Archive for the ‘Travels – I Has Them’ Category

Christmas: The Super-American All-Inclusive Deprogramming Holiday of I Think I’m Their Hostage Now.

Monday, January 4th, 2016

Christmas! A holiday I never really had much to do with. I mean, I watch the stuff on TV and the movies and I’ve seen what it’s like, but it’s never really been something I’ve been immersed in. I don’t even think we did Chinese food and movies as is the way of our people. We went one step lower, doing “whatever’s in the fridge” and “what’s on PBS today?” So when I decided to spend the holidays with my friend Ness in San Francisco I was excited to see what the other 97.8% of Americans do December 24th and 25th. I was not disappointed. Let me give you a bit of backstory. All the people in my family are very very smart and very very useless. My father is a rabbi with three doctorates all in cerebral pursuits like theology and Hebrew letters. My mother is an art historian who speaks three languages fluently and five more not fluently. Our dinner parties are not for the weak of spirit. You know how you are not supposed to talk about politics or religion in polite company? That’s ALL we talk about, and any religion or any country’s politics is up for debate. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say something like, “Yes, but that is due to the rift caused by the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. If the Ottoman Empire had blabittyblah blah etc. and blah.” Lots of clever and intelligent. However, between both my parents they cannot manage to use a cell phone. They didn’t clean the filter of their household water supply thing in the basement for a decade. A DECADE. (It’s astonishingly easy to replace.) My father prefers a broom and dustpan to a vacuum because a vacuum is a bit too much technology for one man. My point is anything technological or manual labor-y is beyond them. When the apocalypse comes they will be the first to be eaten because they are the human equivalent of kobe beef. Ness’s family, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. They are all in law enforcement of some kind, except for the hair dresser/Zumba teacher. They drink alcohol for fun, not only for religious ceremonies. They can fix things. They like sports. They embrace technology. They don’t watch the news four times a day. I didn’t see them watch the news once, actually. They put those “Love, Laugh, Live” letter cutouts over their couches and have tons of pictures of their families on display. We are not the same. But I imagine the rest of the country is far more like them then they are like me, an effete New York Jew, so I relished the opportunity to experience what life is like for just about everyone else.

Okay. It felt a bit like when someone gets out of a cult and they need to be reacclimated back into society and they have to be strapped to chair and immersed hard. First, Ness insisted on only Christmas music. I heard that epically crappy song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by BandAid about four times. Don’t ask me how many times I heard Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” A million, give or take. Then, Hallmark Christmas movies. Ness DVRed about ten of them. I watched five from beginning to end. I would like to deviate now from my trip to talk about the Hallmark Christmas movies if I may. They all have the same plot structure and here it is:

“Hi! I’m a woman, a single woman, and I have a promising career in medicine / dress design / business! Gosh, I’m well on my way! Reaching for the stars! Oh no, I’ve been stranded in Garland, Alaska on my way to my fellowship in Boston due to weather, or maybe my father passed and I need to return to the rinkydink town of my childhood from L.A to take care of my father’s affairs. Whatever reason, I have to leave whatever major city I was heading towards or living in, the major city where I’m going fulfill my potential. No biggie, I’ll only be here for a short while. But what’s this? This charming local man who is a woodworker / elementary school music teacher / fireman. His smile, it causes me to swoon and melt right into my mom jeans. What to do, what to do? Give up on all my career goals, ones I might have had since I was a child, to stay here with Mr. As Hunky As Hallmark Could Afford whom I barely know?”

Let me save you some time. They all stay in Flyover Town USA and devote their life to the dude. Each and every single one. I want to listen in to the Hallmark Christmas Movie meetings. I feel like they sound like this, “We must keep the women of America who got pregnant at 19 and couldn’t go to college placated, put out another movie that convinces them that careers are meh and true love is only found in rectangular states to keep them from poisoning the Sloppy Joes and fleeing to a coast. That should do it.”

Sorry about that. Back to the trip. Ness likes to plan lots of activities so on the first day I was in San Fran we did tourist stuff. I went to the Cable Car Museum. We walked around Little Italy. We met a former co-worker for dinner. Normal stuff. Day two is where things got fascinating. I was invited to an Oakland Raiders football game, complete with tailgating. I have been to one other NFL game (read this for a recap of that magical experience) and this time I was excited to have someone with me to explain the finer points of the sport. Ness and her aunt decked me out in appropriate regalia and I sat quietly in the parking lot and watched the other tailgaters do their thing.

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Their thing is THOROUGH. I’ve been to weddings less organized than some of these camps. Giant tents. The most insane food being cooked – prime rib, lobster tails, king crab legs, deep-fried turkeys. Not only did people bring their own sound systems, they brought their own DJs to spin their desired tunes. All of this was happening in a parking lot. People brought entire bars. The smell of weed was pungent and copious. (Is nothing illegal in California? Where are your mothers?) I was told that since it was Christmas Eve there were far fewer people than usual, normally the whole giant parking lot is full.

Look, proof! Lobster tails:

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A DJ for a group of about six people:

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Lest we forget it’s San Francisco-adjacent, dirty hippies!

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And some guy’s small school bus that he decorated both inside and out:

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Finally after about four hours we wrapped up the light debauchery and headed into the stadium. I would like to say I watched the game with rapt attention and can tell you all about the different players and what they did. I wish I could say that. The truth is I only watched three things: the big screen (Kiss cam! Pop and lock dancing!), the cheerleaders (did you know they’re out the the entire game freezing their components off?) and the hover-camera. That hover-camera, which I originally thought was a drone, tapped into something really primal for me. It’s a camera that looks exactly like a A.I. version of a black shiny hornet and it zips around on three cables tethered to the top bits of the walls of the stadium. It zips extremely quickly and did I mention it looks like a giant robot wasp? We were right behind the goalposts so whenever it bzzzzzed with great alacrity over to the touchdown area I would scream. I could imagine it breaking free of its moorings and killing everyone. That’s it. That’s all I paid attention to the whole time. SPORTS!

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I had heard the Oakland Raiders fans are the scariest in the NFL. They were fine. Charger fans would walk through the parking lot fully decked out and the Raiders fans would boo at them, then offer them snacks or wave goodnaturedly. There were 30,000 fans there and I saw one fight break out. It was quelled before I could even turn around and get a good look. Fine. Everything was fine.

The next day was Christmas. We watched the Warriors vs. the Cavaliers (basketball). We wore festive red and green garb. We ate cheesy potatoes and ham and green bean casserole. We opened seven thousand presents, four thousand of which were sports-related socks. This may not sound that thrilling for you, but I’ve never done these things. I must have looked completely daft watching Ness’s family like they were part of a scientific research project. I imagine this is what it must be like when people come to our house for Hanukkah. It’s neat to be on the other side.

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I spent most of my time chilling with the cat on the couch. I love that damn cat so much. SO. MUCH. I have spoken of this love before.

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The last few days there we went to Muir Woods were there are old giant pine trees. It smelled amazing.

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I must have said, “Look at that tree!” fifty times.

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Not gonna lie: hugged a lot of trees.

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There was a massive crack in one of the trees where people were taking pictures.

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Here was our version.

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On my insistence Ness also hugged a tree in her own way.

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I highly recommend Muir Woods. Especially if you wish to protest something. They have an area for that.

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It was a magnificent trip and Ness has already planned activities for my next visit. I’ve never been to Alcatraz and I want to ride on the double-decker bus, so we will do that.

South America Part 14 ‘n’ done.

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

The equator! What Ecuador is named after. The equator runs right through and I got to visit it. It was weirder than I expected. We did some scientific stuff standing on the actual line and things did not go how I anticipated. But first, some Quito pics.

A tree in the giant park in the middle of town. The parks were lovely. There are artists along one whole edge with all different styles of paintings for sale.

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We went to a market that the locals shop at. It was intense. Everything was out and the meat and fish were fine (meaty and fishy, to be expected) but the vegetable and fruit section, I could have hung out there all day.

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There were giant piles of fresh herbs. There was a lady who only sold potatoes. She must have had fifteen or twenty different kinds. And, as with most places in the world that are not the United States, you could bring your dog in with you.

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We also went to a authentic sorbet maker. In the olden days a donkey would carry down ice from the tops of the mountains that would be put in a large tub with salt. Now they use regular freezer ice but the rest of the process remains the same. A big flat-bottomed bronze pan with two handles is placed on the ice and fruit juice mixed with sugar is poured in. The the sorbet-person uses the handles to spin spin spin the bronze pan and uses a wooden spoon to move the juice mixture around the bottom. Eventually all the juice freezes and boom, sorbet. The one we saw being made was from local blackberries. It was delicious.

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Okay, the equator. It’s actually part of a whole teaching space sponsored by the Ecuadorian government. We learned about the cultures that lived around there. We saw a human shrunken head and a sloth’s shrunken head.

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And in the same area was THE WORST TAXIDERMY I HAVE EVEN SEEN. EVER. I started laughing so hard, I felt bad for the guide. I tried to explain that it had nothing to do with him but I couldn’t breathe and had to go sit down for a minute. Here, allow me to share some of these magical creatures with you. The two most incorrect ones were the ocelot:

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And the anaconda. Oh dear Lord, the anaconda. Are… are those eyes hot-glued on?

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The sideshow creatures were the only sub-par element there. Everything else was beautiful. The landscaping was particularly lovely.

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We were shown an ancient sundial which told you only three times a day – morning, midday and afternoon. It was scary how on point it was. It was almost exactly 4:00 in the afternoon and look, the shadow is right on the 4. Amazing.

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I didn’t know much about the equator.

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I’ve mentioned this before but in high school I took Biology for Football Players and Poets in my senior year. My STEM skills are weeeeeeak. So every experiment the guide did was like a miracle for me. For example, he had a sink that wasn’t hooked up to anything, it simply had a bucket underneath. When he positioned the sink and bucket six feet to the left of the equator (in this case it was in the Southern hemisphere) and poured water into it, the water swirled in one direction. Then he moved the bucket and sink six feet into the Northern Hemisphere, repoured the water and it swirled in the other direction. Finally, he positioned the sink and bucket directly on the equator and the water went straight down. The next experiment we did was balancing an egg on a nail head. You can do that on the equator you know. (I did not know.) My niece Drea was the only one with the steady hands to do it. We were all very proud.

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Finally, the guide asked us to walk heel to toe along the red line. None of us could go more than three steps. Apparently that is because when you are in the Northern or Southern hemisphere and you walk like that, you only get pulled in one direction so you can self-correct. One the equator you are being pulled very gently in both directions, enough so that your balance is quite compromised. Science!

There you go, the end of my trip. It was scary and exciting and thrilling and wonderful and I’m glad I went. If you wish to do the same trip, here is the company I went with.

https://www.oattravel.com/trips/small-ship-adventures/south-america/machu-picchu-and-the-galapagos/2016?icid=global:ouradventures:southamerica:mpg2016

South America 2015, Part 13.

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

The rest of the Galapagos! Predominantly sea-dwellers! But first, other stuff.

Our guide Luis removing a bee stinger from a fellow traveler’s arm. Her arm was swelling up and Luis calmly plucked a giant thorn off of a bush and picked out the stinger. Then he pulled a different leaf off of a different bush and squeezed the leaf contents on the wound. By that night the swelling was gone and the little booboo was almost completely healed. It was amazing.

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A photo of the big yacht we were on during our time in the Galapagos.

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The trail left by a marine iguana on his way to the ocean.

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Some dead marine iguanas. As tempted as I was I did not take home their skin or bones. You need to respect the nature there and I did even though it was a struggle.

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A stunning cliffside. Many of the animals we saw were clinging or perching on this cliffside.

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A small grotto where pirates would hide their booze and other plunderings.

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A rock formation that looks like an elephant’s head.

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A plant making an effort to grow in the lava field. Nature is so great that way, always trying to shove life into inhospitable places.

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Remember when planes had the “no smoking” light-up sign. I noticed that there is a new message in its place. The times, they are a-changin’. Not that that’s a bad thing, just a thing.

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Okay, back to the animals I encountered. We came across a small island that that had masked boobies on a tiny blob of an island in the middle of the sea. There were other birds hanging out on Wee Blob Island but they all flew away in a panic as soon as a hawk landed. The boobies went nowhere, I guess because they were so much larger than the hawk. He was no threat to them. My niece Drea got some terrific shots of the boobies and the hawk existing in each others’ spaces.

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Frigatebirds! You’ve seen pictures of the male frigatebird a bunch of times. It’s got a big red air sack on its chest that it puffs up to attract the ladeez. I also learned that the frigatebird doesn’t really hunt for its food, it hassles other seabirds until they barf up the fish they just caught and the frigatebird eats that. Frigatebirds are douches.

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A shark! I saw several sharks on this trip but they were while I was snorkeling so I couldn’t take pictures of them. The only one I could get a photo of was this guy. They were all small white-tipped reef sharks. Very cool.

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Booby sex! That sounds faaaaaar more interesting than you would think. We went to a plateau where blue-footed boobies were dancing and mating. They didn’t seem to mind that we were there. (Don’t tell the boobies I said this, but I don’t think they are super-bright.)

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Crabs! That are not Sally Lightfoot crabs! We saw a hermit crab who I loved.

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And some ghost crabs who I also loved. I love crabs, I really do. I love how delicately they eat and how they scuttle and their weird eyestalks that look like exclamation points. They are great.

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Swallow-tailes gulls! They are like the tuxedo seagull to our jeans-and-a-tshirt-seagulls we have back here. I thought they looked beautiful. Luis told us that they are the only nocturnal seagull.

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Galapagos fur sea lions! You may think I am repeating myself, but these guys are different from regular fur sea lions. They are smaller and they have a shorter, pointier snoot. They were almost hunted to extinction because they are so so soft and furry, but thankfully they are coming back. They still don’t like people, so they basked far away from us instead of coming up close and being all inquisitive like the fur sea lion.

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An oyster-catcher! We saw one on a beach. They look like they have not slept in quite some time.

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And the brown noddy! It’s a small, rather plain bird, but I liked it. It had subtle color changes that the camera couldn’t seem to catch.

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Those are all my Galapagos pictures. Here are three to close out this truly magical experience.

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Next entry: the last few days in Ecuador and then… done.

South America 2015, Part 12.

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Sea and sea-adjacent creatures! But let us begin with a random selection of Galapagos pics.

A drink consisting of coconut water in said coconut with rum in it. You would think it would be delightful. You would be wrong. It tastes like something a doctor would make you drink before a procedure so your liver will glow or something. No delicioso. Unpleasant and medicinal. Take a pass on it.

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The sign in the airport bathroom. Short version: the toilet water is recycled so it’s a weird color but that’s totally normal.

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Our phenomenal guide Luis with a ginormous cricket on him.

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He wore the equivalent of a balaclava while we were traveling around because he is very concerned about sun damage. We looked like hostages being taken around by a terrorist. See for yourself: here’s a picture of us in front of one of those “Yorkshire pudding” islands I mentioned.

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Okay, sea creatures. First, one of my favorite creatures, one I was very excited to see, the Sally Lightfoot crab. Another name for them is “abuete negro” which I originally thought meant “black grandma” (I do not know Spanish) but when I looked up the definition of “abuete” I got a website that asked me what it meant to abide in Christ so I gave up. Sally Lightfoot crabs are vibrantly colored and I took about 700 pictures of them. I am a bit obsessed. Here’s what the famous author John Steinbeck had to say about them (from Wikipedia):

Many people have spoken at length of the Sally Lightfoots. In fact, everyone who has seen them has been delighted with them. The very name they are called by reflects the delight of the name. These little crabs, with brilliant cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes, They have remarkable eyes and an extremely fast reaction time. In spite of the fact that they swarm on the rocks at the Cape [San Lucas], and to a less degree inside the Gulf [of California], they are exceedingly hard to catch. They seem to be able to run in any of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter. They escape the long-handled net, anticipating from what direction it is coming. If you walk slowly, they move slowly ahead of you in droves. If you hurry, they hurry. When you plunge at them, they seem to disappear in a puff of blue smoke—at any rate, they disappear. It is impossible to creep up on them. They are very beautiful, with clear brilliant colors, red and blues and warm browns.

Man reacts peculiarly but consistently in his relationship with Sally Lightfoot. His tendency eventually is to scream curses, to hurl himself at them, and to come up foaming with rage and bruised all over his chest. Thus, Tiny, leaping forward, slipped and fell and hurt his arm. He never forgot nor forgave his enemy. From then on he attacked Lightfoots by every foul means he could contrive and a training in Monterey street fighting has equipped him well for this kind of battle). He hurled rocks at them; he smashed at them with boards; and he even considered poisoning them. Eventually we did catch a few Sallys, but we think they were the halt and the blind, the simpletons of their species. With reasonably well-balanced and non-neurotic Lightfoots we stood no chance.

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Look! Little brown youngins!

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We got to witness the congress of two crabs. They approached either other and very slowly the female slid upside-down under the male where they hung out for a while. I have to say I may be pushing anthropomorphic qualities onto this but it totally looked like the female didn’t want to go through with it and the male was pressing down hard on her shoulders like, “Shhh, you’ll like it, get down there, don’t be a prude.” I was considering pulling the female out from under him and then chastising him (“No means no, Crab!”) but I decided not to meddle in the affairs of the Grapsus grapsus.

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Sea birds! Specifically pelicans and boobies. I learned that they plow into the surface of the water at crazy speeds because they dive-bomb into it. They have a gasket around their eyeballs to prevent damage from this intense impact and when those gaskets eventually fail, the bird goes blind and dies of starvation. Because Mother Nature is a mean beeyotch in case you had forgotten (see above crab rape).

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One of our first stops was a small blob of lava where a school of sardines had swum by so everybody was hanging out there. By everybody, I mean egrets, cranes, blue-footed boobies, pelicans, penguins and fur sea lions. It was amazing.

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Another place all the sea creatures were hanging out was at the small fish market on the main island. This poor woman was trying to run a business and she has this big furry sea lion begging like a dog and a group of giant demonic-looking pelicans watching her every move. Other sea lions hung out nearby but took the opportunity to nap at the feet of other tourists.

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Fur sea lions! They swam around us all over the place. They are actually light blonde but look dark brown when they are wet. You can tell how long they’ve been sitting on the beach sunbathing by how much of them is blonde. They are charming but judgmental. I was snorkeling at one point and a fur sea lion swum up to me, looked at me, made a gesture like, “Nah,” and swam away. I was like, “Hey, you don’t know me, I have many redeeming qualities if only you’d get to know me nevemind you’re gone.”

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A penguin parent guarding his penguin baby. It might help to know the penguins are a foot tall. They are super-wee and precious.

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Next entry: the end of my trip to the Galapagos.

South America 2015, Part 11.

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

More awesome beasties from the Galapagos! But first, plants!

In keeping with the weird and rough landscape, the flora is also weird and rough.

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For example, this hibiscus-type flower with stabby leaves.

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Hairy finger trees.

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Chestnuts maybe. Or 11th century maces. I have no idea.

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A shrub made entirely of pain.

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There are prickly pear cactuses everywhere. There was one growing in the middle of street.

I guess they drive around it.

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When the cactus doesn’t have any thorns it doesn’t look too good.

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However they look terrible with their thorns and whatever that crust is so it’s a bit of a lose-lose for these cactii.

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Finches! I know they are important and they have different beaks and that shows they make the natural selections, but to me they just look miffed and surly.

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Here’s a great picture my niece took of a plump yellow bird in the foreground with finches in the background.

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We visited a tortoisium (I seriously doubt that is its real name, I came up with that). Since humans introduced rats onto the islands the tortoise eggs are at risk of being eaten, so the eggs of the various tortoii are rescued and brought here to hatch. The tortoisium was created to prevent the same fate as Lonesome George. Lonesome George was the last of his kind and could not mate with any other type of tortoise so when he died a few years back it was a sad day. His body was shipped to the Museum of Natural History in New York where he will be mounted and put on display some time in the near future.We visited where he had lived.

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When the wee toi-tois reach the size of a lunchbox they are returned to their respective islands because once they get that big they have no predators. We saw many ones almost lunchbox-sized. They looked like little old grumples.

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You can appreciate how different the types of tortoises are. There are the very round ones I saw shortly after I arrived, but there are also the saddleback ones. Their shells are flatter and they have a large lip at the front.

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Sometimes you just gotta lay with all your limbs sticking straight out.

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“Uhhh, you lookin’ at something there, Bud? You wanna start something?”

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But the best thing we saw, possibly the best thing from the whole island experience, was meeting Donatello. When we were looking at a model of a tortoise egg (fun fact: you should not rotate tortoise eggs the way you would with chicken eggs, so when they are found in their little burrows information is written on the top of the egg and that always faces up) when I asked if there were any brand new baby tortoises we could meet. The keeper said there was one, born a month ago named Donatello. We were not allowed to touch him because we might give him mainland germs but we cooed over his tiny angry cuteness. So tiny. So angry.

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In keeping with the theme of animals who look disinterested and consumed with ennui, land iguanas!

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And finally for today, flamingos! Yep, they’re there. Here are some flamingos. The brown pointy things in the foreground are foraging ducks’ butts.

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Here’s another one.

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And another one. They were sparse but all over the place if that makes sense.

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Next entry: all the sea creatures. Crabs, birds, birds who eat crabs, and penguins.

South America 2015, Part 10.

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

 

More Galapagos! First, a cartoon I found that seemed pertinent:

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Now, before we delve into the Galapagos pics let me tell you a tale about the roughness of the ocean. I mentioned before that it wasn’t just choppy, it was insane. And I was on epic amounts of seasickness meds so at no point did I get sick. I did, however, bruise myself repeatedly getting thrown around our room. I thought it was cute that there was handicapped railings on every single wall but I grew to depend on them. As soon as we boarded I went to the room and to drop off the luggage. I decided to check out the latrine and as I was crouching to sit down the boat lurched violently and I was hurled face-first into the fiberglass shower wall like a cartoon character. So my fellow travelers and I learned quickly to plan movements when crossing the open plains of the main deck, for example. You would see people standing there holding on to the railing with that expression that Olympic athletes have before they push off on their bobsleds. They would breathe deeply and, when the moment was right, sprint quickly to their destination and grab on to something and hold on. It was living in an obstacle course. We were nowhere near lights so after dinner this elderly Norwegian gentleman named G and I liked to go up to the topmost deck and look at the sky in the hopes of seeing a falling star. (We did on the last night at sea. Very happy.) That means we would be up there when the anchor would get pulled up and we would start our nightly travels. The third night the captain miscalculated and we ended up getting caught in two currents battling it out. Not only was the boat swinging side to side but also front to back. G and I were just pleasantly sitting there when the boat tipped a bit too far and two legs of my lawn chair came off the ground. I grabbed G’s arm in time for the boat to go in the complete opposite direction and both of us to topple to the deck in a heap. I don’t know the last time you had a tall lumberjack of a man completely made of elbows and knees fall on top of you, but it is not the awesome sexy time you might think. My camera skittered away from me like a demon robot spider and G crawled over to grab it right before it fell overboard. You can imagine how often this top deck gets cleaned so we were both covered in grease and layers of seabird crap and who knows what else. I ended up crawling over to the stairwell where The Moomins magically appeared, wide-eyed and panicky, convinced I had been washed away. We struggled back to our room where I went into the bathroom, put the lid down on the toilet and sat down unmoving. The Moomins was like, “You’re covered in disgusting grime. Wash off all of that, get undressed and go to bed.” And I calmly said, “No.” The Moomins was confused. “Seriously, wash off the dirt all over you, take off those filthy clothes and go to bed. ” And responded with a peaceful, “No.” I realized later that I was freaking out but very peacefully if you can understand that. I figured I was going to die and I would like to sit quietly in this nice cool room and not move any part of myself ever again ever. That’s it. I sit in this bathroom now. This is my life. The Moomins gave up and went to bed and eventually I found the inner fortitude to wash my forearms (the part of me that bore the brunt of the deck-grot), get undressed and go to bed. The next morning we met at breakfast where Luis our guide told us he was very sorry for the previous night. I asked him to be honest with me and tell me how bad it really was. He said on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being placid and 10 capsizing, we were at an 8. So if you think I’m exaggerating, I am not. People were thrown out of bed. It was real. The only benefit of this was at the end of the week when we flew on a small plane that needed to land in the Andes and there was excessive turbulence and we missed the runway and had to fly around and try again, normally I would be very unhappy and stressed out by this.  I was like, “Ehhh whatever. I almost joined the cast of Pirates of the Caribbean, this is nothing.”

Okay, pictures! Here we go.

Lava lizards. They’re everywhere. The males are avocado green. The females have a red face.

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One of the things I did not realize was the variety of land in the Galapagos. The islands really differ. Some islands are brown sand that has been carved by the wind.

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Some have red crumbly soil.

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There were different rock islands.

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It was fascinating. The islands I was most excited to see were the ones with lava. I was so psyched to walk on fields of lumpy rippled stone.

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That’s not the only type of lava though. There are the islands where the lava hit the ocean water and the ocean water bubbled and boiled and lava hardened and what you’re left with is razor-sharp lava blades. We went there too. I have never been so cautious while walking around in my life. I looked like the Pink Panther. It was scary. The white stuff you’re seeing is not bird poop. It’s a special kind of lichen that only grows on this evil scary lava.

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Peppered between the lava blades were groups of marine iguanas. They look EXACTLY like tiny Godzillas. They swim extremely well. On land it’s hard to tell if they’re dead or alive. They don’t really do anything. Their day seems to consist of predominantly laying around, unmoving and expressionless.

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The lava lizards are so common, they are like the mosquitoes of the islands. No one seems to notice them.

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Here is a fur sea lion sleeping nearby.

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With a lava lizard on it.

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Picture of above fur sea lion, a marine iguana and the terrifying lava blades. It’s a complete picture.

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I loved this picture. It makes me think of a gang from West Side Story.

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And this is Luis explaining to us about the marine iguanas who are laying in a big lump on in front of him.

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Here’s a field where, based on that sign, they come to lay their eggs.

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Here are a bunch of marine lizards eating algae off of a boat dock.

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And here they are lying in the middle of a walkway. I have been assured these guys are alive. I am still undecided.

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Coming up next: more beasties.

South America 2015, Part 9.

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

Before we get to the Galapagos, a few Quito photos to whet the appetite.

When people first arrived in Quito there was lots of room for you to build your dream castle so people did. And when the city sprung up the castles were nice, so modern buildings were simply built around them. There are castles all over the place.

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Some of them were particularly eye-catching (code for “hideous”).

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We went to an artsy street with galleries and cafes. Since everything is on a hill, within one cafe you can see many different levels. I thought this picture of an elderly couple have tea was sweet.

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Heck, speaking of sweet, we passed an apiary which displayed a paper model of a bee. Hi Miss Bee!

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The coolest establishment we visited on this street was a master chocolatier. Most of our chocolate comes from Africa and goes into Hersheys and Mars but the finest chocolate is grown in Ecuador.

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We learned about the whole process in a presentation that contained some of the best Engrish I’ve encountered outside of Japan.

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Okay, GALAPAGOS! I went to where Darwin looked at some finches and figured out… something science-y! (I used to think it was evolution but I recently learned it was actually natural selection.) The Galapagos Islands were formed about five million years ago from volcanoes. Considering the earth is about four billion years old, the islands are pretty fresh. Here, a helpful diagram:

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So in the history of the planet we live on, not very long. And it shows. Every time I walked on an island I thought, “Should I come back later? You know, when it’s done developing? I can come back later.” If you squinted the pelicans looked like pterodactyls. It was raw. I would find myself singing the theme song from Jurassic Park from time to time.

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Here’s an important thing for you to know: at no point on this trip did I touch any animals. Not one. Not a single beastie. I could have touched the crap out of fur sea lions and tortoises and possibly some fish but I didn’t. I would like to be commended for my self-control.

We took two flights to get from Quito to the islands. 97% of the Galapagos are natural reserves but there is an airport and people do live there, about 30,000 people. Because protecting the ecosystem is extremely important the amount of paperwork we had to fill out before we got there was redonk.

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Shortly after we landed I walked to baggage claim only to see an airport employee with a disinterested expression on his face carrying two very large land iguanas out of the building so he could release them into the wild. Our Galapagos guide Luis said, “The iguanas probably come into the airport all the time.” As you can imagine I have a new career goal and that is to be an iguana herder at the Galapagos Airport. Luis told us he was going to take us to a cool experience on the same island as the airport and then we would head to the boat that would be our home for the next five days. We drove for a while in a bus which had the second-best Engrish of the journey.

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Eventually we got to a farm where we put on knee-high galoshes and walked into a grassy area. And that’s when we saw these guys.

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If you’d like you can imagine these are videos. Because these guys, not so much with the moving. It’s almost as if they know their long long lives will be all about eating bland bland grass for 150 years. It’s impressive how large they get. All these fellers were varying ages but one of them was quite old and about 750 pounds. We got two watch two males get in a fight. Let me clarify, a tortoise fight is not like a normal fight. Here’s the way it goes down: a gigantic male tortoise ever so slowly lumbers into the space of another gigantic male tortoise. There is now tension between the two of them so they open their mouths and extend their necks as far as they can. The one with the longest neck wins and the lose saunters away. Very intense fight. My niece Drea got some great pics.

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This guy was so cute. He was scared of all these people so close to him so he pulled his head into his shell. He was hiding. Awwww.

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I got really excited about this picture – a Darwin Finch perched on a Galapagos Tortoise.

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The tortoise did not share my excitement.

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Something I had no idea about when I got to the Galapagos: each island has its own type of tortoise and they cannot interbreed. So when an island’s specific tortoise is wiped out, that’s the end of that sub-breed, they’re extinct now. That’s what happened to Lonesome George. More about him later.

A bit more information about the Galapagos themselves. The Galapagos is an archipelago of islands, about 13 big islands and then some small ones and finally ones I called “Yorkshire Puddings” (because they looked like Yorkshire puddings) which were a small outcrop of lava with a bird and a tree and that’s it. It covers about 600 square miles so the schedule was visit land during the day using an inflatable raft called a panga, return to big yacht thing at night and then spend the night traveling to the next island. We would travel six or seven hours because the islands are very spread out. If I had to say one thing about the area is I could not believe the color of the water. These are untouched photos. It really looks like this.

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Doesn’t it look lovely and smooth sailing? LIES. ALL LIES. At the time of year that I went down there the Humboldt Current is slamming through the area and to say the water is choppy is the understatement of the century. I took some video of the panga when we dropped anchor in a harbor. Again, this is in a harbor. Imagine what it was like in the open sea.

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I get motion sickness pretty easily so armed with that knowledge I brought every possible drug and pill and potion to alleviate the symptoms on this trip. I ended up using them all at the same time. I had the patch on my neck, I was swallowing six Dramamine a day, I wore Sea-Bands and to top it off I would occasionally pop a Klonopin to dull the anxiety. If you’re wondering about side effects, I had two. I appeared completely hammered drunk for the whole five days (“Yaaaaaayyyy! Pelicans! Zzzzzzzzzz.”) and I swelled up like a water balloon to the point where I could not make a fist. Totally worth it. Didn’t barf once. Went on every excursion. Total team player. Thank you, Modern Medicine!

Next entry: Some of the islands themselves.

South America 2015, Part 8.

Monday, October 26th, 2015

Sorry about the extreme time between posts. I am attempting to get my kitchen done by Thanksgiving (probably not going to happen but a girl can dream) and it’s the busiest season of the year in advertising so I’ve done about three weeks of work in two weeks. I’m so exhausted I did the creepiest thing ever this past Saturday night. I asked Cricket if when I came over to his house we could have a fire in his fireplace. He obliged, put some logs in there and got a fire going. I proceeded to get two grocery bags filled to the brim with his recyclable mail, sit directly in front of the fireplace on the floor and burn each piece of mail individually over the next THREE HOURS while saying nothing. I was simply decompressing but I imagine it looked like I was hiding the evidence of the murder I had recently committed. Cricket fell asleep on the couch watching me do this stellar performance art and when he woke up he said, “Okay, well, I’m going hiking tomorrow so I’m going to bed. When you’re done doing whatever it is you’re doing let yourself out through the back door. Night night.” About twenty minutes later (that would be 1:30 in the morning) after I had reduced all Cricket’s recyclables to ash I quietly left. My point is that I’m very busy and very stressed and with the first opportunity I got in the last few weeks to relax I decided not to go to a movie or catch up with a friend but to become a character in a Korean horror film. So please cut me some slack. Okay. Back to South America.

Quito! It’s pronounced Kee-toe, not Kwee-toe. It’s a big city, I think about 34 miles long, nestled in a long valley between a whole bunch of mountains.

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And it’s got a massive basilica. More on that in a bit. But as you can see it makes an excellent landmark.

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Another great landmark is the angel made of aluminum perched on one of the mountains. It was a gift from the French. One thing you can say about the French – they love to give massive metal statues to other nations.

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Quito has a few major town squares which are wonderful. Often bands are playing and there are all kinds of food vendors. One food I saw being peddled by quite a few women looked like a pile of frosting in a Tupperware. I found out later that it was called espumilla (which means “foam”) and it’s a meringue of sorts made with guava and egg whites. I did not feel comfortable buying a bunch of uncooked egg from a street vendor who had been carrying it around all day in the bright sunlight but I won’t say I wasn’t tempted.

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And there’s a ton of other snacks one could enjoy. And toilet paper (in case you ate the raw egg whites).

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Back to the town squares.

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Almost all of them have a church in them and we visited two. The first one, the Church of San Francisco, had a pretty nice exterior and even though we weren’t supposed to take pictures inside I surreptitiously snapped a few pics because the ceiling had just been redone due to a fire and the amount of gold was crazy. These are not great pics. It was so shiny and reflective my poor lil camera didn’t have a clue how to calibrate itself but at least you get a vague idea.

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I thought that was as fancy as it got, church-wise. I was incorrect. This is the Church of the Jesuits. It’s down the street.

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Look at the level of detail. And the awesome fish that flank the doorway.

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I didn’t take any pictures inside because I had to scrape my mouth off the floor, but I found some other people’s pictures. And none of them do it justice. It was overwhelmingly amazing. Like being inside a jewel box.

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Interestingly, we were there on a Saturday and every Saturday the President of Ecuador comes out on his balcony and makes a speech and we ended up outside his house about a half-an-hour before speech time. Our guide for the day asked us if we’d like to watch the speech and we were like, sure, we’re here, let’s see this all go down. The speech itself was whatevs but the fancy military men on equally fancy horses were delightful. One horse had a checkerboard shaved into its rump. I liked that a lot.

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We ended up going to a very posh hotel for lunch were we drank a local drink, basically a tisane of sorts made up of a variety of flavorful herbs and reb quinoa. The red quinoa both imparts a pretty color and makes the drink have protein. Protein water!

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Now the Basilica. The Basilica, compared to the gold churches, was pretty low-key. It’s a big ole cathedral-type building and the inside is very high and lofty and gray stone except for the small chapel off to the side which is polychrome, meaning the stone was painted.

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The part of the Basilica that makes it awesome is that all the gargoyles are indigenous animals from Ecuador! How many pictures did I take of them? All the pictures. There were iguanas and turtles:

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And monkeys and pumas and what I thought were giant crab claws from a distance but when I got closer I realized were anteaters:

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Armadillos and crocodiles.

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On the exterior of the painted chapel (which I imagine was built later because it’s made out of a different type of stone) there are regular gargoyles.

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After walking around the Basilica several times, I noticed that you could go beneath into the catacombs. Hooray, catacombs! Those were amazing. It seems like it was  filled predominantly in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and the design elements on the fronts of the tombs reflect the aesthetic of the time.

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Coming up next: The Galapagos. Get pumped because lava and beasties a-comin.’

South America 2015, Part 7.

Saturday, October 10th, 2015

More Peru! But first, a few lone pics.

Llamas don’t poop all over the everything. They pick an area and go there every time. It’s kind of awesome, they toilet-train themselves. In fact, if you put them in a new enclosure and you want them to go in the far right corner, you put llama excrement and tinkle in that corner and they will think a previous llama deemed that the lavatory and make that their permanent spot.

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In this photo there is pumpkin ice cream and in the background there is fava beans. Most meals had a small plate of beans as an appetizer. Lotta beans in Peru. Beans and potatoes and corn, oh my.

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Okay, silver! It’s a chemical element we wear as shiny awesome decoration. And it is common in Peru. The pre-Inca and the Inca loved anything reflective because the sun god was extremely important to them, so gold and silver were big. Interestingly, when the Spaniards got there they had mirrors and the Incas traded gold and silver for the mirrors because they were far more reflective. We might think the Incas were duped but to them it was an excellent trade. Mirrors were more valuable to the Inca and the Spaniards coveted gold, so everyone won in that exchange. We went to a silver processing and jewelry making place so we could see the whole process.

The first thing I noticed when I got there was the insane-looking flower in the courtyard. I know it looks fake. It is not, I checked.

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First Henry showed us what the rock that contains the silver looks like. Hint: pretty much like a rock.

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What they used to do before they had fancy machinery was grind the rock into a powder in a bowl.

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And then they would put it in a jar with water and shake the jar. The silver was heavier than the matrix so the silver would sink to the bottom and the other stuff would stay at the top. That’s how they would separate the silver from the unwanted dirt.

To make wire a slender bar of silver is put through a press with progressively smaller openings.

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At this studio they do a great deal of inlay as well, so we were shown the different kinds of stone found in Peru. I also learned that the mother of pearl pieces you see don’t use the inside portion. They grind away the brown exterior and use that side. I don’t know why, maybe it’s more even-toned but I was fascinating to see.

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We had the opportunity to meet a priest and watch him do a typical ceremony. Not a Christian priest. I imagine in Africa he would be called a witch doctor. Henry said that the old religion worked in harmony with the new religion and most people incorporated both in their lives. I had no idea what to expect but it was great to see a ceremony that had been performed for thousands of years.

First, the priest laid out a piece of fabric with a piece of wax paper like you would find at the butcher on top of it. He then sprinkled about twenty different things on this wax paper representing different aspects of life. I loved how he used modern items along with ancient ones. For example, he put in alphabet soup noodles to represent all our names and sequins to be the moon and the stars. Candy for sweetness, llama fat for energy and connection to the gods, seashells for the ocean. There were garbanzo beans and red kidney beans in there as well.

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We were each given three coca leaves and told to wish on them and they were also added. The priest then wrapped up the whole package with string and each one of us stood in front of him while he briskly rubbed the package on us and chanted incantations. We then were told to puff three quick breaths on the package to lock in our identity and our wishes. When everyone had done it the priest took the package outside, removed his piece of cloth and burned the package, sending our messages up to the gods in the sky. It felt quite cathartic.

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The llama hanging out nearby was underwhelmed.

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Post-priest-experience we were driving and Henry told us we were going to pull over. There were groups of people hanging out in what appeared to be abandoned fields. Henry told us something most interesting – at the end of the planting season, the farmers till the soil and big clumps of natural brick are revealed. The city-dwellers come out and use this chunks to build ovens that they have cookouts in. The farmers encourage the people to do that, to hang out in their fields all day because they don’t hurt anything and often they leave ash from their bbqs which acts as a fertilizer. I couldn’t believe it, this mutual respect. I don’t see this flying in the U.S. There would be all kinds of trespassing drama. It was great to see all these families hanging out, playing soccer and talking. I know it’s hokey-sounding, but it seems like a simpler way of life in Peru.

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On our last day in Peru we got to finally explore the cathedrals and churches of Cusco. I love me some CHARCH. And there were so many churches. Quick recap on the town square. On left: Cathedral. On right: another church. Little building on the far right: older church. Down the street: three more churches. I was thrilled.

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I wasn’t allowed to take pictures in any of the places of worship and I decided to be tactful and respect their laws so no inside pics. But I can describe them. They is the main altar in the front, but along both sides there are private chapels devoted to one saint or another. They are, to be honest, garish. So much shiny gold and silver. Lots and lots of statues. Complex woven fabrics. Everything clashes. Some people might be overwhelmed but I liked it. The churches wanted all different looks so they went for it. Good for them.

Outside the cathedral were a group of boys performing a dance that represented their heritage as hunters. One kid’s dog didn’t want to leave so he stood by his little man throughout the performance.

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Henry wanted us to visit a church with a cool history, the Church of St. Domingo right next to where he grew up. The Spaniards, when they arrived, asked where all the holy sites of the Incas were and promptly build Catholic buildings on top of them. It’s ruthless but an excellent way to eliminate any other religions from being practiced. You can see the ruins at the base in this exterior shot.

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Until the 1950s if you went inside there was no inkling of what had been there. Everything was coated in plaster and painted with Baroque murals. But sometime in the 1950s there was an earthquake and much of the plaster cracked off. Lo and behold, a whole Inca structure was revealed.

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(BTW, I wasn’t breaking any rules and being disrespectful by taking photos. This is all outside in the courtyard.)

It turns out this was a massive complex where the stars were studied. The archaeologists found stones with strange carvings, tubes and divots, and then they found one intact window. They deduced that at certain times of the year certain stars could be seen through the holes and lined up with the divots and that was how the Incas knew when the different seasons started and ended. Very cool. Here are the stones neatly lined up in a row.

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Remember they didn’t have any metal tools, only other pieces of granite and hematite to rub against the stone and wear it down. It’s really impressive what they accomplished.

Here is the semi-intact window.

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And here is the courtyard that surrounds all of this, clearly built by the Spanish.

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At the same time as the earthquake hit, the massive backyard behind the church was revealed in full as well. There are all kinds of star-mapping paths on it as well. I got a few decent photos even though the sun was setting and it was getting dark.

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Three things from Cusco before we head out to the Galapagos: I liked how the streetlights had little ornamental Inca designs on them.

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And instead of pay phones, you look for women wearing green vests. They have cell phones and you can make calls on them and pay by the minute.

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Here’s a great shot of Cusco from the place where I ate the pumpkin ice cream.

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The next day we left for Equador to begin the next chapter of this neato journey. The part I was most excited about was coming up – the Galapagos. Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about nature and beasties, so I was super-psyched.

South America 2015, Part 6.

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

More Machu Picchu pics! Not taken by me whatsoever. I’ll explain. After Day 1 at the site, we were given the option of getting up the next morning at 4:30, lining up for an hour or two at the entrance to the village, and going on one of two long hikes around the area. I opted to stay in the room and meet everyone at lunch. My niece Drea, however, due to her ability to walk very quickly, managed to do both hikes and took pictures. These are her pictures. My pictures would have been of my pillow. Because I was sleeping.

Drea hiked this far away from the place we had been the day before on the first hike. After looking at this picture I feel I made the right decision.

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The other hike was to go see the Incan Bridge. I don’t know what your preconceived notion of a bridge is, but this is so creepy-scary.

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Then they returned to the town we were staying in for lunch and we got ready to head out.

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But not before seeing another hairless dog:

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And visiting the local flea market.

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We headed out in the bus and got to visit a local breadmaker.

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He is the fourth generation in his family to be a breadmaker and work at this bakery (which his grandfather built). There is a fifteen-foot-in-diameter domed oven fueled by eucalyptus wood and this man slides the loaves into the oven using a super-long pizza paddle, also made from eucalyptus wood. People are encouraged to use eucalyptus wood for anything and everything because it’s an invasive species from Australia and it uses up a lot of the ground water, preventing indigenous species from thriving.

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The loaves he is holding? They have ducks on them because that’s his family’s crest. They were soooooo yummers. He pulled them fresh out of the oven and they were warm and fluffy and had a thin crust on top of crystallized suger and anise. Normally I’m not on Team Black Licorice but for some reason I could not stop stuffing what amounted to probably half a loaf of this bread into my mouth. So. Good.

The most interesting thing I saw at the bakery was how he gauged the heat of the oven. On top of the oven is a water tank. Off to the side is a rudimentary faucet that the water tank flows into. This breadmaker turns the faucet on and the quantity of steam that comes out tells him how hot the oven is. Amazing.

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He also let us try another bread that had a large air pocket at the top. I think that bread is more about how cool that looks versus how good it tastes. I mean, it was fine but after the magic of Duck Anise Bread all others pale in comparison.

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After snorfing ourselves into a bread coma we visited Tipon. Tipon is another terraced ruin but this one is different because this is where they did experiments on their crops, grafting and the like. There are 3,800 types of potatoes in Peru, as well as quinoa and corn and tons of other foods, and this is where they made them less bitter or hardier. The part of Tipon that is most impressive is the canals built to channel the water all around the three-sided amphitheater space.

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Look at how convoluted that is. These are people who did not have a written language, but they figured out the complex engineering needed to pull this off. That is so impressive. The Inca even figured out that if they made the vertical canals thinner on the outer edge it would reduce splashing at the bottom which would reduce waste. That’s pretty ingenious.

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We also visited another site called Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “Sexy Woman,” really). We walked through a grove of a typical Peruvian tree. I avoids growing lichen by have bark that resembles filo dough pastry.

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The reason we were visiting this particular site was the size of the stones the Inca had dragged to this place. They’re the biggest at any site. No one knows how they got them here. This is Drea modelling to show scale.

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It’s laid out in a zigzag formation to resemble lightning, something the Incas considered sacred.

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And the wind at the top of this hill never stops blowing ever. Therefore there’s some serious erosion on some of these stones.

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There were two things I really liked seeing at Sacsayhuaman: one was the rock that looked like it had been pushed through a Play-Doh press (because it was once lava that was squoozed out onto this hilltop):

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And the other was the llama waiting outside the gates. Peruvian people will dress up in local costume and pose for pictures outside various sites and I never felt compelled to take pictures with them. Until this llama came into my life. It was the most glamorous llama I had ever seen. Look at those lashes. It is the Marilyn Monroe of llamas.

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If I could have bought that llama and brought it home, I would have. My goodness. Apparently The Moomins is holding a lamb in some of these pictures but I can’t see them because my vision is consumed by the majestic llama. I heart this llama. I heart it bad.

We ended the day walking through a natural labyrinth where sacrifices were made.

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We know that the Incas did not carve out the altar area because the rivulets of dried sediment on the walls (they would be stalactites if they were drippier) are over 10,000 years old which is older than the Incas.

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They did carve out the altar (in the shape of the Inca cross) and that big square space you see in the back, that was lined with silver or gold to reflect the light onto the altar itself because it was kind of dark down there.

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Coming up: A last day in Cusco and then off to Ecuador.