Burt and I and the mascotas arrived at our place in Mexico a couple of nights ago. Hurricane Irma left the place the greenest we’ve seen it. There was no noticeable damage to our property. A friend’s place rolled away in a flooded arroyo. A massive personal disaster. That got me thinking of how the end of the world as we know it is always thought of as a cataclysm happening to all of us at once. Reality is someone, somewhere is experiencing the end of the world as they know it every day. It’s happening all the time. Many of my older friends are struggling with health problems. Every season we return to find someone, or more likely, several someone elses have died since we were last here. Living our life this way, between worlds, is kind of like a strobe effect. What time normally buffers into a gradual accretion of events like sedimentation behind a dam turns into a cataclysmic tsunami of news. Restaurants closed, beaches built upon, friends gone forever.
Despite the seasonal inventory of who’s here, who might return, and who’ll never return we’re happy to be home. The gang of girls is scheduled for their first class on Tuesday. They are shining stars in our wandering lifestyle. Back to work and play. Our English teacher is no longer available so I am going to plow on ahead. Lesson plans anyone?
As I sit here at the El Centro Walmart parking lot as I have for the last three years I am filled with gratitude and relief to find us ready to cross into Mexico for another winter. The year has been hectic and the last week was filled with non-stop activity. A flat tire, broken furnace, Mimi transfer, and pre-Mexico provisioning has consumed our minds and bodies. Burt and I exited the Northern Jaguar Project reserve to find it 26F in Portal. That means it’s time to head south without delay.
All the details of crossing are the same every year but the means of accomplishing our tasks vary. Vehicle insurance – check, health insurance – check (Thanks, Obama), clothes for Vikki – check, visas – check, special foods (chocolate, parmesan cheese)- check. This year we purchased our insurance and visas early due to the NJP reserve excursion. We’ve also learned to do this without joining the Baja traveler’s group that demands a pretty surcharge for the supposed convenience of them getting us our visa. We do self-service at the border. Saves us a trip to San Diego or chasing mail. It’s very easy. If you’re thinking of coming down by car let me know and I’ll tell you how to do it.
I have a nice pile of clothes from my neighbors that were donated by a variety of friends. Thanks, Pat, Jack, Jack’s wife, Eskild, Susan, and Peg. Today I supplemented these hand-me-downs with a spree at the dollar store and Target. Last spring we had a benefit concert and the proceeds of that go to my girls. With the money I bought hair ties, nail polish, socks, tees, tights, markers, and note pads for 14. The Target cashier got a little misty when she heard why I was buying such a volume of children’s clothes in a wide variety of sizes. I am so grateful to my dad and our fans for generously helping us make these gifts.
After all our preparatory work was done we found ourselves with time to spare in a not so attractive town. We did a short bird walk in a city park. The new eBird phone app uses GPS to map and time each bird sighting. I wanted to play with it before we got to Mexico. That worked so add another check to the list of to-dos. On the technology front I also managed to add WhatsApp? to my iPhone. This is a texting app favored by all our Latin American friends from Mexico to Ecuador. I finally got on board and started texting our buddies in their preferred manner. Another check on the to-do list.
The bird walk was quick so then we headed over to the bowling alley. Normally when were siting about in a towny area we’d go to the movies but nothing showing appealed to us and the bowling alley was shiny and new. Burt and I last bowled in Helena, Montana in 2007 when my parents came to visit. It was a cool and rainy day. Bowling seemed like a good idea. It was fun for a few minutes but mom couldn’t really remember how to hold the ball. She was in the midst of her Alzheimer’s. Mom was still active but the activity had to be something she was hardwired for. Bowling wasn’t high on the list of her hobbies. Golfing was okay. So we bailed after one set of ten frames.
Today Burt and I showed signs of untapped bowling talent. Our first ten frames were a disaster. The score was 90 to 38. The next set saw such dramatic improvements you’d think we had been trying to lure in some marks the first round. That was 238 to 141. We quit mid-way through the third round because my wrist was too tired. I started dropping the ball instead of rolling it. Burt thought we could go pro by next week if we applied ourselves. I figure I’d have a psychological breakdown and should get out now.
Now we are snuggled in the gNash and ready to drive. Mimi is already back into her old routines of begging food and walking on me all night long.
How could I forget to post these snapshots of the gang of coatis? I lost track of my files between two cameras is how. Burt and I are pointed towards Baja. The gNash is parked in a rest area on I-8 just outside of Yuma. Tomorrow we will shop for supplies and Christmas presents for our gang of girls. I have to spend that money from the fundraiser concert we did at the end of last season. Ooooh the pressure. What should I get? What do they want? Ack ack ack.
Two weeks away from phones, computers, and social obligations can be a time of productivity and room to try new things and time to just be. The first week went by easily. I never looked to my phone to see what was happening. I cooked. I laundered. I drew. I birded. I walked. I practiced my fiddle. There are new tunes in my fingers and sketches on my pad to prove I was productive. Time passed easily and I got a lot done. Around day ten I noticed I was having a hard time getting things done. I was staying in bed later. I was sitting and staring longer. I hadn’t drawn a plant. I hadn’t practiced my fiddle. The boys were cooking more. I had walked all the roads I could reach from our base camp.
What was going on? My mood was sour. I wanted to accomplish more but nothing was happening. I was in a malaise. One things was clear: I was reading. Reading has gone by the wayside for writing, birding, and social media-ing. I read three books in the back country. Most notably I read a sweet and moving novel called The Little Paris Bookshop. Nina George wrote this stunner. The book is superficially a fluffy chick-lt piece. It reflects on life and lost love. I was sucked in and my mood became melancholy. There were some painful and insightful parts about living in fear or living in love. I finished it and moved on to some manly Jim Harrison as a head clearer.
I couldn’t shake my sadness. I walked and sat and read. The boys worked on the casita and fed me. Then I remembered it was the one year anniversary of my mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease. Her birthday was at the start of our trip and then I dreamt of her and finally I realized we’d reached the date of her death. I was extra sad that I couldn’t quite recall the exact date. I knew it was between the second, third, or fourth. I was sad because even though I had called my father in advance of leaving and reflected on the upcoming time, I wished I could call him again. I was surprised at the intensity of the loss and the yearning to be comforted and provide comfort to those people feeling the same loss.I’m saying this was good for me. I think I would have been able to push this sadness away if I had more to occupy my mind.
The day after I recognized what was bothering me my mood lifted. Consciously saying I miss my mom made it easier. And a day or two later it was time to head back into the world at large. And here I am.
Here’s my daily diary from our work trip into the Northern Jaguar Project reserve. I way ‘our’ work but mostly Burt worked with Randy. I helped here and there. My mind kind of started feeding on itself after 8 days without contact beyond the two very male companions and the dogs. At that point my journal stops. I’ll write a separate post soon on where my mind went.
11/24/17: Black Friday: We arrived in Sahuaripa late Tuesday afternoon. It was a late start because the truck batteries were dead. No idea why. Our goal was to meet Randy the manager of the Northern Jaguar Project (NJP) Reserve on Tuesday and drive in on Wednesday to start our work. Despite an array of logistical difficulties from surveyors and cowboys and trucks and concerned staff and the 41 mile 6 hour drive we made it in the day after our original goal. One cowboy was too shy to ride with us. The surveyors hadn’t planned to take a whole day just to arrive at their surveying location. The original truck didn’t have room for the dogs. All problems were solved by the very able Randy while Burt and I explored Sahuaripa and read books. Sahuaripa takes twenty minutes to explore so we read a lot. Only one person yelled at us to go home. Twenty-four hours and a bunch of work related phone calls for Randy and into the wilds we headed.
Last night we arrived with a truck laden with tools, food, dogs, and humans. On the way we passed two raccoons, a bunch jack rabbits, and a black tail disappearing into the bush. The owner of the black tail to forever remain a mystery. Could it have been a cat? A smallish cat to be sure. Maybe it was a thinly furred skunk? Or a road runner on steroids. All six of us (Randy, Burt, Cholo, Elvis, Olive, and me) were road weary. We unloaded our bedding and headed straight to our cots.
Today is Black Friday. We celebrated by shopping for building supplies at an abandoned ranch house. Nobody drove a harder drive to get a better bargain than the six of us. An hour later the truck was full of lumber.
11/25/17: Rancho Babisal: It’s our second full day in the reserve. The three of us are sharing chores. There’s food to cook, water to heat for our showers, general tidying. I try not to fall into the traditional woman’s role but it’s impossible to avoid it. The men are both manly. They have a lot of hard labor and the best way I can help is to cook and clean. I have by no means done all the cooking just more than usual. Today I made homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Randy’s favorite. Ours, too.
Yesterday the boys collected lumber from the old ranch house while I hiked a side canyon. Just a short ways up the canyon I sat at a puddle of water and watched the butterflies with Elvis and Olive. Cholo, Randy’s dog, prefers to help the boys. He is obsessed with tools. Cholo grabs shovels and barks at wheelbarrows and throws his 6 pound around wherever he can meanwhile Olive and Elvis prefer to wander and find stuff to eat. So Cholo helped load lumber onto the truck and we gazed at a quiet pool. Later on it was a bunch of site work. Some tree limbs came down and the weeds around the tank were cut back. I made tunafish sandwiches.
Today the door was cut and beaten through the old water tank we are converting into a casita. The pile is a reinforced concrete frame filled with concrete block and coated in mortar. It’s a tough SOB. Randy took a grinder and impact drill to the outline on both sides of the wall and then each of us took turns with the sledge hammer. I rotated in for five swings for every thirty taken by Randy and Burt. Poco a poco. When we cleared out enough concrete we cut the rebar with a battery-powered SawzAll. Next we cleaned up the escombro (debris). I found a desiccated lizard and a desiccated frog and scores of dried grasshoppers in the detritus accumulated in the bottom of the tank over the years. Yesterday we rescued a six-legged tarantula from the inside. No telling how long he’d been in there or who he was fighting with. Maybe he fell in with tree limb. You might imagine he was sporting three and three legs per side but he was four and two. His missing legs will grow back if he lives long enough to molt again. While Randy was grinding Burt built some shelves for our casita. The ranch has two bedroom-style casitas with three cots each. There are no hooks or shelves in either place. It’s a nuisance to be here for an extended stay with no place to store personal items. Burt, of course, set about solving that problem as soon as we arrived.
When there’s no room for me to help with the building I’ve been practicing my fiddle, taking short walks, and keeping up on writing this account. The Galapagos got away from me. It took over a week to relay our European trip and I simply had no time to do an accounting of the Galapagos to my satisfaction. Besides, I’m heading back there in February. As part of my host duties I’ll have to write a trip report. I think the laptop will be with me to make it easier to get the job done. Yesterday I saw to trogons in the late afternoon just a quarter mile from here. They flew right in and gave me a lookey-loo.
The days have been warm and cloudless. Night cool rapidly and drive us to our bunks early.
11/26/17: Trogons: It’s day three. Last night I was reflecting on the news that a long time acquaintance had recently taken her life. I started counting up the number of suicides I knew. Too many. Then I started thinking of the dead from all causes. I recently finished reading The Hunger Games. I imagined dead people’s faces lit up in the sky as I though of them just like in the book. It wasn’t sad. I was just thinking of people. I figured they would be glad I was taking stock of them and keeping track.
Vivid dreams seep in every night. My mother’s birthday was a couple of days ago and last night I dreamt of her for the first time since her death nearly a year ago. She came to me in a Cat In The Hat scenario. When I was a child the Cat in The Hat story filled me with angst. Misbehaving children and a mother off running errands. If you read this you know the cat was instigator and also cleaned everything up in the nick of time. It was all too familiar to reality. Mom would leave me with my brothers and go to work. All she wanted was a clean house when she returned. It was not possible. Mom was always irritated by our mess. So in last night’s dream I was somewhere and it was a mess. I felt anxiety. Dread filled me as I thought, she’s coming, she’s coming. The disarray was so overwhelming I didn’t even try to clean. I also remember thinking clearly, not my mess anyway, why should I clean it? Then boom mom showed up. She sparkled with joy like Glinda the Good Witch. She didn’t see the mess, she only saw me. Mom radiated maternal love and said, I’m so happy to see you. I woke up.
Mom really liked cats and nature. Think she came by for a visit? I’m optimistic. Maybe it’s just the extended removal from the distractions of everyday life that allows these thing stop happen. There’s no phone, no texting, no Facebook, no Instagram, no socializing. I work, I clean, I cook, I write, I draw, I sleep. The nights are long and quiet. I wonder who else will come in my Dreams as the nights lengthen.
Burt and I are developing a routine. I cook dinner early and we go for an evening walk knowing that dinner is ready whenever we return. We leave the dogs in our cabaña so we have a better chance of seeing wildlife. They get enough time roaming all day. The sun sets early in the canyon walls at Babisal but darkness takes a long time to arrive. Last night we heard a pair of trogons calling from a grove of mesquite trees about a mile from camp. I used my phone to try and lure them in but had no luck. Trogons are large birds with long tails and bright red bellies. Males are sparkling green and females are gray with a white tear drop on their faces. They sound like frogs when they call. Darkness finally came and we headed home by the light of the half moon along the stream bed that passes for a road out here.
The weather continues unchanged. It feels like we are in suspended animation. Every day warm and cloudless. Every night clear and cool. Only the perceptible change of the moon tells us time is passing. Today I did laundry in a bucket and made a lunch of chicken salad wraps dressed with jalapeño/apricot jam and pecans. The house wifey chores are chapping my hands. I always tell Burt this is why I hate washing dishes and it’s true. The boys continued beating out the concrete for windows in the casita under construction. I made time-lapse videos of the sledge hammering. The boys move really fast in time-lapse.
11/27/17: Coatimundi: Yesterday afternoon we celebrated the victory over reinforced concrete with a quick trip to the Aros River. Aros means hoop in Spanish and the river is named for it’s looping bends. There is a small intermittent stream near camp. I presume its called Babisal Creek or something similar. This creek has substantially diminished since we were here a month ago . Despite its small size it still attracts a lot of birds and insects but we wanted to see the NJP reserve’s main artery. The Aros is a permanent river that grows to a formidable size with winter rains and the summer monsoons. There are fish and freshwater otters among the jaguars and puma. Of course, most all the area’s wildlife prefer the shady banks of the free flowing river. It’s only ten miles away from our camp but those ten miles take an hour and a half to drive. An neck straining, head banging hour and a half. An hour and a half of Olive and Elvis walking all over me while I try to avoid head injury and vomiting in the sorry excuse for a back seat of the extended cab.
All five of us arrived intact to find a generator at the government gaging station running. Ambiance was lacking. We can’t complain since we run a generator to provide power for our tools but it was a disappointing moment in our brief visit to the river. We all walked upstream and away from the noise. Randy fished. Burt swam. I scanned the opposite bank for life with my binoculars. Soon German from the gaging station saw us and turned off his generator and came down for a visit. The station is fully digital now but there is still a full time employee. The staff work three week stretches away from home. I guess German was ready for some company. He invited us for coffee. We didn’t go but it was because of confusion about who did or did not leave gates to the reserve open. On our drive to the river we found cattle on the reserve because one of the station operators left open gates. I didn’t want to get in between Randy and his work so we decided to decline coffee. Oops. It wasn’t German. It was the other guy. Oh well. German’s used to his solitude.
Not much else happened. We returned to camp and ate dinner.
This morning Randy taught us how to use the emergency communication device and then headed back to town. Burt and I can send an SMS message to Randy (or anyone’s) cell phone if we we need help. Or carrots. Or coffee. The messages are pretty pricey so I think we’ll try to focus on emergencies. Like chocolate. Randy is organizing his workers and gathering more materials for the casita. Our load was too heavy to bring it all in the first trip.
Burt and I took a four hour, four mile walk down our creek. The birding was markedly better. There’s been a slightly perceptible cooling and an increase in humidity. Maybe more birds are out enjoying the refreshing air. Maybe it was a coincidence. It could also be we are getting more familiar with the terrain and can see more things in the thorny canopy. While we were fussing over flycatchers and vireos I heard a crunching from a long way off. There was a loud thing heading our way. Who would dare be so loud. A cow? A human? A pig? It came closer and closer. I was almost scared. Burt and I whispered back and forth. Did you hear that? What is it? It’s so loud! This thing had no caution. It was breaking branches and rustling palm leaves and headed right for us. Burt figured it out before we saw it. He said, “I’ll bet it’s a coatimundi.” He was right it was a pack, flock, pile of coatimundi. We saw them before they say us. Then we made eye contact and they scurried up a tree or four across the creek bed from us. We got in as close as we could and watched the show.
Coati appear to be a cross between monkeys and raccoons. They climb up and down trees and use their tails to gain further purchase as they maneuver from tree top to tree top. I had only seen one in the wild and it was a human-habituated old loner that let me hand feed it a fig newton. This group was a tribe of females and juveniles. I counted seven at one time but suspect half as many more were hidden from view as they scurried up and down trees trying to get a bead on us. I snapped a lot of photos. Eventually one stood guard and the rest came down and ran in the opposite direction of us. There was much chitter chatter as they planned the escape. I did not know coatimundi climb up and down trees facing the direction of motion. They look funny headed face first down a palm trunk. Not the way a cat would do it. Or me.
We ate leftover chicken salad for lunch in the shade of a mesquite. I sat on a rock far from vegetation and kind of sunny. Burt sat on a comfy stone in deep shade and picked up a bunch of stickers. I told him my previous solo hikes had taught me to avoid all vegetation. Stickers and bugs like the shade, too.
11/28/17: Great Horned Owl Eats Bat: The day almost slipped away without writing. After a breakfast of fried spaghetti Burt carried two chairs down to the creek crossing about a ¼ mile from camp. We left the dogs in our casita. I sat for an hour and a half and counted birds. Burt went back to work after a half an hour. It was pretty good birding from about 10:00 to 11:00. The clear skies are gone. Mare’s in the morning were followed by mackerel skies in the afternoon. We can only wonder if a cold front or rain might be on the way.
After lunch I helped clean demolition debris. Burt and I set the first rafter yesterday afternoon. Now Burt was working on window frames and cleaning up the rough openings. We also practiced cutting glass. Neither of us had ever cut glass. It proved pretty easy with a glass cutter. Now we know. Burt will be building windows from scratch for the new casita.
After three days of concentrated effort on some Irish fiddle tunes I learned at this year’s Portal Irish Music Week I was finally ready to invite Burt to play along with me. It’s always difficult to incorporate new material. There’s a number of factors in play. I have to like it and play it well enough. Burt has to like it. It has to hold our interest for more than a few days. Our of the three tunes I played Burt was keen on two. That’s a pretty good ratio. I’ll keep working them over and see how they develop. It’s been years since I added three tune sin one week. Lots of free time is bearing results.
This evening we returned to the chairs on the creek. Dinner was made and ready when we were. We sat at dusk watching bats and listening to birds. I thought I saw a pipit land in the sand a few yards away. I’ve never had a confirmed a pipit sighting so I played the pipit call. Just then a great horned owl landed on the leafless palm trunk thirty feet away. We watched the owl as it scanned up and down the creek from its perch. Bats flew back and forth. The pipit recording was quietly peep peep peeping. Just as I wondered if great horned owls eat bats the owl launched off its perch and flew straight at us. Immediately over our heads, not four feet away, the owl intercepted a bat. We heard the impact. In one instant there were two things flying over us and in the next just one figure flying away. A few minutes later another bat resumed hunting insects. Gobsmacked we walked back to camp to wear our Thai peanut veggies on brown rice.
11/29/17 Just another day in the wilderness: I sat by the creek and counted more birds today. Burt and I were by ourselves again except for a brief visit by a pair of the NJP reserve cowboys. The cowboys came by for water for their horses. They and some surveyors are working a couple of hours from here. We played music and worked. Not much else happened.
11/30/17: Last Day of November: November was full of a disorienting array of destinations. I’ve awoken up in 15 different places this month. Burt and I are at over fifty spots for 2017. This year will be our most mobile in all eight years of calling ourselves the Gypsy Carpenters. The travel was both work and pleasure related. In some ways it was the perfect representation of what we imagined our lives as gypsies would be. Our more normal year of a work destination in summer and Mexico in winter is far more sedantary.
The stay in the reserve has been a goal of Burt’s for four years. Now that it is happening I asked him if he had a new five year or ten year plan. It’s annual appraisal time in camp. At first there was no clear next but then he said, “We could drive to Ecuador.” I’m all for a drive of South America. It’s ambitious and requires a complete reconfiguration of our traveling outfit. We’d need a stout camper van. We’d also need to wait for Mimi and Elvis to graduate to the next level. Olive alone is a manageable traveling companion. She fits nearly anywhere. So no rush. Lots of time to make plans.
12/1/17: Randy Back: The night before last Randy returned. I thought I heard his truck through my earplugs but the Olivis and the Burt didn’t wake up so I figured it was my imagination or not worth worrying about. Morning came and there was Cholo de la Cholla and Randy in camp and ready to go. Burt whipped up a breakfast of sweet potato fries and eggs and they set to work. I sat by the creek and sketched.
The weather is ,such the same. Warm days, cool nights. For several days there have been wispy clouds in the upper atmosphere. Rarely a breeze. Word came in over the emergency texting device that the surveyors were lost. Not lost lost. Lost in the sense that they couldn’t find the place they were hired to survey. This gave us all a good and slightly bitter laugh. If the surveyors didn’t know where they were supposed to be how could anyone? Maybe it’s the Bermuda Triangle of the NJP Reserve? In classic wilderness style Randy decided to ignore the text and hope the problem went away.
After lunch Burt and I took a hike up to the Babisal box canyon. Last month when we came in to scope out the job Turtle and Randy took our group up to a waterfall and hidden spot of lush vegetation. They call this spot the spiritual heart of the reserve. It’s possible to climb up the waterfall and further explore the canyon but last time I chose to stay dry and not see the rumored banana tree above. This time the water was much lower and I was ready to be wet. Burt and I took off our shoes. I rolled up my cuffs to over my knees and Burt want naked below. We waded into the sandy bottomed pool to the base of the waterfall. Last time we were here I saw leeches in the water. Once upon a time the thought of leeches would have made me nauseous. Yesterday I laughed. Burt’s parts must have looked more desirable than my lower legs. We reached the other side and sat down to put our shoes back on. My pants were not rolled high enough. Burt said he and Howard had discussed this phenomenon in the Galapagos. It seems whenever you roll up your pants they just get wet anyway, so why bother?
I climbed up the dry face of the waterfall to the next level. From here I could see the banana tree. This tree had become a minor obsession for me since I had heard about its nearly ripe bananas a month ago. Those wild bananas must be the best bananas in the world. To get to the tree required a stemming move across a slimy dihedral with running water in the crack. Stymied again I watched as Burt made the move. I couldn’t risk it with my slow moving brain and body. It was a twenty foot fall if I slipped. So Burt disappeared over the edge and I got comfortable. The move taunted me. I almost went for but I kept remembering I was now a mile and a half from camp, halfway up a slot canyon, and a further six hour drive from help. It was not the place to do something silly.
Burt returned with the news that the reserve’s cowboys must have gotten to the tree first. The bananas of last month were gone and all that remained was a very small bunch of unripe fruit. The routinely cowboys climb up the canyon to maintain the water supply for Babisal Camp. Or so they say. I think it’s because they want the world’s best bananas.
With my heavy cotton pants soaked to the thigh we headed back to the abandoned upper Babisal ranch and made our way up the next drainage. This is a large creek bed immediately adjacent to the one we just hiked. Where the main creek still had water and large leafy plants this one was completely dry. The plant life was different and there was no sign of recent animal activity. In the span of a few hundred yards we had entered a different world. We hiked until we reached a stretch of massive boulders. My pants were dry within twenty minutes. Like Burt and Howard said, “Why bother?” In two spots over the course of a half mile we found small, fetid puddles under gigantic rocks. Burt and I threaded our way over the boulder choke until we grew weary. It was a lot of rock climbing moves to find only more rocks and late in the day. Randy was on dinner duty. It was time to head home and hope dinner was ready when we arrived.
Dinner was ready and tasty. We rewarded Randy with some songs and headed to bed at 6:45. A word about our beds. Burt and I are sleeping on twin burlap cots. The cots are standard ranch beds in rural Mexico. A length of burlap is suspended between two lengths of lumber. Moveable X-braces at each end serve as legs. The cots are foldable and sturdy. They are easy to move out of the way if you have only one room. There is no room for two in these beds, if you get what I mean. Conjugal visits have certain limitations. There’s not much room. They there’s the burlap. Add to the ambiance a rickety feel when a kind of ‘motion’ occurs. Yesterday there were audible creaks. And I don’t mean creaks from me or Burt. I thought the whole bed sought to collapse. I was not on top. Funny but not rewarding. Again, I presume you get what I mean. Laughing your way through the act of love can fuel your lover’s fire or diminish their enthusiasm. I thought my man would never wrap up even as he joined the giggling. Some might suggest we take the party to nature. I say, “Have you seen the thorns and stickers out there? Or the ants?” Not inviting.
As stupendous as the Galapagos was it paled in comparison to our reunion with our Ecuadoran family. Burt has known the Lemas for twenty years and I have known them for twelve. They have visited us in Montana and we have stayed with them in Ecuador. It has been ten years since we’ve seen each other. Tighter U.S. visa restrictions shut down the Lema family music and festival touring business. They’ve spent the last ten years redeveloping from Ecuador. Burt and I were thrilled to finally see them again.
We spent four days touring the area near their home and we took a side trip over to a jungle with friends. I caught three trout from a trout farm pond. The men were skunked. I accompanied Elsi on her work. We taught Fabian to use binoculars. And we FINALLY played music together again. This time we played with FAbian’s 15 year old daughter Quetzali on the fiddle. Ten years ago this was only a dream and now she’s standing up playing tunes on her own. We played American fiddle tune, Andina folk, and Christmas carols.
Christmas starts early in Ecuador but the Lema’s delayed putting up their tree so we could help. They say it was an honor. I suspect it was so they could take advantage of our long legs. Ten years ago Quetzi crowned our tree at our house. This year I crowned their tree in their house. No joke. It was an honor they waited for us.
The gathering is always fun. This family takes us in as their own and treated us like long lost children. We were fed and bejeweled and begged to return. More on them later.
The mama of Elsi had a gravid cow while we were there. She was very worried about this first time mother. Our last day visiting I visited the cow. Two hours later she delivered a female calf. As the supposed last person she saw I was deemed to have brought good luck. That was jueves (Thursday). All jueves cows are named Julieta or Julio. Welcome Julieta Susana to be called Susi.
The wonders of the Galapagos are widely covered in books and magazines and I am running out of time. Burt and I are headed into the Northern Jaguar Reserve tomorrow. I will be incommunicado for another two to three weeks. I can’t keep up. So here is a summary:
Naturalist Journeys runs a well organized, fortifying trip full of exciting wildlife and fun activities. You can check them out. Our tour had two daily walks, a daily scuba and about three sea kayaking adventures. No activity was too long or too draining. My favorite activity was snorkeling. What a surprise. I have had some bad snorkeling experiences and this was mesmerizing and fun. There was time for us to play some tunes and sing with our friends. The boat was well kept by a stellar crew. The naturalists were knowledgeable and generous. I encourage you to go while you can. It is a very active trip and it’s fun to do while strong and energetic. I have lots more photos on Facebook. If I have time I’ll put them up here.
Our fifteen hour cruise through rough waters took us to Genovesa Island. Genovesa Island is shaped like partially eclipsed sun. The island is the tip of a defunct volcano barely peaking above sea level with a water filled crater. The Letty and four other ships were at anchor when we awoke. Access to sites in the Galapagos National Park are strictly regulated. Each ship was assigned this destination over a year ago. Throughout the day the 100 or so people scattered throughout the vessels would take their turns visiting the island and its surrounding waters. Our agenda included two walks, a snorkel, and a sea kayak. First up was a dry boat landing at the Prince Phillip steps for a morning walk.
The names of the archipelago features were originally in English when the first map of the area was made by the buccaneer Ambrose Crowley. In 1684 Crowley honored his fellow pirates and British royalty or noblemen. These names were in use at the time of Charles Darwin’s renowned voyage on the HMS Beagle and so became authoritative as the Beagle produced navigational charts of their expedition. Eventually Ecuador took possession of the islands and chose to rename most prominent locales in honor of the 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus. Genovesa Island is in honor of Genoa, Columbus’s home town. Prince Philip steps are in honor of Isabela’s husband, the Columbus expedition’s patron.
Prince Philip has a mighty memorable feature names after him. The walls of the crater are very steep lava. There’s hardly a break and one small beach. We’d be making a wet landing at the beach that afternoon but this morning our panga driver pushed the nose of the our shuttle up against the cliff and one by one we disembarked onto a narrow break in the cliff. Steep, irregular steps led up to the bird filled island body. Our line of eager visitors was immediately held up by a nesting swallowtail gull. There was no way to pass without violating the 6 foot rule. Welcome to the Galapagos. The wildlife has no fear. Our guide pushed ahead and lead us past. The gull did not flinch. A thousand people must pass every week.
Up on top we had our first in depth interpretive tour. The highlight was a Galapagos Mockingbird killing a giant centipede. Our group stopped and watched the mockingbird whip the centipede over and over again on the rocks. Satisfied the centipede was no longer a threat the bird ate the centipede’s brain and only its brain and flew away. The centipede’s legs were still moving. Our guides and Howard had never seen this behavior and has never seen a centipede of this size in the islands. Day one and we were already making history.
Next up was a heap of red-footed boobies in all stages of the reproductive cycle. We saw nesting, hatchlings, juveniles all at the same time. Our guide said it was unusual for the red-footed booby to have a mishmash of breeding at one time. The guide speculated climate change was triggering profound changes in currents and food and bird habits.
The swallowtail gulls were all around, too. These birds are the only nocturnal gulls in the world. Their eyes are rimmed in bright red trim that resembles plastic. Nobody knows for sure what the eye makeup does. At night we could see their ghostly shapes following our ship and diving for churned up squid or jellyfish.
After the walk we returned to the ship for lunch. Our afternoon was filled with another walk at Darwin Beach and a kayak and snorkel. More glorious wildlife above and below the seas and too much food. Food was always plentiful and delicious. There’s no snacking on the islands which initially caused me concern. I like to eat on a walk. The return from excursions was always met with fruit, snacks, and juice so I had no need to worry. My friend Pat told me it would be okay and she was right.
That afternoon we headed out to sea for another big overnight crossing.
The good ship Letty was our vessel for the week. She’s about 30 years old but biannual dry dock upgrades have kept her in fine shape. I wish I could go in for a remodel every two years. Burt and I were bunked below deck in a room with three beds. The extra bed made for spacious storage. We had our guitar and mandolin and the usual necessities to stow and the bed made it much easier. Also, it’s generally considered more comfortable to sleep apart in rough seas. There’s nobody else rolling around in your bed. Elbows and knees fly about erratically when trying to exit the bed for a midnight pee. Not a very romantic situation.
The first excursion was to La Loberia on Isla San Cristobal. Here was a harem of sea lions lolling about and a ‘beach master’ bull male guarding his ladies. The beach master was lumbering in and out of the shallows and down the shore break bellowing and grunting. He swung his head back and forth and if his flippers could reach he would have been beating his chest. The beach masters are mature males working hard to prevent competitors from accessing the females. Beach masters work so hard chasing off suitors they only last in charge a short while until they collapse from exhaustion and hunger. Every few weeks they are dethroned and a new beach master takes over until he too is drained of all virility. This sounds entertaining for the ladies in more ways than one.
While the menfolk do what men do, the females are feeding and caring for the youngsters. We saw many nursing babes and juveniles snoozing in the waning sun. Well fed sea lions rolled around and did yoga poses and slept while we gaped and took photos. It was as if we were invisible. Our guides kept us a whole 6′ away. Years of conditioning made it hard to let an animal of this size this close. In a magnificent roll reversal I was more cautious of the sea lions than they were of me. I mean to tell you, those things have some serious teeth and despite the lack of legs they do move fast.
San Cristobal Island is one of teh oldest in the archipelago. At La Loberia the lava boulders are well worn and rounded because it is the oldest lava and the beach faces the harshest waves. Over the milleniums the rocks have been softened. Other places we were to see were full of jagged and scary rocks of new lava. Also, there are two types of lava: aa and pahoehoe. Aa lava is jagged from the time it erupts. Pahoehoe means robes and it is a softer, more sinuous lava. Pahoehoe rocks start out smoother. Our guides explained all this during our walk to the beach.
We returned to our ship where I had an octopus dinner. Burt had beef. The cruise’s food was good and surprising. The menus are very diverse. Lunches are more traditional with a base of beans and rice but dinner was influenced by world cuisine. That night was a 15 hour open ocean cruise north to Genovesa. I took a dramamine and woke up 12 hours later. I highly recommend dramamine if your are prone to motion sickness. I nearly threw up trying to brush my teeth. Once I took my pill and hit the hay I had not a care in the world.
Morning found us anchored in a sea filled volcanic crater. Coolio.