Saturday, March 29, 2014

Training my Dragon

With this blog post, I am trying to train my dragon. No, I am not talking about the cute land iguana from the Galapagos Islands, but rather the Dragon voice recognition software on my computer.  If you have ever tried to have an intelligent conversation with Siri on your smart phone, then you know that this will not be an easy undertaking,  especially with my right arm in a cast from the shoulder to my knuckles. 

My last few blogs have about our very enjoyable adventures traveling in South America. However not all midlife adventures are fun, as anyone over the age of 50 probably knows by now. I have been plagued with a partially torn tendon on my right elbow for the past two years, and it got to the point where it is difficult to pull open a car door or open a jar lid, let alone do fun things like cook, snowboard, or ride a bicycle. 

Therefore, after great procrastination and hesitation, I finally underwent surgery on Wednesday to reattach the tendon to my right elbow. However, like most home improvement or other projects I undertake, I always seem to underestimate the scope and complexity of the project, or in this case the pain, the lack of mobility, and my dependence on others. 

Now, three days later I can say that I have turned the corner and I am feeling better. It is so nice to live in the 21st century with modern medical procedures, anesthesia, and painkillers.  According to my Dragon, the definition of adventure is taking a risk in the hopes of a favorable outcome. 

So far, I am optimistic about my elbow, but not so sure about  the adventure of getting my Dragon--or my left hand-- trained. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Home, Photos, and our Next Adventure

It’s hard to believe that one week ago today, we were hiking among the marine iguanas on volcanic rock and snorkeling with giant sea turtles in very cool water along a Galapagos Island cliff. 

Us in our early 60's
Us in our early 90's

The trip home was long and uneventful, except that for the first time in 37 years our bags didn't arrive with us, but we were happily reunited with them 36 hours later.

We’re back to reality.  Kathy’s mom is doing well physically, but the stroke has affected her (and us) in other challenging ways.  Kathy is getting caught up on a mountain of national Assistance League board items, and Ron’s office functioned smoothly (perhaps even better) in his absence.  It’s good to be back.

Our next mid-life adventure is Ron’s long-postponed elbow surgery on Wednesday for a partially-torn tendon.  He could be in a sling and a cast for six to eight weeks, but hopefully less.  So Saturday was spent doing physical things like getting our Airstream out of storage and bringing out the plants and furniture on the deck.  As soon as this blog is posted, Ron is going out for one last long bike ride, which will be his last for a couple of months. 

Our previous blogs have had a few photos, and we thank you for all your positive feedback.   Here are more and better ones. You can access them by clicking on the following Facebook links, whether you are on Facebook or not. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Galapagos—March 12-17

What a special place!  We had heard or read many accounts that the Galapagos Islands were overrun by tourists and the environment was degraded.  In our experience, that simply isn’t true.  It is probably the most pristine area we have ever visited, to the point where it’s impossible to find litter or to see tourists out of your group.

Nearly all of the islands, excluding a couple of towns within them, are in a highly-regulated national park system.  Only 5% if populated or in agriculture. 

The Baltra Island airport and immigration employees commute 1.5 hours each way every day to and from, Guayaquil, Ecuador on the mainland.  The park authorities strictly control the timing of the boats so that there that any given island, cove, or bay there are just a few visitors at any one time.  All island landings are either ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ by Zodiac rafts, and all visitors must be accompanied by a naturalist, all of whom are excellent.  No food or ‘nature calls’ to the bushes are allowed.  It’s impossible to find a scrap of litter on the ground or to hear the drone of a helicopter tour above.

About the size of Nevada, the islands straddle the equator.  They are the result of volcanic activity, the most recent major flow was only five years ago, and we got to walk over its beautiful blackness and designs. Except for the highlands, most areas get three inches of rain per year.  The variety and contrasts of each island and the parts of them are beautiful and stunning. We get the sense that we are in the midst of a living geologic, ecological, and natural selection laboratory.

Our days consist of a hike and snorkeling each morning and afternoon.    Each day gets better than the last and the animals we see get bigger.  The main attraction is the unique animals, who aren’t afraid of us.  Some people really go nuts over the unique vegetation, the geology, or the 13 species of Darwin Finches, but we most loved the big critters, like the giant tortoises, seals, iguanas, sea lions, marine iguanas, pelicans, and Ron’s favorite—the boobies (as in blue-footed seagull-like birds). 


 The snorkeling isn’t all that spectacular as far as beautiful coral and colorful fish go.  However, it’s quite a thrill to see sharks, colossal sting rays, marine iguanas, penguins zooming by or to swim with sea lions and within a herd of giant turtles with shells three-feet across, soaring gracefully in the water like a bird flies through air.  Some of them even touched us.

Our ship, The Galapagos Legend, is the largest in the islands, with 84 passengers aboard, and with no casinos, professional live entertainment, or typical cruise formalities.  We’ve met some interesting people from all over the world, and we’ve particularly enjoyed the Aussies in our 14-person raft all five days.  The food is good and overly-plentiful, the bar is always open, and conversation and eating are the main shipboard activities.  And there is always a lecture of some sort or the ever-popular siesta option.

And as far as the entire trip went, it was a great group of people.  We've made new friends and enjoyed each other's very interesting and jovial company.  Vantage, the tour company, and Leyles Gutierrez the on-the-ground program manager, really went out of the way to remove a lot of the friction of traveling in this part of the world and to find ways for us to connect culturally and to know what really goes on beneath the surface.  

Machu Picchu had an instant WOW factor.  But the Galapagos did as well, over a five-day period. The Galapagos Islands have been on our bucket list for nearly two decades, and we’re grateful that we finally got the wonderful opportunity to experience them.  They exceeded our expectations, and it was worth the wait!

Now we re-enter the fast-paced technological and wired world we left behind.  Home Tuesday evening.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Quito and Beyond

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Today we got out of the hectic business center of town and traveled through clogged traffic to explore  historic old town of Quito, with settlements and buildings dating back 500 years. While the 13 US colonies were basic back waters and farmers struggling to survive, this part of the world was doing quite well, thank you, due the immense wealth of resources,  and the distance from Spain and the Vatican.  The narrow streets, the architecture, the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s residence, and the stunning Cathedral Saint Francis Xavier all had distinct design, unique to the rest of the world. 

Inside the Archbishop's palace

At Freedom Square

We’ve been to a lot of cathedrals over the years and were expecting more of the same.  But this just blew us away.  Never have we seen a cathedral so opulent, beautiful,  or breathtaking. It was financed by the wealthy Jesuits and was completed over 300 years ago.  The main construction was stone painted with gold leaf. The paintings and statues were also exquisite.

We spent some time at the equator and learned some amazing facts about it.  Water going down a sink drain actually does go in a different direction, depending upon which side of the equator you are on.  Even moving the sink 10 feet from the line changed the funnel cloud from clockwise to counter clockwise.  We also learned about the French scientific expedition to determine the location of the equator in 1726 or so—long before the US Declaration of Independence and the Lewis and Clark expedition.  It took over three years and triggered a lot of interest in science and later some political events.  Ecuador, by the way, is Spanish for equator.

You won’t hear for us for at least another six days.  We get up at 3:00 am on Thursday and fly the 500 miles to the Galapagos islands, where we will be on a small boat cruise, hiking some islands, and snorkeling.  No Wi-Fi, internet, email or phone.  What a novel idea for a vacation!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ecuador--Quito & Otavalo

Tuesday, March 11

We love arriving in a new country.  It always takes a little adjustment from the one from which we just came, and the temptation is to compare one against the other, or against your own country. 

That said, Ecuador is nice, beautiful, and it really seems to have its act together environmentally and economically.  Inflation was well over 100% in 1999, so in 2000 they converted to a currency that the government couldn’t print—the US dollar.  And since so much of its exports (oil, roses, agricultural products, etc.) are to the USA, it was relatively easy.  Gas prices are really cheap.
 Quito, where we are staying is hilly and beautiful, about 5 million people, and about 35 miles long and 30 miles wide, with lots of traffic.  But nothing compared to Hanoi, Saigon, or even Portland.
The Otavalo rose growing region

Today we crossed into the northern hemisphere as we rode many miles over deep canyons and interesting geologic formations and ecosystems to the high country of Otavalo, a major rose growing region of the world.  It is so scientifically and logistically engineered.  They can have roses shipped to retailers in Miami FL in 8 hours, and to Moscow via Amsterdam in 36 hours.  The Russians, BTW, love stems of at least 3-4 feet!

Ron's version of a hot lady
We shopped briefly at the Otavalo market, which was strangely quiet, probably because it was Tuesday and much of what was available was fabrics.  Plus, the artisans are very laid back, polite, and take “No, gracias” for an answer.  

Downtown Otavalo

Before the long ride home we had a delightful lunch in a hacienda that was built over 400 years ago.  Tomorrow we straddle the equator at what is known as the “Center of the Earth” and visit the historical parts of town.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cuzco, Peru

Saturday, March 8
Sunday, March 9

We experienced Cusco both as a group for most of a day, then “left the reservation” on our own for two nights and a day, which is our preferred MO.  With the group we get insights and opportunities that would be hard to prearrange on our own.  But with that comes a bus, schedules and few opportunities for spontaneity and interaction with locals.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed the full-day tour of Cusco, which is a beautiful and fascinating city, a blend of Spanish colonial and Inca culture and architecture. 

Plaza De Armas--the City Center
 The poor live up high, the wealthy live down below

Inside a monastery that was built within an Inca temple
The Spanish conquistadors tried to wipe out the Inca structures, but in the end, built their cathedrals and monasteries upon or within them, and the citizens blend Inca beliefs and traditions into their Catholicism.  The Incas built massive temples, terraces, and cities out of stones without the benefit of the wheel or steel tools.   The stones are so well fitted, that it is impossible to insert a razor blade or credit card between them. 
How did they lift and move these boulders and get them to fit?
A street, along the wall of our hotel, which was a huge hacienda in the colonial days, built into Inca stonework

Our second day was the last day of Carnivale, and we set out by foot to walk parts of this city, including some local markets and the dirt streets of lower-class neighborhoods high above the central city.  

When we returned to the Plaza De Armas, we came upon the Carnivale festivities.  We hadn’t had so much fun in a long time.  As dancers and marching bands proceeded around the square, almost everyone was throwing water balloons and shooting spray foam.  

So we bought a large can of foam spray and had a good time retaliating when the locals ambushed us, not knowing we were fully armed. We put up a good fight, but were still no match for the teenagers.   Laughter was everywhere.and we hadn't had so much fun in a long time.

We ended our brief stay in Cusco with a very nice dinner with six others from our group at the Inca Grill.  If we ever have the time, we’ll write about the food, but we’ll need to do that on a full stomach, because just thinking about the delightful fusions of cuisines here makes us hungry. 

On Monday, we spend most of the day getting to Quitos, Ecuador for three days.  We hear it is also a delightful city, but we will miss Peru, its scenery, food, and its friendly people.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Another Magical Day

Friday, March 7

The sunrise at Machu Picchu is myth promoted by tour companies and the Lonely Planet travel guide, as nearly every morning of the year the place is socked in with clouds and rain.  We got up early and verified, that indeed, a clear sunny morning at Machu Picchu is elusive. 

But it was still worth it.  We climbed countless steps to the Sun Gate at the top of the ridge overlooking the complex, every now and then getting 30-second glimpses of this magical mystical place.

We had one of our best meals ever at lunch in Machu Picchu Town (former Agua Caliente, which is accessible only by a narrow gage railway or by a four day trek over two 12,000 passes.  More about food later, but let’s just say that the food here is diverse and delicious.

We took train for two hours out of the Sacred Valley, then a stunning two-hour bus ride to Cusco through a 12,000 foot plateau through one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.  

Cusco, population 500,000 at an elevation of 11,500 is a fascinating city.  After checking into our hotel which was formerly a huge hacienda from colonial times, we found a fantastic Peruvian restaurant on a long narrow alley for yet another memorable meal.  All and all, a very special and magical day.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Breathtaking Machu Picchu

In this digital age, there are millions of photos of everything, to the point where they can make the real thing just another common place, ho-hum experience with no element of surprise.  The Inca city called Machu Picchu high in the Andes Mountains of Peru is probably one of the more iconic photos out there.  So as we rode the narrow-gage train through the beautiful tropical Sacred Valley and then took a mini bus up a very steep road to the entry to Machu Picchu, we thought we knew what to expect.   Fortunately, we were wrong—very wrong.  It was a sight and an experience that literally took our breaths away, and not just because of the altitude.

Temple of the Sun

We’ve been to a number of very amazing places together over the past 37 years, but we’ve had only a small number of unforgettable first impressions.  So it is challenging to find something to top or equal such iconic sights like the Thangboche Monastery at the base of Mt. Everest or the Golden Temple and Taj Mahal in India. Machu Picchu succeeded beyond all expectations to the point that it was an emotional experience.

We're staying 2,000 feet lower along a roaring river, a major tributary of the Amazon.  (See Photo below).  We can’t wait until tomorrow to return to the mountain and hike to a high overlook in the early morning.  The weather and the crowds are usually the worst in the morning, but it will be worth it.

View from our hotel window

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

From the Amazon to the Mountains

Yesterday (Monday) we left the Amazon, with a rest stop along the way to see some gigantic piranhas, turtles, caimans and fish.  Hated to leave the jungle, but it was nice to get out of the heat and humidity.  
At a riverside rest stop--The way we used to look
We flew from Iquitos south to Lima, the capitol of Peru.  What surprised us was how bone dry it was for being a coastal city.  In fact, with its population of 10 Million, it is the second largest desert city in the world, after Cairo, Egypt.  The Andes block the prevailing storms, which come from the Atlantic.

Old town Lima was delightful, with colonial architecture going back to the 1500s.  We toured a gigantic   monastery built in the 1600s and saw piles and piles of bones and skulls in its deep catacombs.  Our recollections of The Shining Path, the big earthquake, and President Fujimori were sketchy at best, but our guide gave us a wonderful refresher course and some insights about Peruvian politics and economics. We've only experienced countries that were colonized by the British, Dutch, and French--all in Asia.  The Spaniards were brutal, but at least they had a sense of art and architecture.  
Cathedral San Francisco

Lots of architecture like this in central Lima

After a walk through some public plazas we enjoyed an outdoor dinner and observing the vibrant night-time scene where everyone seems to come out and just hang out.  Our 15-story Sheraton was as unremarkable as any other Sheraton in the States, but for the huge contrast from our modest accommodations on the Amazon.

We got up at dawn today, and eventually made it to Cuzco, a large city about 11,000 feet in the Andes. More colonial architecture, but also humble homes tenaciously clinging to the hillside.   Our guide insisted we have lunch at the Peruvian version of McDonalds, and it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.  They use dehydrated potatoes in the burgers and special cheese.   

We rode for over two hours over a 12,400 foot verdant plateau spotted with farms and surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains in the distance.  We are now staying in a beautiful and isolated lodge in the Sacred Valley, at an elevation of 9,500 feet for nights to better help everyone get used to the altitude when we go much higher to Machu Picchu  In a couple of days.  

Tomorrow we go to an off-the-beaten path to an archaeological site where the Incas still live among the ruins.

From the plateau looking down to the Sacred V

Where we're spending the night--Casa Andina