Archive for March, 2009

The Galapagos Islands

March 13, 2009

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We’re still working on the text but wanted to get this blog posted while we had somewhat fast internet here in Quito.

We arrived on San Christbol Island on a muggy Sunday afternoon and climbed into a truck taxi for our 45-minute drive to Jatan Sacha, one of several stations in Ecuador devoted to the preservation of endangered species. We came with a commitment to work for a month with the understanding that on weekends we would be free to explore the wonders of the Galapagos Islands. The work proved to be physically demanding. We used machetes for just about everything from clearing trees to weeding the gardens, and worked about 5 ½ hours a day in the heat, high humidity and the bugs for what turned out to be about three to four days a week. (We were lucky to hit a couple holidays during our month stay and usually passed on the Friday nature hikes.) We whacked mora, an invasive blackberry plant, nurtured seedlings, planted endemic trees, helped in the kitchen and roasted organic coffee. But mostly, we enjoyed the islands and its friendly creatures.

First we took a four-day tour of the main islands. On the tour we checked out other islands, Fernandina, Isabela and Santa Cruz. We snorkeled daily as well as took interesting hikes, visited volcanoes and sink holes, giant tortoise breeding grounds and of course, the Charles Darwin Center on Santa Cruz Island. All along the way, we had rich encounters with the wildlife.

The first remarkable animals were the sea lions warming themselves on the beach, sidewalks and boats of our little host village. Then we noticed the bright orange crabs covering the rocks and being bathed by the surf. Then it was the marine iguanas that blended so well with the dark volcanic rocks that we would be startled when their sudden movement blew their cover. There were tiny colorful birds who hopped on our tables of the open air restaurants looking for a quick bite, that never failed to amuse us. The magnificent friggett birds who steal fish from other birds because they lack the necessary oil on their feathers that would allow them to fish for themselves. The males red balloon inflating boldly announcing its availability and drawing attention to its well-appointed nest. And there were other classic Galapagos animals like the boobies, both red and blue, the albatros and the dolphin. There was the rare scarlet-colored flycatcher and a variety of Darwin’s finches, each with its own island home. We were blessed by them all and so many more that we lacked the knowledge to identify or I suspect, to adequately appreciate.

At the water’s edge with fins, snorkel and mask, we held our breath as the sea turtles swam by, the eagle rays drifted below us, the reef sharks calmly drifting around us. Fur seals would come up within inches of our masks and invite us to play with their big brown eyes peering into ours. Satisfied that we intended no harm, we would spin around in the shallow water together in joyful bliss. We were reminded of our many rich encounters with village children and how there didn’t seem to be any barriers between us. Of the many amazing animal encounters, these guys were the best, so easy to personify, so friendly and playful that for a moment, we could forget that we were humans and they were not. We were blessed with another non-dual experience, his one without plant medicine or sitting bench.

We spent an extra 5 days on Santa Cruz so John could scuba dive in the most amazing waters he had ever encountered. Here’s a little about John’s scuba diving experiences:

My first dive in 15 years proved to be the most challenging one ever. The small rock island of Leon Dormido (sleeping lion) just off the shore of San Christobol is notorious for it’s strong and unpredictable currents. There are two gaps in the rock that result in a number of points where the current goes in both directions. Combine this with strong surf, alternating between throwing you up near the surface and driving you into the depths, and you’ve got a pretty tough ride. I didn’t see much wildlife on these two dives. I was too busy fighting back panic and trying to stay alive. It was a powerful time for practice and there were several moments that I came close to checking out of the experience and returning to the comforts of the awaiting boat. But, with focused effort, I was able to shift into observer mode, bring my rapid gasping of air to a more slow and steady pace and watch the panic pass. I was glad that I survived this level of diving and felt confident that the next dives would be less demanding and that I might even find time to look around and not simply suck a tank of air in record time.

The remaining eight dives around Santa Cruz Island were simply amazing, and as I relaxed into the comfort of this surreal environment, I felt a rush of aliveness and connectedness that I can only describe as a spiritual awakening, a reminder of the interrelation of all of creation and the beautiful the dance of life, even given the constant presence of death or perhaps because of it.

There were always large groups of colorful fish, some gathered in tight schools. As a predator fish passed through, the school would scatter for an instant and then re-form, seemingly a bit tighter than a moment before. The colors of the fishes and the coral bright and varied were punctuated with the regular passing of sea turtles and rays. Dolphins jumped across the wake of the boat and sea turtles mated on top of the water. Fur seals dived and swam up close to check us out. The encounters were pure joy. Then there were the high points that divers dream about and, those who are blessed by them, talk about to anyone who will listen. One day it’s a group of 25 white-tipped reef sharks, four to six feet long swimming within a few yards of us. Another dive it’s 30 spotted eagle rays calmly drifting around by us in formation. Then the rush of catching the profiles of large hammerhead sharks appearing from the haze for an instant. Once, six or eight came within 20 feet before they caught sight of our bubbles and darted away. The diving was clearly the highlight of my month in Galapagos. I leave with experiences I will treasure and re-play in my mind any time I feel adrift in this big crazy world. I would diving and snorkeling to anyone with the slightest inclination toward exploring the world beneath the surface.

Here’s a QuickTiime video made from some of our photos. The background music is Cesar playing and singing with the rest of our group talking and singing in the background.

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Treks into Colca Canyon and on the Volcano Misti

March 13, 2009

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The soaring condors mark the beginning of our trip into Colca Canyon near the Peruvian city of Arequipa. We have come here from Cusco to study Spanish and live with a host family for two weeks and enjoy a couple of  nature treks in the area. In Andean mythology the condor represents the spirit world, the puma the earth realm and the serpent, the underworld. The condor, a vulture, is thought to lead the soul of the dead to the spirit world and, therefore, is an important part of Andean mythology.

At Cruz del Condor the wind provided a good draft for the large birds even before the morning sun began to fuel the thermals that will carry them effortlessly into the clouds. We were lucky and saw about eight during our brief stop. From here we headed to the pueblo, Cabanaconde, where our 4-day hike began. Our guide is Angel, and small, quiet man with a good, steady hiking pace and a patient nature.

Most of the photos are obvious, but some deserve a brief comment. Plus filling in some of the details gives me an excuse to share some of what we’re experiencing in South America.

The parasitic insects that you see on the cactus are harvested and used in the production of dyes for clothes and pigments for paints. The huts you see are “lodges” were we spent the nights. Rustic to the point of having dirt floors, they were like Hiltons to us because they meant no need to lug tents, food or cooking equipment. The first and last of the four days of hiking ended in a dip in natural hot springs and on our third day, in a cool spring-fed swimming pool. Not bad for “roughing it backpacking.”

Along with some engaging Europeans, John and I were fortunate to hang out with local children who spend their summer break at the lodges with their working parents. The third night, at what’s called “the oasis,” Manual and Maria invited us to soccer, but our playtime quickly turned into pony rides and roughhousing.

I’m still not sure where the energy came from. I guess the joy and friendliness of the children opened our hearts and the energy flowed from there. I let go of concerns about the steep ascent the next morning, an unbroken 3,000-foot climb back to the canyon’s rim. Angel has told us that we would leave at 6 a.m., hike up and catch a bus at the top around 10 to 10:30 a.m. While studying the zigzag trail the day before during part of our descent, I wondered whether I could do the hike in one day, let alone 4 ½ hours. That night I prayed to the good spirits to guide and open me to their guidance and energy. On the morning of the ascent, Angel offered us the only suggestion he would make during the trek. He said it is better to hike slowly with a steady pace rather than to hike for one-hour spurts followed by rest periods. He advised us to keep our bodies warm, not becoming chilled during stops. I’m sure he’d noticed my whizzing from a head cold, but the advice mainly would help in another way.

At 6 a.m., after a light breakfast, we headed off. The slow, steady pace helped focus my attention. If I were going to get on the other side of this hike in four hours, I would need concentration. Slow and steady I was a turtle who rarely paused, steadying my gaze no more than 10 feet ahead. I had no interest in the where I’d been, views of the oasis, or what lay ahead, the next switchback. My attention was on the trail, the hiking poles (my other appendages) and placing one foot in front of another. I saw that the ascent was more about an approach to life and less about Colca Canyon. The hike asked for a concentrated resting in the present moment. Two and a half hours later, with only a few pauses, Angel and I reached the top, with John only a few minutes ahead. I thanked the good spirits for their help, knowing that something beyond my abilities got me up the canyon wall.

After a stop in the hot springs at Chivay we returned to Arequipa for a brief day of rest preparation for a two-day trek to the top of Misti, one of three volcanoes visible from Arequipa. It is an active volcano that tops off at about 18,000 feet. The hike up Misti would prove to be quite challenging as well but in different ways from Colca – rapidly changing weather, rain, snow, wind and biting cold would the tests there.

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The climb up Misti began with a rough 45-minute jeep ride to the base of the volcano at about 12,000 feet. Our guide had told us not to pack rain gear; it seldom rains on Misti. The cold is reliable, though, and the tour company provided us with parkas, extra leggings and a tent, as it turned out, one in poor condition.

Just as we got on the trail heading to our base camp at 15,000 feet, a cool, heavy mist moved in. We pitched our tent about two hours later only minutes before the sky opened up to deliver a steady pelting of rain. One of the fly zippers, facing the wind, was broken. I was already chilled and doubted our ability to withstand a cold and wet night. Fortunately, John had brought twine and we used it along with my pocket knife to stitch up the fly. We shared our small damp space with all of our gear, and with boots still laced, crawled into our sleeping bags in an attempt to warm ourselves. Later, when the rain stopped, we crawled out (the other zipper was jammed) to find ourselves above the clouds. The sun was setting first over and then beneath them. The views were a definite reward at the end of a challenging day.

The next morning we left camp at 3 a.m. after a quick breakfast and the gathering of our gear. Well before daybreak we were hiking in snow. At that altitude the air was thin and the hiking a slow, one short step in front of the other process. Six hours later, we reached the volcano’s crater. A dribble of smoke rose from the crater’s center as its only sign of life. More interesting were the carefully placed rocks within the crater that marked where the remains of six child sacrifices that had been discovered. It’s estimated the sacrifices took place about 500 years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder, given the difficulty of our hike with poles, good boots and heavy parkas, what faced these children as they hiked this rugged trail for the honor of  residing with the gods.

It was cold at 18,000 feet and when the wind picked up, the guide told us it was too dangerous to continue up to the remaining 300 feet to the summit. An easy descent though fine sandy scree is thwarted by the cold, which has frozen the black sand rock hard. Instead, we are forced to return to the rock and retrace much of our earlier climb up. About six hours later we reach the waiting jeep. We had hiked with only short breaks and no real food for12 hours. John and I were silent during the ride back to Arequipa. To say I was too exhausted to speak isn’t an exaggeration.

In Arequipa we prepared for our flight back to Cusco, where we will have a couple of days before flying out to Quito, Ecuador, and our month on the Galapagos Islands.

Here’s a 5 minute Quicktime video of some of the photos taken on these treks