Archive for October, 2010

Estimated Time of Departure

Posted by Arlo on Oct 27, 2010 under Life of Arlo, Postcard Valet, Travel


You can make all the plans in the world, but life will still get in your way.

— Paraphrased from W.E. Griffin Jr. (My granddad)

My granddad told me that years ago and it struck me as one of life’s great truisms.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

By now, Oksana and I expected to be deep in Central or South America, months into our round-the-world backpacking trip.  While we never had much of a plan, per se, we did have a sort of schedule lined up.  After driving through the United States, we thought we would depart from Florida around mid-August.  But then, because we were tired of driving, we pushed that back a couple weeks.

It was an easy decision to make; we were visiting my grandparents at their cottage on the beach in Nags Head.  We thought, Why not enjoy some sun and sand before heading south? Both Oksana and I like spending time with my grandparents and, in addition, my grandmother could use our help.  She was still recovering from a double-whammy of a heart attack and pneumonia from back in February.

All summer, my extended family took their turns visiting the cottage.  By the end of August, everyone had left for home, leaving only my overwhelmed aunt and grandfather to care for my grandmother.  Oksana and I realized that we were in the unique position of not having a job to run back to and, if we were willing to put off the start date of our trip a little longer, we could stay and help. We discussed it and decided to push back our departure date again until the end of September.

And then out of nowhere, on September 25th, we had another medical emergency in the family.  My aunt Susie, upon whom my grandparents relied so heavily, ended up in the emergency room with… well, we still don’t know what happened.  She’s been in and out of intensive care units and transported between three different hospitals now.  I’ve lost track of all the CAT scans, MRIs, spinal taps, and blood tests they’ve done.  As a family, we’ve weathered diagnoses of meningitis, encephalitis, multiple sclerosis, vasculitis, prescription drug overdoses and underdoses… even bird flu! We may not know the underlying cause, but we do know that she had upwards of four separate strokes.

In the short term, my mom (her sister) and my cousin (her daughter) flew down from Ketchikan to lend a hand.  My mom, realizing that my aunt would no longer be able to care for their parents, flew back to Ketchikan to start packing her things for a semi-long-term stay in North Carolina.  My cousin has stayed with her mom in the hospital, and Oksana and I are staying with my grandparents until my mom moves to NC.

Travel is important to us, but family? More so.

However, we do have a plan now.  Despite not having a real itinerary, we did have one commitment in Ecuador.  Five friends are joining us for a jaunt through the Galapagos starting around the 15th of November.  Oksana bought our tickets a couple days ago; we leave on 10th.

Alpha Tortoise

Posted by Arlo on Oct 22, 2010 under Photography, Postcard Valet, Travel

Tortoise Dominance Games at the Darwin Research Station

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One of the featured attractions of the Galapagos Islands is its giant land tortoises.  Charles Darwin noted them 175 years ago when he surveyed the archipelago in 1835.  In his day, the tortoises were known to passing whalers as an excellent food source.  They would haul them onto their ships by the dozen, flip them on their backs, and they would keep for months at sea.  Fortunately for the turtles, today they are known more for the clear evidence their shells present for evolution.

What you may not know is that there are very few places a tourist can go to see these tortoises at all.

There’s a highland ranch on the island of Santa Cruz that lets visitors in to see “wild” tortoises, but other than that, your best bet is to visit the Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora.  It’s here that scientists and grad students research and breed the different varieties of Galapagos land tortoises in an attempt to reintroduce them to the wild.

Back in January, when my group passed through the Research Station, our guide gave us a brief tour of the different tortoise pens before he departed and left us on our own.  We had a few hours to kill before we were to meet back on the boat, so I decided to stay put.

There’s one pen in the Station where tourists are invited to mix with these huge animals.  It was early enough in the morning that the five or six tortoises in there were still fairly lethargic.  A gentle rain was starting, so there were very few other tourists with me.  I sat down less than ten feet from a group of three sleeping giants and watched them slowly wake up.  Before long, one ambled over to another and I watched a dominance game play out.

As if in slow motion – well, actually, their motion was slow – two long necks snaked out from their respective shells and climbed straight up.  When neither tortoise’s neck could rise any higher, they both laboriously lifted their shells off the ground as they used their stocky legs to gain a bit more height.  Mouths open, exposing pink tongues behind sharp beaks, the two tortoises hissed at each other… until the one on the right, an inch or two shorter than the other, finally submitted.

Throughout the morning, I saw this display again and again.  While these two turtles never managed to bite one another, I did see one take a chunk out of another’s cheek.  These guys may be slow, but they have some powerful jaws!

Panasonic DMC-TZ5
Date: 10:37pm, 09 January 2010
Focal Length: 5mm (28 at 35mm equivalent)
Shutter: 1/320 second
Aperture: F/3.3
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Heavily cropped, cloned out a coiled garden hose in the background, increased saturation, decreased brightness.

Review of Michael Crichton’s Travels

Posted by Arlo on Oct 11, 2010 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Michael Crichton's Travels

You know what sucks?  Walking into one of the best bookstores on the planet and realizing that you can’t buy any books.

That’s how I found myself back in July, when we were passing through Portland.  We had a couple hours to kill and I wanted to spend it in Powell’s.  The only problem was that Oksana and I had just reduced our material possessions down to what could fit in our backpacks, and even if I could spare the time for some recreational reading, I couldn’t rationalize the added weight of a single paperback.  Not to mention the iPad we’d brought along.  If there’s one good argument for digital publishing, it’s that it is tailor-made for travel reading…

So I found myself window shopping the bookcases, glancing over the collections of some of my favorite authors, when I came across the Michael Crichton section.  Sphere, Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain.  Good reads, good times.  But wait, what’s this?  Travels? I picked up the worn paperback and read the back cover.  How could I have read practically everything Crichton has written and not known that he wrote a book about traveling?  Seemed like an omen.  Screw iBooks.  I had to buy this.

“Writing is how you make the experience your own, how you explore what it means to you, how you come to possess it, and ultimately release it.” –Michael Crichton

I’m not in the habit of collecting quotes, but this one, about why Crichton tackled a book on his physical and spiritual travels, so perfectly explains why I write that I couldn’t help but write it down.

I didn’t get a chance to read it until we got to the beach in North Carolina.  It’s no wonder I’d never heard of Travels.  Not only is it a book wholly different from its marketing, it doesn’t paint Mr. Crichton in a very good light (even though it’s his own memoir.)

One thing I liked about Crichton was the way he obsessively researched his books.  After reading a few of them, you couldn’t help but see how he comes by his ideas.   Some new scientific headline would tickle his interest – say, gene splicing (Jurassic Park), nanotechnology (Prey) or virtual reality (Disclosure) – and off he would go, reading anything and everything even vaguely related to the subject.  Eventually, some ideas would coalesce into a plot, setting, characters… and he’d spin us a yarn.

Jurassic Park is a perfect example.  Gene splicing across species wasn’t anything new to write fiction about, but when he paired it with the 65-million-year-old mosquito-in-amber trick to get it to work with dinosaurs, it turned into a great idea.  I imagine the same story would have been created by any number of other authors after that T. Rex bone was broken and scientists discovered soft tissue preserved inside, but because Crichton was already up to his eyeballs in splicing research, I’m sure the idea popped into his head as soon the first amber story crossed his desk.

Anyway, back to Travels.

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Marine Iguana

Posted by Arlo on Oct 8, 2010 under Photography, Postcard Valet, Travel

Marine Iguana

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I went to the Galapagos without an SLR.  There, I said it.

It wasn’t my fault.  When I went to Ecuador with a group of eight college students, I made the decision to concentrate on video.  Then only thing less fun than carrying around an SLR and a camcorder is trying to juggle them both on a shoot by yourself.  Even so, I brought along a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot “just in case” (and because it literally fit in my pocket.)

Halfway through the trip, four of the students decided to spend a week in the Galapagos.  We split the group and I went with them.  While the Lumix proved invaluable for underwater video (with the underwater housing I brought along with it), it was extremely frustrating to use on land.  Not that it can’t take good photos when the conditions are perfect; it has a decent chip and a nice long zoom lens.  My biggest complaint with it (and for that matter, all point-and-shoots) was that I just could not tell if a photo was really in focus until I got it onto a computer screen.

So there I was, at probably one of the best places on the planet for wildlife photography, surrounded by other photographers with 400-600mm lenses, without a decent camera myself.  I did the best I could with what I had.

And I got some good photos, too.  I just lost some great ones while doing it.

They tell you not to use flash photography on the wildlife in the Galapagos, and for good reason.  If every tourist pushed their strobes in front of the semi-tame animals, every iguana, blue-footed boobie, and sea lion on the islands would be stumbling around blind.  I am normally very conscious about rules like that, but I realized, after the fact, that when I took a photo of this little guy, the auto flash had fired.

Granted, the shot really did need a good fill flash – without it he would have been a silhouette against that blue sky – but I felt guilty just the same.  The iguana?  He didn’t seem to mind.  After I moved on, he continued to pose for everyone else in our group, too.

I’m looking forward to going back this November with my new 5D mark II.  I only have a 200mm lens (with a 2x extender, if I need to push it to 400mm), but you can get so close to the animals there that that should be more than good enough.

Panasonic DMC-TZ5
Date: 4:59pm, 12 January 2010
Focal Length: 19mm (112 at 35mm equivalent)
Shutter: 1/640 second (Flash fired)
Aperture: F/4.7
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Auto color and minor cloning to remove a twig from the sky.