Monday, September 26, 2016

Galapagos Islands: Holy Amazingness

If you've heard about the Galapagos Islands it is likely because of all the unique animals that live there and how they helped Charles Darwin craft his groundbreaking book Origin of Species. Giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies are among the most popular of Galapagos' wildlife. But there's also the sea life.

The islands sit at the confluence of several Pacific ocean currents, the same currents that first brought humans to the islands in the 16th century. These currents also deliver a high amount of plankton which is a foundational nutrient for many of the planet's sea dwellers and sea birds. They're all here, too.

And it's AWESOME!

Upon my arrival at San Cristobal Island I was greeted by sea lions hanging out on every corner. Chilling on the boardwalk, 

sitting on the sidewalk, 

and frozen in place in a park as a slide for children of all ages.

So I headed out to SCUBA dive at Kicker Rock because there were rumored to be hammerhead sharks out there. Alas, I saw no hammerheads, but did notice a couple white-tipped sharks and sea turtles through the hazy visibility made by thick plankton.
The SCUBA dive was a little disappointing, but it was good to get back to it 6 years after my last (and first) dives in Indonesia.

I'd heard through the backpacker circuit that one could book a last-minute multi-day boat cruise around the Galapagos and save a lot of money. Many of these cruises cost $3000-$7000 when booked in advance. Since I have time on my side I gave myself 9 days on the islands hoping that I could find a 5- or 6-day cruise that fit inside that window.

And so I did.
A few days after I arrived the Domenica was leaving for a cruise and I was welcome to join for the discounted price of $1700. It was totally worth it. 

The boat held 11 passengers in nicely appointed cabins like mine.
We had three excellent buffet meals every day and a naturalist guide who took us on walking and snorkeling tours around the islands. 

Each morning found us at a new island where at 8am we went ashore for a walk of around 90 minutes. These walks took us past amazing bird colonies, giant tortoises, sea lions and more. We had 2 or 3 more excursions each day that included snorkeling, kayaking and more hiking. There was also a hot tub on the boat. 

Giant tortoise: one of the poster children for Galapagos. Alas, they don't let you ride them anymore.

As I go through life I'm finding that one of the parts of life that I value most is the opportunity to spend time with other animals in their native habitat. Many of my most cherished memories are from times spent in nature when animals were present. Grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, wild orangutans in Indonesia, komodo dragons, manta rays, bugling elk in Yellowstone.

Now I can add to that list.

Sally Lightfoot crabs? Yes, please. This vertical wall was crawling with 'em.

This is either a blue-footed boobie or an albatross. Can't remember.

The albatross are not nearly as graceful when on land. But their 10' wingspan is impressive. Watching them soar about mere feet above my head reminded me of the condors in Peru.

These frigate birds wowed me around sunset one evening cruising on the boat. At times I think I could have touched one, they were so close. Their wingspans are about 8' and when I was in Rio de Janeiro I saw them soaring through the sky high above. But I never saw them land. They've been recorded to fly over 40 miles without flapping their wings.

This is a young frigate bird sitting down. In Rio I never saw one of these birds land. My guide and group are in the back.

More sea lions. They look like seals to me, but are sea lions. I don't know the difference but these ones migrated here from California a long time ago and are a bit smaller. A trip highlight was swimming with one of them while snorkeling. It was darting all around me, playfully. I hope to receive underwater pics to share that were taken by others on the boat trip.

Soaring pelican.

Cruising pelican. This bird is about 2' off the beach and there were a couple of them that were cruising back and forth right in front of me. Fantastic.

Land iguana. There are also marine iguanas that go swimming. This guy was big.

These are nesting swallow-tailed gulls with chick.

And now...drumroll please....what you've all been waiting for...

Blue-footed boobies!

And here's a downy, baby, boobie. So c-u-u-te.

The animal interaction was amazing. We were allowed to get within 6' of all these critters and they were all totally cool with it. Seeing so many gorgeous creatures so close was really fun. I also had wonderful snorkeling experiences and I hope to get some underwater photos from my companions to share with you in another photo dump. Cuz there were sharks and penguins and turtles and more.

I never knew I would be such a fan of the sea birds. They are big with 8'-10' wingspans that make them super fun to watch. Seeing albatross and pelicans and boobies soaring freely was phenomenal. I could sit and watch them all day long.

Being close to these animals out in nature feels to me what living is supposed to be about. It is so easy for us to think that cities and concrete and cars and glass and steel are what life is about. But, for me, I'll take the seas and skies and plains and mountains and all the non-human animals that populate them. It makes me feel more alive and more human during my brief existence on this planet.

I don't really feel like writing more right now, but I'll probably throw up another Galapagos post within a week or so. I also really enjoyed living on the boat and should write more about that.

List of animals seen up close and personal:
blue footed boobies
masked boobies
red-billed tropic bird
giant tortoises
sea turtles
white tipped shark
galapagos shark
sea lions
marine iguanas
land iguanas
many, many colorful fish

Monday, September 12, 2016

My New Website:

There's a new easy-to-use resource for people who are dealing with losing a parent:

I know, I know. The name is blunt. There are already plenty of touchy/feely-titled resources about grieving and loss and such. This one is different.

The purpose is to help adult children of dying parents with the nuts and bolts that go beyond care-giving and grieving. It is intended for families who's parents don't work with a trusted attorney and a veteran financial planner that have all their interests tied up with a nice pretty bow. My goal is to reduce the stress on families in an already stressful time by simplifying a heretofore overlooked perspective.

In 2001 I lost my mother to ovarian cancer and in 2015 my father to esophageal cancer. One of the things that jumped to my mind after learning that my father was terminal was:
Holy crap! What are all the things that my sister and I need to sort out with him before he dies? Is his will up-to-date? What about his desires about health care and comfort as he nears the end of his life? Are there any stories or words of wisdom or anything that he wants to share with us?
All of those thoughts were piled on top of the already stressful job of care-giving, which I did along with my sister for the last 4 months of his life after his diagnosis and during his rapid decline. He wanted to stay at home and being back in my childhood home taking care of him was the most stressful thing in my life. I don't even have cats.

When I went online searching for help, I did not find what I was looking for. Sure there are a million books on grieving. And there are a million financial planners and attorneys who do estate planning -- working with the parent to get all their affairs in order. But what for the children of a parent who didn't do all that planning? I found nothing.

I started writing a book that will become a resource that weaves a little personal memoir into a step-by-step guide for adult children of a dying parent. It needed a companion website and so was born

It is version 1.0 as-of this post and I welcome any and all feedback.

It offers two free resources -- a checklist and a guidebook. I want it to help people now and to begin building a brand that I can be leverage later into a small business via the forthcoming book, consulting and speaking engagements.

Feel free to reach me through the contact page on the site with any thoughts or feedback.

Friday, September 9, 2016

On Whale Watching and the Psychology of Photography

The guy next to me didn't look up from his camera viewfinder for the duration of the spectacle. He watched the glory of nature through a tiny little screen instead of enjoying the awe in actual space and time.

I grabbed only this one, mediocre photo because I was too busy smiling and laughing at the delight of watching humpback whales soar out of the ocean like Michael Jordan dunking from the free throw line. Equal parts power and grace, a dozen times over.

The humpback whales hang out around Puerto Lopez, Ecuador from June to September and my timing has finally landed me in the right place for whale watching. Best $25 I've spent in awhile.

It was amazing.

You have already seen pictures and video of whales breaching so any photos I could add would be redundant.

Why do we so often think that the most important part of such a sight is to get a good photograph of it?

Is it because we are a professional photographer? Unlikely.
Is it so we can remember it years later? Perhaps, but then shouldn't just a couple decent shots suffice?
Is it so we can impress our friends and family with our exploits? Probably. This is because we need to stroke our egos.

It reminds me of my time in Indonesia when I had this amazing experience with wild orangutans. Sure, I snapped a couple photos for my scrapbook. But I was amazed how everyone else spent far more time with their eyes glued to their tiny camera device screens than on the actual wild orangutans that were hanging from vines 10 feet in front of us. Like these whales, I'll never forget the orangutan experience and that isn't because I have photos. It's because it kicked ass and I paid attention.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca

There's a classic 4-day trek in Peru's Cordillera Blanca ("cordillera" means mountain range in Spanish) called the Santa Cruz trek that goes from the village of Vaqueria to the village of Cachapampa. It is 50 kilometers long and goes over a pass at 15,500' elevation.

I set out on it last week, feeling strong and going solo instead of joining a tour group that uses donkeys to haul gear. Shortly after starting out I met two hikers -- Julie from USA and Franklin from Cusco, Peru -- and walked with them for much of the trek.

Here they are on Day One hiking up toward the pass:

Everything here is higher than what you may be used to in Europe or the USA. This trek started at about 11,500' above sea level and camp on the first night was at 14,001'. If I were in the States this campsite would be considered monumentally high and people who hike up to it would write a blog post about it. Ahem.
But here you can see I'm still in the valley surrounded by peaks from 18,000' to over 20,000' high. Awesome. This was the second highest campsite I'd ever spent a night at.

I was feeling strong and met the high point of the trek, Punta Union, at over 15,500' on the morning of Day Two. This would be a 3-day trek for me carrying all my own gear, not a 4-day trek like the tour groups do with donkeys. Insert smugness here.

It was cloudy on the side of the pass I hiked up, but the other side of the pass was clear and offered majestic views like this one.

And this one, made only slightly less majestic by the human form preening in the foreground:

Day Three was spent hiking down the valley along a beautiful river and past some of the group encampments. This trek is contained within Huascaran National Park, Huascaran being the highest point in Peru at 6,768 meters or over 22,000' elevation.

My smugness was short-lived, however. For while hiking out of the valley I was passed in quite rapid fashion by some trail runners. They were holding a first-ever trail running marathon along the 44k route I had just hiked in 3 days. The winning runners did it in just over 4 hours, almost like a normal road marathon time for me (back in my old running days). Amazing. They went up and over a pass at 15,500' like they were running up Summit Ave. in the Twin Cities Marathon in St. Paul, MN.

Here's one of the top female finishers posing in front of a throng of beer company sponsor photographers while the locals take a break from bailing hay by hand to watch.

Good times in the Cordillera Blanca.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Globetrotting - My First 9 Months in South America

Click here for an interactive look at this map of my travels during the past 9 months in South America. Then click on the Globetrotting 2015-???? title on the left to scroll through the destinations. Gather the whole family 'round the laptop and follow my circuitous route through Patagonia, the Amazon and more!

What's Next?
Plan is to head north to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. Then up to Colombia where I will meet up with friends. Then Central America, Mexico and Cuba before bouncing over to Asia round about February.

My First (And Last) Bullfight

What comes to your mind when you think of a bullfight?
Spain, matadors in sequined costume and a funny hat, powerful bulls with big horns, tradition, culture, Ole!

Huanchac, Peru is a little village just up the hill from Huaraz, Peru in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. Maybe 500 people live there. It is beautiful country.

Their annual fiesta concluded yesterday with a bullfight. I've always wanted to see a bullfight, even though in recent years I have grown more sensitive to the killing of animals. This is the first chance I've ever had to see the event for myself and I was curious to check it out, as much for the small town fiesta as for the actual bullfight.

The late afternoon light on the mountains was beautiful as children of all ages eagerly awaited the entrance of the matador and bull. Aside from my two friends and I, no other gringos were present.

But before the matador arrived, there were rodeo clowns who played around with a couple other bulls. This part lasted much longer than the fight itself. Eventually the matador arrived. He is from Spain and must be on a tour through South America. There wasn't as much pomp and circumstance to his introduction as I expected. He just strolled out to a relatively sedate crowd. Is that because the crowd isn't sure if the matador is the good guy or the bad guy? I dunno.
They danced and dazzled but we all knew what was coming. It just didn't feel fair -- the experienced human knowing that the small-minded bull will keep charging after the colored cape. I understand it takes years of training to be a matador, but I wasn't impressed. I understand, too, that the bulls are bred for this moment. They are born in captivity in order that they might have this life and death.

But does that make it any more right?
Is this the life and death it would choose for itself if it could?

After the death blow, a clean strike from the matador's sword, the bull went down within 30 seconds and appeared dead soon thereafter. The crowd was sullen and silent and began filing out of the arena.
Due to a fortuitous meetup, my friend Chris from Bozeman was here with me. He grew up on a ranch and claimed that this is an honorable way for a bull to die. But I'm not convinced.

I feel that by witnessing a bullfight in person I can now speak more honestly and accurately about my feelings about it. Obviously I didn't grow up with any of the tradition like someone who grew up in rural Peru or Spain. But I see no reason for this tradition to continue and feel no need to bear witness to the spectacle ever again.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rio: More Travel and Olympic Highlights

The past two months in Rio have been terrific. I met a wonderful woman and stayed in the lovely neighborhood of Ipanema, just 4 blocks from the beach and 2 blocks from the lake where they held the Olympic rowing events. Great location. Here's a couple street shots to show the greenery about. The left photo shows orchids that have been grafted onto a tree. Pretty gorgeous. They do this in many places in the area.

At the western end of Ipanema beach stands a beautiful mountain called Deus Irmaus, or Two Brothers. What a beautiful site to behold every morning when I ran along this beach.

And here I am on top of it. That's Ipanema beach on the right and all the way to the left you can see the famous statue of Jesus Christ on top of the mountain.

My two favorite sandwiches in all of South America (where mostly the sandwiches totally suck):
The one on the left is filet mignon, cheese and pineapple. So delicious I had it twice. Here's me eating it late one night:

The final Olympic games I attended were the women's soccer gold medal game and track & field featuring the men's 4x100 final and Usain Bolt. The soccer game was held at Maracana stadium, which is one of the more famous soccer stadiums in the world. It was really beautiful all decked out for international visitors:
Germany beat Sweden 2-1 for the gold medal.

This photo from track & field shows the running of the women's 5000m gold medal race as well as the women's pole vault finals. Luckily our seats were right next to the pole vault area. Usain Bolt famously won a gold medal in the 4x100. In 3 Olympics he won gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m. Unprecedented.

And finally, as we bid farewell to Rio 2016, we welcom PyeongChang, South Korea as the host of the 2018 Winter Games. I just filled out an application to volunteer there. Care to join me?
 (l to r: Soohorang, Kirk, Debora, Bondabi)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Rio: 2016 Olympics Update #2

While the proletariat was busy watching their televisions and eating their macaroni and cheese, or whatever it is they do, I was leveraging my elite social connections to score free tickets to Olympic Equestrian Jumping. Alas, I was forced to ride public transport to the event like so many commoners.

You there! Boy! Bring me another mimosa!

Equestrian Jumping
The equestrian event was actually super fun. It was a gorgeous day and the general admission seating paid dividends for an early riser like me. The setting reminded me a little bit of watching live golf -- gorgeous setting, outside, quiet, and olfactory stimulation. Plus, I could hear the horses breathing as they approached and went over this jump.

It was also like golf in that each jump is a little moment of excitement and tension followed by a moment of calm. The stadium remains completely quiet during each 75-second long run.

Beach Volleyball
Later that night I capped off my most fun day at the Games so far by seeing an exciting women's beach volleyball match between Brazil and Switzerland. Each of the games was settled by the minimum 2 points and it went to a third game tiebreaker. The Brazilian crowd was fun and loud and it made for a great atmosphere.
This was Brazil's #1 team and they won the match, but would lose to USA in the Bronze medal game.

The next night I was at badminton. I watched men's and women's singles matches as well as the mixed-doubles semifinals. The highlight of the night was Malaysia beating China in mixed doubles. Malaysia would lose in the Gold medal match to Indonesia.

Two weeks ago I met a Malaysian mother and daughter who were visiting for the Olympics. When I asked them what sport they were most looking forward to seeing, they replied: Badminton. The Malaysian crowd was the largest of the night and so I sat amongst them and cheered along. 

It's interesting to me how each nation watches a totally different Olympics because they each focus on the sports they are best at. The Malaysians cared the most about badminton. The Chinese are in love with Ma Long, table tennis master, like Americans are in love with Michael Phelps and Simone Biles. Hondurans and Nigerians are watching lots of soccer. Russians were vocal at fencing.

Track and Field
Yesterday I benefited from more social connections when I was invited with Debora and her family to track and field. We witnessed history as an Olympic record was set in the men's steeplechase and an American took silver. Also saw the first day of the men's Decathlon and some qualifying heats for women's 800m and men's hammer throw.
The crowd was sparse at 9:30am when I took this photo during the first Decathlon 100m dash, but it filled in well as the morning progressed.

Olympic Attendance
If you've been watching the Olympics you have probably noticed that the attendance has been on the low side. I attribute this to two key factors:

  1. Not many Brazilians can afford the tickets which are often more than $100 for the more popular events
  2. Many global news leaders rejoiced in negativity in the months leading up to the Olympics. All you heard about was Zika and murders and polluted water and athletes accommodations that were broken. That's similar to what the news talks about before every Olympics.
Please stop watching and listening to these large news outlets. Their job is to get you to watch the news, not to inform you. They are for-profit businesses. Period.

What's Next
Friday night I'm going to track and field again to see me some Bolt! I decided to spring for some expensive tickets to see the Gold medal finals of:
  • men's 4x100 relay
  • women's 4x100 relay
  • women's pole vault
  • men's hammer throw
  • women's 5k

Immediately after the Olympics I'm flying to Peru to continue my travels. It's been an amazing time in Rio and I look forward to returning. But I must move on, visa travel restrictions being what they are. I'm going to do some trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash, said to be the most spectacular mountain setting outside of the Himalaya. Then I'm up to Ecuador for a week on the legendary Galapagos Islands. After that, it's Colombia where I will reunite with friends from Brazil and the States.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

More Great Music in Rio

Previously I wrote about the best music experience in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Here are a couple more great options.

For jazz, I've really enjoyed Tuesday nights at Assis Garrafaria in the Cosme Velho neighborhood. It is a bistro with a large craft beer selection, but the jazz is the highlight for me (the craft beer in Rio often costs over 30 Brazilian Reals which is almost ten bucks).
The only downer about this night was that the bass player was playing one of those minimalist electronic stand-up basses. I hate those things. Guitars and stand-up basses are beautiful pieces of art and I enjoy drooling over a finely crafted instrument as much as the music coming from it.

But the most enjoyable music experience I had was delivered by the 88-year old grandma of my friend Debora. Here she is jamming out some traditional numbers on her accordion.

The video is interrupted when the author couldn't resist a dance with his videographer.

And then she moved to the piano, like a modern day Jobim.

Good times in Rio.