September 28, 2009


After traveling up the California coast in April and enjoying the lanai and hiking the Na Pali Coast on Kauai, Hawaii, we moved back to Encinitas, California in May. Since then, we've mostly enjoyed some stationary punctuated with hiking, surfing, beach jogs and swims, Vegas weekends and catching up with old friends. Taking it a little slower, you could say.

March 19, 2008

Your package is here!

Michelle, a yogi living next to us in Byron Bay, Australia exclaimed "Your package is here!" and I jumped out of my seat in disbelief. I was sure it was a goner...

The package took the most convoluted path across the earth to arrive with us. We had feared that it was lost or stolen during the last leg - between Brisbane and Byron Bay (a 2 hour drive apart) - when a week passed without a hint of a delivery.

I'm ecstatic to report that the mailman (who we'd been talking to every day this week) hand delivered it to Michelle, who, fully aware of the eagerness with which we awaited the package brought it to us.

Western Digital 320 GB Passport 2.5You see, my trusty Thinkpad X61 Tablet had run out of disk space back in Thailand so I ordered a Western Digital 320 GB Passport 2.5" USB 2.0 Hard Drive online while we were in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from somewhere in California. It was shipped to Louise in New Jersey, who repackaged it and sent it (with difficulty because of UPS's idiosyncrasies) to Michael in Montreal, who loaded it up with data I desperately need and mailed it to Travis and Carissa's place in Brisbane - but it arrived the day after we had left for Byron Bay. Finally, they re-mailed it to Byron Bay where it now sits expectantly with a cool blue glow, awaiting its indoctrination.

Thanks to all who were involved in this adventure in world-wide data movement.

February 16, 2008

Sorry, we're closed

"Sorry, we're closed", they said as I arrived at the check in counter for our flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to the Gold Coast, Australia. Oh no you're not, I thought to myself - not after what we just went through to get here...

Our well planned morning started with a leisurely breakfast, a stroll over to the monorail and its ride offered us our final tour of the Kuala Lumpur from its high perch. From KL Sentral, a nice high speed train whisked us to KLIA airport, 25 mins away.

At KLIA, we admire the architecture and start to look for our check in counter. Except we can't find it anywhere.

We find that the counter lays 25 km away at another airport - KLIA LCC! Who names two airports so similarly? Maybe they enjoy seeing the bulging eyes of the panicked passengers as they realize they are going to miss their flight.

Quickly - an ATM for more cash, a taxi counter, and in a jog, we hop in to a waiting cab, bypassing the taxi driver's offer to put our bags in the trunk - let's go! Our flight leaves in just over an hour!! But we should have realized we were screwed when the dispatcher was signaling to the guy giving him directions. But it should have smacked us in the face when he turned into a dead end street and giggled a nervous giggle, saying "Oooooooh!?". After five minutes more slow and hesitant driving, we ended up back here we started. Oh No!

Heated discussion, frantic GPS look ups on my Blackberry and repeated instance that he call someone who had a clue where this other airport is, and finally, as if something had snapped back into place, he says - "Oh, you want to go to KLIA-LCC!, yes I know" and proceeded to whisk us directly there, far above the speed limit with his new found confidence.

We get to the airport only to hear the fated "Sorry, we're closed" at the check in counter. Thankfully, with no bags to check we could still catch the flight if we hurry. We get assigned the back most two seats on the A330. There's enough of a delay that I was able to write this from seat 47K before....

Lift off!!

January 23, 2008

Thailand - Cooking 101

The moment my taste buds became intimate with Thai food, I was hooked. My quest to learn to reproduce these culinary delights began so that when the time comes to leave, I may take a part of Thailand with us.

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I had always associated Thai food with an unpleasant and undesirable burning sensation that comes with eating spicy foods. Prior to being in Thailand, my tolerance level for spicy would reach it's peak after a few small shakes of a pepper mill. I have since grown quite fond of the green and red 1-2 centimeter long chili's which are used liberally, packing a punch to the dishes and sauces they accompany. Each bite leaving a tingle on your lips that can be felt well after the meal is done. I may go so far as to say that I am addicted to this tingle and mini influx of endorphins that are released in response to the bodies perception to a painful stimulus- otherwise known as a good spicy dish. It is sought out daily.

Our tolerance for eating fiery dishes has adapted significantly, our digestive tracts no longer fight back with a vengeance the morning after.

Restaurants that cater to farangs (westerners), purposely serve a milder version so as not to scare their clients away from the smoke that would undoubtedly exit all of their facial orifices. These modifications now leave us unsatisfied and yearning for the authentic Thai culinary experience.

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While there is truth to my previous association of Thai food being spicy, I have since learned that this generalization is just that. The ideal Thai meal is a harmonious blend of the spicy, subtle, salty, sweet,and sour, while being equally satisfying to the eyes, nose and palate.

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So how does one go about learning the secrets of a Thai kitchen? Cooking classes, of course!

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Learning to cook in a formal setting offered a good base in which to begin my culinary quest, but was it authentic? How much of the experience was tailored for the farangs ease and enjoyment in the kitchen?

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The introduction to so many unknown vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices only opened up the gateway to my curiosity and left me wanting to learn more, to learn the subtleties that make Thai cuisine so gastronomically pleasing.

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I soon figured out that this hunger for learning could be satiated through vendors' stalls.

Thai's eat almost every meal outside of the home. The majority of meals come from rot khen - vendor carts. Vendors specialize in a particular dish and can be found clustered together at day markets along the roadside. There are plastic table and chairs set up, but often the dishes are spooned into a take away plastic bag and shuttled off by their customers on mopeds.

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Do not let these basic make shift kitchens fool you, these simple food stops are anything but. This is where the true authentic Thai eating experience is to be had and for a fraction of the price of farang restaurants. A satisfying lunch of fish, chicken or vegetable curry, heaping plate of rice and accouterments of fresh veggies that serve to cool the palate from it's spicy counterpart costs all of 30 baht- $1. It is here that I have been feeding not only myself, but with their open air kitchens, my culinary curiosities as well. Few words, if any, are exchanged. Standing along side, accompanied by their warm welcoming smiles, I learn through observation.

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I had developed such a nice rapport with one vendor, Oy, that Paul and I had the pleasure of going to her home one night, cooking and sharing a small feast together.

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Customarily, eating Thai food is done family style- it's a communal affair involving a group of people sharing common serving platters. The meals are served in whatever order the kitchen can prepare them in, unlike western tradition where all meals are brought in unison and placed in front of their rightful owners. Diners choose whatever they require for one mouthful from the shared dishes and add it to their own plate of rice. Soups are enjoyed concurrently with rice and other dishes, not independently.

Getting the food to your mouth also involves different customs than the west. Locals use a spoon and a fork but not in the way you think. Thais use a fork like we use a knife, to push food onto the spoon which then finds it's way to your mouth, followed by a huge grin. Dig in! Knives are never found on a dining table.

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Fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish are sold in open air warehouse type markets. These markets vary in size and complexity from a few hanging bananas to an array of goodies that would allow for a feast suited for the King and Queen of Thailand to be conjured up. I ride my bicycle to different markets almost daily finding new things to try or to learn about. With the ever present language barrier, my questions often get put on hold, but eventually someone is placed in my path who can show me the way, or at least tell me the name behind the mystery food, enter Wikipedia.

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Yesterday, Ole, the chef of the restaurant that is attached to the bungalows we currently call home, let me tag along to the markets with him as he loaded up on groceries. Upon our return, we unpacked them and then I proceeded to help him with kitchen prep. While my tasks seemed mundane, cleaning and chopping produce, my eyes were constantly darting upwards and in his direction hoping to catch a glimpse of his expertise and learn any new trick that he may impart my way. I smiled as the thought occurred to me, don't all apprentices start in the proverbial mail room? With this in mind, I continued to clean and chop with vigor, all the while enjoying cooking 101 in Thailand, in all the forms it takes.

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November 27, 2007

Cultural Immersion

After almost a year of traveling Latin American countries, I can proudly say that we have achieved our goal of integrating a new culture into our daily thoughts and experiences.

Having had the opportunity to dive into Latin America we learned firsthand of the cultures likeness to ours and it's contrasting and colorful ways that differ from our North American upbringings. Often these differences challenged the foundation in which our thoughts and actions were born from and opened our eyes to a new reality. A new reality that will undoubtedly help shape us during the continuum of growth throughout our lives.

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The greatest gift that I have been given from our extended travels so far, is that of a bigger picture in life. I can best describe it as a feeling of centeredness that offers a solid platform for which my perspective may shape and re-shape itself from moment to moment without the limitations set forth by expectations. I am more receptive to new experiences and appreciate them in the now for what they really are rather than what I think they should be.

This, which has forever changed us, was largely in part to learning Spanish. It was abundantly clear to us that over time, the shrinking language barrier gave way to a cultural exchange and in turn deeper self exploration.

It figures, just as we have wrapped our hands around the language with enough proficiency to share and learn about any topic that may present itself, we go ahead and decide to change continents!

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So we now find ourselves in Asia, eager to jump into another culture, we immediately place ourselves off the beaten path eating among the locals. I'm not sure if it was the blank look on our faces as we stared at the Mandarin characters on the menu or simply that we were the only non-Asian in the restaurant, but after a few minutes an English speaking Singaporean came to our rescue and helped us order a typical Taiwanese breakfast.

When no such help presents itself we begin an impromptu game of charades. We are also attempting to memorize some characters so that we can recognize a place or know if we are going into the right bathroom (now that would make a great story, wouldn't it?)

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Based on our previous experience in Latin America, in order to get the full cultural experience in Asia, it may hinge on our ability to communicate.

It's never easy starting over, but it's also never as exciting.

We found our way once and we shall do it again, even if it feels like the blind leading the blind at times, we are up for the challenge and welcome the unknowns that lay ahead.

Thanksgiving in San Diego

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We celebrated American Thanksgiving at our friends Bill and Nancy's in San Diego. Picture if you will - 5 kids, 2 dogs, and 12 adults all under the same roof. The kids running around in and out of the kitchen which was buzzing with people fixing themselves drinks, helping with the chopping, dicing, stirring or baking. The two dogs that were brought by friends moved underfoot, sniffing around their new environment (probably hoping for some food to fall). All the while everyone was catching up or getting to know each other.

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Dinner prep was absolutely chaotic in the most pleasant of ways, and somehow it worked! Hours and hours later, a huge feast was ready to be devoured by all.

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The festivities included us all dancing around in the living room, doing some limbo stick acrobatics, playing ping pong in the garage and eventually sitting outside around a fire. We felt thankful to enjoy the warmth of a great group during our three days in San Diego.

November 19, 2007

Flowing in a River of Wind

Photo: Photo taken 2007/10/15 at 15:52 [CIMG2338]
Kitesurfing has intrigued me for years, ever since I stood in awe watching someone in San Diego drawn effortlessly across the water by the wind. I came to Cabarete, Dominican Republic, to strap on a kite and feel it for myself.

Cabarete is one of the world hot spots for kitesurfing - relatively consistent winds, warm waters, lots of facilities, and the world kitesurfing competitions are held here. On a windy day during the high season, the sky is littered with a hundred kites in the afternoon.

The beach is lined with schools, teachers and kites for rent. After interviewing three independent teachers, I chose Yohan, a nice Frenchman with which I developed an immediate rapport.

After a day of theory and work on kite setup, beach launches and control of a small training kite on the sand, I was hungry for more, but time was up.

My second day of lessons would have me fly the kite on land.

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To demonstrate, Yohan pulled one side of the control bar towards him. The kite swung quickly across the sky in an arc, and when it reached the apex above us, it yanked him right off the ground more than a meter. The enormous power of the kite was immediately evident. I would later see people launch 10 meters into the sky, travel 30 meters forward and land softly in the water. The wind's enormous raw power could seemingly be both harnessed and tamed, I thought.

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I strapped a harness onto my waist and hooked on the four lines leading to the 8 square meter kite. The two outer lines are attached to the control bar, which when pulled or let go in unison draws in the edges of the kite or relaxes them, serving to power and depower the kite. Favoring one side steers its position along an arc that stretches from low to either side of you to straight above head. A simple principle, this should be a snap.

Reality, of course, would take me another way. I found it very difficult to control the kite and to keep it aloft. I spent more time crashing and relaunching the kite than flying it. Each crash smashed my ego down another notch, until I was left with a deeply carved nest of ineptitude. I cut the planned 3 hour lesson short at half time and sat alone, humbled on the water's edge looking out over the ocean. Frustration grew into dejection and bloomed into an all-out sense of failure.

The feeling was overwhelmingly depressing. My desire to do has always been met with the necessary matching capability. But now, despite wholehearted effort, I couldn't. I contemplated whether I could still pick up new skills and excel at them. I usually take the bumps of the learning curve as an enjoyable challenge, but this day, I faced difficulty by running away from it. I abhorred the feeling of quitting with failure.

After some more overly dramatic self dialog, the lapping waves calmed me and I concluded that I would be establishing the first footholds of regret if I didn't keep at it until I "got it".

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The next day I approached the endeavor with a refreshed spirit and renewed vigor. This day, the kiteing was outstanding. The winds were twice as strong, between 15 and 20 knots and stable. I progressed quickly, keeping it aloft, gaining control of the kite, positioning it where I wanted.

Where on previous days, when I would misguide the kite for just an instant it would go hurling violently towards the ground, ending flight with a crash. On this day I was almost always able to recover control without an impact - which has really contributed to my feeling in control of the kite, instead of the other way around.

I was ready to move off the shore into the water to work on "body dragging". That's where I fly the kite in figure 8 patterns above and get dragged in an S pattern across (and sometimes hopping over!) the water. I now had a first-hand sense of the kite's power. It was a thrilling load of fun that had me perma-grinning ear to ear.

Where previous day's water crashes meant swimming back to shore, untangling the strings and relaunching - a 20 to 30 minute effort - I am now able to relaunch the kite while it sits in the water, a great feeling, and an even greater time saver.

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With kite control and water launches down pat, I grabbed a board, holding it in front of me, and let the kite drag me 30 meters from shore. There, I positioned the board under my feet with one hand, flew the kite with the other while treading water - a coordinated dance I would soon loose awkwardness with - I strapped my feet into the padded slots perpendicular to the 138cm wide board. Finally, scanning the area for kites whose lines I didn't care to become entangled with, I made the kite fly a quick figure 8 above my head, which lifted me up to the surface of the water. Placing my kite lower towards the horizon, I am led, skimming on the surface on the board - finally, at long last, I WAS KITESURFING! Well at least for a few seconds. :)

The following days brought more consistency, changes of direction, and "out & back" navigation. With that skill, I earned my IKO Certification. I can now rent equipment anywhere in the world and start going out on my own - woohoo!

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I secured a week long equipment rental and set out to practice during every sufficiently windy moment. Although the wind and weather was suitable only three days out of the week (Tropical Storm Noel came through - dumping sufficient rain to flood many parts of the country, killing many more than the government would admit to, for fear of hurting the tourism industry, but I digress), I enjoyed my new sport tremendously and organized my days around the anticipated arrival of the winds around 1 or 2pm each day.

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As the days went on, my muscles learned their new patterns and struggle slowly turned to flow.

The feeling is tremendous. Like surfing, but with a never ending wave and a choice of speed and direction. Or perhaps like sailing a boat the size of a skateboard and the commensurate agility to stop and change direction, even 180 degrees, at will.

This flow amplified in those moments when I caught the wind just so, when its potency was matched equally by the counter force exerted by the edge of my board digging into the water, cutting a path diagonally with and perpendicular to the wind. Leaning back, the weight of my body was supported almost entirely by the harness on my waist, which itself is an extension of the kite and the stream of wind it's anchored to.

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At day's end on what would be the last time out, a deep sense of idyllic satisfaction set in: Over the call of muscles drawn on all day pleading for notice, past the tingling of salt water on my lips and with my mind as wildly fired up as the sky's burnt orange glow - I realize that I'm flowing in a river of wind on its side of the frontier between the worlds of water and air.

October 22, 2007

The Learning Curve of Travel

With every new place visited there is a new curiosity to be fed, the senses are indulged with new sights, smells, foods and people. There is a rebirthing process which takes place upon arrival to each new location and begins the moment we have left the previous destination. Some places require little to no "labor"- these places are relatively effortless and painless to incorporate ourselves into while other places a lengthy and sometimes arduous process ensues. Invariably, our basic needs which must be met are the same as with every newborn - to be nourished and out of harm's way.

Figuring out which way is "up", is part of the adventure and of the unfolding of our journey. Where will we sleep? Where will we eat? How will we get from one place to another? How much is it supposed to cost? Is this person to be trusted? Where are we?...Are just a few of the many questions and unknowns that are a part of our rebirthing process when we arrive to a new place. Hand in hand we find our way, and the ways of a place and its people are learned.

With every passing day, newness falls away and a routine begins to set in. The routine offers small pleasures that would otherwise be taken for granted, knowing where we will sleep and eat leaves much time for deeper exploration and introspection.

When arriving in the Dominican Republic, we landed in Santiago and still needed to make our way to our final destination of Cabarete. We were only able to take a bus as far as Sosua, because the taxi union disallowed buses from going to Cabarete. Conveniently, taxi's awaited the arrival of the buses and pounced on each person who disembarked hoping to get a fare. Not knowing any different, we bit and took a taxi.

We soon learned that there are other much cheaper means of travel around the Dominican. Gua gua's are mini-vans that will stuff as many people in as are willing to get in, no specific stops just wave out your hand and one will surely stop in no time at all.

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Then there's the "moto-conchos" (motorcycle taxis), main streets are lined with all types of 2 wheeled transport, varying from mopeds to motorcycles in all conditions. These too will take as many passengers as are willing to get on, the most I've seen so far is 5, four adults and 1 child. No need to wave out your hand simply walk a few steps and the driver's will whistle when they drive past in either direction - not to be mistaken for the local cat call which is a very distinctive kissing noise. The young Dominican men who usually drive these moto-conchos seem to spray their testosterone in a stream of obnoxiously loud mufflers and drive at crushing speeds, always helmet free as if this display were a measure of their machismo.

Paul had his first ride on a moto-concho the other night. The motorcycle had no headlamp making them invisible on these unlit streets, but this didn't seem to phase the driver one bit, maybe we'll stick to gua guas.

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When arriving to Cabarete, we were initially inundated with locals trying to sell us goods and services of all sorts, one shoe shine boy even tried to convince Paul that he should get his flip flops shined, did I mention that Paul's flip flops are made of plastic?! Another woman on the beach stated with conviction that Paul's hair is long enough for her to braid, thankfully he passed on her offer. As the days passed and we walked the same streets and the same shoreline of beach, the locals began greeting us and chatting it up instead of making a sale their primary objective, inviting us into their culture.

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We have discovered a wonderful bakery with freshly baked bread, the owner greets us with a kiss and open arms, along with the occasional impromptu meringue dance lesson behind the counter.

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One day I ran into Collasa, the woman who cleans our room, she was carrying what to me was a foreign looking vegetable that I have since learned is called guan pan. After questioning her about it, without a second thought she invited me to her home to learn how it is prepared.

On another day when no winds blew, we traveled up into the nearby mountains and joined a canyoning crew for the day. Starting at the top of a ravine, we descended throughout the day to its base across rocks and stream bottoms, over boulders, swimming through pools, rappelled down waterfalls, jumped off cliffs into pools of crisp fresh water. All the while, surrounded by lush vegetation, songbirds and rays of sun occasionally piercing through the canopy.

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These days our routine has us wake after a full restful sleep, we make our way to the beach, do some yoga, go for a swim then return to our hotel where Marsia, one of the owners, has been kind enough to let us use her fridge to store some health filled treats which we bring with us to our favorite breakfast spot. We usually rest until about 1pm, when the winds pick up, beckoning Paul to strap his kite on and be drawn by their power across the ocean - his new sport: kitesurfing (more from Paul later).

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Our routine, our favorite spots and new found friends will soon be left behind only to re-start the learning curve of traveling to new places all over again, but with each destination we bring just a little bit more experience and know more of ourselves as we go.

September 28, 2007

Provo, Turks and Caicos

I could write a bunch about the gorgeous turquoise waters, but I'll just let the photos speak for themselves...
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September 27, 2007

Carefree Caribbean

We said our goodbyes the night before, and once again packed our tiny backpacks. To give you an idea of their size, my Mother exclaimed in disbelief that one of our backpacks would fit her toiletry kit and nothing else! My friend Karen claims it is the size of her diaper bag. While there may be some exaggeration to both of their comparisons, we have patted each other on the back for leaving the everyday luxuries that we grew accustomed to behind allowing us to travel unencumbered.

We went to bed relatively early to be somewhat rested for our 6am flight, 4:15am at the airport (who schedules these things?) All was smooth, no last minute crazed rush, we had vowed to do it differently this time around.

We landed in Miami International airport at 10am, a little groggy having been in and out of sleep the entire time, no matter, we weren't the ones flying the plane. We went to the bathroom, asked about where to get some food, and then, in what I would imagine to be in true Caribbean style, unhurried, hand in hand we gradually shuffled our feet as we made our way to get some grub.

Not a care in the world, with all of our belongings stuffed into our backpacks and plenty of time to spare before boarding the flight to Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, we were dreaming of what lay ahead, until... Paul realized his wallet was GONE!

Our hearts sank. Not again! Not so soon after beginning out travels. We are all too familiar with the reality of theft, but hoped it would be delayed, at least until reaching our first destination?!

Paul remembered being bumped in the bathroom, but at the time thought nothing of it. Looking back, it appears obvious that he had been pick pocketed. What a horrible way to start our trip. O.k., so the unhurried Caribbean mindset would have to be put on hold, but only temporarily.

What are the chances of recovering Paul's wallet in a busy international airport having not even made eye contact with the pickpocket himself? Clearly an avenue not even worth exploring. The only logical thing to do was cancel our cards.

Well maybe there's one other thing. What if the bump was just a bump and the wallet fell out in the plane? Before cancelling our cards, we realized that neither of us checked our seats before getting off the flight, something I always do when leaving a restaurant, a cab, a hotel... well, almost always.

We went nervously back to our gate which was now closed to ask if we could go back on the plane and see if one lonely black wallet was left behind.

We were not allowed back on the plane once the gate was closed, the woman working the gate went and checked for us. As expected, she came back empty handed. Maybe it was our look of dispair that made her feel for our situation, she invited Paul to go on and check for himself. Sadly, the result was the same.

We stood in front of the gate evaluating our situation. We took out our back up cards and were figuring out what cash we had on us, we needed to get to a bank machine to take out money, and of course we needed to cancel our cards. Ugh!!

While standing there figuring out what we needed to do, the woman had called maintenance to see if anyone had turned in a wallet. No one was responding. By this time we had both come to terms with the fact that the wallet was gone and it was time to move on, do what we needed to do and get some food in us.

We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders in disappointment gave a nod and began to walk away. At that very moment a man from maintenance walked up to the counter holding in his outstretched hand one lonely black wallet. A wave of relief ran through our bodies, it took everything in me not to wrap my arms around him and hug him with all my gratefulness. Not a thing was missing from it.

The wallet had fallen out of Paul's new linen pants. The very linen pants that were bought specifically for the Caribbean's hot and humid weather. It was this very moment that we realized if we were to maintain the Caribbean unhurried stress free mindset for more than a few moments a day, Paul would no longer be putting his wallet in his back pocket of these pants.

September 9, 2007

Getting ready to go

We've really enjoyed the summer in Montreal, and are getting ourselves ready to head off again. The plan has us heading to the Caribbean (Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic and Cuba) between the end of September and middle of November, then on to Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) for the winter, and up to China for spring. Woohoo!

We're looking forward to scuba diving around Turks and Caicos, which is supposed to be some of the best the world has to offer, and I'm going to learn to kite surf in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. THAT should be fun!

We hope to follow summer weather around, and pack even lighter than before, taking just a small school-sized backpack each. I'm still flapping on whether I'll bring my Thinkpad X61 Tablet notebook with, or forsake any real productivity and have just the HTC TyTN Pocket PC phone for email, notes and news. We'll see as the prep progresses.

July 31, 2007

Summer in Montreal

It has been a looooooong time since our last post, and there's just no good reason. Despite being in Montreal for the summer and having ready access to the Net to post - well, we've been focused on other things.

Family and the city have pretty much captured our attention over the last two months. My niece Ashley is nearly two and is such a peach. Sweet as pie. Whenever she gets wide-eyed and exclaims "Uncle Paul!" with a smile that stretches ear to ear - well, there's nothing like it.

As for the city, well after the icy winter, the city overblooms in summer with festival after festival, lots of fireworks, music, comedy and get togethers with old friends. This weekend we did some boating. See Joanne and I get whipped around behind a boat on an inner tube:

May 28, 2007

Living in Buenos Aires

Where do I start? Living in Buenos Aires has been keenly interesting. Staying put for as long as we have let us soak in the experiences. And soak we did...

Tango dancing, the famous Pacha nightclub, new friends, parrillas (BBQ) with neighbors on our terrace and theirs, all you can eat beef (man, can Argentinians eat red meat!) and wine (and how they love their Malbec), walks through the parks, mate sipping ceremonies, cooking classes (Jo has learned a few new tricks - mmmm! Ask her about her empenadas, foccacias and quiches!), futbol (soccer isn't soccer unless it's FUTBOOOOOOOOL!), theater, ice cream (world's best as far as I've known), cafes, street fairs, jazz festival (you have to check out the Cuban pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdes), getting robbed, oh yes, robbed!

Now that's a story... Coming home one night, we found our front door open. Entering, the table top where sat my laptop... Well, it sat no longer. Neither did our camera, Internet phone, headset, our iPod nanos, our daypack, watch, Joanne's wallet, ballet tickets, the apartment's plasma tv and dvd, and so much more, all gone. We were left with our clothes, passports and camping gear. Stunned, shocked and for the first time in South America, frightened. Where once there was only trust in fellow man, the ugly reality that hit home that night was the same reality that had caused so many to erect ugly metal bars over every opening to their buildings.

A friend here holds that if Argentines spent as much energy on accomplishing something as they do trying to screw each other out of money they'd be the richest nation in the world. There is a lot of that going around. But it's not all bad. In fact, I'd still say this is one of the most fantastic cities and countries in the world. The harshness of the theft was strongly offset by the legendary Argentinian warmth, generosity and openness we felt in dozens of daily interactions. I'll share more on the impressions the society left on me in an upcoming post.

But back to our regularly scheduled drama... After some freaking out, we calmed down and the necessary optimism set in. We were ok. We still had an ATM card and passports. Everything we lost was just "stuff". Well, that's not entirely true...

We lost all the photos from Buenos Aires. I also lost all my work. I had been developing a new business direction for iTools that I'd been spinning on in my head during our travels. For a month in Buenos Aires, I developed a business plan, databases, a rather nice web application and a lot of notes and brainstorms. All of it was lost with the laptop.

But we were ok and it's just stuff. I keep telling myself that. But it still sucks.

We nonetheless decided not to let it sour our spirits and decided to put iTools aside and get out there and live. The lack of much more than the clothes on our backs certainly simplified our lives. It's amazing what else you do when there is no computer, no email, no tv, no music and just a big city to explore.

As we often do after hitting a milestone in our travels, we asked ourselves what we most wanted to do next. For both of us, it was a desire to see our families and friends again. And Darby. Well, Darby, and them :).

So at the end of the month, we leave South America, passing through San Diego for a few days before heading back to Montreal for the summer. Aaaah, summer in Montreal! We haven't had one in ten years. Comedy, jazz, film and fireworks festivals! Family BBQs (yay, more meat!), tamtams on Mount Royal and the busy street terraces beckoning us with freshly roasted coffee... We'll get to celebrate our 12 year anniversary in the city where our journey began.

Get ready, heeeeere we come!

April 13, 2007

Buenos Aires Apartment

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After living mostly in a tent for the last month and a half, we've swung entirely in the other direction and settled into an amazing place at:

J. A. Carranza 1569 U6
Capital Federal, Buenos Aires

in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The three story place has a living area and kitchen on the first floor, a spiral staircase that leads to the second, open floor with bedroom and bath and a third, open air terrace floor up top, complete with parilla (BBQ) and hammock. Completely over the top... We're in heaven. We've signed for 45 days, so there will be lots of time to feel the lifestyle of a Porteño.  In case you want to give us a buzz: +54 (11) 47749373.

We've already taken our first tango lesson, and let me tell you - this dance fits the passion of this great city perfectly. Looking forward to enjoying some of the fantastic Argentine wines (especially our new favorite grape - Malbec, which if you haven't tried - well, let's just say you must try any Malbec from Argentina, they're all good!

Excuse me while I go sit up on the terrace and start dreaming of some goodies for iTools.

Continue reading "Buenos Aires Apartment" »

April 11, 2007

Crossing the invisible line in the middle of nowhere

We heard of the possibility of continuing north from Fitz Roy on a foot trail and crossing the Argentina / Chile border through wilderness. The concept, filled with romanticized adventure, drew us in.

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The way had three stages: a van could take us north 37 km on a farm road that dead-ends at the southern end of Lago Desierto. We'd hike 45 km up the length of the lake and through a mountain valley to Candelaria Mancillo, where a once-a-week boat stopped at its port before cruising three more hours to Villa O'Higgins, the southernmost point of Chile's incredible Carretera Asustral (Southern Highway).

The trick was getting to that boat on time, because it waits for no one, but we'd have to wait a week for it if we missed it. Everything had to go according to schedule to make it work, because the boat would pass in two days, and we had a solid two days walking ahead to get there.

So, after a good night's sleep in El Chalten we hop in the van that would drive us as far as the road went. Raoul, our driver kept staring out at the side view mirror. Several times along the way, he stopped, walked to the rear wheel, examined it before hopping back in and driving on, saying nothing. Until one time when on his return from his mysterious stops, he announced that the van was broken and we could not continue.

He said that at a farm ahead, he thought that there was a radio where he could call back to town for help. But even the most optimistic rescue schedule wouldn't give us enough daylight hours to hike the required day's distance to catch the boat the next day. Our optimism sank as we realized we'd have to turn around and forsake this route.

Then, as if sensing the importance to us, he and his front-seat mate-sipping cohort Andre crawled under the van and seemingly futilely started banging a rock against the wheel. We overheard one say to the other: "un más grande!", before such a bigger rock was produced, and the hitting transitioned to heavy duty smashing. Then, quiet. As he slid back out, he said ok, let's go! Apparently a rock had lodged itself in the brakes and the friction had heated the wheel to the point he thought it would explode. He knocked it out and all was well.

A rush of hope and expectations filled us as we started off again. Maybe this would be our way after all!

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The hike was generally as magnificent as others, but with its own special flavor. At one point, the deep, hum-free silence was broken by an attention-snapping thunderous slap followed by a earth shaking deep rumble as our eyes scanned for what we knew was a huge chunk of ice breaking off the mountaintop. Across the valley and high up, we saw it smashing to pieces as it crashed down the mountain, instigating the spectacular sight of the slow creep of an advancing avalanche. For several minutes we stood in awe of the immense spectacle we knew we were the only human witnesses to.

After the first four and a quarter hours we'd covered the fourteen kilometers of tough terrain that was sometimes more like climbing a cliff, pulling ourselves upwards in grunting motions one foothold at a time, arriving at the northern point of the lake. There, an Argentinian military outpost, whose young soldiers serve isolated one-month rotations before swapping with fresh-smelling replacements, we had our passports stamped for the country exit.

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The actual border lay another two hour hike on foot and horse trail north, where we set camp. The border, where the trail widens momentarily to host a sign "Bienvenido a Argentina" sitting a few meters before another "Bienvenido a Chile". Nothing more. Nobody and nothing but trails leading in both directions from the signs.

Standing there, the absurdity of borders was underscored: imaginary lines drawn on maps across unbroken, undifferentiated land. I hope for the day when the concept is taught in the history classes of people who think of themselves as citizens of the world.

Why do we try so hard to find the few differences that one human community has from another and cling to these, instead of recognizing the overwhelming similarities? Dreaming of exotic far-away places, I always expected to find these to be utterly different than life I've known. But the more of the world I've seen, the more I see that while we tend to notice the differences, they are few compared with the similarities.

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Over the two days of hiking, we saw nobody else other than the military post the first afternoon until we arrived at Candelaria Mancillo. You'd likely think, as we did, that the point this point on the map was a town. Well, when we got there, all there was were two little houses with a fence around them. A fence! We'd walked for two days and saw absolutely nobody. Why the need for a fence here?

Hesitatingly, I open the gate, unsure of whether we'd be welcomed or shot. There, we find a rugged-looking older man and woman, all smiles. Surprised by our presence and curious about how we got there, we are warmly welcomed.

We ask if we could lunch with them. Of course! They were just about to sit down, instead they added a little more water to the casuelo vacuno (ossobuco soup) with noodles and drew a couple more stools around their rustic kitchen table.

It turns out that Candelario Mancillo is their grandfather's name, the first and only to settle here. His decedents, all 3 of them now make up the "town". They run cattle on the land and get all of their money and most of their food from them. The boat that passes once a week supplies them with what they can't, namely sugar, oil, matches and flour...

While they have no telephone, a turbine spun by the nearby stream supplies enough electricity to charge a battery to operate their two-way radio and a few light bulbs at night. That radio is their lifeline to civilization.

Twice a day, the nearby town of Villa O'Higgins has someone who radios all the estancias in the region to see if they're ok. If there's no answer for three days, they send someone to get the body. There's no road to here. Just the boat once a week. They are completely off the map. Except they're on it!

We exchange stories, and I try to understand what would motivate people to live this far away from everything. The answer? The view across the lake is beautiful. There you have it.

The boat arrived precisely on time and took us to Villa O'Higgins, uneventfully. The small town of 300 just got electricity and phone service a few years ago when the road was extended here.

We stayed in some enterprising guy's house, in bedrooms converted by bunk beds into dorms, and took him up on his offer to drive us six hours north to Cochrane. We hadn't planned this too well... We were out of pesos, and there wasn't a bank for hundreds of kilometers. Cochrane, a town of 3000 was rumored to have a bank.

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We drove north on the Carretera Austral, Chile's major highway. As the hours of scenery passed, we kept expecting to find signs of development. A roadside restaurant, a gas station, a hut, something. But, as we learned, this far south, major highway means a dirt road, precarious looking wooden bridges and road that sometimes dead-ends at a dock served by a twice a day ferry. There are no buildings of any kind.

In Cochrane, we were let off in front of the bank. Closed Sunday, we try the ATM. It doesn't produce cash. Our driver has just driven off, and we now stand peso-less in a new town. We think of running after him and seeing if he can take us another eight hours north to the next town, Coyhaique. With 20,000 people, surely cash would be available.

Thankfully, a second bank card operating on the MasterCard / Maestro network (our usual bank is Visa / Cirrus) that we carry for just such an occasion extracts the magic from the machine.

We look at a hospedaje, a small family hotel, but it's gross. Really. The toilet had a floating poop in it. So we find a willing homeowner and set up our tent in their back yard. It's amazing how our own tent is more luxurious than the available accommodations here.

Like most of our experiences in Patagonia, these ones underscore the remoteness of the land. Beautifully raw. Just how we like it. Thank you.

The photos from this post are also on flickr in case you want to see it as a slideshow

March 22, 2007

Photos: Fitz Roy

We head back in to Chile to hike around the Cerro Fitz Roy in Los Glacieres National Park

Amazing sunrise hike

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Sights from around the park

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Yoga under the sun

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Bearded, sort of...

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I've wanted to do this for a while now... Wilderness called and, well, the razor didn't make the cut. What do you think? Send a comment with the link below.

March 10, 2007

Torres del Paine - Gloriously Unpredictable

All night long the winds howled, shaking the windows of our hostel in Puerto Natales. The rain was relentless, and the icy cold air that blew through our heater-less room made our convictions of getting out of bed before sun rise to head into Chile's most famous National Park, Torres del Paine, wane for the first time. The thought of starting out soaking wet put even more of a chill over us. While lying in bed, we contemplated postponing our departure for a day. While it's difficult to hear the voice of reason that early in the morning, we knew that waiting would probably not help. Patagonia's weather patterns are absolutely unpredictable and change moment to moment. So, out of bed and onward we forged.

Our goal was to complete the "Paine Circuit", 120km of trails across grass, mud, rivers, and glacier debris fields. This would take us around, over and through the spectacular Patagonia region in the south of the Andean mountain chain. We could look forward to soaking in the constantly changing views of dry steppe, peaks, snow capped mountains, lakes, glaciers and forests over the next 8-10 days.

Should we accomplish this goal, it would be double our longest backpacking experience to date. The thought of being in nature and needing to be completely self sufficient for this long was simultaneously exciting and scary. Knowing that each step, each hour, each kilometer, each day that we headed deeper into the circuit; we committed ourselves that much more, while decreasing our accessibility to civilization. Could we do it?

Torres del Paine's weather is an enigma. We've learned that there's no point in discussing it, or trying to predict it. It simply is what it is at that very moment and has a high probability of changing drastically in the next minutes. So when it WAS sunny, we soaked it in, enjoying the feeling of its warming rays. The next moment, we would be protecting ourselves from the strong winds, rain, hail, snow, frost and often a lovely combination of any one of these! It was a mini strip tease all day long: hat off, gloves on, hood off, jacket open, hood back on and cinched tightly closed, rain pants off... You get the idea. I never implied it was a sexy strip tease. This is part of the allure of Patagonia.

We had done a lot of research in choosing the gear that would accompany us into the wilderness, but in the end, in order to keep our packs as light as possible, not all our "goodies" made the final cut. We decided to leave our heavy duty hiking boots behind and use our walking shoes. I took one t-shirt and Paul took two, Paul took one pair of socks and I two, and just one pair of pants each. Light we were, and stinky too! In perfect weather conditions having no change of clothes would be no problem, but we were a long way away from the predictable sunny California weather that we had grown accustomed to. Knowing that our options were limited to wearing what we had on our bodies, staying dry was of the highest priority. Here, this is often quite a challenge.

Our first day started and ended with rainfall, soaking our shoes and socks. The next morning, putting on our cold, wet shoes in close to zero degree temperature was not something we enjoyed, but there was no other choice. Fortunately, the 100km/h plus winds we experienced later that day dried them quickly. On the third day, the trails got muddier and wetter as the rain came and went the entire day. By lunch time Paul's feet were swimming in his shoes. We found our way to a nearby fire to dry ourselves off. Intent on dry feet, he put his socks too close to the fire and burnt a hole right through them! Oh well, at least they were dry again, just in time for the snow and hail storm we walked into later on that day. Most of the time the weather would change so often that there would be enough time to dry off completely or at least mostly while hiking before the next change of season took place - except once. We hiked in a full-on rainstorm for the last 3-4 hours of the 7th day, soaking us through and through. Even our Gore-Tex jackets were soaked. As long as we kept moving, we were quite warm, but the moment we stopped, so did our internal furnaces, leaving us very cold within a few minutes.

This unpredictability in the weather made us efficient and fast in setting up and taking down camp. The moment we felt the first drop fall from the sky, we would turn it on! Each one of us taking to our roles, knowing what needed to be done. We learned we could even do this while cooking breakfast. The one most important goal was to keep the inside of our tent and sleeping bags dry. I am proud to say that through it all we did just that.

Once we were in our sleeping bags and had them cinched up so just our noses, cheeks and lips were exposed, we would enjoy the sounds of the rain and the howling winds that would often rattle our tent as we fell into the kind of deep sleep all-day exercise brings... Until I would realize that I had to pee!!

Without fail, every evening I would wake in the middle of the night and with all my might try to convince myself that I did not really need to leave my sleeping bag and brave the cold to answer nature's call. Invariably, nature's call would always win! The upside: being hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest city, the star gazing was outstanding.

The circuit around the park can be roughly split into two parts, north and south. The northern part of the circuit is far less traveled and rustic. Few services if any can be found in this "wild" half. Despite the presence of a refugio (refugee sleeping hut) at one part, most trekkers preferred to camp in their tents in the north. As we passed into the southern half, there were fewer campers and more and larger groups staying in the refugios, which became more and more luxurious. By the end of the trek, when we arrived to where the road met the park, a resort type hotel (with reception desk!) could be found. This contrast was very odd after the primitiveness we came from.

During the first part of our trek through the north, there was little contact with other people. At most we would see between 4-6 people per day. The trails were open and clear for us as far as the eye could see. We reveled in the solitude, but should help have been needed, there were definitely sections in the north that were inaccessible to any speedy assistance, where even the horse rescue service couldn't reach. When we arrived in the south, we found ourselves passing small herds of 5-10 hikers at a time, many times a day.

Interestingly, the type of people we met changed depending on our position along the circuit. In the north, we met mostly young Europeans, while in the south where the scenery could be enjoyed without "roughing it"; we met people of all ages, including a lot of retired North Americans and Europeans.

While taking a rest and enjoying some wild calafate berries one day, we heard the distinctive loud crackling clap of a thunderstorm. We assumed a storm was headed our way, hey why not; everything else had seemingly come our way. But it didn't rain. The skies stayed a clear, crisp blue. Yet several more times during the next hours of climbing, we heard the thunderous crashes. We soon realized what we were hearing was the deep crackle of the nearby glacier as it shifted and pieces of it fell. We were fortunate enough to see several of these resulting mini avalanches as the glacial mass tumbled down the mountain with "front row" seats.

Surprisingly, the 9 days flew by. The mountain air and late sunset, not until 9pm, invigorated us to hike for 6-9 hours each day. The changing vistas and varying terrain kept us curious and wondering what was around or over the next bend. By the end of each day, we would stop and set up our home, cook ourselves a much deserved meal of instant soup and pasta. It's amazing how good the same meals can taste, day after day following a full day of trekking. Then, with smiles on our faces, we would fall into our sleeping bags to dream of what the next day had in store for us.

Initially, we took much more notice of the weight of our packs and the ground that we covered while wearing them. We were pleasantly surprised that for the most part, our bodies were up to the challenge. We had almost no muscle soreness. But unexpectedly, Paul's feet hurt from all the extra weight that they were being forced to endure from carrying our gear and food. My hips were bruised from my backpack's belt that hugged them tighter than that one relative that we all have that insists on hugging the air right out of you making you feel winded and flattened. Amazingly, within days, our bodies had adapted, accepting the challenge we put forth, and the bounce in our step returned. Our packs became extensions of our bodies, leaving us free to appreciate and enjoy the most stunning vistas we have ever seen in our lives. From this point on, if I was breathless, it was only from the beauty that Torres del Paine offered us every day.

Back in Puerto Natales, it's a pleasure and a luxury to enjoy a bed, a shower and clean clothes again, but none of this outweighs the satisfaction that we experienced during these glorious and unpredictable 9 days. We enjoyed some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery the world has to offer while tackling all of the challenges that came with being enveloped in nature in Torres del Paine.

March 9, 2007

Photos: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Here are a few of our favorite photos from the trek. We took over 650 photos, so picking these was tough... If you'd like more, see the 50 best on our Torres del Paine National Park photo set on flickr or see them as a slideshow

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March 5, 2007

Video: Valle del Frances at Torres del Paine

Check out the gorgeous 360 degree sweeping panorama of the landscape half way up the Valle del Frances in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Pure gorgeous!

Click play above or visit the page on Google Video.

March 2, 2007

Video: John Garner Pass at Torres del Paine

After a long climb that started early in the morning, we stop to take this 360 degree video of the mountain landscape just before we cross through the John Garner mountain pass that marks the peak altitude of the big circuit trek around Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

Click play above or visit the page on Google Video.

February 27, 2007

Video: Insane Winds at Torres del Paine

On the second day of the trek around the Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile, Jo looks out over the lake and sees 100 km/h winds whipping the water off the surface into a mist and braces for it to hit...

Click play above or visit the page on Google Video.

February 26, 2007

Starting Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Ok, here we go... After months of planning, gear research and buying, reading and a dozen previous smaller backpacking trips, we are about to start our biggest yet.

We are entering Torres Del Paine (pie-nay) National Park to do the 120km Circuit around the central massif. We plan to do it over 8 days. Our gear is light, but 8 days of food for two is REALLY heavy, but we have good packs that carry that weight well.

There are 80-100 km winds now (typical), and it rained all night (atypical). Even though it's the end of summer, we are so far south into the Antarctic weather system, we expect temps of 4-14 degrees. Hoping rain lets up.

We are completely self sufficient, have food, water, medical supplies and training, are in good heath and shape, and know how to navigate by compass, sun, and stars. So don't worry about us, even though you won't hear from us for the next 8 days...

See you on the flip side!

February 4, 2007

Vilcabamba, the fountain of youth

Having traveled most of the length of Ecuador, we're now resting near the southern border in a small town named Vilcabamba, meaning "Sacred Valley" in the ancient Quichua language. For ten thousand years before Europeans came, the shamans of ancient cultures have congregated in this place of bounty and natural energy. Here, surrounded by lush green Andean mountains, I sit by a waterfall thinking, writing and feeling the lasting spirit of men who have long passed, yet are ever-present.

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We've just woken from our afternoon siesta sharing a hammock, resting after we summited Mandango, "Sleeping Woman", a peak of 2000 meters above the town's 1500 meter base.

Our "hostal", Madre Tierra, "Mother Earth", is outstanding: Lush terraced gardens of tropical and semi-tropical plants, waterfall, rocks built up seemingly organically into the mountainside, overlooking the sparsely populated green valley, where sugar cane grows. A soothing mix of soft music, birdsongs and the waterfall proliferates, oddly punctuated by the occasional donkey call.

The days start with pure, fresh mountain air and the aromas of tea and coffee, both grown here, mixing with the scent of Suzanne's oven, reeking of freshly baked goodness, including their famous cinnamon rolls and luscious breads. Ooof!

All the food served here is grown on their land organically and prepared from scratch for each scrumptious meal. We've never tasted lettuce, tomatoes, bread, granola, popcorn, fruits, pasta (home made too!) like this. Oh, and the horchata! A mix of 15-25 local medicinal herbs sweetened by freshly pressed sugar cane juice and topped with a garden lemon... Just perfect to quench the thirst of balmy summer weather.

The owners, Carol Rosin (a leader in the fight against space weapons) and her husband Jon Cipher (Chief Fletcher Daniels on Hill Street Blues, among many other roles) are such vibrantly interesting folks. Their stories and conversations varied and stimulate for hours at a time, whether about acting in Broadway plays, UFO spotting, protecting the land from overdevelopment or how they suddenly found themselves owning a hotel after passing through on a two day trip. Never a dull moment!

Other than the food and rich conversations, what has drawn us out of the dozens of hammocks littering the grounds is the daily yoga practice at sunset overlooking the pristine scenery that only a mountainside spot can offer, and the massages by Blanca, the valley's foremost healer.

Everyone here calls it paradise, we would have to agree. It's no wonder there's a freakishly large percentage of the local population living vibrantly well after they've crossed over 100 years old.

Maybe the name should be changed from Sacred Valley to Fountain of Youth...

January 22, 2007

A rhyme heals faster than time

Even before Paul's "high speed chase" on foot, I knew that our camera was long gone, probably before either of us looked up but a few seconds later.

A quick recap of how the unarmed robbery went down. A team of four guys worked the internet cafe. One distracted the owner, another distracted the owners father, the third distracted Paul and I by tapping us on the shoulder and pointing to a key on the ground asking us if it was ours, while the fourth culprit grabbed the camera and ran with Paul giving chase moments later.

We know it is only material goods and are grateful that we were not hurt, but of course Paul and I were still bummed about our camera being stolen.

They say, whoever "they" are, that time heals all wounds. I have found this to be true. However, after my sister Louise sent us a poem about our camera extravaganza, I have decided that "they" should change the saying from time to rhyme heals all wounds.

Read Louise's poem and you will see what I mean.

Thanks for putting a huge smile on our faces Sis!!

Clinkety clank, is this your key? We barely blinked and off he did flee.

There we sat engaged in the internet store, Distracting us surrounded a team of four.

We didn't lose our passports or any cash, But off went our camera in an instant flash.

We had read about this scam, we knew to beware, At least they didn't take our second underwear.

You didn't get hurt and this is my only concern, Thankfully this only resulted in an easy lesson to learn.

Order your new apparatus and ship it to my place, I will forward it on to you at a lightening pace.

The only reward I ask is the sharing of your new pics, Oh and of course you admitting that you don’t know tricks!

Thanks for your call today, your voice I really miss, Big hugs and kisses back, love your proud Big Sis.

January 21, 2007

Otavalo Market

Photo: IMAGE 008
We're in Otavalo the day after the enormous indigenous market (we're told the largest in South America).

I sit here on the grass, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Simon Bolivar park, people watching. We're taking a rest after our hike up the local peak where we got a view of the large Laguna San Pablo. As I'm playing with my phone, it hits me: TyTN has a camera built-in! Well, this is the first ever blog post with a photo from the phone. Wish I would have thought of it sooner.

At yesterday's market, we bought a few handicrafts, including Joanne's new hat, which she's completely enamored with. How cute!

The sight of the indigenous people of the Sierra mountain area of Ecuador selling their tapestries, carvings, woven and knit goods are truly stunning. It's really unfortunate we didn't have a camera with us to share some of it with you all.

I'll try to paint it for you: They are a short, stout people with dark complexions and long thick black hair that both the men and women wear braided or pony tailed, usually under a Panama hat (which is unfortunately named, it originates in Ecuador with their culture). They wear blankets over their shoulders, under which the women wear lacy white embroidered blouses and decorative necklaces. The men's collared shirts stand in stark contrast to their often crisp white calf length pants. Astonishingly for rugged mountain folk, they wear the flimsiest little shoes, barely with a sole, and just a string around their heel to keep them from falling off.

Oh, and the women carry loads two to three times their body volume, and perhaps twice their weight, hunched over with the enormous burlap bags tied with a single rope around the bag and their shoulders. The men are rarely seen carrying anything.

Earlier Saturday morning, we rose at the ungodly early hour of six thirty (we can remember getting up even earlier when we worked, but our bodies, now used to a solid eight hours of sleep were unforgiving in their exhausted complaints from the sudden rousing at sunrise after just five and a half hours to sleep off the bottle of wine from the late dinner the night before - I know, I know, woe are we, hold the sympathy, please).

We made our tired uncaffeinated butts over to the animal market. There, we found hundreds of squealing pigs on leash, as many docile cows and a few enormous, intimidating bulls, also on flimsy leashes often held by a small child alongside hundreds upon hundreds of indigenous people of all ages buying and selling their livestock.

In a sea of animals, mud, shit, and brightly clothed people we stood, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and crisp air awed by the organized chaos of a real-deal market. Suddenly, a pig bit me for no apparent reason. I'm still alive. And now I have a story to tell and a shit stain on my jeans where its snout got me, which a moment before was smearing a pile of steaming dung around. Yum!

Most of the grass grazing scrawny-looking hide and bones cows go for $250, while the alfalfa-fed "normal" looking cows (which there weren't many of) go for $400. Pigs are a quarter the cost, and all go into a tortured squealing frenzy as one leash comes off and the new owner's leash comes on and they are dragged off towards the horizon by their proud new owners. It's at once fascinating, sad and engrossing to see.

We don't often think or see the steps that lead to a plate of meat at dinner. For us, it was our first exposure to just one of the steps involved in husbandry. Nice to have the blinder's off.

Later in the day, the crafts market (artisanas) opens and the main streets are lined with stall after stall of indigenous handiwork. Bargaining is the norm, and items generally cost half as much as the stated price. At first, we hesitated to offer less than half of the asking price and bargain up to half, but this is expected. After the first few purchases, the transactions were smooth and fun. Our best deal: the $4 hat you see in the photo went for $1.25. Sweet!

Now that I remember about the phone's camera, you can look forward to a few impromptu (low quality) photos until a replacement camera arrives in a couple of weeks.

There you have it, mobile blogging from high in the Ecuadorian sierra. A big "Olah!" from both of us to all of you.

Oldest trick in the book

We've read about the scams, been warned again and again about the theft here, and were as vigilant as we thought we could be. But, unsurprisingly, it just happened to us.

Unfortunately, our camera was stolen from us while at our favorite Internet café the day before we left Quito for Otavalo... Buggers! We should have known better than to leave a camera worth a few hundred dollars (several months pay here) out for the pilfering. A guy tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at a key on the floor and asked if it was mine. I said no and went to keep typing, but in that second, an accomplice stole the camera while I had turned to look down.

Less than two seconds after the camera was stolen, I realized it, jumped up and gave chase. Unfortunately, he was gone. GONE!

I ran around like an idiot for a half hour looking for him, until I found a guy who looked the part and confronted him. When he acted really guilty, I tried to flag down a passing police car. When I realized they weren't going to stop, I jumped into the road in front of them and made them stop - or run me over, thankfully that didn't happen, and I am still here to continue the story... I explained what had happened, and told them that this might be the guy, but I wanted to head back to the café to get the other witnesses' opinions, since I wasn't 100%.

We hoped into the police car, went to the police station, where he got thrown into a cell while I re-explained the deal to the other cops and again insisted that we go back to the café. They seemed to think this was unnecessary, but ultimately agreed to escort him in custody to the café for a positive id. Turns out nobody recognized him and I had the wrong guy. I apologized, shook the poor fella's hand and he was free to go.

I feel really horrible about this. Here's some guy walking down the street, and a stranger comes up to him, accuses him of something random and he gets an hour-long police work over. I can't help but flip the roles around and wonder how easily the same could have happened to me. And maybe by someone who wasn't all gung-ho about being sure they had the right guy. The police sure weren't too concerned about it and would have gladly jailed him just on my accusation.

In the end after the adrenaline level subsided, I wished I had done more for the guy once I realized it wasn't him. Dinner, drinks, something!

Oddly, I mean confoundingly odd to me, is that the guy never objected to any of it. He'd just say he didn't have the camera, but never said he wasn't involved. He just went along with it all, in the kind of way a broken man who doesn't feel like he has a say in his destiny would. I've heard our hosts explain how the people are so used to being screwed by their corrupt politicians, police, etc..., that they don't feel like anything they do matters. That's just the way it is, they would say. Acceptance to such an extreme, I've never seen before, especially not first hand. Think about it. If you were in his shoes, would you have just gone along hopelessly, not even bothering to object or defend yourself? This is a fundamental cultural difference here. People feel powerless.

But I digress, live and learn, don't leave your stuff out, and if you're going to accuse someone of something here, better be sure, because a foreigner's word is enough to put someone in jail. (Shouldn't it be the other way around?)

January 18, 2007

Off the Beaten Path

When traveling there are definitely the list of "must see" places, for example; you don't go to Italy and skip the Colosseum, or to Egypt without seeing the great pyramids because there might be a crowd. For us, there is a balance of the must sees and staying away from the "tourist traps". While an experience is not lessened in its authenticity just because many travelers visit a particular place, we feel traveling off the beaten path gives us the opportunity to experience an overall richer cultural experience.

Finding your way off the beaten path can prove to be a challenge at times.

When meeting other travelers more often than not they have taken the most traveled routes.

While our South American guide book offers suggestions to places less visited, it is also the same guide book that we see time and time again, in the hands of other travelers, hanging out of backpacks, in bookstores...

The richest cultural experiences for us thus far, have been entirely as a result of the incredible Latin American warm and welcoming hospitality.

Paul and I befriended the married couple who own our favorite Internet cafe in Quito, Pizza@net on the corner of Calama and 6 de Diciembre. For us the warm greetings we receive from Leonardo and Natalia each time we arrive makes us feel at home and warms our hearts. However, the welcoming did not stop there; we were invited to spend a weekend with them and their family in their hometown of Pintag, a small village of 15000 people 45 minutes southeast of Quito.

We can definitely see where Natalia and Leonardo get their hospitality from; their entire family welcomed us with hugs and kisses as if we had known each other for years, even though we had just met for the first time.

Not having family of our own nearby, being adopted into a family even for a weekend gives us a sense of belonging and makes us appreciate our own families even more than before.

Natalia's father Manuel, gave us a tour of Pintag, the place in which he was born and as he stated, where he will die. We learned of its rich history dating back to the time of the Inca´s, all the while getting a feel for living in a small village where Manuel seemed to know everyone we passed.

The following day we got the privilege of experiencing raw untouched nature in an ecological reserve which houses the majestic Antisana mountain. Normally there are no tourists who visit Antisana as there is a greater desire to preserve its natural wildlife than have it change drastically, as is the fate for all heavily visited tourist sites.

We were only permitted to enter because a friend of Manuel's is the administrator of the reserve, and did him a favor and guided us through its back country.

Photo: Approach to Antisana (2007/01/14 10:25)
Photo: Antisana countryside (2007/01/14 10:26)
Photo: Wild horses (2007/01/14 09:16)
Photo: Llamas (2007/01/14 09:42)
Photo: Climbing to the glacier (2007/01/14 11:09)
Photo: Joanne high on altitude (2007/01/14 12:10)
Photo: PoJo on the glacier (2007/01/14 11:42)
Photo: Antisana (2007/01/14 12:14)

Want more photos? See the whole Antisana photo set on flickr or see it as a slideshow

Being able to explore uncharted territory, we got to see a rare sight of beautiful strong unsaddled wild horses roaming freely, breathtaking!

We entered the reserve and started climbing in a 4x4 truck. Our first off-roading experience for both Paul and I! Not knowing the limits of what a 4x4 can handle, I kept thinking the terrain would leave us no choice but to get out and walk, but the truck forged on. Eventually it met its match, and we did make our way on foot to the base of Antisana's glacier.

It was amazing to have so many of our senses tantalized at once. Our eyes feasting on the incredible contrast of colors and epic scenery, drinking the sparkling blue fresh cold water as it ran down the glacier, smelling the brisk clean mountain air, all in perfect silence. Ahhh!

While Pintag may not show up in many traveling guidebooks, for us it has definitely become a "must see" should we ever return to Quito.

January 7, 2007

Isabela Paradise

What we did in paradise... Where to begin? While there was plenty of activity to keep us busy, we were also content to do nothing and enjoy the sounds and sights of our surroundings.

Getting There

First off, the boat ride from Santa Cruz to Puerto Villamil, the only town on Isabela Island was nothing like the bucking bull ride that Paul described when we left Isabela. The boat ride over was a little bumpy, yet was filled with dozing passengers - they seemed to have anticipated a rough ride and so most popped a motion sickness pills, making them very sleepy. Very funny to watch people try to sleep sitting up right while being jostled side to side from the waves. Every now and then, they would slowly fall onto the shoulder of the person beside them, only to awaken startled as they realized they did not know the person sitting beside them. This was how my neighbor introduced himself to me. :)

Birthday Celebration

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For my birthday, we took an hour-long boat ride over to Los Tuneles, a series of lava flows which produced a number of beautiful formations of arches and tunnels both under and above the water. Two weeks ago, I would have described that boat ride as a bucking bull ride, but after experiencing the real wild west, it can't be gauged on the same caliber. Now, I would describe the trip to Los Tuneles as a roller coaster ride on the ocean. It's all relative!

The waters there were shallow and calm making it a wonderful place to observe sea turtles and beautifully colored fish swimming through the lava tunnels. We hopped off the boat and explored the lava tunnels on foot, then jumped into the water to snorkel and explore them underwater. We were back just in time to enjoy our first sunset on the beach as we sipped on some wine sitting on the deserted beach. For dinner, we diverged from the usual rice and fish and treated ourselves to a feast at the only beachfront hotel with a real chef. Happy birthday to me!

Volcanic Exploration

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In another adventure, we found ourselves on horseback making our way up to the crater of one of the five volcanoes that formed the island: Volcan Sierra Negra. It is the world's second largest volcanic crater: 10 kilometers across and 92 meters deep. We traveled from the beach, through lagoons and mangroves, dry forest, lava fields and finally through wet forest zones. It's striking to see the rapidly changing climactic zones in such a short period of time.

The horses were tame and had a mind of their own. When trying to give them instructions, it was well understood we were NOT the bosses, they were letting us ride on their backs and the rest was up to them. I named our horses "Slow" and "Slower". Mine was Slow, and Paul's was Slower. No matter how hard he tried to get his horse to go faster, it was met with the same stubborn unchanging snail's pace. The funny part was Paul's relentless efforts in trying to get his horse, Slower, to gallop. All futile, but he persisted nonetheless. I was happy to let Slow do its thing, I was in no hurry.

At the top, we hiked around the crater's edge and along several of the parasite craters (little outlets of lava on the slopes of the main crater) and enjoyed the varied vistas. We learned that the candelabra cacti grow a mere centimeter each year, and can thus tell how long it had been since the last lava flows occurred in this area.

Back on the horses on the way down, I felt quite apprehensive because the trails were incredibly muddy and the horses were having a lot of difficulty with their footing. A girl from our group was an experienced rider, so I stayed close to her. I'm not sure what difference this made for Slow, but it gave me a (false) sense of security. Ultimately, false it was: her horse slipped and lost its footing, fell to the ground, sending her flying off into the mud. Thankfully, and likely due to her experience, she was as smooth and as graceful as could be - if that's even possible while being thrown from a horse into a mud bath. Slow got a little startled, but overall kept his calm. I on the other hand, did not - my heart was pounding.

It was just too dangerous to continue on horseback in these conditions. We all got off our horses and hoofed our own way back down through the mud to the bottom. This was fine by me, if I slip and fall there is much less distance between my 5'4" body and the ground than when atop the horse. Paul was slip sliding away; literally, he was wearing sandals which made it challenging for him in all the mud. As for myself, I had the best seat in the house to watch Paul's repeated near wipe-outs and so I giggled the rest of the way down. Especially when he finally did fall and take a mud bath. I know what you are thinking, but I know you would have laughed too!

Seafood Feasts

Photo: CIMG5733 (2006/12/31 20:53)
Photo: CIMG5690 (2006/12/28 20:59)

One evening, while enjoying our ritual cup of wine on the beach as the sun set, we met a couple who had spent the last two months on the island. They shared a secret about an amazing dining experience. We were in! They told us about a restaurant at the end of the pier where, if you gave them 24 hours notice they could fix you up a seafood feast. The notice gave the fisherman time to go out the next day and catch your dinner. They prepared us a feast of lobster, yellow fin tuna, calamari, shrimp and octopus, which we enjoyed after a long arduous day on the beach. All of this was cooked on a small charcoal grill but a few feet away from us as we looked on. With our feet in the sand, we enjoyed impromptu conversation with others as the anticipation mounted. We agreed with that couple, and could definitely say that this was our best dining experience to date.

The following day we looked on at the pier as the fisherman caught a school of Lisa (white fish) near the shore with a net. We helped them descale, gut and clean dozens of them. While fresh fish guts don't do it for me, throwing the just yanked innards of the fish straight up into the air caused quite the frenzy overhead among the frigates, the pelicans and the boobie birds as they amazingly swooped in and caught their treats mid-air. They didn't miss even once. Watching as some with the quickest moves would catch more was a true demonstration of survival of the fittest at its best!

Most of these fish were taken to locals or merchants to sell; a few were fried up and handed out as thanks to those who had just helped with the catch. Not only did we try our hand at our first descaling/degutting experience, but also ate our first Lisa fish. It was delicious! The Lisa fish was so scrumptious that we wanted more. Paul managed to get us invited back to cook up another feast on New Year's Eve, and that we did. A little oil, some garlic, lemon, salt, pepper, white wine on the "oh so fresh" Lisa fried up by us. And we didn't have to clean up! Now that's my idea of a new year's dinner.

Latin American Hospitality

Most mornings, I would walk along the beach and find a spot that called to me to enjoy a peaceful yoga session, losing myself in the sound of the crashing waves. One morning, on my way back, I ran into a local young boy that had befriended us a day or so after we arrived. This time, he was with his mother and they were heading home after having caught a rather large Lisa which they were planning on eating for dinner. As we have witnessed on more than one occasion, Latin Americans are welcoming, curious, and incredibly hospitable. After exchanging a few words, we found ourselves invited over to share in fresh ceviche at their home. You don't have to ask me more than once.

What an incredible experience to be so welcomed into a stranger's home. This open, welcoming attitude towards strangers baffles Paul and I, yet we would like to learn to do the same when the situation is reversed. As a side note, their homemade ceviche was incredible.

And then some...

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Photo: CIMG5715 (2006/12/31 18:32)

Many of our days were spent simply making our way in and out of the ocean, interspersed with reading, yoga, writing, strolling along the fine white sandy beaches and streets, walking along coastal lagoons, snorkeling, visiting the giant tortoise breeding center, meeting locals, getting to know what their lives are like here, finding and returning to our favorite spots, eating leisurely meals (rice, rice and more rice), all without a care in the world. Actually, this is not true, I had a care, and it was pretty serious. The one place that served ice cream ran out and I definitely cared when they would get more. Oh the stresses that came with being on Isabela!

When traveling, there's a constant stream of new stimuli each day. Our relaxed time in Isabella offered us the much needed time to simply pause, reflect and integrate all that we've seen up to this point. We've come to realize that these breaks are an essential aspect to making the most of our journey.

Want more photos? See the whole Isabela photo set on flickr or see it as a slideshow

January 5, 2007

Boat or Bucking Bull?

Today, our Galapagos adventure comes to a close and we make the 12 hour journey back to Quito:

As I write this, we are on a boat from the remote Isabela island to Santa Cruz island. The boat, which can hold a maximum of 12 passengers, is overstuffed with 20. The other passengers sit hip to hip on the two benches running along the sides of the boat. There is a small improvised wooden bench in the middle that seats two. Joanne and I are sitting on that bench, along with a Frenchman :).

It's incredible to me that I can be thumb peck typing this on my HTC TyTN here and now. This would definitely not be possible with a laptop. I'm glad I switched.

The morning sea greeted us with 2 -3 meter waves. Unpredictably, the boat would launch off one of these waves into the air, and we suddenly find ourselves in mid-air with nothing but a long way down and gravity between us and the next WHACK!, as the boat slams back onto the sea. Each time, our butts lift off the hard seats and slam moments later back down. Ouch! Shoving the frayed (and wet) life jackets between our butts and the wooden seats offered little relief from the pounding.

Although these whacks come only every few minutes during the three hour trip, they are completely unpredictable, keeping us tensed up in anticipation for the whole ride.

As you can imagine, the smashing motion isn't what Joanne's neck needs. Thankfully, she's been symptom free for a long time, and this last week started carrying weight in her backpack. Strong like bull! Even the bucking bull motion of the boat was no match for her recovery. This bodes well for our idea to head down to the southernmost tip of South America, to Torres del Paine National Park for backpacking and camping in what some have described as one of the top 5 most beautiful nature scapes in the world!

But I digress, back to our immediate drama... The boy sitting across from me just threw up again. Judging by some of the other faces, and that they're already clutching paper towels in anticipation of cleaning up after their own contributions to the sea, I'm sure he's not the only one feeling ill.

The air is thick with the exhaust fumes from the two outboard engines. They are spewing out grey stink that's the hallmark of the low octane fuel that they have in Ecuador. The fumes are drawn forward from the engines by a vacuum effect created by the windshield. The smell itself is nauseating, but combined with the motion, well...

Uhm, that was close. As I was writing that, a wave of nausea came over me. First I put down my TyTN and looked at the horizon, hoping it would pass. But then came the squirting saliva sensation as the body lubes the way for what's coming... I urgently signaled the guy opposite to switch seats with me, so I could lean over the edge, and... Thankfully, with the blast of fresh air and reprieve from the exhaust, I started to feel better and the urge passed.

A short time later, one particularly big leap had everyone catapult half a meter into the air and land lopsided and barely upright. At that very moment a shot of pain flew up from my right foot. The wooden bench, with three people on it, had landed on, and was crushing my small toe. An instant later, I lunged forward, and with the kind of Herculean strength you're only capable of after the shot of adrenaline this kind of pain brings, lifted the bench and the three people on it off my toe. Fearing crushed bones, I give my toe a little wiggle and it moves! Luckily, miraculously, it doesn't appear to be broken. Amazing! :)

As I look up to see if everyone else was ok, I see to my left an older man on his hands and knees clutching his back. By now, the captain had slowed the boat and others were rushing to his aid, he looked cripplingly hurt. My gaze turns to Joanne as the impact of this severe a smash on her neck hits me. Thankfully, her expression tells me she's ok. After helping the man back to his feet and checking for other injuries, the captain continues on, as if nothing notable had happened. Here, none of this is out of the ordinary or remarkable.

I look up across the boat at Joanne clutching her seat and mouth: "Isn't this a great adventure!?" Her beaming smile tells me she feels the same...

As we continue to find, the best adventures lay in the journeys not the destinations.

I wonder what awaits us on the ferry boat, bus, airplane and taxi that still lay ahead today?

January 2, 2007

Isabella Island

Isabella Island is magical. It is not uncommon to meet people here who were just passing through for a quick visit and ended up staying longer than expected, we are no exception to this.

Isabella was formed by the lava flows of five enormous volcanoes; it is the youngest island at one million years young and the biggest of all the Galapagos.

The natural beauty while enchanting, is but a part of the experience. Officially, there are 2000 people who live here, but it does not feel like more than 500 people to us. Those who we have met are all so welcoming with their laid back attitude which seems to exemplify island living.

Here, when asking a question, the most common answer is "no problema" or "todo es possible", everything is possible.

The irony is, not everything is possible when living 1000 kilometers away from the mainland. There are significantly fewer conveniences at your fingertips. If it can't be grown, caught, or raised here, then it's brought in by infrequent boat service from its neighboring island, Santa Cruz. And it had to get there from the mainland somehow.

There are only 3 restaurants here, all of which have the same menu. The other day two of them were closed, can you guess which one we ate at? If eating lunch a little later than 2:00PM, it is typical to be told what is left to choose from.

Maybe that's the secret; why they are all so laid back and relaxed: fewer choices to weigh them down leaving more living to be done?

Growing up in a suburb of a big city, our consumerist society ensured a world filled with countless choices. Whatever you need is but a hop and a skip away with many stores competing for your business. Is this a good thing?

Isabella's streets are unpaved, as it is against the law to pave them. They are mostly hard packed sand. Few cars can be heard or seen, I have yet to hear a horn blown. Mostly people stroll or cycle in the middle of the street or just sit and watch the passers by.

It is such a small community that when you tell someone, "Hasta luego", see you later, you actually mean it. Seeing the same faces has opened the doors to meeting many of the locals and vacationers, yet you can feel like you are on a deserted island by simply walking for five minutes on the beach. This morning while walking along the fine white sandy beach, there were but two sets of footprints, they were mine going out and coming back. I didn't count the prints that the marine iguanas or birds made. The hundreds of sally light footed crabs, as their names would indicate, didn't leave any.

The nature is outstanding; it is breathtakingly calm and beautiful. We are staying right across from the beach, crashing waves is without a doubt the best alarm clock- you never want to press snooze.

From the moment our toes touch the sand, the sparkling blue waters call to us. It competes with the mangrove tree forest off to the left with an opening in the middle that invites us to explore what lay beyond it. Although it is one of the only sources of shade available, we find ourselves drawn to the waters. The temperature of the ocean is perfect and offers much relief from the unforgiving sun. I think the sea lions that we see playing a few meters away would agree.

In the distance there are ships, but only a few so they do not dominate the view. Scattered lava rocks create small islands throughout the beach where pelicans, lava lizards, and marine iguanas find some rest. Up above, the birds put on a daily acrobatic show.

You know it is dinner time here when the show has begun. The blue footed boobies (fascinating Galapagos bird with bright blue webbed feet) masked boobies (similar without the blue feet but with a Zorro type mask) and pelicans start diving head first into the water to feed themselves. The boobies are precise and accurate in their flight pattern. They will make a dramatic 90 degree nose dive from about 15 meters high, tuck there wings in and barely making a splash as their aerodynamic bodies become as narrow as possible allowing them to catch their prey.

The pelicans are not quite as graceful. They will fly a meter or so above the water, then plop themselves down with wings mostly splayed out, creating a splash as they open their beaks filling them with about 13 liters of water, as the water drains out, the fish that remain in their beaks are their prize. Bon appétit!

To add to this avian show, the frigate birds (slender black birds with the highest wing span to body weight ratio of any bird) soar high above without almost ever flapping their wings. They use the air current and always appear to be gliding their days away. They are known as the kleptomaniacs as they will not go into the water for their food; they will wait until a blue footed boobie has done the work and then take it from them in mid air.

Quite impressive to watch with our toes dug deep into the sand while we sip on some wine as the sun sets, an almost nightly event that we have grown quite fond of.

So what is there to do here in paradise? That will have to wait for another entry.

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 11, 2006

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)
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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...

November 5, 2006

Photos from Montreal

Photo: Freshly roasted coffee (2006/10/21 10:49)
Photo: Photo taken 2006/10/21 at 15:26 [CIMG3960]
Photo: Erika and her godparents (2006/10/22 10:08)
Photo: Joanne basking in Mt Tremblant Village (2006/10/25)
Photo: Joanne micro forest (2006/10/26 04:35)
Photo: Paul and Darby cutting wood (2006/10/26 11:10)
Photo: Paul Joanne and Michael after LEntrecote St Jean (2006/10/26 14:58)
Photo: Cheers to Paul Birthday (2006/10/28 11:18)
Photo: Ashley irresitable smile (2006/10/28 12:31)
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: October 2006 Photos
Photo: Montreal Photos
Photo: Montreal Photos
Photo: Montreal Photos
Photo: Montreal Photos
Photo: Montreal Photos
Photo: Montreal Photos

Picnic on Mont Royal

Photo: Picnic on Mont Royal
Photo: Picnic on Mont Royal
There's nothing like a picnic at freezing temperatures to invigorate you before a run.

October 25, 2006


For the first time in ten years, we're all together! The family has really grown over the years - how sweet it is...

October 16, 2006

Lombardi's Restaurant

Lombardi's Restaurant
Despite a four or five year hiatus, we return to our favorite Italian restaurant, Lombardi's on Duluth just east of St. Denis in Montreal and enjoy the same hospitality we've always had there. Like home! Stan, who runs the place, surprised me with happy birthday cake as this photo was shot.

Along with our good friends Karen and Joel, we enjoyed great food, fantastic Spanish wine and catching up on the many stories we only now got to share.

Soaking in Montreal

Soaking in Montreal

It's with fresh eyes that we encounter Montreal again, and in many ways, for the first time.

Despite each growing up in Montreal, it was the suburbs we knew well. Much of the city itself was unexplored.

We've rented a furnished apartment Plateau Mont Royal, right between the most interesting parts of the vibrant St-Laurent and St-Denis streets, right by St-Louis Square and the pedestrian only Prince Arthur Street. It's serving as an excellent backdrop for our exploration of the diverse and vibrant urban lifestyle of Montreal.

All of this has been very good for our spirits, and Jo is doing so much better and has regained most of her strength back. What a champ! We'll keep taking it easy and hope that the amazing healing continues...

October 4, 2006

The Unexpected Turn

During our travels Paul and I are purposely not doing much planning. The reason for this is, it leaves room to enjoy or just embrace the unexpected. When there is no real plan, there is also a greater sense of freedom in not having to constantly look at your watch, in not having to adhere to a self imposed strict time schedule. With an open ended date of return, there is a greater proportion of living done in the present moment than planning for the future. This is the one of the allures of our travels of not knowing where we will go next or for how long.

The part of our trip that had been planned was through Europe visiting family and friends. Then off to South America beginning in Quito. After that, I don't know; let's flip a coin, where to next? That was OUR plan, but then you never know what the unexpected holds in store for you.

Without beating around the bush, I suppose there is no gentle way to put this; I had suddenly lost the use of my left arm with any outreaching movement. Did you gasp? When it happened, I did!

There I stood in front of a mirror trying with all my might to send the message to my muscles to perform a function as basic as lifting my arm. A motion I was able to do without difficulty just hours or even moments before. No matter how much I focused, the simplicity of lifting my arm had become as challenging as spinning hay into gold; I could not do it no matter how much I may have wanted to.

Fear, sadness and uncertainty had my thoughts racing a mile a minute. Would this become permanent? How would we go about getting the proper care in South America? Was it safe for me to fly home? Should we be on the next flight to Canada? Would this be the end of our travels? .......

As soon as I had noticed the weakness in my arm, I was quite certain the culprit was a disc herniation in my neck which was causing pinching on some nerves. We needed to get some answers and the only way to do this with any amount of certainty was to get an immediate MRI. Easy enough, or so we hoped.

The Canadian Embassy directed us to the largest and most reputable hospital in Quito, hospital Metropolitano. This would become our home base for almost a week.

I didn't know what kind of care to expect in South America. This uncertainty carried with it much fear and apprehension in seeking treatment. Once arriving to the emergency room, my main fear subsided; the hospital looked mostly like any in North America The immediate difference was that there was almost no one there! Sadly most Ecuadorians cannot afford insurance, which brings us to another difference, very little to no waiting time compared to the typical North American emergency room experience.

Then of course there was the obvious main difference, the minor detail that these doctors did not speak very much English if any at all. Challenging, but doable.

The triage process went smoothly; my goal throughout the process was to get referred to a neurologist. After about 2 hours, mission accomplished, and the bonus was she spoke English.

Dr. Magdallena Gomez had ordered an urgent MRI. Fantastic!! Unfortunately the hospitals MRI machine was broken, but no worries it was being fixed immediately. Apparently immediate in some cultures is defined differently than in others. When enquiring about it, the answer was always different and always "mañana", tomorrow at some time. After two days of this, we were ready to book a flight back. Time may of been of the essence, while no movement in my arm had returned, there was no further loss either, it seemed I was stable, but there was still uncertainty if it was safe for me to fly. As luck would have it, Dr.Gomez found an opening at another facility first appointment the following morning. The feeling of luck is all relative.

I was grateful for the care that I was receiving and that I was seemingly one step closer to gaining more information on what was going on, then figuring out if we needed to fly back to Canada. Shortly after the dye got injected into my arm and I was slid into the MRI machine I was no longer feeling very grateful or lucky.

Lying in a tube for 25-30 minutes, no problem. I'll simply keep my eyes closed, try to breath softly and ignore the constant stream of noise that could best be described as a machine gun going off in your ear. Not a big deal.

Sure if that was how it happened. After going into the tube, communication was cut off. This was not the most comforting of feelings. I kept to my plan of breathing slowly and keeping my eyes closed. Time seemed to stand still. There I lay neck and shoulders strapped down, loud noises blasting in without reprieve and no end in sight. Countless times I had considered calling for someone but I probably would not have been heard and the movement from me doing so would have only prolonged the process. This was truly the longest 30 minutes of my life.

I was certain at least 25 minutes had come and gone. So when the technician came into the room, I was overcome with relief to be released. Only he wasn't coming in to release me, instead he came in and said "No move, photo no clear, need take more photo". With the exception of some minor chest expansion from the little breathing that I was doing, I was a statue. So I thought.

I am not claustrophobic, but I was ready to beg, bribe or threaten him in order to get out of this machine. Seriously, I was prepared to beat him with my limpy left arm if I had too. An amusing visual, no?

While the care was excellent, it can not be forgotten that Ecuador as a developing country does not have the funds for the latest and greatest in equipment. The pictures were not clear enough and so he just continued taking pictures....for 2 hours!!!! No kidding it really was the longest 30 minutes of my life.

It was confirmed, I did have a discal herniation. If you are of the mindset that more is better, than you will think this statement is a positive thing. I not only have a discal herniation, I have two. What can I say, if you're gonna do it, do it right!

I had gone as far as I could in the Ecuadorian health care system. It was now time to fly home and make friends with a neurosurgeon and figure out what the next steps would be.

This gained knowledge was bittersweet. We were finally going back to Canada where I could get the care that I needed. There still lies so much uncertainty. Would we ever be coming back to pick up from where we left off? Our taste buds had just barely been wet with travel; so much lay ahead, or did it? Is this goodbye or just see you soon?

The neurosurgeon in the ER in Canada, did not find the MRI taken in Ecuador clear enough to make a definitive diagnosis. I needed another MRI!!! Comparatively speaking the second experience was as pleasant as a spa treatment.

Here's the bad news and then the good news, you read whichever you prefer first. I personally prefer to end on a good note.

Bad News

Because it is multi-level the only surgical option would be to fuse both levels of the spine together and put a metal plate. Ugh!

Good News

From the time of the initial onset and the visit with the neurosurgeon I had made some minor improvement. I could lift my arm a little in front, but I couldn't withstand any resistance or lift it out to the side.

It is possible that if I follow the do's and don'ts that I may be able to avoid surgery. I'm in!! It can be difficult to tell sometimes, but it seems like I am making improvements almost daily. I can lift my arm overhead in both directions and even take some resistance now, but it gets tired really easily. So things like washing dishes are out. (Not really but it's what I asked the neurosurgeon to tell Paul) The next 6 weeks will be crucial ones in determining if surgery lay ahead or if we will be able to continue traveling.

We now find ourselves in Montreal; it goes without saying we most definitely did not plan this. As I mentioned earlier, the beauty of not planning the trip to its entirety is to be open and available to exploring new avenues. Instead of looking at this as the end of our travels we have chosen to make an adventure out of our time here.

Paul and I were born and raised in Montreal, but there is much of the city that remains a mystery to us both. As I am sure most of you can attest to, most do not explore their own city with much vigor. There is often so much else going on in your life that you put off the touristy stuff until someone comes to visit. In our case we moved away and were left with the overwhelming sensation of having missed out on so much in such a vibrant multicultured city.

Neither of us has ever experienced downtown living. It's an experience we both craved to at least try. What better opportunity? So we continue our travels but in Montreal. We have rented a furnished apartment in the heart of the city and are thoroughly enjoying taking in new sites and new experiences on a daily basis. It's such a different energy to live in a city's main artery. Just walking the streets and feeling its pulse is invigorating.

For the first time in 9 years we are close to our families for longer than the usual 10 day Christmas vacation. This is a nice unexpected change for us too.

Did I mention how incredibly beautiful autumn is in Montreal? I had forgotten its mesmerizing effect and the feel of a cool autumn breeze.

As of right now our plan is to continue on to our next destination at the beginning of December, assuming that I am given the O.K. by the neurosurgeon. If he doesn't give me the o.k. there is always the option of beating him with my limpy left arm until he clears me. Until then we will take full advantage of being in our city and falling in love with it all over again.

You never know where the unexpected turns will lead you.

October 2, 2006


We're in Montreal! More to come...

September 7, 2006

Increased Incentive

The language barrier at first was not that noticeable. Having started in Montreal, we were fine, we both speak Canadian. :)

Next stop: Austria. I do not speak any German, with the exception of the usual exchange of pleasantries which seemed to be all that I really needed to know. This being because Paul can get by with what he remembers from visiting as a child and we were almost always with family who speak English beautifully saving me from only being able to tell them thank you and good night. In addition, people spoke some English and if not there was almost always someone who could help translate.

In Germany, there was much of the same with regards to the language and every night we hung out with Paul's old co-workers where of course the conversation could flow freely.

Having arrived in Barcelona 2 days ago, it became very clear almost immediately that the language barrier had just increased exponentially. I expect much of the same, if not more, in the near future as we head on to South America.

This was quite a shock to me as I wrongly assumed that since Barcelona is such a large city and a tourist attraction, we would be able to squeak by for a little while longer. So far in almost every restaurant or shop that we have been in the older generations speak absolutely no English and the younger ones may speak a little. It hasn't been a problem, just very little outside communication taking place.

Last night I was given a new incentive to learn to speak Spanish with a greater sense of urgency. It was around 10pm, people filled the restaurants, cafes and the streets enjoying their usual late nightlife that is common in Europe. Paul and I were sitting on a curb trying to use his new phone and enjoying some people watching. In the middle of the square there was a beautiful Catalunian little boy who must have been around 3 years old. He was exploring every little inch of the area running as fast as his little legs could take him. When he was tired he would sit for a moment on the grass, on a statue, in the middle of the square.... Much to my surprise he had decided that right next to me was a great place to rest. We sat hip to hip, and he looked up at me and started to have a conversation. I of course could not understand one single word; he spoke so quickly and without any enunciation. Moments later he would take off again like a bolt of lightning and then return to sit beside me to chat some more.

I do not know his name, or anything about this little boy. This little boy will also never know my name or the fact that he has given me a stronger desire to learn a new language so that the next time the opportunity arises, I will be able to learn about those around me and share a bit of ourselves.

August 27, 2006

Last day of Summer

August 26th was a perfect day in so many ways. We got up early, got ready & enjoyed a nice breakfast anticipating the day's events. We were all quite relieved to wake to the sunshine rather than the predicted rain. The groom showed up looking dapper and was greeted by very proud parents. The main road to the church was closed because of construction so a peaceful drive through Linz's rolling countryside was enjoyed.

The reception was beautiful. Since it was in German, I did not understand anything except that two people who were definitely in love would be joined together on this day as husband and wife.

Afterwards champagne was shared in the church garden, along with many kisses and congratulations to the newly married couple. Paul and I got to re-unite with many that we had met the night before at the "meet and greet" at Simone's new art gallery which I might add featured some of Thomas's incredible paintings.

A short drive to the hotel where the festivities would continue. The hotel would best be described as, old school European. Basically, all around classy.

We dined on exquisite food while the room was filled with classical music from the string quartet.

Glasses clinked together following the speeches, which once again were not understood by me, but the message was and happiness.

Coffee, tea, wine and cake were had in the garden where the quartet followed.

The bride and groom gave hugs and kisses to all before driving off to an undisclosed location in a 68 Citroën DS with tin cans clunking behind.

Since then, it has rained off and on everyday and the temperature has dropped significantly. What a great way to remember the last day of summer.

August 24, 2006

Not Enough Words

Right now I am sitting at a cafe in Linz looking over the Danube. The sun is shining; Paul is sitting with his cousin Thomas getting a chance to catch up on the last 2 years of their lives, sharing anecdotes and enjoying each other's company. All around me is a gentle buzz of people chatting in German. I may understand a word or two, but only if I pay really close attention.

Already the language barrier leaves me unable to express myself fully. It makes me realize how often we pass up the opportunity to share of ourselves because of our own personal barriers.

So I would like to take a moment to express with my whole heart.....danke...Thank you! With the experience of selling our house, our belongings, transporting ourselves, our dog and our stuff to Montreal and then hitting the road, I have often thought of how incredibly lucky Paul and I are to have such an incredible support system.

We have been surrounded by caring neighbors in Encinitas who were always offering to lend a helping hand. For the first time since moving away from our homes in Montreal, we were part of a community again. Our friends were a great sounding board and we enjoyed getting excited with them of what lay ahead.

Arriving in Montreal into the loving arms of our families was just what the doctor had ordered. The support from our families is more than we could have ever dreamed of. They have been with us on our virtual rollercoaster ride and they don't get off when it slows down. They continue to be on if for the long haul. Our families have helped to make our dream come true with their over flowing love and support. While my heart is filled with gratitude and appreciation, there are not enough words.

So I will keep it simple...thank you all for being you and helping us to be us!

August 23, 2006


For the last few months, as our dreams have slowly become actualized, I have yet to experience the "aha" moment. The moment when it stops being a dream and realize that it is being lived. It comes in doses at unsuspecting times but continues to feel like we are dreaming more than we are living. So I process all of this newness the best way I can and accept the changes of mindset and environment as they come. Maybe there will not be one specific "aha" moment. Maybe my "aha" moment has come and gone, but there was too much going on to acknowledge it. It's just really nice to take a deep breath and enjoy our surroundings once more.

August 22, 2006

Heavy Burden

My impression, formed in the first hour of our carrying our bags is that we’re carrying far too much with us, despite obsessing about it for months before leaving.

The bags at 10-12kg (22-26lbs), which is a little on the heavy side, but very much on the BIG side. Unmanageable on the lap, and too big to walk through a store with or wear in an elevator. I certainly don't feel light and airy with it on.

We need to cut what we have with us. We don’t want to feel like loaded pack mules as we did when we made our way to the train ticket office at the Munich airport, forced to take the escalator rather than the stairs, or how the first thought on arrival at the train station was "do you think they have a place we can store our bags so we can have a look around?" ... exactly what we wanted to avoid.

Look for us to cut down on our burden as we figure out what we’re really using all the time.

August 21, 2006

Sweet Departure

Surely eighteen days in Montreal should have been ample time to get "the last few things" done and soak in some good times with our families and friends, with plenty of time left over to look back on the life we left behind in San Diego and look forward to what awaits us during our travels.

Yet, as we sit here in the airport lounge awaiting the first leg of our big journey, we take what feels like the first free breath. "The last few things" turned out to fill mostly 18 hour days with busy prep work, right until the last minutes before leaving for the airport. What an enormous undertaking.

Each day, we'd add as much to our to-do list as we'd take off, whether it was making and notarizing our wills, unpacking our moving truck into Jo’s mom’s basement, closing on the sale of our house, arranging travel insurance, picking up the last pieces of gear or seam sealing and waterproofing them, getting calling cards, or obsessively packing, discarding items, tweaking and repacking.

After it’s all done, we feel great knowing that our affairs are in order, our belongings stored away safely and we have a couple of light packs with us with nothing but open choice in front of us.