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My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency program.
The ocean is probably the most important zone and aspect of Armila. It is part of its glory and the primary part of its tragedy.
Armila village is on the Caribbean coast of Panama, where the Armila river meets the ocean. By far the quickest and easiest method of transport to any other Guna village is by boat, as there are no roads in the Guna Yala territory, only footpaths for people and pack animals. And most villages are located on small islands in a long archipelago. There are only five mainland Guna villages.
So the ocean is the primary means to access the rest of the world and the means by which the rest of the world accesses Armila. This is good for the Guna people to get supplies and visit relatives in other villages -- a number of villagers own speed boats and can ferry others who don't. But it also brings in an increasing tide of tourists (who pay to camp on the beach), which, from my point of view, lies mostly on the tragedy end of the spectrum. That's a whole issue to tangle with on its own. I will find space for it in another post because it's an issue I've wrestled with several times in the past with other special places I've visited on the cusp of radical change.
The ocean also provides a bounty of food. For example all those crabs that crawled on land during the first week of our stay! haha. But mostly, of course, fish. I never saw any large fishing nets in the village like I've seen in other rural fishing villages in other countries, so I'm presuming they fish by pole or traps (though I never saw any traps sitting around either).
So between the river and the ocean, everyone needs to navigate the water. The shoreline of Armila is full of dugout canoes and speed boats.
It was fun to watch kids learning their skills. Sometimes I saw them playing in the river outlet and tipping the canoes over -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. A fair number of people also took their dogs along in their canoes, which was really cute. This day the waves coming in were very small and kids were out in droves paddling canoes and using old pieces of wood like boogie boards.
The most amazing things the ocean brings to Armila are female leatherback turtles full of eggs, looking for a place on shore to dig a nest and bury their babies so the sand can incubate them until they pop to the surface and make their way to the ocean. When I read in the residency literature that Armila was an important nesting area for the leatherbacks, I was very excited and hoped I would be lucky enough to see one.
I got to see several, and it was a more profound experience than I ever could have guessed it would be. I've seen a fair number of critters in the wild around the world, but this ..... This was something else, and I could try to throw some words around it, but they couldn't really do justice to what I felt.
Our first encounter was at night, which is when the turtles typically come on shore to lay eggs. Most or maybe all nesting turtle "tours" take their clients out at night to look for nesting turtles. So after being in the village only a couple days, we went out one night with Nacho to the beach on the other side of the river outlet, where I had not yet been. So we took a boat across the river and started following Nacho up the beach. It was, of course, dark and I was just watching the ground, trying to pick out my steps, as I didn't have a flashlight. I figured we'd be walking for awhile, so I was startled when Nacho called halt after only a few minutes.
I don't want to take time to describe my Costa Rica experience with a turtle tour group, but having had that experience did not prepare me for the intimacy that we would have here with the turtles! Here we're just villagers living in the same space as the turtles. So when Nacho called halt, I thought he was stopping to tell us all something, but no words came. Then I looked where his dim red light was pointing. Red light does not bother the turtles ... a regular flashlight does, it would freak the turtle out and she may abandon the nest she's digging. So (also in Costa Rica) only light colored red should be used. I thought Nacho's light was probably pointed down idly as he was about to speak. So when I followed the light, I was so startled I nearly jumped back as I saw, right there, maybe 10 feet from me, a giant turtle head.
It took me a minute to even parse the scene. The head was mammoth ... seeing pictures of how large they are doesn't prepare you for being right next to one. This lady was large even by leatherback standards. So that was my first encounter and I was very happy about it even though I couldn't get any real pictures in the dark. A couple days later, I was hanging out in our hut in the afternoon when Luz came running in telling me there was a turtle on the beach in broad daylight. She had gotten lost at night and went upriver instead of to the ocean after she completed her nest. She had been redirected and now was heading toward the ocean. I ran out to the beach with just my phone camera.
When I saw the turtle and what a good photo opp it could be, I sprinted to the best of my old and arthritic ability back to the hut, grabbed my real camera and sprinted back, catching a few pics before she disappeared into the ocean.
After this I was pretty ecstatic. But this wasn't the end of my encounters! I'll talk more about the turtles, and share more pics, when I tell you about the Turtle Festival in another post. For now, this is just to point out the most amazing thing the ocean brings to the village.
So the shore is beautiful -- a long stretch of soft, pale sand beach lined with palm trees and a wall of jungle behind them, gentle ocean waves coming in. Absolutely idyllic.
The residency literature did not mention what we all would discover in our first few days in Armila. Perhaps because it might turn people off? I think it's fine that it's not mentioned. It was actually interesting to see how everyone reacted to the discovery, as we each explored around on our own, and then came and exclaimed to each other and asked our guides for explanations. For as soon as you pass the village center, more and more of the beach is choked with trash.
It's not the villagers' trash, though they are not 100% blameless, the majority is garbage that washes up from the ocean at large. Many of the items stranded on the beach and gathered in lagoons just beyond the high tide mark are things that aren't even available in the Guna villages or would not have any use even if someone brought them in from outside. I don't know how the currents work, I don't know if all the washed-up garbage comes from one source that would be identifiable (a particular large city, for example), or if it just collects randomly from all around the Caribbean.
The shore directly in front of the village is relatively clean ... a few plastic bottles here and there, nothing out of the ordinary for Central America. So walking a little ways outside of the heart of the village, it is a shock to suddenly come across the heaps of trash. Somehow I managed to permanently and irrecoverably delete some photos on my phone ... you see, I don't really know how to use the thing, so god only knows what I did. They were pictures of the trash lagoon -- the most shocking place of all -- and of a bunch of individual items on the beach. I took them the day I starting making a list of the items I saw (I'll post it the bottom of this article). Here are some pics I took on another day that I managed not to delete. (I didn't walk around with my "real" cameras very often, only in the jungle or early in the mornings ... so a lot of documentation comes from the camera on my phone.)
And yet among the trash, little signs of life that seemed like little signs of hope.
The most common items in the trash heaps were plastic bottles and shoes. Why shoes? I have no idea. But two of the artists in the residency chose these most ubiquitous items to make some impressive installation art. Jeffrey Michael Austin collected shoes of all colors and tied them with bits of rope to the chainlink fence that was at the edge of the courtyard of the hut I stayed in. It took days for him to do the collection and days to visualize his design, and days standing out in the blazing sun affixing the shoes. I was skeptical at first, I admit, about having a bunch of garbage shoes tied to the fence outside my window. But wow, it was an amazing creation. Beautiful and tragic ... colors of the rainbow, geometric patterns -- ooooh aahhhh -- made of a minuscule fraction of the garbage sullying the beaches of Armila.
My roommates, Chong and Yoon, who work together artistically as "Chulma," made a flag out of every color of bottle cap ... spending ages collecting enough of each color, sketching out their design, and then an unbelievably painstaking amount of time "stitching" them together with twine. Chong drilled a tiny hole on four sides of each cap with the only drill in town, which he was able to borrow in spurts, and then they threaded the twine through them to make a solid, stiff "flag" of a turtle. They hung it up at the turtle "hatchery" ... a fenced-off place where the villagers translocate eggs from nests that are too close to the ocean and will wash away, or are otherwise in danger.
They also spent an immense amount of time making this short stop-motion film with the bottle caps. It just so happened that there was a concrete slab right outside our hut, I have no idea why it was there, what it was made for, but it was the perfect platform on which they could create their film. Since I was their roommate, I saw how much effort they put into it, to the point they became sick of it but were determined to finish, and I really can't stress enough how amazing their effort and their final product is. Check out the first draft of their film (about 40 seconds long):
So the trash is a bummer. And most of the villagers don't seem to care much. But some do. And some have tried various initiatives to use the trash constructively (make things with it to sell, etc.). Outsiders have also come in to introduce methods of making crafts or useful objects from the trash. Inevitably those projects peter out, no one takes the helm as leader of any project and group enthusiasm quickly fizzles with no one to direct, organize, or cheerlead. They burn a lot of the trash, raking it into piles covered with dried palm leaves as tinder, which is totally toxic, all that plastic burning.
Colombians come over (as Colombia border is very near) and buy the aluminum cans, as they have a recycling facility for aluminum. So you don't see many cans lying around, just plastic. The village discusses collecting and burying it, but that's just a cover-up, it doesn't solve the problem, and there are two big prohibitive issues with this approach: (1) wherever they decide to make a hole, it will inevitably be near somebody's finca (farming plots) and nobody wants a trash hole near theirs, (2) in their folk beliefs, their magical, mythical creatures and places are underground. Many cultures take their mythological stories from the sky and stars, and the good places like heaven are up in the sky; in Guna beliefs all of those places are underground. So digging deep into the earth offends all these beliefs, it's sacrilegious.
Here's how serious the Guna take their beliefs in the underground world and spirits. This is a story from another website about when people in Armila decided to build some fish tanks and try fish farming. They dug into the earth to build a deep tank. Then one day a man said he saw an evil spirit come out of the ground. Village suspicion is that he was a fisherman who was simply afraid of losing his business to the "farmers." But their beliefs are strong enough, and it makes sense that the spirits could be angry for digging into their sacred realm, that nobody was willing to dismiss the sighting. So the village shaman declared they needed to do a purification ceremony. This was not just a one-day ceremony, but took two weeks with many restrictions in the village during that time and the women and children vacated the village and set up camps on the beach across the river outlet. This was serious stuff.
In terms of the villagers' own contribution to garbage, the genesis of that came from many years ago when one of the sahilas declared that villagers should not keep trash in their homes, it was unclean to do so, and they should take it all to the ocean. But back then, most of the villagers' waste was organic in nature. Plastic had not been invented. Now, plastic is particularly used in rural economies because it's so cheap. So the idea of throwing trash to the ocean is no longer appropriate to how their society has changed. I asked Nacho if a current sahila could influence the villagers' habits if he, or all the sahilas together, told the villagers that now they must not throw things out into nature. But then the question is, what DO they do with it? This is an isolated community, they can't just have a trash company come by and empty trash cans. Even if they gathered up their own trash, where could they take it? Then they're back to burning it or burying it, none of which are adequate, or healthy, solutions.
The village is also talking a lot about filling in a valley-type space, a natural depression, as opposed to digging a hole and then when it’s full to the level of the surrounding ground, capping it with cement and making it into a volleyball court or something like that, something the kids and community will benefit from, so they’ll feel motivated to fill up that space with trash rather than throwing it somewhere else. But once again, the valley is only so big, it will fill up.
The solution to the community's trash problem is clearly to prevent plastic from entering the village ... no plastic bottles, that alone would make a huge difference. Limit items to only what can be sustainably dealt with from now into the future. And what do they do with the trash that washes in from the ocean? That's a Sisyphusian effort to clear that away, and they have no control over its continual assault of their beaches.
So this is the ecological tragedy of the seemingly paradise village -- the garbage problem. But the ocean brings in some gems, too. Helpful things, like driftwood. For their fires, the villagers don't have to cut down many trees because they just collect driftwood from the beach. I saw one family come in with their dugout canoe to a place further down the beach than where the village is and load up their boat with driftwood. We gathered a bunch one night because Nacho wanted to put on a big bonfire for the artists. This was rather amusing to me because it was so hot already, I couldn't fathom sitting next to a bonfire! Indeed, I had to stand way, way back.
Some of the driftwood was incredibly beautiful and picturesque.
And of course seashells! As I showed you some that I took home, in my Souvenirs post.
So here is the list I started making, first of any items that struck me as strange, amusing, disturbing -- things you might not normally find on the beach! Then I switched to a disheartening list of just all the different things made of plastic. Then my piece of note paper was full and I just took pictures, which I then accidentally deleted. But in any case, the list here and the pics all only represent a fraction, a tiny fraction, of the kinds of things found, and I was only walking around a small portion of the beach. Later I would see one of the nesting turtles dragging herself back to the ocean over a pair of metal scissors.
Bicycle, life vest, scrubbing brush, size DD bra, toothbrush, deodorant, volleyballs, plastic flashlight, plastic bucket, balled-up used diapers, plastic deck chair, plastic milk crate, plastic pulley and some kind of construction panels, rubber hose, DEET bottles, fast food styrofoam, backseat of a car, couch, plastic cooler, infant walker and play chair (plastic), plastic tampon applicators, plastic buckets, television, metal cooking oven, metals pots, plastic wheel from a kid's cart, large satellite dish, plastic cups and dishes, an occasional glass bottle, eye mask for sleeping, rubber bucket, pillow, ping pong ball, basketball, baby wipe lid, plastic hanger, two matching flip flops far down the beach from each other (had particular flowers on the straps), lots of corn cobs, kids backpacks, bed post, part of a humidifier (plastic), several plastic piggy banks, plastic thermos, plastic tricycle handlebars, plastic jerry can, plastic shovel handle, plastic rake, plastic dolls and more plastic kids toys than I can list. This is the next most common item after bottles and shoes: children's toys.
The pillow I found had some plastic thing on it that at first I thought was part of the pillow. I poked it with my foot and it started screeching like a car alarm, "skreek skreek skreek!" I was horrified, I thought somehow I had set off something by touching that plastic and I had no idea how I would turn it off. I looked around all panicked. But the sound stopped. I looked up, and realized it was just coincidence that a bird in a palm tree started screeching at precisely the moment I touched the plastic. Obviously it's very silly that I thought I set off an alarm by touching a piece of garbage plastic sitting on a pillow on the beach. But at the moment, there was no other available explanation for the noise that began right when I touched it! But I had a good laugh at myself after I saw the bird.
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High on my list of places to see in my home country, the United States, has been the old growth redwoods and sequoias in California. I just crossed the redwoods off my list as Erik and I recently took a brief trip to San Jose and spent a day in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Which are the bigger trees, the redwoods or sequoias? I didn't know until I just Googled it; here is what I learned: The sequoias are the largest in diameter and overall volume, while the redwoods are the tallest. Sequoias have a longer lifespan by almost a thousand years! Redwoods live up to about 2,000 years and the sequoias to 3,000. The redwoods grow along the Pacific coast, while the sequoias are found further inland at a higher elevation.
This was a day when I really appreciated my wide-angle lens, but it could seldom fit in a whole tree. It's just astonishing when you look up and up and up and still cannot see the top of the trees.
This tree, named the Mother of the Forest, was the tallest tree in the park at one time (329 feet), according to an informational brochure about the trail she's located along. Some 30 feet of her top broke off in a storm, but I couldn't find anywhere in the park's literature what the height of the tallest tree now is.
Erik will now demonstrate the scale of these trees compared to puny humans. There was a big enough patch of open ground that I could get far enough away from this first tree to fit it in the frame. Can you pick out where tiny little Erik is?
You really start to get a crick in your neck from looking up all the time. It reminded me of when we were at the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, how we strained our necks looking up all the time. In fact I wrote an essay about it saying the best way to view the Sagrada is lying on a gurney. (Feel free to read it HERE.) I guess I wouldn't say that about the redwoods; it's better to hike through them, feel the dirt beneath your feet, the same dirt nurturing the giants. But it's the same sense of gazing skyward in mute wonder, in a place that is holy ... Gaudi drew his inspiration from nature, and nature, in my opinion, is the most holy temple of all.
Looking up at the redwoods is like looking into outer space, in that distance is a measure of time. When you try to see the tops of these giants, who began as seeds and tiny saplings, you're looking up at a measure of time. One of the most profound illustrations was next to the park's fee station, where they had mounted a slice from the trunk of a tree that was 1,600 or 1,800 years old, I can't remember which. They put pins in various rings with tags that noted some well-known historical event, or a note about the height or fall of some empire. It's incredible to see tangibly how much human history has transpired during the life of an ordinary run-of-the-mill redwood tree -- the rise and fall of entire empires all around the globe are fractions of an inch within the trunk; almost everything seems like a footnote in context of the tree's rings, in its 1,600+ years as witness to planet earth. No, it didn't see with eyes or hear with ears all the human events, but it stood and grew and was present during all our turmoil and chaos, our social and technological evolution. We're swarming around in a frenzy, living and dying, while it grows steadily, standing still and majestic, moving only with the wind. What a beautiful counterbalance to humanity.
After taking the short and informative walk around the "Redwood Trail" (where we saw the Mother of the Forest), we set out for a little longer hike on the Sequoia and Skyline to the Sea loop, about four miles of easy terrain. Wonderfully, we encountered very few other people, we had the trail pretty much all to ourselves to walk in quiet awe through the ancient forest.
Notice in the photo above how the tree next to the trail on the left is leaning over at a pretty extreme angle and yet seems still firmly rooted. The root system within a redwood forest is a massive network, where the roots of each tree are connected with roots of all the others nearby. You might think their roots extend deep into the earth to support such height, but they are surprisingly shallow. Their strength comes from the network, they all support each other. So when these trees lean -- I'm not sure what has caused this one to -- they are prevented from toppling over by the roots of the trees surrounding them. It's pretty cool. Of course trees do eventually fall and die ... imagine witnessing one of these trees falling!
Kind of can't help but make a comparison to the human forest as many of our societies are becoming splintered, fractured, polarized and individualized, and weakened in the process. Look at how majestic and soaring this forest can become because they intertwine their roots and support each other.
One of the most remarkable things about the forest is that the majority of trees have fire scars from lightning strikes or forest fires. The redwoods are incredibly fire resistant. Rather than bursting into flames like all the pine trees around my house would, they get charred and can smolder inside, in the heart of the tree, for over a year!
The result is a magical landscape that looks like elves and gnomes and fairies live here and spend their time producing modern-art installations. The hollowed-out spaces look like shelter for the fairy-tale folk. The creature inside the tree below is a rather large human, and the tree would be a comfortable home even for him! Would be a palace for a gnome or troll. Or wait a minute ... is that a troll??
The skeletons of trees who finally succumbed to numerous fires look like sculptures you'd see in an art museum. An ancient redwood forest is a very special place ... I imagined that it would be cool, that's why I wanted to see one. But I had no idea it would feel so magical, transcendent and sacred.
Wow, there's one of those wood fairies now! Who knew they were photographers?
This fallen tree, neatly cut by a chainsaw to clear the path, is so interesting the way the inside is blackened and only an outer ring is normal. It's so black, at first you think it is hollow. I presume this tree smoldered for quite some time in its past.
Yet another fascinating aspect of the redwoods is their bark ... each tree looks different and the bark and roots can be fabulously uber-duber trippy.
Here's something unexpectedly interesting about the trunks: the spider "webs" which are really more like spider nets. All along the trunks these nets are woven between crevices in the bark. I did not see any of the spiders who make these nets, which is completely fine by me.
Just check out the insane topography of this patch of bark and all the different colors.
Here's a different kind of spiderweb, like a dome.
The very sweet Sempervirens Falls is along this route. Interesting rock face with the tree at the very edge, it's like someone took a knife and cut away a slice of land leaving the rock and roots exposed. And now plants are starting to grow through cracks in the rock.
The roads on the way to the park, by the way, are also lovely. When we started out on the freeway heading out of the city, dense traffic all around, I never imagined we'd end up on these very narrow, super twisty, nearly empty roads. It was delightful.
If you're interested in how complex a forest is underground, check out this Radiolab episode that is one of my favorites. I was thinking about it while we were walking through this forest. "Tree to Shining Tree."
So, it was great to cross another thing off my List. If you find yourself in the area, I recommend checking out Big Basin Redwoods State Park. I think you have to be a real curmudgeon not to be struck with a playful spirit in this magical place.
Our hike took us past a campground, and we got a kick out of some kids who were running around and pretending the forest was a castle or fort or something -- very appropriate. We heard one kid yell, "Send in more archers!" Then as we walked past another kid posted behind a tree, he yelled out, "Archer Three, false alarm!" Clearly, we were the false alarm. So fortunately, our day didn't end with being attacked by a gang of pretend archers! Or at least I presume *pretend!*
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Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Another pocket of Eden. My first bush glamping experience. In both of my Botswana trips, I was more genuinely camping, even though the staff pitched our tents, dug our loos and fixed our food. But the tents were actual camping tents with bed rolls, and outdoor pits for toilets, a group bucket shower outside, etc.
On this East Africa trip, which my mom generously funded, we went the glamping route. Actually, by my standards, I'd have to call it opuglamping. That's a combo of opulent and glamorous. This camp, Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp, just a few minutes' drive from the Lemala Crater Access Road down into the crater, is what is categorized as a "mobile camp." They actually set this whole thing up during the peak tourist season and tear it down at the end, resurrect it all the next year and tear down, etc. Which is extraordinary. The tents (nine at this camp) are larger than a typical budget hotel room, have an attached en suite bathroom, and though they are bucket showers, the one here rocked compared to the spindly one we had in Botswana ... the staff would have the warm water ready to pour into the tank within minutes of "ordering" it. Big round shower head with amazing water pressure, not just a trickle.
My mom was particularly pleased with the hot water bottles that the staff tucked into our sheets while we were eating dinner. I was particularly pleased with the all-inclusive alcohol deal! I discovered Safari beer, my favorite of African brands I've tasted, and had amarula whenever I could.
When traveling between our private tent and the dinner tent or campfire after dark, we summoned a Masai staff member to escort us with a flashlight, since there are no fences around the camp, so any wildlife could be lurking anywhere. I was curious about the Masai staff ... the Masai are the predominant indigenous tribe in the region, and typically you see them dressed in their traditional clothing. The baboon watchmen at Amboseli, for example, wore their traditional clothing. I wondered if the Masai staff, dressed in the khaki camp uniforms with name tags (each tent had a steward, and then there was the camp manager, cook, etc.) had shed their traditions and were living Western-style lives. I was so pleased to be involved in a conversation with the camp manager, Dennis (I don't know if he has a different Masai name), around the campfire in which he told us that when he goes back to his home, about three kilometers away from the camp, he is actually not allowed to enter his village wearing his uniform -- he must change into the traditional garb. He has a mud hut just like everyone else in the village. He has two wives and four kids. If you've been following me for awhile, you may remember my fascination with bride prices. I ask about them all over Africa. Dennis said he paid eight cows for one wife, and four cows plus some sheep for the second wife ... he paid less for her because his father was friends with the bride's father.
One of Dennis's children is a cow herder -- the traditional and most common occupation of the Masai men and boys. They are to be seen with their cows everywhere you go in this region. Elly says that when the Masai herders travel with their herds or take them to market in some town, they simply lie down and sleep on the ground wherever they are when darkness falls. They drink the blood of their cows for nourishment. I've seen on TV how they prick the cow's neck in a skillful way to release only as much blood as they need. Sometimes you wonder about TV portrayals, if it's of a traditional life no longer relevant, just "for show." But Elly, and also a guide in a Masai village we visited, said this is true. The cows also provide milk for the herders.
Dennis showed us his missing front bottom teeth as a sign of authenticity of being Masai. (this tooth-pulling is a similar practice to what the Himba do) I noticed these missing teeth in a lot of the Masai-dressed men we met or interacted with. Dennis told us the Masai used to leave their dead outside for nature to take care of the bodies, but now they are required to bury them. (kind of a random conversation topic) This reminded me of the Zoroastrians in Iran and their Towers of Silence that we visited.
I am always amazed at how small the world really is, and this is most often made clear when traveling. At the mobile camps, everyone eats at the same time at one big table. The people who sat next to me and my mom at dinner knew both my very small Colorado mountain town of Nederland and my mom's small hometown, the farming community of Cozad, Nebraska. This is the common tent with dining table and lounge:
So anyway, now let's go down into the crater!
Ngorongoro is the largest inactive volcanic caldera in the world -- 2,000 feet deep, and 12 miles in diameter. It's part of the larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area which includes Olduvai Gorge. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can read more about the conservation area and the important features that qualify it for World Heritage status HERE.
Because our camp was right near an access road to the crater (most lodgings are significantly further away), we were ready to head down into the crater as soon as the park opened in the pre-dawn. As we descended, we watched the sunlight creep in over the floor of the caldera.
Zebras lining up in the morning sun.
Looking down onto it from above, it's hard to imagine it is full of wildlife as large as elephants. And yet the crater is home to an abundance of animals, and is one of the few places in East Africa to see black rhinos. We saw a couple very far away, only visible with binoculars. So although not close enough to take photos, I was pleased that my mom technically got to see the highly endangered rhino on her safari.
Here we had our first encounter with very young lion cubs. One of the most darling moments of the safari. Because we were one of the first vehicles into the crater, and thanks to Elly and our driver, Hamisi, excellently positioning us, we had them to ourselves as they strolled down the road toward us. This set of lion cubs had a really particular look to them, different from all the other cubs we saw, that gave them the air of little toughie ruffians. When I posted this first pic on Facebook, I captioned it, "Look out y'all ... the boys are in the 'hood."
I was kneeling on the floor of the vehicle and leaning out the window with my camera to capture the lions at eye level. I was so focused on the little ones, I failed to notice the mother had come right up to the vehicle and brushed against it. I only realized it when she was a few inches away from me and I yoinked my camera back inside the vehicle with a little yelp of surprise. I've been very close to lions before, but never that close! My mom, meanwhile, couldn't believe it that they came so close to, even in contact with, the vehicles. It's a thrilling experience to be so close to such iconic and powerful predators.
After the lioness passed my window, I poked the camera out just far enough to grab a shot of her leaning against the car. It's all crooked because I wasn't about to lean all the way out to where I could straighten the camera and long lens!
The crater was virtually teeming with gray crowned cranes. The males were gathered into flocks of twenty or more. What a spectacular sight!
We spent a fair amount of time trying to capture them in flight, Elly and I each with our own cameras. It sounds like a really boring activity: pulling up to a flock of birds and waiting for them to fly, finger on the shutter button poised to lock down into continuous shooting mode at the first upward movement of the birds. But we were having a grand time. I didn't capture anything amazing, but here are a couple of my shots.
The kori bustard is another bird I like to run into in Africa, partly because they are just so large. I can't imagine a bird like that walking around Colorado. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo, but the adults are about four feet tall and they can weigh up to 40 pounds. I have never seen one in flight, but it is Africa's largest flying bird. Someday ... this is something I'm putting on my list for next safari! I also like their little ponytails.
And here is a bird that I was very excited to see: the secretary bird. I saw quite a few in the Kalahari in Botswana, but never close enough to get a good photo. This dude was all puffed up and looks a bit different from the calmed-down version. I love the spray of feathers on his head, raised up and spread out, when usually they lay down folded together so it looks like only one or two feathers. It's kind of surprising to watch it rise up and separate into multiple feathers. This guy looks like he's really about to give someone some what-for ... "Now look here!"
A tawny eagle settling in for a little bath.
Plenty of zebras and wildebeest and gazelles populate the crater, providing ample food for the lions. It sounds kind of harsh as I write that, to think of these lovely creatures as food! But I want the lions to live as well. I really love the gazelles, though, such sweet-looking creatures. Between the most common antelope species in Africa of impala, springbok, gazelles and wildebeest (yes, they're in the antelope family), I'm going to have to go with the gazelles as my favorite. Look at these darling Thomson's gazelles. It feels a little weird to see them sparring, such cute and mild-seeming critters shouldn't be locking horns and displaying aggression!
Baby zebras ... their fluffy little manes are like the sign of their babyhood -- it seems just about all baby mammals are fuzzy and fluffy as infants and toddlers. I wonder what advantage the fuzz and fluff gives to young ones besides making them so darn cute. Baby zebras also have predominantly brown stripes rather than black ones, presumably better camouflaged in the grasses where their herds graze.
Later in the morning we intercepted the lion family again, the little ones tromping doggedly through the grass. One of the lionesses laid down in the grass and the cubs all had some breakfast at last, after what must have been a long morning of trekking for such tiny little legs.
Who else did we spot? We spotted this lone spotted hyena. :-)
And many, many wildebeests.
A very funny thing happened to us the day we arrived at the conservation area. Elly had to do some paperwork at the park headquarters. So Hamisi parked the vehicle in the lot, and he and Elly went to the office. They told us not to leave windows down in the vehicle, that it was dangerous because of the baboons. There were lots of them hanging about in the lot. As you may remember from Amboseli, I'm rather afraid of them and they can be terribly intimidating with their huge canines and aggressive behavior. In spite of their cautions to us, dear Elly forgot and left his window down, but my mom and I didn't think too much of it as they walked away toward the office.
So we're hanging out, and in the blink of an eye, an adult baboon jumped through the window of the Land Cruiser into the vehicle and grabbed a bag of hard candies we had sitting on a shelf behind the driver's cab. I freaked out, "Jesus Christ!" and fumbled frantically with the door, jumped out, and started yelling at mom to get out. The baboon came in so fast, she didn't even see him! She didn't understand my actions or my panic and didn't respond to my cries (I think just out of pure confusion). I didn't have shoes on when I jumped out, and the pavement was hot and full of pokey pebbles as I tried to run around the car to open the door where the baboon jumped in to let him out. Fortunately, another man in the parking lot witnessed the scene and sped over pronto to open the door. The baboon politely exited with our bag of candies.
So now we rolled up the window, but soon it started to get really hot and stuffy in the car, so mom slid open her passenger window just a tad, and again with alarming alacrity, a baboon was at the window. He reached in and grabbed the closest thing to the window: a package of napkins lying on the same shelf as the candy. My mom tried to take the napkins away in a little tug-of-war, but I was yelling at her to close the window, close the window! She thought she could either reason with or out-muscle the baboon. But I knew neither was possible, haha. The baboon dropped the napkins when she finally closed the window. Whew! What craziness can befall you while quietly waiting in a car in Africa!
One other interesting thing was that on the way to Ngorongoro, we stopped by Hamisi's house, which was on the way from Tarangire, so he could collect some things for the next leg of our trip. I thought it was very nice of him to invite us into his home and meet his wife, who was undoubtedly caught off guard, but invited us in graciously. We stopped at a shop in his town to buy some bottled water. I saw people cooking something on the roadside and asked what it was, so Elly had me get out to look and I saw they were cooking a corn mush, similar to the posho I ate in Uganda, to put stew or potatoes on. A lady there was related somehow to Hamisi (I forget how now) and told Elly (in Swahili) she wanted to meet me and shake my hand. She was absolutely beautiful and I felt embarrassed by my windblown and bedraggled look. But it was a nice little moment to have been asked for the introduction. It's these minute moments that always end up sticking with me at the end of a trip, even of the most epic ones. Last pic: me, my mom, and our friend Hamisi.
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Well, dear readers, I’m having a difficult time deciding how to present to you the indigenous Guna village of Armila and what I witnessed there. I have no obligation to do this from the La Wayaka residency that gave me the opportunity to live there for three weeks. No obligation to anyone, but, like my time spent in the Chinese peasant village of Dang Jiashan, it’s an experience not many people have (like a lot of my wacky and volunteer experiences, haha) and that’s kind of why I started my own travel blog in the first place. I like to share what I find interesting, to educate people about pockets of the world they might not even know exist, to amuse armchair travelers, inspire others to see the world, etc. So … I'd like to tell you a bit about Armila as my energy allows. But how to organize? Well, it’s silly to spend time thinking about that when I should just dive in and start sharing. So, posts may end up being a little jumbled and random, but here we go.
Armila is home to roughly 600 inhabitants, while another 300 or more call Armila home -- they were born there, but now live outside of it in a town or a city like Panama City. They may come back for family ceremonies, elections, and to simply visit family. The village lies at the mouth of the Armila River as it empties into the Caribbean Sea at the very southern tip of the eastern side of Panama, near the Colombian Border. It lies within the Guna Yala indigenous province, an autonomous region for the native Guna Yala people. There are no facilities to accommodate tourists in the village. There are a few huts available to people officially hosted by the town, who must be along the lines of researchers or journalists or artists like ourselves, who are not just tourists but are there to learn and give something back to the community. The La Wayaka residency program has been forging a relationship with Armila for several years, and now brings four separate groups of artists over during the course of a year.
Here are a couple views of the village looking at it and the mouth of the river (coming in from the right) from the ocean. The water at the mouth is always full of people, particularly children, playing and bathing.
Coming into the village out of the river toward the ocean.
So how about a little tour around my own hut in the village. With seven artists and two guides/interpreters, our group stayed between two different buildings in the village, a short distance from each other. In mine, I had a private room, frankly I think the best one out of everybody, a great stroke of luck.
Chris (from England) had a private room, Chong and Yun (from South Korea) had a room as a couple, and one of our guides, Luz (from Argentina), had her own room.
One common space with a table and hammocks, and a bathroom … understand that indoor plumbing is a fairly nice luxury. Some homes have it, but a lot don’t. We had a toilet, a sink, and a spigot that came out of the wall about three and a half feet off the ground to serve as a shower -- a challenging shower, especially for one with arthritic knees to have to kneel under the spigot to wash their hair. (I'm referring to me, if you didn't guess!) The village actually voted to build this house specifically for La Wayaka guests, though I imagine they use it for other visitors when the residency is not there the majority of the year.
A lot of things we take for granted at home were not available in our hut, such as cups. So, below, Chris has ingeniously cut a plastic water bottle in half, using the bottom half as a cup for a little happy hour beer. (Mostly we didn't use plastic, but rather, refilled water bottles each day from a large tank of filtered water at our village host's house.)
We are drinking beer in those photos, but alcohol is only sold on Saturdays and Sundays in Armila. This was a decision made by the village council, and it keeps the residents healthy and productive during the week without draconian prohibition measures. It's a very nice balance for people to enjoy themselves on the weekend, but not fall into the clutches of alcoholism, which has been a challenge among indigenous people throughout the Americas. Each individual Guna village decides their own rules regarding the sale of alcohol. Western visitors are granted some leeway to this rule, however it would have been rude to drink in public on a weekday, so if we had beer, we drank privately inside our hut or our host's. Of the two shops near us that had coolers and carried cold beer, only one would sell to us on the weekday.
This is the other residency house and also where we all gathered for any group activities, such as craft demonstrations and informative talks by our village host, Nacho.
Villagers without plumbing have an outdoor loo for a toilet and simply bathe and wash clothes in the river. We also had a cement floor in our house, which is quite a luxury, most homes have dirt floors. Some are built of bamboo sticks, ours was built of wood planks, as you saw above.
In addition to us human roommates, we had a couple canine residents. One was a female dog who lived right next door and was probably the cause of the numerous horrifically vicious-sounding dog fights that took place in our courtyard and around the village many nights in a row while she was in heat. The first time I awoke to one of the fights taking place right outside my window, I honestly thought it sounded like a monster, and wondered what in the hell roamed the Panamanian jungles, and if it came out for human flesh at night!
My favorite canine friend lived pretty much all around the village, but particularly with the artists, often found at one of our two houses. He was an intensely loyal companion to all of us.
The first time I went into the jungle alone, he stayed with me the whole time. If I stopped to take some photos, he would sit and wait for me. Then we’d continue on together. I thought, “Oh, I’ve found a special friend!” But then I found out he accompanied other people, too, on their outings … I was admittedly a little jealous, my little buddy was not my own! I named him “Buddy,” by the way.
It wasn’t just into the jungle, but even along the beach, and he would swim the narrow channel that we had to cross at the mouth of the river to walk down a long stretch of beach looking for nesting turtles and hatching turtle eggs.
I made no secret of the fact that before departure I was really scared of what creepy jungle spiders I might encounter, because on TV shows, they are always gigantic, terrifying looking things in the jungles. Well, I only ever encountered one … and I was less afraid of it than the roommate who was home with me at the time! Instead, our insanely creepy nighttime roommates for the first week we were there were large blue crabs coming on land for mating season!
Although our house was made with wooden planks, they didn’t meet with the cement floor everywhere and the doors didn’t exactly fit their frames, so the crabs infiltrated through these weak points of the house. Scuttling across the floor, their claws snapping in the air. Aaaaaack! I was seriously creeped out, I think more so than anyone else in my house. Thank goodness, the door to my bedroom actually came all the way to the ground, so I never had a crab inside my room, but other people had them scuttling around through their clothes and under their beds. I would not have slept one wink if I had them in my room! I kept my space extremely spartan, no piles of anything on the floor where a crab could hide if he did get in.
One night near the end of their mating season, I found two of them crawling the outside wall of the house right next to my window. I tried to contain my horror as I quickly went into my room, scouted for lurking crabs, and closed my windows.
Ten minutes later I opened them. It was entirely too oppressive without air flow! I couldn’t take the stuffy heat. That was even worse than the prospect of crabs. So I sealed myself into my mosquito net and hoped for the best. Mega hurray, they never came inside. Walking around the village paths at night they were crawling around everywhere, so while I normally prefer walking at night by moon and starlight versus flashlight, I always kept one on so I wouldn’t run into a crab...
...AND so I wouldn’t step on a toad! The other nighttime companion throughout the village was big toads. Fortunately they didn’t seem interested in coming inside the house, but they were always lurking around the paths. I wished I could have seen one better in the daytime to get a photo, but they only really came out at night. If you look closely you can pick out a crab on the path in the background, top left of first photo.
And of course, there are always chickens everywhere! I love chickens. Ever since I was the chicken-chaser while making the film The African Witchfinder in Namibia, I have had an affinity for chickens; they’re far more interesting and pretty creatures than I had given them credit for most of my life.
Our house was right near the western boundary of the village, where the Armila river comes out and meets the ocean. There was just one more hut west of ours before it was all marsh and grassland. There were two horses who grazed here, which seemed so incongruous with the jungle landscape. I’m used to seeing horses on desert plains and in canyonlands and alpine forests.
Only a handful of villagers owned horses or donkeys. There are no roads of any kind to the village, only paths through the hills. So your only options for bringing in supplies from the nearest town, where the airstrip is, is by boat if the water is calm enough, to walk, or to ride a pack animal. I was given the impression that at least some horse owners would loan them out to other villagers who needed to bring in heavy supplies.
I also watched a variety of bird life in this marshy area. There was a stretch of barbed wire that went all the way down to the river, so I could never get very close to them to take good pictures. I’m not really sure what purpose the barbed wire served, to be honest, it wasn’t private land beyond it.
But beyond it, the river snakes back into the jungle and the villagers fish from their dugout canoes, or take the canoes up the river to their plots of land, called fincas, where they grow bananas and a variety of tropical fruits.
Or they harvest wood for building material. Some villagers could walk to their fincas from the village, and some had to take canoes further upriver. If they are harvesting wood, they don’t drag the trees out, rather they shape the planks in the jungle and carry those out.
I will make a lot of notes on the strength of the community spirit during this series. One example of this is that when a villager puts up a new structure or replaces a bamboo hut with a wooden plank one, the whole village comes together and does a “barn-raising.” Having spent time in several different traditional villages and regions around the planet, every time I come home from one of those places, I am struck by a profound sense of isolation which is the “gift” of capitalism. The quotation marks denote sarcasm. I’m a hermit and an introvert, so I don’t refer to isolation from the kind of social atmosphere that comforts a social butterfly. I mean that in these villages you are part of a network, like the branches of a tree, or the silks of a spider web … you are an individual, but there is a social safety net and a community that cushions you and that you likewise feel necessary to its functioning.
People don’t fall through the cracks in a community like Armila. Capitalist societies are like sieves … full of holes people fall through and nobody even notices. The capitalist ideal is to live so big you have to section yourself off into a gated community and a gated house and have the home theater system secluded in your basement and shiny car sequestered in the garage so you can enjoy them by yourself. In Armila, the people who have a TV invite their neighbors over to watch soccer matches together. If you have a horse, you let other people use it. If you’re building a house, you don’t draw up private blueprints and get city approval certificates and hire a contractor, you have a party with your neighbors and put up a house that fits into the village – neither bigger nor smaller than the rest.
Yes, you will notice I have a soapbox to stand on against the individualistic economic ideals of capitalism. Be an individual in your interests, in your heart and soul, in your creativity and kindness, not through a lack of sharing and community spirit in order to elevate yourself to your own pedestal. I manage to stay afloat in America and I play by the game rules, but I admire immensely the cultures that revolve around community. Anyhoo … I will step down from my soapbox and move on. :-)
So our house was also just a stone’s throw from the riverbank, so every morning I could watch the women come down with their laundry and children come down to stay with their mothers or play.
It was a very traditional, almost idyllic scene. The big incongruity was the music often blasting from the hut right next to ours (further inland from the river). And I mean *right* next to ours. Nearly every day, around 7:00 a.m., sometimes earlier, they would crank music through an amplifier and speakers powered by a generator, which was also loud. These weren’t like rowdy kids or anything, it was a very nice family, the man of the house was the English teacher in school. They simply loved music. There were a few other houses scattered around the village who also perpetually played music. At least I liked their play lists. They were traditional Central and South American styles of music … so while being blasted through speakers was a bit of anachronism to the women washing their laundry in their traditional blouses and jewelry, at least the music was vaguely appropriate to the region. But I think the young South Korean artists were in a little bit of audio hell, as they prefer modern electronic music, haha. But they were good sports. And wonderfully creative and artistic people, I might add. I plan to show you some of their work later in the series.
The heat and the 99% humidity were tough for me to deal with. Best thing I brought with me was my rechargeable travel fan. And fortunately, our house had a power strip (the other artist house didn’t). Powered by solar. Several years ago, the Panamanian government provided, at no cost to the villagers, every house in Armila with solar panels. Some people have also purchased gas-fueled generators, but every household has the same solar capacity -- another egalitarian aspect of the community.
So at night, the only way I could get any sleep in the heat and humidity on my wretchedly uncomfortable bed, was to open my windows and lie with the fan literally resting on my chest or on my arm, blowing onto my face. So going to bed wasn’t necessarily something I looked forward to, but waking up every morning and coming out of the sleep fog to recognize where I was, I felt very contented. I was ready to come home after three weeks, but I looked forward to each day learning and exploring in Armila.
One of the neighboring huts between us and the river.
There is another side to Armila, the ocean side. I'll tell you about that in my next post.
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I always feel like I have to apologize when I employ the word "epic" because it's so overused. But I'm just going to use it with abandon here. Welcome back to the epic landscape of Amboseli.
One of my favorite things about Amboseli turned out to be something completely unexpected: the dust devils. They are not animals, but they behaved just as organically and capriciously as any living thing. I found them fascinating. But difficult to photograph. Here are a couple meager attempts. (Notice in the second pic Kilimanjaro just poking up between the two layers of clouds.)
Dust turned out to be a constant, wholly infiltrating, and not entirely welcome, companion. We were frosted with it each day at the end of safari! However, it did give us the delightful devils and made for some nice pictures of animals kicking up the dust. So I can't really begrudge its presence.
Wildebeests battling in the dusty foreground, elephants casually walking by in the background.
Similar to warthogs, wildebeests often get a bad rap for being "ugly." I can't truthfully say I find them pretty, but, like warthogs, I find a certain charm in them ... their long faces and beards. These are blue wildebeests. There is another species, the black wildebeest, whose horns are placed differently on the head, but I have never seen these.
It happened to be wildebeest baby season in Amboseli! And baby wildebeests are just plain cute ... rompering around, finding their legs. We saw one so young, we could still see the remnants of its umbilical cord hanging from its navel.
On our last day in Amboseli, as a harbinger of sights to come later in the trip, we saw our first baby lions. Not particularly young 'uns, but cubbies nonetheless. Hanging by the side of the road as if they wanted our attention.
Well, are you ready for more elephants? Amboseli's signature animal? "Wonder Twin powers, activate!"
One of the most magnificent experiences in Amboseli, or indeed in the whole of our East Africa trip, was watching herds of elephants crest the ridge in front of the mighty Kilimanjaro. Just dots in the distance, quickly resolving into individual elephants, and before you know it, they are right there, "Hey Buster!" at the window. Truly remarkable.
One of my favorite components of the photo above is the elephant's little avian sidekick off to the left. Egrets are never intimidated by the giant creatures around them, rather they make the most of the view and transportation that such creatures can provide them. Like this little egret below. I want to caption the photo, "elephant jockey."
And then the elephants have passed, leaving me feeling so awed and blessed by their proximity.
Again each evening, the elephants approach, pass, and depart. Every evening it feels so special even though it plays out this way over and over, nothing but routine and habit on the part of the elephants, indifferent to whether or not humans witness them. We are just lucky to be a mote in their world for a short period of time.
"And now for something completely different." ... a lizard. :-) Brightly colored critter on the rocks. Look at his 5-fingered front foot ... kind of cool.
And now for some more birds. Our guide mentioned several times how Africa will turn anyone into a birder. I certainly never paid much attention to birds until I started traveling in Africa. This little guy is special to me, the pied kingfisher. I first saw him in Uganda, and then again when I purchased my first real zoom lens, my Tamron 150-600 -- the first photo I took with it in Africa, in Maun, Botswana, was of a pied kingfisher sitting in a bush beside the river meandering behind my hostel tent, the day before I left for safari in the Kalahari.
Another little fella -- a winding cisticola.
A black crake. Our guide, Elly, could listen to the bush and feel among friends. He told us that in his youth he placed third in a bird-call identification competition. This is a skill I envy, which of course requires a databank of knowledge and experience that I don't have. So I just had to be impressed with his knowledge.
The intense tawny eagle. Like any eagle, it's an admirable predator.
Lappet-faced vultures have super powerful beaks and are often the last ones to be hanging about a carcass because they can tear off the most difficult bits of skin and tendons. After my tortoise shell experience in Panama, I have a new appreciation for this skill! Too bad I didn't have a lappet-faced vulture beak handy that day, haha. It's not just the big and beautiful animals such as elephants and lions who are endangered by the hand of man, but vultures, who are an extremely important component of the African ecosystem, are also threatened. When poachers use poison, any carcass left behind (such as a de-tusked elephant or a non-target animal who ate the poison, or a lion who was poisoned by farmers/ranchers), the scavengers of it get poisoned as well. Also vulture body parts are often sold in traditional African medicine markets. I guess they are believed to have "magical" properties (I don't know what). Erik and I went into one of these stores in Johannesburg, but I don't remember if they sold real animal parts or not.
Another bird I really love in Africa is the saddle-billed stork, the tallest stork in the world. Here's something interesting I just learned about them: they don't possess the body part that most birds use to make vocalizations. Basically, they have no vocal chords or voice box. They can only make a clacking sound with their bills. Chicks, apparently, can make a hissing sound when they want food or something, but they loose that ability as adults. So I don't know what they do for mating season, as usually birds are making complicated mating calls and songs. Maybe particularly elaborate bill clacks? Google that one for me and let me know. They are also a little special to me because of when Erik and I spotted our first one in Kruger. The park was asking visitors to register any sightings, with GPS readings if you had them. So we felt a sense of excitement when we spotted one and dutifully took down the GPS coordinates. I just happened to have a GPS because I had been doing an herbivore census in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.
A beautiful and sizeable heron.
And ostriches! I love these guys, even though they're scary to get close to. Like how baboons are. Those beaks and those feet, and ostriches don't have the sweetest disposition toward humans. But they're so fascinatingly prehistoric-looking. I love seeing them run across the plains. And I always think of the classic Fantasia number where the ostriches are doing ballet in toe shoes. Now THAT I would love to spy some day ... like, drive around some big bushes and find a bunch of them putting on a ballet. Other animals sitting around as the audience, haha.
How happy am I on safari??
Elly ... our super fun guide. He convinced my mom to crack a hard-boiled egg open on his forehead. Silly times. We're eating a box breakfast on a hilltop overlook in the Amboseli park.
Kilimanjaro in the background between us.
We leave Amboseli with a wildebeest at sunset.
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