Saturday, January 30, 2010

Something I forgot to put in my journal yesterday

We've been in this dorm-style house for three days now, and on the first day we had a ridiculously long class outside by the river. Halfway through, a raft full of Thais go past and scream "Hello! Hello! Where are you from?!" When we yelled back "America!" they all tittered and waved and all yelled "I love you!"
Then yesterday morning, we were waiting to get into the national park, and were surrounded by trucks filled with Thais. We stopped for a bit next to one truck, who began to greet us. "Hello! Nice to meet you!" they said. "Where are you from?"
"America!" of course was the answer back. They had the same jubilant response, but this time yelled, "OBAMA! OBAMA!"
And that, my friends, is what you call international relations.

12,277 Miles Traveled

Jan 30, 2010
Bana OBFHA
Overcast, hot, humid

Two days in a row I have been woken up before dawn by flashing lights. At four this morning, Denny flashed the lights on and off in our dorm-style room, and we stumbled out of bed and pulled on some clothing. Two trucks came at 4:30, and we scrunched onto benches in the back. As the cold night air blew across our faces, we raced over unpaved roads at around 50mph for two hours. We finally got to the peak, and ate some fried rice with eggs for breakfast, and got back in the bumpy trucks for about half an hour.
This was the beginning of our jungle adventure. Our guide met us at the trail head, dressed in camo complete with a bird pattern. We began our trek completely downhill , and immediately heard the gibbons singing. Not half a mile down the hill, a pair of gibbons swung through the trees, right above the trail. Unfortunately, this was the only time we saw them – but for the rest of the hike, we could hear them singing in the distance. There were also huge areas of trampled palms, complete with the ultimate elephant track: gigantic piles of poop. I was surprised we didn’t see more beetles. Most of the bugs we saw were vicious biting ants and flies that left huge burning lumps all over my legs and arms. There was also a fabulous collection of butterflies. The kinds that I saw most often were a black and green butterfly, about 2.5 inches long, and similarly sized black and blue butterfly. There were also tons of moths that landed all over me, with brown outer wings, but brilliant purple inner wings.

We walked through the jungle until we got to a stream. Our guide sloshed through the water in his boots and socks, and the rest of us stood on the bank, wondering what to do. We began by hopping on rocks to the other side; my awesome expedition hat fell in the water twice. By the time we all had crossed, the guide and a few of our group had gone ahead and we were in the middle of the jungle with no idea where to go. Luckily, we followed the most obvious trail and found the guide bushwhacking his way through the thick vegetation. About 10 meters in, he gave up and led us back to the river, and trudged down the knee-deep water. We kicked off our shoes and trudged along too.

After about 30 minutes of walking in the creek, we came to the waterfalls that we had seen earlier in the trip from a distance. This is where we sat down to have our lunch, along with a few picnicking Thai families. It was relaxing and idyllic; big brown trout swam up to the bank, expecting to be fed. The trees were thick around the edges of the stream and the waterfall pool. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Nate runs into the water in only his underwear, shortly followed by John. They scrambled up the edge of the rocks and began jumping off into the shallow pool. Unable to resist, Denny joined them (probably just to get closer to the fish). Brenna and I exchanged a look and stripped off our clothes and got in too. By this time, the Thais were completely amused/scandalized. Our guide gave me the strangest look as I pulled off my shorts and ran into the water. It was icy-cold, but felt so refreshing after a long sweaty walk. I crawled up onto the rocks and stood under the falls for a few moments. A Thai teenager immediately grabbed his camera and took a few pictures of me standing in my underwear. Feeling very immodest, I counted to three, and took the leap too. A few more people joined us in the scrumptiously cold water.

We began to get a little too cold, so we got out and pulled our wet clothes on. Our hike was halfway over, and what comes down must go up, so we went up the huge slope. We saw significantly less wildlife on the way up than the way down, just because the hike was so strenuous that it was necessary to constantly focus on the group to keep from tripping on a vine and falling. It seemed that there were never more people on the trail than when I desperately had to pee. Every time I thought I found an appropriate location, more people came traipsing up and often stopped to see if I was looking at something cool just off the trail. Between groups, I once again counted to three, and just sucked it up and squatted.
The journey continued and we walked up a final intense hill and arrived back in trucks. We got back in, but had to wait an hour and a half up at the visitor center. The road goes one direction, and it switched over every two ish hours. Finally, we got back into the trucks, and when the wind wasn’t so cold the drive seemed a lot faster. Our driver was a bit crazy, and every time we came upon another car, he would honk and zoom past. About 3 miles from our dorm, we saw a group of monkeys playing along the roadside. The monkeys were about two feet tall, and mostly gray with pink throats. I think that seeing primates in the wild is one of the coolest parts of the trip.
We got back to our dorm, ate dinner (with some delicious papaya), and now are just relaxing and working on homework. The whole hike was twelve kilometers, but with the huge hills, it seemed like a lot longer. We go back to Bangkok tomorrow, then leave for India the next day.

12,277 Miles Traveled

Jan 28/29, 2010
Thai National Park, en route to the jungle
28th: Clear, 90°F, Very humid 29th: Overcast, 90°F, Extremely humid
If I thought that our trip to Koh Tao was hard, our trip from Koh Tao to the national forest yesterday was even more trying. Several members of our group got food poisoning, and we had a four hour train ride (from 11-3 in the morning) flanked by 6 hour waits on each end. We got on a bus, and that’s when it really got fun. We drove in a huge party bus, complete with disco lights and a beer-drinking assistant, from the train station to Kaeo Cave. When we left the area near the train station, there was a distinct transition from the oppressive pollution of developed areas and the “green smell” that happily filtered in through the open windows.
As we were going through rural Thailand, I was curious about these huge ponds that were everywhere, and had turbines churning the water. Denny mentioned that they were shrimp farms, and this is where a good portion of the shrimp eaten in the United States is produced. It is apparently much less expensive to do it here. The waterways between the ponds were a milky green color, similar to the color of the freshwater rive in the Alaskan wetlands. I imagine that, like in Alaska, the color of the water here is also caused by erosion.
Despite many of the small villages containing mostly informal housing, every single town we have been to in Thailand has an elaborate temple. It’s one of those strange Thai dichotomies: while the people can live in shacks that barely stay up, the golden temple is an absolute priority. Also, even though we’re really in the middle of nowhere, there was a gated community with English advertisements and cute little condos. They seemed so incredibly out of place.
On this bus ride, we were all about to fall over with tiredness. Every time I laid down, I had this unpleasant falling feeling and subsequently had a very difficult time napping anyplace. In the train station in Chumphon, there were absolutely gigantic rats running around, and that also prevented me from falling asleep up against my bag. It had been two days since I had slept for more than two hours, so you have to imagine just how threatening these rats were. Anyways, we were dropped off near one of these shrimp ponds at the Kaeo Cave “visitor center,” and led up a gargantuan and rocky hill.
We slowly descended into a cavern using a rusty, not OSHA-approved ladder. One of the first things I saw was this amazing spider, with long, skinny legs, and fat hairy body. The eyes of the insects in the caves glittered when you shone a light on them, and perhaps as an adaptation to the constant darkness, the insects had antennae that were several times several times their body length. It was interesting that in parks of the cave that got small amount of light and a little water, there were always plants. Not gorgeous lush ones, but rugged, barely green, fibrous plants that seemed to fight for every ATP molecule they made.
The other thing that was really cool is that many of the rock formations sparkle with calcium carbonate. The caves are made from limestone, and on every hill around here are porous limestone rocks that look almost volcanic from the water leeching through. As the water dripped into the caves, there were remarkable stalagmites and stalactites attached to almost every surface. And when we got into the main cavern, there were bats attached to the cave ceiling, and flying around. They make these insect-like noises, and were pretty small, about 6 inches long. Kaeo Cave was very hot and very very humid, and with the steep inclines, we were all dripping with sweat by the end.
But never fear, rest did not come soon! We had lots of adventures ahead of us still. We walked down the same rocky slope back to our party bus and drove a few minutes to the edge of the ocean. From there, we waded into thigh-deep water with our huge bags, and hoisted ourselves and our luggage into long, colorful boats like the ones in Bangkok. After a short boat ride, we arrived ecstatically at the national park. There is perhaps a mile of golden, shell-covered beaches, lined with pine trees, and aquamarine water. We were the only westerners there.

Denny negotiated for a few tents, and we went to have brunch at the restaurant in the center of the campsites while our tents were set up. Our waitress asked us to move to the corner of the restaurant as soon as we sat down, and we assumed that being such a big group, they wanted us in a consolidated place. As we began eating, they were setting up the rest of the tables, perhaps for lunch. Suddenly, without warning, a hundred Thai school children filtered into the restaurant, gobbled up some food, and left almost as quickly. We were clearly not the big group.
We finished eating and our tents had been set up, so we dragged our bags over. On my way to pick up my bag from the central area, I happened to make a friend. One of the small children of another visitor ran up to me and started a game of tag. After running around for a bit, he indicated to me that he wanted to carry my bag for me. As he held onto the handle, I pushed the bag through the sand, but then I had a better idea. I propped him up on top of my bag and pulled him around. Clearly delighted, he laughed and I held up my hand for a high five. Rejected. Despite not receiving my high five, It was really fun to play with this little kid. Sometimes, I feel like being in college means that I don’t really encounter kids at all, and it’s a nice (I know this is cliché) to relax and take it easy for a bit.
After returning the kid to his mom, I finally had reached the point where I could have fallen asleep anywhere I could sit still. But instead of napping, we all ran out into the water. It just looked too inviting. Following such a sweaty day, the tropical water was almost too warm. Denny had told us to take our snorkels out because the sea life was amazing, but the strong current had swirled up way too much sand and visibility was only about an inch in front of your face. Nonetheless, we all had a great time diving under and grabbing up shells and hermit crabs. It seemed handful of sand contained a perfect shell, or little creature to look at. One of my favorites was an anemone about half an inch long attached to a fossilized oyster shell.
The oyster shells were my favorite – the area had been a rocky limestone shore about ten thousand years ago, and the delicate flattened oysters, like thin bits of glass, washed up occasionally through the sandy layers. It’s hard out there for an anemone, so I suppose he attached himself to anything he could find. The sandy beach didn’t provide much to adhere to.
After swimming, I took a solitary walk (something that almost never happens on this trip) down the beach to see what else there was. The shells were absolutely amazing – there were the long twisty ones, ruffled clams, limpets, and the occasional gigantic unidentifiable twist from the center of a monster shell. Except for our tracks, there were no other footprints on the beach. There were, however, millions of tiny crab footprints and tiny crab holes. The beach was crawling with tiny little sand crabs! Further along, it got a bit rockier, and the crabs got significantly larger, probably about 6-8 inches across, with blue and red spines.
Even though this was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life, the whole beach was covered with trash. Farther down, barely hidden among the pine trees was a huge trash pile. I tried to pick up the pieces I saw, but there were many armfuls of garbage washed up on shore. I finished my walk, dragged my sleeping bag out, and fell asleep under the shade of the pine trees for about 3 hours.
Dinner was at 5:30, and after dinner we had a biomes class. Denny talked about tides and the formation of beaches. He talked at some length about the effect of the moon and the sun on the tides, and how the tides during the full moon, when the moon and the sun are parallel, are the most extreme. When class was over, we went for another walk on the beach, and I swear that Denny had planned it all out: the moon was gigantic and looming over us, and the tide had receded several hundred feet from earlier that day. All of the tidal zones were uncovered, and we walked out to where we had previously been swimming.
The zones on this beach were not nearly as significant as a place like Alaska or Hawaii, where there are rocks and coral. Instead, it was mostly sandy. The only real difference was that at the edge of the receded water, there were several worm-like creatures that were stuck in the sand. They were about an inch in diameter, about 6 inches long, and white with visible perforations inside their bodies. The worms adhered to the sand with a small tube, and on the free end, there was a small hole where the spat out sand and water. They looked to be alive still, and even at the very lowest tide still got a fresh breath of water every so often.
Matt and I walked all the way to the end of the beach, where rocks prevented you from going further. The beach had extended for about half of a mile further as a result of the low tides, and it ended up being quite a walk. I went back to the tents, pulled my sleeping bag out from our hot and confining tents, slapped on some DEET, and passed out under the stars.

This morning, I woke up before the sun was up with someone shining a flash light in my eyes. I was wearing a bathing suit cover up, and I slipped on my hiking boots, put in my contacts lenses, and grabbed a flashlight. About half of us hiked up and over the peak, and into a ten-story deep cavern on the side of the mountain. We got to the top just as the sun was rising, and as we walked through the rainforest, we heard the monkeys swinging through the trees. This cave was gigantic, and a favorite of the king’s. At the bottom was a sizeable Buddhist temple. I looked up the sheer face of the rock, and wished I had remembered my camera. Even if I had taken pictures, the scale of this would never have been captured; even the trees dwarfed us, not to mention the gigantic caves and temple.
We hiked around the circumference of the cave, then walked quietly back up and over the peak again. We saw some movement in the trees, and realized there were Dusky Langurs about ten yards off the trail. The group gathered and gawked until the monkeys moved away. I was a bit disappointed, but continued walked down the trail anyways. A few of our group went ahead, and we saw them sitting at a rest area farther down along the trail. Right next to them, twelve monkeys sat feeding just barely off the trail. I sat down and could not believe just how close they got; one curious fellow came not six feet away from us, and stared as intently at us as we stared at him.
They eventually moved along too, so we moved along to breakfast. Everyone ordered either banana or pineapple pancakes, which came with this buttery honey sauce that I wanted to drank from a straw. Next was shower time. I opted for the more luxurious option and had a private stall all to myself, along with a few tadpole and worm friends that also wanted to hang out in the bath water. I scooped up the water with the provided pink bucket from a tiled basin and poured it all over myself, knowing that I was at the point where nothing could make me any dirtier. We packed up our stuff, got back in the boats, and now are in mini-vans driving through the suburbs(?) of Bangkok on our way to the jungle. Tomorrow will be another early morning – we are supposed to get up at 4:30 to climb yet another mountain.

Friday, January 29, 2010

About 12,000 Miles Traveled (en route to the jungle)

Jan 27, 2010
Chumphon, Thailand
80-85°F, Humid, slightly overcast
When I wrote my expectations for the trip before leaving, I tried to not form assumptions about what this trip would be like. I wrote about being open-minded, not having any expectations, and taking things as they come. I lied. I had two expectations that I didn’t talk about because I thought that they were too cliché, or too emotional to write about when talking about scientific expectations.
The first of these expectations really came to fruition today. We’re at the train station waiting for a few hours, and we split into two groups. The first watched the bags while the others went to eat, then we would switch. I was in the first group, and Denny found a restaurant with free wifi and some good food. The restaurant also happened to offer free showers, and Denny walked down the street to find some soap. He came back, triumphantly, with “Botanical Fresh Parrot” Soap – one can only imagine what the makers intended when they created that scent. I was hesitant. With no conditioner, no towel, and nothing more than the promise of a nozzle in the middle of a dirty room, I wasn’t so excited. But after both Denny and Liz reported that the shower felt great after a long day of traveling (we’re doing the same trip described previously, except in reverse), I decided I might as well do it.
The bathroom was everything you would expect it to be. There was a small, squatting, no flush toilet. There was a bucket of water with a cup. There was a sprayer intended to replace toilet paper. And there was a crusty nozzle for the shower. I turned the water on and waited for it to get warm. Not it surprisingly, it stayed frigid. So I jumped in, lathered myself with the soap, rinsed off, and finally knew what parrot smells like: it smells like liberation.
And that is really what I’ve wanted on this trip. I wanted to feel the freedom that comes with traveling with as little as possible, staying in the most pragmatic hotels, and moving around weekly. And somehow, even though my bags weigh me down and the lack of luxury gets me down, I just felt that transition to freedom when I laid down my hang-ups to take a cold shower with weird soap in an unsightly bathroom. I got my first thrilling taste of it when I sent twenty-seven pounds of excess luggage home in Hawaii, and now I think I’m hooked. I want to feel that feeling over and over again.
Since starting college, I’ve become accustomed to constant relocation. I’ve lived a different place each summer, I moved across the country and back again, and now I’m traveling the world. In those times where I’m moody on this trip, I remind myself of how stifled I felt at the end of last semester; all I wanted to do is leave because I felt I had spent too much time in one place. And my wheeling duffel bag is not a burden in comparison to the burden of routine and the mundane.
The second expectation I had was to craft a system of self-evaluation that was more reflective of true personal growth. Matt and I talked about the grading systems of our respective schools, and in describing the way I am evaluated I became even more aware of how insensible it is. So I’m working on that. I think it has something to do with happiness, but I’ll let you know when I figure it out a little more.
The train station that we are sitting at is the same one we were at a few days ago. Last time I was here, I walked away from the group and sat trying to calm myself down from the anger and frustration I felt at the really unpleasant train trip. As soon as I got back to this station, I felt the same discomfort creep back. There is something very unsettling about this place, and I don’t know what it is. I’d like to trust my instinct, but aside from being aware, there’s nothing that I can do. There are many more Thai people here than in any other transportation we’ve taken yet. Chumphon seems to be a very poor town. When we arrived at the pier after the boat ride from Koh Tao, we were surrounded by slums. We waited for the bus, and sat on picnic tables and ate some snacks. We got on the bus, and were driving out when about fifteen kids ran out and started waving and yelling goodbye. As we sat in our boudoir-like bus (it had very tacky decorations), something seemed so wrong about the situation.
Thailand is so much about strange oppositions – in between the slums there are bars where vacationing westerners looking to find themselves got drunk at night. I was at several of those last nights. I am the unfairly privileged American looking to find herself while being served by others. Today at dinner, two children, perhaps five and seven handed us our menus and brought out orders to the kitchen. They seemed to be proud of the responsibility, they were extremely efficient and purposeful. I don’t know what to think of this. I know that the sun burnt backpackers with newly twisted dreads and hokey talisman necklaces frustrate me. I know they’re going to go home and tell stories about connecting with the country and the people while reaching new levels of consciousness. But really the resorts they stayed in and the “ecotourism” trips they went on are specifically designed as a vehicle to drive through an area, not to be an experience of encounter or association with a place.
I stayed in those resorts and went on those trips and I do not want to walk through the slums and talk to starving children or see houses made out of scrap metal with piles of human waste and refuse in the “backyard.” I was horrified at the amount of garbage that had accumulated, but I’m sure it was a small fraction of what I throw away and have taken away each week. I can turn my nose up at their low-MPG diesel vehicles while disregarding the amount of diesel exhaust I put into the air by flying here so I could look out the window and judge the world. For those of you who watch South Park, smog is pretty terrible for the environment, but smug is much worse.

Sorry this was such a long and inconclusive and depressing entry. I wanted to write down some observations, so I’ll make sure to include those now. 1) Hawaii and Thailand share quite a few common plant species, including the plumeria and the coconut palm. 2) The waves that meekly arrived at the shores of Koh Tao are dwarfed by the ferocious waves that crash onto Maui’s shores. I think it perhaps is because of the direction of the weather on the globe – from east to west. 3) The shores I have seen Thailand are all completely covered in garbage. 4) I saw a Thai jazzercise class from the bus. There were perhaps two-hundred women jumping up and down, following the leader on the stage. It was just like my zumba class.
Our train will be here in a few hours, and I’m pretty excited to go the jungle and see monkeys and tropical birds and cool insects. When we got off the train at four in the morning, we will take a taxi to a river, get in a boat, be ferried around a mountain in the boat with our luggage, jump out in knee-deep water and drag our luggage to tents on the shore. It’s going to be a travel experience, but I guess that’s what I’m here for.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

11,977 Miles Traveled

Jan 26, 2010
Koh Tao, Thailand
Mostly clear, some clouds, very warm and humid, 83 degrees F

A few years ago, I did a snuba drive in Mexico, where my air source was on top of the water and somebody else monitored it. I thought it was absolutely amazing, and for the last three years I have been promising to get myself scuba certified so I could really enjoy the novelty of breathing oxygen under water. Well, my procrastinating side got the better of me, and I did not get certified. Fortunately, the resort had a “discover scuba” course available, and today I dove down into the deep.
And now, I’m seriously and completely hooked. I love floating surreally in the water column and being face to face with the fish. Today, we dove near a coral reed just off of Green Rock in Koh Tao. We saw: Christmas tree worms (yellow, red, and blue colored Christmas tree shaped worms that retreat into the rocks when you get too close), Black tip grouper, Polka-Dot Wundibranch (like a brown and white sea slug, and we saw one storing its eggs on its back), Honk-kong butterfly fish, Eight-band butterfly fish, Green Throat Parrot, Orange Spotted Rabbit Fish and Bar head rabbit fish, anemone fish (these anemones were gigantic – like several feet across and home to many Nemo-like denizens), Neon damsel fish, Bowtie damsel fish, and tons and tons of Scissor-tail Sergeant fish, as well as hundreds of small black fish that I couldn’t find in the guide book.
This reef was so fecund that we swam through huge, thick schools of fish almost constantly. There was a very strong current and the dive master strapped me down with way too much weight. As soon as I let air out of my BCD (buoyancy control device) I immediately sank. Fast. Between the current and keeping myself off the bottom, it seemed to be a really good work out. We were under for about 40 minutes, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the experience. One of my favorite sensations is hanging upside down under water and feeling the compressed air rush into my lungs as it escapes from my tank. It is absolutely exhilarating.
On the boat ride back to the resort, I noticed that there were several plumes of smoke along the horizon. When we got back to our bungalows, someone just below us had started a fire. I think that these fires are from burning the waste – another example of the difficulty of waste removal on an island. The smoke plume about a hundred meters from our bungalow has been increasing steadily over the last hour, and suddenly died off. The smoke has infused my hair and clothes and is not the earthy smell of campfire, but the painful harsh smell of burning plastic. While nowhere near as bad as Bangkok, the air here is quite polluted, especially near roads The diesel exhaust from the motorcycles combined with the smoke from the fires means that about a kilometer off shore, you could begin to smell the humans.

Tonight, for the first time on the trip, I am going out to some of the bars around the island. There is a “cave party” that looks quite interesting, which is held in a bar that is designed to look like the Flintstones’ house. Some more unrelated pieces of information: I was looking out the window during my shower this evening, and I noticed that our neighbor had thrown a scissors at the tree and it had become lodged into the bark. A dog howling woke me up at 5:30 this morning and I asked Allen to go throw rocks at it. “No way,” said Allen, “I don’t want to get mauled by a feral dog tonight.” Roosters crow incessantly. We lost a day in travel, so while I have blogged every day, I didn’t think you guys would want to read a duplicate of my thoughts and observations as I crossed the international dateline. So I’ve finally caught up and changed the date on my blogs. Other than that, I’m just pretty excited just to relax and take it easy after such an intense day. That being said, I cannot WAIT until I get to dive again.

11,977 Miles Traveled

Jan 24, 2010
Koh Tao, Thailand
Mostly Clear, very humid, intermittent showers, 85°F

Yesterday, we trudged a half mile through the pouring rain in order to wait six hours at the train station, got on the train at 7:30pm and arrived at 4:30am in a small village south of Bangkok, waited two hours for a bus to come, got on the bus and arrived at a dock at around 7:15, got out, rolled our luggage over several hundred foot dock (which was little more than a bunch of sticks nailed together), got on a boat with about a hundred other passengers for two hours, arrived in Koh Tao around 9:30, got into the back of a truck with all of our luggage, and finally arrived at the resort after the most grueling travel day I have ever experienced.
But in comparison to Bangkok, this is absolute paradise. I collapsed into a chair in the restaurant and happily ordered some western-style French toast. The resort has beautiful colonial architecture, tropical flowers and birds, and a stream running right through the middle of whole thing – except I got a little closer and realized that my idyllic creek was actually a channel for sewage to run into the ocean. And it smells really awesome too. This is clearly an indication of the issues Koh Tao has with waste disposal. This is a problem that every single human settlement in the entire world is faced with, and it seems that this island can’t or doesn’t hide the path the waste takes into the ocean. I feel like the contamination of water that people frequently swim in is completely unnecessary in this situation. While there doesn’t seem to be a significant amount of agriculture on Koh Tao that could provide demand for fertilizer, there are other ways to repurpose the waste into more usefully and with less pollution. Using it as an energy sources comes to mind.
I don’t think I can write a fair and cohesive journal entry until I get some serious sleep. We’re going down to the resort (our bungalows are higher up) to pick out some dive equipment for tomorrow. I’m so excited because the water here is warm and very clear. (Resumed writing at the end of the day, around 8:30. Very tired. No Nap.) Denny told us about the diversity in the coral reefs in the pacific, and mentioned that marine life began in the Indo-Pacific ocean. Subsequently, the diversity in Thailand will be much greater than in Hawaii, because the poor fish from the more diverse Asian countries have to send their just-hatched babies as emissaries to Hawaii. The babies don’t always make it.
After I tried to put myself down for a nap, I promptly had to get up and go down to the main resort area. Scuba stuff was taken care of. I wandered off to the beach for a few moments. (Side note: I think that there will be great shells to find tomorrow diving just based on what was washed up on the shore)The sand is so fine, like cream-colored sugar. It’s pleasant to brush it off my feet because it feels so smooth and looks so pretty. By the time I joined the group again, I was absolutely famished and desperately needed some food. Mike, Matt and I walked into town, picked up a dive shirt for Mike, and then went to one of the many Thai restaurants. Matt and I had shrimp pad thai, and I had a delicious Tiger beer, and Mike had a very traditional hamburger. All very good.
In our short walk to town, I’ve noticed that there is constantly the danger of being hit by a motorcycle, the primary mode of transportation here. They are loud, and people tend to become significantly less aware as soon as they straddle these “crotch rockets.” Also, the gross exhaust that they put out is just horrible. We walked back, hung out in the room, watched the sunset, and then had a short class.
I’m in bed now so I can be in tip-top shape for diving tomorrow. I promise that tomorrow’s entry will be a lot better and more detailed, but this one didn’t end up being so terrible after all. I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining, but at the end of days like these, sometimes a girl just needs a break.

11,727 Miles Traveled

Jan 23, 2010
Bangkok, Thailand
Electrical storm in the morning, clear in the afternoon. Hot. Very humid.

I’m sitting in the Bangkok train station sitting next to a monk reading a newspaper showcasing to effigies of Buddha as I write this. In front of me sits a couple – an old man and a young Thai girl. We had the morning off in order to catch up on our writing, use the internet, and pack. In what I believe is an attempt to further inculcate us with the tenets of communal living, Denny encouraged us to consolidate our suitcases so we could leave half of them behind in Bangkok while we are away in the jungle for the next six days. I have not been alone in a bed in two weeks, I have not been alone since we left, and every inch of personal space is now shared space. This further depletion of privacy is something that I would have found unimaginable a few days ago, but I think I’m okay with it now.
Thailand has been an excellent practice in surrendering. So many times in my life I have been reminded to surrender, take a yoga breath, and bear whatever is bothering me. We walked a half mile to the train station in the pouring rain and stifling heat with all of our suitcases today. The water falling was lukewarm, and I splashed through puddles that were body temperature. Dirty water splashed off buildings and onto my hair and clothes. We were almost hit by a bus. Twice. By the end of the trip, I was dripping with water and sweat. A few people at the train station laughed at the twenty-two soaking Americans. I think I’m okay with that too.
We went to see the golden Buddha today. It is a fifteen foot tall solid gold statue of the Buddha, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the religious icon with the greatest intrinsic value. This is pretty cool alone, but it was surrounded by a gigantic temple complex completed with two museums and a great propaganda play with projected holograms instead of people. “I love the king!” said one hologram. “Yes! When grandpa came here from China he knew that the king would never let him starve to death!” said another. Interestingly, as I wrote this, it was 6:00pm here, and a whistle in the train station blew. Everyone stood up, faced the gigantic portrait of the Thai King, and the national anthem began to play. I couldn’t imagine ever pseudo-worshiping a member of my government. The monks in the station remained seated.
On our walk back to the train station from that Wat, we crossed a narrow part of the river. The rain had filled the river and there was a lot of debris that had been trapped under the footbridge. Oil visibly floated along. This was the same body of water we had seen children bathing in yesterday. The other obvious health problem in Bangkok is the large amount of pollution. Walking along the street, you are often engulfed in a cloud of exhaust that leaves you struggling for oxygen.
But I don’t think this is a problem exclusive to Bangkok by any means. I think that these are problems that come with having a large, highly populated city. As much fun as Bangkok was, I’m excited to be leaving for somewhere more rural now.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

11,727 Miles Traveled



Jan 22, 2010
Bangkok, Thailand
Slightly overcast, humid, hot. Rain in the morning.
AM: I once took a class called Third World Cities. We studied a selection of the developing mega-cities and academic things like the “built environment,” “housing types: informal v. formal,” and “colonialism.” We talked about the horror of poverty and how government policies can change lives. But as much as I loved the professor, and the class, and felt like a more responsible person because I got an “A” in the class – that means I must understand third world cities, right? – I always get this horrible jolt back to reality when I see real, live, poverty. And I have yet to leave the hotel.
For eighteen dollars a day, you get a real view. It could have been straight out of my class’ power point. Is Bangkok even considered a “third world” city? Nevermind the serious colonialist undertones of that phrase. We arrived in Bangkok last night around eleven, went through customs and immigration, got our bags, exchanged our money, and got into the official Bangkok airport shuttles around one in the morning (air conditioned vans with leather seats). Out the window, I saw people sleeping on the streets, and I saw huge gold temples and priceless artifacts. My western superiority kicked in, and I thought, look at this! The government should use the money they get from all the tourism, or have stashed away in their gigantic royal palaces to do something about poverty.
Why don’t I feel that way about the United States? A quick drive from Yogurtland in Little Tokyo through the outskirts of downtown back to USC takes you right through more than a few blocks of tent-city homeless neighborhoods. We have so much wealth, and why don’t we redistribute it so that we don’t have that kind of poverty? On one side of the scale, you have the social ill of poverty, on the other side, you have the social ill of significantly increased government intervention in property rights. Which outweighs which?
I would like to retract my previous statement about filtering water to be on vacation. I’m clearly not on vacation.
PM: Today was absolutely amazing. Yes, our hotel is crappy. Yes, my bed feels like a piece of cardboard. But... We saw so many cool things today that it is totally worth it. And we leave tomorrow for a resort where we have four beautiful bungalows reserved overlooking the ocean.
We spent the day using river taxis, which are these long colorful boats with car engines attached. We went to two temples (they're called "Wat" in Thai, and there are nine sacred temples in Bangkok), one of which was an extremely tall tower that had these steep stairs all the way to the stop. It had been decorated with scraps of Chinese ceramics, so the walls had inlaid bowls and cups in them. The other one was the temple of the reclining Buddha, which contained a several hundred foot long and about hundred foot high gold-plated statue of the Buddha reclining. I was walking around and happened to upon Dr. and Senora Hartzell, the former Harker head of school and the head of the spanish professor (who is his wife)! We stopped to chat and we took a picture together. They now work at the American School in Taipei, and apparently love it. It was so cool to see them at this really amazing place.
The second temple (the one with all the steep stairs), was really awesome itself, but was surrounded by really cool things. There was a music class going on, a ton of monks wandering, some puppy dogs (which I unfortunately could not resist petting), and these gorgeous flowers. We watched people approach them and pray, then clap their hands underneath. I was so confused until Anh told me that these flowers are used as a test to see if your prayers are being listened to. People would pray to have a piece of the flower fall, then see if it worked. She clasped my hands together and told me to pray, so I did. I clapped my hands underneath, and seemed to be the only one who the gods were listening to. After three claps, a stamen fell to the group. Then again, they were very vigorous claps and I was probably the tenth person to clap at this same flower... but it feels nice to know that Buddha had his eye on me.

Then we went to the Royal Barge Museum, where they have the barges that were involved in the royal processional. Each barge was HUGE and gold-plated. The Thai seem to love gold. It was really fun, and this is where I stopped to use the bathroom. The bathrooms were very western (unlike every other Thai bathroom outside of the airport), and were actually nicer than an average public bathroom in the US. But, instead of toilet paper, each stall had long hoses like ones you would put in a kitchen sink. Eh, to each their own, right? I was standing on the edge of the museum (it was like a covered dock), looking at all the construction happening across the river. Everywhere you look there are cranes building more high-rise buildings. A construction worker waved at me, and I waved back.
Then we went on a boat (long colorful motorized canoe is a better way to describe it) tour all the way around Bangkok. Bangkok is organized somewhat like Venice. A large portion of the houses here are on canals. We went really quite fast, and perhaps the driver pushed it a little too much, because we were about half a mile away from the last stop when our engine died. We had to jumpstart mid-canal! Highlights of the boat tour include a large wooden temple that said "Slam Dance and Antiques Center," a huge six-foot long lizard sunning itself, all the gorgeous mansions along the water right alongside the informal housing, many of which barely had walls but most always included a satellite dish.
I have seen one solar panel, and it was on one of the nicest houses along the river. Most of the houses seem to be connected to electrical wires, even the ones that are a few feet from falling into the river. Our hotel seems to have consistent electricity, thankfully. To power their boats and cars, Bangkok relies heavily on diesel fuel for energy. Many of the students on the last Biomes trip commented that the air was almost unbreathable, and observed that many people used masks in order to make it a bit better. While there were a few masks, and I did take a huge, carcinogenic breath of exhaust, I felt that the air was really no worse than Los Angeles on an average day.
The river is the primary transportation route. The water is murky, and along the sides of the canals the green and sometimes orange algae grows in thick mats. During one of our boat rides, there were two Brits sitting behind me talking to a local. We saw a ton of fish jumping up (big fish too!), looking for food, and the british guys asked if he ever went swimming in the river. "No no no!" the Thai guy said. "How much," one of the british guys asked, "would I have to pay you to jump in right now?" "500... no... 2500!" the Thai replied.
I agreed that the water did not look fit for swimming, but nonetheless, we saw three different groups of kids jumping from bridges into the water and swimming. One of the groups looked like an organized swim class, where the kids all wore matching suits and stood in a line to dive.
After our little mishap with the engine, the driver seemed eager to dock, so we zoomed back to the area near our hotel. We disembarked and walked back to our hotel, through an area that looks very much like a combination of San Francisco's Chinatown and Los Angeles' fashion district. I'm shocked how cheap everything is, and am horrified that my classmates would try to haggle with street vendors. Why would I try to bargain a two-dollar snack down to a one-dollar snack? Dinner and lunch were both just under a dollar each... but Denny gave us 1,000 bhat (about 30 dollars) for three days of food. Both lunch and dinner have been delicious, and both have been from sketchy street food carts. That being said, Bangkok street food was recently featured in the New York Times for being so amazing. For lunch, I had a dish that was similar to Pad Kee Mao, a wide fried noodle dish with chicken. For dinner, I had a glass noodle soup with chicken and eggs. I also had some tea and probably will try some Thai beer after class.

So definitely not a vacation, but a learning trip doesn't have to be a horribly painful process. I've accepted that there will be painful lessons along the way, especially in India and Tanzania. I'm not looking forward to seeing the poverty that I know is there, and I don't know what I will do with the data I find.

8837 Miles Traveled


Jan 21, 2010
Narita, Japan
47°F, overcast.

I was so sad we couldn’t have a longer layover in Japan. While I’m eagerly anticipating our arrival in Bangkok, I was perfectly happy to continue relaxing and sipping my Japanese beer. We woke up this morning at 5am, in the cars by 5:45, and were at the airport by 6:15. After a short flight to Honolulu, we waited for about three hours to board our plane to Tokyo/Narita. I slept for most of the nine hours.
As our plane completed its descent into Tokyo, I noticed that the sky was remarkably red for being only three in the afternoon. The sun didn’t set until about five, but even as it hovered in the clouds, there was enough particulate matter for the light to appear a brilliantly scary scarlet towards the horizon. Something tells me that the countless smoke stacks scattered throughout the area aren’t doing good things for the air.
When we landed, we were informed that our flight to Thailand was moved twenty minutes earlier, but Becky and I had still had some time to walk around and pick up some snacks. Everything was delicious, and reminded me of being home in California – strawberry pocky, soba noodles with agedashi tofu, and milk tea. I noticed that the Japanese have less of a “personal bubble” than we do. While we wandered around the airport, and despite the lack of crowds there was usually the threat of collision as people came remarkably close.
I had hoped that there would be at least one robot that would assist me in Japan, but alas, we were in the older terminal and I had to settle for the most complicated toilet I’ve ever seen. While it was the best bathroom experience ever, no competition, the buttons and sound effects can be a little confusing to a first-time user. I’ll admit I went back twice just for the amusement. Where else can you adjust the volume of the artificial flushing sound while making your seat warmer or cooler?
I’m sitting on the plane to Bangkok right now. I feel like this is the real start of our trip; Alaska and Hawaii were just practice. If the water doesn’t need to be filtered, it’s not really a vacation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

4938 Miles Traveled

Maui, HI
Jan 20, 2010

Today was a fairly relaxed day. In the morning, we went to a NOAA site and listened to a man named Ed Lyman give a talk about whales and whale rescue from entanglement and boat strikes. It was completely fascinating and I have several pages of very interesting notes. One of the great fun facts we learned is that whales have mucus that they expel when they blow, and the mucus allows them to dive longer because it absorbs nitrogen.

In the late morning and early afternoon, we visited a place called “the needle,” which is a large and narrow natural rock formation. The Hawaiians rightly coupled it with their phallic god. We walked around a bit, and I noticed a warning sign for flash flooding. The area had been greatly disturbed and none of the water features were in the natural form. Instead, pipes brought water from a naturally occurring stream from pool to pool. While there was no information about why the flash flooding happens, I wonder if the human intervention exacerbated the danger.

We saw more of the “swiss cheese” plants with holes in the leaves (proper name: Monstera obliqua). The Wellesley greenhouse had a gigantic and gorgeous swiss cheese plant and the caretaker explained to me that the plants have adapted to allow the lower leaves to get sunlight. Because they can get quite large, the large upper leaves would prevent the younger lower leaves from getting adequate sunlight without the holes. Pretty cool adaptation.

In the afternoon, Liz, Tim, Clay, Becky and I walked to get another shaved ice. Again, it was wonderful. We came back to the condo and I napped for a few hours, and got up in time to watch the sunset. We ate dinner, which was an amalgam of all the food we hadn’t eaten (I swear I never want to see canned ham ever again), and had class, and then packed up.
Tomorrow we leave for Bangkok, which will involve about 26 hours of traveling. I have to admit that I am a bit nervous about my first trip to a developing country. Nonetheless, I am completely thrilled and cannot wait for our next adventure!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

4938 Miles Traveled

Jan 19, 2010
Maui, HI
Mostly clear, some periods of cloudiness

Today was our free day, so it was less exciting than the last few days. I woke up late, took an intense nap, caught up on my reading, but two very important things happened today.
First, I bought a new suitcase. While not technically “smaller” than my old one, it is much lighter and much more squishable. More significantly, I got rid of about twenty pounds of stuff I didn’t think I would need, including my mosquito nets, my sleeping pad, my extra raingear, an extra towel and a book I was done reading.
Second, I had the most amazing shaved ice ever. I got “shark’s blood” (strawberry) and coconut flavored, with some delicious Kauai cream on top. It was the texture of snow, and all the flavors were handmade. As Mike and I sat enjoying our colorfully delicious snacks, an old man walked past and commented, “Hey! Those look great! Just like my last shroom trip.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

4926 Miles Traveled + 12 very difficult and important miles

Maui, HI
Very overcast with drizzles, completely clear above 4,000 ft.

Clearly I have no foresight, because today’s intensity makes yesterday seem tame. Today, we climbed into the eroding valley of the mountain/volcano Haleakala, also known as a crater, then back out again. Sounds easy right? Well, that’s what we thought before we walked twelve miles with almost 7,000ft elevation change. We began at 5:45 this morning, and were packed into the car and on our way by 6:30. We drove a windy 38 mile road from sea level to 10,000 ft, one of the highest elevation changes in the shortest distance in the world. Near the shore it was drizzly, but up that high we were several thousand feet above the cloud cover, so no rain for us.
Denny and David told us that this hike was so remarkable because of the transitions from different areas based on the relative elevations and humidity. We were told that we would start at the top, where it would be about twenty degrees and possibly snowing, walk down through a desert, then a rainforest, and then finally up again to a semi-arid area. Basically… our entire biomes trip in about 6 hours. We were dressed in some serious layers. Also, we were told that a liter and a half of water would definitely be sufficient.

When we arrived at the summit it was about fifty degrees and even though it was just past eight, the sun was beating down like no other. I was in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to protect myself from the sun, and I thought I was very clever. (again, no foresight) The only wildlife in sight (this should have been an indication) was an invasive bird species from Afghanistan called the Chukar. We had to go in separate groups, but we soon caught up to one another. The walk down was very steep and alternated between insanely sandy and insanely rocky. At the top, there were absolutely no plants. Suddenly, in a matter of feet, we began to see the “silver sword.” It’s a small succulent with a white powder that is natural sunscreen for the plant. Then there are some yellow flowers, a few dry bushy plants, and surprisingly, bracken fern.

Other than the few splotches of plants on the more humid side of the mountain, it looked like Mars. Much of the landscape was covered in reddish rocks and sand. We walked and walked and walked. And then we walked some more. And then we walked an extra loop to see “Pele’s Paintpot,” which is an extension of the erosional valley where sand had blown away to expose multi-colored minerals streaming down the side of huge sand dunes and lava cones. It was quite remarkable.

Then we walked some more and came upon a small cabin available for rent, with some non-potable water (those with filters filled up), and stopped for lunch around 1:15. The sun was burning hot, and there hadn’t been a single tree during the entire hike. Becky and I sat fantasizing about the upcoming rainforest and how amazing it would be to see trees and the huge mossy beds that Denny had described. When Denny arrived to eat his lunch, we asked how long it would be till we got to the rainforest, and he said quite hesitantly, “Well… it’s more of a… dry rainforest.”

It turns out that this year had been significantly dryer than it had been during the last Biomes trip, and the beautiful cloud forest that had kept up moving was now completely nonexistent. Instead, we had another four miles through more bone-dry landscape. And three of those miles were switch-backs when we went from around 6000 ft back to 9000 ft. And as a group, we were running out of water.

Doubtless, this was one of the most beautiful and shocking hiking trips I have ever taken. The ruggedness of the terrain coupled with the stark differences between the humid and the arid sides of the mountain were absolutely amazing. But it was hard to focus on the closely coupled completely polar climates when you had to constantly look down to make sure you weren’t about to lose your footing and tumble several thousand feet to your death below. Also, the intense chafing from my long sleeve shirt really didn't feel so nice. The switchbacks alternated between the cool, breezy side with small trees and tons of gorgeous ferns, and the dry, hot, breezeless side overlooking the huge valley.

We all ran out of water about a mile before the top. I don’t think I have ever been thirstier in my entire life. The first moment I saw the cars parked at the top, I made a noise that made Matt turn around and check to make sure I was still in one piece. We all arrived back at the parking lot, took a group picture, griped at Denny about misleading us about the rainforest, and then went to a traditional Hawaiian restaurant called “Da Kitchen.” I scarfed down a bowl of noodles and three different drinks, then we went grocery shopping, and then finally home to shower and relax.
It was a completely intense and sublime day.

Jan 18, 2010

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Warning sign about explosives


Photo by lovely Becky

4926 Miles Traveled




Jan 17, 2010
Maui, HI
Mostly clear with low clouds over the mountains

I feel like this day was so intense that writing about it can’t convey the exhilaration. It was an early morning so we could find parking on the beach near some resorts on the northwestern side of the island. We strapped on our snorkel gear and headed out, swimming way past the rocks and reef into more open water where only sea grass lined the bottom. When you dove down, it was easy to hear that the whales were practically screaming their songs about half a mile out. On our way back to shore, a huge snow-flake patterned sting ray swam right beneath us. The diversity of fish species we saw today was much greater than those we saw the first day, including angelfish, yellow tangs, needle fish, several kinds of butterfly fish and parrot fish, and a ton of these little striped guys that would swim right up to you. I imagine that the wildlife is either more used to humans because of the number of snorkelers, but I also know that at some resorts, it is common practice to feed the fish.
The waves were getting larger as it got closer to noon, and I was being tossed around quite a bit. I caught a wave onto shore and spread out on my towel to journal in more detail about the things I saw. Suddenly, I heard a scream from the water. A woman had been tossed by a wave and was bleeding profusely. Somebody called an ambulance. The woman was moaning in pain, and it looked as if she had dislocated or broken her jaw and injured her neck. I didn’t want to get in the way, but nobody seemed to know what to do. There was no lifeguard on duty, but I ran up to the resort and flagged down an employee, who promptly sent the resort’s emergency team to put her on a stretcher and get her out of the water. Nobody wanted to move her, so she was still lying partially in the water.
Some of our group members had formed a barrier to break the waves before they hit her and stayed there throughout the ordeal. When the EMTs finally arrived about ten minutes later, the tide had come farther in and the huge waves were crashing on our human barrier quite heavily. The woman was strapped down to the stretcher, but before they moved her, one final wave came and washed all the way over despite everyone’s best efforts. I could not imagine the terror of being strapped down with a serious head injury with water covering your face, unable to move. As she was taken away, I heard her say, “Don’t let them see me like this.” It seemed an odd thing to say in the situation. We were all a little bit shaken by the event, and it really made me angry that her injury was seen as an entertaining attraction. I saw an older woman bring what looked to be grandchildren over to watch. Everyone either gawked, or was completely unaware of what had happened.
Anyways, I covered myself up and took a little nap on the beach. We spent from 9:30-1:30 on the beach, and many people walked away with nasty burns. Many of the burned people swear that the burn will turn into a tan, but I just don’t think that third degree burns will ever be golden brown. We’re going to be taking a high-elevation hike tomorrow (10,000 ft) and we’ve all been warned to protect our skin to prevent further “frying.”
We left the beach and boarded a whale-watching boat. There were pretty high expectations for the whale-watching trip, but what we say completely exceeded anything we could have imagined. We saw many mother-calf pairs, and one newborn made his way over to our boat (the captain, by law had to stop the engine and wait), and began to breach about 3 meters from us! It was absolutely amazing. The babies are born at 15-20 ft, and weigh about half a ton. For the first few months of their life, they gain one hundred pounds a day while feeding on three hundred gallons of milk. And this “baby” certainly looked like he had been feeding. We also saw males fighting over the ladies up-close, heard the whale sounds, and saw uncountable numbers of exhalations (blows). Becky got absolutely amazing pictures of all of it, but I have three posted above that I liked.
Now we’re back at the condos. The girls’ condo is cooking tonight, and we’re having chicken-tortilla casserole with corn bread and apple dumplings for dessert. I am so impressed by all the food we’ve had, and hopefully tonight will be just as good. Our condo cut up a pineapple as an hors d’ oeuvres before dinner, and then early bedtime so we can be in the car by 6:30 am tomorrow morning to climb the mountain!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

4926 Miles Traveled



Jan 16, 2010
Sunny in the morning, overcast in the afternoon
Maui, HI

I could smell the sand and the sea from the open windows of the condo while we sat for three hours for class. Not that class isn’t interesting, but when there isn’t a cloud in the sky and we can see the ocean from the window, all I want to do is be in the water. We talked about the definition of the word sublime – which originally referred to an individual’s changing conception of beauty. The example David used was the Alps running east and west across Europe; they were once thought to be god’s punishment because of their harsh temperatures and rough terrain. However, the European romantics worked to change the perception of the Alps – they saw them as beautiful.
Sublime would be the perfect word to use as we navigated through the lava flows to find a perfect snorkel spot. From a distance, it seemed as if the ground was made up completely of tilled earth. When you got close, it became clear that the many acres were actually covered with sharp lava rock, with towers and swirls and patterns into which the lava solidified just over two hundred years ago. (The last eruption was in the 1790s) The deep teal water smashed up against the volcanic rocks, another sublime image but not ideal for snorkelers.
Before we took our hike through the lava flows, we had driven some distance over questionable roads. At the very beginning of the vast volcanic fields, a sign warned visitors that the site had previously been used for military testing and that there were unexploded land mines sprinkled throughout the area. Note: this is not where we walked.
Other creatures had met their demise on these rocks. Many crabs were smashed at intervals along the trail. Dried out limpets were stuck to outcroppings. This was not a lush tropical forest, but rather a semi-arid landscape which challenged creatures to thrive. A couple of wild goats didn’t seem to have a problem though.
Unfortunately, our walk yielded no results. All of the potential snorkel sites (with gorgeous clear water) either were plagued by shallow rocks or rough surf, and in one instance, hundreds and hundreds of sea urchins that prevented entry into the water. We walked back to the car, a little dejected. Fortunately, our next stop was a huge golden beach with gentle waves and dolphins and whales in the distance. After the dusty hike, we ran into the water thankfully and lazily rode the waves for about two hours.
Denny, Anh, and Mike went out to a more fecund spot to do some snorkeling. The visibility wasn’t that great, and both Anh and Denny had rough encounters with sea urchins. Denny probably had fifty spines stuck into his right hand, and the surrounding skin was slowly turning blue with the poison. I haven’t seen him since we returned to the condos, but I hope that he has taken care of his hand.
Tonight, the all-guys’ condo is cooking. We all expected a mac ‘n cheese night, but Clay, Jacob, and John have really impressed us by doing shish kebabs and polenta. Matt and Mike picked up a bottle of local Hawaiian dark rum for our condo. It came with its own lei. We have two lovely pineapples that we still have to cut up. Tomorrow we’re going whale watching, and judging by the amount of whale and dolphin activity we saw just watching from the beach, it’s going to be awesome. Let me leave you with this image – floating up and down in the waves and watching whales breaching in the distance next to two small green islands. Another gorgeous day.

Friday, January 15, 2010

4926 Miles Traveled


January 15, 2010
Maui, Hawaii
Warm, few clouds

Our first day in Maui was awesome. This morning I woke up to the sound of a bird singing “bottle-of-pop! bottle-of-pop!”and Becky (who I’m sharing a room with) saying “Caitlin! Let’s go to the beach!” I slammed down a bowl of cereal and threw on my bathing suit and ran out the door, across the street, and onto the beach. The water is a beautiful teal, and there were a handful of people surfing the huugeee waves. Becky and I ran about waist deep into the warm water, and shared a sigh of relief to be away from Alaska. Not so far in the distance, a humpback whale showed us his tail before diving deep.
We met up for class, and then most of the day was spent snorkeling in the cool, warm water. Turtles, eels, parrot fish, clown fish, and a gigantic brown sea slug swam with us. Becky got some great underwater shots. On our way to the snorkel site, we passed huge fields of sugar cane and got a good look at the mountain we’ll be climbing later in the week.
Our condo was in charge of dinner tonight, and Matt, Nate, and I threw together enough spaghetti and meatballs, broccoli with a homemade cheese sauce, and homemade garlic bread for twenty-two people. At seven, everyone filtered in and scarfed down the piles of food as they occupied every available surface in our shoebox condo. Compliments (of course) all around, and they filed out as quickly as they came.
Now the six of us plus Anh are sitting in our living room, celebrating the island life with spiced rum and mango juice. I learn so much more outside of the classroom!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

2114 Miles Traveled


1/14/10
Anchorage, AK
So we finally get to leave snowy Alaska and go to sunny Maui today! Not much to report, but we’re sitting in the airport waiting for our next flight. Even though it’s almost midday in Anchorage, it’s still very dark and dreary. We woke up at 4am this morning.
A few of our of-age compadres decided that happy hour starts at 11am, and went to sit at the airport bar… I know more than a few of us wished we could join them. Oh well. In less than a week we’ll be in a country with much more lenient laws.

2114 Miles Traveled


1/13/10
So I finally was successful and selected an individual project. I will be examining the health dangers created by human interaction with the environment and the steps taken to either solve or promote awareness of these problems. The two that I have identified thus far I’ve already written about, but I’ll reiterate them here. First, near our house, there is a creek that feeds into the bay contains sewage run-off, and there is a large sign that warns visitors not to eat the shellfish from the area. A large red and orange microbial mat has formed in the area. Second, many dogs and owners went for hikes in the wetlands. The dogs left little… gifts… along all of the trails. A sign near the trailhead warned owners that the dog poop contaminates the water and poses health dangers for the local wildlife (it didn’t say whether humans are included in local wildlife). The sign was all but covered in feces; it was clear that owners did not pay attention to the warning. Luckily, water that is drawn from natural sources is filtered before it reaches our tap. In places where the filtration infrastructure is less developed, this might be a problem for the human water source.
Today we went to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fishery laboratories. From 10-12:30 and from 1-4:30, we were given lectures by various researches at the labs. The talks that stood out the most were about under-ice diving, the impact of climate change on marine mammals (one presenter said that the best way to get the general public on board with preventing climate change is by showing them pictures of fuzzy cute seals), sampling of near-shore fish, an analysis of the impact of climate change on evolution, and a study of the habitats of golden and red king crabs. I will spare you the details, but the most interesting things presented were 1) the pictures of the under-ice diving 2) the proposal that climate change is happening so fast that evolution won’t be able to keep up (also known as extinction)3) the observation that in ancient (or older) ice columns, there is a high prevalence of phytoplankton (the first-order producers), whereas the newer ice columns contain low levels of phytoplankton.
Four lectures were given before lunch, and after lunch, we took a brief tour of the laboratories. The wet laboratories where the live samples were kept were by far the most interesting part. There was an entire tank filled with starfish and sea cucumbers. Sea cucumbers are some of my favorite marine animals. (I have to say, the room filled with fridges was the least interesting). We went back to the conference room for three more lectures. At the end of the lectures, the power went out and apparently the conference center was lowest on the list for emergency generator energy. The last two speakers presented in the dark. Unfortunately, this also meant that we were unable to play with the globe with the different satellite images projected on it. We left the NOAA labs around 4:45.
WE LEAVE FOR MAUI TOMORROW!!! I never thought I would be so excited to see sunshine and sand and warm water. Also… those six-person condos are looking pretty nice in comparison to our cabin, which seems to get smaller every day. I’ll update you on the new balmy biome soon!

2114 Miles Traveled


1/12/10
Clearest day yet, but still quite foggy. Very cold. Flurries.
Last night a letter arrived from a former Biomes student who gave us a few pieces of advice, including 1) hang out with Denny, Ziegred, and David as much as possible and 2) write more than you possibly ever thought you could. I’ve been trying to take that advice, and I feel that several thousand words over the last few days has been a pretty decent amount to write. This summer, a woman named Lena showed me her journals – I asked if it was alright if I read them because I feel that journals are often very private and personal. She said it was fine, that she always intended what she wrote for an audience. At the time, it struck me as a very arrogant comment. Now that I’m publishing my daily journal on a blog open to anyone, I realize that writing for an audience keeps you on task and writing about the most interesting and relevant things. If I was not publishing my journal, it would probably be filled with senseless commentary on banal events – for example, the shower water here smells a bit funny. But you guys don’t want to hear about that.
What the point of this journal should be is to record my observations about interesting and unique things I encounter while traveling. I’ll probably continue this entry later this evening, but I had some inspiration to write. We had the morning off to sleep and shower and organize ourselves. Right after lunch, I went outside (inadequately dressed for the frigid weather). I walked along the shore of the bay, and saw that the tide had pushed up a foot-high wall of purplish-black seaweed. About 30 yards along, I found a crab shell about 6 inches long, from a rock crab. Apparently the crab had molted. Low tide today is around 4:30pm, so the tide was receding, and many small pools were visible. Many of the rocks are covered by slimy green algae. The ravens and seagulls were mingling, and grabbing in their beaks the mussels thrown up by the tide, flying about 10 feet in the air, and then dropping shells on the rocks in order to pick out the soft animal inside.
By this time, I became extremely cold, and had taken off my gloves to take a few pictures. I grabbed my crab shell and went back inside. I sat down for a moment to talk with Denny about my individual project. I desperately want to look at diatoms of the world, but without a microscope of any kind it would be very difficult. I still don’t know what my project will be. As we were sitting there talking, we saw five or six huge blows in the distance. The humpback whales were coming closer to the point of the island, and most of us immediately grabbed our warm clothes and ran out to the point. The whales had dived down, but after waiting a few minutes, they resurfaced even closer. We saw them dive down, and saw their tails poke out of the water before they were completely submerged.
Tomorrow is our last day in Alaska, but fear not, Norway will offer another chance to observe freezing boreal forests, with an average temperature of 4°F in April.

Monday, January 11, 2010

1541 Miles Traveled


There are no roads that go to Juneau. The ice fields and mountains are way too rugged for any pavement. When we drive from our house into town, I always look out the window and think how incredibly gigantic and empty Alaska is.
However, living in a relatively small house with twenty-one other people never allows you to feel very alone for long. In some situations, I think that these very close living environments could put me on edge, and make me grouchy. However, everyone here is so friendly and helpful and fun that it is more like a huge sleepover rather than a crowded bus ride. (But everyone has their moments…)
Two things have happened in the last day that have made me enjoy being part of a huge group. First, last night around ten, the wind was blowing and we were all snuggled up in the living room with books, or card games, or journals. Completely spontaneously, people began putting on their winter clothes and bundling up. “Going out?” a few said incredulously.
After a few minutes, we all were dressed and standing by the door. Swaffie claims to have spearheaded this event. We went out into the horizontally blowing snow and started a huge, group-wide snowball fight. The wind was blowing so strongly that each snowflake felt like a pin hitting your face. We ran wildly up the path onto the island, then out to the very point and looked out over the stormy water. All the flashlights were turned off, and we stood in the chilly stillness watching the waves hitting the snowy rocks.
As quickly as we had all gotten dressed, we ran back down the path back to the front of the house. We resumed our snowball fighting… then began to make larger and larger snowballs. A few people collaborated on a snowman, and suddenly there was a new, icy, four-foot tall member of our group.
The second event was much more subtle, but today we were driving out to the road over a particularly rough bit and our mini van’s wheels began to spin. David made one more attempt, but it looked like we were stuck. In second, the two guys sitting in the front of our van and three guys from the other van jumped out and ran to the back of the car to push us back up onto the road. As we became dislodged from the snow bank, Nate ran back to the other van, whooping with triumph.
Today we’re at the University of Alaska, Southeast. We are working on doing a bit of research for the biomes we have chosen to study individually, as well as working on our individual study plans. While our outdoor adventures are always fun, it’s a bit too windy and snowy today to spend much time outside. Maui is looking better and better each day…. But Denny plans to make hot chocolate lava cake tonight, which is a much better Alaskan dessert.
Note: I'm second to the left in the picture.

1541 Miles Traveled


Denny announced that today would be a free day for us to journal, read, and wander. I began the day by finishing the first assigned book, Measuring the World. Afterwards, Nate and I started to take a walk beginning at the island outside of the Shrine. Instead of taking the gravel path up to the point near the church, we wandered on the lower part of the island through the ferns and the evergreens. There was a small shrine to the victims of abortion, where people had set mussels and clams and little pieces of seaweed in a seeming offering. Apparently, the shrines to Jesus and Mary didn’t warrant the same kind of respect.
We made it to the tip of the island, just below the rocks where the ocean breaks. We wandered back up to the church on the top of the island, and found Matt, Mike and John. They had been irreverently exploring the unlocked church, and had been trying to find a way up to the bell tower. When we found them, they had been joking about a religious VHS that was for sale for $6.95. I picked up a book called Questions and Answers for the Bible Geek. Among the pressing theological questions explored in this volume were “Does milk go back in heaven?” and “Does God watch horror movies?”
At this point, John left us and the four remaining wanderers walked back onto mainland and up near the road. It was perhaps 11am at the time, and it began to snow. We walked to below a rocky cliff, where we saw fairly fresh bear tracks. No bear, though. Instead, we watched seven sea lions swim just off shore, perhaps 20 meters away from us. We walked back to the Shrine for lunch (sandwiches).
The rest of my afternoon was fairly quiet. It became progressively more windy and cold throughout the day, and so most of us stayed inside. I continued to read, and we had our first literature class and second biomes class. One of my favorite parts of the afternoon was Denny, Ziegred, and David talking about bringing students to East Germany before the wall came down. They told us about being watched by the Stasi (possibly because they were westerners that continued to return to East Germany annually for a few years in a row), and a student’s arrest. During the trip, several East Berlin teenagers had approached a student on the trip and asked to buy his blue jeans. David told us that this student was a very odd fellow and was wearing several pairs of jeans, and sold or gave the pants to the Germans.
When the group went through security in order to return to West Berlin, the Stasi took the student aside and questioned him about the event. It was strictly forbidden to exchange western goods, and jeans were the quintessential western good. It was very interesting to hear about the horrific food (The rice pudding tasted like old bandages, explained David), and the tour guide that led them through the country with no tour guide experience. The guide had originally been a university student who had majored in Portuguese, a sort of pawn in the East German/Brazilian relations that eventually went sour. The government had then repurposed her as a tour guide for Western groups. She was apparently very surly and claimed to love Germany very much, but on the penultimate day of the trip had confessed to Ziegred that she hated living in East Germany and was jealous of American freedom.
Part of me wishes that I had been able to see East Germany before the wall fell, only because (fortunately) that Orwellian type of world is completely unknown to me. It seems almost funny that a government would have that much control over citizens’ lives. I couldn’t imagine living in a country where grocery stores only had access to a single item a day. As David pointed out, the seductive part of the American life is the immense amount of choices that are available to us every single day. I choose to eat anything I want, listen to any music, or wear whatever clothes. Instead of controlling its citizens using laws and a secret police, American imperialism comes from the stuff we produce. Everyone wants stuff: cars, clothes, jewelry, and therefore keeps out dying currency afloat. The American government controls people by the production of enticing goods.
Anyways, that’s totally off the topic of biomes. Like always, we were brought back to the tasks at hand and had a discussion of the journey in literature and Boreal Forests, glaciers, and wetlands in Alaska. Sometime in the next few days, we will be going to the Peat Bogs of Alaska and we’ll do observations there (though they aren’t called bogs… they have another strange name that I’ve put in my field journal).
Denny also reminded us about the individual project we have to write a proposal for – basically, a study plan to outline how we’re going to observe and what we’re going to observe for the next fourteen weeks. These classes are really my first introduction to what Swaffie calls “macrobiology” – the other bio classes I’ve taken have been really been focused on microbiology. Everyone else has individual projects about trees, or animals, or flowers. I’m embarrassed to admit that what I’m really interested in is not as uh… traditionally cool… like whales or monkeys. I hope there is a way to incorporate my love of microalgae into my individual project.
After classes, we were all completely starving. For dinner, we had a turkey-noodle soup made from the roasted turkey from two nights ago. The absolutely best part of our meal thus far was tonight’s Bavarian Apple Torte. It was a buttery pastry crust topped with an eggy custard and spiced apples and it was absolutely amazing. I could have eaten the whole torte by myself.
The crust is made by putting four cups of flour in a bowl, making a hole in the middle, then put two eggs and a cup and a half of sugar into the eggs. Mix the egs and the sugar until they are very mixed. Then mix the flour into the eggs, then take two sticks of unsalted butter, slightly soft, and cut them into the mix. Add the sticks one at a time, cover each with the flour mix. Then using your hands, you mix it well, kneading it until it becomes a ball. At this time, flatten it into a pan and up into the side. Bake the crust in the oven for ten minutes at 375F. The filling is with 24 ounces of cream cheese and three eggs, half of a cup of sugar, and half a cup of almond flavoring. Mix until very creamy with a mixer or whisk. Pour into crust and bake for 375F for 15 min. Then put almond slices, and thinly sliced apples with sugar and cinnamon on top, cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 20 min at 350.
I would like to write down what we’re planning on doing tomorrow, but to be honest I have absolutely no idea. Denny and David and Zeigred are extremely organized, and it is nice to just go with the flow and be surprised at the next day’s events. It allows me to really enjoy the present, but I guess I have that luxury because each moment of this trip has been so novel. By the time I left USC this semester, I really wanted to move on to the next event. I felt like I had spent too much time in one place. But now, everything is just a complete whirlwind of uniqueness. In a few days, I will go from snow and cold to beautiful hot Hawaii to lay on the sandy beaches and look at Volcanoes.

1541 Miles Traveled


This morning, we were in the van by ten in the morning, and picked up one more student from the airport. Zypy had arrived the previous evening, and was unfortunately unable to contact any of the group. Immediately thereafter, we drove about five minutes to the adjacent wetlands.
The first thing I noticed about the wetlands was the a few dogs and owners wandering around the beginning of the path. Several stray tennis balls strewn along the path. Many owners neglected to clean up after their pets, and the path was lined with another leftover of the canine visitors, despite the signs warning that dog poop carried diseases that would infect local wildlife.
Perhaps the high number of dogs caused the lack of waterfowl, because as we wandered through the seemingly endless miles of wetlands, there were very few birds. However, our hike was rewarded when we came across two huge bald eagles sitting on a dead log just feet off the trail. We sat and watched them for a few minutes, and many of our adept photographers in the group shot gorgeous pictures.
The wetlands were surprisingly bare, with few species of plants or animals. We saw evidence of land otters – little rounded cat-like tracks with distinct tail drags. The grass was yellowy-brown, and had been blown into a flat mat over the land. A stalky plant with dried flowers similar to those of Queen Anne’s Lace lined the trail closer to the estuary. The particular wetlands we walked through were brackish, where a freshwater river met the ocean.
I was interested in the green, stringy algae that grew in shadowy places throughout the wetlands. Initially, I thought that the water contained very high levels of algae, because it was a cloudy gray-green, but Denny told me that the color in the water came from all the erosion. We walked to the edge of the water, where low-tide created mud flats. Red, ribbony seaweed had washed ashore, carrying barnacle-covered mussels with it.
After about two hours of exploration, we walked back to the cars (a blue mini-van and a huge white fifteen-passenger sketchy van), and made our way to the Mendenhall Glacier just outside of Juneau. The glacier was one huge wall of brilliant blue ice, and drained into a frozen lake that was also fed by a roaring waterfall. What was so surprising about the weather was the unceasing change. Clouds completely covered the glacier when we first arrived, then it was crystal clear, and then there were streaks of fog, and then it was clear, and then it was foggy once more. All of this weather occurred in about an hour.
I gleaned several important pieces of information gleaned from an eleven-minute video we were shown. Heavy snowfall, consistently cold weather, and lots of time are necessary to make a glacier. The snow compacts into ice with a very unique molecular structure that absorbs all but blue ice. The ice gathers and forms a field, which then leaks down gaps in the mountain range due to its immense weight. Almost all of the glaciers in Alaska are receding right now, including the Mendenhall. Since 1935, the glacier has receded over a mile! However, the rate of melting has slowed in the last ten years. Significant evidence, the guide and video told us, pointed to human actions as being the impetus for these changes.
Some glaciers in Alaska are actually becoming larger. Initially, one would think this would be evidence for the randomness of the glaciers’ changes. Interestingly, the weather has actually become warm enough at the top of some peaks for it to snow in places that previously had no snow. The increased build-up of snow in some places has caused some glaciers to grow.
After we left the glacier visitor center, we had half an hour to walk around. While this sounds like a very fun and enticing activity, all of the trails and paths were covered in solid ice. The braver half of the group made it about thirty feet down the trail, slipping and sliding all the way. Having only one really functional hand made me wary of skidding down an icy hill.
We once again piled into the extremely hot, humid, and crowded vans and went to the Alaska State Museum. Historic and contemporary art was displayed, as well as a handful of stuffed eagles and wolves. The coolest part of the museum was a six foot globe with different views of the earth, the moon, and Mars projected using four projectors that showed satellite maps that displayed hurricanes, precipitation, and forest fires throughout our world and others.
Finally, we went to downtown Juneau so those who are of age could drink in the historic Juneau hotel. I wasn’t able to enjoy this historic site, so I had some tea at a local coffee shop with a few others who were on the trip. We also stopped in a local gag shop and looked at some nicely crafted glassware. This most interesting part about this part of the day was a man I saw drinking some coffee. He had a chest-length beard, feathery eyebrows, and was wearing a fur outfit with his head wrapped in a colorful headband.
Around 5:15, we went to the grocery store, picked up some wild salmon, and now we are back at the Shrine about to have some salmon with brown butter scallion sauce. I made the salad, but at this moment I’m sitting in front of the fire drinking some Merlot we picked up at the grocery store. It’s been another great day, and I’m excited for tomorrow!