but turned into non-volcanic islands whose centers are now lush and green, practically rainforests. The volcanic lava turned into fertile soil for plants and trees to grow. These areas support a lot of life forms (including humans!).

It was in this jungle-esque part of the island of San Cristóbal where I was volunteering on a farm. The farm isn't a typical U.S. farm. It's called a finca in Spanish, meaning a small private farm or homestead. The best way I can describe it is a scattering of plots of vegetables and trees in the middle of the jungle, situated on a slope looking out over the ocean.

This was my cabin. I had a view of the ocean from my room!

Some of my activities at the farm included planting and transplanting endemic trees and plants, clearing and burning invasive plant species, and tilling potatoes. The worst invasive plant species is the blackberry bush, which has spread its thorny branches all over the islands. (It sure tastes good in milkshakes though!) 

I also got to go on a lot of excursions, mostly hiking through the jungle, collecting wild fruits and even swimming in inland waterfalls. I sampled close to a dozen different types of fresh fruit either directly from the tree or the next day for breakfast with granola and yogurt.

left: papaya, banana, and "badea" with yogurt & granola; right: fried plantains and eggs

From trees we picked red and yellow bananas, papayas, passion fruit, guava, red pears, oranges, lemons, and avocados.

...And also this exotic fruit:

This fruit is called badea in Spanish which the dictionary translates as "giant granadilla" (which doesn't mean much to me). The flesh is mild in taste and its color a bit like honeydew melon with much sweeter, even tangy, seeds and pulp. 

My hosts were Milton and Norma Aguas. Milton was born and raised in the Galápagos and Norma has spent more than half of her life here. Milton grew up farming, fishing, etc., but spent many years in politics, including 8 years as mayor of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of San Cristobal island, from 1992-2000. I also spent time with others members of their family, especially Milton’s nephew and neighbor, Fabricio. No one spoke more than a few scattered words of English. Thus, My time on the farm was as much Spanish immersion as it was volunteering activity and I learned a boatload of new words ranging from farming tools to fruits to general vocab, including one of my favorite new words chévere "cool" (pronounced sort of like "chebberay" with stress on the first syllable).

I also made friends with their Spanish-speaking farm animals, including the dog Lu (above with bananas), donkeys (burros & baby burros - burritos!), cats, and chickens.

Stay tuned for blog #2 on the Galápagos, including more of the "exotic" side of the islands!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

A few days in Quito

I made it to Ecuador! I arrived in Quito, the capital, late on Thursday evening. No jet lag, but I was still pretty exhausted. I’m going to try to blog a bit while I'm traveling this fall, at least to share photos. 

Here is the Airbnb I booked in the Mariscal neighborhood. I love the colors.

I had cake for lunch (apple cake with dulce de leche frosting). Don’t judge. I’m on vacation.

This isn’t the best pic of Quito’s Old Town, but it gives you a taste.

Ecuador uses US currency, but their old money is still floating around. I received this medley of change yesterday.

OK, I realize I just said I’ll be blogging again, but actually there will not be another post until around September 21. Tomorrow I’m leaving for the Galápagos to volunteer on a farm where there is not internet or cell phone service. I’m not sure what to expect or what I’m actually doing on the farm, but I’m hoping during my visit there to see giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, and amazing ocean views, and to get photos of all of this and more. So, sit tight and I’ll be back in a few weeks with more.

p.s. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Christine Iwan Gardner!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The cats of İstanbul

There are cat cities and there are dog cities. Like Rome, Istanbul is a cat city. The ubiquitous felines lend to the character of the city as much as the imposing mosques, palaces, and bazaars. In Cihangir -- the neighborhood of Istanbul where I stayed last weekend -- the cats might as well have passports and pay taxes, as they often act and are treated like full-fledged (human) citizens. Two years ago I was in a small town in northern Russia for a week and got in the habit of feeding the town strays. In Istanbul I fit right in as one among hundreds feeding local cats.

Here’s a selection of my favorite Istanbul cats.

Cats outdoors...

Cats on (hot tin?) roofs...

Cats indoors...

This cat posed for pictures inside
the Hagia Sophia for hours.
Istanbul also has its fair share of dogs.

For good measure, here are a few pictures of Istanbul, a city well worth visiting.

The Hagia Sophia

The Blue Mosque

**This is a one-off blog... I think.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

If all had gone according to plan when I was getting my Russian visa last May, I would have arrived in Moscow June 1st and left March 1st. But, luckily, things didn't go according to plan; my trip was delayed, and my departure date is now March 15th. I say "luckily" because I got to participate in my first Maslenitsa festivities in Russia on Sunday the 6th. Maslenitsa is roughly the same as Carnival or Mardi Gras, which all mark the week of celebrations before lent. But Maslenitsa, Mardi Gras, etc. have their roots in pre-Christian pagan holidays celebrating the beginning of spring.

Sunday was the last day of Maslenitsa week here in Russia and I joined my roommate and another friend for a festival of games and blini (or traditional Russian pancakes, the sun-like symbols of Maslenitsa) in Istra, a town an hour or so outside of Moscow.

We were greeted with shots of vodka:

And different games/activities, such as jumping rope and walking on stilts:

You may have noticed that it doesn't look particularly spring-like in the pictures. In fact, it looks a lot like the dead of winter. It's no optical illusion. It was very very cold and I wasn't fully prepared. There was a half an hour or so when I was preoccupied with worries of frostbite. I thought that my feet, in particular, were in danger of permanent damage after my shoes got wet and the temperature seemed to steadily decrease...

But then we found the bonfire, cognac, and fake gypsies and everything got better. A LOT better.

For the first time I experienced hard liquor dulling the pain of cold weather. Perhaps not coincidentally it was also the first time that hard liquor has ever gone down so painlessly. Liquor and bonfire are the perfect pair. Whenever my feet started to feel cold again, I would just stick them fearlessly into the fire pit.

But it wasn't all liquor and fire. We enjoyed some more traditional Maslenitsa activities as well. Most importantly was the consumption of homemade blini (look in my left hand for the pancake and at my face for the excitement).

And the event that marks the end of Maslenitsa: the burning of a scarecrow (here a rather large one):

I think that the first week of March may be a wee bit early to legitimately declare the onset of spring in the middle of Russia. But, in the end, I can't say that I mind the farce all that much. We'll just say that for whatever reason the sheep (spring) feels comfortable wearing the wolf's (winter's) clothing for a little while.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Blog Lapse

I haven't found the time to blog for a couple of weeks now. Things have just been too hectic. But I promise I'll get out at least one more real blog before I leave on March 15th.

In the meantime here are a few pictures of Kazan, which I just visited. My last Russian excursion for a while.

The new mosque in the old kremlin --

Inside the mosque --

Two official languages: Russian & Tatar --

The Old Tatar settlement on the bank of the frozen canal --