November 28, 2005

Soyan vs. the Volcano

…And the volcano won.

Promises of seeing flows of hot lava, peering into an active volcano crater, and the ability to slide down in carved ice chutes led us to hike up Volcan Villarica, located in the Villarica National Park in Pucon, Chile. It´s a perfect, cone shaped volcano, snow capped with smokey white fumes coming out of the top.

This was by far one of the toughest hikes I have ever done.

We went with a tour company with about 20 people, 8 of us f rom Hostel Victor (had a really pleasant stay there meeting nice people). They provided all the gear, outerwear, boots and backpacks, so each group trekking up the volcano looked like serious, uniformed mountaineers. I was excited to use crampons, which attach to the bottom of your boots and consist of 2 inch metal spikes to allow you to walk directly on ice. By the end of the hike, I fervently thought they were one of mankind´s greatest inventions. I also learned to use an ice axe. These scary looking things are useful to help walk up in ice, as well as indispensible for stopping you if you should slide down a mountain.

In just 5 miles, we climbed 3900 ft straight up . It was extremely steep (it serves as a ski resort in the winter), covered in snow and ice, with a fresh layer of snow that had fallen the night before. We had bad luck with the weather that morning as well, as the winds were so high that the ski lifts could not run, which added an extra 1.5 hrs to the hike to the summit. We braced ourselves as gusts of wind would whip snow and small pellets of ice at us. Clouds and fog swirled among us, alternatively giving us glimpses of sun, fog, and complete whiteout conditions. I had never experienced a whiteout before- it really is so white that it´s impossible to tell the difference between the surface and air. People in my own group disappeared from view only 5 ft in front of me. It was so windy (30-40mph) that we had to camp out in a shelter for 30 minutes to wait for it to clear.

Despite all this, there were some amazing things on the volcano. It was the first time I had hiked up above the cloud layer, and was rewarded by sun and a clear view of the volcano peak, with its plumes of sulphuric smoke. I experienced more types of snow than I thought possible in one hike :powder, corn (looks exactly like little styrofoam balls that break off bigger chunks), slush, thin layer of ice over snow, thick layer of ice over snow, packed snow, etc…

One of the coolest sounds I will remember is that of the tinkling cascade of ice shards down the volcano every time the crampons dug into the thin ice layer on top of the snow.

When we got closer to the top, a funny burning, acidic feeling in my throat and lungs appeared. So, this is what it was like to breathe sulphur fumes. Pretty unpleasant, and tough going as we were working very hard to hike up. We were then told that the winds were too strong, blowing the gases further afield, so we wouldn´t be able to make it any closer to the crater. To add insult to injury, we also wouldn´t get to slide down the ice chutes either. By that time I was less interested in reaching the top, and completely devastated by the overwhelming burden of actually having to walk all the way back down the volcano. In total, it was 7.5 hours straight up on ice, slush and powder, plus 3 hours to return to the bottom.

I am glad to have done it, but I don´t think I have the heart of a mountaineer in me. It struck me more of a journey of personal determination, and of browbeating myself to continue and not give up. There was nothing to look at on the way up except my feet. No birds or trees, plants or even lichen. Just perfect, icy, whiteness.

November 20, 2005

Easter Island, Moai Madness


I have always wondered what it would feel like to be in the absolute middle of nowhere.

The sad truth is… I felt a lot like being at any other major tourist spot, surrounded by backpackers, badly dressed British and German tourists, and enterprising locals.

Easter Island is in the middle of the Pacific ocean, 2500 miles from both Chile in the east and Tahiti in the west. It is a volcanic island only 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, with a few trees, about 3000 locals, and of course, the famous stone statues of the giant heads, the Moai. To avoid the hordes and tour buses (and to get some cool photos without a million people in them), Jonathan and I rented at 4X4 jeep and drove on the only road in search of the different sites.

The Moai were full of surprises for me. I learned that all of the statues were destroyed or toppled during a period of civil war sometime in the 19th century. There are a few restored Moai, but the majority remain fallen and crumbly. And contrary to all the photos I´ve seen, the the Moai are not only heads…they have torsos, and hands with long fingers wrapping around their round bellies. They sometimes also are adorned with huge topknots made of a reddish stone, quarried from a different part of the island. Furthermore, I also didn´t expect that there so many of them. We saw at least a hundred Moai in different stages – half carved, carved but half buried and sticking out of the quarry, transported but not erected, or erected but toppled over. They ranged in size as well, with some as tall as 20 meters, weighing over 100 tons.


The 15 restored ones at Ahu Tongariki are imposing, facing inland to watch over the island. Why they were made, and how they were transported and erected remain a subject of speculation. I learned an immense amount, and the Moai are very impressive.

And the Moai had another surprise for me…it almost a let down to be physically seeing the statues, after all the photos and the buildup. Easter Island lived in my mind as some far off place I never expected to see, and yet I was there, and it didn´t feel so unusual or exotic, even though there were these mad giant stone heads. I walked into the supermarket and was able to buy more products with brands that I recognized (Doritos, Cadbury, etc) than I could find in small towns in Argentina. They even had soy and oyster sauce for sale!

On our second day, we were excited to explore a different side of the island, the northern face. We were told that there were no roads there, so we took a taxi to the other side of island, and hiked back. When we started, we had some sort of trail, but that soon disappeared into farmland, and we found ourselves climbing over barbed wire fences, gates and stone walls to stay close to the coast.

While the views were spectacular, with the rough Pacific ocean waters crashing onto the black volcanic rock, the 12 mile hike was more notable for the most horses and cows I have ever seen in my life. They were everywhere on this side of the island, hundreds grazing or taking naps, and newly born foals and calves fumbled after their mothers. I couldn´t believe that being in the middle of nowhere would be so…normal. I felt (unreasonably I know) that there should at least be some exotic wildlife, unique to the island. Horses? Cows? Heaps of cow and horse crap? This was Easter Island?

I think that my fantasy of being in the middle of nowhere has been blown and needs to be revised. I think that¨middle of nowhere¨ probably isn´t related to geographical isolation anymore, especially with our global economy and ease of transportation. I´m looking forward to the rest of the trip to see what else I will find.

November 5, 2005

The best $2 car wash ever

Before returning our rental car, we decided to get it washed. After driving on dirt and unpaved roads through mountain towns for 6 days, it looked really grimy, and we wanted to make sure it didn´t look like it had scratches before returning it to Hertz.

We pulled into the small rural town of San Augustin de Valle Fertil, and found a car wash (Lavadero). We were thinking of a quick rinse on the outside, just to remove some of the dirt and mud. When we were quoted a price of 6 pesos (US $2), we thought, fine, expecting a 5 minute wash.

We got out and stood waiting while he started with a hose. Then, he opened the doors and handed me my backpack and asked us to remove the things inside. We looked at each other, and realized he was going to clean the inside of the car as well.

After we stood for 15 minutes in the hot sun, we saw that he started to take out the floor mats and wash them. At this point, we began to grow concerned. Wet carmats would take time to dry. We told him that we were going to buy some water across the street, and he said fine, it would only be THIRTY more minutes.

Two men washed, soaped, rinsed, vacuumed and detailed the car for over 45 minutes. They cleaned the trim around the internal gasket of the trunk, the rearview mirrors, the door frames. We couldn´t believe the attention that the car was getting. I was so used to machine Scrub-a-Dubs, and those cost $10 just for a quick run through.

The car was spotless and gleamed beautifully – what a shame that it was only a rental!

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. :)

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