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About hurdlefast

We're travelling around a bit while working online. Come read about it if you are interested. :)

Hopping around Mexico

Funny, feel like I haven’t really been travelling much…but the stories have started to pile up. So here are some memories from the last six months of hopping around Mexico.

At the end of September Mark, Pancha and I met our new friend Mar in La Paz and helped drive “El Luchador,” her husband’s beast of a Ford Explorer, 1,000 miles up to San Diego. It was ten days of sunshine, desert, surfing, snorkeling and diving. And lots and lots of long discussions over the many miles.

Pancha with El Luchador

First, an introduction to Mar. That’s a whole story in itself. Mar (short for Marina) is an Argentinian economist who was living and working in the US until a year ago, when Mark met her in the hot tub in Rosarito.

Usually the people where we live are slightly less cerebral: part-Jimmy Buffett, part-Spicoli, these surfers can barely focus on a conversation because they are constantly checking the waves. So when he came running back from the hot tub, saying “Honey, get dressed! We are going out to dinner with people I met in the hot tub!” I was not expecting to meet three super smart business executives. In fact, it was already surprising because Mark is usually not the “social” one arranging dinner outings—that’s my department. I sigh, thinking, “Ok, I’ll go and be the social butterfly, make sure everyone is comfortable, and entertain these visitors….”

Ha! The whole night at dinner no one asked me a single question! It was mainly back and forth between Mark and Mar and Álvaro, discussing economics, statistics, high level math, computer analysis theory, and all these other things that I couldn’t keep up with. Mar barraged Mark with questions about his programming for poker, stock trading, etcetera. Mark volleyed back with questions for Mar about economic theory. So much for me thinking they needed me along to keep the conversation going! So, I just ordered myself another margarita and sat back to watch the show!

Well, needless to say it was (plutonic) love at first sight for those two. Turned out Mar and her husband were living in Rosarito for the next three months while she was editing her book about to be published. And Mark happened to be in a bit of a transitional period for his work, which was finally calming down after the Covid chaos. So, every day the two of them would go down to the beach to surf and then have never-ending discussions about everything under the sun. (Not just economics, mind you, they were deep into the heavy stuff like what makes people happy and satisfied, what are our flaws, how do you find purpose in your life, what drives you, how our mind and body and genetics and behavior affect the way we see the world, the problem of climate change…you name it, they discussed it.) They began swapping books and articles and podcasts, and when the reading list got too long, they assigned each other half and half so they could divide and conquer, briefing each other with the notes they took.

We began calling her the Esposa Buena (the good wife) because she relieved me from a little bit of the burden of listening to all of Mark’s ideas—ha! I love listening to Mark, and still spend many hours of the day doing just that, but sometimes his ideas wear me out and I just want to zone out and drink my coffee!

So after we all left Rosarito, we kept in touch. Mark visited her in Todos Santos, Baja Sur a few months later to surf with her and Brad.

Brad, Mar and Mark at the East Cape

And then at the end of September she picked up Mark, Pancha and me in La Paz for the road trip in el Luchador all the way to the border.We let Mar drive for about five minutes until we realized that wasn’t a good idea (too aggressive and she often wouldn’t notice a tope until it was too late!), so Mark drove the entire trip. First stop was Loreto. After four hours driving in the desert we were stunned by a gorgeous green valley crowned by a seemingly permanent rainbow!

Mar found us a lovely Airbnb in Loreto Bay Villas—the whole place was designed to look like an old-style Mexican pueblo, painted in bright colors with cobblestone paths, fountains and bougainvillea everywhere.

On our first day there we enjoyed fabulous snorkeling along the rock at the south of the tiny bay, made breakfast with Mar’s giant box of food that we carried in and out of every lodging accommodation we stayed in, then drove into town and arranged a sunset panga ride to Isla Coronado to swim with the sea lions.

Wow! It was just the three of us, and the sea lions were massive, jumping in and all around us. We all had VERY close encounters! For some reason, one of the males did not like me at all, and kept lunging at me, so for the first time I actually was afraid of something in the water and climbed quickly back into the boat!

We got back at dusk, shared a garden hose with a bunch of kids on the street to rinse off, and had dinner in the main plaza of Loreto, built around a lovely old mission lit up at night—so utterly Baja.

But that’s not it! Somehow we had enough energy when we got home to put back on our snorkel gear and do a night snorkel around the point. We left a flashlight on the grass so we could find our way back and Mar and I followed Mark around like guppies (he was the one with the light). We found tons of sea hares, lots of sea urchins, and a few other interesting creatures, but we were hurried out by the guards who were not used to tourists swimming around at night.

Next day it was on to Scorpion Bay in San Juanico, a mecca for surfers that travel the Pacific coast of Baja. This south facing peninsula has seven very good point breaks—plenty of room for Mar and Mark to surf on their own waves all day. The water was chilly but they came back pumped every time. We also had some lovely relaxing evenings that included Mar strumming her guitar and singing beautifully in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and even graciously encouraging me sing along. But after a few days me and Pancha were pretty bored (I don’t surf and Pancha was unimpressed), so we were happy to be back in El Luchador headed east again to the Sea of Cortez side.

After that we arrived in Múlege, delighting in the beauty of Bahia de Concepción. A highlight was wading across the channel at Playa Requesón at sunset with a beer.

We found a cute little Airbnb near the river, but then talk about contrast: suddenly Mar was all hands-on deck for an emergency zoom call for one of the boards she sits on. We laughed as she hunkered down, discussing bankruptcy options with the board, who had no idea she was in the tiny town of Mulege having spent the entire day in a bathing suit. The next day we rallied to see the cave paintings, which I was reluctant to do, not looking forward to an extra bumpy ride and annoying guide. As luck would have it, when we arrived, all the guides were “out sick” that day because they had just had their vaccination shots and didn’t feel well, but I talked the guard into giving me the key to the gate and very vague trail directions. It was a bit of a miracle and definitely a blessing to be all by ourselves in a cave that had been painted by our ancestors 7,000 ago….pretty surreal.

And to top it off, we tiptoed through swarms of butterflies just waking up from their morning nap!

Next was Bahía de los Ángeles. Mark and I have already spent some time here, but it is a hard-to-get to spot, at least 12 hours from the nearest city, so we were excited to finally be back. We got the last room at Los Vientos, had dinner at the palapa bar, and enjoyed the desert views.

I was delighted by the visiting children who approached us, asking Pancha’s name and then telling us jokes: “Que dijo un iguana a otra iguana? Somo iguanitos!” But Mar just sort of growled at the children until they moved away!

The next day Ricardo, our old diving guide, arranged a panga to take us diving and whale shark snorkeling. The best part of Bahía de los Ángeles is that it is so remote you don’t see many tourists or pangas out on the bay—I think we saw maybe four boats all day! So when we spotted the first whale shark (our captain Tony had an amazing eye), it was just the three of us in the water with this massive 25 foot creature!  

Now, we had lots of encounters over the next two days with whale sharks. Let me tell you what NOT to do. Mainly, the rule is, don’t touch the whale shark. Simple, right? Well, strike one was when I was watching Mark swim stroke for stroke with a whale shark, until Mark did something crazy—he reached out and gently grabbed onto the dorsal fin. The whale didn’t flinch, but did start diving slowly downward. I watched in horror as Mark held on and disappeared into the green. I waited at the surface for five long seconds before he surfaced. He was grinning ear to ear with the magical experience of swimming effortlessly into the deep with a whale shark.

So later, Mar wanted to try. Mark said, “Just gently hold onto the fin and see if it will let you hold on, like it did for me.” Mar, who ironically is quite elegant above water, grabbed onto the fin at just the wrong time. We were lucky to have the go-pro capture the whale shark bitch slap her back.

What about me? Well, Santa Michaela didn’t want to break the rules. However, as I was swimming, a second whale shark swam right under me and, to my horror, I noticed it had a bright pink buoy clipped to its fin. My immediate instinct was to free it from that annoying man-made buoy that was obviously placed by obnoxious tourists so they could find her in the bay, right? I reached, unclipped, and in two seconds the entire buoy and line was in my hand and the whale shark was free. But wait—don’t celebrate. Immediately I heard the captain on the other boat yelling. “I told you to tell your guests not to touch that buoy! It’s the researcher’s GPS buoy—they are studying the whale sharks!” Oops. I looked at the buoy and sure enough in big writing was printed CECYTE University.

I apologized and we sheepishly had to bring the buoy back to the dive shop, where the CECYTE scientists were waiting for us (they had followed the GPS!). No one was too upset luckily. Another good lesson for me to ask questions (or just think!) before doing something like that!

During this entire trip Mark was getting up early for his long desert marathon training runs, while Mar, Pancha and I fell into a nice routine of slow mornings. This overachiever woman has a soft side to her, and while she doesn’t leave much unsaid, almost everything she says is interesting, fascinating, and meaningful. She loves psychoanalyzing you, so much that sometimes I had to say, “Ya! No más, Mar.” But she does it in such an endearing way I always end up going back for more.

Another highlight was me leaving those two (they probably spent the evening discussing astrophysics) while I drove up the hill with a bottle of wine to pop in on my old friend Mauro. What a lovely night we spent, reminiscing about 23 years ago when I first visited Bahía with my friend Paola, the very trip when her daughter Isabella became a possibility. There was something comforting and peaceful hanging out with Mauro, an old hippie who somehow managed to find a place locked in time, safe from growth and development. His fully sustainable posada hosts guests who trade work for lodging—no money is exchanged. And his view from the top of the hill hasn’t changed. Bahia is still the tiny remove natural wonder it was when I first visited it. Same with Mauro–his face is weathered but his heart is still young and his smile is deep.

As I drove back down the hill, I realized that these moments, when I get to reconnect with someone I met a long time ago, are still sort of novel to me. At 47, I’m just now beginning to be in a place where I can meet someone again twenty years later who I knew well when I was fully an adult. For awhile, what I thought of as “long term” relationships were friends and family I knew as a child. But now, as I age, the relationships from twenty years ago are ones I formed as an adult, and because of that, they have a more intense, rich texture. Hard to describe, but maybe you know what I mean.

We spent our last night in San Felipe. We were not expecting much in that town, but we were still disappointed when we arrived. However, the afternoon served as a glimpse into Mar’s own interesting psyche. So, Mar can be psychotically frugal at odd moments. From almost any perspective, one would say that Mar is wealthy—or at least very comfortable. But she also came from Argentina, growing up watching her national currency constantly devalue. Thus, the cognitive dissonance. So we watched in horror/amusement on that afternoon as two things unfurled: 1) the stock market dipped that morning and her portfolio was just slightly down, and 2) we didn’t have an accommodation and agreed to let her choose where we would stay. These two events caused us to be driving around San Felipe with a mad woman who was determined to find us accommodations as close to free as possible. She climbed the fence of an abandoned property and suggested we stay there. She flagged down a gardener at another house and asked if we could rent a room from him. He was mystified at her request. Finally, it grew dark and we grew hungry, so we had to force her to agree to stay at a medium priced hotel. But after we paid for our double room, she tried to convince the manager to let her stay in an adjacent room of the hotel for free. It was like she had turned into someone else! And honestly, I’m not sure she put two and two together that perhaps her behavior was slightly driven by the direction of her portfolio that morning.

Luckily, after a night’s rest, the next morning Mar had transformed back into a normal human being. Almost home, just hours away from Rosarito, back to the Pacific Ocean, we had our first flat tire. Mark was a hero and changed it himself, although a friendly truck driver stopped to lend us his jack. I’m not sure if Mar standing on the side of the road helped us or hurt us—the truck driver did stop, but about 20 other cars just slowed down and stared at her, nearly running Mark over several times!

We spent the last few days of the trip back at our place in Rosarito where Mar’s husband was waiting for us, and had three days of surfing, wine tasting, and horseback riding at the ranch for me!

Reflecting, I was really surprised how well we all got along, especially two alphas like me and Mar cooped up in a truck for 10 days. I’ve never quite met anyone like her….she’s so smart and competent that it was easier for me to sit back and let her have the reins (Mark will laugh here because he doesn’t believe I ever let go of control, but hey, for me it was progress!), but she is also very emotionally intelligent and sensitive in order to anticipate the needs of others around her. Plus, she and Mark share this passion for discussion, and I truly enjoyed watching Mark run all his ideas by her (and vice versa). So, who would have guessed I would have liked this Esposa Buena so much!?

El Cuyo

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies…well, it sort of is. A few months later I was back on the other side of Mexico, this time on the Gulf of Mexico north of Cancun, visiting Heather and Marco in their El Cuyo tropical oasis. They had recently “escaped” from Tulum and built Casa Mia, a lovely boutique hotel with four rooms and a rooftop apartment with 360-degree view overlooking the gulf on one side and the lagoon on the other. Spending time with Heather is always good for me. Of all my hippie friends, she cracks me up because deep down there is a capitalistic businesswoman inside of her. Thus, she is constantly battling her conflicting drives: be in nature! But wait, build a business! But wait, save the world from plastic! Most of the time this means she is running around like a chicken with her head cut off (in a good way!). She’s a little bit nuts, but I always enjoy the desmadre of Heather! This time she asked if I could help her with something while I was there. Sure, anything. “Me and Marco need marriage counseling.” Well, my answer should have been a firm no, but you know me. How could I resist?

Well, the marriage counseling went surprisingly well. In many ways I could see things from both their perspectives: because I’m half Italian I can relate to Marco’s personality and motivations, but as Heather’s very good friend, I completely empathize with her, and see a lot of, shall we say “issues,” that Marco needs to work on.

A couple anecdotes to illustrate. Even though he’s in love with an American girl, he also has a strong aversion toward American life. Example: one morning he wanted us to ride around town on bikes with the dogs trailing us. This drives Heather nuts because the dogs wake up every sleeping dog in town as we pass by, so it’s a cacophony of barking, along with the occasional almost-fight, as well as dogs darting in front of cars. But Marco loves the show, sort of like a parade led by Prince Marco and followed by his harem of girls and dogs. As he rides his bike, he just contributes to the noise by yelling out to neighbors and friends as we pass by. Meanwhile, Heather and I are trailing him, corralling the dogs and doing damage control. When Marco wants to stop by to say hello to a friend, he doesn’t get off his bike and knock on the door. He just yells from the street, and beckons them to come to him. We soon realized that HIS bike was functioning perfectly, while the bikes he gave us were super low on air. I asked him multiple times to find a pump for the bikes, but he just scoffed, as if we were lazy. “It’s just 500 meters, you can do it.” Of course the plan changed, and we ended up riding 3 miles on tires with no air. Finally, as we stopped and chatted with one of Marco’s friends (Marco called to him from the street and he obligingly came outside to talk), I asked if he had a bike bump, which he did. So as Marco chatted, I pumped up the first three tires. The last tire was near Marco’s leg, so I handed him the pump and said, “You do that one.” He made a big show and said, “You Americans! You don’t even know how to pump up a bike tire! You don’t like to work and use your muscles!” I was about to lose my shit, but then saw the humor in it as he struggled with the bike pump and couldn’t figure out how to attach it to the tire! I grabbed it from him and did the last tire. He’s so frustrating, but at the same time, he cracks me up!

Another story: we were returning from the kayak tour with two Americans, a German and Marco in the car. We started discussing the merits of each country. Cue Marco: “Watch out everyone, just you wait. Italy is taking over the world, someday soon everyone will be speaking Italian. You know, Italy WON the Olympics last year!” We all shouted, “WHAT are you talking about? The US and China demolished Italy in the Olympics.” He said, “We won the 100 meters–that’s the main event!” We all shook our heads, laughing and seething at the same time.

So as a “fairly” neutral mediator, I didn’t actually take sides, and tried to just facilitate communication. Ha! That’s not easy between those two, and we ventured into treacherous waters, but made it out fairly unscathed. Of course these sessions took place in the casual environment of long, slow dinners (both of them are great cooks), plenty of wine and lots of dogs under our feet, so it was quite pleasant! When I left, no resolutions for the big decisions had been made, but both of them told me they feel surprisingly better about their relationship. Who knows….they may kill each other someday, or they may outlast us all. Hard to say!

Between “therapy” sessions they showed me around el Cuyo, including the highlight, a sunset kayak through the lagoon nature reserve. Our naturalist guide Jesus was a fellow birder, and I was amazed as he pointed out at least half a dozen new birds to me, including awesome sightings of Snail Kites (perched just above our kayaks in the mangrove), a Purple Gallinule, an adorable Least Grebe, and so many herons and ibises! Just being out on the lagoon at sunset by ourselves was so beautiful. Since then I’ve stayed in touch with Jesus and sometimes I send him recordings of birds to ask help identifying. He always knows what bird it is—amazing! 

Chaturangas

In between these trips I snuck off twice for weekends with my Chaturangas, my bestie yoga friends from Rosarito: once in Guanajuato for a lovely weekend of catching up, and later in Sayulita, a beach town on the west coast of Mexico.

This was the first time we had been together since Gaby’s husband Salbador passed away, so the mood was somber and we all were mourning Sal’s palpable absence. It’s still so hard to believe he’s gone, but it was nice to remember wonderful times we all had together. In fact, being in San Miguel de Allende reminded Gaby of a story: they had made a day trip there a few years ago, and while Gaby hustled around seeing the sights, Sal relaxed on a bench and started chatting with a priest. The priest told him about a lovely hotel, so when Gaby came back he had arranged a romantic evening with flowers and dinner in a fancy suite (and she said Sal pretended he was the cousin of the priest so they could get a good deal!).

It was so good to spend time with Gaby and distract her from it all for a little while. We spent most of the time just hanging out and admiring the gorgeous views of San Miguel de Allende from the lovely terrace of Doug and Ceci’s rental house.

I told them I was planning to be a carnivore for the weekend, in their honor, and they took that very seriously. Some of the tacos they made me eat were from animal body parts I had never heard of, and by the end of the trip, I literally had a meat hangover. But, oh, so delicious! We also drank plenty of chelas (we were constantly back and forth to the corner store, dropping off and picking up caguama bottles), wine and tequila. We laughed about how we used to yoga and work out together, and just poured more wine.

About six months later we met again in Sayulita, a surf town 20 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, where Ceci and her husband just bought a condo. This trip was more celebratory and joyous, as Gaby is healing (slowly) and Ceci and Doug are feeling more settled and comfortable in their new home. Gaby insisted on stocking the kitchen and cooking nonstop, but we enjoyed all the delicious food and Ceci did an excellent job just letting Gaby fuss over us. We went hiking in the jungle of MalPaso and spent an afternoon in San Pancho, shopping and eating.

When we got back, Ceci and Doug settled in to watch the Superbowl while Gaby and I walked the beach at sunset looking for her Muslim Man (which is what I thought she meant when I heard “musulmán,” which means Muslim in Spanish). So I was very confused until her Muscle Man walked by! The language barrier is still very real between me and my girls, and it’s hilarious!

Gaby surreptitiously took this photo–it wasn’t obvious at all, ha! (Apparently she’s a bit of a stalker. She also showed me a photo of him from three months ago, the last time she had visited Ceci!)

We also found a very casual mariachi who we convinced to let us sing (if we paid him) and he handed over the microphone. As we sang, beach goers oddly started picking up their towels and moving away—probably in awe of our magnificent voices.

I’m going to show mercy on your ears and not share the videos.

Mexico City

Because getting back and forth to Cozumel requires a stop-over, in between each of these adventures I got to spend a night in Mexico City. Oh my goodness–I fell headfirst into a cloud of nostalgia, reminiscing about my wild days as a nineteen year old living abroad for the first time. I visited Colónia Coyoacan where I used to hang out, hunted down the bar where I worked, took the metro again for old time’s sake, wandered through museums in Chapultepec Park, and overall, I just inhaled the familiar smells.

A tip from a taxi driver helped me find my way to the Frida Khalo immersion exhibit.

And here I am under a bridge, re-living my death metal days. I’m sure I totally blended in with my pink overalls and my Hello Kitty face mask!

Sailing with Maggie

And then last month I got an opportunity for another incredible adventure. I was invited as “crew” to help a captain and my good friend Maggie sail the “Costa Alegre” from Puerto Vallarta all the way to Barra de Navidad, just outside of Manzanillo.

Let me tell you about Maggie. It was only a year ago I met her at the horse ranch in Rosarito. I was headed down the road on Levi, riding solo for the first time, pretty nervous, and she popped her head out of her cabin and waved at me. She looked surprised, but smiley, as I wandered off all alone on Levi, a horse that she knew quite well. Turns out she had been living in that little cabin at the ranch all during Covid, and a few weeks later I properly met her as we set off together for a two-hour ride with the ranch hands. We talked the whole time and were sort of insta-friends (this is how people became friends in the old days, before Instagram). It was pretty funny, all the things we had in common. She and I both ran track, we had both lived on the same street in Pacific Beach, we both spent a lot of time in Oahu, we both loved horses, sailing, and…..rollerblading! Well, once I saw her rollerblade, I realized I was a bit out of my league, but still!

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There is not really one word that defines Maggie, but she definitely loves adventure. She lives part-time on her sailboat in La Paz and moves around a lot from one adventure to the next. We spent the next few months riding together (our horses Levi and Luna are a perfect match) and it was a such a dream to saddle up and take off up in the hills, just the two of us, knowing we could count on each other and our horses. So much freedom!

The one thing she hadn’t tried yet was scuba diving, but we fixed that a few months later when she visited us in Cozumel and got certified. Turns out she is a natural—on her first dive she was comfortably swimming with turtles and conserving her air like a pro!

Next it was time to visit her in La Paz, which Mark and I did on our Baja road trip with Mar. The night before we drove off, she paddled us all out to the Om, her little sailboat, and we had a lovely evening motoring around the bay, floating on paddleboards, drinking mezcal and eating peanuts and jalapeno chips.

So when she told me about her opportunity to sail on a catamaran for 10 days, I was like, “Ask if I can come!” We got the green light, I packed my bags, and a few days later I had provisioned the boat and was waiting for Maggie and Captain Jeff to come aboard. And whoa, what a boat it was!

Captain Jeff and Sea Larks

We navigated for 10 days, stopping along the way every night in beautiful anchorages. But the best moment occurred just one hour into the trip. We were sailing through the Bay of Banderas, and almost as soon as we left the marina we started spotting whales. It was humpback season and every five minutes we spotted another mother/calf pair. These guys were huge, up to 50 feet long, and Maggie and I were squealing as they spouted air, flapped their tails, or occasionally jump up and breached.

Right away I was trying to figure out how I could swim with them, but they didn’t stay on the surface very long. Finally, we spotted a mother and calf from a long distance, and it appeared they were just floating on the surface, not swimming or moving too much. This was my chance. I asked the captain, who I had just met, how he felt about me jumping in and snorkeling with the whales. He was caught off-guard. “What? You want to swim with them?” Truth be told, this wasn’t my first time chasing whales, but I have never successfully reached them in the water. Every time I’ve jumped off a boat, the whale dives down. But this mother/calf pair seemed super chill. Perhaps this was my moment?

I was also a little concerned about how well the captain could retrieve me after my swim….we were still in the bay but WAY out, and there were waves and open ocean all around us. While he was thinking about it, I ran below and got my rash guard, mask and fins. Then I just kept asking him, “Now? Can I jump in now?” And eventually he said, “Ok.” That was all I needed. Splash! I swam my little heart out, assuming the whales would swim away, but they didn’t! The visibility was terrible, so it wasn’t until I was a few feet away that I could see her. Suddenly, I was eye to eye with the baby, who was HUGE. She lifted her pectoral fin up towards me and almost touched my fin. Then she moved a bit and I lost her in the green water. But we had a moment! My first moment eye to eye with a whale! It was thrilling. And also, so fleeting! Instantly I wished I could have had the presence to be more calm so I could absorb the moment better. Nevertheless, I was PUMPED as I swam back to the boat, and the captain retrieved me like a pro, thank goodness.

After that, Maggie had a chance to do the same thing, this time as we were at anchor. Another whale pair happened to pop up right near our boat! Just like me, she was screaming with delight. The next morning the Captain said, “You know, I was thinking about that, and I don’t think we should do that again.” I smiled, grateful for my moment, knowing how rare it was!

Going to sleep that night, with ten days still ahead of us, I was grinning ear to ear. And this trip confirmed what I already know: being on a boat is simply the best! For one, you are busy all day from morning to night, but nothing feels like work. It’s all very useful, productive little tasks and most of them are simple ones like putting food on the table, a drink in your hand, and good music in your ears.

We played hard every day, from paddleboarding to snorkeling to sailing to swimming to diving to surfing to running to yoga to wakeboarding. The captain was a good teacher, and I learned more about driving the boat, navigating with the electronic charts, and anchoring. Docking, not so much. Each time we brought the 50 foot vessel to dock was STRESSFUL and we only hit the dock once! (Oops. The captain kept his cool though. He gave us headsets to wear, which were wonderful! No more yelling—headsets are definitely a must!).

You never know when something incredible is going to happen. Like one afternoon, after a six hour navigation, we were just rounding the corner to enter Ipala Bay. The Captain had me out on the bow to keep an eye out for shallow reef. Suddenly there were rocks everywhere–but they were moving! I screamed out: “Mobulas!” Not quite, but close. The Captain went into neutral and we all watched in amazement as a school of one thousand Golden Cow-Nosed Rays swam under us. In thirty seconds they were gone and we all blinked, wondering if it really happened.

Some Highlights

On the third day we arrived in Punta Pérula, the north end of Chamela Bay, and the three of us paddled/kayaked onto shore to grab a drink at sunset. The bar was closing but they kindly left us a bucket of beer, and we sat by ourselves on the beach until another couple wandered up the beach. They also got a bucket of beer and sat a few tables down. We asked where they were from, and the man said, “Guadalajara.” Then, slowly, he stood up, and sang in the most beautiful tenor voice ever the song called Guadalajara. Wow. We were blown away. Then he shifted into an Italian song Costa Bella, and we were mesmerized. What a treat to have a personal impromptu concert when we were least expecting it.

We spent two nights in Tenacatita, a little bay just north of Manzanillo, where we got to study the local native species: cruisers. The bay had more than 30 vessels anchored when we arrived, many on the deck, waving warmly as we pulled in and dropped anchor. A lot of them spent a good part of the winter season there, as it had good holding, a lovely long beach to walk or run your dogs, and one perfect palapa beach bar where all your problems can be solved. As I paddled by a ketch from Oregon, the friendly captain (who later offered to fill up our scuba tanks with his onboard compressor) told me to come to the beach in the afternoon for bocce ball. I said, “Oh, is that every Wednesday?” He said, “It’s every day. Welcome to Camp Tenacatita!” Sure enough, by noon the beach was lined with dozens of dinghies, and the bocce ball/picnic/party was in full swing by the time we got to shore.

I met lots of interesting people there, like Greg, the captain of Scout. He’s an ASA sailing instructor in Santa Monica in the summer, and has spent every winter down here in Mexico for twenty years. Another charming sailor I met was Honeybee, a Brit who has been crew for various vessels (including Greg’s) for over a decade. She hops on different boats when they need crew, and it’s clear that she truly, truly loves being on a boat. She regaled me with her story of crossing to the South Pacific: 24 days from Puerto Vallarta to Marquesas on a 38 foot mono hull. She loved it, and said that at the moment they saw the island after 24 days at sea, while admitting the giant green mountains were beautiful, there was a part of her that felt so bittersweet and sad to be back to land. She said those days on the crossing were “timeless” and time sort of stops during a sea crossing, which she loved. It definitely inspired me and I may have got the bug….is there a chance that someday I’ll do that?! It’s scary to even think about, but just maybe!

Another memorable afternoon in Tenacatita was taking the dinghy up the river estuary. We loaded it up with ice, wine and Painkillas, then cruised around the anchorage for a few laps, asking tips. Everyone said the higher the tide, the easier, so we stalled for a bit, and around 5:30pm we made it into the dicey cut with a breaking wave just at our stern. Ah! Exciting! But then we were in, and it was like a magical jungle cruise. Maggie compared it to the Amazon (I don’t think she’s been there yet, ha!) but it was very cool to cruise down the river, in a tunnel of trees that completely covered us at times. We spotted lots of birds including night herons, snowy egrets and kingfishers. No caiman spottings, but a lovely evening nonetheless. We got back to the cut just before dark, narrowly making it out through a pause in the waves.

Careyes

An unexpected lovely anchorage was at Careyes, a little town built into the cliffs, adorned with three tiny bays. I loved looking up at the bright colorful little cottages built into the cliffs, and the three bays were perfect for snorkeling (lots of green hard coral) and paddleboarding. As a bonus, there was a gorgeous beach club that offered day use for $20, and we had the most heavenly Sunday afternoon there. We stayed on shore til sunset, and as we paddled back in the dark we realized the sea was full of bioluminescence under our paddles! Then we watched the dramatic full moon rise over the cliffs. Wow.

Maggie and I got along so well. It helps that she is super easy going, a nice complement to my “alpha”-style. But I also appreciate her optimism, energy and sense of adventure—she’s basically up for anything and nothing is too hard to figure out. For example, when we got a messenger line mixed up on the halyard, the captain asked Maggie if she would be comfortable getting hoisted up a 70 foot mast, while underway in 20 knot winds, to undo it. She said, “Sure.” And she did it like a pro, up there for almost 20 minutes!

That tiny black dot at the top is Maggie!

We went diving a couple times, but the highlight was our “solo” dive–just me and Maggie on a remote reef. In the outer anchorage of Tenacatita, we noticed a dive site on the chart. So we put on our tanks and did a surface swim from the big boat (that was dumb….we had to swim for 30 minutes, next time we’ll take the dinghy!). When we reached the rocky outcropping we dropped down, with no idea what we’d find! We tried to navigate through the cut to the exposed side, but the surge was too strong, so we hugged the bottom and crawled our way back around. We found some cool stuff including a couple Tiger Snake Eels and sparkly juvenile damselfish. And Maggie spotted her first Nudi!

Sedna Nudibranch

As we approached the other exposed side of the rock, there was a lot more life, including larger schools of fish, and it was SOOO tempting to swim around and see what the current might bring, but I controlled myself and led us back to the protected reef. On the way back we enjoyed the lovely green and pink hard coral, along with some wispy black soft coral, plus adorable blennies, and lots of interesting types of urchins. When we were ready to surface, I navigated across the sand in hopes of getting us closer to the big boat, and when we popped up we were right where I thought we were! Yay for underwater navigation–my instructor from 12 years ago can finally feel good about signing off on that skill for me, ha ha!

Maggie was PUMPED when we surfaced, and we both did a bit of screaming and giggling for awhile. She reminded me that it felt a lot like when we rode horses together up in the hills, just the two of us. Having each other to count on has allowed us to roam wherever we want in nature–either in an underwater universe with scuba tanks on our back, or up and down dusty hills on horseback. This is the ultimate freedom, and I honestly never imagined I would have this. That night as I lay in my cabin, I could feel my little heart glowing with gratitude.


As always, I sure am grateful for new friends and old ones, and lots of adventures with all of them. What a happy girl I’ve been lately!

Then again, it doesn’t take much to make me happy!
 
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Posted by on March 18, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Egypt and Jordan

In April we spent three weeks in Egypt and Jordan. The trip was chock full of experiences that we will never forget, like climbing down into the belly of a 4,000-year-old pyramid, entering the tomb of Tutankhamen to see his preserved mummy still lying there, and drinking sundowners on the deck while cruising down the Nile. The history of Ancient Egypt is incredible, and we learned a lot. But my overwhelming impression that remains has to do with the people—four in particular. Sabry, our guide in Cairo, Hussein, our guide in Upper Egypt, Ali, a friend-of-a-friend we got to meet for dinner one night, and Omran, our driver in Jordan. Let me tell you about each one.

Sabry

From left to right: Sabry, Mark, Michaela, and Nick (Mark’s little brother).

Sabry is a young, modest Egyptologist, a title which, by the way, requires an intense university degree in Egyptology studying under the master professors and archaeologists of Egypt.  He mentioned that the exams are incredibly difficult. For example, the professor would take him to the Egyptian Museum, which holds hundreds of thousands of artifacts, and point to anything and say, “Tell me all about this.” And Sabry knew everything. Unlike other historical periods, Egyptian history spans 6,000 years. Compare that to someone who claims he is a Civil War expert or specializes in the Victorian period.

Sabry also is an expert on modern Egyptian history and spent one of the days giving us the Islamic Tour of Cairo, which included some very old mosques and lots of contextual information that helped give us a better of understanding of how Islam came to Egypt and how it is reflected in contemporary society. (In the scheme of things, Islam is relatively “new” to Egypt, only having arrived in 600 AD, while the earliest ancient religion there dates back to 3000 BC.)

Sabry is a devout Muslim, like the vast majority of Egyptians. We have travelled to Muslim countries before, but never have we seen such earnest followers as in Egypt. Partly this was because we were visiting Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan. As Sabry explained, there are five pillars of Islam: 1) to believe that Mohammed was the last prophet of God Allah, 2) to pray five times a day 3) to give charity to those in need 4) to fast during Ramadan and 5) if you have the means, to make the Haj visit to Mecca in Saudi Arabia once in your life.

We got to see most of these pillars up close and personal. For example, the call to prayer really does happen five times a day.  Wherever you are in Egypt, you will hear the muezzin (crier) who climbs to the top of every single mosque’s minaret and sings the call for prayer through loudspeakers. We even saw pedestrians stop, and cars pull over, in order to lay down a mat on the sidewalk to pray during these calls.

While we visited the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As in Cairo, this Imam sang a prayer for us.

It was interesting that each day the five calls varied by just a few minutes (based on the day of the year). Our guide explained the intricate rules about prayer, such as you must wash before each prayer unless you have not gone to the bathroom or touched anyone since your last prayer. Also, if you miss a prayer call, it is fine, but you have to make it up later in the day. During a call to prayer, sometimes our guides would invite us to spend time on our own at the temple or ruins, while they retired to the shade or a prayer room to pray.

The fasting in Ramadan was also heavily observed. During an entire month families wake up at 3:30am to eat a large meal together before sunrise, and then no one eats or drinks anything until sunset, which was around 7pm. I had expected, like Lent in the US, there would be some observers, but not all. That was not the case. Everyone we met was observing the fast—I mean everybody. This means that the country shuts down a bit during the day because everyone is so exhausted, thirsty, and hungry. Many people don’t go to work during Ramadan, and most shops and restaurants are closed during the day. At night, though, things come back to life! There is another custom after sunset: if you see someone walking on the street, you offer them food to “hold them over” on their way home, because surely they must be hungry and thirsty after fasting all day. We saw this even in busy Cairo; people were distributing little packages of meals to passersby, or handing them through the windows of buses to commuters on their way back to their villages.

Charity and kindness abounded, even though Egypt is a poor country with a GDP of about 80% less than the US.  The poverty is striking, even for us coming from Mexico, which is actually four times as prosperous as Egypt.  It was clear that the Covid pandemic has wreaked havoc in this country, and Sabry’s job in tourism has been pretty much non-existent for over a year. He was grateful to be finally working as a guide again, and he said his family was very happy that he was bringing home some cash. Needless to say, the government did not offer PPP loans and unemployment checks during the pandemic. Sabry said that most of the population was just getting by on sustenance farming and charity.

We were super grateful to have Sabry help start our trip with a wonderful vibe and a perfect introduction to Cairo and Islam. He was also kind enough to teach us basic Arabic phrases that lead to lots of laughter, like when I said, “Ya la, habibi” to our driver, which meant, “Let’s go, my love!”

Sabry on our last day, at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

Hussein

Our driver Mamdouh, Nick, Michaela, Hussein, and Mark.

We flew south a few days later and met our new guide, Hussein, in Upper Egypt (note that the Nile flows south to north, so southern Egypt is referred to as Upper Egypt because it is up-river). Hussein is another Egyptologist, born in Luxor (his family house was later torn down because the Avenue of the Sphinxes was discovered below it), and educated in Cairo. With many years of experience, Hussein knew every inch of the archaeological sites between Aswan and Luxor, which is an incredible feat when you realize how much there is: hundreds of pharaohs, thousands of carvings, dozens of royal tombs, temples, etc., all spanning thousands of years. He could look at an engraving and tell you if it was Greek, Roman, or (even more challenging) pinpoint the specific Egyptian Pharaoh who commissioned the work over the span of three thousand years. He could recognize any of the gods depicted in the paintings and explain what each god was doing and how it related to the Pharaoh in power.

Now after the excitement of arriving in Egypt wore off, I must admit I sometimes lost a little interest in Hussein’s talks. While Mark’s brother Nick, aka “the professor,” listened with bated breath, I would sometimes zone out, wonder if we might walk towards the shade, or contemplate when lunch might be. But I think Hussein made it his personal goal to engage me, and would frequently shout excitedly, “Michaela, look here at this carving! Look at the gender. This shows he was a powerful pharaoh.” Yes, gender means what you think it means. He also enjoyed pointing out carvings of women squatting down giving birth: “Mark, in these days you didn’t have to waste your money by taking your wife to the hospital. Michaela, see here how the Egyptian women gave birth—this would be you!” If I strayed too far away from him, he would call these things out loudly across the temple, and I would blush!

Perhaps Hussein’s only weakness was that enjoyed hearing his own voice, and if he couldn’t think of something useful to add (which he usually could), he would say something super obvious just to keep the narrative going. For example, as we trotted through Edfu by horse carriage, Captain Obvious pointed out a bakery that was making Ramadan sweets. He pointed out to me, “Michaela, look what they are making! These are delicious treats, and you eat them like this…” at which point he made the gesture of putting his hand to his mouth. Ah, so that’s how they eat them!

Hussein taking the reins in Edfu.

He was a proud father of four children and boasted about his daughter who was at university in Aswan studying engineering. He explained that in the household everyone called him Abu Yousef, which means “Father of Yousef,” his eldest male child. He noted that his daughter is actually his eldest child, and she was very frustrated when her younger brother was born because his name usurped her own!

Sidenote: there is an interesting little side story about the word “Abu.” As mentioned, it means father, and the famous temple called Abu Simbel literally means “the Father of Simbel.” This confused me because I knew the temple was built to honor the powerful pharaoh Ramesses the Great and his beautiful wife Nefertari. But Hussein explained that back in 1813 while this incredible temple was discovered and excavated by the Italian archaeologist Belzoni, he was befriended by a small boy named Simbel who became his constant little helper. So all the locals referred to Belzoni as “Simbel’s father” or “Abu Simbel” since he was never seen without Simbel by his side. Hence, the most famous and probably most spectacular temple ever discovered is named for a small Egyptian boy who helped excavate it! Cute, no?

Here Mark poses in front of the spectacular temple of Abu Simbel, which was actually dismantled and reassembled a few hundred feet away in 1964 to save it from the rising waters of Nile, due to the construction of the Aswan dam. Incredible!

Ali

Unlike the guides who are extremely educated but come from humble backgrounds, it was a fascinating to spend time with Ali, who was born into an upper-class family in Cairo. A good friend sent word to Ali that we would be visiting, and he graciously reached out to us with lots of advice to plan our trip and then invited us to share a meal out on Zamalek island. Like everyone, Ali was observing Ramadan, so we met at 9pm. He was kind enough to call ahead to find out if the restaurant would serve wine (which they did for me, a foreigner) but of course Ali doesn’t drink.

His story fascinated us. Although he has spent a lot of time outside of Egypt, he is clearly tied by blood and pride to his country. Born and raised in Cairo, as a young adult he was sent to study abroad. In his 20s he was living in Malaysia during the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, known in the west as the Arab Spring.  Ali was following the news minute by minute as things escalated. Suddenly there was a news blackout in Cairo, but from Malaysia he could still get news and share it via WhatsApp and Facebook with his friends. For a week he helped share the news and spread the word until he could not stand back any longer, so he flew to Cairo to be part of the revolution. He protested in the streets, risked his life, and ran from bullets. He shared a few incredible stories about the people he marched with. One older working-class man protected him once when the government was shooting at protestors. He told Ali, “We are grateful that you young people, especially from the upper class, are here fighting on our behalf. Without you we would not be listened to. But you need to be safe. Run, now, I’ll stay here, but you need to be safe. Your generation is our future.”

Later we asked Ali how he felt about the current state of Egypt. What we noticed was his thoughtful consideration of the question. Now in his 30s, a father and a husband, he says he has learned that there are no easy solutions. “What we wanted the government to do may not have been possible, but what they are doing now is not that bad.” Basically, he says he has changed many of his beliefs about the “best way” for Egypt to move forward. We all appreciated his openness to changing his opinions, especially after being such a fervent participant in the revolution. Bottom line is, he wants the best for Egypt, and came back to live and work and Egypt even though he could live and work anywhere in the world. He loves his country and his people, and that was very moving.

Omran

Omran and us

I’ve saved the best for last. Omran is a character. And a half. Unlike the other three people I’ve mentioned, Omran is in a class of his own. He has his own business in Jordan as a driver (he emphasizes he is NOT a guide, just a humble driver). He has owned a fleet of cars and does tours around Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria (though not anymore). Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, he moved around growing up from Abu Dhabi to Saudi Arabia and eventually settled as an adult in Amman, Jordan. A natural businessman and entrepreneur, Omran spent the three days explaining the way life worked in Jordan. To him everything is about making money. Every story he told us was from the angle of how to profit, which (actually) endeared him to us!

For example, there was the fascinating blow-by-blow explanation of how he purchased his fleet of cars in Jordan. Before the pandemic he had nearly 20 luxury vehicles, which he purchased in a unique way. First of all, he only buys American cars with salvage titles. He pays to ship these cars all the way to Jordan. When they arrive, they remain in the Jordan Free Zone (Duty Free) where he totally revamps each one (sending mechanics, doing bodywork, replacing upholstery), and then brings them into Jordan without paying taxes on all the upgrades he invested in. Pretty labor-intensive, but a cool trick, huh?

Last June when he sensed the pandemic was going to wipe out tourism for the long haul, he sold his entire fleet of vehicles. Again, very savvy. But he is ready at any moment to pivot and buy a whole new fleet as soon as tourism comes back. I asked him how long that would take. He said he could have 12 cars again within a week.

Here’s another example of his clever business mind: realizing that his clients get referred to him by others and prefer to have him personally guide them, he was sending his drivers to pick up guests and all of them said their name was “Omran.” But eventually he got busted because some of them shared photos with each other. I asked if it was awkward, but he said, “They laughed because they know how I am—they get it!”

During the Iraq war he made good money driving BBC journalists to Bagdad from Amman. Does he have any stories? Oh yes—but guess what the topic is? “Everything in Iraq is cheap, I mean really cheap. For example, I drove a GMC truck over there, 8 cylinders, and guess how much it cost to fill it with gas? 1 Jordanian dollar! Actually less, I paid a Jordanian dollar and I was tipping 50%!”

He was also vigilant about saving us money while we were travelling with him. As soon as he picked us up, he chastised me for not purchasing the Jordan Pass, which would have saved us $20 each at the airport on our visas. I told him I forgot and he looked at me, shook his head with near disgust, and kept repeating, “But I told you!” It took him a good twenty minutes to get over that.

An avid photographer, many years ago he took a photo of a unique landscape of a windy road that was shared online on a partner’s tourism website. Someone in the UK called the agency, asking where the photo was taken. The agency asked Omran where, but he said, “I want to talk to the guy in the UK.”

The guy called him directly and Omran said he could take him there. The guy said, “Ok, I am trusting you to take me there, but if you are lying, you have to reimburse me my entire trip cost from the UK.” Omran said fine.

He picked up the guy and his girlfriend from Amman airport, with a ton of photography equipment. He drove them to the spot three hours away, and when they arrived the guy smiled, this was the spot. But he asked, “Omran, how did you get that shot? The light is so different.” Omran said, “Pay me the money now and I’ll show you how.” The guy laughed and paid him. Omran pulled out camping gear and all this food he had packed, and said, “Tonight we are going to sleep in that cave down there, and at sunrise you will get the photo you want.” He said the guy was like a giggling teenager and loved the whole camping experience. His girlfriend not so much.

At dawn Omran woke him up and he took his photos. Months later the photo won an international photo award and is featured in a gallery now. The guy sent Omran another $500 out of gratitude. Omran sent him another message: “I have something for you.” Omran had taken a beautiful shot that morning of the photographer setting up his shot. But he put a watermark on the photo. The photographer said, “I want that photo! How much to take off the watermark?” Omran said, “Not for sale!” The whole time laughing as he told this story.

After telling us this story, Omran took us to the very spot to try our own photography skills.

After a day or two of getting to know each other, Omran made sure that the only topic we discussed was how to help him make more money. He gave us detailed instructions at each site he dropped us off: “Ok, first go to the Treasury, and with the Treasury in the background, please make a video explaining where you are, mentioning the name of my company and the date, so that I get more hits on YouTube.” He also asked me to keep “notes” during the trip of things I would say in the TripAdvisor review that we would write when we got home. This TripAdvisor review was the holy grail to him, and everything was dependent on us writing a perfect review. After each excursion he reviewed the videos I took and gave helpful feedback, like “Speak louder Michaela” and “Mark, wear your mask so they know this is during Covid.” It was hilarious that he was giving us orders, in a kind, but efficient way!

He also graciously offered us lot of tips for our own Airbnb business back home. Omran didn’t ask too many questions (he was usually on send mode). We humored him, so he never found out how business savvy Mark actually is—ha ha! Omran suggested we create an FAQ forum for our prospective guests to ask questions and emphasized that when we answered the question it should be very CLEAR and detailed. He was not happy that we relied on a booking agency (Airbnb) and encouraged us to try to generate all our bookings from our own private website to avoid paying commissions. He also said, “People like free things. So if you can give them a small gift when they arrive, they love that.” Actually, Mark leaves two books out as gifts for each guest (partly as a way to share our messages about kindness and effective altruism) and Omran nodded approvingly.

Finally, after we really got to know him, he said, “Listen, when you go back, please keep an eye out for a new wife for me. I’m looking for someone who is relaxed, likes to cook, likes to stay home. She doesn’t even have to be Muslim. But please if you find someone, send her to me.”

He also talked about his kids. His words were thoughtful, “Look, I’m clear with them. We are honest, we are friends. I don’t ask them to be anything except honest to me. They can tell me anything, I tell them anything. But they need to respect their mother, who they live with. When they come to visit me, even though my apartment is nice and I cook them good food, I tell them, ‘When you go back to your mom, tell them the food is terrible here, the apartment is no good. Because they need to respect their mother.’”

His children are all educated, and one of them is a famous hairdresser for her royal highness (yes, the Queen of Jordan). Another is a TV journalist, and it sounds like she gets herself into a bit of trouble by asking parliament leaders uncomfortable questions. He is very proud of her. He said one day they were at the shopping mall, and a young man walked by and dropped his phone number on a piece of paper near her seat. Omran said he sat back, curious to see what she would do. She got up and chased him, saying “You dropped this. This is not mine. This is yours!” Omran laughed.

On our last day we asked him to take us to the Dead Sea for lunch on the way to the airport. As we drove there, he negotiated on the phone with many hotels and tour operators until he found the best deal for us. Lunch, use of the hotel pool, access to the sea, and a mud bath, all for $15 JOD (about $21 USD). He decided to accompany us for this excursion because he was afraid the hotel would renege on the deal, so he said, “Don’t pay anybody anything, I’ll pay for it and you pay me later.” It was nice to have him there as a “fixer” that afternoon.

And yes, Omran is Palestinian and had a lot of say about the neighboring nation, which he corrected us when we referred to it as Israel.  “Over there? That is Occupied Palestine.” As we drove along the Dead Sea, Israel was just a few miles away, and our cell phones jumped from Israeli to Jordanian carriers.  Although the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is complicated and ugly, Omran seemed to keep an open mind about the situation. Before the pandemic he even arranged tours to Israel, dropping his clients at the border, connecting them with a team member that would guide them around Jerusalem for the day, and then collecting them at the border that night.

“I wouldn’t want to live in Israel, it’s way too expensive!” he says. Well of course not! Omran likes a good deal, and Israel doesn’t offer that. But he was surprisingly “cool” with the state of Israel and the situation between Israel and Palestine (a few months after we left, they started bombing each other again). Omran doesn’t really see things as religious or geographical, he sees everything through a clear economic lens. And in this way, he doesn’t really have a bias towards one side or the other.

Omran’s banter thoroughly entertained us, but looking back, what resonates with me most is the gratitude I feel for having the chance to get to know these four men. When Mark and I travel, we tend to avoid hiring tour guides because we prefer our independence (and don’t want to join a group of annoying tourists), but having these incredible experiences reminded us how unique it is to spend so many hours talking, laughing and travelling with locals in order to really connect.

Before I arrived in Egypt, I thought I understood what Islam was and I admit I had a preconceived notions about Muslim people. Of course, I was aware of the small population of Muslims who identify with radical extremists, and that they are super devout and some that even oppose democracy and the Western World. But I assumed that most (the rest) approached Islam not from a religious perspective, but more as part of their culture and family.  However, I was wrong. What I learned about Egypt is that the faith of Islam is part of everything—food, family, work, and the state.  Egyptian Muslims are truly faithful.  Their faith is based on very humble, kind, “golden rule” kind of tenets, like helping others and being a good person in the eyes of God.  I saw charity right before my eyes daily—strangers helping strangers.  I saw countless people walking around the city or climbing up on a bus with the Koran in hand, reading it whenever there was down time.  I also appreciated the dedication to prayer.   Five times a day is a serious commitment, and the people I met shared with me how much they enjoyed the time of prayer. It wasn’t a bothersome obligation, but rather, a chance to interrupt the grind of the day and rest their mind that might be full of distractions, and instead be present for a moment.  It is a time to relax, be grateful, and be pious.  To do this five times a day is quite unique in this current 21st century, don’t you think?

So thank you, Sabry, Hussein, Ali and Omran for your kindness and friendship. What you’ve given me is something I didn’t expect, but will always remember, and we will see each other again, inshallah!

A few more photos

Here are the three of us basking in the glow of the traveler’s high–at a local rooftop restaurant, with the Valley of the Kings and Queens lit up behind us.

We were the lucky few to spend time in Nefertari’s tomb, the most beautifully painted tomb I’ve ever seen.

Because of the pandemic, all sites were devoid of people. We spent the last hour at Abu Simbel by ourselves, with no other tourists!

We crossed the Nile often to visit tombs….Here we are at the tombs of the nobles in Aswan. Note that Ancient Egyptians always buried their people on the west side of the Nile (where the sun sets, closer to the after life), and lived on the east side (where the sun rises).

Another incredibly painted pharaoh’s tomb. This one was especially nice because there was no “guard” in there soliciting a tip from us.

The famous King Tutankhamen. This was my first glimpse of a real mummy! Unlike most mummies that have been discovered and ferried up to Cairo to live in a museum, Tutankhamen’s mummy is in very poor condition, and thus it was decided not to move him. So he is the lucky pharaoh who still remains in the tomb where he was placed over 3,000 years ago. Even though I knew he was down there, to see him lying there took my breath away.

Thanks to Pop Vargas’ advice, we took a hot air balloon at dawn in Luxor and floated over the Valley of the Kings and Queens.

Our “tourist trap” radar was weak on the first day, and this guy just picked up Mark and placed him on his donkey. Mark had no idea what was happening but luckily I got a photo!

That’s me about to enter the Temple of Hatshepsut–no other tourists had arrived yet. Hatshepsut was one of the very few female Pharaohs in Egyptian history.
One more of Hatshepsut’s Temple for you to appreciate the solitude.

We were lucky to get to enter the Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, only just recently opened to tourists. We were jonesing to see it after just watching the new Secrets of Saqqara Tomb on Netflix before our trip–really cool! Being on the Giza plateau itself was pretty amazing because we could see all the pyramids all around us, near and far, and could imagine the ancient Egyptians enjoying this same view.

The Sofitel Cataract Hotel in Aswan was the epitome of luxury. When we told Ali we had booked there, he suggested rather than hiking around tombs all day, make sure we had time to spend enjoying the terrace and the view. That was an excellent tip! Because of the pandemic, luxury hotels were offering crazy deals that we couldn’t pass up.

Because of the lack of tourists, we were upgraded to the presidential suite on the MS St. George Sonesta Nile River Cruise. As Nick sat down with us to dinner every night he would say, “Man, I need to travel with you guys more often!” Ha, ha! My favorite part of the presidential suite was that every time we came back to our room, there was a treat waiting for us: a box of chocolates, cookies, bottles of wine, chocolate-dipped fruit. Mark enjoyed playing the grand piano in the foyer of the ship (Titanic style) and Nick kept coming into our room to drink up our free booze. Something for everyone!

During our tour of the mosques I tried to “blend” in with a hijab.

And, yeah, the Pyramids of Giza were awesome.

But the highlight of the trip for Mark was definitely Petra. A Unesco Heritage site that used to welcome 5,000 visitors a day, the first day there were only 12 people total. Another day it was just us!

Petra is massive! Mark got up early one morning and had an awesome 12 mile run through the ruins.

Wadi Rum is the desert area in southern Jordan. We absolutely LOVED our time there after all the craziness of Egypt.

We even stayed in a Martian tent. Yes….named that because Wadi Rum is where they filmed The Martian with Matt Damon. After a day bouncing around a jeep in the desert, I was crossing my fingers that the desert camp would serve beer (during Ramadan it’s forbidden to serve alcohol, and we found in Jordan the rule was followed, so I was going on three days without a drop). As we hopped off the jeep and went to our tent, I tried to put on the sweetest smile while asking the hotel guy, “Is there any chance we could order a couple of beers?” He smiled, and said, “Yes! We have beer! I’ll bring them to your tent!” In a few minutes he was at our door, proudly handing us two non-alcoholic beers. Greeeaaaaaaat. Ha ha!

I sure had fun travelling with these two guys! They cracked me up with their etiquette blunders like, “Is that the call to arms?” or clinking beers while exclaiming, “Ramadan Kareem!”

That’s all for now. Thank you very much for reading!

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

Diving in the Galapagos

If someone invites you on a dive trip to the Galapagos, there’s only one answer, right?  A trip to the Galapagos wasn’t on our radar until about three weeks ago when our friends from the Dominican Republic called and said, “Hey, they are running dive boats again and no one is down there—wanna go?”  It took an incredible feat of logistics, given the dearth of flights and the COVID test requirements (we were tested three times before we arrived in Ecuador), but it all came together and suddenly we were hugging our friends in Quito, about to board a flight to the Galapagos.

Alessandro, Kamille, Michaela and Mark

What’s the big deal about Galapagos? Well, a pretty famous guy named Charles Darwin spent a few weeks there in 1835 and brought home some finch specimens that eventually helped him understand and discover the laws of natural selection, the nuts and bolts behind evolution.   Part of the reason he found such interesting specimens is due to Galapagos being a unique archipelago of islands six hundred miles off the coast of South America.  These islands were never settled by indigenous people, and thus, the creatures there had thousands of years to adapt and change without human interference. In addition, most Galapagos species don’t have a natural fear of humans, thus it’s a lot easier to get close to them, to study and enjoy.  That’s what brought us to the Galapagos…..to enjoy these amazing animals close-up.

When we told Mark’s dad we were headed there, he sort of pooh-poohed the trip, claiming, “Well, there’s not much there, it’s mainly just pile of rocks!”  I laughed and shook my head, but as we were about to land, I looked down and indeed, it was a brown, desolate island, devoid of color and full of rocks!  Was he right? Well, yes and no. 

It’s true that topside of the Galapagos is a barren environment. Almost no mammals were there until Europeans (whalers, pirates, and eventually the Spanish and English navy) brought goats and boar and house cats.  But what you DO see are some extremely unique reptiles, lots of beautiful birds, and some very interesting flora.  For example,  this is where you can meet, up-close and personal, the largest tortoise in the world, the Galapagos Tortoise.

You can also spot marine iguanas, the only ones in the world that dive dozens of feet underwater for algae. 

An archipelago made up of many islands, it’s also an incredible place to learn about volcanoes and geology, and literally see with your own eyes how these islands were formed. However, topside is not why we went. We went to go diving.  As we learned from our truly fabulous naturalist/dive master Eduardo Mahuad, the unique location of the Galapagos serves as a meeting point between three currents: the Humboldt Current coming up from Antarctica, the El Nino Flow coming from Panama, and the Cromwell Current from the west.   This confluence of currents brings rich nutrients for small fish to eat, and the small fish bring bigger fish, and so on and so on.  Thus, if you want to see a lot of pelagic action (i.e. big stuff like sharks, whales, etc.) this is where it’s at!

Mark and I have done a lot of diving over the last ten years, but most of it has focused on “macro” diving, which is small stuff on coral reefs.  He has taken some beautiful photos of things like teeny tiny sea horses and colorful anemones, and I think he is the master of patience and light, but this type of “out in the big blue” diving was not his photographic specialty.  Plus, his camera sort of fell apart during the trip.  Thus, we don’t have too many amazing photos to share. But boy do we have stories!

Ok, first let me tell you about the crew on our boat, the Calipso. We were taken care of by an amazing crew including the head steward Hugo, the nicest man you ever met.  Although he has a family and grown children on the mainland that he visits on his vacation days, he has lived full time for the past thirty years on Galapagos dive boats, so he has seen pretty much everything, both from his vantage on the boat and underwater (he joins the guests diving whenever he gets the chance).    He greeted us off the panga after every dive with a warm towel, he left us creative towel inventions every morning, he shared many stories of life in the islands, and he helped me rack up an incredibly high bar tab!  He even found us on the deck one day in the jacuzzi and brought us impromptu snacks of french fries and chicken wings. And that’s just Hugo.  There were seven other wonderful crew members that kept us fed, safe, happy, and giggling.

Then there were the guests. We had the incredible luck to be diving on beautiful Calipso with only seven guests, less than half the occupancy.  Besides Mark and I and our good friends Alessandro and Kamille, we were joined by a really cool couple from Alicante, Spain, named Brenda and Luis. They were about 15 years younger, and full of energy and enthusiasm, and we loved getting to know them and diving with them.

And then there was Dennis. Let me tell you about Dennis.  He was quite a guy.

A single diver from Quito, Ecuador, he was pumped to finally be diving in the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin, his first time up there.  Dennis claimed he had 85 dives logged, and that he was certified as a rescue diver. But I think his definition of “rescue diver” means he has to get rescued a lot!  He was friendly and entertaining and definitely made the trip unforgettable, but he was a terrible diver. 

Our divemaster/naturalist Eduardo’s main job was to keep us safe, and on the very first day we all jumped in for a “check-out” dive. This was a super chill dive spot where Eduardo could make sure we all had the right weights on, and we knew how to follow instructions.  Well, we all did, except for Dennis.  Eduardo spent about half of the dive holding onto Dennis, adjusting his jacket, weights, tank, mask, hood, and everything in between. I didn’t know a diver could need so much attention!  Eduardo would “release” Dennis and he’d either go shooting up or rapidly sinking down.  I was confused but figured, ok, he’s getting used to all the gear.  Truth be told, this was the first time any of us had worn such thick wetsuits (7mm), along with hoods, and a ton of weight. It definitely took some getting used to.

When we surfaced I looked at Dennis to see if he was upset or anything, but he was smiley and normal. He had no idea that he was such a desmadre underwater! 

The next day we did two more fairly mellow dives at Mosquera island, and Dennis was the same.  Totally clueless of where the group was, going up and down without realizing it, running out of air, staring at his go-pro when we were all making noise to get his attention, etc.  Eduardo talked to him after that dive privately, and told him, “Look, I don’t blame you, you have had bad instructors. I’m going to teach you how to dive. I just need you to listen to me. Don’t get distracted with your camera. Look around and watch the other divers. This is a great chance for you to learn.”  Apparently none of it really sunk in for Dennis, though. All Dennis got out of the entire lecture was, “So I can’t take my camera?”

The next day we sailed to Wolf Island.  Wolf and Darwin are the premiere dive sites in the Galapagos because this is where the currents meet, so there’s a ton of action. Of course, there’s also a ton of current.  Current requires divers to be more cognizant and more aware, because if you are not paying attention, the current can take a diver quickly off the rocks and away from the island.  This means that when you surface, your panga boat driver may not be able to find you right away.  In Cozumel this is no big deal because there are hundreds of boats passing by, and you have 40 miles of island to float by before you are out in open water, so most likely someone will find you. In Wolf and Darwin, more than 100 miles away from the main Galapagos archipelago, that’s not the case.  These islands are really just a couple of uninhabited rocks with no dry landing sites. Each is about half a mile long, and once you get swept off that, you won’t see another one until maybe Tahiti. So…….this is big-boy diving. We were all sort of wondering if Dennis would survive. 

The night before we arrived at Wolf and Darwin, Eduardo gave us a very detailed briefing. He explained the danger of currents and the isolation of these islands.  He gave us each a GPS beacon to keep in our dive jacket, and instructed us to deploy it in the unlikely scenario of getting lost at sea. He also laid out an incredibly specific dive plan, and the whole time we were all looking at Dennis, hoping he was getting this.  We were to do a negative entry off the panga boat, meaning that we would fall backwards into the water with no air in our jacket, and sink down as fast as possible to the rocks at 60 feet. There we would grab onto a rock, and hold on while we waited for everyone to group up. The currents could be very fast, and Eduardo even warned us that the current come from the side and knock off our mask or regulator, so he reminded us to face the current directly to avoid this. 

Our faithful Captain Paul navigated the Calipso 14 hours overnight to Wolf island. We awoke at dawn, excited and nervous.  We nibbled on toast and sipped coffee, as Eduardo kept giving Dennis gentle reminders about the dive. Dennis seemed unfazed as usual. Then we geared up on the big boat and each of us climbed onto the panga.  Our panga driver Hector motored us over to Shark Bay point, and Eduardo studied the water to select our entry spot.  He made sure we were all ready, regulators in mouth, masks on our face, and then did a countdown, 3-2-1, and we all rolled in backwards.  Just as I hit the water, I heard Eduardo yell, “Dennis!!! You forgot your fins!!!”   Luckily the current was not as strong as Eduardo had feared, so Eduardo jumped in and swam over to Dennis with his fins while the rest of us waited below on the rocks.

Even without a crazy strong current, man, the dive was amazing!  Right at the beginning some sea lions swam down to us, and playfully greeted each diver.  We tried to play and swim with them, and wow they are fast. But they kept coming back to us, teasing us to chase them. It was amazing.

Then, we just sort of turned around and started looking at the big blue, and realized, omg, sharks!  We had already seen a handful of hammerhead sharks at Mosquera Island the previous day, but that didn’t prepare us for the massive amount of sharks here at Wolf.  Holy smokes!  The entire 50 minutes of the dive we could always see at least five hammerheads swimming above, below or right by us.  They were beautiful and elegant and powerful.  Occasionally a Galapagos shark would swim by, and his “sharky” build was impressive as well.  The pure bulk of life was overwhelming. There weren’t just occasional schools of fish, but rather massive amounts of fish nonstop.  Once in awhile a larger group of hammerheads would cruise by, and the feeling was just incredible.

We had an awesome four dives at Wolf Island and Dennis survived. Frequently Eduardo had to herd him back to the group, and once he had to give him his extra tank because he ran out of air. Besides air consumption, with four dives a day, all of us had to monitor our dive depth and time to avoid a decompression dive. The more you dive, the more nitrogen you have in your system, which means the less time you can be deep. Our computers tell us when we are running out of non-decompression time, and if we get close, we need to spend extra minutes at 15 feet before we surface. Anyway, it takes at least a little bit of awareness to avoid going into Deco, so it seems like Dennis MUST have gone Deco a few times without realizing it. Luckily he never got decompression sickness, but none of us are sure how!

The next night we sailed to Darwin, the sister island just 20 miles away.  Darwin is a place where divers can find very large whale sharks, although we were about two weeks past the season.  But we were hoping to get lucky though, and we did. The whale sharks that come to Darwin are pregnant females, which means these are big mamas.  Whale sharks that visit Mexico are usually male juveniles, about 20-30 feet long.  But the ones at Darwin can be 40 feet or larger.  That’s really big.

The first 6am dive at Darwin, we jumped in and held onto the rock for about 20 minutes.  Of course we were dazzled by large schools of hammerheads, occasional giant tuna, eagle rays, and so many turtles you definitely stopped pointing them out!  The visibility was poor, and you could only see maybe 20 feet (which apparently is good for Darwin). Anyway, we are looking out into the big blue and Eduardo starts yelling and shaking his noisemaker.  I squinted into the darkness and suddenly I could see white dots dancing in the dark. It was a whale shark.  She was so big she seemed unreal.  I couldn’t see all of her at once, and as she slowly went by I was blown over by her size.  It reminded Mark of when you’re sitting in the front row of a movie theater and have to keep swinging your head to see the whole screen. That’s how you had to view this whale shark. Hammerheads swam around her, like tiny little guppies. Eduardo estimated she was 45 feet.  It felt like a massive train was going by.  We were all thrilled!

It’s very hard to see her, but here’s the moment. (You might expand this video full screen, but it’s still pretty hard to see.)

As we surfaced we were all super pumped about the whale shark.  We each climbed into the panga, taking off our gear and laughing.  Eduardo stayed in the water an extra five minutes, keeping alert for anything (that was his modus operandum each dive, as if he couldn’t bear exiting the water).  This time it panned out, and he called out, “Put on your masks and fins! Whale shark below!” I was impressed how everyone managed to jump right in, and we all snorkeled with another beautiful whale shark for a few minutes before we lost sight of her. 

This is a different, smaller whale shark we saw later that day, estimated at 25 feet long.

Then we climbed back into the boat, one by one. Suddenly Eduardo dove right back in the water. Was it another sighting? No, it was Dennis!  Apparently he can’t swim!  He had jumped in without his dive BCD (i.e. flotation device) and now was basically drowning.  Luckily his wetsuit kept him close to the surface, and Eduardo saved him and brought him back to the panga, lifeguard rescue style.  Oh, Dennis!

We did two days at Darwin and were lucky to see two more whale sharks, but none a big as her.  On the way back to “civilization” (i.e. the southern islands), we stopped for a last late afternoon dive at Wolf island.  Two of our divers skipped the dive due to not feeling well, so it was just five of us plus Eduardo.  Just as Hector was about to dump us in at Shark Bay Point, we spotted dolphins swimming nearby on the surface.  Mark and I have been dreaming of diving with dolphins—we’ve tried many times but they are so elusive. So we cheered and crossed our fingers that they would stick around when we jumped in. They did.

We settled around 60 feet, grabbed onto the rock, and watched the hammerhead show, when after awhile Eduardo heard the dolphins. I still don’t know how he knew which way they were, but he led us away from the rock and into the big blue. There the dolphins greeted us, maybe a dozen of them, with one tiny newborn baby!  They were incredibly beautiful and graceful, and for the first time I could hear them singing and clicking underwater.  They kept coming and going (one moment they were there, and next they were gone—so fast!) and we enjoyed them for about five minutes.

Then we swam back to the rock and just as we returned a massive school of barracuda went by.

Then, suddenly, a huge bait ball of jacks came flying by. This was the biggest, fasting moving bait ball I’ve ever seen, and on the outside of it were some tuna.  We watched the bait ball frantically dance and spin and then suddenly, like dust, it blew up and disappeared. It was like a magic trick. Then came the dolphins, chasing after it. It was incredible.

Again, this is hard to capture on video, but the moment was thrilling.

Next Eduardo led us out into the big blue again to follow the dolphins, and we found them.  We delighted in playing with them, and just as it was time to start heading up, Eduardo pointed down. The largest school of hammerheads we had seen so far was about 40 feet below us, maybe 200 of them?  We all went down, and of course Dennis sank like a rock.  We watched Eduardo shoot down to 120 feet to collect him, and after we all enjoyed the sharks, he motioned that it was time to head up for our safety stop. 

I looked up and noticed that our ever-vigilant panga driver, Hector, was not hovering above us like he usually was during all our safety stops.  That’s odd.  Knowing we had been swimming back and forth in the big blue during this dive, I knew there was a chance he had lost sight of our bubbles. I also noticed that surf chop had increased a lot, and looking up I could see white caps breaking above us.  Ugh.  I surfaced as soon as I finished my 3 minute stop and started looking for Hector. The waves were bigger now, about 3 or 4 feet, and it was hard to see over them. I could see we had drifted to the far end of the island and were continuing to drift, almost past it now.  I realized this was a situation where we needed to get found as soon as possible, with no time to spare. Mark and Kamille surfaced next, and I told them Hector wasn’t here and we needed to start blowing our whistle.  They were oblivious, and just started giggling with each other about how awesome the dolphin encounter was.  I interrupted them and said, “Uh, guys.  Seriously. Tell me where my whistle is on my jacket,” because I was fumbling for it and couldn’t find it. Yeah, I was a bit panicky.  Mark said, ”It’s on your inflator.” I grabbed the “little” whistle on my strap, and started blowing it. They both started cracking up, because the whistle was so soft and airy.  Kamille asked, “Are you trying to call the dolphins?” They both cracked up again.  “You guys, this is serious! Start blowing your whistles!”  Mark started blowing his big whistle, which was actually an airhorn, and duh, it was connected to his inflator just like mine. This made a pretty loud noise, and for a moment I thought I heard Hector send a whistle back.  But unfortunately it was just the echo from the island cliffs. 

Then the rest of our group surfaced.  Dennis popped up right by us and Eduardo and Brenda a little ways away.  Eduardo had his bright pink SMB inflatable up, and I told him, “Can you hold it higher? Hector might not be able to see it because of the waves.” I’m sure Eduardo was thrilled to have advice from me, but he did it.

Mark was a few feet away from us, and he stuck his head in the water out of curiosity. To his surprise, a silky shark was about 10 feet below us.  We hadn’t seen these sharks the whole dive, and they are known for being one of the few aggressive sharks.  They are not huge, maybe 6 feet, but this one was circling.  Mark looked up and then looked down again. Now there were three silky sharks. Then six silky sharks.  He watched them swimming around him, and as one approached him, he pushed out his fin to scare it, and it jumped back. It was clearly interested in him.  Mark realized he was the “lone” diver now, and perhaps was being singled out by the sharks. All of a sudden Mark was right next to us.

He didn’t mention the sharks, but when I said we should all hold onto each other, he grabbed Kamille’s hand. She held onto me and suddenly I felt Dennis grab my other hand. 

Now it had been about five minutes.  I pulled out my flag and started assembling it.  I have to admit, it looked ridiculous. Made out of PVC pipe, assembled it was only about 2 feet tall, and very flimsy looking. I held it as high as I could to attract attention, and I did get attention. A booby flew right over and landed on top of it.  Kamille and Mark started giggling again, but I thought it was good luck.  Maybe Hector would see the booby?

We were drifting further away from the island, and the waves seemed bigger.  I had been on the surface for about eight minutes now, and was definitely getting panicked.  Dennis leaned over to me and asked me, “Has this ever happened to you?” I said, “You mean, not get picked up? Well, no, not permanently.”  I stared into his eyes and tried to figure out how scared he was, but I couldn’t read him. He did hold onto my hand very tightly though.

I called over to Eduardo, “Don’t you think we should deploy the GPS beacon?” He said, “Yes, I’m doing it now.”  He pulled out the beacon and pushed the button he had told us not to push unless of emergency.  We waited a few more minutes, and then, was that the panga I could see over the waves?  I had to wait for another wave to lift me up and then, yes! It was Hector!  Seeing him come to us and wave confirming he saw us was quite thrilling, I have to admit!

Dennis didn’t let go of my hand when Hector showed up, so I held onto him and dragged him to the panga, lifting his hand to the rope. I said he should probably be the first one in the boat, and he didn’t argue.

This is a shot from Dennis’ go-pro just before Hector arrived in the panga.

It was quite an adrenalin rush, man.  We got back to the Calipso and spent about two hours rehashing it.  Turns out that a series of events caused the delay in our pick up. First, we had swum out to the big blue twice, thus getting pushed by the current much further than we had planned. Next, because Dennis had gone down to 120 feet, we had to do a longer deco stop in the big blue, again pushing us out further. Next, the sun was setting behind us, so Hector couldn’t see as very easily.    Luckily all the precautionary safety measures worked to get us found.  Ten minutes before we were supposed to surface, Hector started heading south of the spot where we should have been, but couldn’t see our bubbles.  So he returned to the planned pick up spot and waited.  Our captain on the Calipso radioed him and asked if the divers were up, Hector said no. The big boat decided to move out to get a better vantage point to assist Hector in spotting us.  Then the captain received the GPS beacon signal. He radioed the location to Hector and Hector jammed down to us in a just a couple of minutes.  So everything worked, albeit a bit frightening for a few minutes!

When we got back I got a few ribs from everyone about my panicky voice, but I still claim I was the only one who thought to blow the whistle and assemble the flag.  Ha ha, ok, I guess I was close to panicking! Mark admitted he didn’t want to tell anyone about the silky sharks because he was afraid we’d panic, but each of us had already looked down and saw the sharks. To tell you the truth, the sharks didn’t make me nervous at all. I had just read too many stories about divers getting lost at sea, and I while I hadn’t given up hope, I was gearing up for what may be a long “wait” for our rescue. Luckily within a half an hour we were drinking beers on the top deck while the Calipso made way for the southern islands. What a day!

It was a fabulous week for me, and while Mark admits this is not his kind of diving, I think he had some great moments, too.  The cold water diving (ranging from 59 degrees to 72, depending on where we were) was challenging.  But the Calipso set up made it a lot easier, with hot showers on the deck and warm drinks and snacks right when you get off.  And on a couple of days we were able to enjoy the jacuzzi on the top deck. It was incredible to be diving with sharks at one moment and then ten minutes later find ourselves soaking in a jacuzzi cruising the Pacific.

Although it did take four days to get home, we are already talking about our next trip to the Galapagos, maybe in the summer season so we can spot some whales.  Orcas are still on our list!

Thanks for reading! If you still want more, here’s a video I put together of the best photos and videos.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on December 26, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

2018: The Last 12 Months

If reading isn’t your thing, this blog is for you.   Instead of writing about the past year,  I’ve compiled the visual highlights.  Once again, it’s been one helluva year!

By the way, this video is pretty long, so pour yourself a drink before you hit play. 🙂

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

A glimpse of the migrant shelters in Tijuana

A few days ago Mark and I visited two Tijuana shelters which provide temporary housing for migrants waiting to cross the border.  Most of the migrants we met arrived here last month along with the caravan of 5,000 people who traveled from from Central America (through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico).

First we went to Casa YMCA (we did not take photos, but these images are taken from Elpais.com).

Un menor llega a la casa YMCA de Tijuana para menores migrantes tras ser deportado por Estados Unidos.

(By the way, in Spanish this is pronounced EEM-KUH, get it? For the first half hour we were like, “Why is it called the Inca house?”  Oh, duh. Got it.)

Right now 37 minors are living here temporarily as they await their chance to apply for refugee asylum in the US. They are almost all from Honduras, but also a couple from El Salvador, Costa Rica, and other parts of Mexico.  There are only five girls and the rest are boys, ranging between the ages of 12-17.  Before they arrived at Casa YMCA, they were all travelling unaccompanied,  some having lost their parents to violence in their home country.

When we arrived with donations clothes and shoes, purchased by Mark and gathered by his sister Heather, the guy in charge offered to show us around and talked with us for about an hour.  His name was Maynor and he was an extremely nice, fast talking man, utterly dedicated to taking care of these young people.   Day and night there are always chaperones there (usually several adults) watching over the minors and running the shelter.  But a big part of Maynor’s job is arranging every minor’s exit plan.  Sometimes he facilitates a family reunification when a youth has been deported and is trying to get back to his or her families in other parts of Mexico or even other countries.  This can include chaperoning them on flights back to their hometowns. But in general, most of them are awaiting the refugee asylum processing in the US, and every week boys and girls are sent across the border to the US.

Meanwhile, they wait here in Tijuana.  Usually the boys and girls are allowed to come and go during the day, but last week there was a terrible tragedy when three boys were walking to visit friends in another part of town. They were attacked and attempted to be kidnapped. Two were murdered, the third escaped and is seriously injured. We saw a memorial for the boys while were there, with photos and flowers.

Maynor talked to us about how migrant youth are targeted by criminal organizations frequently, and shared with us specific stories about extortion and assault by those that traveled with the caravan.  But those who arrived in Tijuana were lucky, because migrant murder and kidnapping is actually a real concern as they travel through Mexico.  For example, there is a documented case last month of at least 100 others from this very caravan who were kidnapped in southern Mexico.  This article also sheds light the problem.  Anyway, at Casa YMCA security has increased and no one is allowed in the compound unless authorized. And currently the young residents are on lock-down and no one is allowed out.

Even so, while we were there the mood was fairly upbeat.  We arrived during lunch, and they had full plates in front of them.  The teenagers thanked us for the shoes and clothes, and Maynor explained how the YMCA worked. This shelter is funded completely by private donations—they are not a religious or government organization.  Individuals and humanitarian groups regularly provide food, goods and services that keep this shelter open.  The young residents get three meals a day, but they have to choose just one side dish and one beverage with each meal—it’s not a free-for-all/all-you-can-eat kind of deal.  During the week they have doctors, psychologists, and lawyers that come through, and all the teens get appointments for everything from receiving cough medicine to filling out their applications for entry to the US.

The lawyers prioritize them by age…the ones close to turning 18 are the most urgent, because once they are no longer minors, it becomes much harder for them to qualify for asylum.  Last week eight boys got processed and are now on “the other side.” This happens every week.  Maynor confirmed that it’s not easy, but almost every minor who applies for asylum status eventually gets processed and sent across the border.  The way it works is first they wait at a detention center in the US for at least several weeks. If they have family to stay with in the US, they are eventually transferred to them, but otherwise they have to stay at the detention center to wait for a match with a foster family or sponsor organization.   However, even out of the detention center, they still must await the court process to determine if they will be granted permanent asylum.  The director estimated that they will wait for at least eight months for their court date, and about 3 out of 10 are eventually granted asylum. The rest are denied and sent back to their home country, usually by plane.

Since the caravans started last spring, the Casa YMCA has been over capacity (nearly double) but has still never had to turn anyone away. The game room has been converted into an extra sleeping area, and boys were lounging on sleeping bags, without beds.

Óscar pasa los días en la casa YMCA para menores migrantes de Tijuana, después de haber sido sorprendido por la patrulla fronteriza estadounidense saltando la valla.

The game room overlooks the city of Tijuana and the US beyond the wall

While we were there a humanitarian group from LA arrived with a truck full  of mattresses, so starting tonight everyone would have at least a mattress.   The other dorm rooms were all full of bunk beds.

Besides the bedrooms, there is a small living room with a large-screen TV, two computers, and an outdoor area used for workshops, talks, and other projects.

En la casa de menores YMCA de Tijuana, los niños repatriados pueden conectarse a Internet para comunicarse con sus familias.

It’s a very small space for so many teenagers to live together.  On Sundays they go to a nearby soccer field and do martial arts (self-defense), and then play football (americano) or soccer.

The lasting impression I have of Casa YMCA was how young these boys seemed. I expected older teenagers, who had been toughened by the travel and by now had learned the ways of the streets.  But instead I was struck by how young, vulnerable, and sweet they appeared.  Very smiley and playful, not yet hardened by their journey. Well, at least not on the outside. Maynor talked about the emotional difficulties many of them have from the stress, uncertainty and circumstances of being so far away from their families. This is one of the things the Casa tries to help them with on a daily basis.

*****

Next we went to the Centro Madre Assunta, a catholic convent that has been providing shelter for women and children migrants for many years.  There we met Sister Salome, who was a wealth of information.

salmoe

She was happy to receive the clothing we brought for the women, and then took us into her office to chat with us about this shelter’s history.  Sister Salome first talked about the mass migration of the Haitians, who started coming to Tijuana five years ago.  After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, many Haitians were received by Brazil, but as the Brazilian economy faltered, they found that they could not make a good living there.  When they learned that they could apply for refugee status in the US, many made the very long, arduous five-thousand mile journey by bus from Brazil to Tijuana.  Here’s a good article about it.

Image result for centro madre assunta haiti

Anyway, for awhile they could apply refugee asylum, but in September 2016 the US halted the asylum program and many got stuck in Tijuana, with the threat of being deported directly back to Haiti if they tried to apply for asylum.  A large group of Haitians decided Tijuana was better, and now there are estimated 4,000 Haitians living in TJ. They have work permits, are integrated into the community, and two dozen are enrolled at the university. There is even a new neighborhood called “Little Haiti.”   I asked her if that is happening now with those from Central America as well. Do they want to stay in Mexico, too?  She said no.  She said they all aspire to become American, sooner or later.

Currently there are over 100 mothers and children living at the Centro Madre Assunta, a facility that has an official capacity of 44. It was clearly brimming with people while we were there, but again, the mood was jubilant.  It was just days before Christmas, and we saw many donations being carried through the door. The sisters and residents were busy preparing pinatas and food for tomorrow’s posada.

Here’s the migrant process for women and their children, explained to us by Sister Salome. She stressed that each case is different.   Most women and children currently staying there arrived more than a month ago. Each went to the border to “take a number” at the San Ysidro Port of Entry at Chaparral. They did this by putting their names down on a list in a notebook.  Everyday about 80 numbers are called, and right now the wait is taking about four weeks.  This article sums it well—but it’s pretty remarkable that this list is maintained by a small team of migrants themselves (not the US or Mexican authorities).

Sister Salome described how the women are constantly monitoring the list and sharing information with each other at the shelter.   When your number is close, you need to go to the border everyday to wait for yours to be called, along with your children and documents ready. Once your number is called, you get picked up by a bus and driven across the border, where you stay at the detention center for around three days while you are processed.  You have to fill out forms that document many things, including your statement showing credible fear of returning to your home country.  If you pass the credible fear test and present all your documents, you will most likely get to the next step: you are released into the US, but under vigilance.  Sister Salome mentioned that many migrant women are released with electronic security anklets. They also have to provide the address they will be living (often with family in the US), and they are restricted from travelling too far a radius from that address.  Then they have to maintain contact with the courts and attend their court date whenever it is scheduled. This could be several months to years, depending on each case.

Some of the women who are released after detention don’t have anywhere to go, so that’s when they go to a similar migrant shelter on the US side of the border, like one at a church in Chula Vista where many of Sister Salome’s residents have ended up.  From there they are assisted to get their things organized. Some contact family members in different parts of the US who send them an airline ticket; none are permitted to work to support themselves while they are in process, unless  180 days have passed without a decision. So for the first six months, all they can really do is wait for their court date.  The big question we asked was this: once they get their court date, how many are allowed to stay?  Sister Salome admitted she didn’t know the exact answer, but said, “They say only one or two out of a hundred get to stay.”   This article, this one, and this one as well suggest the odds are similar, if not slightly better.

I wondered aloud how many migrants just go under the radar after they leave the detention center, and fail to attend their court date. Sister Salome didn’t know the answer to this, so I spent some time researching it this weekend.  It appears that asylum applicants  (as compared to deportees or those apprehended crossing illegally) have a higher rate of staying in the system and honoring their court dates, especially if measures like electronic anklets are in place.

I spent a lot of time reading through US Justice Department data.  Looking at the statistics from last year (2017), here are the numbers for Asylum Cases. Keep in mind that this is just affirmative asylum cases, not immigration cases for students, unaccompanied minors, deportees, those arrested crossing illegally, etc.  For this group in 2017, there were 52,871 cases reviewed.  Most of the cases were postponed or the applicants withdrew their requests, so no decision was made.  But of the cases decided, 10,690 were granted asylum and 17,718 were denied. Once denied, the migrant is removed from the US, i.e. deported.  4,599 of those denied were ordered to be removed in absentia (which  means that 4,599 didn’t show up for their court date).

So this statistic might be helpful: 28,408 had court dates and only 23,809 showed up for those court dates.  Which means that 16% were no-shows last year. The year before, the no-show number was similar:  14.2%.  What I gather from that is that yes, some people are getting into the country in a legal way but then not following through with the law, but it’s a small number that is negligible compared to all the 652,006 immigration cases pending in 2017.  And due to the major backlog of case review, the only alternatives I can see are to either house asylum applicants for months to years in detention centers, or deny them straight away at the port of entry and send them back to their home countries immediately.  I don’t think these options make sense.  So my summation is that the current system for refugee asylum applicants makes sense.

But let’s get back to the shelter in Mexico.  Waiting in the Tijuana shelter is hard for the women and families.   Sister Salome told us some stories about how the women and children pass the time.  Most have cell phones and use the free WIFI to communicate with their families via Whatsapp. She laughed at how the women come running to her when the wifi is down, desperate for her to fix it.  There is also classroom for the children from 9-4 each day. The children are so excited to see the teacher, and love going to “school.”

We asked her a question that many might wonder: “Didn’t all these women know how hard this journey would be? Didn’t they hear on the news about the violence against migrants in Mexico, the anti-migrant politics by Trump? And how could they not expect these long, arduous waits just to get processed, when they were travelling with 5,000 migrants all going to the same border gate?”  Sister Salome nodded and said, “I believe that many of them were suffering so much in their situations from violence, political instability, and general insecurity that they allowed themselves to be blinded from reality. Thus, they came here just hoping for the best, against all odds.”

I tried to imagine living in a place where you cannot trust the police or the government, and you feared for your safety and your children’s futures.  And then I thought about the legendary American Dream, a notion that is still alive and well in most of the world.  I could see how these women would let themselves skim over the news about Trump and the low rates of asylum acceptance, and think, ‘America is where everyone goes who wants a better life. It’s been that way more than a hundred years. This is my best option.’ And with that hope, and that risky logic, these people have traveled thousands of miles to gamble on America.  The odds are against them completely, and many will probably have to return to their home countries, or settle for building a new life in Mexico, but perhaps it was still worth the risk?  It depends how much risk you can tolerate, but if I were them, I’d probably be waiting in a migrant shelter right now, too.

 

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

Moving around a bit

IMG_E1232 (1)Been on the road for three weeks in a rented RV, and loving life on the road.  This 29-footer has everything we need, and we are one-hundred percent comfortable in here. Could probably last a year, but alas, we only have it for a few more days.

As soon as we picked it up in Riverside, our plan was to get the heck out of Dodge (i.e., Riverside County at rush hour). We hustled to Barstow and found a campground called Owl Canyon. This place had 35 campsites, but we were the only ones there!  Decided to enjoy the silence and the downtime (Mark and I have been literally travelling every other week since Christmas—Mammoth-Japan-Rosarito-San Diego-Zion-Vegas-Mammoth-Akumal-Hawaii), and so we both just embraced doing NOTHING!  A couple long runs for Mark, a good book for me.  Then we both caught up on work.  The dogs enjoyed endless fetch in the desert, and Xolo I believe is permanently the color gray now.

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After two nights we headed back to Barstow to provision at Walmart.  Ok, we’ve been to Walmart before, but usually the one in Mexico, and man, can I say, the Walmart in Barstow is amazing. It literally has everything you would ever need.  We bought fresh produce, an extension cord, some cooking utensils, a mountain bike, a few tools, some WD-40, and an HDMI cable.  Coming from Mexico this one-stop shopping thing is pretty awesome.  Let’s all say a thank you to Walmart for making life easy! Ha!

From there we headed to the Mojave National Preserve and camped a mile away from Hole in the Rock, a lovely hiking spot, with many holes in the rocks made by wind. Pretty impressive!  Dogs didn’t like it much, though, because alas, desert hikes are full of cacti and stickers. Not good!  Taking them out of my dogs’ paws was not easy, either. I had to muzzle them both to keep them from biting me. Ok, no more hiking in the desert with these culo dulces!

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Next we spent a long day driving east, eventually arriving to the Grand Canyon just before dark.  In my whole 43 years I had never set eyes on this glorious spot (Mark had done a solo trip back in college), so this was a high point for me.  We found this awesome forest area just a few miles outside the park that allowed dispersed camping all by ourselves, and so we spent three nights at Hangman’s (we named it that because, weirdly, between two trees a branch had been hammered up there with a noose hanging down).

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So, the Grand Canyon was grand.  We loved everything about it: the scope, the breathtaking views, the happy tourists oohing and awing around every corner, the well-planned National Park and organized shuttle system. This place rocks. Mark planned a perfect first day in which I rode the South Rim trail on my bike, stopping at every overlook to gasp at the view, while Mark ran it.   We bumped into each other occasionally, but both had amazing days on our own.

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The next day we enjoyed our remote campsite in the morning, and in the afternoon headed to the Yavupai Lodge to use the internet and catch up on work. Then we did a two-hour sunset Rim hike with the dogs. It was lovely, and we even glimpsed a small cat (a lynx?) running across the trail in the near dark.

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Our last day Mark dropped me at Grand Canyon Village and I rode the 25 mile pass to the Desert View Rim.  It was awesome (but tough!) and I loved it. Mark “killed” some time at the Desert Rim with a 12 miler across a rough trail, and had a blast as well.

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After a few days in Flagstaff, i.e. civilization, where we caught a Cavs game, played some golf, and bought a computer (mine died).

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Next we headed east in the direction of the Petrified Forest National Park, the second National Monument ever formed, courtesy of President Teddy Roosevelt.  We didn’t quite make it, though, because we got distracted by signs to the Meteor Crater outside of Winslow, Arizona.  This was pretty neat!  Apparently 50,000 years ago a meteor hit this spot and created a crater 4,000 feet across and a mile deep.  We stood at the edge and were quite impressed. But we were even more in awe of the extensive Visitor Center created around this geological oddity.  Seriously, one of the nicest Visitor Center/Museums we’ve ever seen!

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So that meant we didn’t get to the Petrified Forest before the gates closed.  We ended up camping at a campground just outside the park called Crystal Campground. Not very private as we are surrounded by other campers, but we still enjoyed the sunset and had some delicious grilled veggie burgers and asparagus.

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The Petrified Forest was not what you might think.  Millions of years ago it was a tropical forest way down near the equator. But as the plates shifted and the climate changed, the trees died and became crystallized.  Now in the middle of the desert of Arizona you find beautiful petrified logs.  Besides that, you are surrounded by the Painted Desert, and we really enjoyed the scenery for running and biking. This bike path in an area called Blue Mesa was super fun to ride and run on.

 

From here we headed north to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay) in Navajo Nation.  Mark and his dad had been here about 30 years ago together, and had fond memories of this natural, sacred place.  Sort of like a mini-Grand Canyon, this place is gorgeous, peaceful and quiet.

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IMG_1195 (2)I was jonesing to ride a horse.  Mark said, “Go ahead, not interested.”   So I called Justin, the only horse guy in Canyon de Chelly, and asked him if I could ride the next morning for an hour or two. He said, “Sure. But by the way, I’ve got a couple who has organized an all day trip tomorrow. I’m gonna trailer the horses to Spider Rock Rim and they’re gonna ride with a guide down the rim through the whole canyon, back to the mouth.”  I told him I was in!  I reported back to Mark and whaddya know, the guy who hates horseback riding was in, too!

The other couple never showed up, so Mark and I had our own guide, Irving, a 29 year old Navajo who was probably unique in that he had embraced the old ways and was resisting the new ways. He believed in simple living, in preserving your family histories, and was still very much mourning the death of his grandmother, who had passed away a year ago.  She sounded like an amazing lady, camping and hiking through this rough country, til she passed away. She would take him out for days at a time to camp and hike and ride, and he had learned everything from her.

As we started off, we got on our horses and without any instruction, he started heading through the bush.  There was no trail, but our horses followed him up and over rocks, through trees, and occasionally thick sand.  He hadn’t said much at first and I wondered if he was not going to talk at all, but over the course of the 17 miles, he spoke once and awhile, telling us stories that had to do with what we were seeing. I appreciated his unhurried style and his calm way of not “chattering” like some guides do.

The trail down from the rim was SKETCHY!  Irving recommended we walk our horses, but it still felt sort of disconcerting hiking with a 500 pound animal hopscotching over rocks just behind me. None of us fell, and we made it to the canyon bottom in time to see a herd of deer and a gaggle of wild turkeys.

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The day was perfect—blue sky and white fluffy clouds. The cottonwood was blooming, and at times it looked like it was snowing with all the cotton in the air.  We crossed through green shady areas and dry dusty ones too. We passed by two groups of wild mustangs, one who whinnied at us, perhaps curious about the strange apparatus attached to our horses.

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We stopped for lunch at Irving’s family’s camp, which had nothing on it but an old palette, but the camp was used sometimes for camping and family picnics.  He told us about his family’s land, their cattle and horses, and how the wealth of a Navajo was measured in cattle and horses, not houses or cars.  He and his extended family watched over the cattle and horses that grazed in the valley, with no plans to sell them, just to keep them.

As we walked into one wooded area, Mark’s horse suddenly got spooked, and nearly buckled. Mark bounced up and down but managed to stay on the horse.  We looked to our left and saw a dead cow, which had spooked his horse.

Irving said the cow had been tied to a tree and died of thirst.  He said, “I know we Navajos all seem friendly to each other. We wave hi as we ride by. But there are problems, arguments over land, cattle.  Someone did this to our family. I will have to talk to my aunt.”

That sobered the mood for a bit.  Later in the day Irving talked more about the Navajo people. He admitted that most young Navajos these days can’t wait to get off the reservation, but he felt that if they leave, they don’t exactly find what they are looking for.   Travelling is part of the culture, he said.  “We like to explore, but if we are in a crowd, we tend to wander.”

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Sacred trees

By the time we got back to the horse ranch it was after 5 and we were exhausted, sore, but glowing.   The triumphant feeling ended abruptly though as I pulled the rig out of the ranch parking lot.  Lined with lovely oaks, I came around the corner too wide and caught a tree on the top of the rig.  Mark yelled for me to stop, and I did, 10 feet later.  During that time I had perfectly wedged the side awning deep into the stump of the oak tree.  We got out to inspect, and realized that we couldn’t go backwards or forwards without ripping off the entire 14 foot awning and probably part of the side of the RV as well.   Ugh.  This was gonna be ugly and expensive.

Mark, my ever-constant risk analysis engineer, thought about it for awhile.  Justin and his guide were gone, so luckily we only had an audience of the ranch caretaker, who was mumbling in Navajo and shaking his head.  Finally, he lent us an axe and Mark climbed up on the roof to start hacking away at the tree, hoping to make some room for the rig to slip by.

Did I mention we were also blocking the driveway entrance to the ranch?  As Mark hacked away a group of 10 Navajo men showed up. They had been in the Canyon and were picking up their trucks, which were parked at the ranch.  I was quite afraid to see what their reaction would be seeing an obnoxious white man standing on an RV, hacking at their sacred tree.  They just laughed and inspected our predicament.  Finally, the old one said something in Navajo, and they young one said, “What if we all push at the same time to lean the rig away from the tree, and then you back up?”   I hopped in the driver’s seat and 10 Navajo and Mark pushed the rig just enough so it wedged out of the tree as I backed up.  They saved the day and didn’t seem too upset that we had hacked the tree.  They did seem to think we were pretty stupid, though. Fair.

I wish I had a picture of all of this, but you’ll have to use your imagination.

Ok, we decided our time was up in Navajo Nation. We drove east to New Mexico and had a lovely night at the Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington.  Our purpose was simple.  Catch the basketball game.  Check.  After that we pulled across the street to the Walmart parking lot (if you didn’t know, Walmart is RV/big rig friendly, and welcomes overnight parking), and cozied up with a bunch of truck drivers for the night.  It felt a little dirty waking up in the Walmart parking lot, but it served a purpose.

Next, we headed north to Colorado. This is another state neither of us had ever been! Man, as soon as you cross the border the terrain shifts into lovely rolling hills, green pastures, and snow capped peaks in the distance.   The weather turned a bit rainy, so we pulled off the highway on a whim to follow a sign to towards an RV ranch.

We found ourselves in the “Four Corners” region of southwest Colorado (where Colorado meets Utah, Arizona and New Mexico) and I believe paradise exists here at a ranch called Echo Basin.  This ranch is made up of 600 acres of beautiful green foothills at the base of the southern Rockies.  From May to September it serves as a vacation ranch with cabins, RVs and tent camping.  A staff of 15 runs the place, keeping up the housekeeping, bar, restaurant, campsites and immense grounds.  It backs up against Rim Rock, a gorgeous mountain range full of lakes, mountain bike trails, and glorious, daisy-filled meadows.

IMG_E1440 (1)IMG_E1443 (1)IMG_E1467 (1)The scenery and landscape drew us in, but the cast of characters enthralled us.  First let me tell you about the cowboys. I thought these guys were extinct, but they are very real, and they live here.  Generations of families living in the foothills of the Rockies, these men and women left a lasting impression on me. I got to ride with one of them, share some drinks with a few, but most of my pleasure was gained from eavesdropping at the bar.

In the dark and cozy Millwood Restaurant in a building that dates back at least a century, in a town “that has been trying to die for a hundred years,” they were sitting at the table next to us.  Both were older men, at least in their late 60s, but who knows, possibly 80s.   The only thing that gave away their advanced age was their gray hair (worn long) and their tan, wrinkled faces.  But their mannerisms were surprisingly agile–the way one of them jumped out of his seat when the bartender reached over with a menu, the way they put down their dinners hungrily, along with a couple of Maker’s Marks as well.  They were still wiry.

A third walked past the bar and caught the eye of one of them.

“Ted, hey my man. How ya doing?”

The newcomer went over to their table, shook the taller one’s hand.  The taller one made the introductions.

“Pete, this is Danny.  You know his sister’s husband I think, from the track.  Jeb Green?”  Danny and Pete nod to each other, respectfully. There’s a hint of smile on each of them, courteous-like.

Danny turned back to the tall one, Ted.  “Did you go to the funeral yesterday?”

Ted replied, “Yep, we did the whole rigamarole.  Guess Jack wanted a little parade so a bunch of us marched around his acres for a while.”

Pete asked, “You guys talking about that neighbor you have, up around back? What happened to him?”

Danny shook his head, “You know. Hard living.”

Ted added, “Liver.  Only 51. Too soon.”

They all shook their heads a bit, but the mood wasn’t somber.  This was a new concept of “hard living” for me.  These characters’ banter entertained me all night.

They weren’t the only interesting ones, though.  We arrived in Echo Basin a few days before opening weekend, so instead of guests, we met the work-campers.  They were all were full-time RVers, a unique demographic of people I never knew existed.   I suppose when I first thought about what it was to live in an RV full-time, I imagined empty-nester baby boomers, selling the house and travelling the US for a year to explore the national parks.  And yes, they also exist, but make up less than one percent of all the full-time RVers.  Alas, most full-time RVers, and the ones I met say there are millions of them, should actually be called forever RVers.  These guys never sold their house to buy the RV, because they never had a house. They probably have never had a chunk of money at one time.  Most bought their rigs used or piece-meal, fixing them up as they went along, for $10 or $15 thousand tops.

They don’t pay to stay in RV parks with electricity and water hook ups.  They camp in BLM or National Forest land, which allows you to camp for free in one spot for 14 days without moving. Then they just move a few miles over to a new spot.  And they are not “touring.” They move a lot like migratory birds.  Further south in the winter (Arizona is the spot) and further north in the winter to avoid the heat.  Do they have jobs? Sure. Nothing permanent and nothing full time though.  Hence their appearance at Echo Basin to work the summer season.

So, it was moving day.  For the past few weeks the work-campers had all parked their rigs on “premium spots” on the edge of the camp, with epic views of the mountains and green rolling pastures.   But the guests would be here that weekend, so they were moving over to the back of the camp, where their rigs would remain for the summer.

They finished moving day with a few rounds at the bar.   Mark and I had been hitting some golf balls on the home-made driving range and passed by the bar on the way back.  It was stunning.  We had been imagining a make-shift room with a few bottles of beer for sale, but this bar had once been the Echo Basin Restaurant, a fine dining establishment in the 60s and 70s.   A long polished bar with floor to ceiling glass behind it, etched with horses and cowboys.  The bartender greeted us excitedly, her first customer apart from the staff.  She offered us frozen margaritas dispensed from a margarita machine (quite fancy for such an out of the way spot).  We sat next to Glenda and Jon, full time RVers.

Glenda sort of laid out the lifestyle of “her people.”  She explained, “The goal is to find a nice place that’s free. Some like isolation, some prefer to be close to other RVers. But all like free.   There’s a spot called Courtside in Arizona, we winter there.  For $180, you can buy a permit to camp anywhere over thousands of BLM acres, and you can fill up your water and dump your trash for free.   So you just stock up on food and you can last there for months before you even need to come back to town. “

It blew my mind how little money these people lived on.  And they seemed to be living well.   Glenda and Jon were work-campers this summer, first time at Echo Basin.  In exchange for 25 hours of work per week, they got their campsite with hooks up for the summer. So that means a place to park your rig in a beautiful area of Colorado, as much electricity and water as you need, plus wifi. Jon and Glenda split the 25 hours. She changed sheets in the cabins 12.5 hours a week, and Jon did welding for the other 12.5 hours. So each of them worked less than 2 hours a day. That means they had plenty of time to hang out at “home” with their dogs, tinker around with their rig, ride their motorcycles around, go for long walks, and of course, enjoy the margaritas at the bar.

So I started thinking about Glenda and Jon’s cost of living. For the 7 months in the winter they spend $180 on rent, which includes water and dumping.  Then for the summer they don’t pay any rent in exchange for 12.5 hours of work each.   And what are their other expenses? Food, gas, drinks, maintenance of their rig.    How much they spend on that of course varies, but I imagine they could spend less than $5,000 a year on all that.   Because of their lifestyle, they are naturally not typical consumers.  Shopping isn’t one of their hobbies, because there’s no need to be buying much for 80 square feet of living space.  Jon doesn’t have a collection of beer signs in his man cave.  They avoid hobbies that cost money. Instead of golf, they ride dirt bikes.  Instead of music concerts, they prefer Spotify.  But this is not a sacrifice for them. Part of their daily life is grinding it out. Making each dollar last, such as fixing the broken paper towel holder with a bungee cord so you don’t have to by a new one.

They used to have real jobs.  Jon was an electrical engineer. He spent 15 years in an office, and in the middle of a work day out of the blue, he suffered a stroke when he was 39.  He was in rehab for six months and turned into a different person.  They assigned him a service dog to help him get out of bed.  Jon was such a big guy that they had to assign him a bull mastiff….it was the only one strong enough to get Jon up.

So Buddy helped Jon get back on his feet, and his office called asking when he might be coming back.  Jon had been saving for a down payment on a house, but when he “woke up” from his stroke, he wondered why.  He had $28,000 in his savings account, so he spent half of it on a trailer. Hooked it up to his truck and as he was leaving town, left a voicemail on his old boss’ phone saying that he was done as an engineer.

He had always preferred working with his hands, but his ability at math seemed to force him to be an engineer. Now he didn’t have to. He worked odd jobs learning to weld, fix cars, other things.  Met some full-time RVers who very openly shared their tricks and lifestyles with him. One of them was Glenda, a recent widow.  Now it’s been 10 years since he “woke” up from his stroke, met Glenda, and they’ve been in his trailer ever since.

Mark and I had to drag ourselves away from Echo Basin and its loveliness, but alas, we finally headed out so we could spend the day at Mesa Verde.  This is a spectacular national park with the highlight being ancient cliff dwellings, and an awesome place to ride and run.  We each did our thing.

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Then we spent three nights camping around Rico, Colorado, a tiny town of 252 people (two babies were born this year, the bartender informed us!).  This place is pretty much all wilderness, and has some pretty awesome landscape.  We had some epic rides and runs, and found the best boondocking of the trip.

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Then suddenly we were in Telluride. This was sort of our “goal” for the trip, and also the furthest east we got.  We were super lucky to overlap with Susan and Ellie’s visit to for the Mountain Film Festival.  We had two glorious days exploring and riding in beautiful Telluride with them and about a thousand elk. This might be the most beautiful mountain town ever.

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IMG_E1535IMG_1556Then it was off to Moab for a few days mountain biking in Canyonlands and Arches.  We found excellent trails (beginner for me, gnarly ones for Mark) near HorseThief Campground, and also found the best all you can eat pizza and salad place ever (Zax) to watch the first NBA Finals game (very depressing loss).

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Then it was time to head back west. We hustled through Utah back to Nevada and had one wild night in Vegas.  We stayed at our favorite hotel, Paris. Well, technically it was the parking lot of Paris—ha!  Who knew they offered free overnight parking for RVs?!  Well, whatever we saved on a hotel we lost at the tables, so call it even?  We had a fun night but if felt VERY dirty to wake up with the blazing heat in a parking lot in Vegas, so we got out of there fast.  Five hours later we were dropping off the rig to the owner in Riverside, and now we are back in our tiny car, mere mortals on the road again.

23 days and it went by so fast.  Can’t wait to be on the road again. Well, won’t have to wait long, because we are off to our next trip in 5 days!

 

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

Spanish Virgin Islands

Spanish Virgin Islands

Open up any guidebook about Puerto Rico and you’ll read something cliché about how “here you will experience the true island pace of life of warm trade winds, island music and delicious rum.”   I read that crap all the time everywhere I go, and when I walk the local streets on my own I always realize it was slightly bullshit.  I discover the writer took liberties with the truth in order to paint the atmosphere a bit more rosy.  But this was not the case as we stepped ashore at Esperanza, the southern town of Vieques island, one of Puerto Rico’s Virgin Islands.   On the dock we were greeted by small children laughing and jumping of the dock, chasing needle nose fish.  Along the water was a lovely, short malecon (beach boardwalk), lined with gazebos every now and then for shade, a couple of vendors selling coconuts and jewelry, and lots of handsome couples strolling by.  The women could have all been movie stars, starring in their own Puerto Rican set film.  Wearing silk halter tops and tight pants or skirts, they hung on their beaus’ arms provocatively.  Old men squatted in groups of two or three on the malecon, some playing a sort of roulette game, others just smoking and talking excitedly to each other.  If music started to play, old couples spontaneously started dancing in the streets.

Oh, and did I mention the free range horses wandering through town, even strolling along by themselves right on the malecon? It’s such a delightful sight!

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This one has a rider, but in the morning seven horses were grazing on their own down the malecon.

Everyone greeted us and our dogs as we walked by, in a mix of English or Spanish, and everyone was smiling and friendly.  All the bars across the street were open air and mixed with island locals as well as of mainland Puerto Ricans visiting for the weekend.   We settled at one for a drink, and the Rum Punch special was amazingly delicious (the friendly waitress said the secret was the orange bitters, but I think it was the fresh passionfruit juice as well).  Later we climbed three flights of stairs to enjoy a rooftop bar and watch the sunset. The architecture was gorgeous and there was even a small infinity pool where you could set your drink down on a floating flamingo.

Well, not a bad spot to be stuck, right?  Yep, we are stuck here.  After nearly three weeks of literal smooth sailing, our last few days in Vieques have been full of mishaps.  It started as we left the island of Culebra after a late lunch. (Culebra and it’s little island next door, Culebrita, were gorgeous by the way. Check out Mark’s shots from the drone.)

I suppose we were getting cocky leaving so late, and we got reminded about who’s the boss (Mother Nature) after getting hit by two surprise squalls during our 15 mile sail.  My fearless captain Mark got completely soaked and was pretty much blinded by the rain (while me and the doggies took a nap in the salon—at least I wasn’t nervous!) and then the second one hit just before we got to the island. We decided to wait it out rather than try to enter a narrow bay in the high winds, so Cap took another one for the team while I stayed dry. Finally the storm passed and we got a good look at the bay. Hmmm. What is that lining the entrance to the bay? Ah yes, it is a red buoy chain completely barricading the entire entrance to the bay? WTF?  We had just read about this bay in the cruising book, and it was supposed to be good shelter and an easy anchorage.  Except we couldn’t get in!  After stalling outside the bay for a half hour (and even radioing for information—no answer) we put it together from online forum posts that as of last month, the Navy had closed the bay so that they could disarm old unexploded mines dropped in the bay over the past 50 years.  Greaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.  Now what?  We looked at the map and the next possibility was a good ten miles away, around the eastern point which was known to be rough.  It was 5pm, so we could either head back to Culebra and arrive after dark to a bay that we knew, or hope to beat the sunset around the corner and find another bay. But who knew if the Navy had closed that one too?

We decided to keep going around the point, and at 6:30pm we glimpsed Bahia Salinas del Sur, which luckily was open and easy to get in. We dropped anchor and realized we couldn’t go on shore (again, there’s a sign warning about those pesky unexploded bombs on shore).  But we were happy we are in safe harbor.

Day 3 and 4 don’t treat us much better. We move to Bahia de Chivas and get skunked on a dive site we had read about.  It’s super shallow (about 8 feet) and bad visibility, and the only time it rains is during the 40 minutes we are in the water, which makes the visibility even worse. Then Mark goes for a run and pulls his calf.  It’s a chronic injury and when it happens we know he’s out from running for at least two weeks. Ugh.   That night we call for a taxi to pick us up to take us to town to catch the NBA game, but all the taxis refuse because it’s too far for them to drive.

Even Pancha is a bit out of sorts here in Vieques.  She had quite some excitement at Playa Chivas.  So me and the dogs go to shore in the dinghy for an afternoon beach romp.  It’s a shallow beach landing, which takes some finesse to come in quick enough to hit the beach, but slow enough so that I have time to lift the outboard motor at the last moment.  Everything is going well until I see two huge Rottweilers coming out of the bushes at the beach.  I immediately decide to abort the mission–I quickly make a 180 in the dinghy. But alas, Pancha spots them. We are about 50 feet out in the water, so all she can do is bark, right? Well, yes, for starters. Apparently the presence of two 150 pound rotties (on what is probably their own beach) pisses her off, so she starts barking her head off. The rotties bark back…and something clicks in her. She thinks, “Hell no.” She dives off the dinghy and starts swimming her way to the shore! This is the dog who hates to swim, by the way!

I’m totally shocked and have no idea what to do. If I go into shore I’ll have to also handle the shallow beach entry, the outboard motor, Xolo who is now barking like crazy too, and the wrath of two rotties. So I tell Pancha, Dude, you are on you own. Come back to the dinghy if you want to live.

Meanwhile she’s swimming her tail off towards shore. The rotties jump in and start swimming to her.  Xolo is cheering for Pancha enthusiastically from my lap (with no illusions of backing her up).  Finally one of the rotties meets Pancha midway between us and shore.  Just as they are about to touch noses, Pancha’s little tail goes up like a rudder and she makes a quick 180. She starts booking it back to the boat but the rottie’s still following her!  I yell, “Hurry Pancha!” and as she gets near the dinghy, I grab her collar and pull her up.  She cooly shakes off in the dinghy and mounts at the stern again to bark a few last barks at the rotties as we hightail it out of there.

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Finally we sail to Esperanza, that lovely town I just described, and we have a very nice night.  Perfect—we can leave Vieques with happy memories as we sail the long trip to St. Croix—40 miles, our longest sail ever. In the morning Mark set the alarm and we set out at 6:30am (I helped him with the mooring ball and then jumped back in bed).  About a half hour later he yells down to me.  The seas are rough and the dinghy is dragging low behind us.  I head up and notice HUGE 6-8 foot waves and the winds are at 35 knots. WTF? This was not the forecast.  We are headed due east directly into the wind, and the boat is taking a beating.  Mark has to reef the sails because the winds are so strong and I start getting nervous at the height of the waves. We deliberate for the next hour about turning back, and finally decide to retreat after calculating our slow pace.  We are cruising at a snail’s pace, heading about 2 knots per hour, which will make our trip 12 hours. So by 9am we are back in Esperanza. Nothing to do but head back to bars I guess?

So we spend another day bar crawling in Vieques.

We hitch a ride to the other side of the island (with these hilarious two brothers who can’t stop showing us Instagram pics of their favorite professional wrestlers), and we end up at Mar Azul, the local drinking spots for sailors.  Perfect, because we get friendly with Captain John, a salty dog charter captain who gives us loads of advice about how to get back to USVI the next day.  After carefully considering the charts, his last words are: “Check the winds tomorrow, and if it’s bad, remember, never leave a safe anchorage if you don’t have to.”

Next morning we try again and the seas are calm til about 8am.

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Then the wind picks up again and it’s just like yesterday.  We decide to make a run for it all the way back to St. Thomas (instead of lengthening our trip and sail days towards St. Croix) and it’s a long haul for Cap.

After 9 bumpy hours we make it—gloriously happy to be back at Secret Harbour, the very first bay we ever laid eyes on in USVI. Feels like home!  Now it’s time to get some jalapeno poppers at the Sunset Grill and catch Game 6. Go Cavs!

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Posted by on June 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Land Yachting

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From the minute we picked up this RV, we couldn’t stop laughing. First of all, how is it possible that for $150 a night some dude just handed us the keys for this 27 foot rig? He very casually showed us a few things, and said, “See you in a week!”   As we drove down the hill into PB we were totally excited but we kept cracking up as we saw our reflection in the storefronts.

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Our very overzealous plan was to drive all the way to Sedona, Arizona on the first day. Well, by the time we got the RV it was 1pm, and then it took us about four hours to actually leave San Diego (lunch, visiting Rhodes, grocery shopping, a quick stop by Mark’s mom’s house…you know how it goes). So we get on Highway 8 East at 5:15pm, just in time for rush hour traffic.  A bit unnerving in a gigantic vehicle that Mark barely has a handle on.

Anyway, the sun’s going down and we are in east San Diego by now and thinking, hey, let’s try camping somewhere around here.  I mean, yeah, our plan was to make it all the way to Sedona (450 miles), but hey, we’ve already gone 60 miles, this looks good.  So we had read a bit about “boondocking,” which is what you call it when you park your RV out in the middle of nowhere for free.  I quickly scanned the area and it looked like we were near Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, which means dispersed camping and boondocking is allowed.  So we take the next exit and go right.  I don’t know if it’s in our blood or what, but some sort of instinct was calling us back to Mexico. In a few minutes we saw the wall of the border, and a couple border patrol trucks stationed up on the hill. Almost back in Mexico—this spot felt right.

So we pull down a little dirt road and as we are going down a sandy hill, oops, we hit the bottom.   I jump out and Mark curses for a bit, but we manage to back it out and get on flat ground.  We think, here, then?  We start looking around and suddenly notice a man lounging (sleeping) about 100 meters away on the main road, with a bicycle. We are literally in the middle of nowhere so we are thinking, “Hmm…that’s strange.”  We start wondering what he’s doing, and then we spot a big beige bronco heading our way. As he gets closer, it dawns on us.  Minute man.  Guy waiting suspiciously on the road.   Shit, we gotta get out of here!

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We get in the car and start laughing at how stupid it would have been to spend the night there.  Typical Mark and Michaela, entitled bastards who think we can do whatever we want.  Anyway, we get back on the Highway 8 and make a new plan.  Let’s pull into the next RV camp we find.  Not very adventurous, but who the heck do we think we are, anyway?  We spot a sign and head into Jackson’s Hideaway, and tiny RV camp with about 8 RVs that look like they’ve been there for 100 years.  No one is in sight, so we figure we’ll pay at the office in the morning.  We pull in, I dig around in the cactus until I find the electricity cord, we plug in, and we’re good. Too exhausted to do anything else but fall into bed, and we wake up to this:

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On Day 2 we say, ok today we will make it to Sedona.  Nope.  After a late start, we finally cross the state border and as we cruise through Yuma the In and Out calls to us.  From there we do a few circles around the shopping mall (I’m driving now and turning around is not as easy as you would think!) and keep heading north east.  It’s close to 4pm and we are nowhere near Sedona, so we think, maybe we should try boondocking somewhere around here? I had read a blog about a spot off the I-95 in Kofa Wildlife Refuge Area, so we head in that direction.  We pull down the dirt road and it’s amazing!  Exactly the desert beauty that had spurred us to take this trip!  Tons of beautiful red rocks, blooming cactus, and red earth.  We find a remote spot without a soul in sight and set up camp (which by the way, is super easy in an RV. Basically we park on a flat spot, throw out some lawn chairs, and open a bottle of wine).  Well, wait, we didn’t open the wine yet. It was still light so we went for a run through the desert. Mark did 5 miles while the dogs and I trotted around for a mile until I realized they were getting stickers stuck in their paws, so we hobbled back to the RV and opened said-bottle of wine.

The night is warm and we cook up our bean burritos and sit outside and enjoy the stars. We are two extremely happy campers!

On Day 3 we finally make it to Sedona after driving for what seems like forever.  We follow directions to another boondocking spot of the FS 525, about 10 miles south of the town.  Using Mark’s (painstakingly slow) decision making skills, we find the perfect camping spot (I have to admit, he chose wisely). The view is incredible, we are all by ourselves, and we crack open a couple Budweisers that we bought in honor of being in a motorhome (thanks, Dub, for the wise tip to get Buds, not Bud Light).

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Here’s a short video to show you how amazing this place is:

(Be sure to click on Settings and then for Quality to select 1080p HD for best version)

Mark gets up early to do an awesome desert run, but I’m saving my legs for the bike ride—it’s been four days and I haven’t been on my bike at all, so I’m anxious to go! We drive into Sedona and find a spot to ditch the rig, and jump on our bikes to ride down 89A towards Oak Creek Village.   It’s incredibly scenic as we ride through the red buttes and orange canyons.   The bike lane is wide and comfy compared to riding in Mexico, and I’m having a blast.   The ride ends quickly because I misread the map (it was only 7 miles, not 14), so we grab some lunch in Oak Creek Village and then head back to Sedona.  One of the most scenic rides I’ve ever done, even though it was short!

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That afternoon I say, “We should stay here another night,” which becomes the joke of the trip because I say that every day.  It’s just that each place we stop in is so amazing!  But Mark convinces me to push on, and we drive all the way to Monument Valley, Utah (well, it’s right on the border of Arizona and Utah).  We get in late, pull into the last spot at Gouldings RV campsite (which we called ahead and reserved thank goodness) and head to bed early because we have a big ride in the morning.

Monument Valley is the reason why I planned this trip.  I had heard that you can ride there at sunrise and the views are spectacular.  Our rig was camped just 7 miles from the park entrance, so we were  poised for an epic ride in the morning, assuming we could get our butts out of bed by 6:15.  Well, it was a rough, cold night (we hadn’t figured out how to turn the heat on yet) and the wind was blowing when we peeked our heads out of the RV.  We were grumpy and cold and tired, but after I walked the dogs the dawn was breaking and in the distance we could see just a glimpse of the beauty down the road.  Mark jumped on his bike and I followed after him about 10 minutes later.  I rode on that beautiful road listening to YoYo Ma and trying to record every moment in my memory forever.

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We had read that once you get to the entrance, you can’t go any further unless you have a good vehicle to navigate the 17 mile dirt road (certainly not possible on a road bike). So I parked my bike and enjoyed the silence of the morning, drinking coffee and learning about the history of the Navajo people.

Meanwhile, what do you think Mark did? Well, having arrived at the dirt loop before the park opened, there was nobody stopping him from rolling in on his road bike.  He figures, “I’ll just start and see how rough it gets.” Well, three hours later he peddles the last of the seventeen mile loop, with a number of scratches and bruises from multiple falls.  So he is possibly the first dude on a road bike to ride the whole valley and he swears it was the best ride of this life. I’m sure it was.

SWUS-22SWUS-20We meet back at the campground and compare notes, giggling with excitement.  We decide to head back to Monument Valley in the RV so the dogs can see how beautiful it is, and we have a lovely lunch in the café.

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Now it’s mid afternoon and time to make a decision. Although I say, “We should stay here another night,” we agree to push on to Valley of the Gods, which is only 40 miles away.  Valley of the Gods is known as a mini-Monument Valley, and the great appeal to us was that it was in BLM land that allowed us to camp by ourselves wherever we wanted. And boy did we find a campsite!

So we set up camp and sit down for our sundowners, basking in the glory of the day. The light changes and Mark says, “Wow, I gotta fly the drone right now!” I remind him that he’s not much of an agile pilot after a few drinks, but he says he’s got it, and takes off for the most gorgeous flight of his life. As we watch the camera capturing the footage of the valley, the buttes, and the canyons, we gasp as it seems the drone is just too close to the butte.  All of a sudden, we lose signal and it’s gone.  Nooooo!!!!  Not only does this mean we have lost the drone, but also its last flight footage.  We scan the horizon, and we have a good idea of where it crashed. Unfortunately it’s about 600 meters up a cliff.  I make the executive call, “Run! Let’s go find it before the sun goes down!”  So we go sprinting down the road and start shuffling up a shale covered red mountain. It’s like an easter egg-treasure hunt, and we spread out racing to find it before it’s too dark to find our way back.  I decide we are turning back at 7:45, and then give us a few extra minutes, and at 7:47 Mark yells, “I got it!”

Now we hustle our way back down the cliff before it’s completely dark (it gets kind of sketchy, and I don’t think the alcohol was helping)  but we make it, and it’s time to celebrate again!  Check out the footage of this drone’s last flight:

(Be sure to click on Settings and then for Quality to select 1080p HD for best version)

Well, those are enough stories for now. We head north the next day for a very different landscape, and there are few more good stories to share. Stay tuned!

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Safari Chic

It had been seven years since we’d been on safari, so when Mark’s mom asked us if we wanted to join her in Africa, it was pretty easy to say, “Yes!”  After a bit of planning we decided to join an organized group tour that was heading to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia for the first eighteen days in August.  We were joined by Diane’s long-time friend from Kingsburg, Jo Ann Polenz.  The four of us made great travel partners, and even though there were a few bumps in the road, we are very grateful for the time we got to spend with both of them.

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Among the highlights were some spectacular animal sightings, some thoughtful retrospection about conservation and life in general, and some beautiful lodges.  Lowlights included violent diarrhea, a trip leader who was determined to say no to everything we asked him, and way too many group activities of “Learning and Discovery.”  I will share just a few memories.

Elliot’s Pontification on Life

On our first morning game safari in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, our guide Elliot Nobula drove just out of the camp and then stopped the jeep. He climbed out and bent over to pick a few twigs off a small bush. It was wild basil, and by crushing the leaves suddenly the sweet aroma of basil was overpowering. Each of us held a piece of the fragrant basil as he spoke.  What started as a simple explanation of the plant, turned into a beautiful poem.

“This plant may smell like something you may remember. All living organisms have a way of communicating with us.  Right now this plant is talking and has joined our conversation.  Considering that I have learnt to appreciate and understand true language passed on to me by all living organisms, be it animals, trees, insects, also herbs like this wild basil, that smells like comfort, like Vicks.   Every time I find it out there I pick it up and behave as if I’m addicted to it.

In my village, when children cry all night long it is thought the innocent kids are seeing goblins or spirits.  The elders then advise and encourage the use of this weed by burning it on the hot charcoal. As it smolders it drives the bad spirits out for good.  Basically as the smoke fills the hut the kids’ nasal cavities open up and feel better from the mucus congestion.  So would we say the bad spirits live in the nasal cavity? Ha! Food for thought!

These plants talk to other animals such that they do not get browsed, so they can reach maturity and the seeds can be re-propagated. It is an amazing defensive manner since these animals may not like the taste.

All living organisms’ first and most important mandate is to maintain their gene pool, so they evolve and adapt in a manner where they continue to regenerate and reproduce.  Hence they are like us. We want to see our own reflection in the mirror.  That mirror is our own offspring.

Humans just need to humble themselves in front of Mother Nature so that they have a mutual relationship with other living organisms which they clearly depend on.  With this attitude to all around us, conservation may be achieved through sustainable utilization in a symbiotic relationship.

If this was my supermarket, it would remain to be my church too, since I pray all the time without trying too hard.”

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Elliot Nobula

Afterwards he said, “With that prayer, let’s go see if we can find some elephants.”

Elephant Ahead!

When our tiny plane landed in the Okavango Delta on a desolate airstrip, we were met by two guides waiting for us in jeeps.  On the short drive to camp we spotted a few elephants walking in a lush marsh, and we quietly watched them for a while.  Then we noticed a lone bull elephant a little further away.  Kabo, our guide, expertly moved our jeep so that we would be right in his path.  Sure enough, a few minutes later the bull approached us and came so close that a few of us could have reached out and touched him. It was thrilling and frightening at the same time, and I smiled as I heard Diane say something to the driver. I couldn’t quite make it out, but it was something along the lines of, “Uh, are we ok? There’s an ELEPHANT right there.”  It was quite a moment and luckily Nick got a great shot of it from the other vehicle.

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The Wild Dog Chase

It was day five of our safari and we still hadn’t seen a predator except for a few wonderful minutes the first morning when we spotted the leopard.  We were now in the Okavango Delta which was full of all kinds of exciting predators, so we knew it was only a matter of time.  Since we had arrived there the camp guides were talking about the wild dogs that lived nearby. Wild dogs are not as well known as some of the other African predators, but keep in mind that they are not feral dogs that used to be domesticated. They are their own wild species, sometimes called “the Painted Dog” because of their unique markings. Their populations are incredibly endangered and there are only about 250 packs left on earth.

Here in the Delta, their den, which had been located and marked by the guides, was recently abandoned.  The guides were worried because there were lion tracks around the den, and their fear was that perhaps lions had killed their pups.  The pack hadn’t been seen since the lion tracks were discovered. In fact, as we were out game driving we met a group of researchers and our guide informed them of the bad news about the lion tracks near then den.  The researchers’ faces dropped and they looked visibly upset.

But that afternoon while we took our siesta, Wise went searching for signs of them and spotted their tracks. As soon as we jumped in the jeep he took us straight to their last tracks.  He said that since the sun was almost down it was likely that they would be waking up soon to start hunting. Within twenty minutes, suddenly, there they were! It was so exciting to spot them!  Sure enough, they were just trotting across the bush, and we counted 18 of them.

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One pup was missing, so the lion probably got him, but the guides were stoked to see that the other pups were still alive.  Within minutes the dogs started spreading out into a wide flank, in hunting formation.   It’s sort of surprising to learn that wild dogs are the most effective predators in Africa. Because they can run for long distances and always hunt together, they can tire out almost any type of prey. As a survival strategy, all prey animals have a “zone of safety” that they alter depending on the type of predator.  If they see a lion nearby, they know how far away they need to be in order to be safe from getting caught. A cheetah, who is faster, requires a different safety distance.  In general most prey animals prefer to “see” their predators from a distance so they know where they are.  Wild dogs are different. There is no comfortable safety zone between a prey animal and a wild dog. If a prey animal sees a dog, he starts running.  No matter how far away a wild dog is, he can eventually take down prey. The dogs just tire out their prey by running forever.

So on this night the dogs quickly spread out so widely that they were almost a mile apart. They were setting up to use their strategy of confusing their prey and coming in at every angle. Which such a large pack, it seemed likely they would eat soon.  Of course as they spread out they strayed off the road, but the beauty of being in a private reserve, rather than a game park, is that we were allowed to drive off road.  We were in Wise’s vehicle (which was lucky, as he is the MASTER of tracking and rough driving).  He took off after them driving through bushes and ditches and chasing them like mad.

Africa_MikaPics-4At one point they led us to a marsh and they crossed over it to a small island.  Wise looked at the deep water between us and the island, and hesitated a bit considering the risk of driving through the deep water.  Eventually he went for it and we prayed we didn’t get stuck. We made it! We got to the island and in the bushes we found the four pups and two “babysitter” dogs with them. The rest of the pack had kept going and were nowhere in sight.  It seemed the pups had stayed behind because they couldn’t keep up, so they were playing around on the marshy island while the babysitters watched over them.  The puppies were so adorable. About three months old, they were just starting to learn about hunting so today was just a play day for them.

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We had a wonderful five minutes with them until suddenly there was a long shriek of howling in the distance.  Mark said, “I think they caught something.” He was right!  About a mile away the pack had taken down a lechwe, a small antelope. When wild dogs catch something, they all go crazy for a moment with excitement.  The pups and the babysitters’ ears perked up and immediately the babysitters took off, obviously anxious to get a piece of that antelope. The puppies fell behind and suddenly the babysitters had swum across to the next patch of land and the puppies waited hesitantly on the shore, afraid to cross the water by themselves. We all got very worried that the pups would get lost. One of them tried to swim across but halfway there changed his mind and swum back. The others stood at the bank nervously.  Ironically our driver Wise was in a similar predicament. He wanted to drive through the water to catch up with the pack, but he wasn’t sure the jeep would make it either. Finally Wise started driving across and at the same time the pack made a loud howl again. As soon as the pups heard it, they dove into the water, following us and the sounds of their family.

We all arrived at the kill around the same time, and the pups got in the action, chewing on what was left of the carcass. The entire antelope was completely eaten within ten minutes.  It was an amazing thing to see!

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Lion Tracking

After the excitement of the wild dog hunt, we went to bed with happy hearts, but we were woken in the middle of the night by a male lion roaring in our camp. Everyone heard it and at breakfast we all talked about it excitedly.  We jumped in Wise’s vehicle after breakfast and he followed the lion’s tracks straight out of camp.  In the vehicle with us was Glen, the Kawi Village representative who was there to ensure the guides followed the rules and respected their land.  But Glen was not really an enforcer. He and Wise had a long history of tracking together and the two of them set to work tracking this male lion.  Watching them work together following the tracks was thrilling. They would drive for a minute, and then study the tracks. Sometimes one or the other would jump out to look at tracks and point in a direction to the other and they would both jump back in and drive on.  After about five minutes they said the tracks had changed and now there was a female and a young adult as well.  Later they remarked that there was a giraffe. And then, very quietly, Glen motioned to the left and said, “There are the lions.”  Lying about 10 feet away from us under the bushes were five gigantic lions.  All were sleeping except the male lion, who had a recently-killed baby giraffe in his claws and was busy munching its neck.  They looked up at us but didn’t seem bothered in the least.

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I really enjoyed watching Mark’s mom’s reaction.  She looked frightened but awed and utterly on the edge of her seat.  Jo Ann had already stood up and Wise quietly said, “Ok, guys. These are LIONS.  Do not stand up or make any quick movements.” Jo Ann sat down.  Mark and I grinned.

We settled the jeep just a few feet away from them and spent the next half hour watching the male enjoy his breakfast.  The two sister females had caught the giraffe early that morning.  The mama, auntie and two eight-month-old cubs had already feasted on it before the male showed up.  They all were relaxing in the warm morning sun with full bellies.

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Later we watched as the cubs tried to go back to the carcass for seconds.  The male lion growled as they approached and when the male cub moved a little closer, the male lion made a ferocious fake charge that sent the cub running.  The male then dragged his paw across the sand making a line, and urinating over it. It was a clear sign that this boundary was not to be crossed.  However, a few minutes later when the female cub tried the same thing, the male lion’s growling was half-hearted and eventually he let her snuggle up to him and eat more of the carcass. The guide explained that the male was already feeling a bit competitive with his son, who would eventually leave the pride to find his own, whereas this female cub daughter would stay in the pride forever and would soon be hunting for her father, so he felt a stronger allegiance to her.  Daddy’s little girl.

We came back late that afternoon and the lions were still napping in the bushes.  We were treated to a delightful little “hunt” by the female cub.  A jackal showed up, probably smelling the kill, and started trotting around the perimeter trying to figure out if he could steal a snack. Of course he didn’t stand a chance against the male lion, but he was just checking.  The female cub spotted him and for a few moments started stalking him.  He ran off eventually but it was great to see her skills getting more refined!

Flying the helicopter in the Delta with Wise and Junior

Mark got to fly his drone at each of the parks, but one of the highlights was in the Delta.  The camp manager Junior was quite keen to see the drone in action, so he arranged for Wise to drive us out to the bush for a bit of flying after lunch.  It was Wise, Junior, Mark and I, and it was so nice to be without the group for a change.  On the way out we were lucky to spot a sparrow hawk flying low with a snake in his talons.  He dropped the snake and then flew off.  Then a Tawny Eagle swooped down, grabbed the snake, and took off.  Wise, who is a self-proclaimed “bird lover,” started shaking his head when we asked him what had happened.  He said, “It doesn’t make sense. The sparrow hawk doesn’t hunt snakes. And why did he drop it?  Maybe it’s a different bird?” He studied the scene with his binoculars and flipped through his bird book and finally he said, “Aha. That sparrow hawk was after a mouse, and grabbed it just as a snake was also trying to eat the mouse. The snake got caught in his talons too. When the snake fell, the sparrow hawk flew off to eat the mouse and then the Tawny Eagle came down and swooped up the snake.” Pretty cool turn of events!

We arrived at a clearing and Mark showed the boys how the helicopter worked and then flew over a group of hippos.  He let Wise fly it a little bit and both of them were excited about the potential for photography from the drone vantage.   It was a magical moment for sure.


Observations about African Life and Culture

I find that many travelers try to make quick generalizations about the people and cultures they meet, attempting to put them “in a box” so they can easily understand and classify them.  I am hypersensitive to these quick, hasty observations, and I endeavor to keep my eyes and ears open before making judgements.  However, one thing I feel fairly confident in summing up is that family is so much more important here in southern Africa.  Almost everyone has large extended families and they rely on each other so much more than in the US.  Aunties are necessary to help you arrange your marriage.  If you and your boyfriend want to get married, he has to go to your auntie with his family to work out the details.  I asked, “What if your mom or dad doesn’t have a sister? What if you don’t have an auntie?” and I was answered, “You always have an auntie. It’s impossible for you not to have auntie! You have many aunties!”

Extended family members also take care of your cattle and farms when you go to the city to work.  In the city, family members take in cousins and nieces and nephews when they are going to school. However, people prefer to retire back in their villages, even if they are humble and without even water and electricity, rather than remain in the cities where they worked and raised their children (just like in Mexico).

Though they are gradually modernizing, people are much more conservative about issues like homosexuality and women’s rights.  Women cannot drink or smoke without getting a bad “reputation.”  Men still get much more respect and privileges than women.  In fact, a wife is not supposed to look directly into her husband’s eyes because it will appear that she is “challenging him.”

American culture is slowly influencing the youth, especially TV. The Kardashians were a topic. We were asked about them and their general comment was, “We are very confused by them.” So are we!.

The way people talk is beautiful and gentle and full of laughter.  They speak English fluently with a singsong African accent, and occasionally use delightful diction and turns of phrases like “If you wish to extend your territory, we can stop the jeep at any time.”  Whenever a guide gave us a briefing, he ended with, “So, are we together?”  Their accents and diction still ring in my head melodically.

Why Mark and I “Do Not Play Well with Others”

I definitely learned a bit about myself during these eighteen days on a group tour.  After about Day 3, Mark and I were ready to ditch the tour.  It wasn’t that we didn’t get along with our fellow travelers—they were all quite pleasant, polite, and friendly.  It was just that we didn’t want to follow the trip leader, Hupu.  It was so hard to let him lead us around, giving us a “briefing” at least four times a day, dictating when we would eat, when we would sleep, and even when we would go to the bathroom.

As many of you know, I am used to being the leader (they didn’t call me Michaela “I have a better idea” Monahan during girl scouts for nothing!). So it was natural that when our leader Hupu told us how the morning would go, often I would have some suggestions.  Now I know that being on a group tour means compromise, and I suppose I probably need to work on that aspect of myself, but gosh darn it, my ideas were good ones!  Anytime I asked for a tiny little modification, he would say no without even considering a way to accommodate me.  From the very beginning he seemed not to like Mark and me, perhaps because we were the odd balls of the group, the only ones under 65, not dressed in khakis with pocketed vests, and travelling with a helicopter drone.  (As an aside, before we left I was joking with Diane about her packing list, and I was teasing her about avoiding fashion faux paxs.  My advice was to avoid this:

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And if necessary, lean towards “safari chic.”

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You can guess what our fellow travellers looked like.)

The other problem was that we had already been on several safaris and every time they had been private ones in which we called all the shots.  If we saw a lion kill and wanted to hang out for an hour and see if the hyenas showed up, we did.  If we wanted to get up an hour early so we hit the bush right at sunrise, we would.  Now, suddenly, we had to go along with the group.  So that made this safari significantly inferior to the other ones, which was a major bummer.

Finally, since Mark and I began travelling together almost twenty years ago, we have always avoided group tours because we crave our independence.  We like to skip a day sometimes and just lounge around camp, soak up the camp atmosphere, or spend time writing. We like to make time for working out.   But our trip leader was adamant that we participate in everything. For example, each meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) was set on a long table in which there was a guide or staff member seated at every third seat. The purpose was for us to interact with our fellow guests and African hosts.  And this is great, but not for every meal.  After a while we realized we were spending just a few minutes a day talking with Mark’s mom because we were expected to socialize with so many other members of the group.  We started feeling bitter that our “quality time” was being hijacked by our Nazi trip leader.   I tried to hijack it back by sneaking into the dining room early and rearranging chairs just so we could all sit together, and I would hustle back and forth from the bar to our tents during happy hour so we could enjoy our drinks privately before dinner. But it was a real EFFORT just to have time to talk.

Anyway, lesson learned! We will never do a group tour again!

“In our culture, we eat cornflakes for breakfast.” Why this group was hilarious.

Ok, let me remind you that the other ten Americans joining us on this trip were all good natured, kind people.  Some of them were also fairly well-travelled, though without much experience travelling independently. However, a few of them said some hilarious things that kept us giggling in our tents for many hours after dinner.

For example, they frequently felt the need to “educate” our African guides, waiters, and housekeeping staff about the ways of America.  They seemed genuinely convinced that the staff was actually interested in learning about our cultures, and I can’t count the number of times I heard them explaining, “In our culture, the women go to work…” or, “In our culture, we eat cornflakes for breakfast.”  It was clear to me and Mark that when a staff member hovered over our shoulder during dessert, she really had zero interest in learning about our culture, and actually just wanted to know if we wanted tea or coffee.  But our fellow guests naively thought differently.

The cherry on top was the last night of each of the four camps we stayed at.   There was a predictable “last night at camp” show performed by the staff, in which everyone came out from behind the scenes to sing a few African songs in their local language. Their voices were beautiful and a few of them seemed into it, but overall they were basically “on the clock” dancing for the Americans.   But what was worse is that after they finished singing, they invited us up to perform. Hmm…what did the staff expect? And more importantly, what did they want?  I believe they didn’t necessarily want to swap seats, sit back, and be entertained by dancing Americans.  Instead, I think they just wanted to go to bed because they had to get up again at 4:30 in the morning to make our breakfast.

But our group of fellow Americans felt differently. They earnestly believed that the staff was craving American culture and dancing, and by God, they were determined to provide it.  What kind of entertainment did we perform, you ask?   Well, the first musical ensemble was a stirring rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  Then, another beautiful melody called “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  But that was not it! Seven songs later (including another cultural meme  “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” which was prefaced by an explanation of Santa Claus, and yes, with our hands on our hearts, “God Bless America”)  the final straw was when 15 white Americans sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to a group of black Africans.  That was our cue to leave.

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Mark and I managed to get out of two of these performances by sneaking out before dessert, but we have to admit we did stand up there a few times (against our will).  The last show was pretty funny because by then the Americans were busy rehearsing throughout the afternoon and planning an even more elaborate performance.   I normally don’t mind hearing people singing (Did I mention that three of them were active local theater performers back home?) but when they were practicing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on our six-passenger light aircraft and there’s nowhere to hide, Mark and I were about to lose it. The trip leader caught wind of it and actually took some of us aside and said that our performance had to be short because otherwise the staff would need to be paid overtime to watch it. Ha!  Finally, proof that the staff had to be paid to suffer through this torture!

Mission Impossible

The highlight of the trip for Mark was the thrilling morning he piloted his drone helicopter over Victoria Falls.  Even before he took off, the “mission” was already a bit dicey because it was unclear if he was actually allowed to fly there.  Not only does Victoria Falls lie across the international border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are frequent ultralight and helicopter flights hovering over the falls that he could technically interfere with.   But you know Mark. When it comes to rules in a gray area, you could say that is his niche.  His first flight was picture perfect, and after a few minutes he had a crowd of locals and tourists huddled around his screen watching the footage he was taking above.  But perhaps he got too cocky, because even though the battery was low, he pushed it a little longer than usual.  When he knew time was up, he looked in the air to find the drone so he could navigate it home, but it was unfortunately behind him in the direction of the sun. It was impossible to see, so he tried to use the “force” to bring it home. The force was weak in him that day.  Eventually the drone “emergency return to home” feature clicked on (he had never had to use this function) and Mark just prayed that it would come home. He frantically scanned the skies and then watched on the screen as the helicopter descended quickly and crashed into the jungle.  He had no idea where it was.

The drone sends out a signal when it crashes but only until the battery runs out, so he knew he only had a few minutes. He started frantically running around the waterfalls searching for it, but no luck.  After about twenty minutes he was about to give up when a local boy ran up to him and said, “Did you lose an airplane?”  The boy had seen the direction in which it crashed.  Mark said, “Let’s go!” and the boy ran with him down the path for a half-mile. Then the boy jumped into the bushes and came out a minute later with the drone. Mark was so relieved and happy!

After that, he flew one more mission (this time even more aggressively, but without crashing!). Here are the fruits of this labor of love:

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It was very special for us to spend time together, especially for Mark and his mom.  They had some “moments” driving around in the bush while listening to songs from The Power of One on their headphones (I think they both were crying).  Those two have a special bond and I just love seeing how much they love each other.  One night his mom really opened up, telling us stories that we had never heard before about her childhood and her time in Vietnam.  She told tales ranging from partying with her fellow officers in Nha Trang to white-water rafting the class IV rapids of the Colorado.  It is no secret where Mark gets his zest for travel and adventure.  What was also terrific was to see her enthusiasm for exploring renewed, and it was clear that this trip just strengthened her resolve to seek out more adventures (hopefully with us by her side!).

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(Oh yeah! And I think the best thirty seconds of the trip for me were during this zip line over the Zambezi!)

So even though this trip wasn’t what we had hoped for, there were definitely some great moments that we will treasure, like the wind in my hair as we drove around in the open jeep scanning the horizon for animals, the fun of learning bits of each new language, sundowners overlooking silhouettes of African Baobab trees, and monkeys peering in my tent during nap time. Thanks for reading, everybody!

The End!

The End!

 
6 Comments

Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Uncategorized

 
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Mark’s Indonesia Photo Blog

If you’ve read Michaela’s blog, you already know that this was the trip of a lifetime. She covered everything above water, so I’ll try to cover everything below. If you want to skip the wall of text about my new obsession with photography, just scroll down to where the pictures start!

So I’ve always wanted to learn how to take underwater photos, but the cost of equipment coupled with the ridiculous amount of required information and my general laziness made it all equate to a simple shrug of the shoulders and a “someday”. I just wanted to snap my fingers and bypass all the research and studying. My attitude changed when I booked this Indonesian live-aboard dive trip and knew I’d have plenty of time to learn the basics. We were spending 6 weeks in Cozumel (diving area in the Caribbean) a few months back when I met a girl that broke down underwater photography and camera types for me in a really simple 15 minute conversation. She explained what features were important for a novice like myself and which features were required at the expert level and thus could be avoided. I raced home, found a good site that sold an underwater package including the camera she highly recommended, housing (to make it waterproof), strobe (external underwater flash), red filter (to make videos less green/blue), and all the pieces to make them talk and play nice with each other. $1,000 later I was in business. Thank you Christina!

In preparation for all of my downtime between dives, I downloaded every article I could find on the internet about underwater photography (we would be offline for the two weeks on the boat).  Of course I only got through two articles the entire trip!

When we arrived on the Arenui we were introduced to the crew and guests. The main salon had several camera desks, which are areas to work on your camera, recharge batteries, store ancillary equipment, and so forth. The two main photographers immediately began setting up their equipment and it was obvious that Larry took his photography very seriously. His setup looked like an octopus with arms, lights, strobes, buoys, and lenses reaching out like tentacles in every direction. I was surprised to see how fast he set everything up and that he then directly went topside to just relax.  I assumed he would have fiddled with it for hours.

I introduced myself and we immediately had a connection. I asked some general question about photography to get the conversation started while trying not to sound like a complete novice. He was so volunteering of information that I conceded quickly that I didn’t know the first thing about photography. It was the equivalent of a Pop Warner kid asking a NFL veteran for some pointers. He gave me some excellent advice from a very broad and large perspective. Some of it didn’t make complete sense at the time, but it did as the days melted away. For example, he told me that this was a very special trip we were on (there were several places we visited and sites where no one had ever dove) and that I should make an effort to enjoy and absorb every aspect of it, as opposed to obsessing about my camera, my photos, my photo editing, etc. I had to chuckle a bit to myself on the inside since that definitely would not be my sort of problem. I hadn’t spent more than the 15 minutes with Christina and the hour buying the gear online and had no intention of doing much more than pointing and shooting and learning from there.

I didn’t take the camera on our first dive just to make sure all of our diving gear was sorted out. On the next dive I only used the camera to shoot video since it is much easier to get decent footage than still photos. The cruise director, Edu, noticed that I had the same camera he did and he showed me a few settings to make the videos a bit sharper and get the color correct underwater. It worked out beautifully that he had the same camera because over the next 2 weeks he taught me technical and minute things about my specific camera that I never would’ve figured out on my own or through reading articles. I was impressed with the video quality and it tempted me to stay away from the daunting still photos, but on Day 2 I started taking pics with a flash diffuser (a piece of plastic that covers the built-in camera flash to spread out the light more).

This is a very simple way to take stills since you can just shoot in auto mode and have the flash set to always fire, just like on land. The problem is that the flash isn’t very strong and it always fires in the same direction so that you can’t manipulate the lighting of the shot. The other problem is that when the flash is firing in the same direction as the shutter, the particles in the water reflect the light which causes the famous “backscatter” in the photos where it looks like it’s snowing. I was still pleased with the photos, but could realize that it was time to start learning the strobe.

That night I asked Edu to help me set it up. He gave me some great tips that I understood immediately and many others that were beyond my current scope. Most camera/strobe combos have a feature called TTL, or Through The Lens, which basically means auto-mode. I had specifically made sure that the camera/strobe combo I purchased had this feature as I had been told that the strobe was one of the more complicated apects of the process and any automation like TTL to remove another variable would be wise for a novice.

Well, Edu would have none of it and insisted that I shoot the strobe in manual mode, along with all the other camera settings. I could already tell that I was hooked and decided to just use all manual settings, no matter how annoying and poor the shots would be. Edu gave me the basics of f-stop, shutter speed, ISO settings, and strobe settings. Those are the four basic variables that a camera shooting in auto mode would do on its own. Of course those four settings were three too many for me to focus on underwater and I would therefore just concentrate on one variable for the entire dive. I could see the effects quickly and had hoped that adjusting that feature would become second nature. Of course that would be too easy! I would constantly get flustered and mess up the settings. I therefore practiced taking shots above surface around the boat to try and learn without the added variables of being underwater.

The usual routine became that I would come up from a dive and show my results to Edu. I would scroll over the crappy shots and try to show him my “good” shots, but he immediately asked, “Hey, what are you doing? I want to see all the photos!” I explained that most of them were either crap or literally unrecognizable. He explained how each photo has the meta data displayed on it so that we could see the four variable settings. He would then explain why that particular combo of settings were inaccurate for that shot and what they all should have been to get the ideal photo. In the extremely rare case where the photo looked decent, he would likewise explain why the settings worked for that particular photo.

This is when the learning curve really exploded. I would take in all this invaluable information and apply it on my next dive. After every dive we would repeat this learning process and hone the shots. Because of the nature and physics of diving, we are limited to about 60 minutes of dive time and require 1.5-2 hours on the surface to burn off the excess nitrogen in our system before we’re allowed to dive again. This “surface interval” became my classroom and as each dive passed, the errors became fewer and fewer.

By the fifth or sixth day, I had the variables under reasonable control and Edu moved the lessons towards artistic composition. He showed me the photos in the classification books lying around the salon and explained that they were decent photos, in focus, correct color, and one could easily identify the subject in question. He then showed me some of his personal photos as well as his favorites and it was quickly obvious how the photographer can use many more tangible and intangible tools to create something closer to art than merely an identification photo.

A good example is that many of the underwater photos that leave the viewer awestruck have a black background. I was always a bit annoyed that these Nat Geo photographers had the audacity to remove the creature from its home and shoot it with a black background. How naive! What really happens is that the shutter speed is set so that it is slow enough for the flash to arrive at the subject and light it up, but fast enough that the ambient light from the background never makes it to the lens, hence a black background.

On the occasions when Edu was busy during the surface interval, I would pick the brains of Nic (Nichole), Indra, or Larry and ask them a question or two about a photo that I had just taken that was “off”. They each had their own artistic style and while their answers were similar from a technical standpoint, I could quickly see how many different ways you could shoot the same subject and get widely different outcomes. Indra usually gave me advice on the equipment itself and how to get the most out of it. Larry continued with his large scope views and would give sage advice that would put a nice umbrella over the whole project. Oftentimes the three boys would get ahead of themselves and start on tangents that would fly right over my head. That’s when I would have to make a list of notes and take them to Nic to have her translate what the hell they just said. She would patiently explain the nuts and bolts of the photos that the boys would sometimes gloss over.

I had downloaded photoshop before I left New Zealand and figured it was time to throw this piece into the mix as well.  With the guidance of my instructors, I realized that what I really needed was a program called Lightroom.  Luckily I had a similar program and started editing my photos at night.  This was much closer to my wheelhouse since my life is spent on a computer and I had used similar software back in my engineering days at Anatech.  I quickly learned what parts of the photo could be polished and which could not (i.e. focus).  From that point on, I could “see” the photo before shooting underwater and would try to concentrate on the most important variables: light, focus, composition, and shooting angle.

That first night I cracked open the software, I became utterly consumed and stayed up til 3am!  Boat life starts early, so I was a zombie through little breakfast.  Edu took one look at me and chuckled since he knew what had happened.  Remember at the beginning of this blog when I scoffed at Larry for telling me not to obsess about the photos and camera and to just relax and savor the entire trip?  Yeah, right!

When I returned home and shared my stories with my sister, who is a professional photographer, she was floored that I got so much specialized attention. She explained that she goes to paid workshops and conferences and usually leaves with some additional information and tips, but nothing like having your own personal quiver of professors that analyze your work all day long. I was truly blessed that these four took the time to help me work through the growing pains and find the fascination on the other side. Thank you!

OK, so now to the fun stuff – the photos!

Well, before any photos, let me start with a video.  We pulled up to a tiny island with a village of about 60 inhabitants to drop anchor and spend the night.  As was customary, we sent over a couple of our Indonesian dive masters to ask permission to dive their waters (the villagers often times mistake our boat for a fishing vessel).  The chief was intrigued and took our boys to a secret pinnacle a mile offshore that he said was teaming with big fish.

We were giddy with excitement about what we might find in this new location.  Since it was surrounded by deep water, we were diving the edges of it hoping to see something big pass by and we did indeed see a large marlin (amongst many other great things)!  The currents picked up, so we hooked into the reef, which meant each of us was tethered to the reef with a six foot rope so that the current couldn’t sweep us away.  I was situated in front of my buddies, so when this eel came up out of the reef I had no warning.  Since my anxiety level was already high at this virgin location, I really thought he may want to do more than check me out.  The problem was that I was physically attached to the reef and couldn’t go anywhere!

 

One of the most interesting creatures in these waters is called a Nudibranch.  Nudi refers to “naked” and branch refers to “lungs”.  Their lungs on the outside of their bodies and they usually resemble a tail.  There are over 2,000 different species and they are all extremely unique in appearance.  Most of the ones we observed were about half the size of your finger, but they tend to stand out due to their striking colors.  This is a defense mechanism from predators and warns them that they are poisonous and distasteful (although few are actually poisonous).  Check out their lungs in these photos…



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While the nudis rely on bold colors to warn off predators, most other tiny creatures rely on camouflage for survival and without the help of our unbelievable guides, we would never find 99% of them.  Some are creatures that you’ve never seen or heard of before and look like something from the Star Wars cantina scene or the Avatar forest.  Others are normal creatures with a twist.  Here is a crab, but no ordinary crab.  This is a Decorator Crab.  They stick plants, anenomes, sand, and anything else from their environment to their bodies for camouflage…

ArenuiJPGs-97This Decorator Crab’s camouflage of choice is anenomes.  Can you see his purple and white banded legs?  His eyes perched on his pink head looking towards the upper right corner?

 

Now here is a sequence of photos of a very special animal…

ArenuiJPGs-114This photo above shows a typical sea fan (with Indra in the background). Commit the size of this to memory.

 

ArenuiJPGs-115arrowSo now in this shot above I’m much closer to the sea fan. I am using the technique described above to shoot a black background for a more dramatic effect. Do you see the creature in this photo?  Go ahead and click on the picture and it should give you a larger version.  I’ve put a small scale in the corner to give you an idea of what size the creature is.

 

ArenuiJPGs-115circleDid you find it? It’s a Pygmy Seahorse! This guy is less than a centimeter, or about the size of your fingernail. Scroll back up to the photo with Indra to see how small those seafan’s fingers are.

 

ArenuiJPGs-116circle Do you see the seahorse in this photo? Not only are they masters of camouflage, but if they are sitting with their profile in view (as in the previous picture) they are more easily spotted and therefore in greater danger. Just when you think their camouflage can’t get any better, whenever another animal approaches them (like a photographer, for instance), they turn 90 degrees so that they just become a line. Trust me, they are incredibly difficult to see and equally difficult to get a good shot of.  Talk about a kid who won’t smile for the camera!

So these guys are one of the top 3-5 things that we had slated to find on this trip. When we finally saw one, I was quite nervous to get a good shot without hurting him. I had the camera lens literally one inch from him while I was floating in a three dimensional space with currents, all the while being aware that if my exhale bubbles hit him it would most likely blow him into deep space. I got several great shots and was ready to explode when I got to the surface to analyze my treasures.

I immediately showed the shots to Edu and he kindly sculpted an answer somewhere between “congratulations” and “you’ve got a lot more to learn young grasshopper”. While the shots were decent (not the ones from above, but some close-ups), they weren’t in perfect focus. Of course a macro lens that magnifies would’ve made things easier, but he described the technique of how to shoot these guys in manual focus. Basically, the camera is focusing on a limb from the seafan or even the wrong part of the seahorse (you always want the eyes in focus). The “trick” is to use manual focus, keep shooting until you get the correct focus, and then commit that distance to memory. Then start swaying in the same rhythm of the seafan and seahorse in the current to maintain that distance and wait until he moves into a good position, then shoot! I only had one more dive to test it out as this was the last site to most likely see them, and indeed we didn’t see any others the rest of the trip.
ArenuiJPGs-118bFinally a profile shot in focus!

 

ArenuiJPGs-276You can see that he is “pregnant”. The females transfer the fertilized eggs to the males who carry them until live births.

 

Another great camouflage creature is the flounder. This is a fish similar to a halibut that lies flat on the sandy bottom and has evolved to have both eyes on the same side of its head. This video below shows how well they conceal themselves.

As if that camo isn’t good enough, the juvenile version is much more amazing – they’re transparent!  I have to apologize as that is my pointer that I am gently pushing under the sand to make him move.  I now know that is a no-no!

 

The Lembeh Sea Dragon is also on the top 3-5 list of creatures to find on our voyage. While nearing the end of one of our dives, I could sense a lot of excitement and commotion in the water (which only means divers signaling each other with small sounds and swimming quickly). I knew that it was something very special but also that I was the furthest from it. That meant that all of the other divers would take turns to see it and I would most likely be last in line. I immediately ascended to save as much bottom time as possible and slowed my breathing to conserve air. After another 20 minutes I started swimming to where everyone had been, but since surfaced – including all my dive buddies that hadn’t noticed the “commotion”. I passed Nic on the way and it was amazing how much excitement she conveyed to me through a mask and all that gear. She was stoked for what I was about to see!

My divemaster Ronald led me to the dragon and I had to really study the area before I could ascertain what I was looking at. This is another type of seahorse with a tail the width of a few human hairs.

ArenuiJPGs-128My first view with Ronald’s pointer (click on the photo to make it larger and you can see the tiny face of the seahorse just to the right of the pointer tip).


ArenuiJPGs-129circleAnother shot showing its brilliant camouflage

ArenuiJPGs-131Lembeh Sea Dragon

 

There were so many amazing creatures and I have a story for nearly all of them, but I think the simplest way to share them is by throwing them all in a video. Hopefully you can watch with the full screen settings (click the box in the lower right). Warning – it’s about 12 minutes long, but I save the best shots for last!

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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