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December 30, 2006

New Year's Eve Food and Burning Men

We are dreaming of our familiar foods. Being so remote, the selection of foods is very basic. Most meals (lunch or dinner) are a soup and rice with a meat or fish. At first, delicious, but after a few weeks of it, we are dreaming of some variety. Greens! A big pile of salad! Some cheese! A cold cut! Even some whole wheat bread!

So, we've planned something of our own gastronomical adventure for New Year's Eve...

Tomorrow morning we start with a run along the beach, then a swim to cool off. Then will make our own breakfast of tuna from a can, lemon and onion on bread we bought from the bakery today. Not gourmet, but will break our week-long string of eggs and fruits for breakfast. And we get to prepare it with sand between our toes. Yeah!

Afterwards, we've met a shore fisherman who will take us out spear fishing to catch lobster and some fish with snorkel and fins... We'll make fresh ceviche of it for lunch.

In the afternoon, we'll walk the town to see the full-size papier-mâché dolls nearly each family has made and painted, which will be on display in front of the town's houses. These traditional paper statues are made to resemble a celebrity or notable person from the past year. Those we've already seen are very colorful and comical.

Everyone gathers in the town center after dark for dancing, drinking and general fiesta! At midnight, they light fire to the paper statues and dance around them drinking, singing and laughing until the wee hours of the next day.

Enjoy your new year's, we surely will ours!

December 29, 2006

Making our own way

Despite being awed by our first days in the Galapagos on Santa Cruz Island (the main tourist hub) and Seymore Island (where we scuba dove), these were just the beginning of an unfolding adventure that took us deeper into the rawness of the Galapagos Islands.

We were somewhat trepidatious about our decision to go our own way rather than join a four or eight day cruise, which is the typical way to "do the Galapagos". Bah humbug! We imagined how we'd feel during a highly structured cruise: "You have 30 minutes at this island, then you must be back to the boat for lunch, then we take you to ..." Being herded is not our thing in the least.

Armed with a spirit of independent discovery, we knew we'd prefer to make our own way, stumbling into our own unique adventure. And what an adventure it's been...

After hearing from other travelers of the extraordinary beauty of Bartolome Island, we decided to find a boat, which could take us there for a day trip. After a calm and introspective two and a half hours standing at the front of the boat, we found ourselves at a maturing volcanic island with two outstanding fine white sand beaches.

We climbed to the summit of the main volcano to catch the 360 degree vista of this island and a handful of nearby ones. Along the curving horizon, the silhouettes of the further away islands were set against the almost glowing azul sea. Postcard gorgeous! Literally, the famous Pinnacle Rock of the Galapagos is in the foreground.

It's easy to be impressed by how all that surrounded us was a result of millions of years of ocean floor volcanic eruptions, which gradually brought the accumulated pile of lava above sea level. Even more impressive is how all the endemic (only found here) and native (not introduced by man) plants and animals had to float at least 1000 km from the nearest land to establish themselves on the islands. How unlikely that there should be such biological richness here.

Bartolome offered me a lucky chance encounter with a curious and playful sea lion. After sensing her interest in some interaction, I'd dolphin dive in succession, and she would mimic. She'd zigzag underwater and I'd follow suit, or I'd spiral through the water and she'd in turn. Wow!

But that was the icing on the cake after walking on the shore watching a dozen white-tipped reef sharks (beautiful and graceful, not at all scary) and many swimming sea tortoises. Two almost meter-long tortoises were mating right in front of us - it takes an hour, then the male hops off and another who's been patiently watching hops on for his hour of glory, and so on until she's had all of her 250 eggs fertilized.

And then there was the snorkeling with the male sea lion (maybe time and a half bigger than I, my heart leapt when he swam by unexpectedly, but ultimately, we shared a rock in the middle of the water to soak in some sun!), penguins (adorable standing on the rocks, fast and nimble like darts underwater), a stingray, sally light footed crabs, starfish and dozens of colorful fish species, including barracuda, angelfish and a moray eel.

We shared some rich and engrossing conversation with a British couple, Edward and Joanna living in Bermuda on the boat ride back. Seeing that the enjoyment was four-way, we invited them to join us for Christmas Eve dinner, where we had, of all things, sushi and wine until the wee hours of the morning.

On Christmas day, we hopped on a 2.5 hour boat ride to the almost undeveloped Isabella Island, where we were planning four days. We're loving it so much that we've decided to stay another week. Aaaah.

Look for a post from Jo with a few Isabella tidbits...

In the meantime, the waves that have been calling me for an hour will finally get a visit. My sandy butt is going for a swim with the pelicans and sea lions...

December 22, 2006

Galapagos Wild

As we often would, we sat at Mango Tree, our favorite Quito coffee house / loungy restaurant / indoor garden terrace on Foch y Amazonas to sip and think about our next move. Its quintessential atmosphere of tropical plants, a huge sunroof, the sweet smell of coffee and freshly baked cinnamon rolls are further enhanced by the great Latin music and relaxed attitude of its lovely staff and brightened by the spirit of their director, Sophia.

We chatted with her about our holiday plans - rather our lack of any plans. Before we knew it, we agreed that the Galapagos would be a great place to spend the holidays. We jumped on the idea, and with her help here we are!

So for the last few days, we've been soaking in the wildlife on the Galapagos Islands - 1000km west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, where Charles Darwin formed his theory of evolution after seeing how the life on each of these islands - which never touched any continent - evolved differently than everywhere else.

Photo: Scary looking but beautifully calm (2006/12/21 15:37)
Photo: Tortuga Bay Beach, Galapagos (2006/12/21 13:03)
Photo: Mangroves growing at the beach - can you see the iguana (2006/12/21 15:27)
Photo: Comfortable spot (2006/12/21 15:35)
Photo: Family of iguanas (2006/12/21 15:33)
Photo: Quiet mangrove bay (2006/12/21 15:54)

Want more photos? See the whole Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos photo set on flickr or see it as a slideshow

It's absolutely amazing to see what a few billion years of evolution specific to these small islands is like. For example, islands with black lava rocks have black iguanas, while those with brown have ... yes! brown iguanas!

It's tough to beat the sense of being one with nature that's there for the having in the jungle, but let me tell you, being around these animals - who haven't learned to fear man - is right up there... Some come right up to you, and you can go right up to most of them without them doing more than looking at you as curiously as you look at them. Wow.

We just woke up from a nap after scuba diving at Seymour Island, where we watched 25 meters underwater as a sea lion played with a starfish a meter from us, showing off for a few minutes, dozens of sharks (White Tipped and Galapagos sharks) swam around us, floated transfixed as a school of huge manta rays gracefully glided past our bubbles, a dozen species of large fish, eel, starfish and school after school of fish swimming near, around, above and completely around us!

Photo: Cactus trees (2006/12/21 15:48)
Photo: Paul with a sea iguana (2006/12/21 13:37)
Photo: Two curious birds (2006/12/21 14:48)
Photo: Fearless finch (2006/12/21 14:56)
Photo: Marine iguana (2006/12/21 15:08)
Photo: Marine iguana closeup (2006/12/21 15:09)

Yesterday, we both sizzled to a burnt crisp under the hot, hot, hot equatorial sun at Tortuga Bay beach, whose crystal waters and perfect white sand are home to the huge tortoises' nesting grounds. It was soooo nice to feel the sand between our toes and swim in the perfect water, undisturbed by any development at all, a thousand kilometers from the nearest human population center. Untouched natural paradise!

We're about to go study some more Spanish together while sipping our coffee and tea overlooking the azul sea. After which we have a date with some sushi in a mangrove garden where the lava rock meets the Pacific... Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Wishing you all the happiest holidays!

December 16, 2006

Series of Connecting Events

We're not really planning very much, we're just letting things come to us; blown by the wind, you could say.

For example, after two people in Quito told us how great the nearby city of Mindo is, we decided to hop on a bus and check it out.

The buses here are nothing like what we've seen anywhere else in the world. They are old, black smoke spewing noisemakers... During the ride, the driver would stop at intersections and touts would hop on selling DVDs, chips, fruits, jewelry and gum, and hop off a minute later. A young boy of around 12, the bus driver's assistant leans out of the door or window while the bus is moving and shouts our destination, "Mindo, Mindo!!" If someone on the street is interested, they would wave their outstretched arm, palm down flapping their hand and the bus would stop wherever they stood, even if it required an emergency braking maneuver. They would hop on before the bus would come to a stop, saying nothing and sitting down. Interestingly, here you pay when you get off the bus, not when you get on.

On our way over, we looked Mindo up in our guide book, Footprint's South American Handbook and found the name of a recommended hostel: El Descanso, a 4 room wooden house with a hummingbird garden.

Over breakfast, we shared a table with a German couple who were taking Spanish lessons from this woman who's the local bird expert. They introduced us to her and we set a meeting for the afternoon, and learned her rate: $2 per hour.

After exhausting ourselves, trekking through the nearby mountains for 4.5 hours, and meeting and chatting (in Spanish! Woohoo!) with some of the incredibly friendly town folk along the way, we returned to town to meet her.

She arranged a visit to a philanthropist's animal sanctuary, where tropical animals that've been injured or confiscated by police in the city (it's illegal to own wild animals) end up recovering before getting set free in the jungle or cloud forest.

We later learned that the eccentric owner hardly ever lets anyone visit, and that we were the first in a month to be let in!

We saw all kinds of tropical birds (laurels, toucans, parrots and many species exotically colored and unknown to us), turtles, several types of monkeys to name a few of the zoo-like variety of animals here, probably numbering about a hundred.

These monkeys were rescued from the city after being purchased as babies. It's sad to say, but their mothers are killed and the babies taken to be sold for $5 each!

Guida, the property owner who built the rescue operation over the last few years explained that he bought two hectares for $20,000 and had a house built on the property for another $10,000. He has two hired hands that help with the property maintenance, gardening, animal feeding, cleanup, etc... they each each get paid $10/day. It's incredible to us that $2600 is all it takes to hire someone for a year ($50 /week x 52 weeks).

The monkeys were especially interesting to watch and interact with. They climb all over Guida, the philanthropist's shoulders, trying to steal his glasses and the contents of all his pockets. He had become their surrogate mother when they arrived, sleeping outside with them, and slowly weaning them off him and to a large stuffed dog. This is apparently really important, because without it, these girls would grow up to be mothers themselves, having not learned nurturing from their mother, would go on to abandon their children the way their mother "abandoned" them.

I can't begin to share all the richness of the stories he shared and the things we saw there... An experience of a lifetime!

All of it stemming from the strangers' recommendations to see Mindo, the Germans we sat next to, the teacher/birder who was the philanthropist's friend, and our openness to head out in seemingly random directions and be led through a series of connected events.

Quito Up, Up and Away

Quito is 2855 meters (9367 ft) above sea level. As mentioned in a previous blog this unto itself proves to be a little challenging for the body to adjust to. Being out of breath, having a small headache and the overall feeling of fatigue all correct themselves within 3-4 days of arriving.

Quito is located in the Sierra Region. It is home to almost half of all Ecuadorians. The high mountain region of the Sierra stretches the length of the country, north to south.

When exploring Quito, what can be seen when looking up to either side from almost any street are soaring mountains with wide-open grassland areas, patchwork fields separated by bursts of small forested areas, homes dispersed throughout the lower lands, and lush clouds which often look as though they are swallowing the mountains up above.

While the view from down below is beautiful, Paul and I would like a closer look. We would also like to know what the view is like from up top.

Ecuador is home to some exceptional high altitude climbing, with 10 mountains over 5000 meters (16404 ft). One of the most famous, Cotopaxi at 5897 meters (19374 ft), is reputedly the highest active volcano in the world. To conquer this would be quite a feat, one which we are considering taking on.

We stopped in at an outdoor adventure tour company to find out how to properly go and discover Cotopaxi and other glaciated mountain tops for ourselves.

We found out how to properly train ourselves to be able to safely handle the increase in altitude. This is done through acclimatization which involves climbing to a higher altitude during the day and returning to a lower altitude at night. The good news is being surrounded by such vast mountains that are quite easily accessible makes this possible for us. Being on the equator also makes it possible all year round.

Photo: CIMG5032 (2006/12/10 10:34)
Photo: CIMG5034 (2006/12/10 11:54)
Photo: CIMG5049 (2006/12/10 13:55)

Want more photos? See the whole Quito December 2006 set on flickr or see it as a slideshow

Our first test: Pichincha Gral Mountain, 4703 meters (15430 ft). The guideline given to us was if we could summit it in less than 3 hours than we could tackle a higher mountain progressing our way to the peak of Cotopaxi.

We took the Teleferiqo, which is like a ski lift but without the snow, or oxygen to 4000 meters (13123 ft). On the way up, we saw a clear view of Quito and the Sierra's farmlands filled with crops and livestock.

At this altitude, the mountain was bursting with people enjoying their Sunday afternoon. As we climbed there were fewer and fewer people to say "buenas tardes" to.

The climb was challenging, not technically but physically because of the lack of oxygen. We found it difficult to exchange more than a few words to each other and yet there was not the typical burn that one would expect to feel in your legs while being so out of breath.

We had read about the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness before setting out on this climb to ensure our safety. Some of these symptoms were noticed. Paul had a dull headache that persisted but did not worsen. I was experiencing some stomach upset but also not worsening. Both were expected effects of altitude acclimatization.

While huffing and puffing our way up, we kept a close watch on our symptoms and were hoping that they would not worsen, forcing us to turn around before reaching the summit. If we could make it up in under 3 hours, well that would just be a bonus!

We reached the summit of 4703 meters (15430 ft) in 2 hours and 5 minutes, high-fived each other and then enjoyed a much deserved lunch while enveloped in the clouds.

It was a little chilly at the top, and there was nothing to see but clouds, so shortly afterwards we headed back down. The first part of the descent was almost vertical and quite technical, we were very cautious with our hand and foot placement. Slowly but surely the clouds were left above and the breathtaking scenery returned.

Paul's headache disappeared and mine came on. By the time we reached the base, we had definitely had enough altitude training for one day.

As usual Paul slept the night away falling asleep just before his head hit the pillow. I had a bit of a restless night because my body was still adjusting to the change in altitude.

In the morning we were both more groggy than usual, a little dehydrated and very satisfied with our experience.

We are definitely not ready for Cotopaxi just yet, but are enjoying the journey in getting there.

December 14, 2006

Gem in the Rough

The first time we were in Quito, we stopped in at a fruit restaurant, Fruiterie Monterserrat and loved the atmosphere, but weren't hungry. Well Joanne wasn't hungry she had just come out of the MRI machine and was still a little shaken.

The fact that there's a restaurant dedicated to fruit is a testament to the amazing variety and freshness of Ecuador's tropical fruits!

Today, while exploring the historical center of Quito, we stumbled across it again. We were admiring the decor when a waiter offered "Otro cuicina?" (other food?) and directed us up some stairs. We thought he was showing us to some more seating upstairs, but in reality, another restaurant called Otro Cuicina was to be found - with a rooftop terrace overlooking the best looking part of Quito!

Our waiter brought us some complimentary hot mulled wine and we enjoyed it and the atmosphere so much that we ordered a thermos of it with some salad and empenadas!

We'll always remember the sight of the sun setting and the city lights coming on through the clouds...

December 11, 2006

Super-Sized Post

That was a HUGE post. It took the whole day to write, prep the photos, etc...

I don't think I'll do that again. Instead, I'll try for more frequent, but much shorter posts...

Ecuadorian Jungle Photos

Photo: Boat ride to Yuturi (2006/11/27 12:26)
Photo: Checking out the jungle (2006/11/27 15:33)
Photo: Jungle meets river (2006/11/27 15:51)
Photo: Indiginous couple dropped off at their house (2006/11/27 16:22)
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Photo: Tree with trunk flowers 1 (2006/11/28 12:17)
Photo: Tree with trunk flowers 2 (2006/11/28 12:17)
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Photo: Can you see the stick bug (2006/12/01 21:13)
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Ecuadorian Jungle

I've long held fantasies of living in the jungle amidst untouched, thriving wilderness. More recently, while studying satellite imagery, I was drawn to the last big swath of land on Earth that's green: The Amazon Jungle.

It's immense - from the Andean mountains in Ecuador east through Peru and Brazil, right to the Atlantic Ocean. Millions of acres of rain forest, mostly untamed and some of it still unexplored by modern man.

For the last two weeks, we set out for our first foray deep into the Ecuadorian jungle. And what a tasty treat it was...

Getting There

The ten hour overnight bus east from Quito over and down the Andean mountains to Coca was our first in South America. The roads between cities are unpaved, potholed and muddy, making the ride a jarring experience - slamming us into each other as one wheel or another dips into a dark crevasse. Adding to the experience is the legendary Latin American man's machismo... Despite driving along the curvy mountain switchbacks sided by unprotected vertical cliffs, our driver raced along as if he were in a rally race. Our bags and bodies slid into the aisle and then back into the window, turn after turn. Needless to say, we didn't sleep much...

Photo: Soaked by spray (2006/11/27 14:21)
Photo: Soaked by sun (2006/11/27 14:40)
Photo: View from front of boat (2006/11/27 15:49)
Photo: Paul looking out over speeding canoe (2006/11/27 16:01)
From Coca, where the last roads end, we rode downstream on the Napo river for seven hours in a motorized canoe most of the way to Peru. Along the river's banks we saw lush plants and on occasion the huts of an indigenous community or their children running along the river's edge waving excitedly, a testament to how few boats pass here. Most in the canoe were soaked by the splashing water, scrunched into fetal positions to keep the spray off their faces, I had migrated to the very front of the craft and lay comfortably face hanging over the bow - dry, warm and with a perma-grin enjoying the feeling of hovering over the water while being awed by the scenery.

Finally turning into the much smaller Yuturi river, we slowed to navigate the shallow winding way. Before long we could see a clearing on the bank revealing our lodge. Constructed of bamboo on stilts and surrounded by smaller sleeping huts, we immediately took a liking to the primitiveness and authenticity of the place.

First Impressions

Photo: Our hut (2006/12/02 14:48)
Photo: Huts (2006/12/02 14:49)
The sound of the jungle is perhaps more striking than the sight. A symphony of bird songs is ever present from an unknown number of bird species. Many parrots, laurels, condors, toucans and a dozen more unidentified species were there at each glance skyward. One, the Oropendola, was particularly interesting - perched on a branch, it would lean forward, swing nearly upside down letting out the most impressive of songs before opening its wings and righting itself - like a pendulum.

The birds would wake us at around 6:00 and we'd crawl out from under our bug netted bed, walk across the bamboo floor through whose boards you could see the ground a meter beneath and hesitatingly enter the cold shower to wash off yesterday's layer of DEET insect repellent, only to dry off and reapply another layer before stepping out into the bright and lively morning.

Spanish Classes in the Jungle

Photo: Paul studies with Paulo (2006/11/28 10:26)
Photo: Joanne studies with Zayra (2006/11/28 11:07)
Each morning, we studied Spanish one to one with our teachers Paulo and Zayra who accompanied us into the jungle from the school in Quito. For 4 to 4.5 intense hours, we sat overlooking the river, listening to the birds singing and studied Spanish grammar, conjugation in the present/past/future/imperative tenses, and new vocabulary and expressions. There was constantly a feeling of being behind the curve, as the pace was fast, but ultimately, so was the learning. After each session, we wearily gathered for lunch with the handful of others staying at the lodge. Jovial banter ensued and friendships formed.

When we arrived, we had difficulty understanding almost everything. After two weeks, we not only understood most of what was said, but both felt comfortable conversing with the locals. An amazing feeling!

Jungle Excursions

The afternoons were reserved for excursions into the jungle. Sometimes we walked well trodden ancient riverside trails that run a thousand kilometers, or sloshed through barely passable mud on foot led by a machete slashing native guide who opened the way for us, or gently paddled canoes down the river sighting the wildlife.

Photo: Paul plays tarzan (2006/11/28 14:54)
One excursion had me swinging from a vine yodeling like Tarzan. That, and my propensity to want to try everything that the jungle offered had some affectionately nickname me Tarzan and Joanne Jane.

Photo: Guide shows how to make rope (2006/11/28 14:29)
Photo: Guide extracts the creamy tree sap (2006/11/28 16:03)
Each excursion yielded new secrets, from the Sang de Dragon, a tree sap that's the jungle's version of insect repellent, another creamy sap that's used to treat all kinds of stomach and digestive problems, the garlic of the jungle, a leaf that tastes just like garlic, and that's a snake repellent when rubbed on skin, or which kind of palm's young leaves are used to make rope and which are used to make the waterproof roofs for native huts.

We saw all sorts of wildlife in their native habitat: monkeys (one from a family who came to check out our passing canoe positioned itself right over me in the trees and pee'd on me!), birds (including the toucan with its freakishly large beak),

Photo: Piranah fishing 1 (2006/12/02)
Photo: Piranah fishing 2 (2006/12/02)
Photo: Piranah fishing 4 (2006/12/02)
Photo: Piranah Jo (2006/12/02)
piranhas (I caught one - delicious on the grill, kept the jaw/teeth as a souvenir), crocodile (well, just its eye, the rest of it stayed submerged), turtle, some rodent-like animals the size of a poodle, tarantulas (one crawled all over a companion - apparently tame as long as you don't touch its hair, which many are allergic to, and which can kill it if you have any creams on your hands!) and all sorts of small and large spiders, lizards and salamanders, ants with massive pincers (used as sutures for cuts - they bite and then their bodies are ripped off leaving the pincers squeezing the wound closed!), the massive Congo ant (two centimeters long, whose sting is debilitatingly painful and results in several days of fever), the citrus ant (which lives inside the thin branches of a particular bush, and when we ate them alive, we realized how they got their name. They had an intensely strong citrus taste!), stick insects (indistinguishable from a thin tree branch), all sorts of colorful butterflies, centipedes and millipedes, one large winged insect as long as my hand with antennas twice that length, and lots of
Photo: Joannes frog (2006/11/29 15:22)
frogs (one which hopped onto Joanne's hand and stayed there during a one hour walk), cockroaches, a few small tree snakes (but not the famed massive anaconda), a green parakeet (that landed on my shoulder and insisted on a lick of my yogurt one breakfast) - and much, much more...

Most of these are invisible to the untrained eye (ours!) but to our guide, an indigenous Quechuan man, every few steps forward yielded another something interesting to reveal to us where a moment ago there appeared to be nothing but tangled plants.

Harmony and Disharmony

Strikingly, all of these plants and animals seemed to live in harmony - each type of plant growing next to another, none taking over all the space and strangling its neighbors. No one type of animal dominates - countless species living together in nature's balance.

Never before has man's rejection of nature and his tendency to live apart from nature been so blatantly obvious to me. Man tends to blanket himself so completely over land that today's cities have nothing but man in them. I once read that the most prolifically spreading virus on earth is man himself. After living all of my life in man-made species homogeneity, it was so refreshing to be surrounded by life's thriving diversity and witness natural balance.

Having said that, it's obvious that even the deep jungle is not immune to man's spread. The presence of the petroleros (oil company men) is felt here. Larger and larger swaths of indigenous land is being bought up by the oil companies who drill for oil, spill that oil into the rivers, polluting them to the point where the large one, the Napo can no longer support fish life. And this is the very beginning of the Amazon river ecosystem. The Napo flows downstream into the Amazon and out into the Atlantic, getting more inhospitable as it flows. The fish, which were the indiginous communities' staple food for millenia, is now gone. They have had to enter the money economy to purchase their food. It's really sad.


The mighty mosquito is the mightiest in the jungle. Despite our thrice daily application of DEET, we scratched our dozen daily new bites, sometimes to the point of bleeding. These suckers can make you ITCH! One particularly bad afternoon, Joanne emerged from a hammock with fifty-ish bites on her sides and back. She looked like she had a bad case of chicken pox!

Jungle River Fun

Photo: Paul rowing the canoe (2006/12/01 13:56)
Seeing my fascination with his canoeing skills, our native guide taught me how to row and navigate the river. One of my favorite activities was to take a canoe out, rowing slowly and enjoy exploring the various nooks and crannies of the river. I'd often be found cruising back to the lodge just as the sun was setting sporting a wide and glowing smile.

The first of my swims in the river took quite some courage. The Yuturi river is completely opaque from the swirling silt. You can't see even a foot into the water, but you know that there's all kinds of critters in there. But after the first dive in and precarious swim, I realized that while I can't see any of the fish, they can see me, and do their best to avoid the big thing that could eat them. By the end, frolicing in the river was a daily adventure.

Photo: Paul relaxing in hammock (2006/11/29 07:08)
As was a daily swing and occasional nap in the hammocks hanging near the river's edge, where I now lay dreaming of the next jungle adventure...