November 7th-16th

• We left Vietnam from Hanoi on November 7th. After waiting 5 hours at the bus station (because of the incorrect advice from our guesthouse) we started our 13 hour ride to the border town Dien Bien Phu. This was to be followed by getting immediately onto a 5:30am bus for 7 hours to the Laos border and then to a transfer town called Muang Khua. At Muang Khua we would walk the 3 kilometers with backpacks to the bus station which, after a 3 hour journey through winding dirt roads, would lead us to our destination of Udomxai. The highlight of the journey was that apparently our dinner was included in the price of our first ticket. So when we stopped at a rest stop we were told to sit with four others, a Vietnamese family. The daughter smiled and scooped rice for me. She then followed that with pantomiming for me to try the dish in front of her by rubbing her stomach. I tried the intestines, she laughed in return. Meanwhile her father and uncle, both in full military uniform, had offered me a shot of rice wine…and then six more. The rest of the ride, well, I don’t remember so well.

• Udomxai was a jumping point to Luang Nam Tha, an NPA (National Protected Area) with supposedly great hiking. We thought we would have the chance to see Black Asiatic Bears, elephants, or ligers. We were disappointed to find out that it was unlikely to see any animals without doing expensive 4+ day hiking trips. We opted instead for our own free 14 kilometer walk through stilted thatched villages to a waterfall. We bolted down to Luang Prabang the next day.

• Luang Prabang is an UNESCO World Heritage City. With its old French architecture, flourishing temples and location between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers it’s easy to lose yourself in its beauty. Unfortunately, as it seems with UNESCO protected cities and the catering towards package tourism it spawns dilutes the city’s charm. In spite of that though, the city still speaks to us and we’ve been finding our way through it to the things we think of as its gems. The nearby Kuangxi waterfalls are beautiful, producing turquoise blue pools that seem almost unnatural. The Hmong night market houses a food alley where a vegetarian buffet goes for about sixty cents. And today, Mari and I volunteered at a local English teaching program called Big Brother Mouse. Mari worked with a 21 year old man who was trying to learn English so that he wouldn’t have to be part of the family business as a farmer. He reminded us how much Luang Prabang, and it’s bubble directed towards wealthy foreigners, is not reflective of the average living conditions in Laos by mentioning in conversation practice that he didn’t know if he liked eating at restaurants, since he had never been to one before. For my couple of hours of volunteering, I was matched up with a young man who took me to an internet café because he wanted me to help him communicate with a doctor he had met here before…through Facebook of all things. We spent the whole time setting up his account, posting a picture to his profile, and sending out his 1 friend request. In the end, he thanked me and asked if I would be his second friend. Something tells me he’s getting the hang of it.

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Leatherbacks

I guess it’s only natural that I’m the one writing this entry. I’ve always liked turtles and friends draw parallels between me and the genus a little too freely. But there is something about them that draws people to them like no other reptiles do, as evidenced by their religious significance in Polynesian culture. So on April 3rd, we arrived at Reserva Pacaure to work with Leatherback turtles, the largest of the existing species, during their nesting season. We wanted to experience a connection between these prehistoric relics and do so while improving their 1 in 1000 odds of egg-to-adulthood survival.

I started my first patrol at 11 pm under an almost full moon, the black sand beach still dark to my maladjusted eyes. The unevenness of the beach, coupled with the washed up driftwood made my first minute’s steps small and unsure. Only the constant sound of the ocean and the white of the waves kept me steady with their rhythm. About 45 minutes in, I caught up with another person on the beach, a Research Assistant sitting close to where the beach met the forest. We started talking for a couple of minutes in the dark, when she asked me how it felt. I responded with, “what?” to which she answered, “to see your first turtle,” as she leaned to the side, revealing a Leatherback a foot away. I had missed seeing this animal as big as a clown car. But now it sat there preparing her nest as those before her had been doing for nearly 200 million years. For the next hour we worked with her; measuring, relocating the eggs, and camouflaging the tracks—-but mostly just connecting with the experience. I watched her return to her element and continued my patrol.

As the night wore on, my steps gained confidence, getting used to the slope of the sand and eager to come across another sighting. Shooting stars and fireflies broke into the monotony of the trek and made me feel nature was encouraging those who tried to aid her. At 4 am, walking back to the lodges, we came across another nesting turtle. We worked with her till nearly 6 am, the sun rising as she finally made her way back to the ocean, enabling a rare site—seeing a Leatherback by day.

Since my first night, Mari and I have gone out patrolling nightly, doing what we could to help, and feeling closer to nature in the process. We were scheduled to leave on April 10th, Good Friday, but have extended our stay through Easter. So while the rest of Central America will be observing Semana Santa, we’ve opted for a subtler communion, right here with the turtles.

Posted: April 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Costa Rica | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »