St. Thomas

This island was first Ciboney land, a subgroup of the Taino people who also settled Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. They were later supplanted by the Arawaks and the Caribs. In the late 1600s, Denmark decided to claim the island as their own, bringing disease and decimating the local population. The first settlers belonged to the St. Thomas Reformed Church, which is how the island was given its name.

By 1673, the Danes had brought enslaved Africans to the island to work sugarcane plantations. For awhile, the largest slave market in the entire world was on St. Thomas. This was one of the corners of the triangle trade where sugar was sent to New England to make rum, which was sent along with other goods to Africa to buy more slaves. Slaves were emancipated here in 1848.

Fort Christian

In order to protect the land they had occupied, the Danish built a giant fort right at the bay. The tour guide told me that its placement was a joke, easily overrun with no ability to lookout for potential attacks.

pictures of Fort Christian: 1 - view from roof, 2 - view of front facade (a reddish building with arched windows and a clocktower), 3 - cannon on top of roof overlooking bay

inside, outside and a cannon on top

In 1874, the fort was turned into the local jail and used for that purpose until 1983. The most interesting part of the tour was the discussion of the bathrooms and how they had only a tiny opening for someone to squeeze into so most people had to drop their drawers in full view of the officers. The female shower was outdoors and was in a perfect line of sight from the main office.

1 - floor showing a tiny opening to a bathroom, 2 - me looking sad and holding onto a gated door, 3 - a cavernous room with only one small window shining light

remnants of walls built showing the outline of the bathrooms, me locked up in a jail cell, room for 5 female prisoners

Mangrove Lagoon

One of the most beautiful sights on St. Thomas is a well-preserved red mangrove lagoon on the south side of the island. Mangroves are important for helping to prevent the most disastrous effects of tropical storms, especially storm surge. Boats actually come into the mangroves for shelter when hurricanes are coming. Unfortunately, these aren’t always enough. In 2017, Hurricane Irma hit the Virgin Islands then just a few days later Hurricane Maria came through. The first one had tons of high winds and the second brought endless rain. All of the islands are still recovering from the devastation.

Mangroves also do a great job of filtering pollution out of the water and prevent land from being lost to erosion. They also providing a protective nursery for small creatures that contributes to the larger coral reef ecosystem. d I’ve seen mangroves before, and always thought of them as swampy and full of muck. However, the mangrove lagoon I swam in was crystal clear and it turned out to be an absolutely delightful experience.

top: four-eye butterflyfish, banded coral shrimp, beaugregory damselfish
bottom: blunt spine brittle star, bristle ball brush algae, red cushion sea star

Water Island & Secret Beach

There are three main islands in the United States part of the Virgin Islands – St. Thomas, St. Croix and St John. However, there is another island, just south of St. Thomas, known as Water Island – which is the fourth largest. There are a bunch of other islands that are even smaller including the island known as Little Saint James, which Jeffrey Epstein converted into his private island of sex trafficking horror. More than one tour guide pointed it out.

While hanging out at Honeymoon Beach on Water Island, I started the snorkeling-oriented part of my vacation. It’s always fun to find organisms that I’ve never seen before. Squirrelfish were new for me and so was this cool looking fireworm, a type of segmented polychaete worm with sensory bristles. When frightened, most bristle worms can release them as a defensive maneuver and the bristles are apparently quite painful when they get lodged into human skin.

saddled blenny, common squirrelfish, orange fireworm

After finishing up on the rocky side, I swam out into the middle of the cove and came upon a couple of turtles that were just hanging out eating seagrass. Much to my surprise, they also had animals hanging out on them! These are remoras, a type of fish that have a giant sucker that can attach to the skin or shell of another organism. At first scientists thought they were cleaner fish eating algae and detritus on the surface of the host, but apparently they mostly consume the feces of their host organism. I’ve seen photos of these on sharks and whales, but never on turtles. What was really interesting for me was watching them detach when the turtle came up to breathe, which is every 5-10 minutes, and then reattach when the turtle came back to the seafloor. For this reason, turtles must be a less than ideal host.

remoras on a green turtle, green turtle, more remoras

There’s a lot of beautiful beaches in St. Thomas, but Secret Beach is pretty great. There is good snorkeling on both sides of the cove, a good restaurant, and not too many people. I found some nice corals and got to see a flounder swimming which is always fun.

top: closeup of great star coral, closeup of great star coral, boulder brain coral
bottom: critically endangered elkhorn coral, peacock flounder hidden in sand, peacock flounder swimming

Birmingham, Alabama

Note: I took this trip during Thanksgiving break last year, but am just getting around to posting about it now.

My good friend Shane moved to Birmingham after getting fed up with the rising prices of the Bay Area. He grew up about an hour away and was ready for a new beginning.

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Panoramic view of the city of Birmingham

Birmingham made its name from the production of iron. The geology of the surrounding area contains not only iron ore, but also coke (a type of coal), and limestone. This unique combination of locally sourced material, made it an ideal place for business. All three of these ingredients were put into a blast furnace and heated up to high temperatures. The melted iron would be directed into molds. Before they were broken apart, these molds shaped the iron into blocks looked like small piglets suckling the mother pig, which is how the name pig iron was derived.


pig iron ingots, 56-foot high statue dedicated to the Roman god Vulcan, molds for making pig iron

Sloss Furnaces

One local company that produced that iron was Sloss Furnaces, which was open from 1882-1971. For years, Sloss used Black convict labor to undertake the backbreaking and exhausting work of feeding the blast furnace. Make no mistake, this was slavery under a different name. Local white cops worked in collusion with the company so that whenever workers were needed, the police would arrest people under the charge of “vagrancy.” They then had to work off their supposed violation at the furnaces where injuries were common.

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view of Sloss Furnaces

Shane told me that back in the day, this place was used for raves and even now, a haunted house is held there every Halloween. The furnaces are now open to the public and visitors can wander into almost every part of the old industrial site.


bottom of furnace, elevator to dump off raw materials to the top of the furnace, side of blast furnace


Shane and I underneath some factory equipment, Shane looking cute, Sloss water tower

Ruffner Mountain

Shane sent me out on a day of wandering on one of his favorite nature spots in the city, Ruffner Mountain. This was an old iron mine that was generating at its peak about 200 tons of iron ore for Sloss Furnaces. It was originally going to be developed into apartments, but a group of local activists got together and now it is a private nature reserve.


beautiful finds on Ruffner Mountain


sunset on Ruffner Mountain

Civil Rights Movement

In addition, Birmingham is known for both the victories and tragedies that occured there during the Civil Rights movement. After being arrested during a protest in April 1963 and frustrated that other clergymen were not engaging or supporting direct action, Martin Luther King published his infamous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  One line in particular continues to echo forward in time: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


boiled peanuts, Birmingham Jail, shoes from a girl who was killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

The famous photo of a teenage boy being attacked by a police dog is from those 1963 Birmingham protests, as are numerous photos of fire hoses being turned on young people. After a solid month of filling the jails with protestors, sometimes with young kids like in the Children’s Crusade, the city eventually agreed to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains and fitting rooms and to hire black people in stores.

Later that year, angry members of the KKK blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. I’d heard of this moment, but it wasn’t until I was in Birmingham in the Civil Rights Institute that I could feel the weight of that loss. People had fought so hard and had finally made change, only to watch these young members of their community be murdered in reactionary violence. The similarity to what’s happening today is eerie. The echoes of the past continue to resonate today.

Mono Lake

After taking a full year off of teaching, going back into the classroom at a new school has been full of challenges, the biggest one being that we didn’t have a principal for two months. However, work life has stabilized a bit and I’m looking forward to blogging a bit again about my adventures in this world. They will, of course, be a bit more spread out and like this one, a bit delayed.

For my birthday last year, a couple of friends and I drove up to Mono Lake which is near the Nevada state line, right next to Yosemite. I heard of this place back when I was on a research cruise to Antarctica when we pulled up a really strange mineral called ikaite. This green block of hydrated calcium carbonate forms in anaerobic, very cold conditions in marine sediment. When the team was pulling up cores, we found a few of these and we had to pop them into the freezer immediately. Once the water in them melts, the whole structure falls apart and there’s nothing left to look at.

While we were looking at the ikaite, one of the professors told me there was a version of this rock on land found at Mono Lake. The tufa towers found on the outskirts of the lake are also made of calcium carbonate, but the molecules are arranged in a slightly different manner and are thus, much more stable.

gorgeous view of Mono Lake from a canoe

These towers are actually formed in the same way that Lac Abbé in Djibouti were made. It was surreal to think about these unique formations being made on opposite sides of the world. The major difference between the two is that the chimneys of Mono Lake still sit near the lake, whereas the waters in Lac Abbé have continued to recede over time and is quite far away.

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tufa towers at Mono Lake

The story of Mono Lake is a true heroic effort of grassroots activism. Since the 1940s, the government had been diverting tributaries to the lake to supply water to Los Angeles. In the late 1970s, a group of researchers realized that this continued practice was eventually going to mean that the lake they studied and loved was eventually going to disappear.

Together, they formed the Mono Lake Committee which was devoted to preserving the lake and its unique habitat. A group of lawyers decided to press a case around the idea that the state has a legal responsibility to take care of and maintain navigable waterways. This was a statute of common law that had never been used in court in this way. However, the California Supreme Court ruled in their favor in 1983: “The public trust…is an affirmation of the duty of the state to protect the people’s common heritage of streams, lakes, marshlands and tidelands…”  Since then, water levels have stabilized and have even increased since their lowest point. However, they are still almost 25 feet lower than they were in the 1940s.


today’s Mono Lake

Due to its alkalinity and salinity, very few creatures live in Mono Lake’s extreme environment. There are lots of brine shrimp swimming around, which are similar to those that live in Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the San Francisco Bay. However, I think the the most interesting is the alkali flies (Ephydra hians). They create a bubble around their heads and then swim down to the rocks in the shallow waters and lay their eggs. They basically create a mini oxygen scuba tank around their heads. And they don’t bite humans!!!!


the black dots in the water are the flies; brine shrimp; and Glen, me & Ilana posing with the tufa

One other really awesome fact about these flies are that they are edible and rich in proteins and fats. The Kucadikadi are the band of Northern Paiute people who traditionally lived in the area and used to dry the pupae in the sun, rub off the shell, and then make the small yellow remnants into a soup. These flies were a source of food and were traded across the Yosemite region as a delicacy. Today, the Kucadikadi are still working to achieve federal recognition as a distinct tribe.

The name “Mono” most like came from another group of natives, known as the Yokut who at that time lived near Fresno. Mono is supposedly derived from a Yokut word that means “fly eater” and because colonizers encountered the Yokuts first, they used the Yokut name for people in the area. More information about the Yokut people, including their current work and their history can be found at the Tule River Indian Tribe site.


sunrise at Mono Lake


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.

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.

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. 🙂


recent view of Panama Canal traffic (from

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.


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. 🙂


white-faced capuchin monkey



Week 18: 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.


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.