Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative photo blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. People say to me all the time, "You should write a book about your travels." Well, my friends, this is essentially it. And in this age, an online blog is easier, displays a bajillion more photos, needs no publisher, and reaches a broader audience than in print. The down side: unlike a formal book or essay, I'm just writing casually off the top of my head, but I hope, dear readers, you will feel as if I'm having a conversation with you. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are often "letters to home" style accounts of what I did. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each Archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). If you're joining me on a mobile phone, click HERE to quickly access the archive and essays. Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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The landscape of Tarangire in northern Tanzania stands in stark contrast to all the other parks we visited in East Africa, all of which were more open plains, iconic "savanna," populated mostly by acacia trees in the large flora department. Tarangire is home to a dense population of baobab trees ... amazing trees that live to be hundreds and thousands of years old. (see some 800+ year-old baobabs in Botswana) They make for a unique and dramatic landscape. And, to our delight, they make a wonderful home for elephants. I had been advised by knowledgeable Afrophiles to go to Amboseli for the elephants and to Tarangire for the landscape ... I had not realized that I was going to get elephants as the primary wildlife sighting in Tarangire, too. But even the giant of the animal kingdom, the elephant, is dwarfed by the majestic baobab.
But first I'll share with you one of the most amazing things we saw in the whole trip. Why did I not expect to see this animal here? For absolutely no good reason at all except that I didn't know what to expect in this park save the pretty landscape (and even then, I didn't know what made for the pretty landscape ... see how much I blindly trust my Afrophiles!). So in a way, this was maybe my favorite place because it was completely outside my conceptions of what East Africa is like (thinking of the savanna plains). A splendid surprise.
So our guides spotted a leopard in the bushes at the bottom of a baobab. We could barely make it out, just its head above the bushes. After a few minutes, it looked up the tree trunk and Hamisi said, "She's going to climb the tree." I didn't really believe him (though I had just asked not 30 minutes earlier if leopards climb baobabs since they don't have limbs low down). Then "vroom" like a little bullet, she launched up the tree trunk and climbed her way to the lowest branch. Fortunately, in spite of my skepticism, I had my camera pointed at the tree anyway and was able to snap some shots. No more doubting Hamisi!
So that was awesome and exciting. In contrast to the majestic elephants and the mighty leopard, another critter I really enjoyed was the tiny dik-dik, one of the smallest antelope species in Africa, standing about a foot tall and averaging 10 or 11 pounds. So it weighs the same as my cats and isn't too much taller. I think they're pretty adorable, especially with those big eyes. You can see dark spots near the tear ducts; they are scent glands. A lot of Mother Nature's ideas make total sense, but I think maybe she fell asleep when she put scent glands right next to eyeballs. Well, regardless, they're cute creatures. Even their itty bitty poops are cute. Yes, when you spend 8 to 10 hours a day in a vehicle looking at animals, you start to have some pretty silly thoughts. But I think you would agree with me. (sorry, I did not actually take a picture of the poops)
Here's another fun critter I love to see but don't see too often in Africa -- the banded mongoose.
We stayed at the Tarangire Lodge, which we really enjoyed. There is another camp in the park that is the most popular, but I heard from several sources who had been there, including our guides, that the tsetse flies were pretty maddening. And while we encountered a few while on game drive, which we swatted away with horsetail whips (or some animal's tail, anyway), there were virtually none at our lodge, so we could sit on the patio overlooking the river and the tree-dotted plains each evening in pure relaxation, drinking wine from the happy hour cart they bring out to the patio. One of my favorite evenings was when a group of gazelles was playing chase with each other down below us in the trees, just running in circles.
The river (at ground level).
And, appropriately, a lovely female water buck near the river. I believe she is saying "Hello" to us.
It was really a hoot to watch a group of elephants come down to the river one day. Always so full of personality, I don't know how a person could ever become bored watching them.
One of the biggest hoots was the super young baby, not more than a couple weeks old. We saw it several times, could still see the lump on its tummy from where the umbilical cord was. It was very difficult to get a photo of it because it was always surrounded by its family, keeping it safe.
Apparently it was more fun to dig in the sand than to walk over and drink from the river. I presume they enjoyed the feel of the cool sand under the surface on their face! The first guy looks like he's digging for treasure with his trunk. What'd ya find, Sammy?
Elephants are like cats in that they are always finding something to play with -- they are very curious creatures, wondering what things are, how they work, how they might manipulate them.
So I have shared a number of birds that I love and was excited to see again, and birds that I've been wanting to see and saw for the first time. But I don't believe I've yet shared a pic of the bird tied for first place with the grey crowned crane in my faves -- the lilac breasted roller. I think it is generally the non-birder's favorite because it's pretty ubiquitous throughout southern and east Africa and its colors are so WOW, how could anybody not feel excited every time they spot one?
And my new friend, the Eurasian roller ... not hard to guess it's a cousin to the lilac breasted with its gorgeous coloring.
The ground hornbill. Sitting in a tree. I guess he forgot what his name is. Striking red chin, especially against the blue sky. I'd never seen one in a tree before.
Starlings are a wonderful set of birds, though often kind of pesky, with iridescent feathers. The superb starling was a constant picnic companion but I liked them very much. I can't help but think of the Different Strokes line, "Whatcha talkin' 'bout, Willis?" when looking at the first pic.
And the other ubiquitously pesky critter but so darn cute and photogenic, the vervet monkey. Gnawing on a stick and in a bit of a grooming trance.
Well, now, you may be wondering, "So Shara, where are all these gobs of elephants of which you speak?" OK, here's a bunch of elephants. First one says, "How do you like my hat? Made it myself!"
Have you ever seen how remarkably long an elephant's eyelashes are?
Elephant family portrait. I imagine this as the Christmas card photo for the family, even though little Francis had his head behind mom ... it's the best they could hope for.
Always fascinating to watch how elephants interact with one another through their trunks.
Itty bitty elephants new to the world are inexpressibly precious. Look how wrinkled this newborn's head is! haha. Hasn't yet grown into his forehead skin!
Midday snack for baby. What I like most about this photo is the textures ... baby's trunk and mom's legs and sides.
Look at the little baby peeking out from behind mom's leg! I believe it is the same infant from the river bed, its umbilical cord still healing up. The rest of the baby pics are of the same elephant and family. What a special experience it was to spend time with this little one. As we stayed quietly in the vehicle, the baby became more and more confident about leaving the close circle of its family who protected it, giving us a glimpse of its utterly adorable little self.
Oh my, we could have watched them all day. But eventually the family moved on down the road. Look at how tiny the baby's foot is compared to mom's! Ah, it kills me ... too cute. You can also see here how dark pink the skin is behind the ears ... the darker the pink the younger the elephant.
This next pic has made it into the vault of one of my all-time favorites ... the darling little baby foot next its mom's, but what makes the pic is how the mom and baby are in tandem with the position of their feet and their tails.
And finally a big goodbye from the elephants of Tarangire. I think they are saying they've had enough of us! Normally a picture of a bunch of butts wouldn't be that exciting ... but somehow this one seemed worthy of a capture.
And so we say goodbye to wonderful, beautiful Tarangire National Park, beside ourselves with joy over our intimate time with elephants.
Book a safari with Endless Safaris, our safari guides
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Cheetah! My favorite of the big cats, but I'd only seen them half-a-handful of times in the wild before coming to East Africa. So I was overjoyed with the number of cheetahs we saw in Ndutu in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya. Allow me to share some with you. But should I first show you the heart-melting cuteness or the dramatic action?
I will keep you in suspense for just a wee bit while I first give a shout-out (again) to our awesome guides at Endless Safaris, Elly and Hamisi. They were so on top of it. I often felt bad for the people in other vehicles who were all poised with their mega professional cameras, phenomenally more expensive than the sum of what I own in gear, their window pads all installed to hold their huge lenses ... who again and again got mediocre side shots, butt shots, missed shots altogether, compared to me with my little 70-200 lens (only occasionally using a 100-400) always placed in the prime spot ... either alone with the animals or if there was a crowd of vehicles, in the best place. Now, I did not always give my position justice with the quality of my pics, but I'm in the photo game for fun, so if I mess up or my gear isn't up to the challenge, I'm not super upset. The point is, I was THERE seeing the animals at their finest.
I was told by knowledgeable wildlife photographer peeps that Ndutu was the place to go for big cats. They were not wrong! So now, cute or action? OK, let's go for cute.
This morning, we spotted some lions in some marsh grasses in Ndutu near a small herd of wildebeest. Our guides thought it possible by the way the lions were behaving that they might make a kill. So we stopped nearby to watch and see what might happen. We waited for probably 45 minutes, during which time a lot of other vehicles showed up. Elly and Hamisi had a brief discussion and then told me and my mom that they were now skeptical a kill was going to happen and asked if we wanted to keep waiting or go see if we might find something else going on. As always, I relied on their intuition, and we left. The other vehicles stayed for a long time and never saw a kill.
So what did we find instead? I told Elly on the first day of our safari that the one thing I most wanted to see, because I had never seen one in the wild before, was a baby cheetah. Welp, guess what .....
Squeal! We were within sight of the crowd of vehicles waiting for the lions to (not) kill, yet we had this mom and baby all to ourselves for 20 or 30 minutes! It was just the best thing ever. I had told my mom also that this was what I most wanted to see because from all the photos and TV shows I'd seen of baby cheetahs, I thought they were about the cutest critters on the planet. She apparently didn't take me seriously, because when she spotted the baby, she just about died. "I told you!" I said to her as I wiped away my own tears of happiness.
Well, I don't want you to die, either, I'm sure you're far too young, so let's take a break from the dangerous adorableness, and cut to the event bested only, with a fairly narrow margin, by the cheetah cub. We were just arriving in Ndutu when we saw a few vehicles gathered by a clump of bushes. We went to investigate and saw two cheetah brothers lying down. They got up and eyed the horizon where a lot of wildebeests and zebras were hanging out in the distance, and laid down again. Elly and Hamisi said they thought the cheetahs would be making a kill soon. How they could discern that from two lounging cheetahs with prey far in the distance, I have no idea.
So we left the other vehicles and traveled way far away from the cheetahs, nearer to the grazing animals. We waited and waited. Eventually a few vehicles drove over to where we were. But after a few minutes, Hamisi started the truck and drove further away. After awhile vehicles followed. Again, we up and drove further on. Although I was surprised at the distance we were putting between us and the cheetahs, I trusted Elly and Hamisi. They asked if we wanted to keep waiting it out and I said, "Heck, yeah!" Meanwhile, more and more vehicles were getting wind of the potential imminent action and we were eventually surrounded.
While waiting, I had time to think about what settings might be best on the cameras, I had time to carefully set both cameras (100-400 lens and 70-200 lens) up on bean bags ... I put them on the roof because the action was going to start so far away. We waited patiently. If it didn't happen, oh well. If it did, it would be well worth it. I decided I now know what a solider feels like waiting for a battle, like an archer at the top of the castle waiting for the enemy to crest the horizon, preparing weapons, just waiting anxiously for the "let loose" command.
After nearly an hour, now closing in on 5:00pm, I said, "I know what will make the chase start." And I grabbed a beer from the cooler and opened it. Because now that my hands were otherwise occupied, the cheetahs were sure to leap into action.
Guess what, I was right! After a few sips, Elly said, "They're up!" I hastily put my beer down, just about throwing it, panicked to get to the cameras, haha. Let me say here that should I ever be so lucky as to see another cheetah chase, I will not bother with a camera. But being my first one, I wanted to try my hand at capturing it.
The whole thing was almost a blur ... the one nice thing about the pics is that I can see how truly amazing the action was, frame by frame, second by second. I started with the 100-400 and soon switched to the 70-200. Our guides gave us excellent positioning, of course.
I still have a hard time believing the time stamps on the photos, except that Elly told me that most cheetah kills he'd witnessed were over in about 20 seconds. I just think this is phenomenal, so I'm going to show you a bunch of pics from the sequence with the time stamps. I was of course shooting in continuous-shooting mode, and apparently (by the time stamps) my cameras shoot 6 to 7 frames per second.
So, let's start with the first photo I took -- I started with the 100-400 lens -- of one of the cheetahs who was already in motion since Elly spoke and I put my beer down, and call it a stamp of 0:00:00 seconds.
I like this pic with the cheetah's legs outstretched and the wildebeest's legs contracted in. Still at 0:00:04.
I joked about this one, which is technically a botch but I really like the three sets of legs ... "If you look down and see a pair of legs that isn't yours, RUN!" 0:00:05
Now there is a time gap of a few seconds as the action came close enough that I needed to switch over to the 70-200 lens. I would guess this took me two to three seconds to move and get focused with the second camera. So we'll start the first pic from this lens at 0:00:08.
Now scroll back up and realize what has taken place in the span of THREE seconds. The wildebeest is just as impressive as the cheetah up to this point in terms of its agility and perseverance. It's gone from being down on the ground under the cheetah's paws to up and chasing the cheetah and ramming with its horns. Now here are five of the six frames from the next second which show the cheetah's superior high-speed agility.
I dunno, I still can hardly believe that much action took place in one second! A complete 180 by the cheetah. I'm tempted to doubt my time stamps, but Elly's words stick in my head: "20 seconds." You can use the bushes for reference to see the cheetah literally stopped and turned on a dime.
Now the cheetah and wildebeest are done dancing and it's an all-out straight-run chase for several seconds. Then the cheetah gets serious and starts taking the 'beest down.
Just look at the power in this cat! Latched on and pulling the wildebeest's head down with all of his might and weight.
Now there is a big jump in time (relatively speaking) as the cheetah was quite far away now and his brother had now joined in, taking the wildebeest down. All the vehicles around us fired up and starting zooming toward the kill site. Overwhelmed by vehicles zooming in front of us, we started up, too, and drove forward. This is the last pic I have at 0:00:31 before the cheetahs are eclipsed and encircled by other vehicles.
What happened next was disturbing. We didn't join in the fray but came slowly over to the clump of vehicles which had *completely* surrounded the cheetahs and wildebeest. If the wildebeest had managed to pull himself up again, he would have had nowhere to go, and the cheetahs couldn't drag their kill anywhere. I mean, it was a tight circle, probably less than 30 feet in diameter with two cheetahs and a dying wildebeest in the middle. I could see through the windows of a front-row vehicle, the wildebeest in his final throes. Elly and Hamisi asked if we wanted to be a part of this and we said, "No." Clearly, they didn't either, and so we drove off. Other photographers with big expensive cameras who had been left out of the front row were yelling at the other vehicles. It was crazy. I almost hate to tell you about it in case it ruins the spectacular feeling of the thrill of the chase. But it's what happened. I appreciated that our guides did not contribute to the encroachment and didn't want to be a part of it.
So we drove off disgruntled, but that lasted for all of about 30 seconds for me after I caught my breath, retrieved my beer, and reviewed what I had just witnessed. For me, it was a highlight in my life experiences, one I certainly did not expect. Even now, my heart is thumping and I almost feel weepy reliving the emotions of such pitched excitement.
Sure, I feel bad for the wildebeest, but a cheetah's gotta eat, and Mother Nature arranged the circle of life this way, so I think we have to just admire the abilities of both animals in this situation and know that the dangerously cute little cub we saw lives another day whenever its mom executes the same kind of kill.
So maybe some more cub pictures will make you feel better about the kill, remembering who the wildebeests and similar prey support. Here's little cheetah working on his stalking skills already! Going to be a predator some day!
Oh precious little one! My pics didn't end up being great quality, I've had time now to think about why, but for me personally, they are off the charts in cute quality, so that's good enough for me.
Mom left her kiddo alone for awhile, venturing out into the reeds. This is the perfect place to hide her cub in the tall reeds, and we would see lions hiding their cubs in the same zone. While male cheetahs form coalitions either with male siblings or other male loners, female cheetahs live solitary lives with only their cubs for company. While males have several of them to bring down prey, the mother brings it down all on her own. She is a remarkable creature. She will typically have many cubs because their lives are precarious, prey to lions and hyenas. Typically broods are four to seven cubs. This mother had only one left from this litter. Which made watching their bond ... in the first set of photos in this post ... all the more special.
The cheetah form is so beautiful and not like the other African big cats who are more thick and beefy. Cheetahs are sleek and lithe, and their whiskers are very short compared to lions and leopards. They are daytime hunters unlike the other two. And they are the iconic savanna cat because they need the wide open space in order to use their specialized chasing skills.
These are some other female cheetahs we ran across at Ndutu and in the Masai Mara.
On our last day of safari, in the Masai Mara in Kenya, we had a spectacular leopard sighting in the morning. As afternoon wore on, I told Elly that this was my last day to attempt the big cat trifecta. I had never seen all three big cats in one day. In fact, not even in one safari. Lions on all safaris, but then either leopards or cheetahs, not both.
So we're driving along a lonesome path, no one else around until we finally ran into another truck and that driver and Elly had a conversation in Swahili. The other car drove off and we drove on. After awhile Elly said, "OK guys, I have a surprise for you. You have to close your eyes now until I tell you to open them." Well, I love surprises so I kept my eyes closed and held on while we bumped along. Because Elly knew how excited I was over cheetahs, I suspected we were on our way to fulfill my trifecta dream. The truck stopped and Hamisi cut the engine. Then Elly said, "OK, now turn your head to the left. Now open your eyes."
It took a few seconds to realize what I was seeing. It was not a cheetah. It was FIVE cheetahs! I didn't even know they were in groups as big as five. Elly said it's a coalition, if I remember correctly, three brothers and two loners they took in. Apparently they are a rather famous gang in the area. You might know them, what they are called, I can't remember exactly ... The Amazing Five or Fabulous Five or something like that, in deference to their adeptness as predators. Never in my life did I expect to be beside an adult cheetah pile!
Well, my friends, I can scroll through my cheetah pics all night and feel warm and fuzzy every time I look at them with the memories of how fantastic it was to be watching them in person. I hope you enjoyed looking at them with me and can admire their incredible power and beauty as much as I do!
And a goodbye wave of the tongue .....
And did I get to complete the sought-after 3-cat day with a lion? You'll have to stayed tuned to find out!
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My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency program.
The ocean is probably the most important zone and aspect of Armila. It is part of its glory and the primary part of its tragedy.
Armila village is on the Caribbean coast of Panama, where the Armila river meets the ocean. By far the quickest and easiest method of transport to any other Guna village is by boat, as there are no roads in the Guna Yala territory, only footpaths for people and pack animals. And most villages are located on small islands in a long archipelago. There are only five mainland Guna villages.
So the ocean is the primary means to access the rest of the world and the means by which the rest of the world accesses Armila. This is good for the Guna people to get supplies and visit relatives in other villages -- a number of villagers own speed boats and can ferry others who don't. But it also brings in an increasing tide of tourists (who pay to camp on the beach), which, from my point of view, lies mostly on the tragedy end of the spectrum. That's a whole issue to tangle with on its own. I will find space for it in another post because it's an issue I've wrestled with several times in the past with other special places I've visited on the cusp of radical change.
The ocean also provides a bounty of food. For example all those crabs that crawled on land during the first week of our stay! haha. But mostly, of course, fish. I never saw any large fishing nets in the village like I've seen in other rural fishing villages in other countries, so I'm presuming they fish by pole or traps (though I never saw any traps sitting around either).
So between the river and the ocean, everyone needs to navigate the water. The shoreline of Armila is full of dugout canoes and speed boats.
It was fun to watch kids learning their skills. Sometimes I saw them playing in the river outlet and tipping the canoes over -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. A fair number of people also took their dogs along in their canoes, which was really cute. This day the waves coming in were very small and kids were out in droves paddling canoes and using old pieces of wood like boogie boards.
The most amazing things the ocean brings to Armila are female leatherback turtles full of eggs, looking for a place on shore to dig a nest and bury their babies so the sand can incubate them until they pop to the surface and make their way to the ocean. When I read in the residency literature that Armila was an important nesting area for the leatherbacks, I was very excited and hoped I would be lucky enough to see one.
I got to see several, and it was a more profound experience than I ever could have guessed it would be. I've seen a fair number of critters in the wild around the world, but this ..... This was something else, and I could try to throw some words around it, but they couldn't really do justice to what I felt.
Our first encounter was at night, which is when the turtles typically come on shore to lay eggs. Most or maybe all nesting turtle "tours" take their clients out at night to look for nesting turtles. So after being in the village only a couple days, we went out one night with Nacho to the beach on the other side of the river outlet, where I had not yet been. So we took a boat across the river and started following Nacho up the beach. It was, of course, dark and I was just watching the ground, trying to pick out my steps, as I didn't have a flashlight. I figured we'd be walking for awhile, so I was startled when Nacho called halt after only a few minutes.
I don't want to take time to describe my Costa Rica experience with a turtle tour group, but having had that experience did not prepare me for the intimacy that we would have here with the turtles! Here we're just villagers living in the same space as the turtles. So when Nacho called halt, I thought he was stopping to tell us all something, but no words came. Then I looked where his dim red light was pointing. Red light does not bother the turtles ... a regular flashlight does, it would freak the turtle out and she may abandon the nest she's digging. So (also in Costa Rica) only light colored red should be used. I thought Nacho's light was probably pointed down idly as he was about to speak. So when I followed the light, I was so startled I nearly jumped back as I saw, right there, maybe 10 feet from me, a giant turtle head.
It took me a minute to even parse the scene. The head was mammoth ... seeing pictures of how large they are doesn't prepare you for being right next to one. This lady was large even by leatherback standards. So that was my first encounter and I was very happy about it even though I couldn't get any real pictures in the dark. A couple days later, I was hanging out in our hut in the afternoon when Luz came running in telling me there was a turtle on the beach in broad daylight. She had gotten lost at night and went upriver instead of to the ocean after she completed her nest. She had been redirected and now was heading toward the ocean. I ran out to the beach with just my phone camera.
When I saw the turtle and what a good photo opp it could be, I sprinted to the best of my old and arthritic ability back to the hut, grabbed my real camera and sprinted back, catching a few pics before she disappeared into the ocean.
After this I was pretty ecstatic. But this wasn't the end of my encounters! I'll talk more about the turtles, and share more pics, when I tell you about the Turtle Festival in another post. For now, this is just to point out the most amazing thing the ocean brings to the village.
So the shore is beautiful -- a long stretch of soft, pale sand beach lined with palm trees and a wall of jungle behind them, gentle ocean waves coming in. Absolutely idyllic.
The residency literature did not mention what we all would discover in our first few days in Armila. Perhaps because it might turn people off? I think it's fine that it's not mentioned. It was actually interesting to see how everyone reacted to the discovery, as we each explored around on our own, and then came and exclaimed to each other and asked our guides for explanations. For as soon as you pass the village center, more and more of the beach is choked with trash.
It's not the villagers' trash, though they are not 100% blameless, the majority is garbage that washes up from the ocean at large. Many of the items stranded on the beach and gathered in lagoons just beyond the high tide mark are things that aren't even available in the Guna villages or would not have any use even if someone brought them in from outside. I don't know how the currents work, I don't know if all the washed-up garbage comes from one source that would be identifiable (a particular large city, for example), or if it just collects randomly from all around the Caribbean.
The shore directly in front of the village is relatively clean ... a few plastic bottles here and there, nothing out of the ordinary for Central America. So walking a little ways outside of the heart of the village, it is a shock to suddenly come across the heaps of trash. Somehow I managed to permanently and irrecoverably delete some photos on my phone ... you see, I don't really know how to use the thing, so god only knows what I did. They were pictures of the trash lagoon -- the most shocking place of all -- and of a bunch of individual items on the beach. I took them the day I starting making a list of the items I saw (I'll post it the bottom of this article). Here are some pics I took on another day that I managed not to delete. (I didn't walk around with my "real" cameras very often, only in the jungle or early in the mornings ... so a lot of documentation comes from the camera on my phone.)
And yet among the trash, little signs of life that seemed like little signs of hope.
The most common items in the trash heaps were plastic bottles and shoes. Why shoes? I have no idea. But two of the artists in the residency chose these most ubiquitous items to make some impressive installation art. Jeffrey Michael Austin collected shoes of all colors and tied them with bits of rope to the chainlink fence that was at the edge of the courtyard of the hut I stayed in. It took days for him to do the collection and days to visualize his design, and days standing out in the blazing sun affixing the shoes. I was skeptical at first, I admit, about having a bunch of garbage shoes tied to the fence outside my window. But wow, it was an amazing creation. Beautiful and tragic ... colors of the rainbow, geometric patterns -- ooooh aahhhh -- made of a minuscule fraction of the garbage sullying the beaches of Armila.
My roommates, Chong and Yoon, who work together artistically as "Chulma," made a flag out of every color of bottle cap ... spending ages collecting enough of each color, sketching out their design, and then an unbelievably painstaking amount of time "stitching" them together with twine. Chong drilled a tiny hole on four sides of each cap with the only drill in town, which he was able to borrow in spurts, and then they threaded the twine through them to make a solid, stiff "flag" of a turtle. They hung it up at the turtle "hatchery" ... a fenced-off place where the villagers translocate eggs from nests that are too close to the ocean and will wash away, or are otherwise in danger.
They also spent an immense amount of time making this short stop-motion film with the bottle caps. It just so happened that there was a concrete slab right outside our hut, I have no idea why it was there, what it was made for, but it was the perfect platform on which they could create their film. Since I was their roommate, I saw how much effort they put into it, to the point they became sick of it but were determined to finish, and I really can't stress enough how amazing their effort and their final product is. Check out the first draft of their film (about 40 seconds long):
So the trash is a bummer. And most of the villagers don't seem to care much. But some do. And some have tried various initiatives to use the trash constructively (make things with it to sell, etc.). Outsiders have also come in to introduce methods of making crafts or useful objects from the trash. Inevitably those projects peter out, no one takes the helm as leader of any project and group enthusiasm quickly fizzles with no one to direct, organize, or cheerlead. They burn a lot of the trash, raking it into piles covered with dried palm leaves as tinder, which is totally toxic, all that plastic burning.
Colombians come over (as Colombia border is very near) and buy the aluminum cans, as they have a recycling facility for aluminum. So you don't see many cans lying around, just plastic. The village discusses collecting and burying it, but that's just a cover-up, it doesn't solve the problem, and there are two big prohibitive issues with this approach: (1) wherever they decide to make a hole, it will inevitably be near somebody's finca (farming plots) and nobody wants a trash hole near theirs, (2) in their folk beliefs, their magical, mythical creatures and places are underground. Many cultures take their mythological stories from the sky and stars, and the good places like heaven are up in the sky; in Guna beliefs all of those places are underground. So digging deep into the earth offends all these beliefs, it's sacrilegious.
Here's how serious the Guna take their beliefs in the underground world and spirits. This is a story from another website about when people in Armila decided to build some fish tanks and try fish farming. They dug into the earth to build a deep tank. Then one day a man said he saw an evil spirit come out of the ground. Village suspicion is that he was a fisherman who was simply afraid of losing his business to the "farmers." But their beliefs are strong enough, and it makes sense that the spirits could be angry for digging into their sacred realm, that nobody was willing to dismiss the sighting. So the village shaman declared they needed to do a purification ceremony. This was not just a one-day ceremony, but took two weeks with many restrictions in the village during that time and the women and children vacated the village and set up camps on the beach across the river outlet. This was serious stuff.
In terms of the villagers' own contribution to garbage, the genesis of that came from many years ago when one of the sahilas declared that villagers should not keep trash in their homes, it was unclean to do so, and they should take it all to the ocean. But back then, most of the villagers' waste was organic in nature. Plastic had not been invented. Now, plastic is particularly used in rural economies because it's so cheap. So the idea of throwing trash to the ocean is no longer appropriate to how their society has changed. I asked Nacho if a current sahila could influence the villagers' habits if he, or all the sahilas together, told the villagers that now they must not throw things out into nature. But then the question is, what DO they do with it? This is an isolated community, they can't just have a trash company come by and empty trash cans. Even if they gathered up their own trash, where could they take it? Then they're back to burning it or burying it, none of which are adequate, or healthy, solutions.
The village is also talking a lot about filling in a valley-type space, a natural depression, as opposed to digging a hole and then when it’s full to the level of the surrounding ground, capping it with cement and making it into a volleyball court or something like that, something the kids and community will benefit from, so they’ll feel motivated to fill up that space with trash rather than throwing it somewhere else. But once again, the valley is only so big, it will fill up.
The solution to the community's trash problem is clearly to prevent plastic from entering the village ... no plastic bottles, that alone would make a huge difference. Limit items to only what can be sustainably dealt with from now into the future. And what do they do with the trash that washes in from the ocean? That's a Sisyphusian effort to clear that away, and they have no control over its continual assault of their beaches.
So this is the ecological tragedy of the seemingly paradise village -- the garbage problem. But the ocean brings in some gems, too. Helpful things, like driftwood. For their fires, the villagers don't have to cut down many trees because they just collect driftwood from the beach. I saw one family come in with their dugout canoe to a place further down the beach than where the village is and load up their boat with driftwood. We gathered a bunch one night because Nacho wanted to put on a big bonfire for the artists. This was rather amusing to me because it was so hot already, I couldn't fathom sitting next to a bonfire! Indeed, I had to stand way, way back.
Some of the driftwood was incredibly beautiful and picturesque.
And of course seashells! As I showed you some that I took home, in my Souvenirs post.
So here is the list I started making, first of any items that struck me as strange, amusing, disturbing -- things you might not normally find on the beach! Then I switched to a disheartening list of just all the different things made of plastic. Then my piece of note paper was full and I just took pictures, which I then accidentally deleted. But in any case, the list here and the pics all only represent a fraction, a tiny fraction, of the kinds of things found, and I was only walking around a small portion of the beach. Later I would see one of the nesting turtles dragging herself back to the ocean over a pair of metal scissors.
Bicycle, life vest, scrubbing brush, size DD bra, toothbrush, deodorant, volleyballs, plastic flashlight, plastic bucket, balled-up used diapers, plastic deck chair, plastic milk crate, plastic pulley and some kind of construction panels, rubber hose, DEET bottles, fast food styrofoam, backseat of a car, couch, plastic cooler, infant walker and play chair (plastic), plastic tampon applicators, plastic buckets, television, metal cooking oven, metals pots, plastic wheel from a kid's cart, large satellite dish, plastic cups and dishes, an occasional glass bottle, eye mask for sleeping, rubber bucket, pillow, ping pong ball, basketball, baby wipe lid, plastic hanger, two matching flip flops far down the beach from each other (had particular flowers on the straps), lots of corn cobs, kids backpacks, bed post, part of a humidifier (plastic), several plastic piggy banks, plastic thermos, plastic tricycle handlebars, plastic jerry can, plastic shovel handle, plastic rake, plastic dolls and more plastic kids toys than I can list. This is the next most common item after bottles and shoes: children's toys.
The pillow I found had some plastic thing on it that at first I thought was part of the pillow. I poked it with my foot and it started screeching like a car alarm, "skreek skreek skreek!" I was horrified, I thought somehow I had set off something by touching that plastic and I had no idea how I would turn it off. I looked around all panicked. But the sound stopped. I looked up, and realized it was just coincidence that a bird in a palm tree started screeching at precisely the moment I touched the plastic. Obviously it's very silly that I thought I set off an alarm by touching a piece of garbage plastic sitting on a pillow on the beach. But at the moment, there was no other available explanation for the noise that began right when I touched it! But I had a good laugh at myself after I saw the bird.
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High on my list of places to see in my home country, the United States, has been the old growth redwoods and sequoias in California. I just crossed the redwoods off my list as Erik and I recently took a brief trip to San Jose and spent a day in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Which are the bigger trees, the redwoods or sequoias? I didn't know until I just Googled it; here is what I learned: The sequoias are the largest in diameter and overall volume, while the redwoods are the tallest. Sequoias have a longer lifespan by almost a thousand years! Redwoods live up to about 2,000 years and the sequoias to 3,000. The redwoods grow along the Pacific coast, while the sequoias are found further inland at a higher elevation.
This was a day when I really appreciated my wide-angle lens, but it could seldom fit in a whole tree. It's just astonishing when you look up and up and up and still cannot see the top of the trees.
This tree, named the Mother of the Forest, was the tallest tree in the park at one time (329 feet), according to an informational brochure about the trail she's located along. Some 30 feet of her top broke off in a storm, but I couldn't find anywhere in the park's literature what the height of the tallest tree now is.
Erik will now demonstrate the scale of these trees compared to puny humans. There was a big enough patch of open ground that I could get far enough away from this first tree to fit it in the frame. Can you pick out where tiny little Erik is?
You really start to get a crick in your neck from looking up all the time. It reminded me of when we were at the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, how we strained our necks looking up all the time. In fact I wrote an essay about it saying the best way to view the Sagrada is lying on a gurney. (Feel free to read it HERE.) I guess I wouldn't say that about the redwoods; it's better to hike through them, feel the dirt beneath your feet, the same dirt nurturing the giants. But it's the same sense of gazing skyward in mute wonder, in a place that is holy ... Gaudi drew his inspiration from nature, and nature, in my opinion, is the most holy temple of all.
Looking up at the redwoods is like looking into outer space, in that distance is a measure of time. When you try to see the tops of these giants, who began as seeds and tiny saplings, you're looking up at a measure of time. One of the most profound illustrations was next to the park's fee station, where they had mounted a slice from the trunk of a tree that was 1,600 or 1,800 years old, I can't remember which. They put pins in various rings with tags that noted some well-known historical event, or a note about the height or fall of some empire. It's incredible to see tangibly how much human history has transpired during the life of an ordinary run-of-the-mill redwood tree -- the rise and fall of entire empires all around the globe are fractions of an inch within the trunk; almost everything seems like a footnote in context of the tree's rings, in its 1,600+ years as witness to planet earth. No, it didn't see with eyes or hear with ears all the human events, but it stood and grew and was present during all our turmoil and chaos, our social and technological evolution. We're swarming around in a frenzy, living and dying, while it grows steadily, standing still and majestic, moving only with the wind. What a beautiful counterbalance to humanity.
After taking the short and informative walk around the "Redwood Trail" (where we saw the Mother of the Forest), we set out for a little longer hike on the Sequoia and Skyline to the Sea loop, about four miles of easy terrain. Wonderfully, we encountered very few other people, we had the trail pretty much all to ourselves to walk in quiet awe through the ancient forest.
Notice in the photo above how the tree next to the trail on the left is leaning over at a pretty extreme angle and yet seems still firmly rooted. The root system within a redwood forest is a massive network, where the roots of each tree are connected with roots of all the others nearby. You might think their roots extend deep into the earth to support such height, but they are surprisingly shallow. Their strength comes from the network, they all support each other. So when these trees lean -- I'm not sure what has caused this one to -- they are prevented from toppling over by the roots of the trees surrounding them. It's pretty cool. Of course trees do eventually fall and die ... imagine witnessing one of these trees falling!
Kind of can't help but make a comparison to the human forest as many of our societies are becoming splintered, fractured, polarized and individualized, and weakened in the process. Look at how majestic and soaring this forest can become because they intertwine their roots and support each other.
One of the most remarkable things about the forest is that the majority of trees have fire scars from lightning strikes or forest fires. The redwoods are incredibly fire resistant. Rather than bursting into flames like all the pine trees around my house would, they get charred and can smolder inside, in the heart of the tree, for over a year!
The result is a magical landscape that looks like elves and gnomes and fairies live here and spend their time producing modern-art installations. The hollowed-out spaces look like shelter for the fairy-tale folk. The creature inside the tree below is a rather large human, and the tree would be a comfortable home even for him! Would be a palace for a gnome or troll. Or wait a minute ... is that a troll??
The skeletons of trees who finally succumbed to numerous fires look like sculptures you'd see in an art museum. An ancient redwood forest is a very special place ... I imagined that it would be cool, that's why I wanted to see one. But I had no idea it would feel so magical, transcendent and sacred.
Wow, there's one of those wood fairies now! Who knew they were photographers?
This fallen tree, neatly cut by a chainsaw to clear the path, is so interesting the way the inside is blackened and only an outer ring is normal. It's so black, at first you think it is hollow. I presume this tree smoldered for quite some time in its past.
Yet another fascinating aspect of the redwoods is their bark ... each tree looks different and the bark and roots can be fabulously uber-duber trippy.
Here's something unexpectedly interesting about the trunks: the spider "webs" which are really more like spider nets. All along the trunks these nets are woven between crevices in the bark. I did not see any of the spiders who make these nets, which is completely fine by me.
Just check out the insane topography of this patch of bark and all the different colors.
Here's a different kind of spiderweb, like a dome.
The very sweet Sempervirens Falls is along this route. Interesting rock face with the tree at the very edge, it's like someone took a knife and cut away a slice of land leaving the rock and roots exposed. And now plants are starting to grow through cracks in the rock.
The roads on the way to the park, by the way, are also lovely. When we started out on the freeway heading out of the city, dense traffic all around, I never imagined we'd end up on these very narrow, super twisty, nearly empty roads. It was delightful.
If you're interested in how complex a forest is underground, check out this Radiolab episode that is one of my favorites. I was thinking about it while we were walking through this forest. "Tree to Shining Tree."
So, it was great to cross another thing off my List. If you find yourself in the area, I recommend checking out Big Basin Redwoods State Park. I think you have to be a real curmudgeon not to be struck with a playful spirit in this magical place.
Our hike took us past a campground, and we got a kick out of some kids who were running around and pretending the forest was a castle or fort or something -- very appropriate. We heard one kid yell, "Send in more archers!" Then as we walked past another kid posted behind a tree, he yelled out, "Archer Three, false alarm!" Clearly, we were the false alarm. So fortunately, our day didn't end with being attacked by a gang of pretend archers! Or at least I presume *pretend!*