Thursday, December 25, 2008

A glimpse of Sydney and a week on (and around) the Great Barrier Reef

Always good to maintain a sense of humor, no matter where you are

Tons of great pics not posted in this blog! Check out the most recent additions: (Sydney, 19 new pics) (Cairns, the rainforest, and the reef!) (All my photo albums) Tomorrow morning (Christmas night for most of you) I will upload a short funny video of me trying to play the didgeridoo! Check that link later for it...

It's nice to be back on land - although my sea legs are persistent so I am still feeling the room rock back and forth a bit. It's been a busy 9 days since I last updated so let me fill you guys in...

First a note (inserted after the rest of this was written) - this post is a bit scattered, and there are a lot of events and topics I could have described in more detail - but it's long enough as it is! If you have any more questions about some of the activities, or my opinions on them, let me know via email or comment at the end of the post and I'd be happy to describe more.


It was a bit of culture shock arriving in Sydney - everything was beautiful, clean, modern, and in English! I wasn't sure how I would react to returning to the 1st world after experiencing Peru. Part of me thought I would somehow be changed by South America - as if my time there might absorb me and make me reevaluate my perspective on the world, and in some ways it did, but it was different than that. It was enjoyable and interesting being in those new environments - but none struck me as a place I would want to stay very long. My perspective on the world certainly did change, but not in a way that changed my personality. In that way, while I loved different parts of South America for many different reasons, I was happy to return to the developed world.

I find myself repeating the phrase 'it was a great change of pace' and it makes me think about the concept of pace and what it means in terms of this trip, as well as life in general. It has been something I've been giving a lot of thought to and I think it's so important for everyone to change the pace of their life in one way or another fairly frequently. It's also something I think most people either ignore purposefully to stay in their comfort zone, are oblivious to, or are stuck in, unable to change it. I won't go on to bore you about that now, though, I have enough to talk about already!


I only had about 48 hours in Sydney, but I knew I would be returning shortly, so I didn't feel rushed. I had been recommended to do the bridge climb in the harbor, so I signed up for that first thing. On my way to the bridge, I wandered around a bit before to see the aquarium and 'wilderness world' which were both fun, then I made my way to the company that led the climbs. I must say - the bridge climb was fun, and the views are outstanding - but the whole experience had a bad taste to it because of how much they dress it up and overcharge customers. The jumpsuit, fancy walkie-talkies, and harness were all 100% unnecessary. The climb was never dangerous or risky - it felt like the harness was more to keep us from jumping off than to keep us from falling. But because of all the gear they give you, it feels like your A$150 is going towards something. I wasn't fooled.

I return to the modern world!

The next day I had time to check out the Powerhouse museum (star wars exhibit!!! see my photo gallery for embarrassing pics of me & darth vader) which randomly turned out to be an extremely inspiring visit. The exhibit was called something like 'Star wars: science fiction and reality' and it focused on the movies and the paralleling research going on now. They had halls devoted to things like vestibular substitution, artificial retinas, bionic arms and wireless muscle stimulators, neural interfaces, cochlear implants, and all sorts of other neuro research going on that I had learned so much about during the end of Penn and my summer internship at NeuroSky. It definitely re-sparked my interest in the field, and I hope to get involved with that field of study as well as medicine to try to figure out what I want to do when I return to the States.

After that I spent the afternoon during the Coogee to Bondi beach walk - a walk that takes you along the coast to see a number of Sydney's beaches. I had heard so much about the beaches in Sydney - everyone has a favorite - so I was excited to see them finally. They were each certainly beautiful, but in comparison to California's beaches they were pretty small. Nonetheless, they are great places to spend an afternoon, and I will definitely be relaxing on them in the days leading up to New Year's.

Bondi beach in the background

That evening I went for a jog in the botanical gardens next to the opera house, and the next day I was off to Cairns!


The first thing I noticed in Cairns was of course the heat & humidity. Thinking of Australia way down in the bottom right of the world map I hadn't realized just how tropical Cairns is.

I met up with Leon and we got some food and drinks and I heard all about his 17 dives which got me pumped to do some of my own. The next day we went to an aboriginal museum/themepark type place which was quite bizzare - a weird mixture of celebrating aboriginal lifestyle in a silly way and depressing stories reminiscent of the unfair treatment of Native Americans.

Later that day we took a rainforest tour which was terrific thanks to an eccentric slightly crazy guide named Bart. We met a bunch of other backpackers on the tour, enjoyed swimming in some waterfalls, and went to the local backpacker dinner joint for the rest of the evening. The next day I did three dives on a day trip to the outer reef which were fantastic (right along the continental shelf, so there were great reef walls) and got me ready for the 3 night live-aboard dive trip that departed the next day - Leon stayed behind because he had already gotten his fill of diving (and spent enough on it).

Leon and I in front of a 500 year old fig tree - the most awesome tree I have ever seen

Live-aboard Dive Trip

I was lucky to get the last spot on the boat at a huge discount (I bought it two days before it departed so they were desparate to sell the spot). The company I went with is known as one of the best in Cairns and I knew I would have a great time - but I was curious as to how the other divers in the group would be.

Good food, great company!

The group consisted of about 20 people - roughly a third were from the States, the rest were from a mix of Asia and Europe (no Australians). It was a really fun and friendly group of people coming from many different backgrounds. I pretty quickly became friends with two guys my age who just started grad school at Stanford, as well as a solo diver Annarieke from Holland (with whom I wound up buddying for most of the dives).

We took a small plane from Cairns to Lizard Island (where our boat was waiting) in the morning, and before we knew it we were at our first dive site ready to go. Most of the three following days you could bet I was doing one of three things - diving, eating, or sleeping.

Our perspective of the reef would soon change dramatically!

One of the dive maps during a dive brief

The diving was amazing. Especially after enduring the cold water in California getting my dry suit certification, this water felt like bath water. I wore a thin wetsuit, but mostly just for jellyfish protection rather than warmth. The wildlife was abundant and beautiful, and for the most part, peaceful. The one exception were the dreaded titan triggerfish. The females, when nesting, are extremely aggressive, and attacked a number of us (thankfully I was spared). Those teeth are nasty, and they bite hard enough to puncture the wetsuit. We learned to look out for them though, and avoid them. One of the guides - Alex - attracted one's attention and was able to fight it off with his fins - it was an amazing (and hilarious) sight seeing him fend it off.

The top deck was an excellent place to relax or nap in-between dives (here I am reading up on nitrox diving)

Later that evening we were all talking about how Alex fended off the triggerfish, and someone put on the video of him during the sharkfeed dive. Unfortunately I wasn't there for this (it was the previous trip) - but it showed him wrestling with the trash can filled with tuna heads, trying to get it open while dozens of sharks zipped by him. What I saw next made my jaw drop - when the sharks started getting really close and were running into him, he started to punch them. Yes, he punched the sharks in the face to fend them off while he got the can open so the guests could see the feed. It seemed like one of those things that is amazing, awesome, ridiculous, and probably very very stupid.

Time for a dip!

The highlight of the trip was probably the night dives - it was a little scary jumping into black water, but I got used to it. A dozen or more big bass followed us, as they have learned divers make excellent hunting partners - whenever I would illuminate an unfortunate small fish out in the open with my flashlight, they would zoom straight for it and devour it. It became a fun game searching for their prey, even though I felt a bit evil doing it.

I managed to fit in 12 dives in those three days, which I am really happy about. Annarieke and I got quite a bit lost on our first dive without a guide, which was scary at the time, to say the least. When we eventually decided to surface - it was the worst feeling in the world not seeing the boat in front of me - just open ocean. The two seconds it took to spin around to check 360' for it felt like an eternity - with an inner monologue saying, as I was turning 'no boat, no boat, no boat, BOAT!!!!' and of course we hadn't gone far - a hundred meters maybe - and we made it back to with no problems. From then on we were very careful to orient ourselves properly before descending. It was also a good excercize in general for keeping my head on straight in a stressful situation.

I was very relieved that I was (mostly) able to keep from getting seasick so I could enjoy the trip in the first place. The food was great, the people were great, the diving was great; there was nothing to complain about, so noone did. I was also able to fit in a nitrox course as well (a special gas that contains less nitrogen and more oxygen, so you can stay for longer at depth without getting decrompression sickness), so I learned alot and had a great time.

My two most frequent dive buddies - Annarieke and Mark

Now I'm hanging out with Leon, looking forward to our return to Sydney and New Year's. For Christmas we were trying to find a salvation army to volunteer at, but noone answered their phones, so it looks like we'll spend Christmas at the backpacker's hangout tonight. Tomorrow we'll most likely be back at the internet cafe waiting for our flight - so if you're online, feel free to say hi!

Once again, this post has become quite long - sorry about that. I hope all of you are well and are enjoying the holidays! Merry Christmas and enjoy the snow for me!

Comments, questions, suggestions, all encouraged!


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

About 20,000 miles later...

Overlooking Machu Picchu

Pics 'n stuff: (LA trip photos, not all up yet but most are there, 14 pics) (Lima pictures, 23) (Cusco, trekking+Machu Picchu pictures, 99) (all my albums)

Videos: (No new additions)

Wow – sorry to everybody for not updating this thing in so long! Between hopping around destinations, embracing time to relax (which is surprisingly infrequent), and not being in the 'right mood' to update, it has been harder than I thought to keep this up to date. I was going to update it last weekend in BA, but a horrible nasty awful case of food poisoning made it hard for me to do anything but lie in bed watching movies and lectures. Now that I'm feeling better though, this 14 hour plane ride is the perfect excuse to catch you guys up a bit, so allow me to do just that.

LA Visit

Last I left off, I was about to head off to LA. Indeed I did, and I had an awesome time there. It had been too long since the last time I saw Kelly, so it was great to see her over Thanksgiving and we were able to fit in a lot of activities. To build up a hunger for Thanksgiving, Kelly and I went to a park near the Gorges that we were able to hike around for a while which was really nice. Hungry and excited for our first ever time cooking Thanksgiving, we headed back and got to work in the kitchen with her roommate Erika. I have to say, we did a damn good job. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, cranberry, green beans+almonds, and Argentinian wine – we were stuffed and had plenty of leftovers to last us a couple days (writing this is making me hungry).

Kelly and I work up a hunger before Thanksgiving by doing a short hike

Erika and Kelly have the honor of cutting the turkey

The next day, Kelly and I spent most of it getting fitted for our drysuit certification and starting to learn the basics in the instructor's pool (located right underneath the Hollywood sign). The instructor (very cool guy named Kareem who was half Egyptian, half Swiss) was great, and since it was just Kelly and me in the class we had lots of time and individual attention to understand the differences between drysuit diving and wetsuit diving (brief explanation: normally you dive with a wetsuit which traps a thin layer of water against your skin which is warmed via your body heat, but if you really want to be warm then a drysuit is best. Drysuits are baggier and have seals around your wrists, ankles, and neck that don't let water in. Thus, you have air between you and the drysuit, which keeps you way warmer (you don't get wet!). It is a bit trickier, though, because the air affects you buoyancy and if you don't learn how to control it it can be dangerous).

Kelly models the drysuit at my request

Nothing like enjoying a tasty rice cake under the Hollywood sign

Saturday we were up bright and early (not a problem for me because of jetlag!) to head to the long beach port to catch the early ferry to Catalina island where we would do our certification dives. Kelly and I had been to Catalina a couple times before, and we always have an amazing time there. It is really like a different universe when compared to downtown LA – besides weather, it really could be mistaken for a small island in the Caribbean. It took most of the day, but we got in a short snorkel and both of our certification dives with no problem, and wound up staying overnight there so we didn't have to be rushed getting back. Before we knew it though, it was Sunday – my last day in LA, which flew by and on Monday morning I was on a plane back to Buenos Aires.

I wasn't sure how it would feel being back in the States after traveling in South America for a while, but it was no problem at all. It took a minute to get used to everyone speaking English, and it was strange ordering food in English for the first time in 6 weeks, but besides that I had no trouble adjusting. LA is a really interesting place, and I know it gets a bad rep due to the traffic and smog (rightfully so), but every time I have visited I've had a great time. I think the key is having friends there and not being stuck downtown – I think a lot of people that don't like the city have only experienced conferences there downtown, which I'm sure can be miserable.

Back to BA

I got back to Argentina with no problems, and spent a few days there relaxing, playing poker, and enjoying the company of the friends I had met there before I left the region. Ian left for Japan (won't see him until summer!) and Leon left for Australia (I'll be meeting up with him in Cairns in a few days), and the next day I left for Peru!


I was looking forward to Peru as it would be the first bit of travel I would really do independently. Sure enough it was difficult, engaging, and a lot of fun. It's interesting how one's concept of geography is so skewed depending on what one is familiar with – I, for instance, didn't realize just how far Lima was from BA – almost as far as Boston-LA in fact. However, I am getting used to (and actually enjoying) these long flights so I didn't mind.

The downtown plazas of Lima were quite nice

I had heard nasty things about Lima – the usual big city, dirty, dangerous, etc. - but I must say that my 40 hours there were a lot of fun. The coast is beautiful (big bluffs overlooking dozens of surfers), and there is a lot to see and do. I spent my first day sightseeing on my own. The highlight had to be the catacombs underneath the Cathedral of San Francisco – normally I get bored of churches, but these catacombs were really amazing and creepy. There were enormous piles and pits full of human bones – apparently it was a popular burial ground because people thought they would go to heaven faster if buried there, but also many victims of the Spanish Inquisition who were tortured to death were also buried there.

'Love Park' on the coast - reminds me a bit of a more tame version of Venice Beach in LA

I met some people back in the hostel who were a lot of fun so we had dinner together and checked out some of the Lima nightlife. I told them that I was doing an island tour and swimming with sea lions the next day and they all enthusiastically wanted to join me. Unfortunately, we had terrible instructions on how to get there – so the next day we all missed the bus (separately), but I managed to get a cab to the port on time on my own.

The tour was outrageously long (the boat barely went faster than 2 or 3 knots, supposedly to save gas), but the time gave me an opportunity to meet some more people on the tour and relax. I enthusiastically volunteered when the crew asked who wanted to get in the water with the sea lions, but I had no idea what I was in for! When the island came nearer, I couldn't really see any individual sea lions – but it was easy to hear and smell them! It sounded like hundreds of them but I still couldn't pick them out. Then, I realized that the entire island was covered in them. Literally - they were piled on top of and next to each other covering the entire island. It was a steep rocky island too, and they are very awkward on land, so it was funny seeing them try to move around but accidentally slip down the side slowly into the water. I had been warned the water was cold, and I have been in cold water before so I wasn't worried, but this was without a doubt the coldest water I have EVER been in. I jumped in with the wetsuit on (I wish I had a drysuit there!) and feeling the water seep into the suit so quickly was brutal – one of those moments where you can barely breathe at first. Moving around a bit made it bearable though, and we swam right up to the island and mingled with the sea lions before heading back to the boat.

That's a lot of sea lions!

That night I went to the 'Magical water show' that I had heard good things about from Leon and Ian and it did not disappoint! The park was swamped with families and couples wandering through the dozen or so amazing fountains. Some were interactive and some were enormous – without a doubt they were on par or maybe even more impressive than the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. The best display was a group of fountains that danced to classical music while lasers were projected onto them.

Kids enjoy the interactive fountains. I must admit I was tempted to join in...

The next morning I said my goodbyes to the hostel staff that I had become friendly with (hostel employees have been some of the most interesting people I have met so far on the trip), and I was off to Cuzco!

Typical view into a courtyard area of Cuzco

Traveling from BA to Lima was not a big adjustment – both big industrial cities – but getting to Cuzco was a great change of pace. Even towards the end of the flight I could tell things were going to be different – enormous jagged peaks reminiscent of Yosemite covered in dark green jungle presented themselves and I remember smiling, happy to be out of the city.

I made my way to the hostel recommended by Ian and Leon and checked into my room. The hostel itself was really cool in a dark, creepy kind of way – it was one of those big houses that felt and sounded alive with every step you took and door you opened. First thing I wanted to do after checking in was get to the main square 'Plaza de Armas' and get lunch with some coca tea! Coca tea is very simple, just hot water with some coca leaves in it, and it is known to help with altitude sickness as well as digestion. Yes, cocaine is made from coca leaves, but only after being processed with many other chemicals and concentrated – coca leaves are perfectly safe, not addictive, and not as stimulating.

A nice hot cup of coca tea

Cuzco itself was bigger than I was anticipating – but not in a bad way. I never saw a building more than 2 stories tall (besides churches), and the streets were all cobblestone and free of any bad traffic. I would say Cuzco reminded me of one of those old European cobblestone cities, but dirtier and a lot (LOT) cheaper. The only frustrating bit were the beggars – but even they weren't pushy – a simple 'no gracias' was all it took to direct their attention elsewhere.

Many of you know I am not big on planning ahead for non-essential things, and Cuzco was no exception, but thankfully things worked out fine anyways because I needed a couple days to adjust to the altitude before setting off on any adventures. I did feel the affects of the altitude, especially when climbing stairs or jogging, but I don't think I had any sort of altitude sickness. Sunday was spent sightseeing in the city, and that night I got some food at a restaurant where a local band was playing some traditional music. When the guy who played a little mandolin-like guitar came around to sell CD's I asked him if he could give me a lesson the next morning. Sure enough he was free, and it was great getting to know him a bit, and the lesson was one of the highlights of my Peru trip. I took videos of us playing a few songs and will try to get them online soon. Monday I was determined to get out a bit so I booked a horseback tour that afternoon, and a 4 day/3night trek to Machu Picchu that departed the next day.

The horseback riding tour was ridiculous and hilarious, even though at the start I was a bit overwhelmed. I had just booked it and the guide said 'ok hurry the truck is waiting!' so I went outside and saw a truck jam-packed with a lot of 15-16 year old Peruvian kids. I thought I was going to be with just a few other tourists – but I was wrong. A highschool class from another region of Peru had won some sort of lottery to visit Cuzco, and they would be my company. We stopped at a 'tourist' restaurant on the way to the ranch that clearly only catered to those on a budget – it was 5 soles (US$1.50 ) for a full lunch – and was fun to practice my spanish with the kids. I mostly spoke with the guide and his friend because they had more to say (we spoke about spirituality and alternative medicine for a while). The girls of the class mostly just giggled and took pictures of me when I tried to talk to them so I didn't learn much from them... The tour itself was interesting and relaxing, which I cherished because I knew I was gonna be hurting soon from the trek.

Enjoying lunch with the kids

The next morning I was supposed to be picked up between 7-7:30 so I was up at quarter to seven with everything ready to go, but then it became 7:30 and I hadn't heard anything. 7:45...8...8:15 I called the agency but they just hung up on me promptly...8:30...I started to get in a legitimately really awful mood and the hostel staff could tell. It usually takes a lot to piss me off but if I wasn't able to leave that day then I would have to forfeit the opportunity to hike to Machu Picchu because there weren't any shorter treks, and I had to be back on Friday night. But then, at 9, the van finally showed up! It made its way (very very dangerously and terrifyingly) up and around windy foggy mountain roads to our launch point via mountain bikes. The group turned out to be comprised only of a girl studying abroad from USC, and a late 20's Irish guy (James) on vacation, two guides, and me. In talking with James, I found out he had hired his guide separately to do what was supposed to be the 4 day hike in 3 days. This idea appealed to me very much, because I wanted another day to do something more around Cuzco, so I decided to join him and his guide (which ended up being a great decision).

Not gonna deny it. This was a terrifying drive.

We spent that afternoon and evening mountain biking from an altitude of 4.2k down to 1k – that is a big drop!!! It was a ton of fun despite shoddy equipment (at one point my pedal leg – not just the foot pedal, the whole leg – completely fell off the bike) – and by evening my butt, back and arms had taken quite a beating. As tiring as the biking was, though, it didn't even compare to how tired I got playing soccer with James, our guide, and a bunch of little kids that night before dinner. While I was trying to pull some fancy moves defending against some little kid on a breakaway I could feel myself pull some groin muscle and I said to myself 'ohhhh sh*t tomorrow is going to really hurt now' (thankfully I felt better in the morning though.) We had a great home-cooked meal of Lomo Saltado (I would have preferred to do a camping trip, but there were none available in my time-frame, so this one was split between one night in a home and one night in a hostel), and we fell asleep by 10 for our 4:30 A.M. wake-up (that early because we were squeezing 2 days of hiking into one – 40k worth of hiking!).

Biking through the clouds near Cuzco

Originally Angela (the USC girl) also expressed interest in joining our faster trip, but after we waited 15 minutes for her to get ready, and after I realized how much makeup she put on that morning, I realized she might not be able to keep up with us. Sure enough, half an hour in, James, our guide, and I had hiked far ahead of her and her guide, so we decided to continue on our own. The hike was beautiful and brutal. What I especially liked about it was that the trails we hiked on weren't trails designed for hiking. Instead, they were trails used to connect small villages that we would hike through on our way to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu). The villages clearly were not frequented by tourists, so it was a nice way to get off the beaten path. A couple of them did have stands to sell water and food which were a great treat during our 14 hour hike.

The red stuff was natural repellent from a pepper plant the guide pointed out to us

The friendly monkey 'Martin' at one of the villages

I had heard terrible things about the bugs in the jungle there, and it's all true. Thankfully with toxic bug spray and a brisk hiking pace, they didn't bug me much (pun not intended), but we saw lots of nasty critters. At one point I saw a huge wasp-like fly buzzing around on the ground and I stopped to ask our guide about it. He said 'Ah yes, this has very dangerous poison. What do you call what you use when you get bit by poisonous spider?' I replied 'An antidote?' He said 'Haha yes, there is no for this'. My eyes widened a bit, then decided to keep on moving.

The best part of that day, without question, was our stop in Santa Teresa at the hot springs. It was about 11 AM, so we had been hiking for a long time, and it was the perfect way to relax for a bit before continuing on our long day. For a short time after the springs we shared a cab with some locals (not much of a point to hiking along a road for a few k), and then finished the trek along the seemingly never-ending train tracks to Aguas Calientes.
The wonderful halfway-point of hot springs on the way to Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes was actually a pretty cool place – of course it solely exists to house people on their way to Machu Picchu – but it had a nice feel, kind of like Whistler Village below the ski resort (but obviously not as big or fancy). We had dinner at a restaurant in the town and were asleep by 9, exhausted by such a long day of hiking, ready to wake up at 4:30 again to make our way up to Machu Picchu.

Near Aguas Calientes - one of many conspicuous bridges we had to cross

The Inca stairs up the mountain were totally brutal, especially at such an early hour after such a long day of hiking. It was about a half kilometer rise in elevation, and it took a little over an hour. The incentive to keep a good pace was the sun – I really wanted to get up to Machu Picchu to see the sunrise over the mountains – and thankfully I barely made it on time.

Is it just me, or is this llama actually smiling for the picture?

I was anticipating Machu Picchu to be heavily micromanaged and swamped with tourists that were shuttled around from point A to B to back outside, but for the first few hours there were hardly more than 100 people there. It was a great feeling being there so early because it was practically deserted and felt much more inspiring without the buzz of the hordes. We had a scheduled tour at 8 which lasted until 10, when we started to climb Wayna Picchu (the tall mountain overlooking Machu Picchu in most of the pictures). Our tour guide annoyingly joked relentlessly that it only took 15 minutes to get up Wayna Picchu 'at Inca speed', but an hour 'at tourist speed'. Well James and I were happy to make it up at half Inca speed, because we had to be back at Aguas Calientes at 2 to get our train tickets for that night. Overlooking Machu Picchu was very cool – but we were more happy to reach the top of Wayna just because it meant the end of climbing steep steps! I had a victory snickers bar at the top, relaxed for a bit in the beautiful weather (which we were very lucky to have), then began our descent back to Aguas Calientes, and from there, took the train back to Cusco.

I should say a bit about Machu Picchu before I go on. Everyone has seen the pictures, but I was amazed at just how big the place really was. It was interesting to learn the history about how it was discovered, but even more interesting to hear about how much mystery still surrounds it. Hiram Bingham was directed to it by two farmer families it in the early 20th century on his search for the lost Inca treasure, but was disappointed to only find some ruins. He came back, sponsored by Yale University to explore it more (apparently many artifacts were taken back to Yale), but not only was there no treasure to be found, there was nothing besides empty ruins. Not even bodies or anything – it had been abandoned, and no one knows why. There have been other ruins discovered elsewhere around Cusco, but none have quite the amazing setting as Machu Picchu, on the top of a mountain surrounded by beautiful vistas. If I had more time, I would have loved to take the trek to the most recently discovered ruins that were only found 20 years ago. They are still being uncovered, so there are no roads going there – it requires an 8 day trek to get there.

Sweet victory atop Wayna Picchu overlooking Machu Picchu

That night I went out with James and his 4 Irish friends that met us at Macchu Picchu (they had just finished hiking the Inca Trail) at Paddy's bar, 'The highest Irish-owned pub in the world'. It was a lot of fun meeting them, and lets just say they lived up to some Irish stereotypes. I didn't have a hostel reservation for that night because I had originally planned on returning the next day, but they were nice enough to give me their extra bed at their hostel, which was really cool of them. I was hoping to catch up on sleep a bit, but of course that didn't happen, as I had to be up early the next day for a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

I'll be brief about that tour. While it was nice to see a bunch of ruins, by far the most interesting part of it was meeting and talking with a couple on the tour. I forget how the subject even came up, but the guy and I started talking about our different perspectives on meditation, consciousness, and life after death. It turned out his father is a retired Buddhist Monk (who now 'only' meditates for eight hours every day), and he grew up in North India along the Himalayas. We had a great constructive conversation providing our differing perspectives on those topics, and I think we both learned a lot. When I asked him what he did in NYC, I almost laughed when he said he was an investment banker, but then I realized he wasn't joking! I asked him how that came about, and he said he was fascinated by the concept of capitalism and it always drew him in. I thought that was interesting, and it provided a bit of a different light in which to view our conversation. He recommended I get some books describing a dialog between the Dali Lama and a group of neuroscientists which sounded fascinating. I will look up when I get to Australia.

I was looking forward to getting back to BA in time to enjoy a barbeque some poker friends were having – and I was able to enjoy about an hour of it – but then, like I said at the beginning, the food poisoning kicked in, and I was out of commission for the next 36 hours. I did have long enough to meet a few more players I hadn't met before, which was cool (one of them had previously played the card game 'Magic the Gathering' at a competitive level and was ranked 1st in the world!). I said my farewells this morning which was sad, but not too sad because I will see a lot of them this summer in Europe, as most of them are traveling as well, and with facebook nowadays, it is impossible to lose touch with travel buddies.

I'm looking forward to getting to Sydney, and especially Cairns to meet up with Leon and do some serious diving. Apparently Google has a new feature that you can use to 'dive in' from satellite view right into the great barrier reef that I am pumped to check out when I land. Right now though, We are passing near the south pole, and I can't do much except watch the in-flight TV (Bear Grylls in Man vs Wild – the Australia episode!), and maybe sleep a bit before I land.

Comments questions and suggestions encouraged!


Monday, November 24, 2008

Glaciers, Mountains, Waterfalls and Whales - Part 4 of 4: Whales

It was nice to get to the coast

Pics 'n stuff: (pics for this post, 43, including a random pic of me in the internet cafe while I make this very post!) (all my albums)

Videos: (No new additions)

We had heard plenty about the whales in Puerto Madryn, but something about being so close to such an enormous makes you feel like you never knew what a 'whale' was in the first place. It felt like we had been transported back in time or to another world. Because whales are things that everyone knows about and sees on TV, they become lumped into that category of those animals you hear about but never (or rarely, as a splash of water a mile away from some big ocean liner) see. Even other exotic animals like lions, elephants, and sharks can be seen in zoos and aquariums. Seeing the whales close-up though gave me that hard-to-describe feeling not completely different from seeing Iguazu falls at night – the sights and sounds are incredible, but there's that element of unknown that can't be revealed.

Leon and I got off the 18+ hour bus ride in Puerto Madryn a little achy, but not too tired, as the 160' reclining seats were quite comfortable to sleep in. Despite the loser in front of me that stole my headphones while I was sleeping (and gave them back when I asked for them in the morning), and the absolutely revolting bus food (you thought airline food was bad...), the bus ride was actually enjoyable.

We had a rough idea of what we wanted to do, which was: see the whales, dive with the seals, and chill with the penguins. We were able to do all of them more less (due to strong northerly winds, visibility was about 12 inches underwater, so we snorkeled instead of diving with the seals).

Seeing the Whales:

Southern Right Whale - so named because they were the 'right' whale to hunt because they were slow and floated when killed

We hopped on the early bus to Peninsula Valdez so that we could be one of the first boats out in the harbor. The whales come up to the bay to reproduce, as it is a protected environment from the open ocean. It was late in the season, so the calves were already huge and getting ready to leave with their moms. It didn't take long to find a mom-calf that were hanging out, so the captain of the boat killed the engine, and sure enough the whales came right up close. In the not-so-far distance it was easy to see huge whale flukes rise out of the water, as well as many whales doing that move where they rush straight up from underwater like they're trying to jump up out of the water, but are too fat so they only make it about half-way and come crashing down on their side. I guess the consensus is that it's some type of long-range communication.

Kinda looks like she's smiling, no?

The tour bus took us almost around the entire circumference of the peninsula, so we were able to see some seals, sea lions (I finally learned the difference!), and a few penguins. The peninsula itself was...not very exciting – it's considered a 'semi-desert', getting 300mm of rainfall a year.

The not so exciting land-fauna of the peninsula...sheep

Snorkeling with Seals:

Can't help but wonder what goes through these guys' heads... (note this pic was taken during the dolphin-watching. pics of us w/the seals will be up next week)

Despite the frustrating monopoly of dive-shops that banded together to keep prices way high, Leon and I gave in and paid the 450 pesos for the opportunity to snorkel with some seals. It was only an Israeli girl, Leon & me, and the guide, so we were looking forward to having plenty of seals to ourselves. Francisco, our guide, waited until we were already under way to mention that it was possible no seals would play with us, and 'ALSO GUYS (writing in caps because he always seemed to half speak/yell), IF THE MALES SHOW AGGRESSION I WILL TELL YOU TO GET OUT OF THE WATER' – nerves acting up a bit and a tad seasick, my expectations dropped and worries rose. However, my mood quickly changed when we pulled up and killed the engine, because we could see a dozen or so seals split off from the huge group on the beach and come head straight for us.

Seals are probably the most hilarious animal I've ever seen – they swim around with their huge adorable eyes looking right at you, then pop their head up and let out a surprisingly loud burp-gargle-scream-howl (don't really know how else to describe it) either right at you, back to the group on the beach, or just at nothing.

We hopped in the water and they were not reserved at all. They came right up in your face, nibbled on your hands or flippers in a similar way that dogs do (but seeing their 2+” canines was quite unsettling), and bumped up against you (one actually went underwater and held my knees together for a few seconds with its flippers which I found hilarious). They seemed to enjoy being tickled and scratched, but not held, for understandable reasons. Leon and I picked up a 27 exposure underwater camera and used all the shots during the swim – I really hope a few came out well. I will develop, scan and upload them later this week.

At one point a MASSIVE male seal came out to join us, and despite it being terrifying at first, it became clear it just wanted to play rather than tear us limb from limb (which it could have done very very easily).

Chilling with Penguins:

Human thinks 'what a weird creature'
Penguin thinks ' what a weird creature'

Penguins probably take a close 2nd to seals when it comes to hilarious animals. Punta Tombo, about 3 hours south of Puerto Madryn, is a large penguin breeding colony where half a million penguins come every year when it's warm (kind of like penguin spring break – but instead of getting drunk off of margaritas, they just eat tons of anchovies). Apparently the males come first and return to the same nest they made the previous year and make it all tidy and nice, then the females come a week later to either find the same male as before (if their baby penguins survived from the year before), or find a new male (if they didn't).

Nap-time in the sun for the happy couple

On the way to Punta Tombo, we stopped halfway to do a dolphin-watching tour. It was fun and we saw a good number of small white+black dolphins (kind of looked like mini killer whales), but it paled in comparison to the whale watching.

If you had asked me if I would support building a tourist facility in the penguin breeding grounds, and creating paths through it, I probably would have said no way, but I must admit they put a lot of effort into not intruding on the penguins. The breeding ground is absolutely massive (everywhere you look there are little holes in the ground, maybe a few square feet in size, that each house a couple penguins and their chicks. This place was unique in that while there were some fences keeping people confined to a large area, we were able to roam around freely with the penguins. However, we were warned to not to try to touch them, as their sharp hooked beak (that is strong enough to pierce fingernail) usually houses decaying fish flesh that is guaranteed to give you a horrible infection.

Look closely and you'll see a guanaco and penguin facing off at the high point

Our driver (it was a small group – just a middle aged couple, leon&me, and the driver) recently graduated from some sort of tourism school in Puerto Madryn and this was his first season running his own tours. He was young – maybe 25 – and said he worked 7 days a week, frequently from 6am to 2am. Lets just say it showed, as he was clearly very tired driving us back from Punta Tombo. When he mentioned something about the weather, I tried to continue the conversation for a while to keep him up.

Puerto Madryn:

In general, it's a cool little city. The beach is nice and things are calm. The two big things it's got going for it are tourism and a huge aluminum factory which together employ the city's 60k people. Leon and I took a couple bike rides – one to the EcoCentro, which had a lot of information about the flora and fauna of Peninsula Valdez, and one longer less pleasant (hot sun, gravel roads, strong winds against us, and an overwhelming makes-you-not-want-to-breath fish-stench from the nearby fishery) ride up north where we found a really nice bluff away from the fishery over the ocean that we had all to ourselves (not many people venture out of the city without guides, and this place was pretty remote). The restaurants, hostels, and people were all quite nice, and I would recommend it if you have some free time in the area. If only it didn't require such a long bus ride to get there.

There's something I like about tall bluffs in front of the ocean

Back in BA:

I've got some time to kill now. I leave tomorrow night to go to LA for a bit, and I will update on future plans (Up next: Peru!) when they become more clear. I hope everyone has been well.

Again – comments, questions and suggestions are encouraged!