Thursday, November 3, 2011

Eagles and totems and deer, oh my!

All right, already!

Yes, I have been home from vacation not even two weeks, but I am already at risk of not posting at all, so here goes nothing.

First stop in October - a week in the Gwaii Haanas Islands, formerly known as the Queen Charlottes. I have always been fascinated by them, although I have no idea where that comes from. Probably the same place that harbours my adoration for Timbuktu, Zanzibar, and Casablanca. Old movies may have played a role, or perhaps my interest is linked to my enjoyment of the extreme graphic component of traditional Haida totem art:

I stayed in the main town, Queen Charlotte City, and rented a suite in a house overlooking the water. A typical morning view:

Love the mist rising from the mountains. Sometimes it was almost like vertical clouds. I should note that I haven't drained the colour from this shot - that's what the morning actually looked like in that crisp light.

Just down the hill from my apartment was the working harbour. This is a fishing town, after all, and the few restaurants in town all seem to have a great view too, like the covered patio at Queen Bee's:

Thankfully, the covered part let me sit out and enjoy the view while it was bucketing rain. And yes, it is raining and sunny at the same time. Awesome.

I spent most of my time driving the limited amount of paved road available between villages, soaking up the views and the wildlife. American eagles always look grumpy:

But that's balanced out by the quirky visitors, like these ornate Harlequin ducks:

Walking along the shore, I'd also stumble upon the most interesting visuals, like this piece of driftwood:

I still am not sure if this was simply wet, or if there was something else going on.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking day was spent in Tlell, visiting what is left of the legendary Golden Spruce. The original tree was revered by the Haida and figures prominently in many of their legends. It was a tree whose branches shone as if lit from within, and it was found in one of the last old growth forests on the main island. Of course, some destructive asshat had to come along and cut it down under cover of darkness a few years back, but thankfully, the Haida managed to preserve several cuttings. Only one is available for public viewing, in a small park in Tlell next to a historic church. Unfortunately, it is kept behind a tall chain link fence. Even so, you can see how different the cutting is, and imagine how majestic a full size, thousand year old, several hundred foot tall version would be:

There is a fantastic book on the history of the Golden Spruce, and in turn the Haida people, that won a Governor-General's award about 5 years ago. I re-read it on my trip and highly recommend it.

I could have posted a great many more pictures from this part of the trip, but instead I will next post from leg 2 - Vancouver long weekend.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Well, so much for that

Tomorrow, I'll be home, after three weeks on the road in British Columbia.

And no, I did not manage to post from the road, all good intentions to the contrary.

Technology has failed me; or, perhaps more accurately, I have failed technology. I thought, naively as it turns out, that I'd be able to pull up a few pictures from my daily outings and post them along with some commentary. What I hadn't counted on was how hard this was going to be with the gear I had and my limited knowledge of my new iPad, which decided a few days into the trip that it needed a vacation too, mostly from me. So its internet functions just seized up, stubbornly turning the screen grey and refusing to open, or close, any screens. It also diabolically chose to mutiny when I was about 1000 kilometres from the nearest Apple store. Typical.

Yesterday, now back in Vancouver, I trudged over to the Apple store where the young "genius" at the bar fixed the problem in 20 seconds. They don't tell you when you buy one of these things that every application you open stays open, even after you think you've exited it. And so, after four months of putting up with me exploring all manner of things, it needed a rest - I had 37 apps open and running in the background. No wonder it was tired!

The good news is, my iPad is fine, and I now know how to not stress it out in future. The bad news is, I didn't have web access for much of my vacation. In hindsight, perhaps that was for the best, as my vacation has been great.

I'll download photos once I get home and post belatedly.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anyone still there?

It has been a long, long time since I last posted.

I am getting ready to travel through British Columbia in October, and am going to try posting from an iPad, and using it to download photos on the road. I have no idea if this will work. Technology wise, it should work, but tech is only as good as the person behind it. So we'll see how this goes. Is anyone even checking on this site anymore?

Expressions of life welcome.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tagged! I'm it

I was meme'd this morning by my friend Karan, the failed mommy, and now feel compelled to answer her questions (although I know she can't make me, I'm always happy to be included):

1. What do you love about where you live?
I love coming home to it. I am frequently on the road, for work and for fun, and I enjoy the travel in ways, perhaps, that others do not. But I am always glad to come home from my adventures and sleep in my own bed. I also enjoy the fact that the water is never more than 5 minutes away from any point in town, and this time of year, there's a whole day's worth of activities available after work lets out, because the sun isn't setting until about 2 a.m. (and then only briefly). But at the end of the day, what I love most about living here are the people I am surrounded by.

On a bigger scale, as a Canadian, I was asked this week if I would ever buy a home in another country. And as much as I enjoy visiting other places, I have learned by traveling just how lucky we are to live in this lovely, infuriating, peaceful nation of winter and mosquitoes. Where we talk about our differences endlessly instead of killing each other. Where we are allowed to tell our governments they are stupid, and no one comes to get us in the middle of the night.

2. What could entice you to leave it?
World peace and the elimination of poverty and hatred and xenophobia would be a start. I would consider a temporary assignment outside of Canada, but I would need to know I was coming back eventually. As for the North, I often thought I would leave, and I guess I will eventually (I can't imagine being an elderly person in this climate, being trapped in my house 7-8 months of the year because of weather and road conditions), but I have no idea why I would go other than weather and health. I suppose a place where the weather is better and my health would improve would seem enticing.

3. If you could go anywhere on a trip, without regard to resources, where would you go, and why?
I would take a year and drive around New Zealand. It has always seemed like a country that has every type of vista and climate and experience, rolled into one package. And I like leisurely road trips. And lots of scenery to photograph.

4. What inspires you?
Lately, not much, which is kind of a problem I need to work through. An opportunity to effect positive change is inspiring, and rare. A chance to experience something new - always inspiring. Being around others who do so much more with less than I have, and who are genuinely appreciative, that's inspiring, and humbling.

5. What makes you laugh the hardest?
Bing'ing off of friends until you are practically hyperventilating.

And Craig Ferguson.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

comment changes

Some of you have, over the course of my time blogging, pointed out that you couldn't leave a comment unless you were a registered user. Well, I have finally figured out how to turn this off. I will experiment with allowing any comments, including from anonymous posters, and see if that results in a ton of spam or random robot solicitations. If it does, I will make further adjustments. If not, comment away! I would like to know if more than 4 people are reading this at any given time.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Back to reality

I am now back in Canada, after another 26 hour ordeal packed into one sold-out flight in economy class after another, including the 16-hour flight from BA to Toronto via Santiago, Chile. At least the polo player seated next to me was happy to trade seats so I could sit on the aisle, and he could sleep next to the window. I have determined to never again take any flight longer than 8 hours without doing everything in my power to upgrade to business class. Those lie flat beds were really impressive looking as I shuffled past them coming onto, and off, the overnight flight.

I have a few unfinished posts that I will keep working on and put up over the coming days, so keep checking back for more from Argentina. I'll then be taking a break from posting until the next trip, looking like September.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Iguazu Falls; or, I can see Brazil from my hotel!

When the rain first came Monday afternoon, I could only hear the occasional splash of a large droplet upon a broad leaf in the canopy overhead, while I remained dry on the trail below. It was extraordinary to stand there, alone on the trail under the trees of the Mesopotamian rainforest, listening only to the birds and the “splosh!... splosh!“ of the rain. And then quite unexpectedly, came the deluge as the canopy gave way. It was as if someone had pulled the plug on a full bathtub, and I was now standing directly under the drain.

Soaked, and still perhaps a kilometre from the hotel, I had no option but to make a run for it - that’s when I happened upon an abandoned park ranger’s facility with an overhanging porch farther down the trail, where several other drenched hikers were already seeking refuge. And so we stood around, this mix and match crew of foreigners, not really making conversation, but standing comfortably with each other, sharing the experience and the moment, waiting for the rain to abate.

This three-day trip to Iguazu was my only significant side trip from Buenos Aires. I had intended to also go into Uruguay (just an hour by ferry across the river), but a combination of my misplaying the May Day long weekend, and my continuing enjoyment of BA’s fine neighbourhoods, led me to abandon those plans. But I could not come all this way and not take a trip to see Iguazu Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world.

Iguazu Falls lies at the far northern tip of Argentina, in Missiones province, where the country meets Paraguay and Brazil in one of the most dangerous, and most scenic, places on Earth. Dangerous because it is a haven for drug and gun smugglers and organized criminals seeking to move trafficked contraband across national borders with impunity; scenic because of a spectacular break in the rainforest created by the two branches of the Iguazu River coming together at a precipice that stretches for over three kilometres, and which comprises more than 250 individual waterfalls all running together in a torrent of water. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so. The national park is actually a cooperative project of Brazil and Argentina, and it straddles the border.

When coming to the park, there are basically two options; Argentina, or Brazil. If you’re on an Argentina-based trip like me, crossing over into Brazil for the day to see their view of the falls will cost you about $140 in a country entry fee, plus whatever the cost is for the tour package you’re on. For about 3 hours and one trail. I declined the opportunity. There are only two hotels in the park itself; the Sheraton on the Argentine side, and the Tropical des Cataratas in Brazil. They lie across the Iguazu River from one another and are perhaps 400 m apart. To say they are expensive and exploit their monopoly would be an understatement.

Your only other option is to stay in one of the many hotels in the town of Puerto Iguazu, about a 15 minute taxi ride away, and shuttle back and forth each day by cab or bus. I wasn’t entirely sure of the logistics of this operation, so I chose to suck it up and stay at the Sheraton and be able to walk right out into the park after breakfast. When the park opened at 8 am. The great advantage to this plan was, for about an hour each morning, the hotel guests had the place to themselves, as the tour buses didn’t tend to arrive until after 9. The downside, of course, was the cost. I’m not generally comfortable with places where I know the money I am spending for a night’s stay is probably as much as the chambermaid earns in a month. Or, for that matter, that anglicizes all of the waiters’ names so the largely American and European guests can, presumably, remember them easier. After all, Guillermo and Pedro are so much more difficult to retain than William and Peter.

Anyway, politics aside, I splurged on two nights at the Sheraton, with a falls view room. Here's the view from my balcony, with the morning mist rising off the falls:


Just out of frame to the left of this photo is the Brazilian hotel. That break in the trees on the left? That's the river valley, the dividing line between the countries.

In the park, there’s a system of elevated hiking trails, very well-maintained, and a eco-train that hauls you from major stop to major stop in case you get tired of all the walking around.


It is currently the rainy season, which means there's even more water in the rivers than usual. It is quite spectacular.



Argentines have what can only be described as a different sense of public safety than Canadians do. I highly doubt we would ever get away with building this sort of observation platform overhanging the rushing torrents of water, cantilevered to the point of inducing vertigo.



A number of fellow travellers, hearing I am from Canada, asked me how this compared to Niagara Falls. Let me be clear - these falls are beyond compare. Whereas Niagara has prostituted itself into basically becoming Las Vegas with a waterfall, all cheap casinos and wax museums, Iguazu has largely maintained a pristine natural state. And it is glorious to see. The park is full of wildlife, from birds like this Plush crested jay, the "urraca comun":


and the social flycatcher:


To the raccoon/badger cross, the coatimundi (the size of a Labrador retriever when full-grown):


Extraordinary butterflies:


flowers, like this bird of paradise:

and iguanas:

After the rain I was caught in finally stopped, the sun came out and brought with it the rainbows. Truly a magical day.


Guira Oga Wildlife Sanctuary

I am a planner. At any given time, I am already researching 2 to 4 vacations ahead - currently, I have folders open for my next 3 vacations, through the end of 2011. Despite this, sometimes the best parts of my holiday are completely spontaneous and unexpected. That was certainly the case with the highlight of my awesome trip to Argentina.

On Wednesday morning, after two days of hiking around Iguazu National Park, I had a few hours to kill before flying back to BA in the early afternoon. I had read a post on some chat board a while back about a bird sanctuary operated by the local native group near the town of Puerto Iguazu, about 15 km from my hotel in the park, but my notes didn't specify exactly where it was. After a bit of online research by the Sheraton's concierge, we tracked down a physical street address, and I was off and running. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but I was anxious to see some of the more elusive birds from the park up close, and figured this would likely be much more successful than wandering around some more trails hoping to have sharp enough eyes to spot these guys tucked into the treetops dozens of feet overhead.

Sure enough, the Guira Oga Wildlife Sanctuary is located about 15 minutes from the entrance to Iquazu Falls National Park, about 5 km from the town of Puerto Iguazu, and the name means "the home of the birds" in the local Quarani language.

The sanctuary is simply amazing. It is set back from the road in a corner of the rainforest. Every bird and animal here is in some way a victim of an interaction with man - either they were poached and subsequently confiscated by border patrol, or illegally kept as pets, or they were injured by a car along the length of highway that cuts through a corner of the park (a roadside sign urging motorists to slow down says 500 animals are killed each year on the highway; countless multiples are no doubt injured). The sanctuary is part rehabilitation center, part breeding center, and part zoo. Any bird or animal capable of hunting for themselves is released back into the park when they are healed; but the simple, tragic fact remains that many of these birds and animals will never be able to be released into the wild, either because they never learned to hunt or live in nature, or because their injuries will never fully heal and they would be vulnerable to attack if let loose.

There were only five of us on the 10:30 am tour, which was a shame, and I was the only anglo, which was an even bigger shame. There was a young couple from BA on their honeymoon, and a middle-aged couple from southern Argentina on a holiday in BA who'd pretty much done what I had and come up on a detour for a few days of nature. Evidently, this sanctuary is better known in the Spanish-speaking world than farther afield, but I am a big believer that it needs to be better publicized, since the entrance fee (30 pesos, or about $7.50) is how it funds its projects.

The tour is guided by a very well-informed ranger who has obviously spent considerable time working among the birds and animals. My guide, a young woman named Tamara, had been studying English for a scant 7 months, and was fluent in idiomatic English. She knew the history of each animal we observed on the two hour tour and answered a great many questions we all had. In some respects, I think the fact we were only five meant we got an even better tour, a more personalized tour, than if we'd been many.

The tour starts with all of us climbing into the back of an open bed cart being pulled along a dirt path further into the rainforest by a tractor. After about 10 minutes, it stops at a building, and we all climb down and start walking along a path which is probably a couple of kilometres long, and along which we will eventually find 15-18 large mesh domes under which groups of bird live. Toucans with toucans, eagles with eagles, parrots with parrots, etc.

The enclosures are quite large, and there are only 4-6 birds in each. Inside, the rainforest is replicated as much as possible, and there are any number of perches, etc for them to flit between. And the mesh is quite fine, which means the birds have a sense of being part of the bigger environment, while being protected from predators. I asked Tamara if the wild birds, monkeys, etc ever come out of the rainforest to investigate their brethren under mesh, and she said it happened all the time. The fine mesh also means it is possible to get really great photos without the typical fence-grid overlay which mars many a zoo shot, and the birds especially seem really curious when people come along and many came right up to the mesh to investigate us, which meant we were only five or six feet away on the pathway. They seemed to understand we were no threat to them, and that they were protected by the domes.

This is a standard green parrot:


and a scarlet macaw:


and my most favorite, the toco toucan:


It's not just birds who end up in the sanctuary - there was a family of capuchin monkeys, including this baby, and when he is old enough, he will be released back into the park, while his injured parents live out their days under protection:

The raptors, most of whom can no longer fly, spend their days outside the mesh domes, sitting on falconry posts out in the open, chattering to themselves. This is an Aquila Viuda black and white hawk-eagle, who had snapped a tendon in its wing when hit by a car. The wing had healed somewhat, but this fellow would never again have the strength to fly and more specifically, hunt:


Next to him, a Crowned Solitary Eagle:


This caiman had been a BA family's illegal pet as a baby, but when it started to grow and become aggressive, they surrendered it to the park. It is now about 12 feet long:


This is a pygmy deer. She is about the size of a border collie, which was surprising to me, being used to the full-size deer and elk of Banff and Jasper National Parks. She was having a snooze right next to the elevated walkway. Had I been so inclined, I could have easily reached over the handrail and patted her head. She was completely unfazed by the approach of people. Her babies however, stood off at a distance; born in captivity, this apprehension of people means they may eventually be released into the park.


Some of the species currently living at the sanctuary are nearly extinct in nature, their habitat destroyed by man and massive hydro electric dams along the principal rivers in the rainforest. When two or more of the same species are in the sanctuary at the same time, the rangers will try to induce mating, in order to rebuild the populations, and they take great care so the healthy babies do not become used to man or domesticated. Only by doing this do they have any hope of being able to release them into the wild when they are old enough to fend for themselves. They have apparently had great success with some species, but not others. There was an enclosure dedicated to enormous vultures, but I noticed off to the side a smaller pen with only one large black vulture sitting in it. I asked Tamara about that one. It had been found by a farmer as a fledgling, and raised in a barn before eventually being seized by officials. But the damage was already done - the vulture now only recognizes people as its "friends". The rangers tried to introduce it to the other vultures, and it attacked them as a threat. It seems incapable of recognizing its own kind, and as a result, will live out its days alone.

I never did get to see the purported highlight of the tour, however. The puma they had been caring for had recently recovered sufficiently to be released back into the park. Another success story for a well-organized and incredible sanctuary!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Feria de los Mataderos

Buenos Aires is a very large city. The capital district comprises 29 districts, with nearly 13 million people living here. Thus far, I have spent my time mostly in the six districts that form the downtown and immediate surrounding area, but today I ventured further afield, to the district of Mataderos.

This is the last stop before crossing out of the city into the more rural areas that will eventually lead to the Pampas, the cattle ranches of the grassland plains, where Argentina's famous beef is raised. "Mataderos" means slaughterhouse, and this traditionally was the neighbourhood where cattle would be brought for sale and slaughter, with the surrounding apartments and flats housing the workers from the slaughterhouses. This is not a prosperous neighourhood, but it is working and proud and quite traditional, and it celebrates the "real Argentina" every Sunday during the fall and winter with a fair.

Because of its location, it is not nearly as tourist-oriented as the more easily accessible Sunday fairs, like San Telmo, although to be sure there were a number of tourists here (although most seemed to be from nearby regions or countries, speaking Spanish. I didn't hear anyone speaking English all afternoon). Getting here is a bit of a challenge. I took the subway to the very end, and then hired a car to take me another 12-15 minutes through some desperate looking areas to the fair grounds, formally named the National Market of the Hacienda, which is in reality an open stadium that might be used for soccer or rugby the other six days a week.

In hiring the remise, as the car service is called, I was assigned to a very nice young man named Sebastian, who spoke exactly no English. Either the local tobacco smells suspiciously like pot, or Sebastian enjoys his weed (particularly in his car), but in any event, he drove me very carefully to the fair grounds and explained quite adamantly that I should never cross Eva Peron Avenue, which was the main route to the fair grounds. It was quickly apparent why - on one side of the street, corner stores, supermarkets, clothing outlets, a Mercedes dealership - on the other side, the ravaged remains of buildings that looked like they had been through a war. The contrast was beyond striking. It might explain why no one at my hotel had themselves ever been to Mataderos, and all cautioned me to be careful and watch my camera.

Sebastian brought me right up to the main gate and explained to me what I would find depending on which direction I turned - the restaurant/grill zone, entertainment, lots and lots of arts and crafts stalls, and over here, the horses. Through my now-patented routine of hand signals and limited Spanish, he agreed to come back at 5:30 and pick me up to take me back to the subway station. I had the afternoon to myself. Or as much to myself as one can have with 10 or 12 thousand other folks out enjoying the rest of the Worker's Day weekend (May 1).


This is part of one block - it goes on for several blocks in each direction, with the central square hosting the musical activities. Over the course of the afternoon, a number of excellent bands and musicians played any number of what seemed to be well-known folk songs, such that large segments of the crowd were singing along, clapping their hands to add percussion, and even dancing in the street. Part of the Feria's appeal is the number of local people it draws with roots in the outlying regions, who come to the fair dressed in traditional garb:


These two were married, and along with another couple, seemed to be leading the street dancing. Between bands, we struck up a conversation, and they seemed fascinated that a Canadian would come to their fair. I guess it doesn't happen very often. But it didn't matter if you came dressed in jeans and T-shirts, like the young folk did, or in the more traditional clothes, watching everyone move with precision was amazing, like seeing a room full of Victorians waltzing at a ball, dozens of couples moving in sync crossing the floor in uniform direction.

A big part of the Feria is the traditional gaucho competitions, where horsemen (and one woman) undertake games of skill. My favorite involves galloping at full speed towards a small stand roughly eight feet tall, from whose crossbar hangs about a foot of rope and at the very bottom of the rope, a pin with a loop of metal, about the size of a key chain ring. The gaucho holds a silver wand out in front of him at arm's length, and must get the wand through the loop while standing in the stirrups of the galloping horse. It is impressive to watch. These fellows were waiting their turn:


The central square is ringed with parillas (charcoal grills) and food stalls. I was mesmerized watching the empanada assembly line at one, and here they are making tortillas for a very hungry crowd. The folks on the right, in the aprons, are rolling out and punching out the tortillas - they then go to the lady in the foreground, who is in charge of frying them up, and then they make their way up to the front of the stall for sale:


As with any fair, there is something for everyone, and some quirky place-specific stuff as well. Personally, I've never been to a fair where people brought their pet ponies, instead of their dogs, and this fellow every outfitted his pony in the traditional garb of the estancia horses. Perhaps the pony fantasizes about what he will be when he grows up?


I have to confess that I cannot tell the difference between an alpaca and a llama, and because of that, I'm not exactly sure what this is:


His keeper however, was parading him through the crowds, stopping to let small kids pose for their dads (it was always the dads with the cameras) on its back. It was quite cooperative, given the heat and the crowd, and I ran into him several times throughout the day at various places on the fair grounds.

It's a shame more tourists don't know about the fair. It isn't marketed to tourists, but maybe that's a good thing. Those of us who happen to find it can enjoy a glimpse of a more traditional Argentine life, among actual Argentines, instead of being treated to a more polished theme park "experience" that would no doubt be priced out of reach for the average local worker. As it was, I had no problems with the crowd, no one even looked at my camera, and I had a delightful afternoon browsing stalls and eating from food stands and having simple conversations with folks who were kind of excited someone from away took the time and had the interest to come to their fair.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The birds of Puerto Madero

While out along the promenade, I came upon a number of birds who seem quite accustomed to the presence of people. I got within 10 feet of this little guy, who was quite enamoured of the grubs and ants he was pulling out of the tree truck crevices:


This fellow was waiting for me to drop some of my lunch on the ground, keeping watch from the trellises that shade parts of the promenade:


And then there were the parakeets. These little guys are not so good with people, so chasing them around was a bit more of a challenge. Still, they are impossibly green and incredibly playful, darting all over the place, usually in pairs.


I can't wait to see what next week brings at Iquazu Falls, in the Argentine rainforest. I won't be taking my netbook with me for the next couple of days, but will try to post on Wednesday night upon my return to BA.