December 20, 2005

South America Wrap Up

It´s been 3 months on the road in South America, and I´ve had wonderful experiences too numerous for me to devote a blog post to each. Jonathan and I had the idea to do some Top 5 lists as a way to remember each continent. So here goes…

Most surprising
1. I am doing well and enjoying the prolonged travel on the road!
2. The very clear correlation of skin color and social class.
3. Lack of vegetables to go with all that great meat.
4. How hard it is to do basic things in a foreign language.
5. What little sense I got of Chile as a culture and a country. It felt curiously bland, and very much like the US. What I have can be summed up by lemons and salsa presented at every meal, a love of hot dogs and avocados, and elaborate napkin arrangements.

Things I miss about home
1. Family and friends. Although Jonathan is probably the only person on earth I can actually spend 24/7 with, I miss everyone else too.
2. Variety of fruits and vegetables.
3. Not having to constantly think about water and its cleanliness.
4. Scientific news and intellectual stimulation.
5. Cooking.

Best Restaurant Meals
1. Kaipu – Ushuaia, Argentina. Awarded the best restaurant in Argentina, this amazing restaurant was where we celebrated our 6th anniversary, over a tasting menu featuring centolla (king crab). Most surprising of all, it was located in Ushuaia, the “end of the world”
2. La Barra - Medoza, Argentina. Amaaaaazzing bife de chorizo.
3. La Caballeriza – Buenos Aires, Argentina. Really great parrilla.
4. Izakaya Yoko - Santiago, Chile. I was desperate for ethnic food and rice, and it really hit the spot.
5. Cluny - Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hip, trendy with great service and food. A fantastic cold salmon and avocado starter.

Observations I want to remember
1. Lingering over meals. I found out that I eat incredibly fast, without really noticing. Argentines really draw out their meals, and a waiter will never bring a check without you first asking. I have even slowed down at breakfast. A basket of little rounds (1-2 inch diameter) of toast comes with jam and butter. I have to butter each round, eat it, then take another and repeat, which takes more time to eat. Instead of buttering it up all at once and chowing down like a bagel, it has slowed me down considerably and I find I enjoy the meal more and feel more satisfied in the end.

2. Focus of life doesn´t have to be work.

3. Constant learning – new words, places, geographies, cultures.

4. Learning just to be (in a very zen sense). For the first time in my life I am not working towards a goal (getting into college, getting a PhD, getting a job).

5. Walking as a primary source of transport.

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.

September 19, 2005

A Canal and the Bus “System” – Panama City

At last we are on the road and in Panama City, Panama! Our first night we stayed in a Marriott Courtyard, which made it feel very much like being in the States. However, I suddenly couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, which makes me really regret not having reviewed my Spanish tapes before coming. I’ve picked up a few new words (my favorite is la centolla (sp? king crab, very delicious).

Jonathan and I both agree that taking public transport is the best and the most authentic way to get to know a city, so we decided to take the bus to see the famous Panama Canal, at the nearby Miraflores locks (5 miles outside the city). Jonathan asked at the front desk for some help to figure out the buses. They thought we were insane – we might as well have asked them how we should tie ourselves up and be mugged. The clerk couldn’t help at all because she’d never taken the bus. A nice taxi driver standing in the lobby helped us figure it out -we were to take one bus to the main terminal at the Cinco de Mayo plaza, then transfer to another bus that would leave us a 15 minute walk away from the entrance to the Canal. Sounded straightfoward, and at 0.25 for bus fare, it was really cheap.

Evidently, public transport doesn’t work quite the way it does at home. Buses have established routes, but there aren’t any signs or numbers or any way to tell where they are going, except to ask the guy who hangs out the side of the bus collecting fares. Buses come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from vehicles that look like old VW vans to old school buses, which all have names (not relating to where they are going) decked out in spray paint art and sparkly stickers.

While we made our first leg with no problem, we got off at the Bus “terminal” which is the intersection of 3 major roads, with no clear signage or any idea where to go. Jonathan got some help from a local policeman and a woman standing at a bus stop. After a few buses, one of the buses told us yes indeed, his bus was going to the Canal. We got on, and after a short trip, we pulled into another bus terminal, where he took us off the bus and tried to hail us a cab. We politely explained to him we wanted to take the bus, and he said that you can’t walk. We told him that we wanted to be dropped off near the Canal, and that we were expecting a 15 minute walk to the entrance. He shrugged and motioned for us to get back onto the bus.

After a few more miles, he dropped us off on a main intersection, and he pointed down a road and said “Keep on walking towards the water and you’ll see it.”
While we couldn’t see the canal, there were some large shipping containers and some heavy machinery nearby, so off we went.

Within 1 minute of our getting off the bus, it started to pour. Of course, we had left our raincoats with our packs back in the hotel, and against Jonathan’s strongest wishes, I had refused to bring umbrellas on our trip (one more thing to carry around, and we have nice rain coats anyway…). Lesson 1 on the road – rain coats are no good if they are not with you.

So, in the rain, we set off down a road. After 10 minutes of walking, we started to get suspicious. There were no signs anywhere mentioning the Canal, which we thought was weird since we heard there was a large, newly constructed visitor center there. The road was ridden with potholes, with no sidewalk, and we had to keep dodging the cars coming down the road to avoid being soaked when they splashed through the giant puddles. We came to a sign saying that it was prohibited to pass the private property of the Canal. I was thinking that this was pretty sketchy, even for Lonely Planet (our guidebook that detailed how to take the bus).

We finally broke down and asked some dock workers on the other side of a fence where the entrance to the Miraflores locks were. They looked startled, and told us we were in Balboa (?) and that we were off by10 km! We walked away not sure if they were trying to mess with us or the bus driver had totally screwed us. We turned around and started to head back to the intersection to try to catch a taxi, when a car pulled up and asked us if we knew how to get to the Miraflores locks. Turns out they were tourists from El Salvador, and were lost as well.

We must have looked pitiful and wet enough that they offered to give us a ride and to find it together. There were three of them, with luggage, so I rode on Jonathan’s lap squished up against the roof. It really was another 10 km to the Canal, and we passed the sign on the side of the highway that we should have been dropped off at.

As promised, the visitor center was incredible, with lots of modern displays and interactive kiosks on the history of the Canal, and the engineering behind it. We got to watch a huge container ship start to go through the locks. Really incredible. It’s so important to shipping that boats are still built to be narrow enough able to pass through Canal. The Canal was constructed over 90 years ago, and is functioning today pretty much as it did then. Over 22,000 people died during the construction, and it was here that they discovered that the transmission of Yellow Fever was via mosquitos. An enormous cost and accomplishment all at once.

Though we could have taken the bus back, we decided to sample the Taxi system back to the the city :)