Tuesday, February 06, 2007

North Island Beginnings

Hello again! We’ve left Argentina and have traveled around New Zealand for the last 5 weeks. It’s been fantastic visiting our cousins in the Southern Hemisphere. But before we delve into everything “EN ZED” we ought to catch you up on how we got here.

We left Buenos Aires on December 23rd for a long trip of flights and transfers. We flew back through the States because the flights worked out to be much cheaper. (Thanks again to Scott for his tutorial on how to get places for less.) After a day stay in LA, we flew to Auckland via Fiji and arrived on December 26th. Because we flew across the international dateline, we actually skipped Xmas. Fortunately for Santa, we’d both been very naughty, so we weren’t due any presents. However, we were afforded an in-flight glass of champagne, courtesy of Air Pacific, so we did continue a Dalton family tradition of bubbly on the holidays.

We arrived in Auckland on Boxing Day, which falls after Xmas. We stayed in the neighborhood of Ponsonby, where most businesses we closed through the New Year. Auckland is a somewhat inaccessible city to tourists, although there are several extreme adventure activities you can do in the City. We declined to climb the steel structure atop the Sky Tower, base jump or free rappel from a building, or even climb across the Harbor Bridge (which is kinda like climbing between the two suspension towers of the Golden Gate). We've heard Auckland is best enjoyed by those who live there, however, many Kiwis have little nice to say about the town. Mostly it was raining and it turned our mood a bit sour. We found ourselves “whinging” about the weather.

Aside: our friends Sarah and Jason taught us a useful phrase. If Sarah whined in any way, Jason called her a “whinging pom.” To “whinge” (pronounced like “hinge”) is to whine. A “pom” is a Brit. Apparently Brits whine often (any Brits reading this may call this to dispute) and their whining has resulted in the above-mentioned phrase. It’s possible it’s Aussie in origin, as any chance the Aussies get to take the piss out of Brits is seldom passed up.

Anyway, we were turning into whinging yanks, but we really needed to get this tour of Summer underway. Apparently, NZ’s December Aught Six was the coldest and rainiest in 70 years. However, we did manage to buy a great tent and find a farm for our WWOOF stay, So after getting the rental car settled, we left Auckland after two mostly uneventful days and we dashed north to the wine region of Matakana. On our way out of a BP station roughly 20km outside of the city, we picked up Ben who was hitching at the exit. Ben just happened to be going to Matakana to a friend’s winery where he would stay for the night before heading to the tip of the North Island for a surfing and fishing New Years. Ben gave us lots of great tips for travel and we dropped him at the winery (owned by an ex-pat American from Philly). Here’s a picture of Ben and Jen enjoying some rays at the winery veranda.This leads a bit into a comment our friend Jen Gill left on the blog. And I know this post is long, but since we are able to update infrequently, you, dear reader, get posts way past the 500 word guideline, and you might as well print this out and bring it to the pottery studio to read at your leisure. Anyway, Jen smartly (and snarkily) asked if all the people we meet are “couples,” an assumption you could easily make from reading our posts. Well, for the most part this is the case, and I think part of it is a function of traveling as a couple. To specifically meet “singles” while traveling, it is essential one stay in the dorms of hostels (or backpackers as they are called in NZ). We’ve stayed in a few dorms, but mostly we’ve been fortunate to get twins (two twin beds, sometimes as bunks) or doubles (or as the Argentines cutely call them “matrimonials”). It’s harder to meet people at a campground unless one stays there for more than a couple days. It is also the dynamics of couples and singles that they do not easily become friends in casual environments. I mean that it is also easier to meet pairs or more who are not necessarily “coupled” but are traveling together.

After dropping off Ben, we stopped in the tiny hamlet of Leigh, and found a small backpackers to stay for the night. In NZ and Australia, a hostel is referred to as a “backpackers.” Makes sense to us. We left the next morning in search of more warm and rainless weather. But it was mostly not to be. People kept apologizing that it wasn’t normally like this, but we knew the truth in our heart of hearts; we had brought the rainy weather with us from Argentina and it would follow us to eternity!

After Leigh, we drove further north to the beautiful Whangaroa Bay. This bay is the Marlin capital of the North Island and it was a beautiful area for fishing and boating. There was also a huge oyster farm in the bay that we could see at low tide. We met all the locals at one of the two pubs in town that night and the next morning we climbed a tall stone knob, for lack of a better word. Yes, we actually climbed to the top of this. There is a pathway around the side and a chain to help you scale the rocky part. It was basically a short hike straight up to the top with an excellent view of the whole bay below. Here’s a couple pictures:

And here you can see the oyster farm. Pretty cool, huh!Aside 2: The schizophrenic writing continues. The letters “Wh” appear in many Maori place names. “Wh” is pronounced as “F” no matter where it appears in the word. Maori is a spoke language, but was not a written one, so there are a few rules that differ from English. Why they didn’t use an “F” when creating written Maori words is a mystery to us. Therefore, Whangaroa is “Fangaroa” and you can guess how Whakatane is pronounced. Some of the older white NZ citizens do not use the Maori pronunciation, and really they come across as prejudiced old farts. (More about prejudice abroad in another post.)

After Whangaroa, we started heading south again. Foolishly, we didn’t realize that backpacker and camping accommodations would be so heavily booked for NYE, although we should have figured this. We had a long and lovely drive from Whangaroa Bay to the town of Colville on the Coromandel Peninsula. This is a beautiful stretch of land across a large bay from Auckland. It has beautiful stony beaches and windy coastal roads that give anything in California a run for its money. Delicious seafood and a boisterous, family-packed backpackers received us on December 30. There we met two wonderful folks Tom and Kaye who were traveling together, but were not a couple. (See! And you never thought we would circle back, but lo and behold we did!)

Kaye is a born and bred Kiwi and her friend Tom is a Brit who has lived in NZ for five years. He’s also spent time in Silicon Valley, and had traveled widely in NZ, so he offered metric tons of info on his favorite spots to visit in NZ, and places he enjoyed staying. He really hooked us up and we were mighty grateful for his generosity! Here's a shot of Kaye, Jen and Tom commanding the weather to remain sunny!As we mentioned, we were at quite a loss for NYE and Tom suggested we head to the Bay of Plenty where he knew the owner of a backpackers. After securing two primo tent sites at the very small and friendly place, we drove the wickedly curvy roads to Opotiki. We loaded up on Green Lipped mussels and Trevalley, a tender white fish, plus plenty of wine. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the JD for NYE, that just wouldn’t be right. It was a small, quietly raging (if possible) New Year’s Eve with beach bonfires in the rain and new friends.

On New Year’s Day, we checked out a sand sculpture competition just down the beach from the backpackers. As we later found out from our new friend Kurt (to be introduced in a later post), that this po-dunk contest made the national newspapers in NZ. You’ve heard of a slow news day, this country could be said to have a slow news life. After a chill afternoon, we said goodbye to Tom and Kaye and stayed another night in Opotiki, relaxing in the rain.

The next day we drove the rest of the Bay of Plenty and over to the East Cape, a stunning and rarely traveled area with a relatively large Maori population. Over every hill was yet another azure bay fit for paradise. Here's a shot of Jon next to his favorite new town name. (In Maori, it would be actually be pronounced "tick-i-tick-i", not "tee-kee-tee-kee.") We expect Baby Doe and Otto to be moving the family there tomorrow. We spent the night in Gisborne (pronounced like Lisbon), a surfer town. The stay was mostly uneventful other than a trip to the Salvation Army to buy clothes for our farm stay (at 50% off for the holiday no less!) and a new swimsuit for Jon to replace his permanently stinky red one.

Our next stop was Woody Hollow Farms, our WWOOF-ing stay in NZ. So far, we’ve made new friends; only a few couples, and several found in pairs. We may not get the farm stay movie edited until later, so our next post will take us through the rest of the North Island and into the South.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Argentina, We Hardly Knew Ya

This blog was written by Jen on Christmas Eve in a Los Angeles hotel near the airport as we waited for our flight to New Zealand. Now we’re nearly three weeks in New Zealand and Jon is just now reviewing and posting. So much to say, we’re going to just bust right through the 500 word blog guideline and also post as many pictures as we can. On with the blog!

Okay, we’re terrible bloggers. In the blogosphere, it’s blogsphemy to be over five weeks behind. Let’s see of we can wrap up three weeks in traveling the Argentine countryside in just one big post! At the end of our trip to Argentina we explored more than we could have hoped, though we left so much unseen. We’ve made a promise to return on a northern South America journey sometime soon. For this trip, all fabulous six weeks of it, we focused our attention on Buenos Aires and the southern regions of Patagonia and the Lake District.

When we last wrote, we’d been boozing, shopping and eating our way through BA. Jen thinks this is the best way to see it! Jen bought a gorgeous pair of tango shoes plus other shoes and clothes while Jon picked up a few quality wardrobe additions. We’ll just be upfront and tell you we sent a bunch of our booty and Saida’s loot home with Tracey Sylvester in a suitcase purchased just for the occasion. We can’t wait to uncover all the goods when we return to the States!

Before this post leaves BA, we must mention the incredible birthday party Lisa organized for all the November birthdays we had in the apartment (including her own). Lisa suggested a sailor-themed party for herself, her sister Kristen and Jen Dalton. Saida created a delicious meal and Fernando was kind enough to bring by wine and liquor from the bar. Lisa, who is a party expert, helped with actual costuming for a party thousands of miles from SF. Check out this group shot of Fernando with all the ladies.So after our romp in BA we took a 17 hour bus ride south to Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic Coast. Our original intention was to visit northern Argentina. But after getting some wonderful advice from fellow travelers about Patagonia, we felt it would make the greatest impression on us so we changed course. This is one of the great joys of extended travel. Puerto Madryn is famous for it’s whale watching at Puerto Piramides and we were not disappointed! We closely and carefully followed a momma and a baby whale swimming in the bay for over an hour. On the trip we met a wonderful couple who were, coincidently, also staying at our hostel. Moaz and Marina are from Tel Aviv, and they recommended we definitely go to Bariloche and even recommended an excellent hostel. They suggested we might meet them there later in our trip. We have a nice composed picture of them but this candid shot is so much more sweet! And here's an oddly similar candid shot of us on the same beach. We promise these weren't planned! Jon also went diving in the frigid waters off the coast. After the excellent experience in Hondorus though, the two dives were pretty sad in comparison and the dive shop was way under par. He’s also decided he’s a warm weather diver all the way (no more full wet suits for him).

After two days, we hit the bus again, this time for another 17 hour ride to Rio Gallegos (pronounced ga-Shea-goes). A note about the buses: most trips are pretty long so it’s best to get an overnight trip. Nearly all buses are double-decker and have bathrooms and video monitors for movies. There are three levels of quality for long bus rides. Lowest is Semi Cama, which is a basic cruiser bus with four seats across. This is fine for short rides, but overnight it can be uncomfortable, especially when they leave the AC on all night as they did on the way to Rio Gallegos. Next is Coche Cama, on which the seats are wider and recline more like a Barcalounger. These buses have three seats across – one row of one seat and a row of two seats. They are pretty comfy and we were even offered whiskey before the night movie. But the best way to travel is on Super Cama or Ejecutivo on which the seats go almost totally flat and there are barriers between the seats so you don’t have the guy in front of you reclining into your space.

The 17 hour ride to Rio Gallegos was an overnight Semi Cama trip and somewhat uncomfortable. Certainly it was no chicken bus like in some countries, but it’s a long ride to be unsettled. We only stayed in Rio Gallegos long enough to switch to a four-hour bus ride to El Calafate, the home of the majestic Perito Moreno glaciar (that’s how they spell it) and the Los Glaciars National Park. We went on the “Alternative Tour” of the glaciar that included a back roads bus trip where we watched condors overhead and spied a lagoon with pink flamingos just right there in the middle of nothing! This is pretty crazy considering just how far south we were and that the temperature hovered around 50 degrees. Jen was quite blown away seeing those flamingos, and combined with the sight of the massive glaciar, we had one of the most amazing days of the trip. The glaciar is enormous and moving so quickly – a few meters a day – that bits of it break off in random intervals all day. The chunks make a huge splash as they crash into the lake and it sounds like a high-rise demolition.

Our next stop, after a five-hour bus ride, was El Chalten, home to the other side of the Los Glaciars National Park and the famed Fitz Roy mountain peak. We loved everything about El Chalten, which is located inside the national park. Filled with hostels, small (and expensive) hotels and a few cafes and restaurants, the town is perfectly situated for outdoor enthusiasts. (Imagine a little town in the middle of Yosemite so well appointed.) All buses arriving from El Calafate are routed through the park station on your way into town. Split into English and Spanish groups, a park ranger tells you about the hikes and camp areas, plus that you can drink water right from the streams and lakes. Jen particularly loved one bit of advice, to “dress like an onion” in preparation for any type of weather. El Chalten has no ATMs, no banks and the world’s slowest internet. But it also has a few excellent restaurants including El Muro which we visited three times!

The weather in El Chalten can be pretty extreme. The town itself sits in the middle of a valley where the wind really whips through. The heavy wind helps create the glaciers. But even the driving wind (sometimes at 120 km per hour) and hiking with ice and rain in our faces didn’t deter us from taking two epic five-hour hikes -- one to Laguna Torre and the other towards Fitz Roy. At Fitz Roy the park ranger turned us away because it was far too windy and dangerous to climb the exposed mountain peak. We were with our pals Sarah and Jason and felt we should heed his advice and head back towards town. The trails in this park are wonderfully well marked and maintained, By the way, the water is cold and delicious and you can truly drink any water in the park without any risk. Here's Jen dressed like an Onion at Laguna Torre. Yes, those are small icebergs which broke off from the glaciar floating in the lake behind her.
Back at our wonderful, friendly hostel, Jon was quick to make friends with everyone. He got expert maté instruction from a Philosophy Ph.D. student from Rio Gallegos (we wish we remembered her name!) and had our hosts Vinina, Cordy and the owner Marcelo rolling with laughter.
In the first picture, it's the owner Marcelo. In the next shot, it's Cordy (a nickname because she is from Cordoba, her real name is Mariana) and Vinina with a random dude in the background. Vinina is doing her special Zoolander face. They were great help in planning our time in El Chalten and we offer our gratitude! Stay at the Trivi Hostel in El Chalten! We also enjoyed meeting Zoey and Christian from Melbourne and Henk and Helene from Holland at the hostel. One of the best parts of the trip is meeting people along the way.

After four days in El Chalten we took a bus up the famed Ruta 40 to Bariloche. It’s mostly unpaved for miles and is well known because Che rode his motorcycle on this road. While the scenery was pretty, that didn’t prevent Jen from some serious napping. Thankfully our friends Sarah (from UK) and Jason (from Oz) came along for the ride and we traded iPods and trashy novels. Both Jen and Sarah read the Sharon Osborne autobiography (grabbed at a hostel book exchange and now highly recommended) and can regale you with tales of Sharon and Ozzy’s wacky life together. Helene and Henk from the hostel were also on the trip and the six of us had dinner in the town of Perito Moreno. (The town is different from the Perito Moreno glaciar or Perito Moreno National Park and much different from famed actress Rita Moreno). We all got along so well we made plans for dinner in Bariloche as well.

Bariloche is to Argentina as Lake Tahoe is to California. Bariloche is roughly a 20-hour bus ride southwest from Buenos Aires. Here there are wonderful mountains for trekking and exploring, plus great scenery and abundant lakes. While we were a bit depressed that the cold and rainy weather followed us from El Chalten, we didn’t let it slow us down too much. After a couple days spent catching up on email and planning for the rest of the trip (thanks to Fez and Yolanda for their NZ and Oz advice), we took a gorgeous all-day drive around the Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes) with Sarah and Jason. We ended up in the small and posh resort town of San Martín de Los Andes which had a beautiful viewpoint. Of course, we took plenty of pictures...many of them silly. First, here's Jason and Sarah. Aren't they cute? Here we are showing the love. Here's Jason and Jon as dangerous hitmen. And here's Jason and Jon as male models.
Here's Sarah overlooking the city. Here's Jen doing the same.
We also had our dinner with Henk and Helene and Jason and Sarah at a restaurant famous for smoked fishes, meats and cheeses. That's Sarah and Helene next to Jen and Jason and Henk next to me.

There was lots of eating in Bariloche, but we couldn’t help ourselves. One day as Jon was trying to figure out yet another Sudoku puzzle at the hostel, our friends we met in Puerto Madryn, Marina and Moaz, popped in to say hello. We ate dinner with them a couple times and also conducted an unscientific test of the famous chocolatiers of Bariloche. We sat on a bench overlooking the lake in Bariloche and decided Abuela Goye was best overall. Here is a shot of Jon with Marina and Moaz. And here is a shot of the four of us. Though it may be hard to tell, we are stuffed with delicious chocolate!

It wasn’t just eating though. We also went for a full day horseback-riding trip with an excellent little outfitter called Dinma Patagonia. The owner Gerd and an experienced gaucho took just the two of us for a day trip. We rode two hours in the morning followed by a full asado (bbq) at the estancia, then three more hours into a secluded national reserve. The rock formations and the river valley were incredible and untouched. Of course, we forgot our water bottle, so we simply leaned down drank from a cool, clear stream. No weird bacteria or strange pollution. Gerd is the only horse-trekking outfitter to have access to the parkland where we rode and it was a wonderful trip.

We also took a tough day-hike up Cerro Torre where we had an amazing view of Bariloche and Lago Nahuel Huapi. The weather can be so changeable in Bariloche and while it is sunny, yes I am really that cold! On the way down a ridiculously steep avalanche trail, we were followed by Rhonda the dog who decided that we would be her new masters. She followed us for about 5K, nearly the entire way back to our hostel, before joining a couple of girls going in a different direction. This is a good time to talk about dogs in Argentina. They love their doggies in Argentina! In BA we would see dogs everywhere, and dog walkers all over the place. One time, Jon spotted five dog walkers, each with ten dogs, on one street corner alone. There are simply dogs everywhere, owned and strays. They all seem very well fed either way, if a bit grungy, and they always have somewhere to go. We would see stray dogs running up our street in Bariloche, not being chased, but obviously with a very important place to be.

After Bariloche, we took our only Super Cama bus ride back to Buenos Aires. Note how relaxed Jen is in her full reclination. Instead of staying in a hostel, we were treated to a stay on Fernando’s boat docked in the Puerto Madero barrio (aka, 'hood) of BA. It was fun sleeping on the boat and far more quiet than the rest of BA. We have many boat pictures, but here is one of Fernando where you can see the entire 42' steel-hulled boat. Most boats are fiberglass, but steel is the way to go! The boat is named "Club" and it has the name of Fernando's bar, UnoSieteSieteUno on the boom. We finally went to La Boca (sort of the Fisherman’s Wharf of BA) and after a few minutes were ready to leave. We had a great time in Argentina and as we said, we definitely plan to return to hit Mendoza, Cordoba, Salta and the Iguazu Falls. We really loved all the people we met, and if any of you are reading this, please stay in touch! And if your travels ever bring you to San Francisco or the States, please make sure to drop us a line.

Now we’re headed to New Zealand. Stay tuned for more!

PS: We’ve been in NZ for some time now and Jon is working on a video we took at our WWOOF visit. (Willing Workers On Organic Farms)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Moving Down South

Finally, we're moving the blog from Roatan, Honduras south of the equator to Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is our first time in the Southern Hemisphere; for those interested, the water drains counter-clockwise in both the tub and the sink. Please try and contain your excitement.

There are several important yet simple improvements in Buenos Aires over Roatan. First, you can drink the water right from the tap. Second, you don't have to worry that everything you eat will give you the trots. Third, when you do go to the bathroom, you can throw your toilet paper in the toilet -- what a concept! I'm sure it's not news to anyone that you can easily judge Western standards of progress when traveling by how you are able to eat, drink and use the toilet.

How did we end up here in Buenos Aires? As we were planning our trip, our friend Lisa Laursen (of the Gilroy, California Laursens) sent out an email about a trip to Argentina. She had swapped her SF house for a swanky apartment in the very posh BA neighborhood of Recoleta. This was just the push we needed to choose Argentina for part of The Big Trip.

As an aside, and heck, isn't this whole blog just one big aside, there is a funny story about the gentleman who owns the apartment here in BA. He was on the 70s TV program Emergency! about the LA county fire department. Here's a link to him on the invaluable Internet Movie Database.

Lisa invited a bunch of friends to BA and more people than you might expect found a way to make the trip. Lisa arrived with Saida. Next, her sister Jen and "officially recognized Laursen sister" Keri arrived. After another day, Lisa's youngest sister Kristen and her man Octavio joined us. Lastly, our friend Tracey arrived and our group from SF numbered nine. But our total group was ten people, for we mustn't forget BA's most fashion bar owner, Fernando Julia.

Last year Lisa visited BA for the first time and became friends with Fernando. She even went for a ride on his naked boat. (More about that in another post.) We met Fernando before our trip when he visited SF in Septerber. Pictured above in front of his bar UnoSieteSieteUno (the street address), Fernando has been the do-all, do-everything host of BA. Very funny, very generous, and very sleepless, Fernando has helped create an incredible time here in the city.

Our trip began as we exited the customs area of the BA airport. We were immediately greeted by Fernando, who had slept perhaps three hours in the last 24. We waited for Lisa and Saida as they were arriving only a few minutes after us. We piled into Fernando's father's car, a four-door Ford Focus hatchback, which is one of the larger cars you see on the road here in Argentina. Fernando drives about the same as most Argentinians: ignoring lanes often, changing speeds wily-nily, and generally not paying attention. There's plenty of honking, but surprisingly no road rage here. People simply just don't get mad. They honk, and move on.

After dropping off our stuff, Fernando took the four of us to our first Argentinian meal. My mouth is watering just remembering it. We went to Siga la Vaca in the barrio of Puerto Madero, a port neighborhood in the midst of a revival which will eventually make it look similar to SF's South Beach. For a fixed price of around U$10/person, we had an unlimited salad bar with side dishes a-plenty, wine and bottled water and, of course, grilled meat. Here's us at the restuarant below, that's Saida on the left and the fabulous Fernando on the right.
I know this post has blown far past 500 words, but please allow me to indulge you a description of meat in Argentina. All beef is free-range and grass-fed. This is not because of the slow-food movement, or hippie communes or famous chefs. This is a huge country with plenty of grassy pasture land so there is no reason to pen the cows in a giant muddy pit (think Harris Ranch on I5) and no reason to feed them corn. Plus, they aren't pumped full of steriods or antibiotics. What does this mean? The beef here tastes better than nearly any steak you've had in the states, and every restaurant, whether fine dining or lunch counter, has good steak.

Getting back to Siga la Vaca... to get your meat, you get on line in front of the grill where a man with a big knife will cut you pieces of any of the meat you see on the grill before you. We learned quickly that they enjoy their beef medium to well-done here so you have to specifically ask for it bloody if you like it that way. For that first meal, we ate and ate, and it was good. If there ever was a place for the Atkins diet, this is the place.

The blog won't be going into detail on every day and every meal, but I know we are far behind and there is lots more to say about BA, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Honduras, One More Time!

Hello again. Just catching up on the posts from Honduras and this is the last one. Coming up...Buenos Aires!

We’ve really enjoyed spending time with folks we’ve met through the dive shop. Shannon and Christian from our hotel also got their Open Water certification at Native Sons. We met a few Brits in from Manchester, Mark and Mark (renamed by the dive slaves Red and Ted). We also met another couple, Milan and Christina, who live in Zurich. Milan is an engineer working on a design for a jet engine that can be used to generate electrical power more efficiently and cleanly. He’s originally from Britain and we discussed at length what might happen in the seventh Harry Potter book. Christina is a particle physicist and part-time snowboard instructor. Hello, power couple!

We also saw Ryan, the dive instructor, play some of his music at a club called Fubar. (I explained to Byum and Tom what that stood for and if you don’t know, ask your mother.) On our last Saturday night a local bar called Land's End had a full moon party. Here's a picture of Jen and Shannon enjoying a cocktail. On our last Sunday, we hosted a party for all our new friends at the hotel. By the way, a fifth of good rum here costs about $6.50.

Our neighbor in the hotel is a fifty-ish guy named Tim. He’s an old radical who protested the Vietnam War and started food co-ops in the 70s. He also invested in oil companies after the first gas crisis in the 1970s, bought property, lived in Mexico and sustains his retirement living off dividends on stocks and funds. He’s an unusual fellow who has a lot to say about politics, business and what’s happened to radicals, liberals, democrats and co-ops. He is down here for diving, returning after a nine-year absence and he’s gone diving all over. This is the best reef he’s seen.

Getting back to the diving, like I posted earlier it’s quite amazing. The reef is in excellent condition, although there are less fish than there should be. We’ve seen a few turtles (one was quite a big fellow), various types of grouper, barracuda, spiny lobsters, crabs, numerous Blue Tang (Dori from Finding Nemo), a seahorse and Moray eels. We dived a wreck; a cargo ship was purposely sunk to create an artificial reef and one of the hurricanes broke it into three pieces. There is a Moray eel who lives in the wreck which I have successfully named Murray, Murray the Moray. We saw three eels on that dive. They are mostly found poking partway out of their hole but we saw one eel swimming freely amongst the coral followed aggressively by a large grouper. This is apparently an unusually occurrence. We did a night dive where we saw numerous sea urchins and an orange starfish. Just looking at the coral is incredible, with colors of purple, green, brown, orange, red and white, in so many shapes it’s hard to describe. There are thin waves, giant barrels large enough for a person, tubes, sticks, blobs, and long plant-like branches which lots of little feelers. And they are all growing on top of or out of one another.

At this point in time and with the present-day climate, the reef appears healthy and growing. But just one degree Fahrenheit change in average seawater temperature can kill this reef. It's a pretty sober thought.

Friday, November 17, 2006

More Roatan, More Fun

Continuing with our trip to Roatan.... You might be wondering what Jen has been doing while I was off diving. Jen has come out on the boat a couple times, to snorkel and to sit. For those of you who don’t know one of Jen’s small imperfections, she has a plastic eardrum, and diving involves equalizing the pressure of air spaces in your body with the pressure in the water. One of those air spaces is behind your ear. This makes Jen understandably nervous. Perhaps now that she’s seen more of diving, we’ll consult a doctor to see if scuba diving is something she can try some other time.

In the meantime, Jen has checked out our little town of West End, and walked to the resort area of West Bay. Over there, you find the all-inclusive resorts which, while nice, trap you and your tourist dollar. But the beaches over there are incredible.

Also, I haven’t been diving the entire time. Jen and I have visited the Butterfly Sanctuary with a newlywed couple we met at the hotel. Shannon and Christian are from Charleston, SC and are both in the restaurant biz. The Butterfly Sanctuary surprisingly impressed us all. They had a wide array of unusual butterflies and also a very cool collection of tropical birds. See the picture of the Owl Butterfly below.
It’s also rained quite a bit. This is the rainy season, although it’s been sporadic. It did rain for about 36 hours in one stretch and at one time there was seven inches of rain in about three hours. So, there was more time in the room than we would have preferred. I’ve read nearly a whole collection by mystery and crime writer Lawrence Block and Jen did not feel Cintra Wilson’s pain and did not enjoy her novel. (If you read The Examiner in the 90s, you know what I’m talking about.)

Besides the couple at our hotel, we’ve also met some great folks through the dive shop. I've mentioned Andrea, my funny and charming instructor. She and Ryan run the shop, with help from two dive slaves. Byum and Tom are two young guys from Scotland who are training to become Dive Masters before starting college. A Dive Master can lead dives; it is an essential step to becoming an instructor. Ryan’s wife Val works at an English-speaking school on the island. They are both from Winnipeg. We also met Val’s sister Laurie Ann. She, like many others, has several jobs on the island to make ends meet.

A day before Halloween Byum and Tom had all of the above folks to their apartment for movie night, which turned into reruns on TBS and lots of quality drinking. We also met up with everyone on Halloween and, while we did not dress up, we helped with costumes and consuming adult beverages. Check out the picture with Tom dressed as Laurie Ann, whom he resembles, and Byum wearing a kilt and a palm leaf sporran. So sexy! Unfortunately, neither of them got any snogging for their efforts.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Diving in Roatan

(Folks, sorry this post and the next two are kinda late. I've heard clamor for more on Roatan and you can't have clamor causing commotion. The internet connection in Roatan was super sucky, and pricey to boot. Posts will be arriving more regularly now that we're in Buenos Aires.)

Roatan is one of the Bay Islands, found off the coast of Honduras. The other two islands are Utila and Guanaja. I don’t know anything about the latter island, but the former is a popular destination with scuba divers. Apparently, Utila is all about diving, and little else. There isn’t a beach there, and really nothing to do besides diving, so we marked Roatan as our destination. Plus, we got an excellent recommendation for a place to stay in Roatan from our friends David and Michele.

There isn’t much to do on Roatan either if you aren’t diving, so Jen has found herself deep in research for her young adult novel. Her research consists of two Judy Blume books and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. (Imagine if that book was written for young boys…would it be The Brotherhood of the Stolen Baseball Mitt or the Itchy Jockstrap? Just wondering….)

Meanwhile, I set off in search of a dive shop. Roatan is also known as an excellent place to become a certified diver, but unlike Utila it has a few more things to do. In fact, there is a small beach right across from our hotel and Jen managed to get herself nice and toasted on the first day.

Anyhow, I settled on the dive shop right next door to our hotel, Native Sons. While owned by a local couple, it was Andrea the dive instructor, a German ex-pat, who charmed me into going with them. Andrea is a phenomenal instructor and very talented diver. (Note her beautiful smile and ubiquitous Belmont cigarette.) It’s the low season right now, so I wound up getting one-on-one instruction to get my PADI Open Water Diver certification.

Let me take this paragraph to address my old buddy Scott and talk about the diving course. Scott had strongly suggested I get certified in the San Francisco area, before going on this trip. He had his reasons, and while Scott is rarely wrong (especially when it comes to baseball) he couldn’t be more wrong on this account. Roatan is an excellent place to get certified. The cost is comparatively quite low, confined instructional dives are conducted in warm Caribbean water, and all the open water dives are on one of the best reefs in the world. The reef here is truly unspoiled, with spectacular coral and wildlife. Plus, the whole course took less than three days. Sorry Scott, but I can’t see pool dives, cold Monterey Bay water, and much higher costs topping this place. See the picture of me after a dive as happy as a pig in shit.

Diving Picture
The course involved videos (boring), a textbook (highly informative, but marginally boring and oddly corny), and diving. Plus, there was a final written exam that I found a way to pass. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it so much I also went on to get my Advanced Open Water certification. In the next post, I’ll write a little more about the dives and the people we’ve met.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Our First Flights

We took our first flight on Monday 10/23/06, and we started to get a real feeling for beginning the trip. While we did not leave the country we did go to Miami or, as one might call it, Cuba Del Norte.

Our good friend Autumn blew off her incredibly important law school class to pick us up from the airport and show us good ol’ Florida hospitality. We ate very tasty Cuban food before heading out on an Everglades tour. We saw swamp chickens and a few gators. The Florida Fish and Game Dept. estimates there are over 1.5 million gators now living in the Everglades, so they do allow gator hunting three days of the year. Our guide informed us that you must keep the gator alive until you get home. There are a couple reasons why:

1. The authorities want to make sure your gator weighs and is long enough. They use physical measurements to calculate the age of the gator. Gators grow about one foot a year for the first six to seven years, then a couple inches a year after that. Basically, they don’t want anyone catching the young ones.

2. If you kill the gator right away, it ruins the meat and the skin.

You have to get selected in a lottery (which costs about $400 to enter) to even hunt gator. If selected, you get three days to catch up to three gators. Our guide caught one, and he got 168 pounds of meat. To clean the skin, he placed it over a red ant hill and left it for a few days. The ants do the rest of the work.

After the Everglades trip, we went to the beach. We did not see David Caruso from CSI: Miami investigating any grisly crime scenes. Disappointing. Autumn cooked an incredible meal (which if you know Autumn is something new). We discussed politics, the declining state of schools and the over-scheduling of kids with Autumn’s aunt. I also caught some of the Giants-Cowboys MNF game. (T.O. drops, Big Blue rolls.)

On 10/24 we got on the plane to Honduras, and hopped a bus to La Ceiba. The next day we would take the ferry. That night we stayed in a plain but friendly hostel, and we met Jenny and Harry, a mother and son traveling together. Get this: Harry is home-schooling eighth grade as he and his Mom travel around Central America. They have spent most of their time in Guatemala, which is apparently safer, nicer and cheaper than Honduras. We had dinner with Harry, then caught the bouncy and nausea-inducing ferry to the island of Roatan the next day.

The picture below shows the view from the ferry of fishing boats, the La Ceiba port, and the mountains in the background.