Tuesday, August 31, 2010

One Thing Teachers Should Know about You:

"I'm really loud. Positive!!! (Lk doctor Phil)"

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Intro Letters

The first assignment I always give my students it to write me a letter about themselves. This is my favorite assignment of the year because they're so hopeful and honest. As usual, some of the things they wrote are ridiculous, some funny, and some heartbreaking. Here's a sampling.

Who are you as a person? As a student? What are your interests? Dislikes?
·         I really hate spiders. I believe they are pointless creatures in life. Their purpose is probably just another source of food for birds or bats or something. I don’t know why they hide in our houses. They have no reason to hang out up on the ceiling staring at you like they’re going to kill you the second you fall asleep. It scares me. [This section is more than she wrote about anything else]
·         I also dislike coffee for 2 reasons. My first reason is that it stunts your growth and I don’t want to have a deep voice and a small body. My second reason is that it has a foul smell.  
·         My interests are boys and learning more about geometry. [Mine too! We’re going to be BFFs]
·         My interest for this school are the IL, camping trip, new people, intercourse, and sports. [Sic, obviously. We call it intersession, but might want to reconsider the name. Might get some kids more interested]
·         I don’t like bugs or knives, for some reason I’m very afraid of them.
·         My current career plan involves being a synthetic microbiologist. [It never ends well when a kid in my class is already smarter than I am.]
·         My name is Y. E. and you should know me already. We met.
·         I love different types of food, Mexican, Chinese and probably a lot more, and I am open to try anything even if it ends with my face in a garbage can! [I will have to talk to this kid before he gets to college about whether to stick to this philosophy]
·         Well honestly as a student I don’t feel so confident. Some times I tend to fool around a lot when I don’t understand the material so people can’t be able to notice. [This is the exact observation I would have made of this kid so far, but I’m surprised he recognizes it so well about himself]
·         I am good at many things… including memorizing irrational numbers.
·         I really don’t like people who act like jerks or also beans because I just don’t like beans.
·         I would describe myself as a uncertain person as a student… My dislikes are when people think their so smart. [This made me want to cry because I’d already pegged this kid as someone who’s been seriously academically wounded]
·         If I was a bear and I was ordered to cut down a tree by an elder it would take me some time to cut down the tree. [?????]
·         I’m very interested in things that look interesting, if it looks fun and like something I would enjoy, IM INTERESTED!

What do you want to know or learn about the world? About yourself?
·         I want to understand the universe and humanity’s place in it. I probably never will, but I’m going to try anyway. This includes neuroscience and astrophysics and quantum physics and string theory and all of the math along the way. [Guess which student this is]
·         What I want to learn about would have to be the past when bows and swords were common items like 17th or 18th century. [Woah]
·         I am really good at figuring out problems related to school or socially, but at times I can’t figure out myself. That and girls! I can never figure them out, I don’t think any guy can in that matter. But I’ll just leave that to the experts. [I am dying to know who this kid thinks “the experts” are]
·         I want to know why I am a bit shy. [So cute]
·         I want to know why I feel dirty like all the time, even after I take a shower. [I don’t even know how to respond to this]
·         I want to learn more about alchemy. I am always studying it in my free time. I also want to know more about feudal Japan. Those are the things I love the most. [Woah]
·         I want to know why do I have to have a big foot. Why not a small or normal foot.

Your goals this year for Geometry
·         My main goal is not just to know everything, but to understand it in a lot of detail so later on in life I will use this knowledge to accomplish a lot. [How do I break it to this kid that knowing geometry is not actually going to help her accomplish anything later in life?]
·         I don’t like to achieve I like to overachieve. [Intense]
·         I would like to learn how geometry will help me when I’m 28. [Has he already figured out why geometry will help him when he’s 27?]

What have you liked in math or felt successful at? What have you not felt successful at?
·         One of the only reasons I do math is because you need to know it when you handle money and I really like having and spending money.
·         My worst experience with math was when I was too worried about my grade and leapt at the opportunity to memorize pi for extra credit… I memorized about 300 digits and lost my sanity in the process. I hated pi for it and when it was time to recite it I was surprised I got past the decimal at all, but I got 180 digits. I now know about 40 and pi and I are friends again. [Guess which kid wrote this]

What you think your biggest challenges will be this year
·         One thing I despise is homework. If homework was a country I would drop a nuclear bomb on it. [Note to self: do not antagonize this kid]
·         I think the biggest challenge for me this year will be trying to pronounce your last name correctly and remembering how to say it every time after I say it correctly.

What you need a teacher to do
·         A teacher would need to respect me as a person and not just look at me as another kid they have to deal with.
·         What I do not like is when a teacher judges me because I only did one mistake and then they think I’m bad because of that mistake.
·         Don’t worry, I can already tell from day 1 that this class is going to be fun! [Little does she know]

Anything else you think I should know
·         Well that’s who I am, now who are you? Ponder that!
·         Oh! But on Tuesdays (which conveniently was today) I have a very important theocratic meeting to attend to every week and leave a certain amount of time for homework, so I’m freaking out cause I just got back and started writing this last paragraph.
·         There are many things you need to know about me and that’s that it’s really tempting for me to write in text form while writing because that’s all I did during the summer text and write in text form.
·         A couple things you should know about me is that I often burst into song, I am obsessive over the color pink and I’m in love with Justin Beiber.

I was already in love with this freshman class before reading their letters--they are by far the most enthusiastic group I've ever taught. Knowing that they love alchemy and swords and have been hurt by teachers (and pi) in the past makes me love them even more.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Back Again for the First Time

First week of school, check. Only 5,000 more to go.

Monday was my fourth first day of school as a teacher (or at least quasi-teacher because I am counting student teaching in that number). The difference this year was that for the first time I was actually returning to the same school instead of starting somewhere new.  Obviously this was better just because of all the challenges of starting a new job. I'm so happy that I don't have to get new keys, deal with not knowing where to find paper, and guess which random first initial/last name combination they picked for my computer accounts (seriously, I can think of at least 5 different ones I've had. Nobody else has these problems).

But what was more exciting was that I actually know kids this year. It was so cute having former students come give me hugs and tell me about their summers. This week lots of them have come to me with help on their math homework because they're too afraid of their new teacher (he's a former Marine--I'm kind of scared of him too). It's a wonder how the haze of time can cloud their memories. "I miss your class!" they tell me, because now they're only able to remember the approximately two fun days we had. They seem to have forgotten about the chaos and significant lack of learning. Except when some of them were helping me give a tour to the new freshmen and Y. followed up every statement I made about rules with, "But you never made us do that." Thanks.

Coming back to the same school as a teacher is just like it is for the students. Freshman year they're all wide-eyed and terrified because they don't know anyone and don't know what's going on. As sophomores they're all excited to see their friends again and finally know enough to at least be able to pretend they know what's going on. I, too, am no longer so wide-eyed and am very much pretending that I know things. My 10th grade mentees have definitely made this transition as well. Last year it was like pulling teeth to get them to talk to each other. This year one of them reminisced, "Remember when we were quiet?" I could barely hear his comment over all the yelling. I've been told that 10th grade is the pivotal year when high school kids finally turn in to real people, but I've also been told this about 9th grade. And I expect that when my mentor group still can't shut up next year someone will tell me this is true for 11th graders.

It's good to be back. At least the 9th graders are quiet for now.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Yolo of the Month: August

There's a mindset that I'm able to get in--particularly when traveling--of wanting to and then actually following through on doing whatever suits my fancy. I think it comes in part from knowing you have a limited amount of time and wanting to pack in as much as possible, but there's also that emotional state of just feeling very free. Maura calls this "yolo"-- "You Only Live Once." I think I discovered it for the first time when I was in New Zealand. There were so many places and experiences I ended up in because I'd just decided "Why not?" And those turned out to be some of the best, or at least some of the most memorable.

It's been a long time since I've felt like that in a place I actually live. When I came back from NZ I vowed that I'd embark on more "staycations" and do all the touristy things you always say you're going to do, but then never get around to because you're too busy doing all the things you have to do. I've gotten a little better, but last weekend truly lived up to the yolo spirit.

Almost the best part was that it started like any weekend, with Friday Night Ritual of couch time and a very lazy Saturday morning. It's like I was already back in the school year (also because I was at school until like 5pm on Friday. UGH). On Saturday, my friend Dave suggested we go to the De Young to see the Birth of Impressionism exhibit. How very cultured. I was slightly concerned about getting tickets--other people I knew who have gone bought their tickets way in advance. But this is where we stumbled upon stroke of luck #1 for the day. (Actually, this was stroke of luck #2. #1 was finding a parking spot on a Saturday in Golden Gate Park, and #1.5 was that said parking spot was right outside the lawn bowling club. Who knew?) When we got to the De Young, two women came up to us asking if we were going to the Impressionist exhibit. They had planned to see it, they explained, but couldn't find parking so decided to come another time. Did we want their tickets? Obviously, yes. This was even more exciting because it turned out that the exhibit was completely sold out. Score.

The exhibit was fantastic. Very well put together. I had to secretly thank Ms. Giles and the PHS Humanities team that I actually recognized a lot of the paintings and the history behind the birth of Impressionism. "Ah yes," I said to myself (and to no one else because I didn't want to sound pretentious), "I remember the internal struggle of Edouard Manet as he wanted so desperately to be accepted by the Academie des Beaux-Arts..." Another important sighting at the De Young was a man wearing everyone's favorite wolf shirt, unfortunately (fortunately?) in what I think was a non-ironic way.

From the De Young, we consulted Dave's former-gourmet-chef friend's list of top eats in SF and found the Arizmendi Bakery, a cousin of Berkeley's Cheeseboard. The pizza was in my opinion equivalent, and now I know I don't have to drive to the East Bay for such deliciousness.

It was late afternoon, but we were on a roll so we decided to hit up the fortune cookie factory in Chinatown, an adventure we'd been talking about for awhile. And it's an adventure indeed--a small little shop tucked away in a seedy looking back alley. We walked past the alley twice before we actually found it. Inside was a cramped little operation, definitely more factory than shop. There's a genius machine that squirts out batter into little round molds then rotates them through an oven until a woman picks the warm cookies up one at a time, sticks in a fortune and folds them in half. Very impressive.

My fortune was eerily accurate: "Take time in the upcoming week for much needed relaxation." This could not be more true as I was about to embark on my first week back at school after an extremely refreshing summer. HOW DID YOU KNOW, FORTUNE COOKIE?!?!

As Dave and I were driving back to drop him off at home, he told me to make an extra turn. "There's one more place I want to go." He'd heard about Pirate Cat Radio Cafe on Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," and wanted to try their Maple Bacon Latte. Yes, it's made with bacon fat and obviously it's delicious.

The Pirate Cat Radio Cafe is exactly what the name implies--a pirate radio station. Such a weird little operation. The cafe only had enough seats for the two of us because there was a band, the Hypnotist Collectors, about to play for a radio broadcast. And they were really good. We stayed and listened to their whole set. Was this all part of the Yolo Gods' master plan? Dave's fortune cookie says yes.

As we were leaving, we thanked the band, who promptly offered us one of their CDs and invited us to the show they were playing that night. Why not? So much for going home on a Saturday to write lesson plans. The concert was in some boutique hotel that I never would have pegged as a hipster enclave. I'm sure this is not its regular clientele, but I loved the juxtaposition of upscale lounge and consciously-unshowered wannabe counterculturists.

In the morning, there was more yolo-ing to be done. I'd heard about the walking tours of San Francisco and now after three years of living here I finally got around to doing one.
The Mission murals I'd hoped for wasn't happening this weekend, so the Castro seemed like a good second option. Current and future visitors: I cannot recommend these tours enough. The tours are run by volunteer guides sponsored by the SF Library and the SF Parks Trust. And they're free. At least on my tour, our guide was extremely interesting, knowledgeable, and excited about this job. I especially appreciated the combination of history and architecture. Now I look at every building in San Francisco trying to identify which type of Victorian it is. I also now have some background on streets and sights I've seen over and over. I love knowing that the Walgreens on the corner played an important role in the AIDS crisis, or that the hardware store used to be a theater. So many little things you walk by and don't notice--you can't help but wonder what else you're missing.

A few more stops in SF before finally getting back to reality. All were just places one might stumble upon, including some Mission murals (sans tour guide) and thrift shops (scavenging for future Halloween costumes and/or my transition into the hipster aesthetic). Most exciting was the Levi's Workshop, a space on Valencia that Levi's rented out for the summer as basically an open art studio. It's all focused on printmaking and they have a couple of different old printing presses and a big screenprinting area. During the week, it's used by artists-in-residence and other more-creative-than-me kinds of people, but on Sundays they open it up for the public to use. Unfortunately it was all booked up for the day, but they did have an opening for the following Sunday. See future blog posts for the fruits of my typesetting ambitions. It was pretty amazing--just a place for people from the community to learn about these art forms and actually try out the heavy machinery.

One of the most amazing weekends I've had in a long time, and that includes my recent weekend in Quito. How is it that I don't do this more often? It's not like any of the agenda items were difficult to find or were special occasions. I guess it just takes the right mindset, and it doesn't hurt to have an activity partner who encourages your adventurous side.

I should have bought a bag of fortune cookies at the factory to see where they would take me next.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The FC in The NYT

Even the New York Times recognizes the magic of our fair city.


Points of note:

-I have said it over and over that the water is dyed. No water anywhere is that color, except maybe in a toilet bowl. Also, I highly doubt that the dye's main purpose is to keep algae from growing. Let's tell it like it is--Foster City must look like a postcard 24 hours a day.

-I enjoy living in the "Boats and Boat Parts" neighborhood, but am not-so-secretly jealous of those who live in "Stars and Constellations" or "Islands." I am currently coveting a residence on Polaris Avenue or Pitcairn Drive. Flying Cloud Isle and Shooting Star Isle are tempting too, but those sound a little too much like places I would have invented as vacation spots for my My Little Ponies.

-How has Foster City not suffered any damage from natural disasters? I moved here with the full understanding that our idyllic green lawns would be the first thing underwater in the event of any seismic activity. I consider it a small price to pay.

-I haven't made it to the windsurfing classes yet. It's been on the docket for two years now, but with this being the last weekend of summer, it looks like I'll have to wait it out a little longer. I think the Galapagos were an acceptable substitute.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Black Sea Turtle Cove

Alas, we are coming to the end of my Ecuador pictures and stories. If you've actually read all my posts you may be sick of hearing how awesome our trip was. But not as sick as those people whom I forced to look at all ~1,000 pictures and video clips while I sat next to them babbling.

On our final day in the Galapagos, they managed to pack in one last excursion before we had to catch our plane. We had sailed all night from Espanola back to Santa Cruz and I was actually happy to get up at 6am given the poor night of sleep I'd had. I'm happy to report that neither Maura nor I got seasick at any point, but on night 3 the side-to-side rocking was so extreme that I had to splay myself out on the bed to keep from being rolled around. But I will take this over throwing up all night, which was the fate of some of our shipmates.

The early morning excursion took us to Black Sea Turtle Cove, a huge system of mangroves on the northwest side of Isla Santa Cruz. There, differing habitat meant a new array of animals. Here's the list of what we saw:

  • Blue-footed boobies (of course)
  • Pelicans
  • Some black bird that sits on pelicans' heads and tries to steal their fish
  • Cattle egret
  • Eagle rays (smaller than the big guy we saw at Devil's Crown)
  • Golden rays (who travel in packs)
  • White-tipped reef sharks
  • Herons
  • Sally Lightfoot Crabs (as always)
  • Sea turtles
  • Starfish
  • Frigate birds

The rays might have been my favorite, again because they're so graceful, but also because in the calm water of the mangroves, there were times when we could see their little wingtips poking up above the water as they swam.

The other amazing thing about Black Sea Turtle Cove was the sheer number of birds and bird activities. There were huge flocks of cattle egrets dotting the trees, blue-footed boobies swarming the skies Alfred Hitchcock-style, and pelicans diving left and right. Of course I took video.

In this one, you have to look closely, but you can see a blue-footed booby diving all arrow-like into the water.

Here's another shot of some boobies diving, swimming, taking off, and generally being awesome.

Finally, I had to take video to capture just how many birds there were. Why are they all facing the same way? I have no idea.

And thus ends my adventure in Ecuador and the Galapagos. Now it's back to adventures in the classroom where, frankly, I'm a little less interested in seeing creatures in their natural habitats.

Punta Suarez

Note: the videos seem to be doing some weird cropping when they're embedded, so click on them for the full view.

Just in case sunning and swimming with sea lions wasn't enough for one day, we spent the afternoon walking around Punta Suarez on the western tip of Isla Espanola. By this point I was getting used to everything exceeding my expectations by infinite proportions, but I don't think I was prepared for what we were going to see at Punta Suarez. To give you an idea, soon after we got off the dinghies and started down the trail, our guide asked, "Does anyone want to see blue-footed boobies doing their mating dance?" I was ready to borrow binoculars from someone, but not only were the birds in plain sight, they were literally standing on the trail. Unreal. They kind of stopped by the time I pulled out the video, but you can get the idea from the beginning of the video where they're picking up their feet all cute-ly.

I should probably devote a little bit of text to the marine iguanas. They're not very cute and they're everywhere, so I've kind of left them out of these entries. It's like when you're on safari and at first you think, "OMG, there's a zebra! Let's take 100 pictures and look at it for a long time," but pretty soon it turns into, "Meh, there's another zebra. Can't they do something cooler than stand there and be all stripey?" (Yes, I am aware that I have led a privileged life.) Even Darwin was unimpressed: "The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2-3 ft), disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. I call them 'imps of darkness.'" But marine iguanas do something cooler than sit there like zebras: they are the only reptiles who swim. That's pretty sweet to be able to say you're the only one in an entire phylum that will submerse yourself in water. So that's the marine iguana for you: disgusting and clumsy, but also a kind of cool freak of nature.

Apparently we picked a good time of year because this is when the waved albatross come to Espanola to nest before their next journey around the ocean. More things to check off my list of things I never thought I'd see: albatross sitting on their nests, albatross chicks, albatrosses walking (which might be the funniest thing ever), albatrosses doing their mating dance, and albatross taking off in flight. And of course all of this happened within like 20 feet of me.

Once again, I've run out of words to describe how amazing this all was, so here are the pictures. As usual, click on something to see the full album.

Snorkeling Espanola

We did two snorkels on Espanola. The first was right off the beach in Gardner Bay. I didn't get very good pictures because this was when my camera lens was at its foggiest. Boo. There was, however, a sea lion who decided to take an active role in my film, and inadvertently created a clip for my Galapagos blooper reel. It's a little embarrassing because you can hear me yelling as the sea lion swims up close, but in this case I'd say a little public shame is worth your enjoyment.

Our second snorkel was unquestionably one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. The itinerary had hinted that we might get to actually swim with sea lions, and I was already more than satisfied with the ones I'd already been underwater with. As usual, the Galapagos had more in store for us.

There was a little inlet on Espanola where I guess sea lions like to hang out. And play. If there was ever any question that animals can have emotions around leisure activity, this cleared it up. I felt like a pet, and the sea lions just wanted to play with me. They're obviously better swimmers than people could ever be, so they glided around the water doing flips and teasing us. My favorite thing--that I definitely had to get used to because that's what scared me in video posted above--was that they would swim up close to your snorkel mask, and then right before they touched you would flip away. I was definitely as dumbstruck and clumsy as a little puppy who's still falling over his own feet. I don't say this kind of thing very often, but swimming with the sea lions was almost spiritual in the way I felt connected to creatures from another species. If this is what it's like to commune nature, sign me up for the next hippie retreat.

And on that note, here are the pictures. Click to look at the full album.

Note how graceful the sea lion is in the water compared to on land.

Just in awe.

Gardner Bay

After only a day and a half in the Galapagos, we had already seen a good share of sea lions. They were hanging out on buoys and boats in Puerto Ayora, basking on the rocks and beaches of Floreana, and one even swam close enough to me that I got a picture during our first snorkel.

But we should have known by then that everything in the Galapagos ends up better than you ever imagined. You want pretty water? Oh, we have endless stretches of technicolor blues and aquas. You want tortoises? We have every baby tortoise on the Islands. You want stingrays? We have them in all shapes and sizes, on the beach, in shallow water, and following you as you snorkel. You want sea lions? How about sunning yourself on the beach with them. When I look through guidebooks and postcards, they always have the best shots of cool things you know you'll probably never actually get to see. In the Galapagos, I ended up with experiences that topped the guidebooks and pictures more beautiful than any postcard I could find.

There's not much to tell about Gardner Bay--the pictures show its magic. It's a long stretch of white sand beach on Isla Espanola (alternate name: Hood Island). And it's covered in sea lions. They're just chilling on the beach, more or less ignoring all the humans oohing and aahing over them. These are not the fat smelly sea lions of Pier 39 either. They're a little bit smaller, a whole lot cuter, and significantly less smelly. I guess that open sea air in a highly protected national park is a little more ventilated than the tourist-packed San Francisco Bay.

Anyway, the pictures show it best (remember to click on the slideshow to see the full album). One note on why some of the pictures look funny. My "great investment" of a camera (which really was a good investment just for the few underwater pics I got) decided that it would be really funny if the lens cover fogged up. I have no idea how the water got in. Fortunately it did not completely destroy my fifth camera in five years, but it does make some of the pictures look foggy and/or really artistic because I messed with them on my computer.

Of course I took video. There might not be anything cuter than walking sea lions.

Oh wait, there is something cuter: walking BABY sea lions.

This guy was one of my favorites. He just wanted to hang out in the waves and roll around in the sand. Note to self: if I can't come back in my next life as a house cat, Galapagos sea lion would be an acceptable second option.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Snorkeling Floreana

Before I get into any descriptions, let me make one comment: an underwater digital camera was the best investment ever. So worth it.

We went snorkeling twice on Floreana--another example of how well GAP Adventures, our highly recommended tour company, packed so much into a very short period of time.

The morning snorkel was in a rocky area near the shore. Check out the pictures of the rocks because they fascinated me. They look like large, well-stacked bricks. I had to remind myself a few times that this area was not man-made.

The only issue with snorkeling was the temperature of the water. They encouraged us to rent wetsuit, an offer I jumped at. Speaking of jumping, getting into the ocean felt like jumping into an ice bath. Every time I got in I had to spend a few minutes just catching my breath from the shock and working up the courage to put my non-wetsuit-covered face into the water. So cold.

But of course totally worth it. I judge those people who didn't go in every time for the entire time because really, when will you get another opportunity to snorkel in the Galapagos? This trip wasn't billed as YOLO style for nothing. Once I finally put my face in the water, I found that it was like staring into an aquarium. I am spoiled to have been snorkeling in many exotic, fish-stocked locales, but this was by far the best (sorry Great Barrier Reef). On recommendation by the internet, I took some video because it is much more difficult than you think to steady your camera for good underwater shots.

Here, some white-banded angelfish.

And a big old parrotfish.

The most exciting part of the morning snorkel was--and I don't know the proper way to describe this--a giant cloud of fish. A couple people from our group summoned us over and below us were more fish than I'd ever seen in one place. Again, this is not a very scientific description, but it was like those silver fish in Finding Nemo who make all the little faces and pictures. I took video because still photos just didn't capture the size of the fish cloud.

The afternoon snorkel was at an area called Devil's Crown. It's the top of a sunken-in volcano, so you just see a circle of jagged rocks sticking out from the water. The snorkeling was good here, but I got fewer pictures/video because the current was a little stronger so I was busy trying not to drown. One highlight (captured in the photo album) was seeing a puffer fish. Ton, a Dutch guy from our group, tried to swim down and poke at him so he would puff up. I was tempted to do the same. Fortunately this bad, bad idea did not come to fruition since it turns out that these fish are highly poisonous and their spikes put out deadly neurotoxins.

Here, not-so-dangerous yellow-tailed surgeonfish.

Beating out the pufferfish, the biggest highlight of Devil's Crown was a sighting we made right as we were about to leave. As we were being called to get out of the water, someone shouted to look down. There was a massive eagle ray, gently gliding through the water. The video doesn't capture its size, but I would estimate its wingspan to be 5-6 feet. Rays aren't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think "beautiful animal," but this one was so graceful that it was hard to think anything else.


Overnight from Isla Santa Cruz we sailed to Floreana. We were advised that the ride should be smooth, with little chance of seasickness, but that didn't actually help me sleep any better. Instead, I spent most of the night hearing every little creak and clack and clang caused by the boat's movement and trying to figure out if we were moving and if so, how far we'd gone, and did I accidentally leave the bathroom door open? None of this was helped by setting my alarm for the wrong time because I'd forgotten to change my clock to Galapagos time (an hour behind Ecuador).

But a restless night was a small price to pay for this view out our window first thing in the morning.

From Floreana

From Floreana

Our first adventure on Floreana was a ride around the rocks in the dinghies. Of course there were a million animals, all doing cool things and completely ignoring us. The pictures below cover a lot (remember to click for the full album), but I was unable to capture a few exciting creatures on film: stingrays, a set turtle, and most exciting, a Galapagos penguin. That's right kids, the Galapagos are the only place in the world where a penguin would live on the Equator.

The views from high up are from Baronessa Hill, our only short stopping point for the morning. Next, our first snorkeling, but I'll leave that for a separate post.

In the afternoon, we traveled to Punta Cormorant on the north side of Floreana. The beach purportedly has green sand, which is semi-true if you look closely. I was hoping for something as dramatic as Piha's black sand (which apparently I never posted pictures of) or even the purple sand at Pfeiffer State Beach, but we just got some olivine crystals when you picked up a handful. Galapagos: strike one.

A short walk took us to some inland salt flats, I think created by salt water seeping up through the silty ground. Usually this is a flamingo hangout, but there were none to be seen. Somehow our guide did spot a flamingo egg way off in the distance (I guess that's why he gets paid the big bucks). I marked it in the picture, but really it was only visible through binoculars or a super-telephoto lens. Just use your imagination to envision a really, really big white egg. The size made me understand why flamingos only lay one egg once every four years.

I was more fascinated by the landscape, which resembled some weird alien world (or at least all the weird alien worlds I've ever been to). I guess I somewhat imagined the Galapagos to be lush and tropical--if they have such an extreme diversity of strange animal life, wouldn't it be the same for plants? This statement probably is more a reflection of my own misunderstanding that diverse plant life would equal greenery. There was definitely something diverse about the white leaf-less trees all over Floreana.

Continuing past the salt flats we arrived at Flour Beach, which lands squarely in the Top 10 (Top 5? Top 2?) beaches I have ever been to. It's named for its sand, which has the consistency of flour (white flour, not whole-wheat). It's hard to describe how soft and fluffy it was, but perhaps the picture gives some sort of indication.

Our main reason for coming to this beach was not the floury sand, nor the sea turtle nests, nor the masses of crabs scuttling around the lava rocks. It was the stingrays. Our guide led us into the surf, instructing us to shuffle our feet. The reason: if you pick up your feet to take full steps, you might accidentally step on a stingray. And good thing for the instructions, because they were everywhere. Another example of animals who don't seem to notice or care about human presence. The pictures are a little hard to make out, but the video gives a slightly better idea. Just look for the little black patches--those are stingrays!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

What We've all Been Waiting for: Day 1

Did I mention that it has been a life-long dream of mine to visit the Galapagos? This has been up there on the list with, well, nothing really because it was basically the top of the list. And oh man did it live up to (and exceed) every expectation ever. And almost two weeks after leaving this dream destination, I've finally gotten around to getting pictures on this blog.

I probably would've been satisfied just with our first day. Even the plane ride was an adventure in itself. Flying domestic in a foreign country always seems to be. At the Quito airport they thoroughly searched our bags for invasive species, but never actually checked any kind of ID. At least I know that if I'd brought some sort of marine iguana mold in my backpack they'd never know it was me.

First stop: Guyaquil. Because our plane was continuing on to the Galapagos we were told to stay on the plane. Then after 15 or so minutes we were directed to unfasten our seatbelts. I am not sure what kind of safety regulation this relates to. Another 15 minutes and they sent us off the plane, handing out green laminated "tickets"--the only thing that would allow our re-entry to the flight. Again, no check of IDs or tickets or anything. Makes sense to me. I must say that the Guyaquil airport provided extensive entertainment. There was a duty free shop with overbearing salespeople where Maura and I played "The Price is Right" with American snack food imports. Also on the snack food tip, Ecuadoreans (or at least Guyaquilenos) have interesting ideas about what constitutes appropriate airport food. See my pictures for more detail, but here's a preview: Giant hunks of meat, cheese platters, and 1-liter bottles of salad dressing.

Arrival on Baltra (the airport where we landed in the Galapagos) was amazing. There you are flying over miles of ocean and all of a sudden there's a little piece of land. The insanely blue water is punctuated by strangely barren alien landscape. Again, pictures explain more.

From the airport we took a ferry to Isla Santa Cruz. Even waiting for the ferry was a virtual safari. Our guide pointed to the bird in the sky: "That one's a blue-footed booby, that one's a frigate bird," so on. Bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs dotted the rocks around the dock. The water was so clear you could see the fish darting around. Sea lions lounged on the buoys. We'd been on the Islands for about a half hour.

After reaching and settling into our temporary home (a beautiful yacht with private ensuite rooms that made me wonder what the non-"budget" boats included), we visited the Darwin Research station. Impressive work those folks do. And impressive displays by the tortoises of island gigantism, my new favorite phenomenon. Scroll down to check out the video of one of the tortoises walking (she was one of the few tortoises we saw who actually moved). It will give you an idea of why Darwin decided it would be a good idea to ride them. Honestly, I would've too if I knew I wouldn't be yelled at by the guides and probably kicked off the islands. It was at the Research Station that we got to meet Lonesome George, a poor tortoise who's the last of his species. And he's just not interested in mating with any of the ladies they put in his pen. Poor fellow. I think I'd be sad if I were the last of my kind and had been plucked from my home, shipped to a weird enclosure and forced to make friends with people I didn't really know or like.

Then we had some time in Puerto Ayora, the town on Santa Cruz and one of the few points of human civilization in the Galapagos. A lot of souvenir shops selling crappy t-shirts (how many ways can you design a graphic to match the words "I heart Boobies"?). But I did get to drop off some postcards that hopefully ended up with a Galapagos postmark.

A pretty phenomenal first day, for sure. Who knew that it would only get better from there?

(Remember to click on the slideshow to access the album and captions)

And some videos to enhance your experience:

The Equator?

So here's the thing about the Equator in Ecuador: nobody really seems to know where it is. But they do know that all the places it's claimed to be are wrong. The giant monument at "La Ciudad Mitad del Mundo" is off the mark, supposedly, but still claims to have picked the right spot. (A postcard I obviously purchased says that if you visit on the equinox you'll have no shadow at noon, which PROVES that this is the rightful equator). A few blocks away, the Inti-Nan museum claims the equator title because it's "Proved by GPS." The sign failed to mention our guide's note that if you used a commercial GPS there, it won't actually show 0 degrees. At least Inti-Nan had the cheesy "science" experiments as proof. Lonely Planet swears they're both off.

Personally, I'm okay with the falsification of latitude so long as it enables me to take amazing photos that engender jealousy in all who view them. So, check.

(As always, click on the slide show for access to the album and corresponding captions)

Otovalo & Cotopaxi

(As always, click on the slide show for access to the album and corresponding captions)

Day 2: Trip to Otovalo Market
Not a lot to comment on. Otovalo has what's supposed to be the biggest and best market in Ecuador and comes highly recommended by the guidebooks. This is where my spoiled brattyness around having traveled so much comes in. It was definitely a good market, but it wasn't mindblowing. There was unquestionably a LOT of stuff. A lot of stuff for tourists and a lot of stuff for locals, and a lot of stuff for some unidentified consumer base. Perhaps my disappointment was less a reflection of the market's quality than of my lack of familiarity with Ecuadorean culture. As I looked for gifts and keepsakes that would represent my voyage, it was hard to pick out things that felt uniquely Ecuador. Finding such items felt much easier in Kenya (lion-killing clubs), Rarotonga (wooden tikis), New Zealand (anything with a koru design), Japan (something from a vending machine), etc. But I also knew a lot more about the cultures in those places. In any case, I came home with some pretty new scarves including a nice alpaca one for the chilly California winters.

Day 3: Cotopaxi
I briefly mentioned this excursion earlier. We decided that the best way to see this volcano was to mountain bike down it. Here are the highlights:
-This was my first time mountain biking, but I will count it as successful after only one fall. I quickly discovered (re-discovered?) that I am not a speed junkie and do not like the feeling of being out of control. This realization dates back long ago to my attempt at our middle school's ski club; I probably should have figured out the connection to mountain biking.
-Being at 15,000ft is colder than you might imagine. Four layers were insufficient. Fortunately, the adrenaline/terror of trying to maintain at a non-heart-attack-inducing speed helped warm me up a little.
-When we were at our starting point getting ready to head down (a parking lot not quite at the top of the volcano), a lovely Ecuadorean family came over and awkwardly starting chatting with Maura and me. The awkwardness came from the fact that the first minute of the "conversation" was just them standing in front of us while the dad cajoled his teenage daughter (in Spanish) to practice her English by talking to us. Her English was very well-pronounced, but limited, so our eventual exchange consisted only of her asking how we were doing, where we were from, did we like Ecuador, and "How is California?" This poor child. Fortunately, her parents documented the whole experience on film. I'm sure she will look back on this memory fondly.
-In our first two days in Quito (altitude: ~10,000ft) and even when we were up on the volcano (~15,000ft) I didn't notice any sort of altitude sickness or difficulty breathing. I'm sure my lungs are strong as an ox. Then we got to the end of our ride and few small uphill segments. Small being the operative word. The hills were not very steep and not very long. Yet both times I made it a little bit of the way up and quickly had to get off and walk the rest of the way. What was most challenging was the recovery. It took much longer for my breathing heart rate to come back down to reasonable levels. My biggest comfort was that my travel companion--a big-time athlete--had to do the same. I will take this as an indication that my fitness level is equal to hers, which is to say equal to someone who bikes every day, runs marathons, and was a Division I NCAA athlete.
-The whole experience was totally worth it. If you're ever in Quito, I highly recommend The Biking Dutchman tour company!

Monday, August 02, 2010


We spent six nights in Quito altogether, so I'd like to think we got to know the city at least well enough to give directions to other tourists.

We spent most of our sightseeing time in Old Town Quito, which reminds me a lot of other Latin American cities I've visited. Lots of colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, beautiful churches. I liked the atmosphere of Quito--quite cosmopolitan but still retaining a specific Ecuadorean flavor. I can't say exactly what that flavor was, but I appreciated that it wasn't too gringo-fied (except for the Mariscal, which is also known as "Gringolandia" by locals) and wasn't too generic.

Saturday night out in Old Town was by far my favorite Quito adventure. After dinner in the Plaza de San Francisco we pretty much just followed the live music and it took us to all kinds of exciting places. Most exciting was a dance party (and firework lighting extravaganza) in the courtyard of the Monasterio de Carmen Alto. The event was packed with people and families of all ages, and everyone was dancing to the live band. At some point a few women walked around giving out little tupperwares of food. We were offered alcohol by not once, but twice. First by a little old man with a beer pitcher full of canelazo, second by a middle-aged man carrying a 1-liter water bottle filled with Kool-aid blue liquid. Each man had a shot glass and would pour a sip for someone and move on. We declined, but the kids doing shots of the blue stuff seemed to enjoy it so maybe it was alright.

The one thing I do not have photos of, but am completely fascinated by, is the street vendors. There are the usual booths selling snacks and magazines, but then there are the ones that start to get a little hard to understand. Is there really a big market for selling CDs out of a booth on the street i.e. do people walk around with their Discmans thinking "Man I'm sick of this song. Oh good, I can buy some new tunes right here"? Is a blanket on the street really the best place to sell (and buy) batteries? My two favorite vendors both only had three items--not three types of merchandise, but only three discrete objects that were available.
-Vendor 1: A bathroom scale and two old used books. I did not inquire whether all were available for purchase and/or whether the books were related to weight issues. My hope was that his gig was weighing people and then using that number for some sort of numerology that he would seek out in the books.
-Vendor 2: A painting of the Last Supper, a painting of a unicorn, and a watch. I couldn't come up with a good back story for him.

Here, my photos of Quito. It's worth clicking on the album so you can zoom in on a few of the pictures.

(As always, click on the slide show for access to the album and corresponding captions)

Delicious Things and Not-So-Delicious Things

It took a REALLY long time to upload, sort, edit, caption, etc. all 1023 photos from Ecuador (and that's after deleting about 100 on the plane ride home). But finally I'm getting to a place where I can post them.

Let's start with the most important: food and drink. We learned from a fellow traveler who lives in Japan that most Japanese vacation photos are pictures of food. I do not have 1023 pictures of food (we ate a lot, but not THAT much), but I do have enough to make an album.

The highlights:
-Humitas, a delicious corn paste steamed in the husk. Kind of like tamale dough, but sweeter and fluffier. So delicious.
-Cuy AKA guinea pig. We had a hard time finding it in Quito, but finally found a very marketed-to-tourists place where we were able to successfully indulge. Given my penchant for eating strange animals, this was kind of a must-do activity. Analysis: it was so fried that it's hard to know what it actually tasted like. There was also so little meat that it was hard to know what it actually tasted like. I am fine with this.
-Kallari chocolates, which may indeed be the best chocolate in the world.

Enjoy album #1. More to come.

(Click on the slide show for access to the album and corresponding captions)