In awe of nature at the edge of an inferno

I’m standing on the edge of the Sierra Negra volcano on Isla Isabela in the Galapagos Islands, feeling as small and insignificant as I’ve ever felt.

With its crater of 10 kilometers across, the sheer power, potential and enormity of this beast – one of the world’s largest active volcanoes, left me silenced in awe of nature’s absolute authority. At an estimated 535,000 years old, it is one of the mothers of the Galapagos Islands, a quirky conflicting source of both birth and destruction.

On the lava fields.

On the lava fields.

The highlight of the volcano is the caldera – which is the massive circular indentation left by the collapse of the earth caused by the volcanic eruption.

To put this beast into perspective, the circumference of the caldera’s ridge is 30 kilometers. That’s over 19 miles, the better part of a marathon, if one were to be so foolish as to attempt to run or walk around the thing. Our guide, Javier, has never done it, but he said a couple of his friends make the trek over the course of a very full day.To put this beast into perspective, the circumference of the caldera’s ridge is 30 kilometers. That’s over 19 miles, the better part of a marathon, if one were to be so foolish as to attempt to run or walk around the thing.

A panorama of Sierra Negra's caldera.

A panorama of Sierra Negra’s caldera.

Our guide, Javier, has never done it, but he said a couple of his friends make the trek over the course of a very full day.We embarked on a five-hour trek from the base of the volcano along its southern ridge, to the edge of the caldera to the north, and down its east side to Volcane Chico – so named due to its role as one of the offsprings of Sierra Negra. We continued through the rugged lava fields left from the massive lava floes from Sierra Negra’s last eruption in October of 2005, laboring over small rises and craggy valleys along the mountainside and back.

It’s only a vertical climb of several hundred meters to the volcano’s caldera and a mere 8,000 total meters of hiking (roughly five miles), but it felt like a lot more.
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Drunk Boy’s antics earn a hangover hiatus

Drunk Boy was allowed to get away with his intermittent screams of “Yeah! Baby!”, even when he began to punctuate his outbursts by slamming a palm against the Rip Tide’s well-worn bar.

He was roundly chastised but permitted yet another shot of whiskey when he set a $20 on fire, at once violating the bar’s “no smoking” policy while breaching federal law by burning US currency.

But the oscillating wheels of Drunk Boy’s fun night out came to an abrupt halt when he challenged a fellow imbiber to a fistfight. He labeled the barmaid a “bitch” when she intervened and then dropped the N-word on the target of his venom – who happened to be black – as he struggled to plot his next move, in the process earning an early eviction despite a $40 unpaid bar tab.

Just another night at the Rip Tide Lounge, Marblehead’s resilient dive bar that for years has served cold, inexpensive beers, mixed drinks that are heavy on the booze and light on the mixers, and the cheapest burger in town ($2). Catering to a working class crowd in a town peppered with one percenters promises a certain edginess, and this would explain the shenanigans my buddy Steve and I witnessed when we bellied up to the bar Sunday night to watch the Patriots manhandle the Bengals.

We’d just finished dinner at the upscale sushi bar next door, so catching the Pats on one of the bar’s flat screen TVs seemed a convenient end to the evening. Thinking about it now, grabbing a beer at the Rip Tide after sushi at Junjii is like heading to the Monster Truck show after dinner at The Palm. But we’re guys who love a bit of contrast, so off we went, arriving just in time for the start of the game – and the unscheduled entertainment.
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Ecuadorian observations

Observations of interesting facets of life in this beautiful, fascinating little country.

The street art in Cuenca is second to none, and I mean that. Gorgeous, elaborate paintings and drawings are everywhere, often amusing and with historical references. Jaw-dropping quality that brings fun and surprises to every walk along just about every street.
art
Where else in the world do jugglers jump into traffic stopped at a red light, bow and proceed to entertain before jogging between vehicles and asking for donations? We’ve seen acrobatics, ball and club jugglers and clown acts working the busier intersections of Cuenca.

juggle

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This has to be one of the most outgoing cultures we’ve encountered. Everyone offers respectful greetings – buenas dias, buenas tardes, etc. – to perfect strangers. Good manners seems deeply woven into the culture, which is why it’s all the more embarrassing to witness, as I did, a crabby American belly up to the coffee bar and make demands on the staff that were rude, insensitive and stupid. Get a clue, travelers and relocated expats!

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Love seeing the traditional garb of Ecuadorian women all over the streets and markets. Frilled skirts with brocade trimmings, woolen sweaters and shawls  tossed over their shoulders, braided hair and felt fedoras for everyone! Nice to see a place with a strong cultural identity that hasn’t completely caved to the power of Levi’s marketing.

dress

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Ecuadorians commitment to security knows no limits. One day we saw an armed security guard outside a KFC franchise attached to the mall. Guess there’ll be no heist attempts on 20-piece buckets, at least at that location.


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Dear AT&T Wireless….

Dear AT&T Wireless:

As a recent customer who had a fascinating experience with your products, franchise team members and customer service staff, I am writing to congratulate you on providing me with the second most ludicrous experience I have had with worldwide mobile phone service providers.

I’ll get to the story about the Big Winner  of the Mobile Telephone Service Incompetence Sweepstakes in a moment, but first I’d like to share my thoughts on my “customer service experience” with AT&T Wireless.

Essentially, there was none. But the devil is indeed in the details, so I’d like to pass along the painstaking elements of an experience that probably would have made a Christian out of Beelzebub himself.

Here’s what happened.

I bought a prepaid AT&T Wireless SIM card from a store on Pleasant Street in Northampton, Mass., which is a town in western Mass. populated by college students, aging hippies and fans of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Anne Lamott. Northampton is definitely not a Stephen King kind of town, which is why it baffles me that my nightmare with AT&T Wireless should have begun there.

I paid cash – I know, I know, silly me for my old school behavior – for a $50 phone and data plan that your very helpful, competent and friendly team member assured me would adequately cover my needs for the month I planned to be in the US. He helped me load the card, tested the phone number by exercising a technical maneuver he referred to as “calling me,” and walked us to the door after a nice, personal chat while we waited for someone to run to the bagel store next door to get change for my $100 bill.
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Understated bike directions, a stoner’s lunch, and my kind of bus rides

I’m catching on that the uber-casual Ecuadorians have a penchant for understatement.

“The road from Banos to Rio Verde is mostly downhill,” said the guide in the bike shop where I rented a mountain bike and took off on a solo 15k “waterfall route” tour. I’d ride through the verdant mountains along a pulsing river and would see a dozen or so stunning waterfalls, he said. I’d have a chance to navigate the “cyclo vias” – narrow, cobblestoned routes carved into the side of the mountains that bypassed a series of motorized vehicles-only tunnels and get some views that motorists don’t see.

What he didn’t bother telling me, however, was that the first waterfall at Chamana was up an impressive incline that only halfway up forced me off my bike and to my feet, pushing my steed up the last half kilometer. Fellow bikers will understand what I mean when I say I was tapped out in my granny gear, wheezing in the thin Ecuadoran atmosphere and bonking, big time.

Translation: I couldn’t turn the pedals, the road was so steep, and I was out of gas, physically. So I walked, huffing and puffing up the hill.

It was worth all the grunting and struggling in the thin Andean air.

Surrounded by lush green vegetation that rises a couple thousand feet to the mountain’s crest, the Chamana falls first appear well down the mountainside and plunge several hundred feet into a series of deep pools. I stood on a small bridge over a large pool; the only one in sight, an occasional barking dog the only audible interruption to the soothing sounds of the gurgling waters.
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Oh, THAT Orlando International Airport…

Leave it to the uncivilized frontier of central Florida to throw a serious wrench into our travel plans.

We are veterans of air, bus and train travel in some of the world’s edgiest of  places, having negotiated the quirky schedules and logistical challenges of the likes of India, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and a good chunk of Europe. We have successfully found our way where we didn’t speak the language and were confused by cultural nuances and dramatically unfamiliar turf. Yet we found ourselves lost and just about out of time and luck only miles from Disney World and Cape Canaveral.

On our way from Orlando to Atlanta and then on to Ecuador, we’d gone to the wrong airport, blithely following signs for Orlando Sanford International airport instead of plain old Orlando International Airport. Why Orlando would require two international airports is beyond me. Why they’d name them so similarly (and fail to point out the difference in roadway signage) is downright baffling. Regardless, there we were, standing in the rental car depot, 35-40 miles from our port of exit to Ecuador, without a car or directions and with only two hours to spare until departure, hearing to the dreaded words that travelers hate to hear the most:

“Honey, you’re at the wrong airport.”

The agent suggested that we hot-foot it back to where we left the car, jump back in and “scoot” over to the right airport, wherever that might be. Hustling around the corner of the depot in the blistering mid-day Florida sun, we got a glimpse of the car drop lane: too late. Our car had already been taken for cleaning for the next renter.

Ignoring the fact that we’d left our rental at the wrong airport, we hailed a cab, tossed our bags in the back and pleaded with the driver to step on it. Hauling his massive 6-foot, 2-inch (both ways) frame into the minivan, he responded by launching into a series of stories about the rude passengers he’d had over his 20-year driving career as he crawled towards the exit. I can rollerblade faster than he was driving, but he changed his tone and dramatically picked up the speed when the subject turned to his college football career.
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‘Murica Musings

Gone from these shores for more than four years, each return to the US affords me with a string of head-scratching bafflements that leave me mute with wonder and amazement.

To wit:

What Rhodes Scholar at Gillette decided it would be a good idea to add thousands of little blue dots to a tube of underarm deodorant? These antibacterial microbial agents may or may not work, but they caused me no small measure of alarm when I noticed in the mirror that my pits were dotted with tiny blue pocks when I applied my daily dose. Turns out it’s “high performance odor elimination” owing to “cool wave power beads.” Who knew? Initially, I thought I’d brought some nasty dormant skin disease with me from Southeast Asia. Think I’m switching back to Old Spice.

Twice, now, I’ve seen an enthusiastic exercise buff in Marblehead doing one of the weirdest workouts I’ve seen. He trudges through the streets of the Old Towne, vigorously flailing his arms with a hiking pole in each hand, sweat pouring from his face  and bathed in an eruption of perspiration that I’d bet would put the aforementioned Gillette Endurance elixir to the ultimate test. He’s wearing a harness on his torso attached to two truck tires that bump along the road behind him, creating a serious drag in more than one sense of the word. It must be like swimming with a parachute trailing behind you. Maybe he’s planning to climb Kilimanjaro. Will keep an eye out for him to find out, assuming I can catch up to him, to learn whassup.

Rental car wars, battle #3,187. Presenting my driver’s license and credit card to the friendly clerk at the Thrifty counter for my six week rental, I was surprised when a horrified look came over his face. He informed me that the Thrifty system “would only allow rentals up to 30 days,” and that I would have to return the car after a month and obtain an extension for the remainder of my rental period. Ignoring the fact that my reservation confirmation had guaranteed me a car for the full six weeks – and had even provided a hefty quote for the duration – he shrugged and happily passed me off to a manager to try and resolve the logjam. Mr. Big was as useful as a lame duck congressman, echoing the clerk’s finding and inviting me to “take it up with headquarters.” If I don’t return the car after 30 days they report it as stolen. Sounds like fun to me, a guy with plenty of time on his hands and who loves a good tussle. Stay tuned for periodic updates as they occur.
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“Nice Joke” (or, An Unscheduled Trip To Kalamata)

Little did I imagine that, less than 72 hours after dining on a delectable meal of salmon and grilled cheese salad at a beachfront restaurant to the sound of ocean waves, I’d be lying in a hospital bed in Kalamata.

It all began with an itch. I thought I’d been bitten by one of the hundreds of mosquitoes buzzing around the sandy shore. But several hours and a miserable sleepless night later, I discovered there was more than a mosquito bite or two. Much of my body was covered in an unbearably itchy rash and the light-headed dizzy sensation I was experiencing couldn’t have come from the single mojito the night before. The next day it continued, so I went to a local clinic in Pylos and was given a very painful cortisone shot along with a dose of anti-histamine pills which helped a bit.

But the next morning it was worse and spreading so Skip suggested another visit to the clinic which turned into a ride to the larger hospital in Kalamata about 45 mins away to see a specialist.
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Twists, turns, dead ends and a man with a four-foot snake

Getting lost in the hills of Peloponnese was all fun and games until our car quit in the middle of nowhere.

All the dead ends, narrow lanes edged with scratched walls where intrepid drivers before us had left pieces of their cars’ quarter panels, and all the landslides, manure-covered roads, goats and even a man with a four-foot snake hadn’t fazed us.

But a dead car hung up on a bridge covering a ravine well away from the so much as the tiniest of Greek villages was of more than a little concern.

We were crossing a crude bridge after taking the 3,987th wrong turn in our quest to find our way out of the mountains and back to the ocean’s edge when our Toyota Yaris sputtered, stalled and wouldn’t start. Worse, the bridge lay between two sharp rises of the road, so pushing it out of the way was going to be a challenge. Worse yet, the desolate, narrow road was experiencing a surge in traffic, and a guy and his wife on a motorbike was fast approaching with no room to pass.

Stupid us. We misread a sign, taking this goat path through a village as National Road. We broke down not far from here.

Stupid us. We misread a sign, taking this goat path through a village as National Road. We broke down not far from here.

Good for us, he got off and helped me push the car up the hill 15 feet so he could pass. Bad for us, he hopped on his motorbike with his scowling wife and took off without so much as an inquiry if we might need further help.

But no worries! I can jump start the car by rolling it down the incline.
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Bullish on Istanbul

Oh, to live the life of a feral cat in Istanbul.

To spend languid days bathed in sunlight, and to be fed, coddled by strangers and generally looked after as we wander aimlessly through this wondrous city.

A bunch of street cats await feeding from evening diners at Karatos.

A bunch of street cats await feeding from evening diners at Kabatas along the Bosphorus.

But wait! That was us, at least in the seven days we enjoyed exploring the depths and edges of ancient and contemporary Istanbul. We’ve sampled its food (amazing), probed its neighborhoods (walkable, friendly and fascinating) and met its people (they ooze warmth and hospitality). Herein follows a rundown of our findings.

Getting around                              

Istanbul is a sprawling city of 14 million split in three by the Bosphorus and The Golden Horn, and there’s affordable, clean and efficient transport to help people get around. The tramway ($2 a ride, no matter how far you go) and ferries ($5 took us on the 45 minute ride to the wonderful island of BuyukAda) are simple and go most central places one would want to visit.

Convenient buses fill in the gaps, and once we figured out how to buy a ticket (you step on the bus, look dumb, and the driver beckons a nearby vendor to pay for your fares using a handy Istanbul Travel Card, then you pay the vendor for the fare) the bus lines are easy to navigate as well. Note that taking the buses place you at the mercy of Istanbul’s impressive traffic, as we learned the night we went to a nearby neighborhood for dinner and spent an hour looking at the cars around us.

Best to take the tram, the ferry, or walk. You’ll get there faster on foot.
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