October 31, 2005

Heat shock in a 42C bath

I was really excited to check out the thermal baths at Pismanta. I chalk this up to good marketing and brochures from the San Juan tourism office, as well as my natural enthusiasm for good hot baths.

I had pictured in my head a huge rectangular pool carved into the side of a volcano, with people lounging around in a fog of steam rising from the thermal waters. Some lush, red hibiscus would be growing a little ways off in the distance.

Instead, what I found were small, indoor, private stalls with the thermal waters continuously piped in. Each stall was marked with what temperature the water was, ranging from 37-42 degrees C. (37C is body temperature). Each temperature was supposedly correllated with treatment for a specific bodily ailment (arthritis, rheumatism, etc…).

Being my geeky self, I couldn´t resist trying out the 42C bath. In lab, 42C is the magic temperature for heat shocking competent bacteria into taking up foreign DNA. I can´t count the number of times I did this to bacteria in eppendorf tubes after incubating on ice, and was psyched to actually know exactly what 42C felt like.

It took a little while to slide in. 42C is hot, almost painful, but felt great once I was all the way in. The water felt a little bit slick, kind of oily, which I think is from the minerals in it.

To my surprise, after only 5 minutes, I was absolutely roasting, and had to get out to cool off. The clerk had suggested a soaking time of 7-15 minutes, and to be careful not to be in there too long. Every part of me was giving off steam. Any longer and I would have been par boiled.

I´m glad to have done it, and it felt pretty good afterwards, though I was hot for at least an hour afterwards. 42C is for bacteria…I think next time I´ll try a degree or two cooler.

October 26, 2005

Windsurfing at 6000 ft

At an altitude of 6000 ft above sea level, the man-made lake at the Dique Cuesta del Viento in Rodeo, Argentina offers some of the best windsurfing in the world. With constant winds between 40-60 mph almost every afternoon, it is a haven for hardcore windsurfers.

Of course, that was where Jonathan wanted to go to windsurf.

We stayed at the Rancho Lamaral, a hostel near the beach with shared bathrooms, bunk beds, and free breakfasts for $10 a night. The owner (also the bartender, repair guy, and windsurfing teacher) Manuel, was warm and wonderful. He´s sort of a hippie, an ex-insurance salesman who gave it all up to run his hostel and to windsurf.

The lake is a perfect mirror of the surrounding mountains in the morning, with barely a breeze. Because of the geography, the winds come and swoop down into the valley every afternoon. The windsurfing pros come out, and it was awe inspiring to watch them zoom around and do aerial flips. The winds were so strong one afternoon that I could barely stand up straight. It was like standing in hurricane force winds- and yet, the windsurfers were out there having a blast.

I admit I was nervous about taking windsurf lessons. I really had to browbeat myself into it, overcoming my still very strong aversion to water. I literally thought to myself, “Are you a sissy? A girl? When the hell will you ever again have the chance to windsurf in the Andes at a premier windsurfing site?¨

It turns out that I have naturally good balance, and stepping on a windsurf board (la tabla) felt as stable as stepping on land. Trying to understand directions in Spanish (even with Jonathan translating) was tough: words for forward, back, rudder, bow, lean, point, swing, balance etc…

I didn´t fall in even once. Poor Jonathan had a bit of a harder time getting up on the board, but by the end of two days, we were able to get on, surf a bit in the breeze, and return to the beach reliably. The lessons were cut short once the real wind appeared.

It has become a small joke in the 3 days we were here with Manuel – he likes to say that my hair wasn´t even wet, while Jonathan repeatedly sploshed into the water (accompanied by repeated hand motions of falling over on a board). Jonathan gave me a big hug, and said ¨Te amo, pero te odio¨ (I love you, but I hate you). :)

October 25, 2005

Four hour naps, dinner at 1 am

Dinner at 1 am

It has taken me a few weeks to adjust to the Argentine schedule.

Businesses are open from 8am-1pm, and then close for FOUR hours, while everyone goes home, has lunch and a nap. They reopen at 5pm, work until 9pm.

I´ve been trying to picture this schedule if I were working in lab. I think afternoon meetings would be a whole lot more productive if people got naps beforehand :) , but it would wreck havoc with time points and experiments. There would be a lot of “how low a voltage can I get this gel to run?!”, or ¨how long can I really serum starve these cells?¨

On the other hand, this schedule means that people also eat dinner much later than I am used to. Jonathan and I were soooo proud of ourselves for sitting down at dinner at 11:30 pm at a bar, only to find that entire families , including grandma, parents, toddlers and pregnant women just were coming in as we were leaving. The babies were simply set into the strollers, the little kids ran around, just like at an Applebees. But it was 1 am, in the morning. Check out Jonathan´s take on this here.

I am still finding this hard to swallow (literally), as I am usually so full that it´s hard to have time to digest before going to sleep.

October 16, 2005

Trekking in the snow

It is one thing to see the mountains from a plane, but really another to be trekking up one of them!

We took a two day hiking trip to the mountains near Aconcagua National Park, north of Mendoza. While it is 85 degrees in Mendoza at 2000 ft above sea level, it was only about 40 degrees at 8000 ft. Some of the snow on the mountain tops has begun to melt, creating little creeks and streams flowing down the mountain.

The terrain is very beautiful, but in a severe and desolate way. At 10,000 ft, there isn´t much life to look at. We took 2 different hikes on two different days. One was to a summit, another to a ¨plata¨, a natural flat plain (at 10,500 ft) before the mountains rise again. There are only squat thorny bushes, some tufts of grass and some lichen. I wish I paid more attention to lichen in my plant physiology class. The only classification I can make now is color (ooh, a greenish patch, ooh, a black patch).

Otherwise, the terrain is rocky. Our trails tended to follow natural brooks or rivers. I am glad we had a guide – I will never complain about trail markings in the US again. There were no visible signs anywhere that I could see.

We were accompanied the second day by a famous dog, Oso, who has summitted Aconcagua 6 times, the highest peak in South America at 22,000 ft. This climb takes experienced mountain climbers 10 or more days, including trekking and time to acclimatize to the altitude. Oso has rescued lost climbers and brought them home. I could only marvel and watch in envy as he frolicked up the 25% grade. He darted up the mountain, then for fun would run down some valley, up the other side through the snow, chase a bird for a while and circle back to check on us. I was so impressed I gave him a some of my sandwich (evidently dogs in Argentina eat bread).

I love the feeling of isolation that trekking without seeing anyone or anything else brings. The sun shines in an incredibly blue sky, and I get to eat a sandwich barely being able to believe where I am.

Jonathan is honing his photography skills to new heights. The upside is that we have great photos, especially of me. :) The downside for him is that photos of him are taken either by me, or depend on strangers taking shots of the both of us. Check out his post on snow trekking.

October 12, 2005

Feliz Dia de la Madre!?

Adding to the feeling of being in a time warp (I usually have no idea what day of the week it is anymore), it will be Mother’s Day this Sunday October 16th here in Argentina. It also happens to be my mother´s birthday, which in the US, is nowhere near Mother´s Day.

We are in Mendoza, Argentina, the capital of wine country, as well as the center of excellent hiking near South America’s highest peak, Aconcagua at 22,000 ft. The Andes are spectacular – on our flight, we could see the snow covered mountain peaks jut up through the cloud layer (Taken from the airplane window).

Also, it is Spring here, since we are in the southern hemisphere. People are just emerging from Winter. This is particularly weird, becuase I know it is October at home, the time of apple picking and brisk mornings. To add to my confusion, we just came from Panama and the Caribbean, where it is still a sweltering 90 degrees with 95% humidity.

In the the tropics, it was all spaghetti strap tank tops and flip flops. Here, people are walking around in wool coats, closed toe shoes and scarves. Wherever I am, it seems, I look somewhat odd, as I try to make my 5 shirts/3 bottoms work for every occasion.

I broke down yesterday and bought a pair of jeans, the single most versatile piece of clothing known to humankind. I hadn´t brought any with me, because all of the guidebooks commented that jeans were heavy, took up a lot of space in the pack, and took a long time to dry.

Screw that. I looovve my jeans. So, I am feeling a bit more normal now walking down the street, blending in a bit better with the populace.

I am constantly reminding myself that it is spring, and that it will become summer here. Flowers are in bloom, snow is melting in the mountains, and it is October.

October=April. I´ll get it soon enough. :)

October 11, 2005

Worst Chinese Food to date

I have decided, after eating the “Chinese” food pictured here, that I will not sample any more Chinese food in the Carribean and South America if any of the following paramenters are met:

  1. 1. If I am the only Chinese person in “Chinatown”, and other tourists are delighted to see me.
  2. If no one who works in the restaurant is Chinese.
  3. If there is only a museum now to mark where Chinatown once stood.

I know that I am simply setting myself up for a downfall, but I can´t help myself. If the food were presented as “local food”, I would have no problem eating it and probably enjoying it.

It´s like expecting a thick juicy, grilled steak and instead getting steamed fish. It´s just such a totally wrong experience. It´s not bad, just not right.

So, I am going to try to stick to the local delicacies and hopefully fare better…

October 4, 2005

Thank you YMCA swim class!

I went snorkeling for the first time in my life, without a life preserver.

I can not fully express the excitement, freedom and joy I felt as I discovered that I could float, breathe, and see all at the same time. There was no panic, no distraction from the usually frantic voice in my head that told me I had to get to a safe depth before I sank and ran out of air.

Our group was taken to Dog Island in San Blas for a snorkeling trip, where only 25 ft off of the island, a small shipwreck was lodged in a sandbar. Also, there was abundant brain coral surrounding the island starting only a few feet from the beach. The water was completely clear and free of any debris. Although the visibility simply looking straight down without a mask was pretty good (I could see little fish darting around my legs), it was like being plunged literally into a different world when I put my head under water.

The colors became so much more vibrant and true, and I saw that while above the water the shipwreck looked only like a hunk of rusted metal, there was an amazing variety of fish, coral and other brightly colored organisms beneath. When I later lazily explored the edge the coral field, I floated through schools of small silver fish and some ephemeral, transparent jellyfish-like animals. I floated…no life preserver, no stress, just as easy as pie…

I also have Jonathan to thank, as he made me get out to the shipwreck in the first place. The current was somewhat strong around the wreck, and he charted a course so that I could swim, grab onto something, and then got me back to a place where I could stand with my head above the water. Even with 6 months of swim classes and knowing I can swim 50 meters without stopping, I was awfully happy to be standing on firm ground.

I have had a phobia of deep water all my life. Deep water was defined by as anything that rose above my chin. Of utmost importance was that I could still touch a surface -either the floor, or the nice comforting wall of a pool. If Jonathan even pretended to drop me in or toss me under, I would take in a huge breath and start panicking, kicking and thrashing around, and my heart would start pounding.

I have pinpointed this to two incidents. The first was when I was very young and my brothers were trying to teach me to swim, and said something like ¨if you drop her into deeper water, she´ll naturally swim¨. It is one of my first memories – looking up from beneath the water at them (lucky for them I don´t remember which three of five!) and not being able to breathe. The second time was at a trip to the Brookline High pool in third grade, where some girl decided it would be fun to sit on my shoulders, and I went under and couldn´t get her off me. I blacked out, and woke up on the bench beside the pool.

Last year for my 30th birthday, I decided that once and for all I should really be able to do something BILLIONS of other people on earth could do, and even seemed to enjoy. Damn it, I could figure out the Medicare system, I could culture embryonic chick neurons, I should be able to swim.

I enrolled in the Newton YMCA beginning swim classes last September. I knew that the three other people in my class had to want it pretty badly too, to be taking swimming classes which started at 7:40pm on a weeknight and continued through the dead of winter.

My phobia, I knew, was completely irrational. This was especially hard for me to deal with because as a scientist I spent so much of my time being so absolutely rational, methodical and analytical. It made no ¨sense¨ that I could learn the strokes, how to breathe, and then completely panic once I knew that I was beyond the five foot depth marker (a metal pole on the side of the pool marked the dropoff). My only consolation was watching the other people in the class do the same. We also all tried to be in the lane closest to the pool wall – always handy to have something to grab on to, much more solid than the lane dividers.

I am so glad that I made myself do it, and now have the real knowledge that I can swim, and that I too actually float. It´ll probably take some more time for me to completely have confidence to swim out into a big open body of water, but I think I am hooked on to snorkeling. :)

October 3, 2005

San Blas Islands

¨It looks just like the screen saver!¨

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that this was my first thought when we approached the islands by boat after getting off the plane. But it really was perfect, with clear turqouise waters, islands with swaying coconut trees and pristine white sand beaches. I blame whatever Windows version was running on my laptop at work, as I had stared at it longingly every day during the depressing, bitter, icy, winter last December/January/February/March/April…

The Archipelego of San Blas in Panama contains almost 400 islands, and is independently ruled by the Kuna Indians. The Kuna like to say that they have an island for every day of the year. They range in size from 5 square feet to the size of a basketball court to the largest at two football fields. Some of the islands are uninhabited, or have only one family, while others have larger communities -the island that we stayed on, Wichub-Wala, had 39 families.

We got a personal tour of some of the islands with our Kuna guide, using a large canoe with a motor. Each Kuna family has a dugout canoe to get around, like we would have a car. The Kuna live simply. Each family has a large thatched hut, basically one large room, with some hammocks strung up inside. Other than the hammocks, there was no other furniture. No chairs, no tables, no beds. The floor of the hut is sand, and the Kuna go barefoot. Rainwater is collected for drinking, cooking, and washing, and they trade for everything else. We heard that until the mid 90´s, coconuts were used for currency, although it is now US dollars like the rest of Panama. Each island has a school, and ensures that children are educated and can speak Spanish. The older children leave the islands to go to Panama to study, and it seems accepted that some will not continue living in the traditional ways.

Tourism is the biggest money maker. The women sell molas, these beautiful handcrafted fabric designs of different animals, which they wear around their torsos. Anytime a tourist wants to take a picture, they demand $1. It sounds that with the construction of a new road from Panama City to the area, this will only steadily increase.

Our hotel, which was made of wood with a thatch hut, was smack in the middle of the Kuna (the islands are so small it´s hard NOT to be in the middle of the village). There was a solar panel for electricity (for use only after 6pm) to power the two fluorescent bulbs. We didn´t realize what a luxury we had with running though unheated water – the Kuna have to collect water, and share a single outhouse on the outskirts of the island, which empties directly into the surrounding water. The walls were made of something that resembled bamboo, with a thatch grass roof and some wooden slat windows. Very basic, and we would find, very very hot at night (90F, by Jonathan´s trusty keychain thermometer). Also, despite our traveler´s silk sleep sheets, my first experience with bedbugs.

It felt strange – on the one hand, we were clearly walking dollar signs and they wanted us to buy things, yet at the same time, I felt like I was intruding and only barely tolerated. I think I too would be pretty unhappy to have strangers show up, gawk at me, peer into my house and keep taking pictures every two seconds. More unbelievable is that they unload cruise ships here – thousands of people at once covering every square inch of the island.

For islands which export literally tons of coconuts, there was not a single one to be found for drinking, for sale, or in the food. In fact, there are no restaurants, bars, or anywhere to buy food except for the hotel, which provided 3 meals a day. Rice/potato, fish with some canned vegetables, and either a canned pineapple ring or fresh pineapple was provided, depending on the day. The Kuna also seem to very much like ketchup, which was always a condiment on the table.

Even while we visited beaches and snorkeled and admired the lovely surroundings, my overall impression is that life is hard on these islands. I had always thought that tropical islands would be great places to live, with good weather, coconuts and fish. But there is no soil for farming (coconuts grow in sand), there is no room for livestock, no drinkable water except for rainwater, no plants to make textiles, construction materials, etc.

I can guarantee you I never thought about this stuff staying in a Sandals resort in Jamaica. Tropical paradise is only such when you have all the amenties of home. Plus lots of fruity rum drinks.