Category Archives: Yvonne

We wishem yufala wan gudfala Meri Krismiss

Yes, we wish you all a Merry Christmas from Vanuatu.  The blog title is Bislama, which is a pidgin English.  Yufela – you fellas … gudfela  good people.
Update Dec. 26th: We tried to post this yesterday on Christmas day but we’ve had virtually no internet access.  We just arrived back to the capital city and we’re back online.
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We are on the Vanuatu Island of Epi and we are having a WONDERFUL Christmas day!  FYI, we are 16 hrs ahead of you time-zone wise.  We’re going to bed Christmas day while you’re just waking up Christmas morning.
For the past 4 days we have been staying in Lamen Bay – a really warm, welcoming, laid back village of about 400 people. There is one little guest house in town run by a family (dad Tasso runs the show) who really took us in and made us part of the community.  We originally had planned to travel to the south end of the island on the 24th, but the one guest house there is not really near the local community, and we heard that Lamen Bay was having a carol singing night at the church and a big community lunch, so it was an easy decision to push our trip across the island back a day to spend Christmas with the village.
Christmas Eve, after a big fish, yam, cassava & rice dinner we went to the church where the entire community (including those from the other 2 Christian churches) had gathered.  Tasso sat us in the front row, and we were welcomed in the opening remarks.  Tasso said that they had never had tourists stay in Lamen Bay for Christmas before.

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The candles were in bamboo shells, for a lovely effect.

 

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Most of the carol tunes were easily recognized Christmas carols, but all but one were sung in Bislama, which unless spoken slowly is pretty hard to follow.

 

After many carols, skits, a few poems and a short story, it was time to light our candles (everyone had brought one).  The gathering looked so fantastic.

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That’s Tasso our host on Kaia’s right

 

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The choir and the rest of the community then sang “O Holy Night”, and when they got to the “fall on your knees” part I thought the roof of the church would lift off. I just about fell on my knees, and have goosebumps now just thinking about it.

 

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People were invited to exchange candles and greetings with at least 5 other people; that’s what Kaia is doing here.

 

That was then followed by the most energetic round of “We wish you a Merry Christmas” I’ve ever heard, then we recessed out of the church with our candles into the star filled night singing “This little light of mine …” with a little twist “let it shine over Lamen Bay”.  A 15 minute walk brought us back to the guesthouse where we had a little starlit swim before bed.
We awoke to find that Father Christmas had indeed passed through Epi Island (Kaia and Jake’s ecuadorian hats were full of candy and banana chips!) then were greeted by Jake’s gift of “smalads” for all of us.  Jake will explain more about these in a subsequent Fiji blog entry, but simply they are dishes of things to be smelled – not tasted.

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a smalad with a card and Lamen Bay shell garnish

 

We then headed to the ocean to wish the resident sea turtles a Merry Christmas.  The water was crystal clear, and we’d see 3 or 4 at a time, and a couple of the more relaxed turtles let us dive down to touch their shells (we had never tried to do this before).

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Jake is giving the turtle a little Christmas scratch behind the neck.

 

Tasso and wife Legon had prepared a big breakfast for our family and theirs, and had decorated the dining room with balloons.  Kaia says they really know how to do breakfast in Lamen Bay because we had pineapple, pancakes, lemon meringue pie, cake and cookies!  She says she’s going to learn how to make lemon meringue pie for next year’s Christmas breakfast.
Following our family tradition from home, we did our gift opening after breakfast.

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No Christmas tree, but we had a lovely shady tree to open gifts under.

 

Gifts began with a surprise presentation by Kaia and Jake of a song they wrote and sang for us.  For each verse they held up some accompanying artwork (included below).

They typed in their song earlier today …

Swim The Falls (sung to the tune of “Deck The Halls”)
By Kaia and Jake Douglas

(Costa Rica)
Ride the zipline ’till you vanish, ooh-ooh-ooh ah-ah, ooh-ooh ah-ah
Swim and surf a learn some Spanish, ooh-ooh ah-ah…
In the current, learn to dive, ooh-ooh ah-ah…
Turtles by the ocean side, ooh-ooh ah-ah…

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(Galapagos Islands)
Boobies dive into the water, a-a-a-a-a-a-a lava
Feral goats, they have to slaughter a-a-a… lava
Victor walked barefoot on rocks called a-a-a… lava
Penguins, sea lions, and hawks and a-a-a… lava

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(South America)
In the land of llamas humming, humm humm humm…
Little cute guitars, they’re strumming, humm…
Inca ruins, long bus rides, humm…
Potatoes on the mountainsides, humm…

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(South Pacific)
Swim at falls and caves and beaches, ba-na-na-na-na, na-na, na-na
Check your boots for worms and leeches, bananana…
Gorge yourself on mango, lime and bananana…
We have had an awesome time, ba-na-na-na-na, ba-na-na-na-na, ba-na-na-na-na, na-na, na, naaaaaa!

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We loved it.
Gifts were very modest this year, of course.  Jake, Kaia and Yvonne were given new Vanuatu shirts while I was given a new DVD that describes the story of a tribe on one of the Vanuatu southern islands (Tanna) that is trying to hold onto its cashless, clotheless, traditions in the face of growing pressures to modernize.  Kaia had sweet treats for Yvonne, me and Jake.  The to/from card that Jake made for me was priceless.  A week earlier we had trekked into a VERY traditional village on Santo island, where 99% of their needs are met by the surrounding forest, gardens and streams.  Including men’s loin cloth “malmals” which are made from the inner bark of a tree.  I went “native” and dressed only in a malmal for 2 days.  So here’s the card.

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Lamen Bay celebrates Christmas day with a huge community lunch feast.  Men prepare stew and rice while the women make pudding and vegetables.  All are welcome at no cost, and that included us!  The whole community eats on mats on the ground.

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They had an MC and sound system set up, and at the end, we were asked by our host if we’d be willing to say a few words. We took turns at the mic, describing our impressions of the village and their Christmas and their warm treatment of visitors.

 

We said our goodbyes around 3PM and drove the 25km (1.5 hrs) to the south end of the island.  We split the cost of the trip with some folks from Lamen island who were driving down to purchase a cow to eat the following day.  They call the 26th “family day” … which speaks volumes about their priorities.  We told them about our “boxing day”, and they looked a little bewildered.  On the drive south we passed many beautiful little villages, all celebrating Christmas with games (lots of tug-o-war) and communal meals.

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we caught up with Father Christmas in a little village along the way! K&J in their new Christmas shirts.

 

We arrived at the Epi Island Guesthouse in Valesdir around 5PM – we’re camping on their beach.  Lovely sunset. (followed by a surprise downpour …. sure wish we had put the tent fly on before that 😦  ).

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Here we are about 10 minutes ago under their beach shelter, eating our fire-cooked spaghetti Christmas dinner. It might not be turkey, but the moon is shining and the surf is loud. We’ll take it!

 

We send our best thoughts to all our family, friends, and anyone else who has stumbled onto our blog.  We hope you feel some of the warmth and good will that we do right now.

Cam, Yvonne, Kaia and Jake

ps.  we fly on a little 10 seater plane back to capital city Port Vila tomorrow PM, then onto Auckland New Zealand on the 27th.

pps. here is a travel-inspired twist on a carol for you …

12 Days of Christmas in The Douglas Family
By Kaia Douglas

On the 12th day of Christmas, my travels gave to me,
12 llamas humming
11 sea lions playing
10 dollar hostels
9 juicy mangoes
8 countries so far
7 hour bus rides
6 fishies swimming
5 golden WiFi passwords!
4 heavy backpacks
3 beds to sleep on
2 much kava
Visit 1year1family1world (.com)!

Merry Christmas from Vanuatu!

Bula! Welcome to Fiji!

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finally arriving in Fiji with Grandma. Time to take the sweaters off!

“Bula” was the first word we heard as we arrived in the airport at Nadi (pronounced Nandi).  It is the Fijian equivalent of the Hawaiian “aloha” and represents not only a warm greeting, but also a mindset and a way of life.  In spite of the 4 consecutive flights it took to get there, our spirits were buoyed by the smiling faces of all airport employees.  We were given shell leis and quickly got into a taxi to get to Port Denarau where we would board a catamaran for the final leg of the trip to Tavewa Island, the part-time home of our friend Rhonda and her husband Henry and son, Ben.  Henry grew up on the island, and it is entirely owned by members of his extended family.  We had been looking forward to our time in Fiji as a chance to relax (i.e. stay in one place for a couple of weeks), see Cam’s mother Janet, and visit with an old friend whom we had not seen for almost 20 years.  We optimistically thought that we would get “caught up” with our blogs, but I guess we forgot how energetic Rhonda is!  Almost every day, there was some fun activity to do, from mango picking (and eating, of course!) to snorkeling and kayaking, we were enjoying the sights and tastes of the island.  Which is also why I am writing this 10 days after leaving Fiji, from a beachfront bungalow in Port Olry, Vanuatu.

Rhonda is actually the reason that Cam and I met back in 1992.  At that time, she was guiding canoe trips with Canadian Wilderness Trips and teamed up with Cam to offer a “wolf howl weekend” in Algonquin Park.  Apparently I was the first client to sign up!  Awooooo!  The last time we saw her was on a backcountry ski trip she organized for friends in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia in ’96.  Rhonda’s amazing skills as an outdoor guide and cook took her to Fiji to take clients on kayak trips there.  Enter Henry; the local guide, skilled fisherman and all-around great guy!  Rhonda, Henry, and Ben (8 yrs) now divide their time between their homes in Canada (Skookumchuck, BC) and Tavewa Island, in the Yasawa chain in Fiji (a country which is actually made up of about 330 islands!) 

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They were amazing hosts and we learned so much about island life, reef fish, and local foods thanks to their generosity and enthusiasm.  Just to give an idea of what the Yasawa Islands are like, it is here the movie “Castaway” with Tom Hanks was filmed, as well as the Brooke Shields classic, “Blue Lagoon” (you can see Henry’s beachfront in the movie).  Yeah, it was pretty idyllic.

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Here we are on a stretch of beach on Tavewa on a windy day.

The catamaran trip on “Ocean Dreamer” from the main island out to Henry and Rhonda’s was not insignificant:  it took over 5 hours!  Along the way, passengers were being dropped off and picked up from various resorts.  Small tender boats would meet the larger boat and exchange people, luggage, and goods.  It is also how islanders can get food and fresh vegetables delivered from stores in the city.

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some resorts had a musical welcome committee

Henry and Rhonda came out in their tin boat to meet the “Ocean Dreamer” and took us for the short ride to their island.  By this point, we were hot and exhausted!

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The main house -- Henry's childhood home
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The view from where we pitched our tent. Janet stayed in a lovely room at Henry's cousin's place, two doors down. Same stunning view!

Tavewa Island is fairly small (about 2.5km in diameter) and has an interesting history.  At one time, there were probably cannibals on its shores (and maybe pirates who buried treasure?)  And we heard from Henry that it had a large sugar cane plantation at one time, using the slave labour of ni-Vans (people of Vanuatu).  Henry’s great-great-grandfather purchased the island and the family ran a coconut plantation for some time.  We loved hearing stories about Henry’s childhood, spent in and on the water, climbing coconut trees, cracking open enough native almonds to fill up a jar.  Henry went to school on the next island over, where he boarded during the week.  Although he was meant to come home every second weekend, he usually snuck out of the dorm each Friday or even Thursday afternoon.  A quick swim or wade across a shallow bay took him to a trail that he could follow to a small village.  There, he would get a fire-stick that allowed him to light a fire on the rocks across from his home.  When his father saw the small fire burning, he knew it was time to row across the channel to pick up his youngest son.  His dad made him work in the coconut plantation, so he didn’t exactly get a “weekend off”, but Henry preferred to be at home.  And his family made us feel very “at home” during our stay on Tavewa!

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Dinner with Janet in the "kayak bure" (cabin). Henry's property is used as a base by a kayak touring group and this is the covered food prep and eating area.
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We ate many wonderful meals in the Turner-Murray dining room.
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View from the top of the hill on Tavewa -- we hiked across the island one day.

 

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Cam took this photo from atop the cell tower at the top of Tavewa island.
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The flame trees were flamboyant! Just in time for Christmas.
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local kids feasting on mangoes
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The sandbar that is a favourite fly-fishing spot (also good for relaxing and eating a bag of chips!)

More blog entries to follow about our sun and fun-filled days!

Island hopping, Titicaca style

In southern Peru, at 3800m (12500 ft) altitude, lies the highest navigable lake in the world: Lake Titicaca. Centuries ago, the Aymara people, who were less aggressive than their neighbours, were chased off the shores of the lake and took refuge on some of the islands. And if there weren’t enough islands, they made their own! Hence, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca.
We organized our visit through our guide/agent, Jesus, in Cusco, and the plan included another overnight bus ride. However, he convinced us that it would be comfortable because the seats are wide and recline to 160 degrees. It sounded pretty good and Cam had bought some sleeping pills (amazing what drugs you can buy over the counter in South America). The trip turned out to be not as comfortable as I had imagined or hoped that it would be (the driver seemed to hit the brakes every time I was about to nod off!) but we made it to Puno by about 6am. Our tour to the islands was to start at 8.

here we are, still smiling, at the beginning of the voyage
here we are, still smiling, at the beginning of the voyage

We set out on a little boat that chugged along slowly through a channel cut through the reeds. These are the reeds that provide just about everything used by the folks on the floating islands. The matted roots are used as the floating base of the islands, and the reeds themselves are used to build up the island (more layers are added every 1-4 weeks, depending on the weather), and to build houses and boats.

Motoring out through the reeds
Motoring out through the reeds
a typical floating island -- note the solar panel
a typical floating island — note the solar panel
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Our guide and the local patriarch used a model to demonstrate how a floating island is built
a large handsaw is used to cut the large pieces of root mass that form the base of an island
a large handsaw is used to cut the large pieces of root mass that form the base of an island
interior of one of the huts -- the solar panel powered the TV
interior of one of the huts — the solar panel powered the TV
This is the island we visited -- rectangular huts are for sleeping and round ones are for cooking
This is the island we visited — rectangular huts are for sleeping and conical ones are for cooking
Kaia and Jake took a tour on the reed boat
Kaia and Jake took a tour on the reed boat
a kitten found a shady spot
a kitten found a shady spot

This floating island was clearly set up for tourism and it was unclear whether people live there permanently or just go out for the tourist season.  My sense is that most live only part time on the island and part time on land.  However, their culture is very much tied to the floating islands and one of the larger ones even has a school.  It would be a stark life.  No trees, limited space, and surrounded by water that is too cold to swim in (9 degrees Celsius).  Even the fishing in Lake Titicaca is not great as the native fish species are quite small.  Our guide told us that several decades ago, Canadian trout were introduced to the lake!  They grow larger than the native species but don’t seem to represent a significant part of the local diet.

On our way to stop #2 (a “real” island called Amantani), we realized that our boat was definitely having problems:  the motor cutting out every 10-15 minutes was not normal!  However, the driver managed to get it re-started each time.  Our stop at Amantani was very special as it included a homestay with a local couple.  Teodocio met us at the dock and lead us to his home where we met Maria, his wife.  There were 6 of us staying at their home:  our family plus Meubles, a Brazilian soil scientist, and Jork, a German millwright.  Although still subsistence farmers, cultivating potatoes, beans, and corn on ancient terraces, the homestay program is increasingly the main source of income for local families.  Each participating family gets to host guests about once or twice a month.  They have made additions to their home in order to accommodate tourists.  We had a nice room (3 beds for 4 people), and there was a bucket flush toilet downstairs.  The 2nd floor walkway, just outside our door had no banister and exposed re-bar, so nighttime trips to the bathroom required some caution!

our room for the homestay
our room for the homestay

Maria prepared a lovely lunch for us of soup, rice and chicken (a common menu in this part of the world!)  We worked at communicating with our hosts (who spoke limited Spanish) and our fellow guests.  I tried to dust off my Portuguese to speak with Meubles, but it has mostly morphed into Spanish.  He spoke Portuguese to me which made me feel like my brain was turning inside out.  Jork comes from the former East Germany, so his English is not quite as polished as other German travelers we have met.  It was an interesting meal table!  We wished that Maria and Teodocio would join us, but I guess the table wasn’t quite big enough and they felt that their role was to make and serve the food.

Lunch is being served
Lunch is being served
The only real livestock we saw were guinea pigs ("cui") but they did not appear on our dinner plates.
The only real livestock we saw were guinea pigs (“cui”) but they did not appear on our dinner plates.

After lunch, we met our group at the local soccer field — quite an impressive stadium that serves the entire island (pop. 4000).  We then hiked up to the top of Pachatata (Father Earth), one of the 2 main peaks on the island (the other one being Pachamama or Mother Earth).  At the top are the ruins of an ancient Tiwanaku temple.  We were greeted by many women selling their textiles (but had forgotten to bring our money!) and watched a beautiful sunset.  The temperature dropped substantially and we were reminded that we were still at high altitude.

the soccer stadium
the soccer stadium
Meubles and Cam on the climb up Pachatata
Meubles and Cam on the climb up Pachatata
sunset over the shore of Lake Titicaca
sunset over the shore of Lake Titicaca

We came home in the pitch black to a nice dinner, followed by some local entertainment at the community centre.  Maria gave Cam and me traditional outfits to wear (the kids decided to skip the dance and go to bed).

the women have more colourful outfits than the men
the women have more colourful outfits than the men

 

the musicians played traditional Andean music on guitar, drums, and panpipe
the musicians played traditional Andean music on guitar, drums, and panpipe

We bade farewell to Teodocio and Maria the next morning and re-boarded our boat.

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After a few more false starts, our guide admitted that this boat was outfitted with a car engine rather than a boat motor and that was part of the problem!  We ended up having to transfer to another boat in mid-lake in order to make it to our next island stop.  Taquile Island is known for its textiles — particularly the weaving (done by the women) and knitting (done exclusively by the men!)

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an old master of the art:  no pattern needed for an intricate design
an old master of the art: no pattern needed for an intricate design
We were kicking ourselves afterwards for not having bought one of these hats.  The prices were high, but they are not available anywhere else.
We were kicking ourselves afterwards for not having bought one of these hats. The prices were high, but they are not available anywhere else.
red hats are worn by married men; red and white by bachelors
red hats are worn by married men; red and white by bachelors
Lunch in the central square on Taquile
Lunch in the central square on Taquile
young girl coming home from school
young girl coming home from school wearing traditional clothes and probably a “Barbie” backpack

A walk across the island and a final boat ride completed our island hopping (at least for now!)

Kaia and Jake bargaining for woven bracelets.
Kaia and Jake bargaining for woven bracelets.

 

Heading back to Puno.
Heading back to Puno.

We returned to Puno for a night and enjoyed the lively street life.  Ate yummy street food of grilled meat and potato skewers followed by deep-fried dough dipped in honey (the closest thing to a donut we have had for months!)

Traveling south to Cusco, or: Peru is bigger than we thought it was!

Our wonderful Galapagos experience had come to an end and it was time to get back to reality:  planning our own itinerary, making or buying meals, and deciding where we would sleep each night.  We flew back to Guyaquil on the mainland and immediately took a cab to the bus station where we caught a bus to Cuenca (about 3.5hrs away).  Cuenca is an attractive, colonial city which happened to be celebrating a triple-whammy of festivities that weekend:  Hallowe’en, the anniversary of the city and area’s independence, and Dia de los muertos.  Somehow, we always seem to arrive during festivities (or are South Americans just constantly celebrating something?)  Needless to say, accommodation was at a bit of a premium, but we found a hostel/cafe called “el cafecito” that was central, clean, friendly, and fairly comfortable (except for the rock-hard mattress on the double bed!  Within minutes, I was inflating my thermarest to put on top of it.)  Of course, el cafecito was also located beside an old church.  With bells.  That started ringing at random intervals starting at about at 5am! 

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We took a bus tour of Cuenca.
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Rooves that extend beyond walls are Spanish, and balcony grates are French-inspired.
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We were told to remain seated as the bus drove under this arched bridge.
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We visited a couple of markets and shared some jelly coconuts.
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Flowers and decorations were being sold for families to decorate graves on Dia de los Muertos.
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Kaia and Jake are holding guaguas (pronounced "wawas"). They are sweet bread "babies" that are eaten at this time of year, usually paired with colada morada, a delicious drink made from purple corn flour.

Cuenca is an artsy place with markets, bookstores, and a lively music scene.  We attended a free guitar concert the night we were there and saw a display of traditional, handmade guitars.  The craftsman was there as well.  The concert was a one-man show with guest appearances by an interpretive dancer and a singer.  The music was pretty mellow, and we were sitting on the steps since the small venue was full, so when it wrapped up after an hour, it was just right!  Cam and Kaia went to check out the entertainment at the central square, and I took Jake back to the hostel.  We had seen online that the forecast in Peterborough for that evening (Hallowe’en night) was for near-freezing temperatures, rain, and possibly snow!  So we missed the dressing up and trick-or-treating, but not the cold feet and soggy costumes!  There were many parties happening in Cuenca that night (thank goodness for earplugs!) and next morning… church bells… 5am.
Cam spent most of the day blogging, processing photos, and backing up data.  The kids and I visited a museum of anthropology and went to a bookstore that had a good English-language section.  E-books are fine as long as you can keep your devices charged up and wrestle them out of the hands of your electronics-addicted family members, so I am still partial to the paper kind!  So we each picked up a book in preparation for long bus rides ahead.  First up, that very night:  a 9-hour overnight bus ride down to Piura, Peru, which included a 2am stop to cross the border.  At that point, I night have welcomed some church bells as I was feeling a bit groggy!  Crossing borders seems to involve A LOT of repetitive paperwork (I have memorized all of our passport numbers because they have to be written multiple times on these forms!)  First you have to fill out forms to exit Ecuador, and then, almost identical ones to enter Peru.  I have never written my home address so many times!   However, the border crossing went much more smoothly than we’d anticipated based on some blogs we’d read that described buses driving out of sight once the passengers got off, and people having to run back and forth through no-man’s land in the middle of the night to get/deliver the proper paperwork.  Now, in a welcome example of efficiency, the ‘exit’ and ‘enter’ booths are conveniently right next to each other in the same building.  So, our entire busload of zombie-like passengers obediently filled out forms, lined up and got our passports stamped.  Most of us looked even worse than our passport photos and I think it was really starting to look like “the day of the dead” !
Then, back on the bus for more troubled sleep, or, in Cam’s case, sleeplessness.  We looked out the windows as the sun rose and asked ourselves, “Are we back in Africa?”  Dirt roads, 3-wheeled motorized tuktuks, and corrugated steel rooves were everywhere!  The town of Piura didn’t look like much and we were in a rush to get down to Cusco.  For Cam, one uncomfortably sleepless night on a bus told him that we couldn’t spend the next 2 or 3 days/nights doing the same thing.  You see, we had a flight booked from La Paz, Bolivia, on Nov. 19th, and that left us only about 18 days to get to Cusco, visit Machu Picchu, try hiking in the high Andes, get down to Bolivia and do some things there.  And Cusco was still at least 24hours away by road.  So we went to the airport in Piura to check out if there was any truth to the rumours of “dirt cheap domestic flights” that some people boast about on the internet.  Of course, it happened to be Sunday at this point, and a holiday (Day of the Dead), so the airline ticket counters weren’t open!  However, where there are Gringos ready and willing to spend hundreds of dollars, there is a local entrepreneur ready to help them do so!  We were directed to some guy standing around the airport who made several phone calls for us and then took us to a travel agency right near the airport.  The “cheap flights” didn’t exactly pan out but we got a pretty good fare to take us all the way to Cusco via Lima.  Only hitch:  we’d arrive at the Lima airport at 10pm and our connecting flight left at 4am.  Aaargh!  Another night without a bed!  Anyway, we booked it, and then Cam really needed to sleep so we jumped in a taxi and went to a really cheap (and disgusting) hostel/rooming house where we got a couple of rooms for the day for the equivalent of $10. 
Jake and I went out in search of food and walked through empty streets.  Eventually, we saw some action a long way down a side street so we walked towards it.  Turns out, everyone was at the cemetery!  Of course — it was Nov 2nd — the Day of the Dead!  There was a carnival-like atmosphere outside the gates of the cemetery, with food, drinks, candy, decorations, and candles being sold.  The heat and dryness were oppressive, but it was quite an experience to walk through a south american cemetery on that particular day!  There were so many families there and the graves were all decorated.  Instead of just having graves underground, there are tall structures (4-5 graves high and dozens long) where coffins can be placed behind a stone or cement facade.  Its kind of hard to explain, but sorry, I did not take photos as that would have felt very inappropriate! 
We took Cam and Kaia back via the cemetery before catching a couple of tuktuks for the short drive to the airport.

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The most common form of transportation in Piura.
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Cam and Kaia pose for a selfie in the tuktuk.

So the flights were fine, but the night on the floor of the Lima airport sucked.  We rolled out our thermarests in a “quiet” part of the airport, but… it happened to be where they were waxing the floors that night and had to move all the furniture! 
Next stop:  Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire.  I’ve just recently learned that the Incan Empire only lasted for about 100 years — from the mid-1400s until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532.  I’m still having trouble accepting that fact because it seemed like the Incas were so powerful, influential, and managed to build so much great stuff!

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Plaza San Francisco in Cusco, with large colonial churches (built on the foundations of Inca structures).
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This narrow street is typical and shows the remnants of the Inca walls with colonial structures on top.
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Cam is standing next to the 12-sided Inca stone -- the largest stone found to be used in the Incan Empire, which also happens to have the most complex geometry. How did they cut these stones so precisely? I never got a satisfactory answer.
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The Incas actually invented LEGO! That is part of the secret of how the stone walls stay together.

The Spanish built many of their homes and churches using Incan foundations, and when an earthquake struck, guess what?  The Spanish part collapsed and the Incan “lego” walls stood strong! 

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The typical shape of the Inca window. Here you can see how well they were lined up.
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Here we can see where Spanish arches were built atop Incan walls.

We spent most of our time in Cusco being harassed by people trying to sell us stuff, and talking to different tour operators about options for visiting Machu Picchu and hikes in the mountains (Jake, Kaia, and Cam will be writing about those adventures.)

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Cusco markets are colourful, and yes, we did buy a few things, knowing that Cam's mother would be able to carry a few things home from Fiji!
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Typical sight in Cusco, where the indigenous population represents 45%.
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Courtyards, fountains, and woodwork were colonial standards.
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Enterprising locals bring tiny lambs or alpacas into town for tourists to pose with (for a small fee).
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Yes, we paid for a photo with an alpaca!
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One can never be too careful when heading into high altitude! Actually, we did not buy this enormous hat!
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Food for thought.

Yvonne

Galapagos History 101

“A hell on earth”.  “A place where God threw rocks at the Earth”.  These were among the first recorded descriptions of the Galapagos Islands.  That was back in 1535 by the Panamanian bishop who, on his way to Peru, was plagued by boat trouble and got carried by the current 1000km to the unknown islands.  It is easy to understand his negative first impression.  Barely any plants grow on the volcanic rock, there is hardly any fresh water, and many of the animals that are able to survive there look like monsters.  The bishop and his men suffered terribly but did manage to fix their boat and eventually made it to their destination.  This, according to our wonderful guide, Victor Hugo Mendia, was the first of many disastrous events that were to affect the Galapagos Islands.  Once the islands were on the map, people started coming and inadvertently upsetting a fragile ecological balance.  Of course, the islands have been there for millennia, being created over a volcanic hotspot and slowly moving on a tectonic conveyor belt, but there are no native people to the islands and no clear information of whether any humans had ever set foot there before the Panamanian bishop and his crew.

Whalers started coming to find the giants of the sea.  Pirates and sailors followed and began visiting the islands in search of water and fresh meat.  They found little water, but delighted in catching animals that had absolutely no fear of humans.  I was really struck by this lack of fear as we visited Genovesa, the first island on our tour.  Victor had told us that a strict national park rule is that visitors must stay 2m away from any wildlife.  However, staying 2m away from one bird meant I would be within 2m of another.  They simply did not care that we were walking past them! 

Pirates enjoyed the relative safety of the Galapagos Islands since the Spaniards believed them to be haunted.  They were able to mount their attacks on the Spanish fleet moving up and down the coast of South America.

The sailors harvested thousands of giant tortoises to fill their ship-board pantries.  Tortoises are immobile when flipped on their backs, require no refrigeration, and can live for up to a year with no food or water (which may explain how they ended up on the islands in the first place — being washed away on floating debris after a violent storm, and floating along at the mercy of the currents, much like the bishop).  Turtle soup became a common form of fresh meat on board ships.  Unfortunately, some populations of giant tortoise were wiped out due to over-harvesting, and the sailors introduced new species to the islands such as goats (purposely — to create another form of fresh meat that could be picked up en route), and rats (inadvertently).  These animals, as well as feral cats, pigs, and dogs, have wreaked havoc on the delicate balance of life on the islands.  Goats have practically wiped out the vegetation that tortoises depend on, and rats, dogs and pigs destroy the nests or eat hatchlings.  It was becoming a very serious problem.  The Galapagos National Park decided to take action through an ambitious eradication program some years ago.  They set out to exterminate all the goats on the unpopulated islands and did this in an  interesting way that Victor described to us:  a handful of female goats were rounded up, sterilized, injected with hormones to make them especially attractive to the males, embedded with a chip that was trackable by GPS, and then had their horns spray-painted fluorescent pink.  These females (the “Judas goats”) were re-released onto their island, where they promptly attracted hordes of males.  From helicopters, snipers shot every single goat around them, but always spared the one one with the pink horns.  She continued to attract more males, which were duly killed until, on a few islands, the goat population has been completely eradicated.  Tortoise populations are stabilizing, growing, and beginning to expand their territory.  A success story for the park.  It is much more difficult to eradicate introduced plant species or insects such as ants.

We were impressed by the level of control that the Galapagos National Park exerts over its tens of thousands of visitors.  No one can enter the park without a certified guide and each guide can only be in charge of a maximum of 16 people.  We could only go ashore at a few very specific locations on each island, and could not step off the trail.  No bathroom breaks allowed on land!  As I mentioned earlier, we were supposed to stay 2m away from the animals, although this was hard to do since the animals, especially the young sea lions, were curious observers of us humans.  

The most famous person to ever visit the islands was Justin Bieber.  Just kidding — it was, of course, Charles Darwin!  He arrived 300 years after the Panamanian bishop and had a somewhat similar first impression.  We saw several of the varieties of finches, each with its own unique beak shape, that inspired Darwin to come up with the theory of evolution.  One type, known as the “vampire finch”, actually sucks blood from the blue-footed boobies to meet its need for hydration when water is scarce!  We didn’t witness that particular event but Victor told us that it doesn’t seem to bother the boobies at all.

So, since being discovered almost 500 years ago, the Galapagos Islands have gone from hellish to haunted to enchanted to endangered.  Now, the Ecuadorian government is working hard to enlist the help of scientists, residents, tourists and tour operators to return the islands to a healthy balance.  A mammoth and worthwhile task.

Yvonne

Sidetrip to Salinas

Between Banos and Guyaquil, about 20km north of the road, lies the small community (pop. 1200) of Salinas de Guaranda.  For centuries, the people in this area eked out a living with subsistence agriculture and by mining the salt that naturally comes out of the rocks.  They transported it long distances to trade for other goods.  In 1970, an Italian priest arrived and began a very ambitious process of economic and social restructuring based on cooperatives.  Salinas is now a modestly “thriving” community where teamwork and cooperation are the norm, and unemployment is very low.

Our arrival in Salinas was in the rain, in a taxi from the main road ($1 each).  Our driver explained that the taxi service was run as a cooperative (of course!)  We asked him to suggest a cheap place to stay and he took us to Hostal La Minga, which is located right near the town’s central square.  Cam jumped out of the back seat to check it out, and the kids followed.  The driver started taking our bags out of the back, but I asked him to wait since I wasn’t sure if the place would pass Cam’s initial ‘inspection’.  When Cam said it looked good, I paid the driver, got the bags out, and off went the taxi.  It wasn’t long ntil Cam noticed the wifi password posted in the common area and wanted to log in to the internet.  Where was the tablet?  Where was the black daypack?  Uh oh… in the back seat of the taxi!  From our short conversation with the driver, we knew that his name was Jorge and that he had 2 children, ages 7 and 11.  We explained to our host what had happened and from the snippet of information he was able to track down the cab driver.  Thank goodness this happened in a small community!  Within about an hour, Jorge returned with the pack and all its contents (I don’t even want to admit how many valuables were in it, but suffice it to say that we would not have had any photos, video, nor been able to write this blog had we not gotten it back).  As we met Jorge in the central square (hugged him and gave him a tip), we couldn’t believe it but the rain stopped and there appeared the most amazing rainbow we have ever seen!  Many locals came out with their cellphones or cameras to photograph it as well.

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No colour enhancement necessary!
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Full double rainbow over Salinas.
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Jake is touching the rainbow and we got our "pot of gold"!

OK, so we were getting pretty good vibes about Salinas.  We went to the little shop that sold items from all the cooperatives and got a selection of chocolates (yes, they have a chocolate factory!), some cheese, the kids got Ecuadorian pants, and Cam got a colourful pullover. 

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We ate dinner at a restaurant right across the street from the hostel (a pizzeria — perhaps inspired by that Italian priest?)  When we started looking at the extensive menu, the cook/waiter/owner came over and indicated the 2 items that were available today — calzones and veggie or meat pizza.  That made it simple!  Jake ordered a calzone and the rest of us decided to share a large meat pizza.  However, when the party at the next table got their order (massive veggie pizza) they realized that something was wrong (I think someone was lactose intolerant or couldn’t eat mushrooms or something), so the waiter asked us if we wanted it.  Sure!  We were hungry and it was delicious.
The following morning, we made our own breakfast and then Kaia had a Skype conversation with her class.  The connection was pretty good and she was able to hear the results of some research the class had done about Ecuador and share her own impressions.

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Kaia skyping with her classmates in Peterborough.
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Breakfast in the bright, covered courtyard of Hostal La Minga. Its name means something like "community work bee".

Earlier, Cam had gone to the tourist information office and lined up a guide for the day to take us around the town.  We met Frank at 9:30.  He spoke little English, but kept his Spanish clear and simple.  First, he took us to the chocolate factory where we could see the Swiss-inspired process through windows.  Milk is sourced locally and the chocolates are sold domestically as well as abroad.  Unfortunately, no tasting room!  But we picked up a few more goodies from the shop.

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chocolate truffles being formed by hand
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From the back of the chocolate factory, we had a view of the salt extrusions.
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Salt is still collected on a small scale and used for animal licks (from what I could understand).

Next, Frank took us a few blocks away to a tiny upstairs workshop (that we never would have found without him) that was a soccer ball factory!  One room, one guy (at least when we were there), making soccer balls from start to finish!

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orange soccer ball bladders
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Frank showing a ball that has been wrapped in string and dipped in a type of glue.
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molds for "cooking" the soccer balls in once the coloured patches have been put in place
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Final product with the Salinas insignia. Too bad we don't have room in our packs for one!

Next (brief) stop was the sausage manufacturing plant.  Frank, as a vegetarian and Rastafarian, does not like to walk inside of it!  On this particular day, they were processing pork.  We bought some of the cured sausage which was very good and lasted us several days.

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Kaia and Jake found Bob Marley style hats in one of the shops and posed with Frank!

We then went to the wool manufacturing plant (I was pretty excited about seeing this one as I don’t travel without my knitting needles and didn’t currently have a project on the go!)  In Salinas, they process both sheep and alpaca wool from local farms in a very mechanized process (originally it was done by hand, but they have expanded and updated).  The plant operates 7 days a week and employs dozens of people.

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fleece comes in by the truckload
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Each cooperative has this type of mosaic indicating what is produced.
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it is washed in hot water
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after being dried and carded it continues along the process
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Kaia agrees that alpaca wool is very soft
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large bales of yarn are ready for transport
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they also make some with varied colours

I only bought one ball of alpaca wool and have started making a pair of mittens in preparation for the highlands of Peru.

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This graphic, painted on the wall at the wool factory, shows the different products that are produced at different altitudes in the Salinas parish

Our final stop was the cheese factory which had pretty much finished production for the day.  However, we saw many local people arriving with donkeys or llamas and large empty containers.  The cheese factory gives away their by-product (whey?) for free, and Frank explained that it is used as pig feed.

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a llama is loaded up

That concluded our visit.  Apparently the Italian priest is still living in the community, but is quite frail.  Frank believes that his legacy will continue for a long time since the people of Salinas have embraced the idea of teamwork and are reaping its benefits.  He, himself (Frank) grew up in Salinas, went away to study graphic design at college, but has returned to live permanently in the community.  I don’t think there are too many other Rastafarians in town, but he has found a comfortable niche as a tour guide, musician, and freelance graphic designer.  His parents are retired from the cheese cooperative and maintain a small farm with some cows.

Salinas is a friendly, productive place.  We’re glad we made the sidetrip!

Yvonne

Cycling down Cotopaxi

I am sitting on a rooftop deck at our hostel in Banos, listening to marching bands, fireworks, and car alarms.  It is a beautiful evening in a lively city. As I look down from my 4th storey perch, I am struck by the narrow streets (single lane) and wide sidewalks — the cars are definitely at a disadvantage here!  Cam, Kaia and Jake are out walking around, checking out the sights and action.  It all revolves around “la virgen de la agua santa” and there will surely be a blog post soon about our time here.  However, in an effort to keep things more or less chronological, I will describe the day we spent on Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world!  (or second highest if you count Llullaillaco in Chile which hasn’t erupted since 1877).

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We could not see the summit, but read that it is at 5897m (19 347ft)
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Here is Cotopaxi on a clear day -- yes, snow at the Equator!

After hearing about this cycling trip from some other travellers at our Quito hostel, we signed up to mountain bike for the day with “The Biking Dutchman”.  We suited up (bringing many layers in preparation for being as high as 4500m).  Taking public transit to the meeting place was an experience in itself:  buses were frequent but absolutely PACKED.  So much so that we couldn’t get on about the first 6 or so that went by.  We considered getting a taxi, but ended up squeezing onto a bus and getting to “The Magic Bean” only a few minutes late.  There, we met Jan (the biking Dutchman) and our fellow cyclists.  Jan landed in Quito 26 years ago after traveling the world for 4 1/2 years.  He met his Ecuadorian wife, started a family, and made a business out of doing what he loves to do — ride a bike!  We were lucky to have him as our driver and guide, since he doesn’t personally guide so many of the trips anymore.  Jan drove us south through Quito, pointing out that the city is built in a valley — it has grown to be 70km long and only 5km wide.  While driving up the side of Cotopaxi, I asked Jan what was meant by the term “active” volcano.  He explained that Cotopaxi has had a lot of minor activity and is overdue for a larger eruption which historically has occurred about every 120 years.
As we approached the parking lot at 4600m, Cam said to the kids, “No one in our family has ever been to this altitude before.”  And, once in the parking lot, the 50m uphill walk to the sign had us all puffing in the thinner air.  Jan has acclimatized to the higher altitude over the past few decades, but said that he has not managed to summit the volcano due to altitude symptoms (his excuse being that the Dutch live at 5m below sea level!) 
Our group of 12 was quickly outfitted with bikes, gloves and helmets, and briefed on the route:  first 7km on a bumpy, switchbacking road (same one we had driven up), and then regroup for some single and double-track riding on the high open plains.  The most important skill we needed to master was braking.  So, it was all downhill from there…

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The Landrover was specially equipped to carry many bikes.
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Jan, the biking Dutchman, demonstrates the important skill of how to brake properly.
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This is as clear as the mountain got for us -- we could see the snow level.
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Heading off through the clouds.
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The first 7km looked something like this.
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Jake, coming around a switchback, followed by Cam (in red) and Kaia (in purple).
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Good thing we bought Ecuadorian hats at the market on Sunday!

The tracks on the open plains were great (and not as bumpy as the road!)

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OK, I guess it was a bit foggy!
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But it cleared up and we got some great views.
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Even saw some wild horses.
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Kaia was wearing the helmet-cam for some GoPro footage.
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There were dramatic clouds at ground level.

We had a nice lunch, packed up the bikes, and drove to another location for another 20km of downhill fun.

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Lunch and ginger tea at a ranger station.
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Our best view of Cotopaxi's peak. But we did get a pretty good view of a condor (one of only 17 remaining in the area).
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Finishing the day, back down at about 3000m altitude.
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...and the bikes go back on the well-designed roof rack.

We’ve since had some days of great hiking in the mountains, our day in Banos, and are now looking forward to a trip to the Galapagos!  We fly there on the 21st and will board the Floreana on the 23rd for a week of cruising and exploring various islands.  There will be a lull in our blog posts during that time, and definitely lots to report about once we get back to the mainland. 
Yvonne

Yvonne’s Costa Rica Top 10

10. watching the lightning storm across the water from the beach in Zancudo
9. swimming at night and seeing phosphorescence
8. the horseback ride up to Rara Avis
7. Costa Rican coffee
6. swimming in Rio Claro in Corcovado, hanging onto vines that touched the water
5. the climate rally in Monteverde and seeing a sloth so close to the road
4. scuba diving with Jake as my buddy
3. the hammock on the porch at Rara Avis (and being the only guests there)
2. seeing and HEARING howler monkeys (and dodging their excrement!)
1. coming across a mother turtle covering her eggs on the beach at 5am in Tortuguero
Yvonne

Saltwater, sand, surfing, sunshine, and some storms

What we really needed after our hectic ‘circumnavigation’ of Costa Rica (on land, of course), and especially after the 3 days of extensive hiking in Corcovado National Park (wearing rubber boots), was a week to unwind on a beautiful beach!   Well, that is exactly what we got at Playa Zancudo!  We have been renting a lovely house called “Puertas del Sol” that belongs to a former colleague of Cam’s and her husband.  Muchas gracias, Kristine y Jim!   They discovered Zancudo Beach 5 years ago and have been spending about half their time here ever since.  Photos and info about the house are on Facebook as ZancudoPlayaPlata, if you’re interested!  At low tide, the beach is really wide and completely sandy (hardly a shell or stone to be found!) 

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Occasionally, we would see someone ride by on a bike, motorcycle, or ATV.  I saw one person jogging, a few dogs, and two guys collecting a type of shrimp that lives in the sand.  Other than that, the beach is pretty much deserted!  Admittedly, this is the low season, so the small (and set back) beachfront motels and cabinas are mostly empty.  However, in conversation with Annie (Peterborough friend who is now living in Panama) I learned that even when they came here for Easter weekend, the beach was empty (proof:  her husband Rodney went skinny-dipping in the middle of the day!)  How can this beautiful stretch of beach be so quiet?  I’m thinking the name might keep the crowds away (zancudo means mosquito in Spanish!) 

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aboard the water taxi from Gulfito to Zancudo

When we arrived last Wednesday, we were met by Alex (Kris and Jim’s friend and property manager) who made sure we got to the casa with all our bags.  We were eager to meet his daughter, Yively (pronounced “Jibelly”) who is 11, so he brought her by after school and the kids got to swim together and practice their Spanish.  Yively explained that she is in a class of 31 students who are between grades 2 and 6 — a ‘one-room schoolhouse’!  She invited us to come to the school the next day.  We decided the teacher probably wouldn’t mind (foreign guest speakers who are 12 and 13 years old are a novelty), so we went.  It was actually bigger than I had imagined (several classrooms all opening to the outdoors) and the students were divided into smaller groups because the English teacher was there as well as a Resource teacher.  Oops — perhaps not the best time to interrupt!  They all came back into their main classroom and Kaia and Jake introduced themselves and spoke a little about Canada (doing their best in Spanish!)  The students then invited them to play soccer on their nice grassy field.  It was girls against the boys (very even strength) and everyone left their shoes on the sidelines.  Says Kaia about playing barefoot: “You don’t have to worry about anyone stepping on your foot with cleats!”  

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Kaia & Jake join in with the Zancudo school kids for some soccer
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Yively, Jake & Kaia on a bike outing
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playing cards with Yively in the upstairs open balcony

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The day we arrived, Alex had asked us if we wanted to buy some fresh fish.  Of course!  Zancudo is known for its excellent fishing.  Well, he showed up with 3 kilos of tuna!  Cam promptly looked up a recipe for ceviche (raw, marinated tuna) which turned out great!  Both Alex and Yively said it was excellent so the next day, Cam made more and Alex brought his wife Jorleny over to have some, too!  We also ate breaded tuna on several occasions (3kg is a lot of fish!) 

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ceviche & drinks with Yively, Jorleny & Alex

It’s been fun having access to a fridge and kitchen.  We’ve learned how to make “gallo pinto”, the popular Costa Rican rice and bean breakfast dish.

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gallo pintos con huevos - a fave of ours
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mmmmn...pineapple mango banana smoothies ...

Cam rented a surfboard which we have had here for most of the week.  He and the kids have made good progress (while I managed to ride some waves, lying down on the board).  However, our original plan to go to Povones (well-known surfing beach south of here) was cancelled once we realised that the Zancudo waves were more than enough for beginners!  Apparently, the waves in Povones are much more intense and the beach is more rocky.  Cam & kids have enjoyed surfing under the full moon the past few nights too.

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Cam got right into it too. The waves were small here that day so they took the board further south down the beach ...and got themselves into 8-10 ft breakers. They realised pretty quickly that they had bit off more than they could chew and came home thirsty and a bit sunburned

We have kept ourselves busy in and on the water, on the beach (building a huge sand castle and riding the bikes that Alex lent us), doing lots of blogging, reading, playing cards, and my personal favourite… getting the laundry done in a place where it actually has time to dry completely before being repacked into a backpack!  Yeah!  (We were pretty stinky when we got here!). 

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squirrel monkeys visit the house

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castle getting swamped by the incoming tide
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both kids skyped with their classes this week
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I had the beach to myself for my morning yoga

We’ve had beautiful sunny mornings and rain for a few hours most afternoons.  There have been some awesome thunderstorms; lightning like I’ve never seen it before that gets etched into your retina for a few seconds.  We’ve had some great night swims (the water must be about 30C) and have twice seen phosphorescence in the water.  Magic!

We will have Alex and family over for a barbecue tonight (he’s bringing more fish!) and leave by bus tomorrow morning at 5:45 en route to Panama (1 day in Panama city) and then flying to Quito.  Zancudo was just what we needed …we feel refreshed and ready for more adventures! 

Yvonne

Monteverde; adventure and diversity in the cloud forest

We got on a bus at 8am, DRIPPING with sweat in the heat and humidity of coastal Puntarenas.  Thankfully, the road soon started to climb and the temperature dropped consistently as we gained elevation.  The temperature improved but the road definitely did not —  it got rougher and narrower.  At one point, the driver had to carefully reverse down a hairpin turn to get to a section of road that was wide enough to let a loaded truck pass in the other direction.
We checked in at our budget accommodation called “Monkey Hostel” which is run by an energetic young man who was helpful and keen to tell us about  the activities available to tourists.  Monteverde is an ecotourism hub and world-wide model.  We wanted to see what it had to offer!  I was also interested to learn about how the community got started:  a group of Quakers from Alabama settled on the mountain in the 1950’s — they were opposed to the Korean War and chose to move to Costa Rica, a country that had abolished its military some years earlier.  They started dairy farming and built a cheese factory, but grew to recognise the inherent value of an intact cloud forest where species diversity and adaptations are phenomenal.  They were instrumental in establishing the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

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Driver caution in Monteverde town

Our first day was spent walking around a scoping out the options.  We met a transplanted Canadian couple who now run the Mariposaria (Butterfly Garden) and took a guided night walk at a local reserve that they recommended.  It rained throughout the 2-hour walk so we felt vindicated for having lugged around four sets of full rain gear and rubber boots for past month!

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Tarantula!

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Day 2 started with 100% Adventure (yes, that’s the name of the company that runs a canopy tour that includes the longest zip-line in Latin America — 1 mile long!!)  This type of tour is a huge tourist attraction and even though it is the “green season” (read “rainy season” therefore “low season”) we were in a group of at least 50 tourists that morning.  The guides were very professional and competent, running the tour safely and efficiently.  Between some of the cables, we got to walk along bridges or trails through the forest.  Two cables could be ridden “superman-style” which means you get clipped on hanging in a flying position.  It definitely lives up to its name (100% Adventure), but we wondered if really fell in the category of ecotourism.  It does represent a viable business that can be run in a standing forest, but simply didn’t include any educational aspect (a key condition of ecotourism) and we walked away exhilarated, but with no further understanding of the forest, its animals, or ecological importance.  We mentioned this to our host at our hostel, and he concurred but did point out that the operation goes to great lengths to protect the existing forest and plants the parts of their property that were earlier in pasture.

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They are NOT kidding!
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ready to take flight
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flying above the canopy, Superman-style
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Look carefully and you will see Kaia and Jake disappearing along the cable.
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Jake and Kaia rode together on some of the cables, and Kaia caught this on the GoPro
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This is the walkway to a giant "Tarzan swing" which was when I started wondering if I should have opted for 80% adventure! However, it was a thrill none of us wanted to miss.

We returned to the Mariposaria, this time for a full tour, given by Brita, a volunteer from southern Ontario.  She explained the details about butterflies from different environments and elevations.  We each got to release a newly-emerged butterfly, and yes, we got to see several of the large blue morpho butterflies that are famous for their size and stunning colour.

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This blue morpho has a very damaged wing. They only live for 2-3 weeks and are quite territorial so get injured in fights.
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the aptly-named owl butterfly with its recognisable "eye"
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many "owls" feasting on fruit

Next stop was the hummingbird garden just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve.  Multiple feeders attract the birds that are so numerous in this park and so important as pollinators.  We started watching from a distance, not wanting to disturb the cute little things, but when a knowledgeable interpreter came out and told us we could put our hands right next to the feeders and let the birds land on our fingers, we moved right in!  He went on the explain the research he had been part of when the BBC Planet Earth crew had been there filming.  Apparently they had put several hummingbirds through a “rain tube” with special sensors to film their flight.  When the video was slowed down, it was revealed that hummingbirds can react so quickly to the stimuli around them that they can fly through a rainstorm and avoid every raindrop!!

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the largest of the hummingbirds

OK, that was Day 2 — seems like we got up to about 150% adventure by the end of it!

Next day, we got up early for a guided walk in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (adjacent to and very similar to the Monteverde one).  The Santa Elena Reserve has a very close relationship with the local high school — giving students opportunities to work and learn in their precious ‘backyard’.  A good portion of our fees went to the school community.  We had a fabulous guide (not a student) who explained some of the mysteries of this amazing place. The lush greenery … massive tree trunks with huge canopies so high up … vines hanging down, and entire ecosystems growing off the sides of trees .. was captivating.

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our guide used a high-powered scope to show us birds, reptiles and sloths
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we felt like we were in Jurassic Park
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we learned the difference between millipedes and centipedes (and it's not "900 legs)
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I had a bad hair day. Or maybe its a 2-toed sloth.

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Kaia and Jake hiding under a leaf the size of an umbrella

On the way back to town from the Reserve, we asked the taxi driver to stop at a well-known ficus tree that our hostel-owner had showed us pictures of.  It is a strangler fig that killed its host tree which has since decomposed, leaving an enormous, hollow, and very climbable tree – Cam and Jake went about 50ft up and could have kept going but came down only because we were short of time.

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I can't figure out how to turn the picture, so just turn your head.
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looking up the inside
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looking down
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this tree was made to climb!

Then it was time to get back to town for the climate change rally that Cam described in an earlier blog post.  It was an awesome feeling (I felt kind of emotional, actually) to see the local people coming together about such a threat to their little piece of paradise — a place that I had just started to get to know over the previous 48 hours.  Each of our guides had talked about the fact that the dry seasons are getting noticeably longer, and that they are seeing small changes in animal behaviour.  For example, some animals are moving to higher elevations to get more moisture and that is affecting vegetation as well as changing predator-prey dynamics.  Tourism has allowed large parts of the forest to remain intact and provide economic benefits while not being cut down for pastureland, but the balance is fragile.  Plans to improve the road from Puntarenas would mean better access for tourists (no backwards driving around gravel hairpin turns), but it could also increase the number of visitors, reduce their length of stay, and increase vehicle emissions.  Luckily, there seem to be many very committed people in Monteverde who are considering these issues and looking for sustainable solutions.
At 2pm, our bus arrived to take us to Arenal, en route for the next adventure!  Our route involved a very scenic ride down the mountainside to lake Arenal, and then along the lake in a boat towards the iconic “Volcan Arenal”.  This volcano had been recently very active but has not erupted since 2010.
Yvonne

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Lake Arenal, with Arenal volcano in the background
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Volcan Arenal