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About hurdlefast

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

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.

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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.

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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!

 
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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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