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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Online image editors make sharing photos easier when traveling

When I travel, I like to upload photos to share with the folks back home. However, the computers at hotels or internet cafés don't always have imaging software loaded on them.

That's where online image editors come in handy. There are many out there, but this year, Adobe Photoshop launched Photoshop Express, a pared down version of it's miraculous image editing software that costs hundreds of dollars to buy.

It may not have all the bells and whistles that the original program has, but you can upload, sort, resize, crop and store up to two gigabytes on the site for free. After that, you can share them on Flickr, Facebook, on a mobile phone or on a blog.

You can also find a list of other image editors here.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Photo appears in National Geographic Traveler magazine

My dream of being published in a National Geographic publication come true! A photo of mine appears in the November/December 2008 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

The photo of an Argentine man grilling beef over an open flame, which originally appeared on this blog in April 2006 (click here to read the original entry), was chosen to illustrate a woman who describes her first Argentine asado (cookout).

Traveler's Senior Photo Editor Daniel R. Westergren found the image, of all places, on my Flickr page in late September. Flickr is a photo-sharing website, which hosts more than three billion images worldwide.

Many photographers believe they've reached the top when they've appeared in National Geographic. For me, this is just the beginning.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bargaining Power

Face it. Most women like to shop.

But shopping at handicraft markets around the world is akin to shopping for a used car. There's a lot of haggling back and forth over the price, which has a tendency to put off some people that are accustomed to paying the advertised price. But if you don't play the game, you'll not only walk away with a bigger hole your pocket, but you'll also contribute to further price inflation for future tourists.

But, there are strategies you can use to help come to a mutually agreeable price and not endure snickers from vendors behind your back.

Do reconnaissance. Check out what products the airport gift shops carry when you first arrive in the country. Note the prices on items you like, and never pay those amounts in the market. Goods at airport gift shops, even here at home, are way overpriced--the markup can be as great as 300 percent.

Shop Around. Most vendors at a handicrafts market carry the same stuff. As you wander past the stalls, casually ask the price of the things you're interested in, but don't linger. Prices at the perimeter of the market tend to be higher, so keep going further. The price invariably goes down.

Never accept the first price. If you are ready to try your hand at bargaining, the first price is ridiculous, and the vendor knows it. Just smile, and say, "no thanks."

Ask for a discount. After the first price is given, ask for a discount. You might have a vendor say, "How much will you pay?" I usually ignore this question, and ask, "How much is the discounted price." The figure they tell you is the real starting price to start the haggling process.

Offer one-third to half of the asking price. Start with a low figure. The vendor might laugh or try to convince that you've offended him/her, but don't let this ruffle your feathers.

Walk Away. I can't tell you how many times I've walked away from a price that I felt was too high, and suddenly it dropped significantly. At one stall in Ecuador, the starting price on a blanket was $40, but suddenly dropped to $10 when I walked away.

Buy from a man. I can't put my finger on it, but it seems like a get a better deal when I buy from a male vendor. It's not that he succumbs to my feminine wiles, I just think that female vendors drive a harder bargain.

Buy in Bulk.
Often times, you can get a deeper discount if you want to buy several items once you've settled on a price for one object. If one object costs $2, ask for three for $5.

Have fun. Never yell at a vendor, or get angry. That never gets you anywhere.

These are just a few suggestions for jump starting your confidence when shopping abroad, although there are more ways that may be just as or more effective.

My friends, Jennifer and Adrianne, developed a team bargaining method in Ecuador. If either one of them were interested in something, she would ask, "Do you think it's my style?" The operative word--style--would indicate that bargaining was about to commence. The friend would step up and say that it wasn't her style, examine it closer for flaws, and they'd try the walk-away method.

That worked well until the last day of our trip. Jennifer was enamored with some black and white chulucana pottery. She was determined to buy it, and she wore her eagerness openly. I asked her if it was her style. She said "Oh, yes!"

Adrianne and I just looked at each other, and knew she was in trouble. Sure enough, the total came to $33 for several pieces, and she couldn't even get $3 off the price to make it an even $30.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The equator lies about an hour's drive north of Quito. But until the invention of GPS navigation, the true "line" between the north and south hemispheres was as scientific as someone building a monument and claiming it was located at the equator.

Various markers have come and gone in the modern age, but only one lies exactly on the equator, and it's not the more popular site called Mitad del Mundo (Spanish for the Middle of the World, which is off by about 240 meters.

Then along came the Quitsato Project--scientific research that began in June 1997 in an effort to establish the exact location of the imaginary line. As it turns out (big surprise), ancient cultures had already plotted the equator exactly. They had a complex knowledge of astronomy, which helped them plot agricultural calendars, climates, seasons and seasonal festivities.

The Quitsato Project found links between various archaeological sites, including one called "Catequilla," which is located at ground zero: latitud 0˚0'0". Although its significance had been lost over time, the research confirmed that the location of this place was not a coincidence.

To raise money for more research, and "to rescue, renovate and dignify the concept of the Middle of the World, which is seated at the base of the cultural identity of the Ecuadorians and their history," the group has built a giant sundial on the North Panamerican Highway between Quito and Cayambe, which marks the exact middle of the world. In exchange for a small donation, you can straddle the equator, with one foot in the north hemisphere and the other in the south.

The sundial measures 177 feet across, and has a tall orange pole in the center that marks the hour and month according to the transit of the sun. Even better, the structure can be observed by satellite thermal images.

Unfortunately, despite it's size and easy-to-find location, our driver had no idea where it was. When we told him we wanted to visit the site, he was baffled. He told us a police officer had directed him to another spot outside of Cayambe. When we got there, we saw an abandoned building with a globe in front.

One of my travel companions, Jennifer, knew instantly that we were in the wrong place. "No," I translated for her. "It's suppose to have a big sundial."

We asked the driver to call the phone number we had for the place, but he said he didn't have cell service in the mountains where we were. (I turned on my cell phone and got a perfect signal.) Then he said he didn't have minutes left on his phone card inserted. And wouldn't you know it, my cell phone didn't work properly (or I just couldn't figure out the right country and city prefixes).

We took a few pictures at the wrong place (see photo). I thought we had no chance of seeing the sundial, so made the most of the situation. Jennifer suffered miserably through a few photos at the fake equator, which we later deleted at her request.

And after a game of good cop, bad cop, the driver said, "Well, there is this one place I know about."

Perhaps he thought we would complain to the hotel that arranged the trip between Otavalo and Quito, or perhaps he thought we stopped in Cayambe for directions (when we requested a pit stop). Either way, he pulled off the road at Kilometer 47, and after peering skeptically at the site, we discovered we were in the right place.

Our driver explored the area with as much interest as the crazy gringas, staring intently at the scientific displays inside the orange tube. While he didn't apologize to me, he admitted that he thought we were confusing this spot with the ancient site, Catequilla, which was further away.

In the end, we all left with some cheesy photos, and as the Quitsato web site states, "a new perspective on our planet, one with balance and unity."

Furthermore, balance was restored between us and our driver, and we returned to Quito happy...and he made it home in time to watch Ecuador beat Chile 1-0 in soccer in a 2010 World Cup qualifier.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Animal Attraction

"How much for that chicken?" I asked a man who was strolling through Otavalo's animal market with a live chicken under his arm.

"AHHHHH,"he responded shoving the bird in my arms. "It's a great chicken. Look here, under the wing. It's a beautiful yellow color. This is a national chicken. There's nothing better."

"But how much?"

"For you, $15."

I had no idea what I was going to do with a live chicken, but the market was an incredible ethnographic experience for my first morning in this highland town nestled in a valley between a cluster of dormant volcanos.

At six o'clock in the morning, an empty field on the outskirts of town begins to fill up with trucks filled with cows, horses, pigs, chicks, ducks, guinea pigs, rabbits, kittens, dogs, and more being brought to auction. Crowds of people, whether buying or selling, meander through the mud and muck checking out their future meal.

A gigantic pig went for about $300--roughly $1 a pound, I'd guess. I think the man who bought it should have had a discount. The critter wasn't behaving so well, so it took three people to wrap a rope around its neck. It may have been the same pig that I later heard squealing loudly on the street. The owner kicked it a few times in the head and shoved it in the back of a truck.

I inquired about a turkey ($38), then a guinea pig (only $2!).

Sadly, the guinea pig is considered a food item, not a pet. And the price goes up to around $6 during holidays like Mother's Day. This is surprising, considering there seems to be a surplus of these little furry rodents in the surrounding countryside. A nearby lagoon is named after the cuy (its quechua name) due to its proliferation in the area.

My travel companions, Jennifer and Adrianne, considered buying one for Jennifer's birthday. We really weren't planning to eat it, but we imagined that it would have been fun to put it on a leash and lead it around town for the day, then sell it to someone else!

We left the animal market empty handed, but I caught myself a runaway kitten on the way out, which I returned to its vendor. It may have been the same kitten I heard mewing from inside a woman's bag as she walked down the street on her way home to solve a mouse problem.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Not Lost in Transaction

With the economy of the United States weakened under the pressure of the financial crisis, decreases in the value of the U.S. dollar against foreign currency has negatively impacted American travelers abroad. Compared to a year ago, the dollar has lost 10 percent of its value against the Euro, for example, despite temporary rebounds. On top of the bad news about exchange rates, travelers incur fees and service charges for foreign currency exchanges.

However, there are places where the dollar is not only relatively strong,but also considered legal tender, eliminating those pesky fees and exchange rate headaches altogether.

Panama has been accepting U.S. dollars alongside its balboa since making an agreement with the U.S. government in 1904. On a recent trip to Panama, I breezed through the international airport—bypassing the currency exchange booth—into a waiting taxi. The driver happily took my $4, and I got a jump start on my vacation. And, I might add, the $22 oceanfront room on Boca Brava Island was easy on my pocketbook.

Ecuador (2000), El Salvador (2001), and East Timor (2000) all adopted the dollar. The former members of the U.S.-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which included Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, chose not to issue their own currency after becoming independent, having all used the U.S. dollar since 1944. Two British dependencies also use the U.S. dollar: the British Virgin Islands (1959) and Turks and Caicos Islands (1973).

Today, I’m heading to Ecuador. I read a report that the trouble in the U.S. has caused prices to go up all over the country. I'll find out and let you know in the coming days.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Google is taking over the world

I must confess that I'm addicted to Google's "My Maps" feature.

I use it to plan business trips. I use it for online supplemental material for stories I write for Lake Erie Living. And now, I have discovered that it works great for creating travel itineraries for foreign travel, too (as long as Google has mapped the country).

So, I tried it out for my upcoming trip to Ecuador next month (Oct. 9-14, 2008). I was able to find lodging close to the South American Explorers Clubhouse that I want to visit on my first day. (South American Explorers is the organization for which I volunteered in Peru for five months in 2004; and in Buenos Aires in 2006.) And I was able to change the icons on the map, so I can quickly see what points are restaurants, hotels, shops, transportation hubs or tourist attractions.

And voilá:

Laura's Ecuador Itinerary

View Larger Map

With My Maps, you can create customized maps in which you can add placemarks for the locations you want to visit. If a place already exists in Google's extensive database, then all the contact information appears at the placemark. If Google doesn't recognize the location, you can add it, then enter information about the place.

Once you have created a map, you can embed photos and videos; share the map with others; give other people permission to edit the map; import KML or GeoRSS to the map; open it in Google Earth; and embed it in a Web site, such as this blog! AND it's dynamic, so you can move the map around, and click on all the points of interest to get more information.

Lonely Planet may still be my primary travel planning companion, but with "My Maps," I can simplify the abundant information and plot only the things that I'm interested in doing.

Google has it all mapped out.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Pulled Under

Today I watched a limp and lifeless child being pulled out of Lake Erie, shattering a beautiful Labor Day evening for at least one family.

I knew something was amiss when I saw a life flight helicopter hovering over the lake while I was riding my bike. Twenty minutes later, when the whirring of the chopper's blade was still puncturing the air, I decided to head to the beach.

I pulled up to Huntington Beach, where the fence overlooking the shoreline was lined with hundreds of people—-some still dripping from their dip in the lake that ended rather abruptly when the missing child alert went out. The beach was cleared of everyone but police and the family of the child. In the picnic area, some groups were still enjoying their holiday cookout, despite the many emergency vehicles and onlookers.

At the far end of the beach, the Coast Guard and Bay Village police were dragging the bottom of the lake. Just a few moments after I arrived, the seven-year-old boy was retrieved from his underwater nightmare. Unresponsive after being underwater for an hour, the emergency crew worked feverishly to revive him. People around me were staying positive (some assuring the crowd that it's possible to revive a drowning victim after an hour in the water), but I feared the worse. And after a quick check on, his status is still not known.

In the meantime, I did a little research. Fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years, reports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those that becoming drowning victims, 54% survive.

Here are some tips from the CDC to keep swimmers safe:

* Know the local weather conditions and forecast before swimming or boating. Strong winds and thunderstorms with lightning strikes are dangerous.

* Know the meaning of and obey warnings represented by colored beach flags.

* Watch for dangerous waves and signs of rip currents (e.g. water that is discolored and choppy, foamy, or filled with debris and moving in a channel away from shore). If you are caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore; once free of the current, swim toward shore.

* Designate a responsible adult to watch young children while in the bath and all children swimming or playing in or around water. Adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, playing cards, talking on the phone, or mowing the lawn) while supervising children.

* Always swim with a buddy. Select swimming sites that have lifeguards whenever possible.

* Avoid drinking alcohol before or during swimming, boating, or water skiing. Do not drink alcohol while supervising children.

* Learn to swim. Be aware that the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend swimming classes as the primary means of drowning prevention for children younger than 4. Constant, careful supervision and barriers such as pool fencing are necessary even when children have completed swimming classes.

* Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone�s life. CPR performed by bystanders has been shown to improve outcomes in drowning victims.

* Do not use air-filled or foam toys, such as water wings, noodles, or inner-tubes, in place of life jackets (personal flotation devices). These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe.

• If a child is missing from your sight, look in the water first.

Despite all best attempts to keep swimmers safe, accidents do happen, and perhaps this advice still couldn't save this little boy's life.

Maybe these tips will help someone else.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

All Hail the King

Bruce Campbell is the legendary B-list actor from Evil Dead. I've never seen the film, nor any of his others, but I can sing all the songs from Evil Dead: the Musical (of all things).

I don't think I've ever seen him in anything but a You Tube video in which he sings "Hungry Like the Wolf" by Duran Duran, while dressed in a smoking jacket and ascot.

Nonetheless, I was on hand during his signing session at the Dark Horse booth, where he was signing comics from his upcoming film, My Name is Bruce. Apparently, he plays a version of himself in the new movie, who becomes the un-hero when the undead actually do come to life. Everyone is relying on him because he played the role of Ash in the Evil Dead movies. Little do they know, he's only Bruce, the actor.
Evil Dead fans were on hand to get autographs, but only a small number of fans actually won the chance in a ticketed lottery. One fan, dressed as Ash, was particularly disappointed, but he happily posed for me.

The Lost Boy

The television show, Lost, is always full of surprises. At Comic-Con, the surprise was the unbilled guest appearance by Matthew Fox, the star of the show, who surprised the crowd by appearing suddenly on stage during a Q&A session with the executive producers of the show--Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.

Prizes were handed out to everyone who asked a question. Each unique item corresponded in some way to the question that was asked. A uncanny Hurley look-a-like was awarded a Dharma Initiative bottle of ranch dressing.

Some of the other Lost revelations, included the acknowledgement that Jin (who may have died in the freighter explosion) and Locke (lying in the coffin at the end of last season) would be back. On the show, "dead is a relative term," the execs proclaimed.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Heroes Welcome

Saturday is Comic-Con's biggest day and Chris was divided over which panel discussions to attend. He could either go see the cast of Battlestar Galactica or the Heroes and Lost panels that were back to back in another hall.

He picked Battlestar, while I checked out the only two dramas on television that I watch.

The line to get into San Diego's Convention Center Hall H snaked around the building when I arrived this morning. Fans of Heroes, had spent the night in order to snag one of the 6,500 seats. I stood with everyone else, but managed to get into the Hall and gain access to the press area next to the stage. Why, I wondered, did I have to stand in line for two hours when I was just going to stand up in front anyway (Comic-Con is surprisingly unfriendly to members of the press--especially low-level journalists such as myself)?

Nevertheless, I was in the heart of the action as the entire cast of Heroes filed onto the stage while adoring fans screamed. Cameras were clicking and clacking, but the photographers paid extra attention to 18-year-old Hayden Panettiere, who has gotten a lot of attention off screen (either crying over the Japanese cruelty toward dolphins or her highly publicized romance with 31-year-old co-star, Milo Ventimiglia.

When the crowd settled down, the Heroes season premiere appeared on the screen. The episode will air in October, but Comic-Con attendees got a sneak peak. Spoiler Alert: Sylar will be coming back strong this season to terrorize those with special powers, and in the first episode, he "collects" a particularly desireable power from one of the main characters. Mohinder, obsessed with his father's research, conducts an experiment on himself. And as usual, Hiro finds himself in a pickle.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Adventures of a Comic-Con Widow

I have a car, I'm in San Diego, and I don't want to spend my entire time here inside a convention center. There's only one thing to do: go to the beach!

But first, I hopped on the freeway and drove 10 miles south of downtown to Chula Vista to visit my dad's brother, Uncle Bill, who is at the Veteran's Home there. After boring him with tales of Comic-Con, the Great Race of 1908 and my world travels, we had some lunch.

The cafeteria food was pretty good. I had a beef taco and decent refried beans (not the runny ones you get at most Mexican restaurants) for $2.50. We sat with a talkative new resident of the home, Alice. She was decked out in a sequined sweater, and had a purple silk flower affixed to her glasses. A large, colorful stuffed frog clung to the back of her wheelchair. She told many stories about her days as a cab driver and a puppeteer, but to be honest, I think her stories put Uncle Bill to sleep!

After leaving Uncle Bill, I headed for Old Town San Diego. That's where everyone said you can buy good, cheap goods from Mexico. But I quickly got disgusted when I saw that the Mexican handicrafts had good ol' American prices. They were more than twice the price of stuff you can buy across the border (which is only 15 minutes away). Believe me, I was tempted to cross into Tijuana, but everyone I've talked to has advised against it. Gang violence has escalated in the last few years, and kidnappings of American tourists is on the rise, too.

So, I abandoned my bid for Mexico, and headed to Coronado Beach, home to the famous Hotel Del Coronado, which was built in 1888, and later became an exclusive hideaway for Hollywood celebs, such as Frank and Marilyn. I've been told that my great, great grandfather worked there in the early 1900s. Dad said he was a clerk, and Uncle Bill told me he was an assistant manager. Unfortunately, there is no record of his employment at "The Del," says Uncle Bill, who said he'd been to the famous hotel to inquire about our ancestor on a few occasions.

I wandered about the historic landmark, ate a piece of flourless chocolate cake on the Sun Deck, then headed onto the white sand of Coronado Beach, where health-conscious runners and health-oblivious sunbathers co-mingled in perfect harmony. The water of the Pacific was surprisingly cold, but that didn't stop kids from catching waves on their boogie boards.

Heading back to downtown San Diego, the traffic report warned of Comic-Con traffic slowing the flow on the I-5, but a sailed into town with no trouble. The biggest problem was trying to avoid paying $17 for event parking. I pulled into a $10 lot just as a van was pulling out. The driver rolled down his window and handed me his parking ticket, which was valid for another eight hours. It was the perfect end to very enjoyable non-Comic-Con day.

From Paris with Love

Dad & Bobbie sent me an e-mail this morning. Paris Hilton swooped into Comic-Con last night to promote her upcoming film, Repo: The Genetic Opera. Aw shucks, I missed her and her entourage.

I did however see Jane Wiedlin (formerly of the GoGos) on Preview Night jockeying for position (behind me) in line at the NBC booth. It seems that her VIP status couldn't get her to the front of the line to get the Battlestar Galactica toaster or the Heroes Hiro bobblehead doll. The toaster sold out within minutes of the exhibit hall's opening, but I'm happy to say that I acquired the Hiro doll and the limited-edition Sylar action figure.

Chris had lined up to get into to the hall around 3 p.m., while I wandered the streets of San Diego, and checked into the hostel, located a few blocks from the convention center. After a cat nap, I wandered down to Comic-Con around 5:45 p.m. because the hall was opening at 6 p.m.

The crowds had amassed in front. Most of those standing around didn't have their passes yet. As I squeezed my way through the long winding lines, someone behind me said, "Let the Nerdfest Begin." Those of us with passes pushed and shoved our way into the exhibit hall as the doors opened at 6 p.m. Meanwhile, in another part of the building, Chris was still waiting in the line he'd been standing in since 3 p.m.

He sent me to the NBC booth for the toys, and he finally made his way to meet me there just after I had seen Jane. From that point, I followed Chris around as he weaved his way through the crowds, past a larger-than life Jabba the Hut, Star Wars Storm Troopers, Iron Man, etc. We turned right at the Marvel Comics Booth and ran into a reporter for The Plain Dealer--Michael San Giacomo--who was promoting the graphic novels he had written. From there, we were off again searching for rare action figures that Chris could buy.

In many ways, Comic-Con is a shopping mall for men, or as Chris reminded me, "a shopping mall for nerds."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pros and Comic-Cons

The southern California sunshine is beaming upon me, but I feel like I've been hit by a truck. It's 5:15 p.m., but my body clock is starting to remind me that I've come from three time zones away.

I've come here for the world's largest comic book, pop culture and television trade show--Comic-Con, which Entertainment Weekly recently called the "Sundance for Nerds." It was my gift to Chris, whose birthday is this Friday.

I've only got a half hour to rest before the madness begins. More than 150,000 have descended upon San Diego for the four-day event that brings together pop culture arts--from comic books, to gaming, to Sci-Fi, to TV. We've got the chance to see big names like Sarah Silverman, the cast of Lost, as well as blasts from the past, such as William Katt from the Greatest American Hero and Lindsay Wagner from the Bionic Woman. Or we could wander the show floor collecting rare action figures and other toys. The possibilities are endless.

Seasoned visitors of Comic-Con say it's completely overwhelming. There's just too much to see and do, they say. I get to find out now....I'm on my way to meet Chris waiting in line behind thousands of other attendees to get into the trade show floor for Preview Night.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The House of Meat

Flying back to Panama City yesterday afternoon was acknowledging that the trip was almost over. Six days is just not enough.

The cab driver took us back to the Casa de Carmen, where we stayed on our first night. I don´t know if I mentioned this before, but the Casa de Carmen sounds a lot like Casa de Carne (House of Meat), which is located in the same neighborhood as the hostal. the first night we were here, the taxi driver took us to the meat market instead. Just a little lack of communication, I suppose.

The taxi driver, Omar, took us to the right place this time. On the way, he pointed out the home of our famous neighbor, Roberto Duran. The boxer lives in an unassuming house down the street from the hostal. The only unusual thing about the places was the number of alabaster statues he had all around his yard.

With our last few hours in Panama, I had to make a stop at the handicraft market to do some shopping. I don´t know whether it´s because it´s off season here, but I´ve had trouble finding places to buy stuff. I was able to buy a few things before the market closed.

Then we decided to checkout Isla Flamenco for dinner. Isla Flamenco is an island at the end of a causeway originally built by the U.S. Army to protect the Panama Canal. We ate at a cafe at the marina, with a few of Panama City across the harbor.

We hailed a taxi to take us back to the hostal, and the taxi driver said, ¨ Ah! The Casa de Carne.¨

I wondered why taxi drivers thought we needed meat so badly. I guess we should have gone, just to say we had been to a meat market. We did drive by on our way back to the hostal, though.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A howlin´good time at Boca Brava

This morning started not with a rooster´s crow, but with a rustling in the trees, and then the loud, deep cry from a howler monkey just outside our window.

An extended family of monkeys call this part of Boca Brava Island home, and the night before, they were frolicking in the trees, dangling upside down from their prehensile tails to grab a tasty fruit. After their feast, I found one little guy passed out, draped around a branch with his limbs dangling free, totally oblivious to the juvenile monkey swinging by.

Once the show was over, one howler -- he must have been the leader of the group -- stared down from his perch 10 feet above my head, and bellowed at me. Perhaps he was the same fellow that decided to wake us up at 3 a.m.

We came to be on the Isla Boca Brava because it sounded from its description in the Lonely Planet to be off the beaten path, yet only about an hour and half away from the Cielito Sur B&B. Just off the mainland of Panama are a series of several volcanic islands, some of them protected for marine animals.

So yesterday, we got up early, drove down from the highlands to the Panamerican Highway, and then turned onto a dirt road. At the end of the road, was a boat dock. We parked our car there, and for a couple bucks, we were shuttled over on a motorboat to an island barely 100 meters away.

Half of the island is owned by a German fellow, who built a hotel and big game fishing operation there. You can´t make reservations ahead of just show up and hope there is a room available. If not, guests are welcome to sleep in hammocks for five dollars. We splurged on a ocean view room with private bathroom for 22 big ones.

We spend the afternoon going to the beach on a secluded cove, then renting kayaks to explore some of the other little islands. At dinner, we dined on fresh red snapper and mahi mahi with fried plantains, while enjoying the company of a couple from Oregon, Jean Marc and Marie. Interestingly, they came down to go through the Panama Canal crewing on a sailboat owned by someone they found on a message board.

The day was great. I just wish we had more time.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

So that's why it's called a rainforest...

Big surprise. It's raining in the rainforest.

We had a pretty clear morning for a hike in the Parque Nacional Volcan Baru on the Sendero los Quetzales (The Quetzal Trail), so named for it's most famous inhabitant--the resplendent quetzal. The famous bird, known for it's long green plumage, even has an Aztec god named after it (Quetzalcoatl). More endangered species are native to the protected area.

Getting to the trailhead requires a steep, 30-minute uphill climb to a ranger station, where we could rest before heading out on the actual path. The trail itself is the most popular in Panama, but not today. We were the first to arrive at 10 a.m. this morning, and we had the next two hours completely to ourselves.

The trail cuts a path alongside the extinct volcano from the village of Cerro Punta, where we started, and Boquete, a town on the other side of the volcano. The guidebooks all recommended that hikers start at Cerro Punta because the trail is mostly downhill. Ha! What a total lie!!!

We didn't take the trail all the way to Boquete because returning to Cerro Punta would require nearly two hours on public transportation, and two bus changes to get back. So, we hiked only to El Mirador Las Rocas, a lookout point that is about a third of the way to Boquete.

The trail to that point was never flat...either a steep climb or a steep decline, often requiring some maneuvering to prevent slipping....still managed to fall a couple times, nonetheless.

We finally arrived at the look out, exhausted and ready for lunch, which the owners of our B&B packed for us in the morning. The look out platform was well past its prime, with wet, rotting boards.

But oh, what a view! By the time we arrived there, clouds had enveloped the volcano. Nothing to see. And it looked like it might rain at any minute. So, we quickly ate and headed back to the entrance of the park.

About one kilometer from the trailhead, we ran into the only other person on the trail--a German hiker who had bused over from Boquete to do the entire trail downhill (yeah right!) back to Boquete. Moments later, the rain began, light at first. Then much harder.

We were drenched by the time we reached the ranger station and we tried to wait out the storm under a canopy. It wasn't stopping, so we braved the elements for the next 30 minutes until we reached the car. My raincoat was anything but waterproof, and somehow all my clothes underneath it were soaked through.

I took a nice hot shower upon our return to the B&B, and now here we sit--I am on the computer, and Chris is on the covered porch reading a book.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Barrels of Fun

On a piece of paper posted at Cielito de Sur are more than 40 things to see and do in the Chiriqui Highlands, but for some reason, Chris and I had a tough time mustering the strength to do any of them. Instead, we lounged on the grounds of the six-acre property, napping and reading for a good part of the afternoon.

We did finally decide to pay a visit the archaeological zone of Barriles (or "barrels"), which is located on a private farm just outside the village of Volcan. The pre-Columbian site was discovered in 1947 and subsequently excavated by a team of National Geographic archaeologists. Unfortunately the only description at the site is the article that appeared in the magazine a few years later. Otherwise, we had to guess what things were all about. What we did surmise is that ash from the Volcano rained down on this area and a culture disappeared as a result.

When we drove up, we were greated by a pack of friendly Dalmations. A woman emerged from the house and invited us up to the porch. She didn't say much at all and she said there were no guides to show us around. She said we could go out back to the museum for a look around. Hmm...okay.

All I saw in the backyard was some rusting farm equipment hanging in a large shed. We wandered further back on the property and found a big ditch--probably where most of the artifacts were found. Wandering back, we stumbled upon a small sign that said "museo" and walked in. An underwhelming collection of artifacts sat on shelves in a room no bigger than my upstairs bathroom.

It appears many of the more interesting artifacts are in a museum in Panama City, so what remains in situ is a collection of pottery shards, some tri-footed pots, statues and grinding stones. Also on the property is a collection of petroglyphs etched into large stones, some of them barrel shaped (thus the name of the site).

Potholes, Pedestrians and Public Buses

From Panama's Chiriqui Highlands, visitors can see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, from a lookout on the Baru Volcano, which rises 11,400 feet above sea level (Panama's highest point). We haven't seen much since it's been raining on and off today (as expected in a rainforest). But, interestingly enough, the countryside reminds me a lot of what I've seen of Ireland in pictures.

We arrived in David this morning on an hour-long puddle jumper flight from Panama City (and yes, I had my backpack with me, thank goodness). Chris and I decided we'd take a stab at driving here. I was a little nervous at first, but driving out in the countryside isn't too bad at all, compared to the crazy drivers in the big city. Potholes, pedestrians and public buses seem to be the only threat. The Panamerican Highway that stretches throughout Central and South America skirts the city of David. And the speed limit through this section anyway is 45mph.

I drove only a few minutes on the highway before taking a turnoff toward the town of Volcan, where we dined at the Restaurante Izel, which only served one meal. The "comida corriente" is typical of most local joints in Panama (and other places in Latin America). The meal generally consists of beef soup followed by a plate with either beef, chicken or fish, rice, beans, and plantains. Except, we didn't have the beans. We had tomato and broccoli instead. I don't think I've ever had broccoli in Latin America!

From there, we headed up the volcano, passing dairy farms and Swiss chalets that seem way out of place here. After eating broccoli, though, nothing surprises me. We passed a trout farm that advertises "Pesque y pague" (fish and pay). The guidebook says you can fish 5 kilos of trout for $5.

A little further along the road is an Argentinian grill on the side of the road, and then the strawberry stands began cropping up. Apparently, strawberries are a major staple of the region, and they are always in season. Roadside stands offer snacks of strawberries in cream...yum.

We finally arrived at Cielito Sur B&B, and were greeted by the three resident chihuahuas--Honey, Onyx and Tinkerbell. The B&B is perfectly suited for birdwatchers (although we are not). Many different kinds of hummingbirds were buzzing about, including a Violet Sabrewing, with a slightly curved beak, a large, mostly purple body and a white-tipped tail. A birding group from Florida told us stories about all the specimens they had spotted over the last few days, including the famous quetzal. Apparently, a guide named Narino knows where the nests are located. Maybe tomorrow he can show us!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Lock and Key

A 5:45 a.m. flight is bad enough, but then we had to deal with a bumpy ride all the way down to Houston. I thought the plane was going to break apart from all the turbulence. We rocked left and banked sharply to the right. The captain said we were the guinea pigs because so few flights had gone out before ours. UGGH.

The second half of our trip to Panama was more pleasant, until I got off the plane and found out my backpack didn´t make it with me, even though Chris's did. This is the second trip in a row in which luggage has been an issue. After that last mishap with Jennifer´s bag in Morocco, I decided to pack my basic necessities in my carry-on bag, including a change of underwear, my bathing suit and snorkel mask. What more could I need or want?

Unlike the baggage fiasco in Morocco, Continental promised to deliver the bag to me at the posada. In fact, as I write this, I´m waiting patiently for the bag to arrive. One misstep, though, and I´ll be out of luck until Monday afternoon. We fly to the town of David tomorrow morning.

The problems with our luggage didn´t deter us from seeing as much as we could today, while we are in Panama City. The city is huge, cosmopolitan. SUVs are everywhere, and so are the American retirees.

We took a taxi ($10 one way) 12 kilometers outside of the city to see the most famous engineering marvel of the 20th century--the Panama Canal. The Miraflores lock, a series of three water chambers that transfer gigantic barges from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean by lowering the water level (39 inches a minute).

From there, we went to Casco Viejo, the old part of town. We dined alfresco in the Plaza Bolivar at a restaurant called Ego. We shared tapas--carne al cilantro (beef kabobs) and a fig, camambert and proscuitto salad.

Across the square, a crowd was gathering at the Teatro Nacional, a 19th-century playhouse. A man told us that it was opening night of a dance performance sponsored by BMW. In front of the theater, a brand new red BMW was raised on a platform with spotlights shining on it.

And then fabulous people began to arrive in their SUVs and fancy black sedans. I looked down at the only clothes I may have in Panama (if my backpack doesn´t arrive) and decided we should head back to posada to wait, and rest.