Panama: Panama City & Panama Canal

I stopped in Panama on my way back from Chile, because a three-day stopover didn’t cost any more than flying straight home. After a few weeks of other miscellaneous trips to see friends and family, I’m finally getting around to sharing some highlights.

Panama City

Panama’s City’s skyline is bigger than San Francisco’s and probably most cities in the United States. The skyscrapers stretch along the edge of the the Pacific Ocean. A giant road called the Cinta Costera was built above the ocean so that cars can avoid going through the busy streets in old town. Fortunately, city planners also added a path for bicycles and pedestrians with great views of the old town and the new city. Walking along the road was a lovely relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the city itself.

IMG_20190712_160640-001.jpg

view of downtown Panama City from the Cinta Costera

I visited MAC Panama, the contemporary art museum in Panama City and saw an entire exhibit by the Venezuelan op artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. He spent most of his life exploring color and the movement of color.  Due to his commercial success, he is one of Latin America’s most well-known artists, but sadly, just a couple weeks after I saw this exhibit, he passed away.

Panama

works by French-Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez

I honestly didn’t eat much Panamanian food while I was there, but I did get some delicious fancy vegetarian food at a lovely restaurant in old town called Tio Navaja. On my last day, I stopped by a street vender to buy a passion fruit raspado, full of icy goodness.

Panama2

vegan patacones, tacos, and a creamy passion fruit raspado

Agua Clara Locks

Of course, the main thing I wanted to see in Panama was the Panama Canal itself. It’s the 51 mile shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that most cargo ships take to shorten their journeys. Because of the topography of the land, locks are needed to move boats safely from one side of the isthmus to the other. They need to go up 3 sets of locks  and down 3 sets of locks.

panama canal.png

Panama Canal diagram (link to original on Wikipedia)

I visited the Agua Clara Locks which were expanded a few years ago to allow more and bigger boats to go through, while doing a better job of recycling the water needed to run the locks. Guides to the locks will say that the Panama Canal expansion is good not only for the global economy, but also for fighting greenhouse emissions. First, taking the canal route alone cuts down the amount of fuel needed to get from one ocean to the other. Instead of going around the long way, they wait around for about a week and then go through the canal once their turn arises in the queue. Second, this expansion allows bigger boats to go through (the new Panamax style) that can carry 120,000 tons of cargo, which means less boats need to be coming and going.

I’m not sure I buy their arguments, mostly I think it just means more ships and more stuff will be going through the canals. It’s like when cities build more roads to accomodate more cars, but then the roads fill up with even more cars. This is called induced demand and although I’m glad they’re doing work to make these locks more energy efficient and water efficient, my guess is that there’s still a net positive of carbon emissions after these were created.

The locks, regardless, are fascinating to watch in practice. On the big new Panamax ship in the photo below, it took six tugboats to properly align the boat with the lock, two on each side and one at the front and back. When the boat enters the canal, a Panamanian captain takes control for the duration of the canal transit. There’s just a couple feet of safety room on either side so the captain is in constant communication to all the tugboats while maneuvering the boat into the lock. Once inside the locks, the tugboat at the front and back stay with the boat until it exits. This boat in this photo was on its way out to the Atlantic Ocean and had started its journey in Hong Kong.

Panama4
new Panamax cargo boat transiting through Agua Clara locks with support tugboats

One of the coolest parts of being near the canal is watching the different types of boats go by. Some carry oil, some carry containers, some carry natural gas, and some carry cars! The boats that carry cars are completely enclosed so that the cars arrive in pristine condition. They are are called RORO because cargo is rolled-on, rolled-off.

Panama3
RORO cargo boat entering the Panama Canal from the Atlantic Ocean (view from right before the old locks near Agua Clara) and leaving to the Pacific Ocean (view from my hotel)

It takes about 8-10 hours for a ship to go through the Panama Canal. I saw the boat above enter the locks on the Atlantic side in the morning around 7am and then around 4pm, I watched it head towards the Pacific from my hotel balcony in Panama City.

Boats generally arrive up to a week in advance and they wait around until they are directed to go through. Although tiny private vessels go through for a few thousand dollars, the big ships cost around half a million. Apparently, the current record is around $1.2 million for one of the new Panamax ships loaded down with cargo. One guy swam through a while back and under the old rates was charged 36 cents, which was calculated based on the carrying capacity of his stomach. 🙂

marinetraffic

recent view of Panama Canal traffic (from www.marinetraffic.com)

Last fun fact about the Panama Canal: It was almost built through Nicaragua instead because the land topography meant less digging would be necessary.

Fort San Lorenzo

This fort is on the Atlantic side of Panama and was originally built in the 1500’s to protect the treasures arriving from the Camino de las Cruces, the earliest colonizer route across Panama. Some of you might remember reading about the silver mines in Potosí, Bolovia. All of that silver (along with gold from other parts that were being plundered in South America) was shipped up to the Pacific side of Panama and then transported along this route by people, mules, and boats to the other side. Once they arrived at this fort, the precious metals would stay there until the annual “treasure fleet” set sail back to Europe, traveling in a convoy for protection.

Eventually, the pirate/privateer Henry Morgan (yes, Captain Morgan rum is named after him), attacked the fort and left it in ruins, but it was rebuilt ten years later.

Panama1

Fort San Lorenzo entrance, moat, and the view out over the Panama Canal

Monkey Island

Panama is home to amazing wildlife and rainforest. I would love to come back and see more of it. The only glimpse I got was a visit by boat in pouring rain to briefly see Monkey Island, where we got to spot some capuchin monkeys. They were cute though. 🙂

Panama5

white-faced capuchin monkey

 

 

Chile: Total Solar Eclipse & Rapa Nui

Now that I’m starting teaching again in August, I’ve been debating whether or not to continue blogging. I decided the wanderlust isn’t going away, so I’m going to keep writing and sharing for now. 🙂

La Serena, Chile

I was just in this beautiful country in December, so it seemed a little crazy to go back, but there was a total solar eclipse! I had some frequent flier miles to burn (thanks to some credit card scheming) and some good friends to visit again. After two long flights, a bus ride and a five hour car ride, we arrived in our beautiful condo for the weekend that looked out over the Pacific Ocean. Cata (who you may remember from my trip to Valparaiso) introduced me to brazo de reina, which is basically really thin cake covered in dulce de leche and then rolled up.

chile2

beautiful sunset, me and Cata, brazo de reina

Total solar eclipses are pretty rare. I traveled to Shanghai in 2009 and Kansas City, Missouri in 2017 and both of those eclipses happened to be clouded out. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and I was finally able to see one. It’s a truly spectacular sight and it’s hard for me to put into words my excitement at witnessing such a beautiful phenomenon after so many attempts. The next one in the United States is April 8, 2024. Put it on your calendar now so you can make plans.

chile1

total solar eclipse photos

Rapa Nui

Sometime when I travel, I have a really difficult time. Transit is hard, hotels are expensive, the world feels very lonely. Rapa Nui (called Easter Island by colonizers) was the complete opposite of that and I had a magical time there. I stayed in a dorm bed in a hostel and ended up meeting a couple of French guys (hi Maxime & Guillaume!) and we all ended up renting a car and touring the island together. The whole trip restored my faith in hostels, since I’d had some disappointing experiences this past year.

The most special moment occurred when I signed up for a stargazing trip. I learned about how Polynesian sailors used to navigate at night using the stars. Researchers think this is how the first people came to Rapa Nui in double hulled boats, most likely from the Marquesas Islands which are almost 2,200 miles away. This is a dying skill but there are still some Polynesian elders on other islands who are expert navigators and are trying to pass this tools on to young people.

There are two main ways to find south in the sky, both methods using the Southern Cross. The first way is just to extend the Southern Cross 4.5 times and the tip of that will roughly land at the celestial south pole. The easier way for me was to connect the two pointer stars with a line, then imagine a line perpendicular to the original line. Where that perpendicular line meets the Southern Cross line is a point a bit above the celestial south pole. It seems more complicated, but was much easier for me to visualize. Once the navigators had established south, they could accurately orient their boat in whichever direction they wanted to travel even after the sun had set.

After all this time traveling in the southern hemisphere, I still struggle to recognize constellations. With so little light pollution, it was easy to see the bright stars and Milky Way. However, the main attraction was still to come when the guides took us to Anakena Beach. There they took photos of us with the moais and the celestial sky.

One of the guides starting singing a Rapa Nui song his father had taught him, using two rocks to make a beat. As he was singing, a rainbow appeared over the moais, made from the light reflecting from the moon and the moisture in the air. This “moonbow” hung in the air as the guide was singing and just as he finished, we could hear a set of hooves stampeding through the sand behind us. I turned and saw a herd of wild horses running along the beach. Music. Moonlit rainbows. Mesmerizing horses. Magic. Pure magic. Definitely a moment I will remember for a long, long time.

rapa nui

me and the moais, lunar rainbow over the moais

Like many people, I came to Rapa Nui to see the mysterious moais. They are supposed to be representations of revered ancestors who were supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the islanders. They started out small and got bigger over time. Many of the moais were placed onto specially designed altars known locally as ahus. During a hiking tour of the northern edge of the island, I got to see one of the earliest moais that was actually carved from the igneous rock basalt.

Starred Photos5

early moai, a giant ramp ahu (the only one like it on the island)

Most of the moais are sculpted from tuff, basically volcanic ash that has hardened and is much easier to carve. The later moais had tattoo carvings on their backs that were probably painted. Over time many of these tattoos have eroded away due to wind and rain. They also had topknots (pukaos) made of red scoria. Once the moai was moved and placed upon its ahu, coral eyes were added with pupils made of black obsidian or red scoria.

rapa nui1

reconstructed moais showcasing tattoos and eyes

A giant quarry at Rano Raraku was used to construct these moai and then oral tradition says they were walked into place. There is still contention about how they were moved, but the distances were great and an average moai weighed 14 tons. (The biggest moai ever moved and erected weighed 82 tons). The pukaos themselves each weighed 1-2 tons.

Starred Photos2

moais still in the quarry at Rano Raraku

Once placed upon their ahu, the islanders believed that their ancestors would make sure their needs were met. When colonizers first visited the island, they wrote in their journals about the moais still being upright on their ahus.

tongariki

Ahu Tongariki

However, over time, the islanders begun to have issues and grew unhappy with their ancestors not providing for them. Many researchers attribute this to overpopulation and a lack of resources, specifically related to deforestation. There was certainly internal conflict on the island and the end result was that the moais around the island were toppled and the worship of ancestors ceased. The quarry at Rano Raraku is still full of semi-completed moais that were never moved from where they were carved.

moaidown

toppled moais with a few of their pukaos

In recent years, several of these ahus have been restored and some of the moais have been placed back onto their altars so that visitors can understand what that would have looked like. Many others have been left facedown on the ground where they were pulled down years ago.

Starred Photos3

moais more recently restored onto their ahus

Most islanders used to live in houses made of rocks and plants. The igneous rocks were carved with small holes that the support beams were wedged into. Then palms were added to the outside. The boat shape held up well against the wind and the plants protected the residents from the elements.

Starred Photos1

reconstructed house, stone remnants of houses found all over the island, inside of a house

In one part of the island known as Orongo, stone structures were built instead. This is because the winds were quite strong here and the other houses wouldn’t have lasted long here. These were also built much later, after the moais were taken down. This village was the home of the annual competition of the tangata manu. This event was part of the birdman cult in which Rapa Nui men competed to collect the first sooty tern egg from the island of Motu Nui and then swim it back to the Orongo village. That man would then be made the leader for the following year, although sometimes potential leaders chose a representative to compete in their place.

Starred Photos7

stone house at Orongo, the far island in the photo is Moto Nui, another stone houe

At this time, there were many petroglyphs carved all over the island. Some of the most common carvings included Make-make, the chief god of the birdman cult. Many also featured giant tunas and boats as well as carvings of vulvas, known as komaris.

Starred Photos.jpg

petroglyphs of Make-make, giant tuna, and a closeup of vulvas

On another hike to a restricted area known as Poike, we were take to a cave that had even more carvings. Women stayed in this cave from time to time for religious purposes and representations of their deities are carved in the wall. Also found on the wall were petroglyphs of sweet potatoes covered in small root hairs (apparently now only found at a couple houses on the whole island).

Starred Photos6

top: me while posing, female deities, sweet potato and stone tool
bottom: gorgeous coastline; a rock carved with a face; me, my hostel roommate Camille and our guide Yoyo

By now, you all know I love to see what’s under the water, so I spent one afternoon with my new French friends at the beach and we found a bit of marine life. The lizardfish was definitely a new one for me.

rapanui2

top: flounder, black sea cucumber, lizardfish
bottom: yellowfin goatfish, purple sea urchin, yellowstripe goatfish

 

 

 

Week 18: Molokai

Molokai

I met Tim and Torrey on my first day hiking the O Circuit in Torres del Paine. Months earlier, we’d all signed up for basically the same campsites along the 9 day trek and they soon became my trail family. No matter which of us got to camp first, we would always set up our tent right next door. I never really felt like I was solo hiking, because every night at camp, I knew I’d have company. After they brought me some treats on trail, I started calling them my fairy godparents. They invited me to come visit them, and since I’d never been to Molokai, I decided that sounded like a great way to end my adventure.

molokai4

Glacier Grey and us in Torres del Paine, all of us on the beach in Molokai

Molokai is more Hawaiian than any of the Hawaiian Islands. There are not many tourists that visit and there is only one hotel and some condominium rentals for people who don’t live there. On the main road, there is a big sign that states, “Visit, spend, go home.” The people who live here don’t want their island to turn into Oahu or Maui. The three of us talked a lot about how it feels to be a part of a community in which you weren’t raised and why they might be more accepted than some of their neighbors. One thing is clear, both of them are extremely adept at understanding and participating in local cultural practices. Living and working within the community, instead of only coming and building a retirement home, also has a definite impact.

I was still getting over jet lag from New Zealand, so I did a lot of relaxing while I was in Molokai. I read some books and stared at the ocean. They did drag me out snorkeling one day.

molokai2

me hanging out on the west side of Molokai (thanks Torrey for the awesome photo), beach scene

We managed to see a bunch of fish, a sea cucumber, some nice corals and a cone snail. Notice the triggerfish in the upper right. That’s the state fish of Hawai’i, known in Hawaiian as the humuhumunukunukuapua’a which I saw for the first time back in Mauritius.

molokai1

top: marbled hawkfish, convict tang, reef triggerfish (Hawai’i state fish)
bottom: sea cucumber, coral, cone snail

They also took me out on a beautiful kayaking adventure with some of their friends. One of the places we stopped, there were three huge manta rays basically swimming in a circuit. They would swim the length of the beach and then flip upwards so that their underbellies showed and then swim back to where they started. I ran back to the kayak and grabbed the snorkeling gear, but the water was so murky I couldn’t see anything even though they were only a foot away in the water. Manta rays are such incredible, majestic creatures.

paddling.jpg

Tim and neighbor in their kayak, Tim standup paddleboarding, glimpse of a manta ray in the water

I also took myself out on a couple of adventures. One was to Pālā’au State Park to see the view out over Kalaupapa. I could barely see anything through the fog, but this was the old settlement, established in 1866, where people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were forcibly taken away from their loved ones and forced to live. Since the 1940s, the disease has a cure and many people rejoined their estranged families. The site has been turned into a national park, and a few of the original residents still live there and will be allowed to live there until they die. There are restrictions around visiting and since a landslide occurred, the only way to visit is now by air or sea.

molokai

fantastically foggy forest, view of Kalaupapa Colony, fertility rock

There’s also an old sugar mill which reminded me a lot of both the sugar factory in Mauritius and the money mint in Bolivia. This process of making sugar from cane is very similar in both places, but in Mauritius, the leftover sugarcane was burned and used to power the wheels that crush it. However, on Molokai it was mule, oxen, and horses walking in circles that caused the wheels to rotate. This is the same way the mint in Bolivia worked and how metal was flattened thin enough to make coins.

last days1.jpg

place where livestock walked in circles, sugarcane extraction, passion-orange-guava icee (not nearly as good as I was expecting)

On my last day, I tried to do a cultural hike to see the Halawa Valley.  It was unfortunately canceled due to too much rain and the potential for flash flooding. Nonetheless, the scenery on the drive there was stunning. Molokai is so green.

P1080899.jpg

Halawa Valley panorama

Much love to my fairy godparents for being such incredibly awesome people and inviting me to come visit. 🙂

San Francisco

Coming home is always a fascinating experience. My backpack exploded in all directions and I was left seriously wondering how all of my stuff fit into my pack in the first place. I found souvenirs I bought months ago that I forgot I had stuck into random pockets. After all the time of the road wearing and hand washing the same clothes over and over, many were headed for the trash. I tried to repair the holes while I was traveling, but now that I’m home, it’s time to let them go.

last days

backpack explosion, 4.5 months of mail, piles of dirty clothes

It’s bittersweet to back. I love sleeping in my own bed and cooking, but I miss the constant discovery and seeing new things every day. I love seeing friends and getting hugs from people who care about me, but I miss meeting new people. I love doing laundry and having a whole wardrobe to choose from, but I miss the ease of not having options. Like every transition, this is a good reminder of the need for balance. Every new phase means changing some parts of my life that were previously cherished, but also gaining and discovering new aspects of my life that will soon be treasured as well.

Week 17: Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas & The Outback

Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef has been on my wish list for a really, really long time, so I flew up to Port Douglas. Inside most corals, there are tiny plankton (a type of dinoflagellate) that live within the coral and give them their color. The years 2016 and 2017 were two really hot years which caused massive amounts of coral bleaching, roughly half of the reef. During a bleaching event, the plankton actually leave the coral when it gets too warm. These tiny plankton do photosynthesis which give sugars to the coral and without them, they slowly starve. If the water temperature cools down, the corals can accept these plankton back. Right now, the Great Barrier Reef seems to be in a stable holding pattern, although with global warming this is only a temporary situation. At the moment there’s some beautiful coral and fish still to seen, although there’s been a lot of devastation as well.

One of the most incredible sights in the Great Barrier Reef are the giant clams. I’d seen a couple big ones back in the Gulf of Tadjoura in Djibouti, but these are HUGE, over a meter across. I’ve previously only seen fossilized ones this big, so I thought they were extinct. But no, they are still living here on earth and they come in the most incredible variety of colors.

gbr.jpg

giant clams – all of these are about 3 ft across

There were lots of fish. Here’s just a brief view of some that live in the reef.

gbr1.jpg

top: saddle butterflyfish, parrotfish, sixband angelfish
middle: dark-capped parrotfish, black & red anemonefish, longnose butterflyfish
bottom: double saddle butterflyfish, blackspotted pufferfish, trumpetfish

And, of course, the corals! I hadn’t seen blue corals in a long time, and this was a huge boulder of them, which made me really happy.

gbr2.jpg

lots of corals!

I am at the point in my snorkeling career where I get sidetracked by many organisms, especially weird invertebrates. In the top row of the photo below are three different types of tunicates. These belong to the phylum Chordata because they have a notochord, basically the beginnings of a spinal cord. Chordata is the same phylum humans belong to, which makes these our closest evolutionary relatives that don’t have a backbone. They are also known as sea squirts and, in the Bay Area, we have a species that look like little grapes that are commonly found on the side of piers.

Also, feather stars are cool. They are a type of sea star, but they can sort of swim. One of best videos of a feather star in action was captured in Thailand.

gbr3.jpg

top: green barrel sea squirt (Didemnum molle), solitary tunicate (Polycarpa aurata), bluebell tunicates (Clavelina puerto-secensis)
bottom: anemone and black & red anemonefish, feather star, feather star

Port Douglas

After my day of reef snorkeling, I  stopped in a wildlife sanctuary so that I could take a photo with a koala, and to feed some kangaroos.

ptdouglas.jpg

me & koala, bandicoot, Australian pelican, wallaby

The Outback

Next up was Uluru, the giant rock in the center of Australia that white folks called Ayer’s Rock. It is made of sandstone that was uplifted around 350 million years ago. This rock was used for spiritual practices by the Aṉangu people and for many years they asked outsiders not to climb their sacred rock, but tourists continued to do so. Finally, this October, the rock will officially be off limits. There are traditional stories that relate to certain marks and features of the rock. It’s a beautiful place, even though there are flies everywhere during the hot daylight hours.

At night, there was a special light installation by Bruce Munro that includes over 50,000 individual lights. It seemed a little pricey, but I really enjoyed wandering around in the ever changing colors. On the drive between Uluru and Alice Springs, our group stopped and did a lovely hike along the rim of Kings Canyon.

uluru

top: Uluru, me & Uluru, Uluru
bottom: Field of Lights art installation, Kings Canyon rim walk, beehive rock formations

Near Uluru is another set of huge rocks called Kata Tjuṯa formed during the same geologic event as Uluru. This also has spiritual significance but gets far less visitors. I thought that some of the views were a bit nicer though and the hike was lovely.

P1080794

Kata Tjuṯa

 

Week 16: Melbourne

Melbourne

My first day was spent doing laundry, booking the rest of my accommodations and activities and basically being a super internet junkie. I needed a day off from traveling, especially since New Zealand had been a bit non-stop with all of the driving. Since I was staying in the Melbourne CBD (Central Business District) which is conveniently located right next to Chinatown, I did go out and eat some amazing food. 🙂

One of my first stops was the Melbourne Museum. There were tons of taxidermied animals, a special exhibit on the biota of our guts, and an introduction to indigenous culture.

australia1.jpg

edible bush plants by the Yolŋu elder Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda

One of the most iconic buildings in Melbourne is the Victoria State Library. Built in 1854, it’s Australia’s oldest library and one of the first free libraries in the world. As you can see, it’s also very pretty.

australia.jpg

corrals in atrium, beautiful flowers in an old naturalist book, the dome

I took a special trip down to St. Kilda Pier in order to see the tiniest penguins in the world. These little blue penguins are only found in Australia and New Zealand. They are plentiful, but hang out only in certain areas. These penguins swim out before sunrise and stay until after sunset eating fish in the ocean. They come back every evening to sleep in the rocks and that’s when the tourists like me come by to see them.

australia2

blue penguin, Melbourne skyline, more little blues

All the reviews of Melbourne online said it was important to see a game at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. There was no cricket game happening while I was around, so I went to see an Australian football game instead. I read an introduction to the game online and the nice family next to me helped explain things. It’s very different from American football and rugby. Moving the ball downfield is mostly done through kicking and punching the ball forward to teammates. Scoring is accomplished by kicking the ball between posts, with the middle posts resulting in six points and the side posts adding only one point). Side note: these players do not skip leg days, their thighs, which are stuffed into tiny shorts, are bigger than most small trees.

One of the quirkiest parts of the sport is that because of the way the league was created, there are several teams from the Melbourne area and less teams located in other states. The match I saw was between the Melbourne Demons and the Hawthorn Hawks. Hawthorn is a suburb of Melbourne and is less than 4 miles away. Traditionally, people eat meat pies at these games, but I made do with a cream cheese and spinach roll. I always feel a bit anxious to go to big events like this by myself, but I’m so glad I went and experienced this very Australian tradition.

australia4

Aussie football match, my lunch, final score

Since my last day in Melbourne was May 4th (aka Star Wars Day), I signed up on a whim to run a nighttime 5K Star Wars race. Run might be an exaggeration because I was quite sick and coughing, but it was fun to see so many folks dressed up in costumes in the middle of the night. I ran through foam, danced with Jawas in a silent disco, and marveled at the neon workups of famous characters.  The actor who played Chewbacca, Peter Mayhew, had just passed away so there was a lot of folks vying to take photos with all the Chewies on the run. I think there were more families and a greater diversity of body shapes than at any other race I’ve ever done. I also heard the most joyfully nerdy conversations while waiting in line to take photos at different stops. My favorite was a discussion of the average life expectancy for a wookiee. Answer: 400 years 🙂

australia3

stormtroopers at the start, Star Wars characters and me

 

Week 15: South Island

Christchurch

This city has gone through so much the last few years. They are still rebuilding after suffering two giant earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Many buildings are still surrounded in scaffolding and there are still buildings with huge holes in them on main streets. Then last month, a white supremacist killed over 50 people in a shooting spree at local mosques. The people of Christchurch are extremely resilient, but the signs of these tragic events are everywhere.

nz3

mural on Canterbury Museum of a moa skeleton and living kiwi, old buildings downtown, flowers and tributes to those lost in the mosque shootings

P1080046

sign in front of Christchurch Botanical Gardens

Oamaru

My Kiwi friends (more about them soon) recommended I stop in this tiny town and see the steampunk museum. After hanging out inside this place, I’ve realized there are aspects of steampunk that I absolutely love and admire and then there are parts that I just will never understand. Mostly I deeply respect the maker hustle and passion so clearly evident in all of the pieces on display. Many of the creations would have taken hours of work and hundreds of dollars to complete.

nz2

Steampunk HQ: moa metal sculpture, mad scientist laboratory, airship

The portal was probably my favorite installation: a room full of mirrors with strings of lights hanging from the ceiling. The mirrors reflect the lights in every direction, so it feels like the lights are repeating up and down and outwards into infinity.

Moeraki

I didn’t see anything else in town, but these boulders are famous. They are concretions (new technical jargon for me), which means they were formed when minerals in the water created a calcite glue that held together the surrounding marine mud. They started small and then grew very slowly, taking about 5.5 million years to get to their current size. Eventually coastal erosion uncovered them and there’s quite a few of them on the beach today.

nz7

boulders, me on boulders, more boulders

Dunedin

I came to Dunedin to see Beth and Josh, who I met back in November when I hiked the Inca Trail. They showed me around the city and the nearby Otago Peninsula and gave me all kinds of insight into Kiwi life. They first took me to the farmer’s market and around town before we headed out to New Zealand’s version of a castle. Completed in 1874, Larnarch Castle was built by a prominent banker named William Larnach. He had three marriages and there’s strong suspicion that his last wife having an affair with his son from his first marriage. Larnach’s personal finances were also in turmoil and he chose to die by suicide in 1898.

nz4

Larnach Castle, us in the gardens, closeup of stained glass instead castle

P1080115

view of the peninsula and the city from the rooftop

My only request of Beth and Josh was to take me to see the yellow-eyed penguins. These are the rarest penguins in the world and one big reason for that is that they are extremely anti-social. We were fortunate to be able to see three of them hanging out in the wild as well as a bunch of them being cared for in the penguin hospital. Usually they care for about 100 sick or underweight penguins a year, but this year they’ve seen about 300. The area around their habitat has been overfished and climate change has meant they have to dive deeper to get to where their food is. Since they still have to hold their breath to dive, when they go down that deep it gives them less time and less chance to find food.

nz5

yellow-eyed penguins

After bidding adieu to Beth and Josh the night before, I started my drive to Queenstown. As you can see, it was probably the most scenic drive I took in New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve seen trees change colors since I moved back to California. Growing up my life was dictated by the four seasons and fall used to be my favorite time of year. I stopped quite a few times on the road just to soak it all in.

nz6

views from the Dunedin to Queenstown drive

P1080201

fall colors in Arrowtown

Queenstown

I wish I could tell you more about this beautiful city, but the only touristy thing I did was take the gondola up to the top of a nearby hill. I had big plans for adventures, but it just rained like crazy the whole day I was there. Sometimes travel just doesn’t coincide with the weather. I’ve learned that in cases like this it is best to just roll with the punches. It was cold and wet, so I got in line with a bunch of other people who had the same idea and we all watched a midday showing of the Avengers. 🙂

P1080206

view from the top of the gondola over Queenstown

 

Week 14: Dubai & North Island (NZ)

Dubai

Dubai was a last minute addition due to an airline ticket that gave me a free stopover to explore the city for a little over 24 hours. This was my second time visiting the Gulf, I was in Doha way back in January. I stayed in the neighborhood called Deira, which is across the Dubai Creek from the rest of Dubai. It is close to the airport and, more importantly, way cheaper than anything downtown.

P1070747

view of Dubai from Deira

I wandered creekside late at night when I arrived and even though it was past 11pm, there were tons of people (mostly men, admittedly) walking around as well. It was the only cool part of the day. Dubai is hot, like 100°F+ hot. When I awoke, I took a water taxi that cost one dirham to the other side of the creek. These boats are called abras and fit roughly 20 people on them. The old town is supposed to give visitors a taste of what Dubai was like in the past, but it’s got a Disneyland feel to it, more shops and art galleries than authenticity.

dubai3

Dubai creek, abra – water taxi, light installation outside art gallery

I did have the most expensive breakfast I’ve eaten on this whole trip. I knew it was going to be way more than I could eat, but I ordered an Emirati breakfast anyways: balaleet (vermicelli with cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron topped with an omelette), fava beans, white beans, date molasses, melted cheese, cheddar cheese, watermelon jam, and a couple different types of bread. Later on at the mall, I got my first taste of camel milk in the form of a saffron milkshake.

dubai2

spiced tea, Emirati breakfast, saffron camel milkshake

The biggest thing to know about Dubai is that everything is over-the-top. The most obvious example of this is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,717 ft (829 m). I’ve never seen anything anywhere close to this tall. (Trivia fact: Saudi Arabia has started building an even taller building that is supposed to top out at 1000 m, but construction is currently on hold). This is what oil money can do.

dubai

Burj Khalifa – day, evening, night

Everything in Dubai seems to have a normal experience and a VIP experience. It’s class segregation at its finest. Like Qatar, the UAE ships in immigrants from the rest of the world to do all the jobs the Emiratis themselves don’t want to do. In the course of a few hours, I talked to workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, India, and the Philippines. These folks have retail and hotel jobs with long-term work visas (with no chance of ever gaining citizenship) which allow them to make more money than they would at home. This is the nice immigrant story that the UAE would like to present to the world, but immigrants in other industries have their passports taken away and live in terrible conditions, stuck in a foreign country with few options. This modern day slavery has been well-documented. Its oppression of basic rights is what has allowed such technical achievements to be built.

uae.jpg

baby skyscrapers from the normal viewing decks on floors 124 & 125 of the Burj Khalifa

Continuing on the theme of doing the most, the Dubai Mall has an entire dinosaur skeleton in one of its atriums

P1070758

Diplodocus longus skeleton in the middle of Dubai Mall

and a floor-to-ceiling aquarium with a walk-through tunnel

dubai1

cuttlefish, jellyfish, glass fish

and an impressive fountain show.

Dubai has sold its soul to capitalism and the result is a garish, pretentious elitism that I struggled to enjoy. It’s a booming place of industry, financed almost entirely by oil revenues and the future cost of our planet’s health. The country is superficially fascinating, but deeply disturbing under the shiny facade.

 

North Island

Dubai was just a stopover on my way from South Africa to New Zealand. After crossing eight time zones, I arrived in Auckland at 4:30am, exhausted and confused. I drove around aimlessly for awhile and eventually the sun came up and I had a huge breakfast. I checked into my hotel and promptly slept most of the day away. Jet lag is a mess. As you can imagine, I saw very little of Auckland. It was Easter, so almost everything was closed on both Sunday and Monday, so maybe it wasn’t so bad that I slept so much. On Monday, I drove on to Rotorua to enjoy a nighttime treetop canopy walk in a redwoods grove and a dip in some hot springs.

nz.jpg

Easter morning sunrise from Takapuna Beach, Rotorua tree canopy walk, New Zealand cow grazing

P1070913.jpg

view on the drive to Rotorua from Auckland

Then it was time to experience the biggest reason I’d come to the North Island: a pilgrimage to the Shire. The original set from the first three Lord of the Rings movies was torn down, but they rebuilt them for the Hobbit movies and Peter Jackson is still taking a cut from all the people who come to visit them today ($50 per person). All of the buildings only go back a couple meters and the hobbit holes come in various sizes based on whether wizards or hobbits were being filmed next to them to give different size perspectives. The biggest surprise was that apparently almost 40% of people who come have never read the books or watched the movies. In our tour of about 30 people, I was one of five who admitted spending several hours of my life reading the whole series of Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth.

nz1.jpg

top: Bilbo & Frodo’s house, me, Sam Gamgee’s house
zoom in on the rest to see what kind of work the hobbit who lived there did

After reading The Hobbit for school (Thanks Mr. Hawblitzel!), I at first struggled to get into LOTR. I finally read them one summer, going through all three of them in about a month. I think part of the reason was that the books are such male-centric novels. Yes, there are some powerful females with bit parts to play, but by and large it is an epic bro adventure. The Shire, nonetheless, was a place I imagined in my head when I was younger, so it is incredible to see it in person. It’s also nice to see how much the fantasy genre has opened up since then. I’ve read so much this year and this has included stories about deadly nuns,  a gunslinging desert woman with some hidden talents, and an African girl who is thrown into an epic adventure to free magic again in her world. Tolkien was one of the first, but fantasy is just getting better over time.

My last stop on the North Island was to see the glowworms in Waitomo, which were as spectacular as I hoped. I chose to go on a mini-caving and tubing adventure that was quite a bit of fun. I have never before floated down a freezing-cold river in a tube before (thank goodness for super thick wetsuits). There was one magical moment where the guides pulled all of us down a tunnel and all we had to do was sit back and look up at the blue specks on the ceiling. Bioluminescence is awesome. This is one of those things that just must be experienced in person, but here’s a brief glimpse at what it looks like.