Burt and I are back at our Mexican home base and all is well. The work on our house continued in our absence and we have nothing to complain about. The weather here is cool and moist. Actual rain fell two days ago and nighttime temperatures are in the 50s. Spring is upon us. La Primavera is typically damp and cool. Yay for spring.
There’s lots going on that I cannot discuss here. Pescadero politics, infrastructure, Bridge. Suffice it to say we are muddling through trying to help where we can. The kids have all but disappeared recently but have no fear we are rounding them up today for a big meeting to discuss our mission statement and goals. A lack of continuity (illness, travel, school) and kid level politics all contributed to the confusion. So today we’ll see what they want. The kids are in charge. We are going to regroup and move forward. Stay tuned.
There are crazy, rich people doing bad things all through history. It helps sometimes to remember now is no different than any other time. Right now might be closer to home for some of us but corruption and exploitation are a continuous part of human history. From the bible’s first stories (allegory, mind you) to current day news, from the current situation in the U.S. to the Galapagos Islands you can find people lining their own pockets at the expense of others everywhere.
At Egas Port on Santiago Island in the Galápagos there are the remains of a salt production facility. Internet research reveals only a tamed down version of this story our guides told us. In the 1960s Hector Egas was granted a salt monopoly in Ecuador by his buddy the president. There was no shortage of cheap salt available in Ecuador and it made no sense to mine salt on an island over 600 miles from the mainland and ship it to consumers but the monopoly made that a money making situation. An additional economic plus came from Egas promising his workers land in exchange for work. Out in the islands with nothing to do after work, the workers even made block in their spare time. For free. Because that block was going to be used to build a hotel (where they might work) and their future homes. Meanwhile they mined salt and lived in rough circumstances and received very low pay. They bunked in a barracks. Oh, there was a soccer field. This lasted about two and a half years.
But surprise, surprise. New elections came and Egas’ buddy lost. Egas also lost his salt monopoly and the workers learned that Santiago Island was a national park and there was no land for them. They were out of work, out of luck and they had to go. Today everyone is gone. Only some pilings from the barracks, a commemorative sign and scattered remnants remain. Current day ship workers still use the soccer field, the salt lagoon is a safe home to breeding birds, including flamingos, and there are still blocks visible along the trail. Visitors are not allowed to visit the lagoon but can take a very scenic walk along rocky cliff and grottoes. Notable for our trip were the fur seals and a wee oystercatcher hatchling. Darwin himself spent several weeks on this island while the HMS Beagle sailed off to restock with water. Darwin was constantly afflicted with sea sickness so he leapt at the chance to stay on land for a few weeks. There’s a feature of surging, roiling water seaside named Darwin’s toilet. No proof on whether or not Darwin found relief there.
Moral of the story: the regular people got screwed, the villain’s family is still prominent, and elections happen. And it’s hard to get to the truth of the history. Googling only came up with superficial stories. Nothing on the exploitation and heartbreak the workers must have felt after spending years working towards a dream of their own home.
Galapagos February 2019 Naturalist Journeys, LLC trip with hosts Susan and Burt Mittelstadt. More photos daily as data limits allow.
Guests: Mariel, Roy, Jill, Maggie, Baird, Janis, Chuck, Mary, Peggy, Bobbie, Julia and Janet.
Before flying to the Galápagos our group of fourteen travelers took an excursion to Antisana National Park to see creatures of the high Andes. Rain was predicted for the afternoon so we got an early start despite some late night arrivals. Despite the predictions it was as clear a day as one could hope in the mountains. Manuel was our knowledgeable guide and Jonaton our expert driver. Our goal was the Andean Condor. At the first pullout it was clear we weren’t at sea level. Despite pounding hearts and fuzzy heads (the elevation all morning was near or over 13,000’) we were all thrilled with instant success. Andean condors were spotted by Maggie at rest on cliffs across the deep canyon. Manuel set up his spotting scope and showed us how to take great photos with our phones and the scope.
The day continued to amaze. Condors were spotted at a total of three locations with one very close flyby. Lunch was a delicious Andean feast. The rain started to come down just as we puled away to head for our hotel. Here’s what else we found that day:
Day One: Arrival in San Cristobal
We were met at the airport by the brother and sister team of guides, Ivan (I-love) and Karina and four more passengers of our ship the Eric. These two very experienced guides got us to the Eric for lunch and a safety drill and then we were back in out pangas for a visit to the Galapaguera, a tortoise breeding facility on the Island of San Cristobal. At the port we found our first creatures of the Galápagos. There were sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, blue-footed boobies and a green heron. In Galapaguera we saw our first of Darwin’s finches and learned about efforts to restore the archipelago’s land tortoise populations. The highlight bird was our first of two woodpecker finches. We also were introduced to the poison apple tree. The rainy season was well underway and the island was lush with greenery and the air heavy with humidity. Our winter escapees had found a warm refuge. That evening we met the crew and toasted to our great luck to all come together on the fantastic final voyage of the Eric. Our evening meal was the first of many tasty meals. Sleepyheads one and all we hit the racks and motored all night towards Genovesa.
Striated heron (Galápagos)
San Cristobal Mockingbird
Galápagos sea lion
Sally Lightfoot crab
Day Two: Genovesa, Darwin’s Cove and Prince Philip’s steps.
First activity of the day was a walk at Darwin Bay. Immediately we were met by the archipelago’s famously accessible wildlife. Birds and lizards and fish all seemed to welcome our observations and photographs. Our first marine iguanas were here. After our short walk and talk we donned our gear and hit the water. This group was a happy bunch of snorkelers. Ivan even had a Ring-of-Happiness and individual support for our less experienced participants. After the hour long swim we headed back on ship for snacks and lunch and sea kayaking and paddle boarding. Late that afternoon, after music and a siesta we did a deep water snorkel. Hammerhead sharks and many of their sea companions joined us, including a baleful purple octopus. Back on board to change and then back in the pangas. We climbed the Prince Philip steps to see the vast population of birds that make this remote isle famous. Target bird was the short-eared owl. Bobbies, gulls, frigates, doves, mockingbirds, there were a lot of birds, both species and numbers. As we walked we learned about the Nazca boobies practice of NAV (non-parental visitor aggression) and we watched a juvenile spar with an NAV. The short eared owl has developed a daylight hunting strategy to avoid the Galápagos hawk. It can take birds much bigger than itself and on Genovesa it frequently waits in cracks to ambush incoming storm petrels. We spotted four of these interesting birds on our afternoon walk. One gave quite a show looking as though he might have a pellet to expel. Nothing materialized despite a solid ten minutes of what appeared to be owl expectoration. Then it was back to the Eric for more food and libations. The very active day sent us to bed right after dinner.
Band-rumped storm petrel
Wedge-Rumped storm petrel
Large cactus finch
Spotted eagle ray
Blue chinned parrot fish
White sea urchin
Pencil spend sea urchin
Yellowtail surgeon fish
Gold rimmed surgeon fish
Manta ray (sp)
White-tipped reef shark
Giant damsel fish
Panama sergeant major
Large banded blenny
Calico lizard fish
Guinea fowl puffer
Baby jack (sp)
Day Three: Santa Cruz Island, Black Turtle Cove, Baltra, Dragon Hill
After a sound sleep and another long night crossing we headed out early into Black Turtle Cove on the pangas. Here we learned about the mangroves and saw an abundance of penguins, turtles, and nursery sharks. A pair of Pacific green turtles obliged us with their mating practices. The penguins swam by in formation. It seemed like they were seeking handouts. The next activity was another snorkel. The snorkels were so full of saline that further lists only contain notable animals. Midday was occupied by refueling at Baltra. The Gypsy Carpenters helped pass the time with a singalong
in the lounge. That afternoon we snorkeled (again :)) and took a hike up Dragon Hill in search of land iguanas and giant tortoises. Of course we saw both. This group had magic.
Great blue heron
Pacific green sea turtles
Chocolate chip seastar
Pencil sea urchin
Day Four: Fernandina Island, Punta Espinoza, Bahia Urvina
By day four we are really into the rhythm of our daily activities. Getting in and out of our wetsuits, eating great food, napping, singing. every day is action packed. This day we arrived at the western most part of our trip. Fernandina is the youngest island in the archipelago. Our landing on the dock brought us nose to nose with marine iguanas and sea lions. Overhead we found three Galágos hawks. Underfoot there were lava lizards sunning onto of sea iguanas. We saw the rarely seen flower of the lava cactus and flightless cormorants. Our afternoon hike on the edge of Isabela Island was filled with enormous marine iguanas, giant tortoises and more cormorants.The day’s snorkels were excellent again but it was hard to imagine better, but more was waiting.That night we had a special concert by the Eric’s crew. I-Love led the group in high energy songs but Segundo moved us with his traditional ballads. Those guys could really jam. There were songs and dancing and Maria led is in the limbo. Then collapse into our beds with smiles again.
Striated heron (lava)
Darwin’s finch (sp)
Day Five: Isabela Island, Elizabeth Bay, Tagus Cove, Darwin’s Crater:
After another fortifying breakfast we took a panga ride along the coast of this marvelous island. The surprise was seeing the largely vegetarian Pacific green sea turtle with it’s jaws firmly locked on an half eaten fish. A large half eaten fish. Somebody was craving protein. A concentric pufferfish was dining on a moth. The damp season had brought a lot of insects and the birds and fish were taking advantage. Spiders (argiope sp) in beautiful webs were also seen everywhere. The morning snorkel was laden with sea life. Penguins, cormorants, turtles and iguanas in a parade amongst the permanent creatures of the deep. we learned that an animal is a land creature if it eats on land and a marine creature if it eats in the sea. One irritable flightless cormorant took a nip at Bobbie’s right calf leaving a small red dot. Another first for our group. Really, the visual wonders of the sea made it hard to end every snorkel. Our guides frequently had to chase some of us back into the boat. That afternoon we hiked to Darwin’s Crater for magnificent views of the mysterious salty water body and the vast lava field making up the north of the island. Mockingbirds and finches entertained us with their feather fanning mating displays. Heaps of Monarch butterflies raised questions of migration and food sources. They do not migrate and there is milkweed on the islands. How the Monarch got to the Galapagos is a mystery.
Golden eagle ray
spotted eagle ray
Sea (Tree) lion
Pacific green sea turtle
So many fish. We got tired of trying to sort them all out. Heads were exploding.
Day Six: Puerto Egas of Santiago, Rabida Island
At Puerto Egas we learned about a short lived era of human habitation that left behind a few ruins. It was the eternal story of corruption and exploitation that we hear all over the world. People were promised land that the promiser did not own. A change in government ended it all and everybody left. Today the island teems with wildlife. A group of fur seals were frolicking in the grottos near Darwin’s toilet. We could see the different facial features between the sea lion and fur seals, even thought this fur seal is not a true seal. The dominant male greeted our group with a large bellow. Along the edges of a tidal pool was an American Oystercatcher with its wee down covered hatchling no larger than an egg on legs. Sally Lightfoot crabs added dots of red and gold on the dark sculpted rocks. Zig zag spiders decorated trailside trees. On our morning snorkel we spotted a huge stone scorpionfish and a school of salema I would have said numbered over 100,000 individuals. The afternoon snorkel had a spotted tiger eel snake and toothy moray eel. Late in the day we hiked the red soil of Rabida. Before we even had our shoes changed Burt yelled, “Flamingo” and Karina ran to see if he was kidding. He was not. For the first time in years and only the second time ever in her 20+ year career there was a flamingo in the brackish water at Rabida. Oddly, it was the second time in 18 months for Burt and Susan to see a flamingo here. Their amazing good luck continued. We got an eyeful of that calm and showy bird. It was spectacular. We all watched as it swung its improbable bill back and forth in the water filtering out crustaceans and preened its bright pink feathers.
White-cheeked pintail (Galápagos)
Moray eel (sp)
Tiger eel snake
Day Seven: Highlands of Santa Cruz Island and the Darwin Center
Our tour was coming to an end and there was a kind of gentle sadness infecting us. Not only would we have to say good-bye to new friends but all of us, crew and passengers, had to bid farewell to the Eric. After nearly three decades of service the Eric was being replaced by a new ship. We all loved this hard working craft and nobody wants dot see it retired. Still we had fun and more things to see and more songs to sing. That morning we visited the Darwin Center and Karina delighted us with a passionate presentation of the land tortoise restoration program. She explained how island by island rats were being eradicated. It was a complex process but slowly they were notching up success. Land tortoises are breeding in the wild for the first time in 100 years in some locations. Then we took an hour to explore the town and stock up on gifts for home. After lunch we took a bus ride to the highlands and visited the Gemelos, twin sink holes. Green warbler-finches sang for us and a woodpecker finch sped on past. At the working ranch we observed the tortoises in mid-migration across a working farm. We also walked through a dark and damp lava tube. Karina explained how these tubes form when the lava cools at different rates. A cooler and harder exterior can contain a warmer flowing interior, like a straw and soda. That night we played music and gathered ourselves for the parting.
White-cheeked pintail (Galápagos)
Day Eight: Interpretive Center at San Cristobal, Departure
The final day was spent touring the exhibits at the San Cristobal Interpretive Center or hiking up Tijeretas Hill followed by a snack and wi-fi in town as we waited for our flight to Quito. The hill hike rewarded us with a breeze and expansive views of Puerto Ayora and the Pacific. Our group arrived in Quito and had one last dinner together and then it was off on ur own journeys. Some headed home, others to Mindo for more birds, and others for a more expansive tour through Ecuador. It was a privilege to be in your company. We were lucky to have a group of warm and interesting companions, guides that wanted to share their home with us, and a crew that saw to our every need.
Great blue heron
San Cristobal mockingbird
Here we are at what happens to be the end of week 5 of construction. The structure is complete. Next steps for our team of albañiles (masons) is the half wall on the roof deck and the start of the exterior plaster. Word is the interior scaffolding will remain in place as the roof concrete cures for two weeks. I just looked up the cure curves for concrete to refresh myself. Seven days is generally accepted as 70% strength under optimal temperatures and humidity. We’re pretty close to that here on the Tropic of Cancer, maybe just a little dry and too much day to night temperature swings, for a perfect cure but way ahead of the US right now. So two weeks is well within the margin of error to remove the forms.
The pour was uneventful but a little stressing for me. Our concrete was ordered from Cabo San Lucas. Two of the spinning Easter egg shaped trucks and a pumper truck came in stages but by the time the pumper was situated the concrete was two hours old. ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineering) says no truck over 1 1/2 hours old shall be accepted. I know from past experience that 2 hour trucks get poured but it’s not what you want to do. It was a very dry, difficult to work concrete that landed on our roof. Only time will tell if it’s adequate for the job. Most likely all is well and this is a case where ignorance would be bliss. I have no fears about the structural integrity but I do worry about the finish. Here, again, our location is an advantage. There is no freeze, therefore no thaw, and the concrete finish should not be heavily stressed.
On other fronts I was laid low by a severe bout of vertigo last week. It’s happened before and it’s never fun but this time I projectile vomited. Surprisingly easy to do when your inner ear isn’t working. The ear doctor hear ordered me onto a no salt diet. My ear seems to hurt less, and my fingers are skinnier. I guess I was retaining water. The vertigo is lessened but not gone. It might take weeks.
We have a show next week and we’ve been regularly practicing with our friend Priscila. Check us out on Valentine’s Day at Las Fuentes, 6 PM, Todos Santos. Love gone good and bad.
Soon we will have a roof over our casita. Yes, Kevin, I call it a casita because it’s just a one-bedroom home. There’s no room for guests but that won’t be a problem. We have the rumpus room for any visitors. Hint, hint. For those of you concerned about construction management while we are gone for ten days I say you are right to be concerned. We’re pretty relaxed about this but there is no telling what might or might not happen. The Gypsy Carpenters often work in similarly unsupervised conditions with very few problems. We’re extending the same trust to our team that we enjoy from our clients. In addition, our neighbor and good friend Janet will be serving as the treasurer. She can give the guys money if they need any supplies while we are gone. Janet knows our team, she speaks Spanish, and she is right next door. She will be well compensated for any work she has to do on our behalf. The job should be at the plaster and stucco stage so there’s not much that could go wrong. Famous last words, right?
The construction technique for the ceiling has finally come clear in my head. I was confused for years about how insulation and concrete and rebar came together to form a roof. and ceiling. Rebar and insulation are built over plywood forms in a matrix. Concrete is poured over the mass to a thickness of 2″ above the rebar. After two weeks of curing the forms are removed and the bottom (ceiling side) is a grid of reinforced concrete and styrofoam. They call this style of roof caseton. Maybe casaton. I’m not sure. When the forms are removed the underside is then plastered. My fears of concrete landing on my head during a Baja earthquake were unfounded. This is a well reinforced structure. If a big earthquake hits only plaster will rain down. I feel better. Were you worried? Our workers tell us only the gringos and really rich Mexicans get a caseton roof. Most families here live under simple concrete slabs or corrugated metal roofs. These homes can be unspeakably hot in summer.
Oh, btw, our workers built that brick colored house behind ours in the photos.
Progress continues at a most satisfactory pace here in El Pescadero. Our team works with minimal oversight and zero drama. Every day Burt meets with them in the morning to discuss material needs. If something must be bought Burt goes and takes care of it while the guys get to building. Typical daily purchases are some combination of sand, gravel, block, cement, or water. There’s a limited amount of storage on our lot so materials come in only as they are needed.
Reinforced concrete beams have been poured to support the slab that is both ceiling and roof. It’s not just a roof, it’s a floor too. Our roof top will be accessible for viewing your enjoyment. Until someone builds on the lot south of us we have a clear view of the dancing humpback and gray whales. A few years ago Burt used to be able to see the surf break with binoculars but that view has since been obliterated by beach level condos. He uses the internet now to decide if he should go surfing. The roof, ceiling, floor…the slab will be insulated with blocks of styrofoam. I can’t quite envision how this is done. I’ll be sure to pay attention and let you know. Today temporary scaffolding is being installed to support the plywood forms for the concrete. The big slab pour should be very, very soon.
It’s official, we’re official. Burt and I have achieved temporary resident status in Mexico and not a day too soon. When I initiated our visa application process I didn’t realize that being in limbo between application and achieving residency would come with certain complications. One complication is you can’t leave the country without special permission. Another is the banks don’t like letting you do business. We’re running through pesos faster than Olive can eat a chocolate bar and having banking difficulties threatens our building project. Add to that Dad having debit card issues and using us as his money changer and suddenly we had a payroll to meet and no moolah to spare. The first transfers we made this year came with the surprise that we needed both a visa and a passport to make the transfer. In years past we only needed a passport. Two times they let us get away with showing the letter saying our visas were in process. Two weeks ago we finished the visa process but our laminated cards weren’t ready. We were issued a temporary visa, a piece of paper with our new ID number and photo. It says we are temporary resident of Mexico and has the Mexican equivalent of our social security number. Immigration said to use the piece of paper in the interim if any one wanted to see our visa. Burt took this to the bank expecting to get money. He got nothing but the news that it would not work. We needed our laminated card.
That sick feeling of being here with no access to money settled upon us. We have a team of 5 people expecting payday. We got debit card-less dad with no pesos asking for a loan. The cards were due to be done either today or by the end of next week. I had to put aside my fear of Spanish on the phone and call immigration to see if our cards were available. I hate this kind of thing. I was calling a day earlier than the earliest due date to be a pushy gringa asking for my card. It all went super smoothly. My card was ready. Sus tarjetas estan aquí. Muy bien.
Long story short: we drove to La Paz, got our card, drove home, got money, gave some to dad. Our workers will get paid on Saturday.
On the upside I can say black cohosh seems to have knocked the night sweats down by half. I am sleeping better. On the downside, I threw out my back. Again. This must be the fourth time in two years. I’m getting demoralized. I had a nice adjustment yesterday that decreased the pain but was no miracle cure. I have to wonder if there is a more serious underlying injury.
Despite the constant pain, the kind of pain that makes me realize why we have an opioid epidemic, we went camping last Saturday. The four of us piled in the Exploder and drove a couple of hours into the wilds of Baja for a night on a vacant beach with a few hundred birds on a nearby water hole. Dolphins surfed the sunlit waves as grebes dove for dinner. Burt warned up rabbit stew on a drift wood fire. I wandered restlessly finding comfort nowhere except in distraction. At twilight scores of lesser nighthawks came to clear the air of mosquitoes. Their long narrow wings materialized out of nowhere and within ten minutes had disappeared again. A few hundred mourning doves flushed from nearby scrub while we walked to the water hole’s edge.
The next morning we watched avocet and frigates and coots and yellowlegs and all their buddies feed. The rainy summer and fall have provided lots of habitat for overwintering birds. This month we’ve spotted 101 species. That’s nearly half of all the species I’ve ever seen in the Baja. Quite a start to 2019 and a good distraction.
Concrete construction is not the norm for homes in the US but it is common place in commercial settings and most of the rest of the world. We build homes with wood because it’s what we have. It’s cheap and we know how to use it. Concrete in Mexico and South America is like wood in the US. It’s cheapest and all the builders know how to use it. Concrete block is durable and impervious to bugs but earthquakes can cause widespread tragedy since block comes down more easily in a tremor.
The typical home here is a post and beam style structure. The shape of the house is made with posts and beams of reinforced concrete. Cement block fill in the gaps. The block and reinforced concrete parts go up side by side. The block walls act as half the form for the posts. A word about words: I’m a civil engineer and civil engineers call posts columns. I once made the mistake of calling a column a post in my structures class. I was nearly laughed to the curb. Despite that I graduated and was offered a post-graduate slot studying structures. I declined. But post and beam is the style of construction and I work with a guy that builds wood homes and it’s easier to type post than column. So I have regressed back to my earlier usage.
Since our lot is sloped and the existing structures are at its peak we are building this site up to match the higher level of the existing bodega/rumpus room. That means our foundation is from four to five feet high and we have to add a lot of fill. We’ve reached a bottleneck in our construction. Fill is highly sought after and expensive. It’s been two days of waiting and it finally arrived today. Rather it started arriving today. It’s 2:48 PM and we have received only 3 of the estimated 8 loads we need. That’s about 40 yards of dirt. Our crew is staying busy building rebar forms for the beams to hold up the ceiling. Other than that we’re moving right along.