Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Sinking of the MV Explorer

Many of you may have heard that on November 23, the MV Explorer sank while sailing near the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica. For those of us who have worked on expedition vessels, this event was as tragic as the loss of a loved one. The Explorer, known affectionately as "the little red ship", was the first expedition vessel built for eco-cruising. Lars-Eric Lindblad had her built especially for the Antarctic and it is somewhat fitting that she now resides in that special place.

I took this photo of Explorer while we were sailing on the Amazon River in Brazil between Manaus and Iquitos, Peru.

Many people I have sailed with through the years we on board when this tragedy happened. Bengt Wimar was the captain at the time of her sinking and I sailed with Bengt numerous times to Svalbard, the Mediterranean, and the Amazon and Caribbean. Leif Skog, who was not on board at the time, was interviewed and quoted extensively in the press after the sinking, and questioned if "only ice" could have played a part. We all know that ice oftentimes holds rocks as inclusions from the icebergs land based, glacial origins.

We will forever remember this happy ship and all of the wonderful memories she gave to literally tens of thousands of lucky travelers. To think of her beneath 3,300 feet of icy water is a painful thought.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Big Flagstaff Snow Storm, December 10 and 11, 2007

It just kept
coming down.

Just like the old days!

Lovin' it!!

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Fabled Galapagos Islands!

Our whirlwind trip "Around The World" came to a fitting end while cruising in the Galapagos Islands. It was here in 1835 that Charles Darwin observed finches that had altered their beaks slightly on different islands. They had done this to access the seeds that they ate, themselves having evolved differently on each island. I gave a final lecture on "Darwin, the Geology of the Galapagos, and Future Trend in Climate Change", as we cruised to four different islands in our three night stay here.

As I sit here at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix and wait for my final flight home, I am reminiscing about this fantastic journey "Around the World". We traveled 28,266 miles on the private jet and together with the extra miles on my two commercial flights, the total mileage is over 32,000 miles. All in three+ weeks too! Certainly, it's not the number of miles that harbor the rewards. It is the experiences and the impressions that I am moved to write about. I truly feel that 'we don't take trips' so much as 'trips take us'! And this one seems to have changed me in very subtle ways. Unlike a very few of my fellow passengers, who seemed to too easily get miffed when things didn't go as planned or places did not resemble the familiar surroundings of their home, I chose to look first at each place and culture, without too quick a judgement of what it was. I chose to see what these 10 countries had to offer in terms of their unique lifeways and differing worldview. In Egypt, the newspapaers always write passionately and informatively about topics of world significance. Thus, their population is extremely engaged in world and local affairs. (I say this as the television monitor here in Phoenix updates me regularly on the last movie star arrest or some such item that sounds like so much "fluff"). In Viet Nam, the people look forward to growing both their national and personal economies - so that their larger society can benefit and move forward. There is less of an emphasis on personal gain there. Iran also is passionate about their position in the world and to me it looked a lot like America - divided politically and socially. The huge difference there is that they actually know something about America, Just about every American I spoke to about Iran had only an evil idea about the place - as if the people there had three heads or something. Ironically, the Iranians seemed to love Americans but were confused about our governments' attitude towards them! Togo and Benin were certainly a step back in time as people there live simply and grow their own food for the most part. Poor, friendly, and quite content with their lot in life. And the Galapagos was like another planet with the fresh lava flows, surreal creatures, and familiar desert air.

As I think about all of this (admittedly too much stimuli in such a short period of time), I realize how blessed I am to have all of these wonderful and unique travel opportunities, and how lucky I feel to get out there and actually learn something about other places. It is so rewarding to see first hand how other people live and think, rather than have someone else (the media, my government, a corporation) tell me what it's like out there. I can assure you - anything you think you might know about some place is invariably just a sterotype that gets imprinted in our brains as a "truth", when actually it is nothing like the truth. I wish that every American could go to Iran and talk to the people there. I hope everyone gets the chance to see the Great Pyramids in Egypt, the temples of Kyoto, and experience the hospitality of the Moroccan people. If they did there would be a lot less suspicion in the world and much more love.

Enjoy these pictures of the Enchanted Islands! And thanks for reading and commenting on the blog! South America starts January 11 but who knows, I may write more in my cyber-manuscript.

The Galapagos Legend - A Very Happy Ship!

A view of Isabela Island and some of her lava flows. This is the largest of the 13 major islands and is oftentimes active with running lava.

Here is a close-up look at a pahoehoe lava flow on Fernandina Island. You can almost imagine it moving.

These marine iguanas were having a party on the rocks at Santiago Island.

These are some of the incredible cactus to be seen in the Galapagos.

On little visited Rabida Island, we saw some prickly pear cactus that grew on tall columns. This one was flowering!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Salvador Brazil

Our first stop in the southern hemisphere is the old capital of Brazil, Bahia de Salvador. Once the port for the slave trade and the sugar fazenda's (farms), Salvador has retained much of its old colonial charm as seen in the following pictures. I have been here many times before but it is nice to come back and see it so much more spruced up.

Street scene in Salvador. Our hotel is visible on the far skyline and is an old convent that has been converted into a five star property (the cheapest rooms here are $600). Too bad we're so busy during the day and have to be away seeing things. I would love to be here with Helen and live it up with her at this place!

These women are part of the old culture of Salvador and walk the streets letting folks take their pictures. The weather is quite tropical but we are experiencing a "cool" spell while here and the temperature is only about 80 degrees.

We took a nice all day drive inland to the little towns of Santo Amaro, Cachoeira, and Sao Felix. This is a view of Cachoeira along the banks of ParaguaƧu River. It's colonial architechture is more preserved than in Salvador.

We visited a very colorful market and saw all kinds of exotic fruits, which here are as common as apples and oranges to us. These are cashews believe it or not. The nut is inside the stem of the fruit, which must be roasted before eating. They are quite fresh and delicious!

We also visited a cigar making facility where they are hand rolled in the old fashioned way. I like the idea of a good cigar but in the last few years smoking them has made me a little bit sick so I avoid them now. Still, the fresh tobacco did smell good.

I will not be able to make a timely posting from our ship as we sail around the Galapagos Islands for the next three days, so I'll probably add some photo's of that stop by the end of the weekend. Thanks to everyone who has posted comments or written to me personally about the narrative and the pictures. I'm becoming quite the techie with my new digital camera and my wireless laptop computer. Geez, I surprise myself!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Visiting Tropical Africa - Togo and Benin

I hope you won't mind if I do not write too much. The trip is nearing its end and to tell you the truth, I am exhausted. Remember that I returned from 23 days in Nepal trekking to Everest Base Camp and then after only 3 days at home, traveled for this trip. I'm still having fun but will let some pictures do the talking!

I will say that after visiting Togo and Benin, no one on this trip will think of a place like Iran as being so "different". Tropical Africa is a colorful and hectic world unto itself and must be experienced to be believed. The roads are poor, nothing seems to work properly, and there is virtually no wealth. Yet the people endure and smile easily. A tough stop for some indeed on our trip but one that puts many of our previous stops into clearer focus. Each trip has its own cadence and lessons to be learned - if only we allow ourselves to be moved by the things we see, hear, and touch.

Here is our jet on the tarmac in Lome, Togo. We used it to fly 250 miles for a day trip to Benin on Nov. 12.

We got to see a voodoo ceremony in Togo's capital, Lome. These are some of the women who were entranced by the music.

Children love to have their picture taken here and fight for preferential positions in front of the lens. They seem to always respond to adults (like me) who make faces at them so they'll do the same!

This is a rather poor view of the Togoliese countyside. The annual wind off of the Sahara Desert brings much haze to this part of Africa this time of year and visibility was quite poor. However, you can get a sense for what the Sahel looks like (Sahel is the transition from Sahara Desert to tropical areas). This picture was taken on the way to Benin in NE Togo.

Here is a view of a Somba house in Benin. These very odd looking stuctures are made of adobe and the cones at the top are granaries for storing millet, soybeans, and other grains. We saw lots of these and got to go inside for a peek.

Ceremonial cones in the front of the houses.

Africans love to dance and it seemed that everywhere we went they were dancing. Some was pre-arranged for our benefit but this one was totally spontaneous under a big tree. The guides had to give an impromptu payment for this one. Quite colorful and too bad there is no video to hear it!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Fez, Morocco

Here are some images of Fez, Morocco and its bustling medina. The medina in Arabic is simply “the neighborhood” and the medina of Fez is the most intact of all the medina’s in north Africa. The Fez medina contains over 9,000 streets of medieval age. These are nothing more than narrow alleyways, some only 4 feet wide, that bustle with all kinds of vendors and buyers. The medina is divided into certain sections - the vegetable market, the clothing area, scissors sharpening area, you name it. It was such an exciting walk to go through this 9th century city, all of it still enclosed by a wall 10 miles long. I’ll let some of the photo’s speak for themselves. Of course, they cannot recreate the sounds of the donkey hooves on the limestone streets, the smells of the falafel cooking, or the cll to prayer that wafts over it all five times a day. One other thing - Morocco was the very first country that officially recognized the independence of the United States and they are very proud of this fact. We have met such genuinely friendly people here, some who have said to me personally that they wish for exceedingly good relations between our two countries - and that the tone of our government will change soon.

The Medieval Wall Around Fez

A Fez Medina Scene

Narrow Alleyway in the Medina

Colorful Vegetable Stand

Working Colorful Fabric

Old Man Sitting in Doorway in the Medina

A Delicious Selection of Dates

Magic Carpets Taking a Rest in the Sun

Egypt - The Land of the Pharaohs

The storied land of Egypt has long beckoned travelers whose insatiable appetite to see and experience the world’s oldest existing monuments can be fed. Earlier this year, a new “Seven Wonders of the World” were chosen and only the Pyramids at Giza actually remain standing from the original list and of course were included in the new one. They are that spectacular! Ever since Alexander the Great conquered this land in the 4th century BC, outsiders have come and marveled at the impressive tombs of the Pharaohs (the Pyramids) and other colossal sculptures, columns, and mausoleums. Egypt has a long familiarity of seeing foreign travelers within her borders and today is no exception. Millions of tourists from every continent swarm the many temples, pyramids and columns of this ancient civilization.

We landed at Cairo’s huge airport on Tuesday, November 6 and proceeded to Giza for a view of her three pyramids. The late afternoon light was a sight to behold! Later, our group enjoyed a private dinner within a huge tent while the sun set in the western desert. Here is a picture of me at the pyramids just after the sun went down. Most of the original smooth limestone facing on the these giant tombs has been reutilized by the countless later cultures who saw them as a good source of precut rock rather than something to preserve for future generations.

Wednesday, November 7 was spent looking at many spiritual sights within Old Cairo. We went to Sultan Hassan Mosque, a Jewish synagogue and a Coptic church where the Holy Family was aid to have slept. (Apparently George Washington never made it to Egypt and records of him having slept near Cairo have not been recorded). At each sight, hawkish vendors pleaded with us to but postcards, pyramid statues, pharaoh pens, or papyrus bookmarks. “I give you bery goot pryce”, is a sentence we will not soon forget. And good prices they were. The streets of Cairo teem with people - 18 million in all! That was the population of the whole country in 1950!

Thursday November 8 we drove south along the NIle to the first capital of Egypt, Memphis. Here we saw one of the earliest sculptures in all of Egypt, the Sphinx of Memphis. That’s me again standing in from of the Sphinx (I’ve been asked to include more pictures of myself in these writings so I’m trying). Next we went a short distance to the Step pyramid, the oldest in all of Egypt. The pharaoh buried in here actually built the pyramid by accident - he wanted a one layer tomb abut then to outdo a previous king, had a second layer built on top and decided to keep going up with a total of six layers in all. Other kings followed suit and pyramid structures are a hallmark of ancient Egypt.

Our hotel was the fabulous Four Seasons right on the banks of the Nile. Next it’s on to the city of Fez in Morocco!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Traveling the "Axis of Evil"

So let’s see. So far we’ve been to Japan, our feared adversary in WW II, Vietnam, no need to elaborate there, India, threatening to steal every American job, and now Iran, part of the so-called ‘Axis of Evil”. Perhaps this trip should be called “Around the World to Countries We’ve Bombed or Would Like To Bomb”. Even with a title like that you could still probably find 74 people to fill the seats on Explorer I (the name of our Boeing 757).

The anticipation of this stop by everyone here cannot be overstated. Many people, including myself, signed on specifically for the chance to go to Iran, a country that very soon will likely be closed to international travel for years to come. Admittedly, we are seeing an extremely small slice of this vast country - larger and more varied than the state of Alaska. However, we are immersed in the heart of one of Iran’s biggest and most important cities, the ancient capital of Esfahan. We have been able to walk the streets freely and look into shops, have numerous strangers come up to us and say, “We like America”, and listen to a host of local guides who have been well spoken, gracious, and as honest as they can possibly be in a country that would possibly imprison them for speaking out too forcefully against the regime.

I wish I could somehow make it so that more Americans would travel, especially to the places with such emotionally laden names: Viet Nam, Cuba, Iran. These names, so charged with powerful emotions and patently distorted truths, prevent us from realizing that these countries are mostly normal and very much like our own. One man on our trip, evidently allowing the word Iran to hinder his perspective, asked on the way here, “Do they have post cards in Iran”?

We have not gotten to go out into the desert to see the landscape - our entire focus here is cultural and historical. I don’t mind that but the bits of the Zagros Mountains that I can see from my 4th floor hotel room look exactly like the mountains west of Tucson. Oh, how I’d love to check it out. There is a large river flowing through Esfahan (situated at an elevation of 5,100 feet), which has made life possible here. The pistachios are delicious! The yogurt is sour and thick. I love the kebabs but steer away from the orange juice which is Tang.

We have visited ornate bridges across the river and some of the many great mosques that once made this city such an international destination (this year perhaps as few as 500 Americans will travel to Iran as tourists). We have learned how the two branches of Islam - Sunni and Shi’ite - originated and learned that Iran and Iraq are where most of the Shi’ites live. It all started just days after the prophet died in 632 AD. (Oh for the want of a single male heir)!

The city is clean beyond description and is beautifully landscaped. It is cleaner than most cities I have ever visited. The people seem quite cosmopolitan, not unlike those of Buenos Aires, Argentina. They dress smartly although younger people are starting to wear more t-shirts. All women have to wear a veil over their hair (not their faces) and must wear a gown over their clothes that neutralizes their shape. Since most of the women on our trip despise being told what to wear, I put on slacks and a jacket when touring - it was a sign of support for them and made me look more dressed like most Iranian men. It all looks very Islamic on the streets but this is not a strongly religious place.

In fact, much of the antigovernment sentiment in this country is centered here. Like our own country, Iran has mixed feelings about it’s leadership, although here his negative ratings are 50%, rather than the 70% in our own country. Iran, like any place and despite the image that is being foisted upon us by certain politicians, does not represent a single minded front. After being here, I am appalled by the appellation “Axis of Evil” that was given to Iran. These people are warm, quick to smile, clean, sophisticated, knowledgeable, and curious. Evil they are not. Bad elements that we are not seeing due to time constrains must certainly exist here. But as I listen to many of the comments by some of the crowd on our bus, I think there will be a good number of more open American minds towards this endlessly fascinating place. And yes, there are post cards.

One woman on our trip told her mom she was going to Iran. Her mother pleaded with her not to go. She could not understand - ‘It’s so dangerous!’ Weeks later, her mom asked her if she had changed her mind and the daughter said, “Yes, I’ve decided now that I’m going to Persia”. Her mother was ecstatic and encouraged her to visit all of the wonderful monuments and cultural sites there was to see in such a storied land.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

More India!

Our local guide here was telling us about the arranged marriages that still are a way of life throughout India. 90% of all marriages are still arranged by the parents of Indian children in close consultation with Hindu priests. Our guide told us that there are 36 characteristics that the parents use to determine if a marriage might be compatible. He didn’t name those characteristics but I was curious what they were.

Of course, ideas like arranged marriages tend to be met with much skepticism from Westerners. This is especially true of Americans who have such a deep sense of rugged individualism stamped upon their psyche (and without much awareness that this is so). As I sit on the bus and listen to narratives such as this throughout our trip, I can almost feel the anxiety that rises in many people as they hear about such a strange custom such as arranged marriages.

So after the talk about how it all works, I asked the guide privately what are some of the 36 characteristics that are used to arrange a marriage. I was interested in knowing some of the more arcane ones - things like caste and economic compatibility were easy for me to imagine as important but if there were 36 of them, their might be rather funny ones. Then he told me that no, the 36 characteristics actually come from the comparison of the boys and girls horoscope and these detailed comparisons are what necessitate the need for the Hindu priest. Only he can see that deeply into the horoscope for compatibility.

Well, I looked behind me and another woman who had been listening intently had the same idea that I did - namely that compatibility of horoscopes couldn’t possibly be that great of a predictor for the success of a marriage. And yet divorce in non-urban India is so negligible an occurrence that it can’t even be given as a percentage!

As I discussed this further with the woman on our trip, we both agreed then that it couldn’t be compatible horoscopes that made marriages work in India, but that perhaps this society incorporates values in everyday living and upbringing that are not “disposable”. Perhaps young people here are better prepared at developing successful relationships no matter who their partner is that is chosen for them. The guide who told us this story also related that he first met his wife and two days later they were married! He also told us that parents everywhere want only the best for their children so they will naturally choose the best wife or husband for them. It’s all very strange to us but part of the real magic in learning about how other people arrange their lives and societies. I love this kind of learning, since I believe most of us in our country are being fed reams of self-indulgent propaganda regarding our own self importance.

Rajasthan, India

November 3 - Rajasthan

Our jet landed in the Indian desert province of Rajasthan on November 2. At once we were whisked away by small bus 80 miles north into a remote section of desert where we were to spend the night in a luxurious tented camp. Enclosed is a picture of the tent encampment, which has 30 tents in all (each complete with its own private bath and king size bed), a huge dining tent, and a caravan of 50 riding camels and their drivers. We took a short ride on camels to the top of a sand dune and enjoyed a cocktail while the sun set over the Rajasthani Desert! Afterwards a dinner with Indian folk music and dance was followed by a fantastic fireworks show over the star studded night sky. This is my 13th jet trip and I am still continually surprised and impressed with the attention to detail we get on these trips!

After a night in the desert, we awoke to melodic flute music that came from a camel-pulled cart, that also delivered hot tea to us in bed. I watched the sunrise from the lounge chair in front of my tent. After breakfast we were in jeeps heading out into the landscape to meet some local people. This girl greeted us at a private home. I think you can sense the genuine nature of these people from the photo, poor by our standards for sure, but poor only with respect to the amount of things they own. Everyone here is quick to smile and they wave at us with true enthusiasm. It is shocking really to see such pure, simple joy in people’s hearts! There may be some truth that the more one has, the more they worry about losing it?

I have waxed on and on about the comforts of this trip but just three weeks ago I was with Helen camping on a trek in the backcountry of Nepal. I didn’t shower for 12 days and that was great too. Besides the luxuries of this trip, there are occasions to interact with some of the 74 people who paid $55,000 to come on the trip. Tonight I met a man who claimed to be the 2nd-ever shareholder in Starbucks. Another man raises exotic animals on his Texas ranch. Someone else once owned the Kansas City Southern Railroad. These are certainly the “Titans of Business” but that doesn’t necessarily preclude some pretty visceral conversations about everything from economics, to the state of the U.S. today, to the rare talks about red sandstone (of which there is lots here in Rajasthan). Those are great moments when there are “real” conversations and I seek them out whenever I can.

I’ve been surprised to learn just how many folks on this trip are genuinely concerned about this war in Iraq. You wouldn’t think that anyone in this economic class would feel that way, but I’m finding that many of them do. It is heartening (to me) to learn that not everyone in our country automatically buys into the message that is given to us by our so-called “leaders” and media. A surprising number of folks on this trip are making their own determinations about the direction our country is taking. It’s time for every American, no matter what your political leanings or affiliation, to start asking some hard and unpleasant questions about our standing in the world, how our actions are perceived by other people and other nations, and what the true costs of this war really are. (Here's a clipping from the English "Japan Times" that we read in Kyoto).
Anyone who just blindly accepts the notion that our president could never lead us on the wrong path needs to start questioning that. History shows us that once governments perceive the need to “protect their interests”, they behave irrationally to acheive that end. Having said all of this, here is a direct quote from one of our passengers at the last cocktail party in Viet Nam - “I’m a Republican, I don’t have to think”. Comments certainly welcome.

After the tented camp evening, we came to the blue town of Jodhpur and were treated to a stay at one of the most magnificent hotels I have ever been at - the Umaid Bhawan Palace. It is a true mahjaraja’s palace -
he lives in the south wing (right side of photo) and the other 314 guest rooms are opposite to this (left). It is true palace! In Jodhpur is also a “fort” constructed in 1459 and we toured this magnificent structure which sits atop a 500 foot hill overlooking the city. I am almost at a loss of words for this stop.

Next stop is Iran (ee-RAHN). Stay tuned!

More Viet Nam

November 1, 2007

Viet Nam receives anywhere from 100 to 120 inches of rain a year (three times the amount of Seattle or New York!). One fourth of the total comes in the month of October alone. So it has not been a surprise to find rain here. As we flew into the city of Da Nang, we were treated to views of some rivers in flood. In the photo, taken upon landing in our jet, the normal river banks are shown in the upper center of the photo - all other water is flooding the low lying areas and rice paddies. To an Arizona desert rat like me, this is rain on a completely different scale than I am used to.

The rain had stopped by the time we landed. We first visited the old city of Hoi An with its narrow streets and busy market. The next day we took a two hour drive north and got to see some of the countryside. One of the highlights was traversing a four mile long tunnel, completed two years ago and financed by the World Bank. It cuts through a mountain and bypasses a narrow and winding coastal road, saving us about one hour of drive time. This tunnel was thoroughly modern in every respect. The day was spent at the imperial city of Hue where we toured some elaborate tombs and The Citadel, a maze of ancient palaces that astounded us with their size and artistic detail. I would love to post pictures of everything but there are limits to what one can do. You’ll have to wait for the slide show back home!

At the end of the day, the rain returned and our drive back was through torrents of water falling from the sky. The people do not stop their lives when this occurs - they just wear colorful plastic rain ponchos and continue on their way on motorcycles and bicycles. Amazing! The people here are kind and gentle beyond description. They embrace the dollars that we are leaving behind and show their appreciation for our visit at every turn. Yet there is an air of communal ways in this country - there is no such thing as private property, as the government owns every speck of land. You can lease the land from the government and then build a house or business on that land. You own what sits on the land and can sell it and make a profit on that. A curious blend of economic systems it is. Ho Ch Minh is still revered here and is displayed on all the bank notes.

Next on the trip will be the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India. What a juxtaposition of landscapes this will bring from tropical jungles to thorny deserts. These trips are perhaps too fast for my personal tastes but there are some pretty interesting movements that make me realize just how varied this world truly is.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

October 31 to November 2 - Good Morning Vietnam!

On Halloween, we landed in Dan Nang, Vietnam. Yes, that Da Nang and that Vietnam. I first heard the word Vietnam in 1964 from television reporter Walter Cronkite, who brought words and images from what seemed like an imaginary jungle to my 10 year old eyes. For more than 10 years, that word - Vietnam - would reverberate constantly through mine and all Americans consciousness, as our country became involved in an ever deepening cycle of useless destruction and horror. And as this place now becomes more tangible to me (well, as much as two nights on a private jet trip can make things tangible), I simply have to ask the question: What did our country actually achieve in those 11 years in Vietnam? What benefits do we as a nation still enjoy because of that foray into god knows what? Does anyone care to ask that question today? It’s really all I can think about as we tour what otherwise seems like just another easy-going tropical destination on our planet. 58,000+ American lives lost and probably at least 10 times that for the Vietnamese. And for what? What tangible benefit do we as a nation enjoy today because of that war? Please post anything you can about this and enlighten me. If the sheer idiocy of this does not strike you as horribly absurd, perhaps you should check your pulse or start asking questions of our so-called “leaders”. My comments are not meant to provoke a response with respect to what your present political beliefs are. I’d just like to know what was accomplished with that war.

When we landed at the airport yesterday, this was the scene we saw. A troupe of little girls and boys dancing for us as the carnival music blared from on old tape machine. Quite a contrast indeed from what that word, Vietnam, has formerly meant to all of us in the U.S.