Archive for February, 2010

Easter Island

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

Easter Island

If you are after a set of surreal surprises, this might be your first choice. Think of Hawaii mixed with Chile. Where there would be a family having a luau in Hawaii, there will be a family having a luau but singing Polynesian songs in Spanish. Weird right? Another thing, I thought this place would be full of locals who loath tourists, as Hawaii is typically subject to, but the locals here couldn’t be much nicer. They are happy to see you. Even in the water.

I went for a walk to get my bearings and happened upon a surf spot. Excited to see the familiar formations, I ran down to the water. Awwwww, it sure would be nice, I thought. But I don’t have a board or fins. As it so happens, there was an enterprising young man who had all the equipment I needed. Board, fins, fin socks and even a rash guard. But I don’t even have any sun screen for my face (this was so spontaneous.) Of course, he gave me some of his own.

I paddled out in the turquoise blue water, temperature 80 degrees. The surf was 4-5 feet, peeling both left and right. The bottom, volcanic and dotted with the occasional turtle. The spot was equally lined with bodyboarders and surfers. I chatted with a 15 year old kid who was bodyboarding. He said that both sports were equally popular and respected on the island (what a thought, equality in the sea. Something we haven’t ever really had in America.) Hajive had only been bodyboarding for one year and he was already great. I blamed it on his location of perfect playful surf year round. I also met an Aussie who no lives in Poland. He is the third pilot I’ve met on my journey. He flies a falcon class private jet. Seats 8 and sleeps 6. With a 9 hour range, this little bird flies higher and faster than commercial jets and has Avionics that blow Commercial jets out of the water. His boss is on vacation with his family and they are flying all around the world. Today Easter Island, Tomorrow the Galapagos. The day after that, Miami. Pretty cool life to live. And he doesn’t have the normal setback of a corporate pilot (being on call for 3 weeks at a time) because the boss is Swiss and is extremely organized. He knows 8 weeks in advanced what his schedule will be which lends to a sustainable marriage and family.

One of my room mates is a jerk and he is from Italy. I though I’d mention him because he just got out of the shower (after spending 1.5 hours doing god knows what. Last night his alarm went off for 2 hours strait before he finally got up to turn it off.)

After a spontaneous surf session, I attempted to find my way back to my hostel. Something was about to catch up with me as I began to become lost. I had been traveling so casually for so long that I had become lazy. Who needs to remember the name of your hostel anyway? I found myself attempting to ask for directions to a hostel who’s name I didn’t bother to remember. How hard could it be? In broken Spanish, I said the following “Do you know where a hostel is that starts with a letter K in the first word and starts with the letter T in the second word of the name?” The problem was, I didn’t remember how to say “Letter” “Word” or “Starts” in Spanish.

Three hours later, I found myself speaking with some concerned neighbors who wanted to know exactly why I was wondering around in their back yard. But they didn’t meet me with American arms. They gave me the benefit of the doubt and attempted to send me on my way. Eventually I found an Internet café that I used to look up the name of my hostel. Four hours later, I was home, with a laugh. In case you wondered, the answer is yes, there is only one town in Easter Island, and it’s pretty damn small.

The next day I thought I’d have a hike to the top of the local volcano. I went in the afternoon when the island would be a bit cooler. Much to my delight, I didn’t see a single tour van, but I took the coast. I repeated my wander through people’s back yards strategy and got to see a ton of beautiful coast line that I am willing to bet most visitors don’t ever get to see.

It was a single journey, much the same as my trip as a whole. I was met with stunning electric blue that can only be found in the Pacific. In a sense, I was home. Who ever said this place was a barren waste land certainly hasn’t been here. “But all the trees are cut down. That’s the whole point of the island. The people destroyed the natural beauty in order to transport the statues to and from each site.” is what I could imagine hearing from some smarmy jerk at some future Christmas party. Some jerk who thinks he can get away with claiming to be cultured because he reads national geographic ever so often. And no one ever calls him out on it, because they pay attention the the international community even less. Well I’m here to say that the whole place ISN’T a waste land. It’s a lush paradise here. Tons of trees and greenery can be found in parts of the island. And it is a lot drier than you would think for an island in the Pacific. There aren’t any mosquitoes in the island and there tends to be a beautiful breeze that blows through it’s entirety during most hours of the day. It rains every day for about 30-45 seconds. And did I mention that the people are amazing?

As I made my way up the volcano, 3 car’s full of locals offered me rides. On the third, I was quite tired, so I accepted the offer. Expecting to pay this unmarked taxi, I reached into my pocket at the end of the ride, but the man took no interest in payment. I walked around the sacred grounds for the better part of 2 hours all alone. The golden sun swept across the fields of barley as I gazed across the vast expanse of the Pacific from 1500 feet above. There was an energy here that one must not attempt to explain or describe, only encourage others to experience. Here I was again, in one of, as far as I am concerned, the wonders of the world, with nothing else around, but me. This ME I had learnt to listen to over the past year of exploration. This me that was not just what fit into what I came from. This me who my previous world has yet to meet.

I turned around to make my way back into town as the sun was setting. Expecting a 3 hour twilight that I had received whilst as low as Antarctica, I figured that the two hour walk back into town was not going to be in total darkness. Of course, a Chilean family offered me a ride back into town. They were both teachers who Lived in Santiago. They looked for my hostel as I at pop rocks with their 4 year old daughter in the back seat. Eventually they found were I belonged and dropped me off. Not a bad day at all :)

This whole hitch hiking thing was growing to be a great way to get around, but the next day I shared a rental car with a few English kids and a Kiwi. We went all around the island to check out the Moai (the statues which make this place world famous). I’ve got to say that I’m not a big ruins person. I am not really into staring at some broken pottery and relishing it’s importance a thousand years ago. I look at beauties very literally. Wow, that wave is really blue. That fish is sleek. And so on. I like to say that most of the ruins I have seen are called ruins for a reason, they are ruined. But here is different. The Moai are incredibly aesthetic in their own right. If someone told me that a guy generated the design with a computer 3 years ago, I would still think they were really freaking cool. They just look so impressive.

Another thing that one might find impressive is the abundance of horses here. In packs that appear wild yet well kept, their rich brown color sticks out in high contrast with the electric shock of the pacific. At any point on the island, you can witness these majestic clusters galloping like it’s their job. Roads shut down during rush hour for these packs and it is well worth the wait.

If you are a horse guy (Bud), then you would love it here. You can easily get a ride on this island, and if you could speak Spanish proficiently (Bud), then you could probably easily negotiate a few one of a kind days with the local cowboys, herding these guys.

But I had something left to do before I could go. I had to get into this electric blue. I elected to go on a dive for the high price of $60. I chatted with one of the dive operators who asked me a few questions about my experience. I told him that I had been on 50 dives, which is almost true. When he asked me when my last dive was, I had to give a bold faced lie. “3 months ago was my last dive” , times by two and add a month for accuracy. “Do you need to see my certs?” “Nope, I believe you” in true Easter Island fashion.

We took a small boat out to the dive site which to my glee was the site I had gazed upon a few days before all alone at 1500 feet above the sea level. The dive master said that the visibility would be somewhere between 40 to 60 meters, 80 if we were lucky. “Eighty?!?!?!” That’s twice as clear as any thing I’ve ever been in. When you think about it, the water is so pure here because there isn’t anything around for the better part of 3000 miles to provide sediment. The ocean drops for thousands of meters in each direction once you get away from the island, so any sediment from the island itself is typically vanished into the depths of effectively infinity.

When I dropped my face into the water I was greeted with a color just past blue. It was so deep and rich that my brain had trouble classifying what exactly it was. I thought back to when I was a kid trying to pick out a color for my font on the computer. It was almost as rich as purple. I’ve settled on violet as the color, but I guess you will just have to take my word on it. Swimming in the sea of Ultra Violet, I found myself ignoring the formations and fish, to stare off into the color.

Easter Island is the type of place which proves what type of a traveler you are. If you are interested in getting the proverbial pictures in front of the Moai, this place will keep your interest for only a day. If you know how to get excited about a place, then a week might seem like a rush.

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Antarctica

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

I write this post a full three days after my return to South America, yet my head is still spinning. It’s perpetual motion like the Drake Passage which leave it’s mark, or should I say, take it’s pound of flesh with persistence. I uncoil my power cord, realizing that I haven’t bothered to commit this ritual of regularity in many months. It can only be likened to a first time mother that pays full price for name brand diapers, somehow thinking it will make a difference in her worshiped’s development.

Wow, where do I start?

When we first boarded the boat, the hotel manager looked at us with a bit of disgust and asked “Are you on this boat.” Baffled, I looked at one of the crew members and asked them if that was a trick question. “Uhhhh, Yeeeeessss. I am in fact standing in front of you….” My multiple backpacks destroying the fragile first impression of five star luxury. “Do you have a ticket?” “Why yes I do…” A thick smile pours over the hotel manager’s face. “Welcome!!!” It was official, I was a backpacker on a vessel that was a minimum of $8,500 buy in. The top passengers paid $20,000 but since there was a recession roaring back home, I was among a few lucky backpackers who picked up a last second deal for $3,990. Once on the boat, the crew didn’t know the difference, but the initial presentation of baggage and lack of wrinkles gave it all away. For the next 10 days, we would be dining on 3 course meals, guzzling down fine wines (or Coke) , and learning what that third fork was for on the table.

There was a heli-pad on the top of the boat, just below that was the restaurant, below that was the gym, and below that, finally was the sauna. Just dial 600 to get the bridge and speak directly with the captain if you like. You dial 500 to get the front desk (ya, it operates like a hotel.) Turn on your flat screen and watch channel ten for the live feed of the front of the boat. Channel 12, 14, and 16 cycle through different movies every day. Check out the library or the conference room if you want the most comfortable couches ever. Any boat that sails iceberg saturated seas commercially is required to have a double hull. There is an on board doctor in case you are feeling sick, 6 zodiacs up top, loaded via two cranes. Enough submarine life boats to fit every passenger.

But it isn’t all roses and ponies. Our room was damp and lingered of musty musk of the sea. In true backpacker fashion, we never bothered to complain and were left with a ambitious mildew on day 8. And let’s not forget that our beds were on a swivel. A bar ran down the center length of the mattresses which allowed the mattress to rock and roll side to side with the motion of the boat. Somehow this was meant to offset the particular placement of our room (center bottom). From a physics point of view, we had better seats to handle the drake passage than the poor schmucks who paid $20,000 to be in a room on the 4th floor surrounded by windows. Sure they were in the middle of the boat (great for the front to back motion saturation), but the higher you were, the more the side to side motion would show. Who knows if there was any water left in their whirlpool spas by the end of the second day.

We had a port hole in our room that would remain bolted shut with a thick metal plate for the first two whole days for safety reasons during the drake passage. The word Drake would never be anything less than a shaking, drilling sensation for the rest of our lives after this trip. The drake passage officially starts just south of cape horn. Legendary for it’s robust weather; this is where the Atlantic mixes with the awesome power of the Pacific like dynamite tossed into a barbecue. This combined with the third deepest ocean floor and the world’s largest ice field (by far) make for memorable crossings during the best parts of the year.

The two days we spent on the drake passage were witnessed under heavy influence from motion sickness pills. We felt lethargic, antisocial, and just generally not ourselves. We didn’t want to throw up, but this wasn’t much better. The end of the drake brought blue sky’s and a beautiful sunset. The next day we were greeted with the blue seas doing their best impression of black. A thick snow fell directly into the darkness. But before that, we had to pay, what we perceived as our proverbial pound of flesh.

The boat lurched forward, yanking all silver ware to the bowed floor. The waiters stood at 30 degree angles to compensate, not so much as spilling a drop of red wine. The Sheff prepared steak tar tar as a sort of cruel joke. We went up to the bridge to speak with the captain. The boat had 17 degrees of sway in each direction. The most the captain had ever seen was 47 degrees, to which he so candidly shared, terrified him. He was in the middle of a hurricane off the coast of Buenos Aires on that day. If you think 47 degrees is bad, the boat is built to recover from a 67 degree roll. At this point it’s contents and passengers would be collected firmly against the corner between the ceiling and the centrifugally elected wall. All these stats made my imagination go wild. Rodger (our expedition leader) recalled of when he was in a ship 2 years ago on this very trip that got stuck in a category 4 hurricane for 24 hours in the drake passage. Windows were lost that stood some 60 feet in the air. Waves crashed clear over the bow of the boat. The passengers were on lock down. This return passage came so pertinently after a last day in Antarctica which included heavy partying and drinking. The entire boat endured with the exponential misery of a hang over. For any of you who are wondering what a class 4 hurricane consists of, it lies between the wind speed of 130 and 155 miles per hour with 18 foot storm surge. Out at sea, that means top to bottom swells of up to twice that. The scale only goes up to 5 in case you dare. “And, what do you do to survive that?” “Slow down the speed of the ship, and try not to blow all the way to Africa.” Rodger was only partly kidding.

(Side note, while typing this, three days later. The last paragraph literally invoked a seasick burp and a queasy feeling. I think they call that “recall” in psychology. Like getting sick every time you smell banana after growing up with banana flavored tooth polish in the dentist’s office. Greg will eventually read this back home and know exactly what I mean.)

But we earned it, right? On to the good stuff.

Antarctica is, on all accounts, is the most beautiful place on the face of the planet. This journey runs with the flawless flow of a top shelf Rollex. The captain navigates our ship so finely that it kisses an iceberg twice our size. On call, 3 varieties of whales, 3 varieties of seals, and three varieties of penguins. It matches the three course gourmet meals that we receive three times a day.

There was a word that I burnt to bits on the trip, Majesty. By all accounts, no one warned me of how grand this place is. It will ruin any idea of snow and glaciers if you come here. I found myself, for once not saying, “When I was in……” during any part of the trip, because it just isn’t comparable to anything else I’ve ever done.

On the way back, through the Drake, the first night, we in fact achieved gale force 11 winds (twelve your officially in a hurricane). On the way over we only got to gale force 4-5 and the worst that we had heard of from fellow backpackers was gale force 9. The captain, in his 47 degree roll was only in gale force 14 (Hurricane 3 level). Thick snow fell of the black sea as we roller coasted up and down magnificent swells. I pound my fist on the table “Hey, where the hell did my second and third fork go?” sarcastically “What are we, poor now?” As I raised my voice even further “I Paid 2000 pesos (equivalent of roughly $500 USD) for this trip and I had better get my monies worth.” This part I made sure to say loud enough for the $8K-$20K crowd to hear. I regally glanced back to absorb their collective disgust. There is nothing better than making a top shelf traveler feel cheapened by the presence of a backpacker. All of their power from exclusivity, taken in a single statement. What a prick.

(My stomach is still motion sick, and I deserve it!!)

But wait, where was the meat of this story? I talked about getting there and going home, but not a bunch of being there. Well, some things I am going to start saving for my book. The stories on this trip are not going anywhere. I’ll remember them firmly for life.

After 10 intense days of bonding, we had a crew. A pack of people in the right place with plenty of time. A lucky ten to join an exclusive club. No one quite understands what we went through. We will all attempt at such stories as this post and fall clear of the mark which accurately portrays what must be lived first hand.

My posts draw commonality in themes such as freedom, taking every moment by storm, making time, the slam of silence, the power of trust, and the backpackers dilemma. But this punch line comes in a new sliver of respect. I respect goodbye, and goodbye is, in this moment, the highest form of respect I can receive.

The night grew loud and we celebrated our return in the local pub. The music pounded as old friends polished inside jokes. Glee flooded the room’s ambiance. Just then, in the hight of it all. I faced my dilemma. I knew that the morning brought solitude and new beginning. All of these friends, would be gone. All would part their respective ways, crush anything resembling a comfort bubble. But this was not my first rodeo. I’ve learned this lesson before. I’m hardened, but I still hate the concept of goodbye.

We made our promises to stay in contact, as you do, but the next morning each and every one of the people still in town, independently paid a visit to my dorm room to quickly say goodbye. This is an effort that I have long discounted as a formality, but in this moment, it could only be taken as a deepened sea of respect.

Credence Clear Water seeped through the walls of my dorm from the lobby of my hostel. It wasn’t even something that I would have associated with home, but it was American as I had heard in some time. I sighed as the tunes swayed my mood. I once noted the danger of waking up to music. In the first moments of the day, before you can settle into your coat of armor, the song can stir the soul. This is where you are delicate. I stepped into the shower. The water rained down and activated the rocking of the drake. “Breath, Stretch Shake, Let them Go” came to mind as a life lesson learned in Europe some months ago. But the million dollar question persists quietly….. “What will this mean for when I finally return?”

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