Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Various Isabel

(Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos)- These are just a couple of pictures of Isabel, taken at various points around Isla San Cristobal.

Isabel stands on the boardwalk outside the Interpretation Center, at beach Playaman, in view of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

More Farm Pics

(Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos)- The farm experience was really great fun for everyone. We took a lot of pictures. Here are some more.
Our kindly farmer cuts tomate for us, picked freshly from his tree.

Isabel chases chickens. Ame says that her Grandma Virgie will love this picture, since Ame used to chase and catch the chickens on Virgie´s farm.

You're hired!

Coffee beans on the trees. To eat one is surprising. The seed coat is very sweet, and the bean isn't very bitter- until it is roasted.
Back On The Land

(Isla San Cristobol, Galapagos)- For our second day with naturalist Fernando, we would visit highlights on the land across San Cristobol. We hired a taxi for the day to take us across the island, to tourist and non-tourist sites.

We started with a trip to a working farm. Farming on the Galapagos Islands seems like perhaps something that shouldn´t be done. It requires the clearing of the land, which certainly would mean the destruction of some plants that are endemic to (only found on) this Island. There are heavy regulations for farming, to deal with these sensitivities. For instance, all crops are organic, and all new fence posts are now living trees... rather unlike the photo below.

Isabel rides the donkey with some friendly help. Ame and Fernando trail behind.

We were shown the various crops: coffee trees, 5 types of banana trees, tomate and a wide variety of fruits. Isabel chased the chickens. The farmer picked fresh tomate for us to sample, cut watermelon for us, and had us milk their cows. Ame was really happy about the visit. She liked the idea of Isabel seeing where food comes from. Sure, we could visit farms in the US, but you don´t see many where they clear the lava rock, and you certainly don´t get treated to freshly toasted and ground coffee.

Sitting round the coffee table. The farmer offered us fresh coffee. I do mean fresh- it was roasted earlier in the day and ground by hand. It was STRONG stuff. Makes Starbucks espresso seem like a Tootsie Roll.
It was tough to leave the farm, as Isabel was having a great time running and playing with the girls on the farm. It would be worthwhile, though. We were going to see the giant tortoises.

I´m going to get you!
The tortoises are in a protected area of the island where there are no human settlements or activities, apart from the nature center. Here, new hatchlings are gathered and incubated before returning to the land, as they are most vulnerable to predators when small.
We walked up a narrow path for about two minutes before we encountered about six giant tortoises. Most were quietly eating, although two were having a fight for food and territory. They can move fast when they want to, despite appearances. They weren´t crazy about us getting too close. When Isabel would move quickly within sight, the tortoise would pull its´head back into the shell and let out a loud hiss.
We checked out the incubation center to see the litle babies and then had lunch. You would never guess by looking at the babies that they would become the giants later in life. They look little different than American snapping turtles, except that the lines on the shells are very rigid and distinct, even though the shell is soft.
Hot humid weather on the Island, along with the many hikes left us all tired by lunchtime.
Although we had hired Fernando for the day, we had to let him take the rest of the day off since Isabel took a four-hour nap. All the excitement and activity from the past few days took its´toll on her.

Note: We skipped El Junco Lagoon. This was the most highly touted site in the Lonely Planet guidebook. We skipped it because it is closed. This is an extinct volcano, the crater of which forms the only fresh water lake on the island, or on any of the Galapagos Islands. It is closed because tilapia were illegally introduced to the Lagoon, and they have begun to take over, killing smaller fish that eat algae, changing the balance of the water... which happens to supply the town below with drinking water. The talapia are being removed. It would have been cool to check it out, as a unique site. Alas.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Kicker Rock

(San Cristobol, Galapagos)- For Monday´s activities, we had hired a naturalist and a boat for the day, and were to see many of the worthy sights along and near the westerly coast of San Cristobol. Kicker Rock was easily the highlight.
Ame and Isabel at the dock, at Puerto Baqueirizo Moreno. In the window above them, you can a few sea lions lying on the staircase. You have to step over them to get to the boats, at times.

Kicker Rock is a formation of volcanic ash. The proper name of it is Leon Dormido, or, Sleeping Lion. Over time, the fragile rock has split, with the result being this incredible formation. It´s about 200´high, and 700´wide, with the channel about 30-40´in width. The hammerhead sharks especially love to pass through this channel. We especially like snorkelling. Perfect!
As we approached Kicker Rock, we began to see all sorts of birds: frigate birds, the rare Nazca boobies, and the blue-footed boobies. We took lots of pictures in the quest for the perfect shot of the blue-footed booby. (These will be on another post.)

Ame prepares for the snorkeling at Kicker Rock. Jellyfish ahead, but hammerheads and white tipped sharks below, along with eagle rays. The coloration of the barnacles, sea urchins, and plants attached to the rocks below water level cannot be described.

When they tell you that you´re about to dive into one of the best diving and snorkelling spots in the world, you nod knowingly, because you paid for the trip, and those you hire always try to make you feel like you´ve gotten the bargain of the century.

Well, they weren´t kidding.

Mike fumbles with his mask. Ame isn´t waiting around!

The water is so clear you barely need to jump in. Of course, with a good mask, you can really see things clearly underwater. Immediately, you notice the angel fish and that you are being stung all over your body. There were millions of tiny jellyfish in the waters surrounding the rock. Once inside the channel, there were very few.

The next thing you notice once inside the channel are the brilliant colors attached to the walls below sea level. There are barnacles, sea urchins, and a variety of sea plants creating a mosaic of color, kind of like a stained glass window. The fish hide beneath the plants, so if you swim near the walls, suddenly several will dart out into view.
The sharks were the big draw. It´s hard not to feel a little worry when hovering above six hammerheads, but the naturalist, Fernando, assured us that they feed very well with so many fish about, and besides, they feed in the evening. Hammerheads are pretty small- about 2-3´in length.

The white tipped shark is a bit more fearsome: about 7´long. One came up to get a look at me, so I decided to start to get into motion just a bit. To where? To safety? Anyhow, just as I was putting that guy out of my mind, I turned to face two large stingrays- eagle rays! At that point, I just worked to get the attention of Ame and Fernando so that they could enjoy the view.
We enjoyed the site so much that we went at it a second time on the return trip. It´s so good, I´m entertaining the thought of hiring a boat again for another look. If we do, we´ll definitely bring the underwater camera. Sigh.

Ame looks back at Kicker Rock. Isabel is more hungry for lunch than sad to leave.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sea Lions

(Isla San Cristobol, Galapagos)- As advertised, the sea lion population on San Cristobol is enormous. You don´t have to work very hard at all to find them. Just go to the beach and be still for a moment. If their movement doesn´t catch your eye, you will soon enough hear their barks, or smell them, if there are enough out of water.

Two sea lions play in Academy Bay, with the police station in the background. To the left of this scene, there is a boat that is beached in the sand, under which some dozen or so sea lions always can be found hiding from the sun. At night, 200-300 sea lions congregate here on the beach.

Ame´s photo of a baby sea lion, full of curiosity. In the water, the younger sea lions (especially) will try to get you to swim with them.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

In Transit

(Guayaquil, Ecuador)- I'm sitting in the airport at Quayquil, between flights to the Galapagos, and enjoying the best internet connection I've had in two weeks. 

The flight from Quito to Guayaquil was great viewing- Quito as the city between the mountains, and the terrible flooding in Guayaquil. The latter scene was awful, but something to observe from the air.
Guayaquil Flooding

(Guayaquil, Ecuador)- While the weather in Quito had been damp and chilly, it had been much warmer in Quayquil, but with torrential rains for days, with massive flooding here and in many other coastal South American locations.

Here are two of Ame´s pictures from the air, as we approached Guayaquil´s Simon Bolivar Airport.

Guayaquil is Ecuador´s largest city, with a population of over 2 million. The city must be on higher ground, as it was seemingly untouched. The farms, on the other hand...

I was told by a Galapagos native that the slim upside is that for the rice crops grown in Guayquil´s farms, irrigation will be unnecessary. We saw the pictures on TV of already impoverished subsistence farmers thrown out of their homes, and assume he did too. Maybe he has a dark sense of humor?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Last Day of School in Quito

(Quito, Ecuador)- Our last day of school was made extra special as Ame´s insructor invited her to bring Isabel to school.
¡Listo! ¡Vamos!
Isabel loved the crowded busses in Quito. They were usually absurdly full of people during rush hours.

We really enjoyed how our fellow students were having fun with Isabel at the school.

Isabel is on the top floor, with June. Isabel remained pretty shy with most of the students, although after two days of tourist activity with June, they were on best-pal terms.

Our last day included some instruction, exams, and then making a traditional meal. It was a bit dry for me at this point, since Sonia had shown me how to make several Ecuadorian platos tipicos. After helping with the preparation, I played poker with Bas, Hanna, and Richard while the food cooked. The meal was a fun way to spend our last action together. I was hoping to return in the evening for additional poker fun, but time conspired against me. Lindsay plyed peekaboo with Isabel, and then we left.
The Galapagos Islands are next!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fun On The Equator

(San Antonio, Ecuador)- Sure, it's a tourist trap, but if you are in Equador, it would be silly not to visit La Mitad Del Mundo, the monument near the line for which the country is named.

To the right of Isabel, North America. To the left...


Set your GPS unit.

Folk dancers near the line. Actually, they cross the line, and nothing in particular happens.

Mitad is about 20 miles north of Quito. On weekends, they have quite a festival there, with folk dancers in traditional garb, 11-piece mariachi bands, and singers who perform the latest light rock Latino hits. The monument is a mini-museum, with displays on Ecuador's natural history as well as the history of the indigenous peoples and the colonial settlers, and it also has great views from the top. It's a fun place to spend a few hours, especially so that you can later say, 'why of course I've been to the Equator'!
Extinct Volcano

(Nublin, Ecuador)- On the way to La Mitad del Mundo, we were treated to an excellent sidebar- the extinct volcano Pululahua.

The volcano is thought to have last erupted more than 2,000 years ago. Nobody thinks it's going to erupt again, least of which the farmers and homeowners who reside inside the crater! Observe:

Farming inside the crater of a volcano. Makes right-of-way work seem exceptionally safe!

Along the roadway to the volcano sits a modern interpretation of an indigenous temple. There is a nice museum inside, with displays and dissertations on things important to the indigenous peoples of the Andes.

It can't be more than five years old. An impressive structure, though.

A man in ceremonial garb whistles through a traditional instrument. He also danced around a cauldron of burning insense to tribal drums.

Ame makes nice with a local llama on site. Isabel isn't convinced the llama is her friend.

Fun In The Park

(Quito, Ecuador)- We were lucky to have a neighborhood park just one block away from our host family's home in Quito. We didn't visit as much as we would have liked, thanks to the rain, but we did make it this morning, prior to heading out to the Equator.

LOVED the mountains in the background, as always. Isabel loved the jungle gym.
KFC is everywhere in Quito, including the park. I read somewhere that KFC has more worldwide outlets than McDonald's. I found that unbelievable until I travelled internationally. In Ecuador, I saw at least eight different KFC locations, and not even one McDonald's.

Isabel enjoyed the flowers, almost as much as splashing in puddles.

This is how you do it, Daddy!

You don't say!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Otavalo, Part 3 - Food

(Otavalo, Ecuador)- While the traditional clothes and handicrafts are a draw for tourists, locals buy food for the next week's consumption. It's definitely different from how we shop at Kroger's.

I bought a small loaf of bread for Isabel to munch on. It cost eight cents. I couldn't believe it when the young girl said "ocho centavos". I had her repeat it twice- not because my Spanish was so bad, but because I just couldn't believe the price could be so low.

I really screwed up by not eating a single thing from the carts. The guidebooks warned that while the food was authentically local and quite tasty, it also brought with it some health risks. I'm such a wuss. What's a little diarrhea?

Bananas or plantains. Either was widely available. They filled the air with sweet aroma.

Fresh grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. It's a pain to scoop 100 grams of beans from the ground to a bag for sale, never mind the health risks. I don't know why they sell food from the ground.
Otavalo, Pt 2

(Otavalo, Ecuador)- Here's the tourista must-see. Otavalo lies about 90 minutes northeast of Quito. The drive is wonderful, with mountains, cliffs, and river views that aren't a bad rival to the Pacific Coast Highway in California. The town is essentially an enormous open-air market every Saturday, with everything from freshly harvested grains to the tourist draws: traditional clothing and crafts.
One of the less crowded streets. Ame holds Isabel along with our travel companions June, Joelle and the retired policeman who was June's host.

You are expected to haggle here. Once, I gave the asking price to a woman for something. She was stunned, so much so that it took a moment for her to remember to thank me. It was like that scene from Monty Python's "Life of Brian", where Brian tries to buy a fake beard for a disguise.

Ame inspects a traditional dress. We ended up not getting one for Isabel. Ame did haggle, however, so everyone at least had that satisfaction.

Hand-carved charms on necklaces, and patches featuring the likenesses of Che Guevara and 50-Cent. Some great irony there.
The likeness of Che Guevara could be seen here and there throughout Ecuador, but nowhere like Otavalo. Apparently, Che still holds a great appeal for Ecuadorians living in the rural areas, especially those as close to Columbia as this.
I was greatly tempted to provoke some of the people bearing the likeness. If they had the image on their truck, I wanted to ask if it was because they believed in Che. If they said yes, the response would be to agree and to declare that all property is theft, and that I would be taking the truck. Just want to see if there is consistency in their beliefs. Ame frowned on such activity.
That isn't your shirt! It's our shirt!
Worn with ARMANI jeans! Oh, the irony and the guilt!
Otavalo, Part 1 - The Drive

(Otavalo, Ecuador)- Parts of the drive from Quito to Otavalo along Highway 35 rivaled the views found on the Pacific Coast Highway in California. That's a lofty comparison, but I can make it with some authority, having now ridden both.

This roadway hugs the sides of mountains and overlooks rivers in gorges. The winding, near-switchback roads made me glad a former policeman was driving. The limestone mountains have caves hollowed into them. And, thanks to the recent rains, the cacti are in bloom. The shortcomings? It lacks an ocean view and some areas are marred by graffiti. Have a look for yourself.

I had a stiff neck on arrival at Otavalo, from looking almost continuously out the window!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lesson in Traditional Ecuadorian Food Preparation

(Quito, Ecuador)- I took a great interest in the food that our hostess, Sonia Martinez, was making for us each night, so on Friday, she invited me into the kitchen to observe and take part in the preparation of the family meal.

My Professora slices pork for pan roasting.

The food is actually very, very simple. The meats will be roasted or fried in salt, garlic, and cumin. The latter is the key to the Ecuadorian flavors for meats.

The salads might be as simple as a lettuce and tomato item, or onions and tomatoes, but Sonia's homemade seasonings were great. She would rub sugar into the onion and then let them soak for about a half hour. She would rinse them and then dress any of her salads in vinegar, olive oil, salt, the juice of a small lime, and cilantro.

Rubbing sugar into the onions.

Plantains frying in oil.

Each meal would have at least two starches- almost always rice and then potatoes or plantains. On this night, the rice went by the wayside in favor of corn. The plantains were my favorite variety- the semi-sweet ones. Here is the table presentation of the full meal.

A traditional, special Ecuadorian meal: roast pork, corn, plantains, potatoes, and salad.

The food looks a little different here than in the US. The corn is not in perfect straight rows. The potatoes bought at smaller food kiosks come with soil still attached to them.
It was all very delicious, night after night. I especially appreciated the special invite to take part in the preparation. Sonia appeared to appreciate the enthusiasm. She told me that Ecuadorian men don't usually take an interest in the kitchen, unless they are chefs by trade. It may not be muy macho by local standards, but I enjoyed the lesson, and am looking forward to making a similar dish once back home.