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.


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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.


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




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Kata Tjuṯa


Week 16: 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 🙂


stormtroopers at the start, Star Wars characters and me


Week 15: South Island


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.


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


sign in front of Christchurch Botanical Gardens


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.


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.


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.


boulders, me on boulders, more boulders


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.


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


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.


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.


views from the Dunedin to Queenstown drive


fall colors in Arrowtown


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. 🙂


view from the top of the gondola over Queenstown


Week 14: Dubai & North Island (NZ)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Diplodocus longus skeleton in the middle of Dubai Mall

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


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.


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


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.


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.