Thursday, November 18, 2021

 

Morocco

You can see all the photos in our Morocco Album 

We originally were going to Morocco last October but the damn pandemic!

Two years later with no international travel we finally made it. But not traveling abroad for 2 years really left us out of sync - How do we pack? Where is my passport? Do I even still have that thing? COVID test??


Overall it was a good trip but Troy and I both agreed it didn’t rank in our top 10 countries we have visited. We recognize that’s kind of a snobby comment but after 60+ countries it takes a bit more to wow us these days! 

A few things to share about Morocco

If you have ever been to a Muslim country then you are familiar with their call to prayer. There is something magical about hearing it. Maybe because it represents travel, I don’t know but I love sitting and listening to it. 5 times a day, surrounded by all the mosques, all of them doing the same call. Although in some cities, with the echo, placement of mosques, it sometimes it can sound more like a call to war! It is definitely something to experience as a traveler!


There is also really no night life. Being in a walled Muslim city where alcohol is not allowed, pretty much night life was going to bed at 9pm!


With Muslim countries, Islam is a part of their constitution so the laws/rules with Islam are everywhere. At a restaurant, if it serves alcohol, they won’t serve your drink until you have food on the table. Not just nuts or bread. If an appetizer is not ordered you won’t receive your drink until dinner is served. If everyone at the table has finished eating but one person still has their drink to finish, the waiter will leave one dirty dinner dish on the table because there has to be food with the drink. Even if that plate is empty!


We learned a 1 humped camel is called a Dromedary, not a camel. It is of the genus Camelus. So to call a 1 hump Dromedary a camel, you would be wrong. 


Casablanca

First stop Casablanca. It is not really a destination in itself, just an industrial city and a waypoint for the rest of Morocco. Neither of us saw the movie so the Rick’s Cafe and anything from the movie was lost on us. 


Our hotel was right on the beach which is on the North Atlantic (not the prettiest). Sunday had all the families out with picnics, playing soccer and locals selling tourists camels rides. We didn’t know if the beach front properties had fallen on hard times or if there had been major storms that came through in years past. There were a lot of ocean front buildings, water parks, swimming pools that looked as if they had been abandoned years ago. 


One of the major things Casablanca is known for is Africa’s largest mosque - Hassan II Mosque. It has Africa’s tallest minaret and is the third largest behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. This is also one of the few mosques non-Muslims are allowed in (during very specific hours). 



Rabat

Rabat is the capital city and is “newer” then much of Morocco and home to one of the King’s Palaces. It was very clean and much quieter then Casablanca. There are two Kasbah’s - fortified cities dating from the 7th century - but both were closed for restoration. Not really sure why we came here. Maybe it was a way point to north Morocco or our guide wanted to show off their capital. 



Chefchaouen (Blue City)

The drive to Chefchaouen in north Morocco was about 5 hours so most of the day was spent driving. However, on the way we came across a very large local day market. We lucked out because it’s only held one day a week and we happened by it on that day. When our driver asked if we wanted to stop we had to say yes! Downside to tourists being prevalent is locals are more aware of photos being taken of them. We either had to be very clandestine about it, pay for them (which is ok) or we chose to not take the photo. We ended up not taking any photos other than a horse standing on a thick carpet of chicken feathers.


Our driver accompanied us on walk around the market while taking everything in. It was a completely chaotic market with no semblance of organization - chickens getting slaughtered and sold, vendors selling large bins of olives, prayer rugs, bread, TONS of fresh vegetables, and hawkers yelling for you to buy their mosquito repellent.



The main part of Chefchaouen is the Medina which is the original fortressed city dating from the 14th century. There are several different theories about why the city is blue. One is during WWII the Jewish immigrated here and painted their houses the color of the sky which brought them closer to heaven. Another reason, which isn’t so poetic, is to keep the mosquitos and flies away! This is truly a maze of paths, walkways and stairs. Troy, who is known for his navigational skills, even got turned around and a little lost. 




We had a guided walking tour with guy who hopefully didn’t have COVID. He liked to shout and spit historical facts at us really, really close! 



Fes

Today was a long day of driving, almost 8 hours. Along the way we passed through the Middle Atlas Mountains and a mountain village called Ilfrane which is called the Switzerland of Morocco. We didn’t take any photos because, at the time, it didn’t strike us as anything photo worthy. If we had known that after these mountains we were going to be driving through nothing but brown and dirt and desert for days on end we would have taken photos to show the stark contrast within this country! We did come across a special monkey species, the Barbary macaque. They are only species of macaques outside of Asia and they roam the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas.

A few interesting facts about Fes:
  • A Medina is a distinct historical city section found in a number of North African cities. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets.
  • The Medina in Fes is protected by UNESCO so anyone living in the Medina and wants to make renovations to their home (even something as minor as painting it) they have to get permission from UNESCO
  • It houses the worlds oldest university from 859
  • The pottery factory had to be moved to the outskirts of town because it uses olive pits as the fuel for the kiln. It produces a thick black smoke and horrible smell that all the town residents made the factory move
  • We passed the filming of Indiana Jones 5 - didn’t see Harrison Ford!
  • Did you know that the first step in creating leather at a tannery begins with soaking the skins in a fermented solution of pigeon poo and tannery waste, known as iferd? I guess kids are paid to gather pigeon poo and sell it to the tanneries
  • Working at a tannery is also considered one of the hardest jobs in the world

Continuing on our drive

Heading south to the Sahara Desert, this is another long drive from Fes. On the way we stopped at a small village called Rissani where we learned how Madfouna, a Moroccan pizza is made. This starts by going to a butcher in a wet market. Slabs of raw beef hanging from the ceiling, the guy (with no gloves) touching everything from the raw beef to money, his cell phone, order pad, money he’s handing back to you, the plastic bag the raw beef is going in - basically everything. Anyways, he sends the beef through the grinder and puts it in a plastic bag with a handful of chopped onions, parsley, seasoning, almonds and a raw egg. This is to be the filling of our pizza. We take our bag and make our way a few blocks away through the mazes of vendors to the baker. They roll out the dough, dump our raw beef ingredients on the dough, put a top on, pinch the sides together to make a big calzone and send it to the oven for a half hour. To label the pizzas, they write our name on a pice of paper which gets baked into the pizza crust on top. 30 minutes later our pizza comes out of the oven and is boxed up in used cardboard that is bent and folded to make a pizza box. Wala - Madfouna pizza!


Another “fun” experience in the market was when we decided to buy a box of dates. Our driver had the vendor unwrap the box and the two of them sorted through the dates - touching EVERY SINGLE DATE- to pick out the small ones to be replaced with bigger ones from a huge pile on the vendors counter. Yea! We now have a box of dates that has been man handled by two people! 


Along our drive we passed through countless small villages and old abandoned buildings. When I say buildings these are structures made out of adobe, not concrete bricks and rebar. Come to find out a lot of these adobe structures are old homes that people lived in over 250 years ago and left them to go live in a more modern building in the village. What struck us funny is these 250+ year old buildings are everywhere. But in the US, if a building was over 250 years old it would be preserved and made a museum or listed in a book of historical buildings. 

Marrakesh

Sooooo… We were a bit underwhelmed and a little disappointed with Marrakesh. I think it had been hyped up and we had high expectations. Several travel articles I read said this city needs to be on every travelers bucket list, visiting the Jemma El Fna market is an absolute must, etc etc. Maybe if Marrakesh had been at the beginning of our trip instead of the end we would feel differently. We did a walking tour with a local guide and by this time we had already had 2 other walking tours in other cities so we were learning the same thing over and over again - history of Islam, direction mosques are built to face Mecca, sooo much info on their past and current kings, difference between a riad and a dar… By the time we had this walking tour we c
ould have been guides ourselves. I think the most interesting part of the tour was watching other tourists get photos of themselves in the graveyard. But seriously, we took no photos in this city. I think I took one of a pile of olives so I guess we took one photo. The souk with it’s endless aisles of leather goods, pottery, shoes, scarves, metal lanterns was pretty cool but not a whole lot different then other souks we had been in. When we visited the Jemma El Fna market we quickly realized it wasn’t our jam with women grabbing me to sell me henna tattoos, guys approaching holding snakes and then the monkeys with chains on their necks just wasn’t cool. 

Heading back to Casablanca

One of the huge benefits of doing a private guided trip around Morocco was the opportunities we were given to meet local families. We stopped at a small village and we learned how to make tagine and the local bread with a Berber family. Berber is the indigenous people of Morocco. We had eaten a lot of tagine by this point in our trip so it was fun to learn how to make it.


It starts off taking your shoes off before walking on any rug.  The aunt of the family, who is probably 90# and 4’9” showed us how to knead and roll out he bread. After rolling it out and letting it rise a short bit we took it to their outdoor bread oven which is a big brick oven with wood as the heat source. For the tagine we were not given a cutting board and I am not very good cutting onions and tomatoes without one. Somehow Troy and I go through this part without cutting ourselves, although to be fair the knife was pretty dull. In the tagine went beef, onions, tomatoes, spices, olives and garlic which then cooked for about an hour. My beef was pretty tough. I’m not an onion girl and mine had a TON of onions. Mine was definitely not the best tagine I had on the trip!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          




Sunday, September 04, 2016

 

Selfie Sticks, Machetes and Security Guards in Papua New Guinea

Tari Villages and the Highland Tribal Festival

Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Highland Tribal Festival has been on our travel bucket list for quite some time. Almost two years in the planning, and plenty of money later (holy cow this was an expensive trip), we can check this one off our list. As you know we have been to a country or two, but we are definitely not immune to new cultures, people and basically how things are in other countries. I'm not sure what surprised us more: our completely enclosed compound of a lodge with corrugated metal walls; machete yielding locals; or our unexpected constant security guard.

First off we ended up doing this entire trip with a group of 7 people from from Santa Cruz. They were a group of divers who have been friends for over 30 years and travel together quite often. Their age range was from early 50's to early 70's. The fantastic thing was we got along with them really well. It easily could have been bad with them being a group of Trump loving Mormons. (Who wants that????) They had wanted to do the same tribal festival and diving area, and since they used the same exact guy at the travel agency we used, we ended up on the same itinerary.  

A few things we learned in Papua New Guinea:
  • There are over 820 different languages spoked throughout the country with Pidgin and English being the most common. 
  • Before paper money their currency used to be pigs and Kina sea shells. Their currency today is named Kina and the Kina shell is still a very important part of their tradition which is apparent in their tribal dress. 
  • Tribal conflicts still happen which can make it very dangerous for tourists to travel to certain areas. We were told of a story that occurred not too long before we were there. A tourist bus had been hijacked and the bus stolen because one tribe felt another tribe owed them the bus. Which is one of the many reasons why we had a security guy with us the entire time. I  have no idea if he had any weapons on him but I wouldn't have been surprised if he had. 
  • In our first town we went to, Tari, alcohol was illegal to keep the tribes sober so they wouldn't fight. Most of our group wanted beer so we had to send our driver and guide out to buy it on the black market. 
  • The local boys and men used their machetes as a tool, a weapon, as well as a fashion statement. At any given time driving down the road I would guess at least 70% had machetes with them. 
  • This is still one country where we can freely take photos of the locals (after asking) without them asking for money in return. A few in our group brought Polaroids which I thought was a great idea and the locals were mesmerized by them. Unfortunately, this is sure to change in the coming years.
There were definitely many, many times I was glad we were with a group as opposed to it just being Troy and I. There is absolutely safety in numbers. I knew from research that PNG was unsafe but we were not even allowed to leave our lodge. Our first hotel, the Nenege Loge, had a 10 foot corrugated metal wall surrounding the entire compound. We were not even allowed to walk out the front gate. If we dared to venture near it the gate guard would gesture for us to go away.

At the end of one of our days we convinced the driver to stop at the "grocery store" so we could buy water because the lodge ran out. When our guide said we could go inside we were all excited at the prospect of being "allowed" out of the vans to seeing something of the town. We couldn't scramble and get out fast enough. The store itself was something else. All the products were behind bars. There were no aisles to walk up and down, definitely no grocery carts. You had to know what you wanted and had to ask for it. And of course, us as a group of white people, attracted an audience, but not in a good way. As word spread we were there, more and more locals started to come inside. As we're pooling our money together (hindsight we knew it was not a good idea) our driver, guide and security guard are standing watching this, they're getting stressed and all of a sudden the vibe got a little too tense and we were "ushered" back to our van while our guide finished buying our water. 

On with the trip...

Our first stop was spending 2 days visiting the Hedmari village to see the Huli Wigman and the villages associated with them. The Huli's are the largest indigenous group in PNG and are known for their "wig hats" they grow and make from their own hair. At each little village they had souvenirs they made for us to buy. One of the things they were selling was one of the Huli hair hats. Yes, made out of human hair. I'm all for unusual souvenirs but that would have been too weird having a hat made out of someone's hair in our house. 

We met the Bachelor Boys. A family pays for their sons to live at the bachelor village. They don't interact with women, sleep in the same village or eat their food. They learn to build houses, fires and make the hair hat. They spend at least 18 months there before leaving to marry. 

Next up was the Widows. Their name says it all. They all live together and wear white clay during their mourning period. In the past they used to prepare their deceased husbands by tying their bodies into the fetal position, placing them on top of a raised platform which would allow the decaying body to drip down into the earth. 

We then saw a girls initiation dance which celebrated their transition into womanhood. 

The locals also cooked lunch for us in the village which was called a mumu. Rocks are heated up over a fire then the chicken, potatoes, vegetables are piled on top of banana leaves which lay on top of the hot rocks and then more leaves are piled on top with the whole thing being buried by dirt. It was good but was probably the chewiest chicken we have ever had. 

On our way back to our lodge our Santa Cruz group had school supplies and wanted to stop at a local school. Even though it was during the week the school was closed for a few days because one of the teachers and the head master got in a fight. There was a rumor floating around that someone's ear got cut off during the fight. It's all fun and games till someone loses an ear....

Onto Mt Hagen for the tribal festival 

This was the highlight of the trip and the main reason we came to PNG. To say I was excited about this is an understatement. This trip was also for our 20 year anniversary so it was extra special to us. This was a 2 day festival that brought close to 100 tribes together to share their tribal dress, songs and customs. And we almost missed it!

We had a flight scheduled from Tari to Mt Hagen on Friday which gave us plenty of time to get there, visit the local villages and ready to go early Saturday morning for the first full day of the festival. I wasn't the only one excited. The entire group was buzzing with crazy energy.

Don't Fly PNG Airlines Because You Won't Fly

So we're at the airport, the weather was drizzling with a low cloud cover but nothing to be concerned about. Here comes our plane...and there it goes! What??? It didn't even land. What then followed was 5 hours of various members of our group calling the Mt Hagen airport, talking to the Tari airport crew and being told multiple variations of a similar lie which was the plane couldn't land because of weather (although another plane did land) but there would be another one coming for us. After several hours we realized we were stuck so we tried calling a charter helicopter and plane company to see if it could get us there. In the mean time the Tari airport is small. Two shacks - one for check in and one for the "departure lounge". This building consisted of a counter, bathrooms and about two dozen chairs. There was not even a soda machine. Because it was unsafe we were not allowed to leave so we had no way of getting food or water. 

By 2pm we knew we were not going anywhere so we had to find a place to stay that night. By this time after talking to numerous “higher ups” at the Mt. Hagen airport we were promised a flight the next morning at 9:05am. It was only a half hour flight so we were happy with that. We knew Nenege Lodge wasn't an option for us to stay that night even though it was just 5 minutes down the road. How did we know this? Because we saw the owner at the airport and when she knew we needed a place to stay she didn't offer her lodge to us. She just nodded and said hmmm - almost like she was thinking “Sucks to be you right now!". We knew she had sent her staff home and had no provisions to feed nine people unexpectedly. What are we to do?

A member of our group knew of a great lodge, Ambua Lodge, about 45 minutes away so we called them and they said they could accommodate us. I thought we were very lucky they had room for us at such a last minute notice. They sent a van to pick us up and off we went. This road took us in a different direction then we had gone before so now what we see are the locals are not only carrying machetes but they are carrying shotguns as well. It was on this route we found out about the tourist bus hijacking I had mentioned before. Yikes!!

Remember how I just mentioned I was happy the hotel had room for us? Ended up they opened the lodge for us. It was closed! They had to call in their staff on their day off. This place slept probably 100 people and we were the only ones there. Even though this place was gorgeous it was a little creepy being the only guests. The overnight gate security guy had a machine gun and the lodge hired local guys to hang out around the property for additional security (because clearly the machine gun is not enough of a deterrent).

Besides tipping the staff heavily, another way we made up for them coming in was we went crazy in their gift shop. I have never seen a group go so insane shopping! This shop had amazing stuff - plus it was cheap. I honestly think all of us combined bought 1/3 of the shop. And yes Troy and I joined in. We were told the various masks around the lodge were for sale so we started roaming the halls looking to see what they had. At the end of a dimly lit hall on a lower level there were two - 2 foot tall wooden statues. We were originally told they were not for sale but Troy talked them into it. I promptly named them Thing 1 and Thing 2. 

The next morning we're on the bus heading back to the lovely Tari airport ready for our 9:05 flight. Well... a flight came, landed, we did the happy dance then found out it was not our flight. Once again we were told more lies about where it was going, that it was coming back for us, that this info was wrong and our flight was on the way but was late because it mechanical issues....It was so heartbreaking as hours started ticking by. This part of the trip was the only part I had waited for. We were so frustrated by the lies.  As it became apparent that the same nightmare was about to happen we took the steps to charter a bus for the 8 hour ride to Mt. Hagen resigning ourselves to having missed the first day of the festival. The bus showed up fueled and ready to go. We gave ourselves a deadline of waiting for the plane of 1-1:30pm because we knew it wasn't safe to travel by road too long after dark. Don't forget we still have no food or water so we sent one of our amazing guides / locals who hung with us both days at the airport out to buy water, bananas, cookies and bread.

1:30pm…just as we're giving up our flight finally came. We could not have bee more happy and relieved to not only be on our way but to be leaving the Tari airport. We're thinking the festival will go on for another few hours into the early evening and so we’re anxious to get going. We get to Mt Hagen and what does our guide tell us? The festival is over for the day. What??? Whatever. We're here. At least one day is better then none. I am so relieved and happy! I honestly can't believe we finally made it. 

The Mt Hagen festival, also called a Sing Sing, is one of the oldest. It is a way for the tribes to peacefully share the traditions of their costumes, art, initiations and sing songs. I thought we would be in a stadium watching all the tribes but no, we were on the field right with them. Just as I thought all the tribes had arrived I would look at the entrance and still see many more lined up to come in. I cried! I was so happy to be there. The colors, costumes, chanting and drum beats was overwhelming. I kept dragging Troy around "Let's go over here, get their photos, ooh the mud men, let's get a selfie, let's go over there! " At that point I didn't care what else happened on our trip. I was where I wanted to be. We went crazy with our selfie stick. I know the people with their fancy cameras and big lenses were laughing at us but I didn't care. We got the best photos ever!

My favorite were the mud men. Story behind them is the enemy invaded their camp so they hid in the muddy river. When they emerged covered in clay they went back to the village to find the enemy was still there. The enemy thought it was evil spirits so they fled. The tribe elders realized this was a great way to keep their enemies away so they decided to make this their battle dress. But they thought the mud was poisonous so instead they made masks with strange features, fierce eyes and ugly ears. 

When we checked into the hotel the night before we were told the town had a water shortage so the water is only turned on after 5pm. But the second night we were there, at 5pm we found out the towns water pump was out so even though the water was on the pump didn't work. Therefore was no water. A few in our group got sick the next day. We think because there was no running water we're not sure how the kitchen prepared food. Troy and I were two of the lucky ones who did not get sick. 

Onto diving at Kimbe Bay on the FeBrina Liveaboard. 


Our first night before getting on the boat was spent at a plantation resort called Walindi. When we arrived we were told checkout time was 8am which we thought was quite unusual especially when everything we read said 10am. This is what we found out: Allen owns the FeBrina boat which docks at Walindi. One of the hotel people's dog bit Allen, Allen kicked the dog which pissed off that hotel person so they decided to take it out on Allen's boat guests (us) by kicking us out of our rooms at 8am. How stupid is that? Some office person found out about this and said we could stay until 2pm

Normally the first night on a boat is spent steaming to the first dive destination which is normally 8-12 hours away. But we were diving close the first two days so instead of staying tied at the dock overnight and moving in the morning to the first dive site. However, the boat starts and the crew pulled 100 yards from the shore and anchored for the night. WTF? Reason they did that is because otherwise the crew will go home or to town and will be late to work the next day or not show up at all. This was the owner's way of keeping all the crew on the boat.

The diving was pretty amazing. Normally we dive flat reefs or walls with nooks and crannies, the occasional swim through or maybe a pinnacle. But because the entire area we are in is surrounded by volcanoes (we even came across one that was steaming) our diving area was a huge under water caldera so our reefs were unusual shapes like knobs and saddles and fingers. At times I would stop just to admire the landscape. 

This was probably the most amazing soft and hard coral life we have ever seen plus the amount of fish life. Schools of barracudas and jacks and rolling fields of stag horn coral with thousands of small damselfish swimming around. 

Talk about being in such a remote area. We could see land the entire trip but at night there were no town lights, not a single plane flew over us and there was only one ferry boat which we saw the first day. And of course we were the only dive boat! One day two village kids paddled out to us to bring papaya, coconuts and beans. This was normal so the crew was ready to trade with soap, sugar, rice and noodles which were packages of ramen noodles. We found out the kids have no idea how old they are. If you ask they say 2. When they are clearly 10-12. The only other people we saw was on our last night we moored near a small beach island and two boats of fisherman showed up at dusk and camped for the night. When I first saw them, for a brief moment I was afraid they were pirates. Silly me. 

It was a long time in planning, flying there and back took over 5 days, the Tari airport fiasco was just that  - a fiasco - but this was an amazing trip! We met great people from Santa Cruz; bought more souvenirs then we have on any other vacation; didn’t get sick (which is always a bonus); and we celebrated our 20th anniversary (although it’s not until November)! Next up, Maldives in March! Woot!

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Sunday, October 05, 2014

 

Israel, Palestine and Jordan


Trekking Across The Holy Land of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Check out all the photos!

I'm not sure where to start describing our trip to Israel and Jordan. It is by far different then any we have ever taken. I have a lot to say because there is a lot going on over there, we experienced a lot and definitely learned a lot. I did realize quickly when we got home and people started asking about our trip that if I mentioned things like Iron Dome, separation wall, settlements, Palestine, etc. that people would get a glazed look in their eyes and ask “What is the Iron Dome?” They can’t relate. If we had just come back from the beach or a safari, they can comprehend and understand that. But not this. So for the most part we have not shared our trip with people. So I will be sharing it here.

Read more »


Saturday, October 22, 2011

 

Our Been There Done That List is Dwindling!

Ok, not really. There are still tons of places we want to go and things we want to do, but we are for sure making a dent in our list. 

So if you haven’t heard by now, our latest adventure was this: diving with the Great White Sharks!!!! Actually, we were not really diving with them, we were in cages the whole time which was ok because these things were ginormous!!!! We have dived with some big sharks before like bull sharks and large Galapagos sharks but these Great Whites were a whole new ball game!!!

I know you don’t want to see a ton of photos of sharks but here are some great ones! Just so you know, Troy does not have a zoom on his camera. In fact the camera he used is for macro use. So yes, these sharks are this close!


There are a few places around the world where Great Whites are accessible to dive with. Off the coast of San Francisco, South Africa and then a very tiny island off the west coast of Mexico called Guadalupe Island. There were several huge benefits of why we chose Guadalupe Island:

  1. We only had to go to Mexico as opposed to South Africa
  2. Visibility was over 100’ (San Francisco, viability is only 30’ max)
  3. And the major factor was the cages we were in were lowed down to 40’ where all the other destinations kept the cage at the surface of the water, which sucks for those people because the sharks rarely went above 30’.
To catch our boat we had to fly into San Diego then take a bus down to Ensenada, Mexico. The crossing into Mexico was kind of a cluster. Considering we were going into Mexico, one would think it would be fast and easy because Mexico could care less about who came into their country. But it was not fast…nor easy.

First we got off the bus (there were about 20 of us), unloaded our luggage then pressed the notorious green light/red light button to see whether or not our luggage would be searched. Then as a group we had to go to a window and fill out an immigration form. Oh, but wait, the immigration man ran out of forms so now we have to wait for him to get more. After filling it out, we then had to go stand in line at another window and hand the form to some lady who types in all the information into the computer (using the 2 finger method as opposed to all 10 fingers). After she gives us a printed version of what we just filled out, we then go back to the first window to the same man who gave us the form to fill out. He stamps the piece of paper and our passport and THEN we are allowed to get back on the bus. If that’s not a classic cluster, I don’t know what is.

So after continuing our drive to Ensenada we caught our boat, the Natuilus Explorer, for a 22 hour boat ride out to Guadalupe Island. The crossing wasn’t so bad (if you don't mind 9 foot swells), but everyone for the most part stayed in their cabin the entire trip…although a few ventured out for cocktail hour! It was tough to sleep at night because there were intervals where the water would get really rough and would just slam against the side of the boat making a horrifying loud banging noise. Until I figured out it was the ocean I was hearing, I kept thinking to myself, “How is it that none of the crew realize that the clothes dryer on the top deck is sliding around and banging into everything?” Sometimes I’m not the brightest color in the crayon box. 

The nice thing about this trip was the only dive gear we needed was our wetsuits and masks. Nothing else was needed. We would be breathing from a hookah system so no use for BCD’s, we weren’t going to be swimming so no fins, and definitely didn't need our computers because our time and depth in the water was completely up to the people running the cages. For me personally, the only sucky thing about how this “diving” was done is that everyone was overly weighted down because the crew didn’t want us floating around the cages. They wanted us planted on the bottom. So that meant everyone, me included, got 40lbs of weight put on them. They would take a 40lbs weight belt off of a guy who weighed almost twice as much as me, turn around and put it on me! So yeah, for me it sucked considering 40lbs is close to half my weight. By the time the 45 minute dive was done, my shoulders and back were a wreck. 

Speaking of the cages…when we initially got on the boat , the very first thing I noticed were the four cages sitting on the back deck. During the day, two would be attached to the back deck and the other two would be off the port and starboard side of the boat. One of the back cages would be at the surface level (standing on the bottom of it the diver would be in about 10’ of water) the second cage was lowered to 15’ (once again, standing on the bottom the diver is at about 20’ of water) then the two off the sides would get lowered down to 40’ (bottom of the cage about 50’). I happened to make a comment to the captain that we seemed to be much deeper than 40’ and that I had read somewhere the cages were not allowed to go any deeper than 12 meters (roughly 40’). He responded “Well… the Mexican government said the cages could not go any lower than 12 meters but they were not specific as to what part of the cage had to be at 12 meters so I left it up to my discretion as to what part of the cage is at 12 meters… which is the top of the cage! So, yes, you guys are deeper than 40’”. Bonus!!!!

Before we got on our boat and saw the cages I thought, “You know what, I bet we really don’t need to be in the cages. The sharks probably don’t get anywhere near us, they’re probably not as big as they seem in photos and I doubt they have no aggressive tendencies at all.” OMG, I was wrong! When I saw them for the first time, I think I peed in my wetsuit a little – and not on purpose. I wasn’t prepared for how big they are. We named a few of them Maytag and Whirlpool because they looked like they could swallow a few washing machines. And then, of course, there is my stupidness of how close they got to the cages. They were so close that a few times fellow divers could reach out and touch the fin. Which resulted in the dive master that was standing on top of the cage to immediately pull the regulator out of the offending divers mouth! And then there are the teeth. All of the sharks we have dived with, the teeth are very non intimidating, whether because we can’t see them or because they’re small (although very sharp). But Great Whites' teeth are there, out in the open in all their glory, and they’re screaming “YOU BETTER STAY WHERE YOU ARE BECAUSE I AM GOING TO RIP YOUR ARM FROM YOUR BODY IF YOU LEAVE THAT CAGE!” So as you can see, my previous ridiculous thoughts about how small they would be and how non threatening they could be is just another example of not being the brightest crayon in the box! 

Oh, and then let’s not forget those aggressive tendencies that I thought would be non-existent. Once again, proved wrong. On one of our first dives we had about 3-4 sharks circling our cages. I happened to be watching a specific one when all of a sudden he went completely vertical, did this speed rocket thing and completely breached out of the water! I’m shouting through my regulator to my cage mates “Holy shit!!! Did you see that???” Found out later from a researcher that lives on the island that when a shark breaches he is trying to make as big a splash as possible to show the other sharks around that he is the king and to not mess with him. Even though he demonstrated his power and size there were a few other sharks from time to time that would get fairly aggressive and start darting around real fast like a crazed lunatic.

Although we were always in the cage, we had an opportunity to come out and stand on top with the dive master. For the most part it wasn’t a good place to be because you had to dodge the bubbles floating up from below. Also the sharks tended to stay either at the mid cage level or below. So being in the cage was the place to be. If the sharks came higher than mid cage level, the diver was forced back into the cage by the dive master. At one point when we had an aggressive shark swimming around us he was getting really close to our dive master above us and our dive master was using every gadget…technique…whatever available to get the shark away. The four of us below him were looking up, cameras ready, watching anxiously to see what would happen. The week before we were there, one of the divers got a photo of a shark sticking his head into a slot in the cage that is used to get the best view of the sharks. I thought the sharks heads were too big to fit, but evidently there are one or two that are just small enough and have figured out where the slot is. So aggressive tendencies…check!!!

One evening the researcher that lives on the island came aboard and gave us a short presentation about the sharks in the area. Several of us were wondering why the sharks were there and this was his answer “We used to have no idea why the sharks are here. However, I theorized they come to eat the Elephant Seals but other researches say they have never seen this. Finally, last year we got video of it!” What a cool job he has! Also, the researchers do know that during breeding season they leave, meet up out in the middle of nowhere with Great Whites that have come down from Hawaii, do their business then return to Guadalupe Island. They don’t mix and mingle and head up to Hawaii afterwards, and the Hawaiian sharks don’t go to Guadalupe Island. Interesting!

This was an amazing trip! Short, fast and expensive but definitely worth it. It has been something I have always wanted to do since becoming an avid diver. Troy was along for the ride. He didn’t have much interest in diving with Great Whites (he had no fear, he just had no interest) but he was hooked after the first shark lovingly swam by and stroked our cage with his fin and eyed us with his big, blue eye while picking his last victim out of his teeth!

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

 

Churchill, Manitoba - Polar Bear Capital of the World


Troy got some amazing photos! We had great luck with the bears. Click here to see his pictures.

Traveling to a tiny town on the edge of the Hudson Bay far north in Manitoba, Canada just as winter is beginning is not a destination most people would choose for a vacation. But to see the largest concentration of polar bears in the world, Churchill is the place to be. And when I say tiny town, I mean tiny. Population 923 to be more exact.

Our first stop before Churchill was Winnipeg which looked like it was designed by an East Berlin architect from the 1940’s. Definitely not the most attractive town. But before we could fly out the next morning to Churchill, me, Troy and our two friends Seon and Ki first had to piss off the snotty bar waiter and pretty much half the group we would be traveling with for the next six days! Our trip had barely just begun and we were already labeled as “those people”! But honestly, if that fat, cross eyed lady had not stolen my wine, maybe I would have been nicer to her! A quick note here regarding the people in the tour groups: they were all old! I don’t know if I accidentally went to Geriatric.com to book this or what, but we were the youngest by far. We asked our guide, Elise, about it and she said that 65+ was the normal demographic for the trip. I’m guessing it’s because it’s such a sedentary trip. This was by far the least active trip Troy and I have ever done!

Churchill is something else. It is probably one of the most remote places we have ever been, which is saying something. There are literally no roads leading to this miniature town. The only way to get there is by a $1800 plane ticket, a 40+ hour train ride or by ship (notice I didn’t say cruise ship). Think about how big Canada is. It’s pretty amazing to think that Churchill is so far away from anything that there is not even a single road leading to it. That led us to all kinds of questions regarding the people who live there: Who do they date? How many kids are in the high school graduating class? What is their prom like? What do they do for fun? It’s not like there is a larger town 50 miles away that could provide solutions to these problems. There is nothing!!! We did find out that their bars, actually hotel lounges, stay open until 2am and the “lounge to be at” rotates throughout the week so they do have some sort of social action here. They even have Churchill Idol! Our last night there we found “ladies night” at the Tundra Inn which featured several female musicians as well as an Adam Lambert look a like! I guess he was the inspiration for Churchill Idol! It was a lot of fun!

We did get the opportunity one morning to do a tour of the town. It was excruciating! When we looked at our itinerary and found out it was going to be a 3 ½ hour tour, we just about choked. We thought there is no way it will be that long, the itinerary is exaggerating. We were sadly wrong. It didn't start out too bad and was almost interesting until our tour guide pointed out in detail everything including the dilapidated grain elevator, clumps of trees, the needles on the clumps of trees, ridges of dirt, unfinished hotels and the town dump. We drove up and down every single street and even made a stop at the post office. I think the most interesting thing she pointed out was the polar bear holding facility (which I’ll talk about later). We did find out that besides the polar bears being a tourist attraction for Churchill, they do have a really well kept secret: in the summer around 3000 beluga whales migrate up the Churchill river for the birthing season. We saw photos of them swimming up the river in groups of 100’s.

Their medical system was fascinating. They have three doctors full time at the hospital (which by the way is connected to the curling rink) and a dentist and vet that flies in every once in awhile. So for people who need a dental checkup and cleaning, they check the dentists schedule to find out when he is there and makes an appointment. Same thing for vets. But if you have an emergency, you’re kind of S.O.L. The doctors have books they can refer to try to help but otherwise you have to wait for the dentist or vet. So the last thing the locals want to do is get in a fight and get a tooth busted out or to drink too much and fall down and break their teeth. We thought the vet thing was sad. If a dog gets sick or hurt and the doctor can’t help them, there is nothing that can be done. Oh, and people don’t get embalmed when they die. They don’t have the equipment for it and if someone wants to be cremated, it’s very expensive because they have to be flown to Winnipeg to have this done.

Of course, like all small towns there is history behind it but it bored me so I won’t bore you with it. One interesting thing though is it had a small army base during WWII so it has a very long runway at the airport. It’s almost 9800’ long and can accommodate the space shuttle and is actually an alternate landing site if it is needed.

Like I said before, Churchill has the highest concentration of bears because of the towns’ proximity to the Hudson Bay. The bears have sight memory, which means they remember they were born here, plus they remember that this is where the ice first forms over the bay. The Hudson Bay is where they spend the winter hunting Ring Seal, their main source of food. When the hunting season ends and the ice starts to melt, they come back to land near Churchill and do a walking hibernation. They then spread out over hundreds of miles until it is time again to return to the bay to hunt. The bear population here can reach up to 900 bears as they wait for the ice to form.

Churchill is so close to the bear activity on the tundra that there are several warning systems in place to protect the people. First off there is a 10pm curfew for the kids under 18. This warning sounds like an air raid siren announcing the arrival of WWIII. It was a good thing we were told about this because we all would have thought we were under attack. Second, tourists are warned to not walk around town after dark and they are highly discouraged to walk down to the water. Of course after hitting the town on our last night there, as we’re walking to our hotel at midnight, the last thing we were concerned with was running into a polar bear. We were more concerned about making snow angels. Sometimes we’re not the smartest or the most aware! We were also told if we heard gun shots to not be alarmed. It is just the locals shooting guns to scare off the bears. If bears are seen wandering around town that can’t be scared off, they are lured into a bear trap and then taken to a bear holding facility right next to the airport. This facility is an old quonset hut leftover from the WWII. If someone volunteers up the money, the bear is flown by helicopter about 40 miles away and then released, otherwise the bear is kept in the facility until the bay freezes over then they are transported a short distance to the bay by truck and released.

The trucks we toured the tundra in are called tundra buggies. They weigh 240,000lbs and get 8mpg and the top speed is 28mph but we averaged around 7pmh. The truck has to be tall and tough enough to protect the tourists from bears. The bears get curious and stand up to get a closer look at the smells coming from the interior. Plus they are very strong (duh). The town dump is inside a facility which had to have its walls reinforced with steel because the bears were pounding down the walls trying to get inside. It wouldn’t look very good for the town if a few tourists got mauled because they were taken out to the tundra in a school bus!

We had three full days on the tundra with one day split in half. Our first full day out we had 19 bear sightings. Elise said that is the most she had seen so far that season. There were bears lounging by the side of the road, walking across ice, rolling around in the snow and also circling our buggy. I asked Elise how thick the ice needs to be for a bear to walk across. She said only 3”. I asked her if she had ever seen a bear fall in because he misjudged and she said no. Not maybe an hour later we watched a bear fall in and then pull himself out. He then dragged himself across the ice because he realized it was too thin for him to walk on. We love it when our guides get excited because it shows that we are seeing something very exceptional!

Our last day on the tundra was blizzard like conditions. Elise says the bears like the snow but not the wind and that they take cover in the willows. So we were not expecting much. But this ended up being the best day. Just by chance we came across a mother and her two cubs. These cubs were not the cute cuddly bears that crawl all over their mom. They were huge and probably weighed close to 600#’s. Elise said this would be the season they would leave their mom. For almost two hours we sat and watched while they slept, rolled and walked around, fought over seaweed and pretty much ignored us…until Elise got the smart idea of opening up a package of cookies and putting them on the radiator. As soon as Troy says “I smell caramel!” one of the bears got up to come see what the smell was. As he approached the back of the truck, everyone jumped up and ran out the back to the open viewing platform. We didn’t care that it was -15 with the wind chill, there was a huge polar bear walking straight for the back of the buggy. He was cautious at first as he approached, but he soon realized how much bigger he was then us and came right up to the back of the truck. He sat, stared at us and walked under us (the floor of the viewing platform is made out of a metal grate so we could have easily touched his nose). He then decided he was hungry because he started chewing on the tail of the buggy, tearing off chunks of the wood bumper. Elise had told us that if he started to stand up that we all needed to back up because she had no idea how tall he would be. No sooner had she said that when he decided to stand up and lean on the side of the truck to get a closer look at us. The railings of these trucks are 10’ above the ground so think about how intimidating this is to have a 600lb bear that can stand 10’ tall! In our geriatric group there was a couple named Jim and Helen. When the bear stood up Helen was standing right in front of the bear. Her instinct (which was a good instinct) was to back up. Jim was not going to let her. As he pushes her forward he yells “Helen, he’s not going to eat you, just take the damn picture!” This became the quote of the trip. Luckily for Helen the bear didn’t reach the top of the truck, but then he went around to the other side of the truck and discovered a rock he could stand on that made him about 2’ taller. As he stands up again, Elise tells Jim (that just made the quote of the trip) to get back. It was at that moment he chose to have selective hearing because he did not move. He just kept taking pictures. Well because the bear found the rock to stand on, he is now tall enough to not only reach the top of the truck railing but if he chose he could have easily reached over and grabbed the first thing which would have been Jim and his camera! Needless to say he did not like the shit we gave him for the rest of the trip! I wonder if Elise and the rest of the guides get together at the end of each trip and give out awards to which tourist did the stupidest thing? Jim would have won!

Also, Troy got this little video recorder when he worked for Qwest, so I took it to Churchill and made my first video:

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