My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency.
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Witnessing the leatherback turtles dig their nests and lay their eggs was a far more profound experience than I ever would have guessed. Especially touching them as their ancient bodies move to perpetuate their species. A species which sadly, like so many other majestic creatures on earth, is endangered. Their numbers are a fraction of what they once were a few decades ago.
They're called leatherback because unlike other sea turtles who have a shell over the soft part of their body, their covering is a hard rubbery material with ridges along it. It's by far the largest turtle -- they can reach a weight of 1,200 pounds and a length, from extended flippers front to back, of nine feet.
Nacho said it was okay to gently touch the turtles while they were digging. The turtle did not feel like what I expected ... with its slick rubbery back, and hard rubbery flippers giving way to extraordinarily soft skin at the top of their flippers where they connect to the head and back -- essentially the leg joints. The hard rubbery "shell" and skin fuse together seamlessly, it’s not like, say, a crab with a discreetly different fleshy body and hard shell that can be separated from it. They’re fused together, I found it fascinating to feel this fusion. But I think that super soft skin was the most unexpected. In the photo below, it's the really wrinkled parts of the skin.
The sound of their breathing was like nothing I've ever heard, almost like a fake animal sound they come up with in the movies for dinosaurs or alien creatures. It's almost unearthly, but in fact it's because it’s SO earthly, so ancient, that it's so emotionally powerful. They tended to drool, opening their beaked mouths each time they exhaled that ancient breath. A primeval giant eye looked out in a strange, struggling impassivity, the eyelid closing over it occasionally, which closes side-to-side like draperies. Great gooey globs rolled down their face from their eyes. Their tears were like little globes -- little bubbles and little worlds reflecting the sky and water. Popular legend says they cry because they are sad to leave their babies behind on land.
Although it's delightfully poetic, the turtles aren’t actually sad, they're not crying. Their bodies are simply shedding excess salt ... because sea turtles live in salty ocean water their entire lives, therefore drinking salt water, they have evolved a salt gland, which empties into the sea turtle's eyes and is excreted in these goopy tears. They have the added benefit of protecting the nesting mother's eyes from sand on the beach, and keeping her eyes moist during her time on land.
The back flippers are the ones that dig the nesting hole, which can be remarkably deep. They swivel from side to side, as if from a central hinge in the middle. I kept my hand on one for a long time while it was digging one night, feeling the movement of her body, rocking back and forth, so powerful, so driven by instinct and intuition.
After they drop in the fertilized eggs with the babies growing inside, I was told they deposit four or five other ones on top that can serve as food for the babies as they hatch. Just as mothers usually come ashore at night to bury their children, the kids pop to the surface at night to race down into the ocean as fast as they can before an array of predators can snatch them. I was told that if the first turtle pokes his head out of the sand and sees that it's daylight, he hunkers back down in the sand, signaling to his siblings that they must wait for awhile yet.
After they lay their eggs and cover them back up, the mother turtles spin a 360 in the sand (a slow spin, of course) before heading back down into the ocean. Nacho said they make this jumble of tracks to confuse predators. One time, we watched one turn her finishing circle and then start her way to the sea, but she kept pulling herself sideways along the beach (parallel to the ocean) and we kept moving back to make room for her and she kept coming toward us instead of toward the sea. It was totally like she was chasing us ... a surreal slow-speed chase.
After they’re born, for the female turtles who successfully mature (a tiny fraction of the hatchlings), they can circumnavigate the globe before returning to their birthing ground to lay the next generation. One leatherback turtle was tagged and tracked by satellite for 647 days before the signal was lost. In that time, she covered 12,774 miles swimming through the ocean! Leatherbacks have been sighted as far north as Alaska and the North Sea and as far south as Chile and New Zealand, but the females come to the warm tropical waters to beach and lay their eggs. The males never leave the ocean in their whole life.
Well, I could go on about their anatomy and biology, but those are the things I found most fascinating. This turtle's face had something wrong with it, but I didn't know what -- a disease or an injury? I asked a nice man at Conserve Turtles about it and he said the damaged areas are scar tissue, and likely they are the result of the turtle being attacked by a shark. He said that's not uncommon. Yikes! Poor thing. One of her nostrils is closed over in scar tissue. But clearly she's still healthy enough to breed and reproduce. Sweet trooper!
One of the most magical nights, which started at a campfire on the beach and ended with singing in the rain, was watching a leatherback just down the beach from our fire lay her eggs, cover them up and go back into the ocean. That's the one I held my hand on for a long time, feeling her work and breathe. The scene was this: standing under the stars and a half moon; the moon reflecting on the wet sand each time the waves recede from the shore, and on the water each time they come in -- the beach curves like a C, the moonlight reflection was a straight line across it -- the sound of waves continually pounding the shore, coming in one after another, while she lumbers toward the water, slips in under the waves and disappears.
So ... moving along. Armila applied to UNESCO for World Heritage status for its importance as a leatherback nesting site. We were told it would be granted in December of 2019. The villagers have recognized the importance and the sacredness of the turtles for as long as they have lived there. In their folklore, there was a human couple in a small community on a beautiful beach, and one day the woman said she wanted to go swimming. So the man waited for her below a palm tree and he fell asleep. When he woke up, she was not around any more. He looked for her on the beach, in her house, or maybe she was in a secret place, he tried to find a secret place. By night time, he was really worried. Then he slept and had a dream. He saw her in the dream and she said to him, “Please don’t follow me, I’m living in the sea. The turtles came for me, and I’m living with them in the ocean." The Guna people therefore think that turtles are sisters of humans. Unlike a lot of cultures, Guna don’t eat turtles or turtle eggs, even though they could have a feast on them if they wanted. But they feel the sea turtles are some part of us who separated from us and went to live in the sea.
Armila recently began having a festival each year to celebrate the leatherback turtle and to impress upon the school children the importance of conserving their habitat and protecting them.
It was a sweet festival but so small, I hope they figure out how to attract more visitors from the surrounding villages for the important cause. Mostly it was just the villagers, but there were some Colombian artisans (and I bought something from each of them, haha) and some journalists. Maybe the journalists can give it more exposure. It was two days. One of them was a Saturday, so Chris and I tried to buy some beer from the oldest man but he wouldn't sell it, even though we kept saying, "Sabado!" Turns out the village made a rule this year of no alcohol at the festival after last year people got really drunk and out of hand.
The first festival morning, we in the residency were asked to dress in the traditional clothes, the village women donated molas and skirts for us to wear. Then we took part in the parade that started at one of the schools, where the children lined up in their classes, with little banners to carry in front of their class.
The parade was led by teenagers playing traditional instruments and dancing a traditional dance. See footage of the parade HERE.
It ended at another school where the village volleyball court is. (Volleyball is extremely popular.) The dancing continued for awhile, then Nacho and the school principle gave some speeches.
Each of the classes had made a mural about turtles (tortuga in Spanish) and Yoon, Chris and I were tasked with being the judges.
We each selected one to be our personal winner. Yoon selected the one made with bottle caps, below, clearly having an affinity for this project after she and Chung (working together as "Chulma") made a flag out of bottle caps collected from the beach trash, and also a stop-motion film. It's super cool, watch it (about 30 seconds) HERE.
I chose the one below as my winner. I liked the message ("the ocean is our future") because it encompassed the broader issue around the tortuga's survival, and I thought it was very artistic, too -- I liked the bright colors, and you can't really tell in the pic, but the animals are all 3-D.
The next morning was designed for children's activities, and it was seriously one of cutest things I've been a part of. Some of the artists (the *real* artists) helped kids with painting projects. This is a mural that Chris painted that included scenes of the village and portraits of all the residency participants. The kids had a fun time going up and recognizing each of us and pointing each of us out.
On the other side of the canvas was this turtle design that happened to match the blue and white paint of the school. Chris Holley is a talented painter and an elegant dancer specializing in tango!
Then some of the artists had gathered materials from the forest to make turtle costumes for the kids. This was totally awesome and the kids were way into it.
This sweet girl was having a hard time keeping her costume on and was too shy to ask someone for help, but I could tell she really wanted to be a turtle, so I knelt down to her and attached her leaf "shell" and wooden flippers.
Then they all marched down to the beach with their costumes on.
There they broke into several groups and had a sand "castle" building contest, but they were to build a sand turtle instead.
The most hilarious part was the bubble blowing. Other artists -- you notice everyone else did all the work, I just took pictures! -- made buckets of bubble water with dish soap and fashioned bubble wands out of sticks and pipe cleaners. I would never have thought of this, the other people were so creative! Clearly the kids had never done this before, it took a little practice before they got the hang of it.
Some blew the bubbles, some chased them!
This kid was completely enraptured with the bubbles. The adults also played other games with them and he was just as enthralled at everything going on.
I tried for ages to get a focused pic of the little kid popping up in back, almost like a little photobomber. He was so cute but always, always moving. Before the end of the day, though, I finally captured his wonder-filled eyes in a brief moment of stillness.
This was the only day in the whole residency time that I could freely take photos of the people with abandon. Journalists were there doing it, too, it was expected. So no awkward asking if it's OK, or waiting for the Monster Hour to begin. (as explained in The Village post) It was definitely my favorite period of time, getting to use my 70-200mm lens for what it was intended rather than for insects, as I had been trying to capture from four feet away in the jungle! So here are some shots that I like of the children playing that morning on the beach.
These two kids, I presume they are brother and sister but I don't know that, completely captured my heart ... walking hand-in-hand, the boy always looking out for the girl and hugging her, playing with her. She clearly felt safe and loved.
While we're on the beach, these pics are from another day, but I had fun with these kids. There is this black clay-like substance on the ground under the water right where the ocean and river outlet meet. The kids dive down and grab handfuls and smear it all over themselves, and of course I tried it, too, with them, making designs on my legs. Interestingly, I did not wash the mud off for many hours, not until evening, and even though the muddy substance was washed off, the dark colored design actually stayed on my legs for another day before fading away!
And as a little coda, sort of in the vein of festivals ... another celebration we took part in was Nachito's birthday. Our host and cultural liaison, Nacho, is nicknamed Nacho for his real name Ignacio. So going off of his nickname, his grandson is nicknamed Nachito (although in my mind I kind of picture it as Nacheetoh, haha). Nachito was two years old when we arrived, and he turned three at his big birthday party. He added so much entertainment to our time eating meals at Nacho's house, where he lived.
He was absolutely adorable but prone to temper tantrums, and since I wasn't his mom or step-sister who usually had to deal with him, his tantrums were adorable, too. One afternoon he wanted desperately to go with his dad as his dad went off to do some work somewhere. Dad had already walked away, but Nachito kept running down the yard trying to catch up, his step-sister had to drag him back to the house over and over and finally locked him in the bathroom (the outer-most room of the house). But that ratcheted the meltdown to Level 10. Finally his grandpa was able to calm him down.
Another night he did not want to take a shower before bed and was throwing a tantrum over it. Cried and screamed and fussed, and finally his mom strong-armed him into the bathroom and into the shower. Things quieted down in there for a few minutes and then he came out naked and squeaky clean, still dripping with water. Good job, Nachtio, you're nice and clean! Then he promptly laid down in the dirt and rolled around. So ... he was an adorable little mud sausage.
All was good at the party until his mom tried to coax him to blow out the candle on his cake and he was apparently scared to, was on the verge of a meltdown, then another girl came to the rescue and blew it out.
My brother said my nephew changed like a light bulb on his second birthday into the infamous "terrible twos." Nachito changed like a light bulb out of the terrible twos on his third birthday. All of a sudden the next day, he was interested in coloring books and pretending he was learning like he was in school with his step-sister. I never saw him cry again.
Fittingly, it was during the turtle festival weekend that this nesting shark survivor came ashore. I don't know if the kids always take this much interest in the turtles, as they are commonplace to them; my guess is they gathered around because we did.
I like this shot because it looks like the turtle is flying.
Click HERE to see a video of this turtle digging.
This was the single time when I was trying to take a photo withOUT kids, and so of course they all wanted to photobomb! Even loyal Buddy came with us to watch the turtle.
Perhaps taking their cues from our excitement, the kids escorted the leatherback mother back into the ocean and cheered her on, just as I was doing. You get a good sense of scale here, how mammoth this amazing creature is next to a line of kids. I thought it was a really neat moment as the indigenous children ushered the ancient turtle back to her home -- not a scene I am likely to see again.
At this point in my traveling "career," I've spent time, not just tourist time but real time, with a number of rural, traditional and indigenous cultures and tribes around the world, and I have so many thoughts about the similarities and differences and what makes for those, ideas about why there are parallels and why there are intersections. The degree of the Guna's traditional resistance to outsiders is unique to my experience. Only a couple decades ago the Guna were considering isolating themselves completely -- no foreigners in and no Guna out. Although they are a part of Panama, they are their own sovereign entity and could enforce this segregation. They eventually decided that was too drastic, but they have kept the rest of the world at the far end of a long stick until only very recently. Now it seems clear to all of us in the residency that they’ve opened themselves up too much to foreigners … this revelation cementing after a big group of tourists landed on the beach one night and stumbled around the village for an hour the next day before leaving. The whole village had a completely different vibe.
Because of the recent increase in interaction with outsiders, Armila's cultural integrity is already starting to degrade. Some of the villagers see this and are saddened, some see it and are indifferent, some don't see it. I could see a few of the older children already becoming jaded and disrespectful, losing their personal integrity, as well -- instead of friendly and welcoming, they were yelling at the foreigners and mocking them. It's a tough situation because tourism is such an easy way for the villages to generate revenue, one can hardly blame them. But the upshot is that the villagers come to see visitors not as people, but merely as dollar signs, and this is when cultural dialogue and interpersonal communication breaks down, people separate into camps of "us" and "them," the village people and the foreign money.
I look at the spirit animal of the Guna of Armila -- the leatherback turtle -- and can't help but see it as an analogy: their efforts to keep outsiders at bay until now is like a turtle shell over their land, their indigenous identity and history. Their strong culture protected their weaknesses and vulnerabilities under its shell. As the sea turtle becomes threatened and endangered, so does the Guna culture. I'm blessed and grateful to have witnessed it, and I want to share what I saw with others, but I'd feel a secret happiness if I, and all foreigners, were never allowed back.
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Well, dear readers, we have arrived at my last post from East Africa. I am sad to have this series come to an end, as I've so enjoyed going back through all my photos to select some to share with you. Safari is just such a special thing! So I'll wrap up our two weeks in Kenya and Tanzania with a collection of other animals and landscapes from Ndutu and the Masai Mara. So far, I've shown you only the cheetahs and lions from these two parks. So with whom shall I begin this last post?
Well ... how about with the other big cat! The mighty and often elusive leopard. I was absolutely thrilled with our leopard sightings! Our first leopard was the tree climber in Tarangire. And all of our other sightings came from the Masai Mara in Kenya.
As always, our wonderful drivers got us in prime position when the leopards were moving. Look at those long, luscious whiskers!
Leopards seem to me the most wild, the most intense, of the big cat predators. My first encounter with a leopardess was in Botswana, and it was downright sublime. Although they are gorgeous to see in motion, I think it's when they're silently hidden that they seem the most dangerous and thrilling ... for they are power, but power at rest, and this is in a way more fearful, more tense than power in motion.
So how did we get to and from the Mara? In a tiny little airplane! It was a short ride from the Tanzania border into the Mara, and about 45 minutes from there back to Nairobi to fly home.
Giraffes beside the air strip.
While we were in the Mara, we stayed at Elly's delightful bush camp, Kaboso. Here is where we got our full audio experience with the leopards! A pair was mating in the woods right where our tents were. This big cat courtship is apparently a little less amicable than the typical human one. Maybe the guy should have brought the girl some red roses and chocolates or something. We couldn't see them in the dark, but the noises they were making were so loud, it sounded as if they were close enough to touch if I unzipped the tent. The first night I didn't know what it was. I only knew that it wasn't a lion or a zebra or a hyena, or a dog, cheetah or hippo ... those noises I know. And I knew I did not want to step outside to see, haha. Growling, snarling, crazy vicious sounding noises from those love birds!
They were so low-key and chill during the day.
Here's one crossing a river with hippos in the background.
And hippos soaking in a leafy pond.
The topi is an antelope species I had not seen before. I like the black markings inside their ears, almost makes their ears look like leaves.
Funny thing about topis is how they sleep. They literally just let their head drop forward and rest their nose on the ground. You can see one in the background here. Foreground is a kori bustard in mating mode. I've seen these birds many times in southern Africa, but never with its neck puffed out like this. At first I wasn't sure it was the same bird.
More of the secretary bird, which we also saw in the Ngorongoro Crater ... their funny little stilted legs beneath their rounded body, it's almost like they're wearing a little summer dress. Kind of a feminine looking bird, don't you think? Especially in the second pic.
A species of heron.
A stork. I've said it before, I'll say it again, Africa will turn you into a birder. At least while you're in Africa! Everywhere you look is another stunning bird.
We found this hyena munching on a gazelle horn like a dog would a bone. Hyenas just crunch up and eat bones like kibble, it's unusual to see them gnawing on horns.
One thing I regrettably did not get a photo of that I thought was so hilarious, was the hyenas lying in the mud pools in the tire tracks across the Mara plains. It was raining quite a bit and some of the track ruts had filled up quite deep with water. So we're driving along and see just a hyena head sticking up out of the middle of the road. A tad surreal! They took their time to stand up, coated in mud, and lope away from their day spa to the side of the road so we could pass. We saw this numerous times, hyena heads in the middle of the tracks, then up they pop like a jack-in-the-box. Here's one who's running away from his mud bath.
So here's a good safari pic of me ... lovely lioness on the mound in the background. Who could not be pleased as pie being there with these gorgeous animals!
We had such a delightful time at Elly's camp, it was just me and my mom there. The staff was so friendly and attentive. The bed was super comfortable, we breakfasted and lunched outside in a private natural courtyard made by the trees, with a view directly out to the savanna, where giraffes and elephants and antelopes walk by. When we left, Elly had mom and me each plant an African green heart tree sapling in the grove; he has all of his guests do this. We had many, many laughs with him and his staff, but I won't spoil the surprises you may get if you stay there. And if you do go, take me along!!
When we were there, it was still a mobile camp that was erected seasonally. Elly just got certification to be a permanent camp, and so the floors are now hard wood instead of tent canvas. To be honest, I liked the canvas, it was more of a camping feel. But the permanent floors are surely an upgrade for most guests.
Although meals outside at the camp were marvelous, our last morning in the Mara, and indeed on safari, we left camp super early and Elly said we'd be taking a box breakfast with us (which we often did). About breakfast time, we're driving along, looking for a place to picnic and we came up to this lone tree where I could see a fancy table all set up and a guy with a huge propane tank cooking breakfast. I thought to myself, "Geeze, those people must be on the ultra-luxury safari, lugging a propane tank around with them to cook. Seems a little overboard." Then Elly turned the vehicle to park behind theirs. I thought he must be friends with the guide or something and was going to have a word with him, as the guides often chat with one another. It took me a minute to catch on that the cook was OUR cook from camp and the other men were the staff from OUR camp, and that WE were the recipients of the hoity-toity breakfast! haha. Omelettes, pancakes, bacon, fruit, juice, all under a blue savanna sky. It was divine.
To me, the most awesome thing about Kaboso camp was its seclusion in the middle of the bush and the fact we had it all to ourselves, so it trumped all the other places in that regard. But everywhere we stayed was really nice. One of the best things about the bush camps is the happy-hour fire pits, with drinks always included in the price of the stay. Received a lovely sunset at Lamala in Ndutu.
The most posh place we stayed was at Ndutu, Lake Masek Tented Lodge. We had our own tent with a sitting room, 3-bed bedroom, spacious outdoor shower with plumbing (not a bucket shower), electrical outlets, and a lovely deck to eat on. There's also a nice little gift shop of Masai crafts, I bought a few souvenirs there.
Kubukubu camp in the Serengeti we stayed at only one night as we trekked from Ndutu to the border to fly to the Mara. But the balcony had a lovely view over the plains.
We didn't see as much wildlife in this area but the landscape in both the Tanzania Serengeti and the Mara was stunning, especially as storm clouds rolled in and out each day. It's starting to rain on the cheetah.
A picnic lunch.
A storm moves in. And then Hamisi is driving through buckets of rain!
This is a little bit of a random round-up, photos that didn't fit into the themed posts from Ndutu and the Mara. So let's randomly go back to Ndutu for a few more shots.
On the drive between Ngorongoro Crater and Ndutu, which seemed to me pretty much randomly overland, but clearly the guides knew where they were going, we ran across a bunch of Eurasian rollers, so very pretty.
As we drove, I called it the wildebeest horizon. Just a solid line of them on the horizon. Here we got closer, and a lone hyena thought he'd try chasing one down.
A couple more zebra shots from Ndutu. Are baby zebras not ultra adorable? I relayed a bit of a sad tale of one in my Tuesday Tale, "Little Lost Zebra."
OK, I already showed you a ton of pics of these itty bitty lion cubs in Ndutu, but here are a few more. It was just one of the funnest things ever, watching these kiddos. It's a tongue greeting in the first pic!
It's a touristy thing to do, but I recommend it as a way to get a crash course on the Masai culture who lives in most of these safari areas. You see them everywhere herding their cows, wearing their brightly colored fabrics and oodles of beaded jewelry. But how do they live? What are their camps like? There are many villages who will welcome tourists and tell them these things. Yes, it costs money and you'll be encouraged to also buy some of their souvenir products, but the money helps them live in their villages with a dignified traditional life in a country where poverty is endemic and many live in cities in deplorable conditions. I bought a couple bracelets and I learned a lot. In spite of them hosting who-knows-how-many tourists regularly, these people were warm and friendly to us.
Mom thought about staying and going native. But in the end, I persuaded her to continue on safari with me. (Good thing, or she wouldn't have seen the baby cheetah!)
While the adults were singing a welcome song for us, this tiny dancer was getting her groove on. The Masai singing is fascinating. We got a lot of it at Kaboso camp. They don't use any instruments at all, only their voices. But when they sing as a group, some people make deep noises that sound like a bass instrument, and the harmony is so rich, it sounds like there is more than just human voices involved. I found it mesmerizing.
Natural earlobe earrings!
Perhaps the most interesting thing to me was to see inside one of the huts made of sticks and thatch. From the outside, I imagined it was just a one-room hut ... this is how the Himba huts were in Namibia, just one big open space. But no, they are divided into several sections. It's basically just a mini-house with a very low ceiling. An entry space, a cooking and eating space, and bedroom spaces.
The Masai are the consummate herdsmen: their diet comes nearly solely from the cow -- they drink the milk and the blood, and eat the meat. You may have seen on TV shows, like National Geographic, how they prick the cow's neck in just the right spot and collect some of the blood. Children begin the life of a shepherd, watching cows all by themselves, from the age of eight. Unlike the nomads we stayed with in Iran who bring their sheep back to their camp each night, if a Masai has journeyed too far from home to get back, or is on his way to market, he just lays down and sleeps wherever he is with his cows. These days, a family will usually select one child from their brood to send to school to get an education and the rest will be herders and live in the traditional village. So the man who showed us around the village was the only one who spoke English, and his family had chosen him to be the student.
Goodbye to our friend and excellent Tanzania driver, Hamisi.
The last thing we did before flying home was visit the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. This had been on my list of places to see for a long time. So I was thrilled to finally make it. This is a fantastic organization rescuing orphaned elephants out in the field and rehabilitating them for release back into the wild. Elly used to be one of the keepers here and had some fun tales to tell of his time as an elephant caretaker. Tourists can come in for just a few hours out of the day to watch when the keepers feed the babies their milk bottles in the morning. Then the elephants are taken back out of the tourist eye into large fenced-in areas. They are separated into two different groups by age, the really young ones and the older ones. Elly also "adopted" an elephant each for me and my mom ... it's really fun, you get updates each month from the keepers' dairies and get to hear about what your elephant is doing. Mine is an ornery little trouble-maker with lots of personality who is fiercely protective of one of the younger elephants in the group. "Adoption" is of course just a pledge of monetary support, and I will certainly keep up a yearly contribution. More elephants than ever are in need of this orphanage.
And there it is, below: our vessel of good times and unforgettable moments. I want to say one last word about Endless Safaris ... I've mentioned over and over in my East Africa posts how good the guides/drivers were, and everything about the trip as a client was impeccable by my standards. But what I appreciate equally is that this is not a company based overseas with offices in some other country. This is Elly's gig, he grew up poor and worked his way up to an education, to being accepted as a volunteer at the Sheldrick Orphanage, to guiding, to finally starting his own business. He helps a lot of his guides not only by simply hiring them as independent contractors, but by helping them buy their own vehicles that they can use to guide for anybody ... so investing in people, not just paying wages. Now he arranges tours for clients in several other African countries, as well as Kenya and Tanzania. There are a million guides out there, it seems, and I was overwhelmed trying to decide on which one to entrust this experience with ... and I couldn't be more happy with my decision.
OK dear readers, hope you've enjoyed your time with me on virtual safari! For some reason, I'm hearing the Loony Tunes song that comes at the end of the cartoons ... "and that's all, folks!" But hopefully it's not really "all," hopefully one day I'll be back on the savanna.
My time in Armila, an indigenous Guna Yala village, was made possible by the La Wayaka Current artist residency.
In this photo above, continuing straight (right) down the path, you will end up at Nacho's house, our host in the village, the cultural liaison for Armila. That is where we ate all our meals graciously prepared by his family. Turning left, just past the edge of the first hut is the "internet cafe" and the only convenience store in town with a cooler, run by a generator. I never used the internet, it apparently only worked with a phone and was apparently so slow if more than 2 or 3 people were using it at the same time that it might take half an hour for one text to go through. I didn't come to Armila to be in touch with Colorado, so I never used the service.
But I did go to the store nearly every day to buy a cool (not quite cold) coke for one dollar. The store was run by the oldest man in town. Even though he knew I was there to buy a coke, he never got up out of his chair outside the door until I had gotten it from the cooler and showed him I was ready to pay. Then I had to wait inside the unbearably hot and stuffy hut which had no windows, no air movement at all, because the door faced into the corridor where there was no breeze. I had to wait for him to shuffle ever so slowly around the end of the long counter to his cash drawer. I tried very hard to have exact change, because if I didn't, then I had to wait for him to make change, which often involved shuffling into a back room and shuffling back out. I felt like I was in that Carol Burnett Show sketch with Tim Conway, "The Oldest Man." I could feel the cool coke warming by the second as I waited for change, sweat pouring down my temples. Clearly he was not at all bothered by the heat. I tried to shortcut the process by showing him I had exactly one dollar and handing it to him while he was in his chair, but he preferred to conduct the transaction behind the long counter. If his grandson (I'm presuming, a younger guy) was there, he thankfully would take my coin on the spot.
There were a number of houses throughout the village that sold individual items, perhaps coke or juice or eggs.
This convenience store did not have a cooler, just sold dry goods, candy and cleaning products.
Each Guna village creates their own rules and regulations regarding alcohol. In Armila, the town decided that only beer could be sold and only on the weekend. Although foreign guests were not expected to follow the rule, it would be rude to drink in public during the week. The oldest man wouldn't sell us beer outside of the weekend, we tried. But we found another place that was kind of like a restaurant, with a cooler of very cold beer. Heaven! It was right next to the beach, so it could service tourists camping on the beach. They happily sold us beer, however on the weekdays we had to put it in a backpack to carry "secretly" back to our hut to drink. No, we're not desperate alcoholics, but most of us are used to a cold beer or cocktail at the end of the day, and it was nice to keep up one familiar tradition in the middle of this very foreign village and culture.
We learned so much and there were so many note-worthy scenes that I witnessed in the village, it's hard to select which ones to share ... for to share it all would be a novelette. But perhaps it's worth starting with the story of Armila village itself. First, let me explain briefly the Guna Yala territory. It's not something the Panamanian government gave to the Guna people or that the Guna negotiated for. After years of fighting against Panama after it declared its borders, which included within the traditional Guna homeland, the government ceased fighting them but cut them off from all aid and communication, isolating them for about 10 years as a form of sanctions. But the Guna could survive just fine without the government because they still had all their traditional knowledge and skills. Panama eventually said there couldn’t be one country (Guna) inside another, so the Guna agreed to join Panama on the condition they have their own land, written into the constitution, and nobody could tell them what to do with or on that land.
The Guna decided among themselves that they needed to know three things in order to work with the government and not be tricked or taken advantage of by them: learn the Spanish language, know the Spanish religion, acquire a general education. So they started to send kids to school in Panama City and build schools in their own villages. They learned Catholicism so they could know what is was about and not be told lies. Know thine enemy. Now they're lobbying to become an autonomous economy, as they already have their own land, culture and religion, now they want their own economy. In the village schools they continue to teach Kuna language so it doesn’t get eradicated. They are stepping further and further into the global community, allowing more and more tourism, but unlike a lot of traditional cultures in their twilight, they still understand the value in their unique culture, language and belief system.
The name "Armila" is a combo of the Kuna names for iguana and a type of fish that used to be common in the river. Seven families in 1890 started the community. They used to live several hours by boat down the coast, but they were always coming here to fish and get food, so finally they decided to move here. So seven families came together. The village was originally a few kilometers away until 1943, when a tsunami came and wiped out that village site, so they moved and set up here. Then other people started to come from other places to this little Edenic location. So for 50 years it was just the seven families, and now about 600 people live here, and another 300 or so who call Armila home are living in Panama City. Both Nacho and Gladys’s families were of the original seven. The oldest man, who runs convenience shop, is the last person in the village to have lived in the pre-1943 village.
Well, how about a little tour through the village past some of my favorite huts. I loved the smoke seeping out of the thatched roofs, from cooking inside of huts, the heat and smoke of the cooking fires. (This is the left building in the above pic.)
If you have followed me for awhile, you may have figured out that I love kitty cats, so it's a special delight whenever I come across them traveling. I might travel more often (assuming I could afford to) if I didn't miss my own kitties so much when I'm away. Erik and I both have been guilty of luring kitty cats into our hotel and hostel rooms while traveling in order to play and cuddle with them. So I'm a giant hypocrite when I ask guests renting my own guest studio to please not let my kitties inside, haha. I try to keep pet hair out of it. (Want to stay with me in Colorado? Rent my studio!)
There weren't many kitties to be found in Armila. But there were a few ... allow me to share. We were surprised to look up and find this creative cat nestled in the rafters of the other residency hut (not the one I lived one).
I chased down this kitty for awhile through the forest before it stopped long enough for me to snap a picture. A random plastic elephant in the bottom corner.
This sweet little thing appeared to live in the house behind us, or at least it enjoyed stretching out on the concrete slab that made for their front porch.
But the only cats I ever really got to pet were Manuel's. Manuel is the sahila who gave us the hardwood protective "charms" in a special ceremony in his hut. Our guide Eduardo made a habit of visiting him nearly every day at his hut. He had a nice outdoor space, kind of analogous to a gazebo -- some benches and hammocks arranged in the shade under a large tent top. Manuel was one of the first people to really open up to the residency idea and participants. So one day I asked Eduardo if I could go with him when he visited Manuel. I had a very interesting time there, but the best thing was that I got to sit on a bench next to three very friendly and cuddly kitty cats.
I petted them nearly the whole time, so it was clear I liked them, and when Eduardo and I got up to leave, Manuel told me I could come by and pet the kitties any day. So I did. His house was on the way to the jungle creek that I often visited. They were always there in the shade, and I did take the opportunity to gather some kitty love. But let me tell you about some of the conversation with Manuel that involved local cures of illness, as I thought it was interesting. As a spiritual leader and healer, he collects traditional remedies from the forest. Although now, he is getting too old to tromp through the forest as he used to, and has a young apprentice.
For stomach pains and diarrhea, he said one cure is simply river clay, like we’d been collecting for Gloria and Judith to sculpt with, mixed with water. He showed us a pot that he had sitting nearby, it looked like it was just filled with mud. He lifted the pot to his mouth and took a swig of it to show us. I thought surely had hadn't just drunk mud, it must be more than that. But nope, just clay and water, he said.
Then he told about mixtures they make with the milk of trees. When you cut them with a machete, certain trees, including plantain trees, leak milk (like a milkweed does), and they collect this milk in bottles and keep some at home whenever they need it. For stomach and digestion issues, they add a bunch of fire ants, crushed up, to the milk and boil it. I guess maybe it’s a similar thing to how in India they use cayenne pepper as a heat element, but here they use fire ants! Manuel said pregnant women can’t drink this ant mixture, though, it’s bad for them. But they have something they can give to a woman giving birth to help the baby come out, which is the fruit of the cacao tree sliced and soaked in water. The slices look like little florets. We touched one in a pot of water and it was super slimy. Like, really slimy. Coat a baby in this stuff and it would definitely lubricate it for delivery!
Villagers also let fire ants bite them as a cure for a serious illness, even for cancer, and to make them stronger. They stick their hand or foot into a hole filled with the ants and let the ants bite them. Manuel told us that he had done it himself for something he had been diagnosed with by a doctor of Western practice. But instead of using Western medicine or treatment, he came home and communed several times with the biting fire ants. As an indication of how painful it is, this is also sometimes used as a punishment -- to put fire ants on someone.
The other place that I saw Manuel was when we were allowed to attend a spiritual congress in the big congress house. We were asked to wear the traditional outfits while inside the congress that we had all borrowed for the turtle festival. There are different types of congresses, so that ultimately there is one nearly every night. One kind is for making decisions and policies about the village by vote, another is kind of analogous to going to church. There are no preachers, sermons, books, hymns, dances, no mandate to sit still or be silent.
The congress house is a large one-room hut full of wooden pews, low and slanted backward so that it would be easy to lean back and fall asleep, which a number of women had done. Some women were working on sewing molas with a torch flashlight on their head. Some were holding children, some sleeping or dozing. Men sat around the edges of the house. Men, women, children come and go casually, one doesn't have to be present from the beginning till the end.
The sahilas and “interpreters” sit in the middle of the hut, the sahilas in hammocks. Manuel sang stories, like how he sang for the heartwood “ceremony” for us. And after every so many “bars” of singing, a second sahila (Carlos) would sing a 4-note sliding descent, which was saying basically, “right” or “that’s the truth” kind of thing. At one point another sahila yelled, or more like shrieked, out loud, and apparently he usually adds more things like that throughout the songs, but he only did it once.
So in the spiritual congresses, the sahilas sing what are basically parables -- stories that tell a moral to the audience, or counsel a way of behaving. The interpreters sort of summarize what the sahilas are singing to the audience. Later that night, Nacho explained to us what that night's song was about, as he is one of the interpreters. I won't give you the whole tale, but basically: be hospitable to strangers and kind to your neighbors.
There were also a couple little puppies that hung around Manuel's place, but I'm not sure if they were his family's.
Dogs were generally well taken care of, except they did not seem to have a cure for the fleas. But just like it's often said you can judge a person by the way they treat animals, I think this is basically true of cultures, as well -- how they treat domestic animals. I often saw people washing their dogs with soap in the river. They were sometimes at the helm of canoes as people paddled them up and down the river. Although there were quite a few running around the village, there did not seem to be an overpopulation of dogs like I've seen in other rural areas of the world. The ones in Armila seemed to all belong to someone as their pet. I remember places in Africa, Brazil, and other countries, where I've seen children beating dogs with sticks, and adults yelling and shooing them as if they were vermin. Never saw that here.
The children might not have been monsters to the canines and felines of the village, but I started to call it The Monster Hour at about 5:00 p.m., when the kids started going nuts around us. It was this palpable frenetic energy from kids who came around. Once Jeffry started working on his shoe design on our fence, and Yoon and Chung were working on their bottle cap flag, the kids often clung to them, charting their progress, poking their creations, begging for photos. Other times they would just run around our courtyard doing cartwheels or pushing each other around like wheelbarrows, crab walking, just all kinds of silly antics. One evening, several of them sang a bunch of songs for me and recited their pledge of allegiance (I tried my best to member ours to say in return).
Another time two girls went completely manic over the touch screen on my laptop, as I was sitting outside, just about to make some journal entries when, as always, they came out of nowhere. I specifically looked around to make sure I was alone, and within probably a minute, no more than two, these girls showed up. I was showing them photos I had taken around the village. They loved the butterflies and leaves on water, but laughed themselves into hysterics over some of the pictures that included people. They kept zooming in and out by moving their fingers in and out on the touch screen. They so much loved zooming in on the butt of a man fishing from his canoe that they called over a couple of other passing kids to look. They scrolled through the photos at warp speed, practically paddling across the touch screen with their hands, and pushing the keyboard buttons that I said they could (mostly just the arrow buttons) so crazily that I thought they might break them. I finally had to insist that I had to go eat my dinner (though it was still a couple hours away), as I was beginning to fear for the welfare of my laptop. So I came back inside and had to use soap and water to clean the screen that was just a giant smudge of dirty fingerprints.
One evening, these lovely girls came up to me as I sat in a chair in our courtyard. I was scrolling through some photos I'd taken on my phone camera and they asked if I would take their picture. I decided to get my real camera instead, which pleased them. It was almost dusk, the light was tough, but I got a few of these extremely well-composed and serious girls. They never wanted to smile. Even after they reviewed the first few pics I took, they wanted more but they wanted to maintain their serious expressions and poses. It was a welcome refreshment from the other children who usually stretched the skin on their faces trying to smile big enough, haha. Don't get me wrong, I love the smiles. But it was also fun to capture some more serious poses.
This boy had been climbing the hibiscus tree beside our courtyard. I mainly took his picture to distract him from pulling off all the pretty flowers and breaking the branches that were bowing under his weight!
The hibiscus the boy was climbing was much, much smaller than this one, but this is a typical hibiscus tree around the village. Absolutely gigantic ... I can barely manage to keep one in a small pot at home. I think they have such cheerful flowers.
I have learned to greatly enjoy young children of another language. When you talk with kids who speak your own, even if they are just toddlers, even if they are pre-speaking themselves, you still feel compelled to make some sort of sense with your words, right? I do, anyway. Even if they're silly, inane sentences or questions, and I say them over and over, I still feel they must be vaguely sensical, and so I have to put a little thought into saying something. With kids who don't speak English, I can say literally whatever comes into my head, it need not make one wit of sense. It's all about the tone of voice, smiling, and gestures. I can say to them in a playful, friendly tone, with the universal "toddler lilt," down on my knees with a smile, "Whose pickles are in the train station? Are those your pickles? Blue dots smell lovely, don't you think? My, what a purple ball!" It's all good, we're total friends. I don't have to think about anything, we just enjoy each others' company and good will. I find it fabulously refreshing.
I think the sweetest thing I saw in the entirety of my stay I did not get a photo of. But it took place on the path through this ocean-side coconut grove, as pictured below. It was at sunset, and the sky and the light filtering through the trees was a magical golden color. Then a father and daughter passed by me. The father was holding the little girl's hand, it was the only time I saw a girl child completely naked (usually just the boys). As they walked on, she kept turning around to look at me, padding through the dirt with her little bare feet, as I waved and smiled each time. The sun had turned the western air into a soft golden mist. The daughter and dad holding hands, walking through the gold. It was like a fairy tale scene, beautiful and precious.
Yoon sent me this pic she took of me and this little boy. The morning we left Armila, our speed boat was all packed up with our stuff and I was just hanging about near shore waiting to launch, when an older woman who lived in one of the huts next to us came up to me and started talking and gesturing. I had never spoken with her, but I waved at her grandkids about ten times a day with "hola!" They were often sitting in a tub of water outside their hut. That family seemed to be perpetually doing laundry and washing their children -- a spigot nearly always turned on, water often running from the house in a little trough (made naturally by the water) down the path. This little boy in particular never ever tired of waving and yelling "hola" when I walked by; I was always sure to make a very enthusiastic wave back.
So this last day, I could not understand what this woman was telling me rather urgently (I think she must have been speaking Kuna, because I think I could have made out a few words in Spanish), but she kept pointing back toward her hut. I got a feeling she was referring to something there and maybe I should even follow her, except she turned around and did not walk to the hut, she went another direction.
I didn't know what to do, so I did nothing. A short while later, this little boy, my waving friend, came running down the path from his hut, ran right up and threw his arms around my leg, giving it a giant bear hug. I knelt down and gave him a real hug, but now I'm sure that his grandmother had been telling me something about him ... either asking if I would go say goodbye to him or telling me he was going to come out. A pretty darling little moment. He was clearly sad at the prospect of not having people to wave at every day. He hugged Yoon as well, and stayed in the shade with us till we left.
Early in the morning, there is only evidence of children in the village, as they are in school before 7:00 a.m. A soccer ball has spent the night in the "street" alone.
There were several schools in the small village, but they consisted of pretty much empty rooms with chairs and desks. Most of the rooms were cement blocks, I thought this one was much more pleasant. One morning I walked past a classroom of young kids to hear some of their English lesson. The teacher would say the word and the children repeat it. They were apparently studying exotic animals that day, I imagine he was pointing at a picture of each animal on a wall poster or something. Teacher: "Tiger." Kids: "Tiger!" Teacher: "Elephant." Kids: "Elephant!" That was about the last word I expected kids in a traditional indigenous village in Panama to be learning.
There are a surprising number of Kuna words that sound very similar to English words but have wildly different meanings. The first time our guides introduced us to a sahila, we ran across him sitting outside his hut in a shaded space much the same as Manuel has. He was sitting there with some women swinging in hammocks in the same space. As we approached, and it had been explained to us that there were five sahilas in Armila, Eduardo said, "And here is one sahila." All of the villagers in the shade busted out laughing. It took Eduardo a minute to realize what he had said while the women kept giggling and giggling. The word "one" in English sounds like the word for "penis" in Kuna. So he had introduced us to "the penis sahila."
We were then informed the English word for "that" sounds like the Kuna word for "grandfather." So we were advised to try to remember when we were in a store not to point to something and ask for "that one." As we likely did not actually want a grandfather penis. Strangely, another number, "six," in English sounds like the Kuna word for "vagina." I discovered another similarity when I told Nacho I was leaving Panama City to go back home on a Wednesday. He made a short reply in Kuna to his family around him, and everyone started laughing. I’d basically said I was going home to pee, as the word for "Wednesday" means to relieve one's self in Kuna.
Well, my readers, there is much more to my time and learning experiences in Armila, but this is getting pretty long, so I think it's time to wrap it up. But hopefully you've gotten a tasty tidbit of life in a Guna Yala village. Here are some photos to expand your feel for the physical village. Parts of the town, like where my hut was, are more open, but leading toward the outer edges are long corridors like this one, with different family "compounds" on the other side of the bamboo fencing.
Eventually opening up into wide spaces like these. In another culture, the colorful items might be presumed prayer flags, or something. But it's just laundry.
I thought this was so cute -- chickens heading out for a stroll beyond the village. They look so purposeful, not like they're going to go peck around aimlessly, but like they're taking a pleasure walk to do some sightseeing.
This is the view from my window in my bedroom in our hut that the villagers built for residency participants.
The shore where the river meets the ocean, just a short barefooted walk from my hut:
Below: a red chair, empty in the early morning. The significance: in Armila, these were our neighbors on the north side ... the only huts between ours and the river. That chair always had somebody in it, and usually there were several chairs occupied outside. The woman of the house was often hand-sewing molas in that chair. Kids playing, men talking, women laughing the loud cackle laugh that all Guna women seem to have. There were always plastic chairs full of people there in that space between the two bamboo huts. So one early morning when I walked by and that chair was empty, just sitting there facing the river, it stood out to me, and in context of my own experience there, it was somehow poetic. In a strange way, to me it represented the family's continual motion and vivacity through this singular moment of emptiness.
Some gorgeous sunsets, standing on the river bank.
Goodnight, village. Sweet dreams, Armila. Please try to stay the way you are for as long as possible.
Well, actually we'll be looking at a lot of little cats of the savanna ... baby lions!! Although a baby cheetah was my #1 wish for this safari, baby lions were #2. I've seen young lions before, such as at Kwai Concessions in Botswana, but not teensy babies. But oh boy did we see some cuties in the savanna areas of Ndutu in Tanzania, and the Masai Mara in Kenya.
In Ndutu, our guides, who keep tabs on all of the area prides and usually know who might have cubs, thought that this was probably the first day that this lioness had brought these tiny cubs out of the tall marsh reeds onto the open savanna. This was not far from where we saw the baby cheetah. The tall marsh grass makes good cover for all the babies.
What I love about the picture above is the one cub's arm sticking up in the air, his paw looks so tiny. When cubs are standing and walking, their paws look huge, all splayed out. Two cubs are cashed out in the front. The cubs alternated between playing and sleeping all cozied up to one another. Some were more into playing than others. Just watching their dynamic, interacting with one another, was precious beyond words. We had the cubs all to ourselves for quite awhile. Finally one other vehicle joined us, but mostly these priceless moments were our own.
The most hilarious thing about them was when they were nursing. The little grunty noises they made, I don't know how to describe them, crawling over mom and pushing each other over for the best spot at the buffet.
This mother was so sweet, always trying to lick her cubs and carry them around. It's remarkable to see how gently she scoops them into her powerful jaws and sharp teeth and carries them so delicately.
Just look at her scooping up her cub with her giant paw into her mouth! Such a loving mother. (Though I must say, I'm glad my mom didn't have to carry me around in her mouth.)
The little cubs ... honestly. Are you dead yet? My mom and I just about died. Between the baby cheetah and these kids, it's a miracle we made it back to Kenya alive. They're perfect, like little stuffed animals.
There was another lioness there, probably a sister to the mother. She looks vicious, but she's really just finishing a yawn. But I like the look on her face and the nice showing of teeth!
Little cub showing us his baby teeth. My goodness, so vicious! Rawr.
But the magic had to come to an end as the sun got lower in the sky. The lionesses led the cubs back into the safety of the tall reeds from which they came.
Although time spent with the babies is extraordinarily special, time spent with any lion is special! One afternoon we spent a couple hours with some lions that our guides thought also had cubs and might bring them out into the open. In the end, we did not see the cubs. And the lions weren't doing much. But hanging out near them ... I mean, how often does one get to do this? They slept a lot. If they twitched a paw or rolled over on their back, it was still exciting. "Oh look, he moved his paw!" This is why animals are so remarkable -- even the tiniest movement can stir our hearts. I think it's funny how huge lions can still sleep like kittens in funny positions.
The fella above is standing in the rain, you can just make out the drops in the air. Below, this male lion played hide-and-seek in the bushes for a short while before walking toward us shaking flies out of his mane.
And a couple black-and-white portraits of this young lion sitting beside a tree. I think his mane is still growing in, he's just got a couple nubs of fur on the top of his head.
So, thrilled with our Ndutu sightings,we moved on to the Masai Mara in Kenya, where we stayed at our guide's lovely bush camp. I hope you're not sick of lions and lion cubs yet, because I have a whole new spread from the Mara! Although I didn't manage to get these first pics in good focus, I still think they are super fun, illustrating the strength of bonds and play between siblings. These adolescents were having quite a time romping and rolling with each other. Their affection for each other is palpable.
And this lion was practicing his Shakespearean acting. I believe he has just been dramatically poisoned and is lying tragically dead, Juliette bent over him in sorrow. Who knew lions were such accomplished thespians?
One of the most magical moments was one afternoon fading into evening with a dark blue storm sky and these lions crossing the hill in the misty air. I didn't take a picture of the most dramatic scene, a lone lioness cresting the hill with a darker, brooding sky behind her.
We thought we were going to get to witness a lioness taking down a warthog. She and her pride mates had been intently watching a warthog. Elly, our guide, mentioned that lions like to catch warthogs. Then foom! all of sudden she was up and sprinting down the hillside.
But she broke off and did not catch it.
If you happen to watch many nature shows on TV, you might know that some animals and groups of animals are pretty famous. The Marsh Pride of the Mara is one of them, which I've seen followed and filmed on numerous shows, particularly Big Cat Diaries. (which was the inspiration for my cats' Twitter page, "Small Cat Diaries" ... in case you want to follow the lives of my kitty cats. :-) ) So when Elly led us to a group of lionesses lounging on a fallen tree and told us they were the Marsh Pride, I got (once again) a little beside myself. Just like if I were to see a famous human I admired on the street. So we stopped to watch them for awhile. Nobody else (humans) anywhere in sight.
We watched them for awhile as they woke up one by one and descended the tree onto the ground. Elly didn't say a word although he suspected they were there ... so when we saw this little face peek out and surprise us, mom and I of course were squealing.
Pretty soon a whole little crew of wee ones came spilling out of the hollowed tree.
This was an interesting situation in that there were two lactating lionesses but one of them was not at all in the mood to nurse the cubs. So I guess that's one advantage of a pride -- mothers can nurse each others' cubs. The cheetah moms and leopard moms don't have this luxury. If they don't feel like feeding the kids, too bad, it's all up to them.
So the cubs mostly got the hint (though it took some of them awhile) and piled on to the willing lioness. And once again made the indescribably cute noises as they jockeyed for prime position and suckled.
We were inside several rain storms on the savanna. It was no big deal to us, of course, in our vehicle where we could easily pull down the pop-up roof. The animals endured with an admirable stoicism. Like this lion hunkered down.
This juvenile lion particularly stole my heart, as he reminds me very much of my kitty, Jasper. So much so that after I got home, I nicknamed Jasper "my little lion." He also endured a brief rain storm.
But we weren't done with baby cubs yet! We found this lioness and her two tiny cubs a couple times. Our guide explained that they were so young that the lioness had not yet introduced them to the rest of the pride. Mothers usually spend some time alone with their newborns before bringing them into the pride. She was protecting them, putting them between herself and a big bush.
Sleepy little lion! Just waking up all groggy.
So I hope you've enjoyed this photo fest of lions. They are certainly one of the most iconic animals of the savanna ... the epitome of beauty, power and family. And crazy cuteness. Easy to see why many have given it the moniker, "King of Beasts." Queen of the beasts, too!
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My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency.
Even though it was the most oppressive place to be in Armila, I really loved tromping into the jungle. One of our first days there, our guides showed us the path out of the village on the east side that led into the jungle, following a nice creek. This is where I got my nature fix, and I'll share some of the nature with you now.
First, the path out of the village passed by these "tourist" huts. Run-of-the-mill tourists cannot stay inside the village ... the village leaders will grant permits for people to camp on the beach. Although near the end of our stay, they permitted a large group to spend the night inside one of the community ceremonial huts. But these cute little huts here are for visiting researchers or journalists, people working in the community.
The path begins with low growth. So there's actually a little bit of a barrier between the village houses and the true, deep jungle. A lot of villagers follow this main path into the jungle to reach their fincas. Baby pineapples growing along the path.
And of course, my canine pal, Buddy! Accompanying me into the jungle, always waiting for me if I stopped to take pictures. Not only man's best friend, but a girl's, too.
After following a small creek that babbles through a rocky bed choked with dead leaves, you soon come to a delightful spot where rocks have been placed to make a small dam holding the water into a pool. It usually made for a nice, stil mirror reflecting the mass of trees surrounding it.
If you sit in it with bare feet, little fish come and nibble on your toes. I didn't find this particularly pleasant and wore shoes in the pool instead. But whoa Nelly, did it feel deliciously cool and refreshing in the muggy heat of the jungle. One of the banks is made of a red clay that some of the artists collected, took back to their hut and dried some of it to powder to use as a color for drawing, and used some to fashion sculptures. It ended up being too brittle to fire in the "kiln" they built into the dirt under a fire, and broke apart.
The first day we visited this place, a whole bunch of tiny yellow flowers had fallen into the creek and among the rocks. It was dazzling, like the creek was covered by a sheet of gold. When I looked closer, leaf-cutter ants were carrying the tiny blossoms away. I wanted to try to capture them with my camera, but it was the first day and I was with the whole group and needed to head back to the village with them.
So I determined to come back soon and spend more time with the ants. I've tromped through rainforests in various places around the world, but I had never just hung out or sat down and absorbed one. When I was in Costa Rica, one of the most exciting things I saw, second only to the sloths, was the leaf-cutter ants. I'd only seen them on TV nature shows, and running into them in person thilled me to an unexpected degree. So ... I basically couldn't wait to come back to this spot. I believe it was two days later that I first came back.
But well before I reached the little pool of paradise, I started running into butterflies. Well. I can't resist a butterfly. But here's the crazy thing, I did not have a camera with a macro lens. My options were (1) my wide angle lens, for which I'd have to be practically on top of a butterfly to adequately get it in the frame, (2) my phone camera which simply wasn't fast enough most of the time, and I wanted better quality pics, (3) my favorite lens, but it's a 70-200 mm, and its *minimum* focus distance is about four feet. So that means I have to be four feet away from any object I want to focus on. Although option (3) is completely ridiculous to try to use in a suffocatingly dense forest, it was really my best option.
So there's me, in the equatorial rainforest, where you can't walk one foot off the path without being choked by leaves and vines and branches, chasing butterflies. But to get a photo of one, I must first chase it until it stops on a leaf or flower. Then I must figure out how to back away four feet through the strangling jungle while keeping it in my sights and hope it doesn't fly away while I'm backing up crashing through branches and leaves. So try to appreciate the effort I went through for each butterfly shot that came out. Nine times out of ten, it flew away before I got backed up four feet, and so the chase continued.
But I thought of them as my jungle muses because in chasing them around like a very silly person, they led me to places and sights I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise, so I did not mind their elusiveness. I'll share with you now some of the shots I got over several different trips into the jungle ... so imagine that I'm standing four feet away from each of these butterflies, completely enveloped in jungle material, pointing my big lens at them. I just tried not to think about the spiderwebs I was probably running into and all the bugs that might be jumping onto me. Also, by being so far away, the subjects are a pretty small portion of the frame, so these are all heavily cropped.
In between chasing the butterflies, I spent time noticing the delicate flowers of the jungle.
As if they weren't freaky enough roaming all over the village and infiltrating our hut the first week we were there, I also had to watch out for crabs while crashing through the jungle! Always scuttling about, in and out of their holes. I just never think about crabs being on land, I did not expect them to be all over the jungle! Ants, butterflies, spiders, grasshoppers, snakes, birds ... yes. Crabs? No.
Lots of interesting fungus everywhere, too.
I thought about a fascinating Radiolab episode, "Plant Parade," about how trees in a forest are all connected to each other underground through a crazy fungal freeway system. Tiny fungi connect tens of trees together, and they're not even the same species. In the forest these researchers were studying, they found one tree could be connected to as many as 47 others around it through this underground network. (This was a forest somewhere in the USA.) Apparently, according to the researchers, tree roots are not actually all that good at absorbing minerals which are crucial to their growth from the soil. So the way they get them is from the underground fungi in a trade ... the tree, which converts carbon to sugar, gives the fungi sugar it needs in exchange for the fungi's minerals they have collected. The fungi have a variety of methods for acquiring minerals from the soil and from a tiny insect called the springtail, the latter of which is rather gruesome. They found that when a tree is dying, it dumps its carbon into the fungal network for other trees around it to absorb and grow stronger. According to the researchers, this underground fungal structure looks physically like a brain. I don't know how they arrive at that, so I retain some skepticism, but what is clear is that the forest itself acts like a superorganism, like a bee or ant colony. It's not just alive with individual plants, but as a whole organism.
The Guna tribe's mythology is all about going underground, that's where the magic worlds are. If they thought about life, where it comes from, maybe their observations of the jungle, of seeds sprouting up and roots growing down gave them their mythologies. Why did the Maya who lived in similar jungle look up to the stars like so many other cultures? It's interesting how, it seems to me, the sky dictates the majority of ancient folklore around the world and forms the territory of the gods who give life and destiny, even though life, the sacred, really does come from underneath the ground like the Guna seem to perceive.
So when I looked at the jungle floor, the chaos of death and life on the surface, and then thought about the magnitude of what is going on underneath the surface ... I felt completely overwhelmed at times, like almost dizzy trying to sense and feel and acknowledge everything going on around me.
I stopped to take a wee nap one day. I laid down here with my camera, with the tree in the second pic across from me. I did not see any bugs swarming on the ground or on the log, so I thought it looked like a pretty good napping spot. I laid down pretty unconcerned.
As I lay there, looking up for awhile before my eyelids fell down, I sort of communed with the movement of the jungle. Because it's so hot and humid and oppressive, at first it seems like the air is too heavy to move, as if all is still except for the butterflies and ants and the babbling brook. But once I myself stopped moving, I realized there was movement on every plane around me -- visual, audio, horizontal, vertical. Leaves are perpetually falling, some floating effortlessly and some having to force their way through the interlaced branches of the jungle, always a downward current from the sky to the ground. Ants are perpetually moving across the ground, leaf-cutter ants like rivers crossing the forest floor -- a sideways current along the plane of the earth. Dappled light is always moving and shifting, chaotic -- it's impossible to take the same photo twice because the light is always different, so many leaves in the jungle canopy are filtering the sun and always subtly moving. The light moves in eddies and swirls in the space in between the lateral movement of the insects and the vertical movement of the leaves. The air feels stiff and still, but it’s clearly always moving, shifting the trees ever so slightly, encouraging, promoting, beckoning them to shed their leaves. Always rustling noises from the leaves falling through other layers of leaves, from lizards always scampering through the floor of death the piled up leaves create, which then becomes a floor of regrowth, really. Plus the occasional crab scuttling through the dead leaves. Sound comes in waves from the insects, swelling like waves on the ocean, sometimes so loud as to be distracting, sometimes so soft as to be a background noise, like white noise.
I'm pretty sure I drifted off for a bit before I opened my eyes again and sat up. I took a long cold drink from my water bottle. Set it down. And then noticed an ant crawling on my leg. I flicked it off. Oh, another ant! Flick. Ack, another ant! Geeze. Flick. Finally my eyes focused properly and I saw to my horror that I was actually covered in ants. They weren't biting me, so I didn't really notice at first. I spazzed out and starting flailing around like mad, suddenly feeling my whole body crawling with ants. I wasn't exactly screaming, but was definitely making some noises of distress, and frantically trying to brush off the ants. Thank goodness, they did not actually get under my clothes, they were just on top of my pants and shirt. Still I was mega wigged out. Then I looked at my camera and saw that it was covered in ants, too! Aaaaack! I tried to blow them off and flick them off. It was quite a little ordeal before I felt that I was finally rid of all the ants. Fortunately they did not decide to infiltrate my daypack.
However, I now could feel a giant welt on my face. Oh lord! Why on earth did I think it was a good idea to lie down for a nap on the floor of the jungle? Cursing myself now, I tried to assess the welt situation. I had a benadryl in my daypack so I popped that. This is not a selfie for the sake of documenting myself in the jungle. This is me taking a picture of myself so that I can look at it to see if the welt is visible and how bad it looks. OK, this is actually the second picture I took. The first one my expression was pretty bizarre, haha. So I decided if I'm gonna take a pic, even for medical purposes, why not make it possibly worth saving. Amazingly, I couldn't see anything that looked as bad as what I felt, even when I zoomed in. So hooray. I decided to keep the photo because I just find it a humorous reminder now of my brief appearance in a little horror movie. (The handkerchief ... just standard issue accessory in an environment that wrenches sweat out of every pore.)
Well. So, I didn't necessarily want to get that intimate with the ants, but I was very pleased with the rest of the time I spent with them. If anything is more ridiculous than trying to photograph butterflies with a lens with a 4-foot minimum focus distance, it's trying to photograph ants from four feet away. But I tried it anyway. In the process of watching and photographing them, although few photos turned out very well, I really got to admire the discipline of these critters, their order, the breadth of their territory. Here are a couple videos showing them en masse, just taken with my phone camera.
Some details I noticed about them are that it seemed only some of them have the mandibles to cut through the leaves. I could be wrong about this, but I looked through a lot of pics, and this seemed to be the case. Now, these ant pics are crazy zoomed and cropped in! I'm pretty impressed that the lens got anything so tiny in reasonable focus. So now imagine me sitting on the ground four feet away from a line of ants trying to get one in focus.
It was also amusing that some ants hitched a ride on top of leaf bits that other ants were carrying. Slackers!
Compared to the typical swarms and traffic jams of ants, I thought this guy looked kind of dramatic, alone on the tree carrying his leaf.
OK, now we have finally made it to my favorite part of hanging out in this area: the creek. I couldn't decide whether to put it first or last, but I decided to present this post in basically chronological order of my discoveries and activities. So insects and plants came first, then I really got into photographing things on or through the water. So allow me to present to you a gallery of water photos. The first thing that captivated me was the most obvious: the reflections.
It was by paying attention to and photographing the reflections that I then noticed all the other details and then actively started looking for interesting shots. Or at least by my idea of interesting. The first one below just kind of shows the general chaos of the jungle floor (which includes the creek bed). In the first pic, it's a jumble of leaves in the water, leaves on top of the water, and light and trees reflected on the water. Almost all the photos revolve in one way or another around leaves.
I spent a lot of time playing with different shutter speeds on running water to see the different effects. Slow speeds often helped the water look like a kaleidoscope.
I had a lot of fun trying to capture these bubbles frothing up in a little nook of the creek. These kind of places are perfect for people with very long attention spans, like me. You: "What have you been doing for the last hour?" Me: "Oh, watching bubbles in the creek." I like how in the large bubbles you can pick out pretty well the reflection of patches of sky and trees.
Various other movements and patterns of water.
Fast shutter speeds produced the white streaks, which looks to me as if someone drew on the photo in photoshop or something, the white lines look almost synthetic rather than organic, which I think is kind of interesting, but it's just the water at high speed.
And finally, a bug lurking beneath the water. I tried to capture fish and tadpoles, too, but none of those really came out.
So there is a summary of my time in the jungle, and I think my best attempt at being actually "artistic," as opposed to documentary.