Monday, December 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Macaques

Cottage at the Sanctuary Garden

JR &David

JR looking pensive

David playing with my toe

David feeling bored

Life story of David & JR

At the Sanctuary Garden Resort on Sibuyan Island, Philippines, a pair of Philippine macaques tend to command the visitor's attention.  A wire cage next to the restaurant can elicit delight or horror at first meeting with the resident primates.

When I first came to the resort, I was a little perturbed and so were a few European tourists who had visited the place.  It seemed macaques in a cage did not quite convey the feeling of the word "sanctuary" in the name of the resort. However, there is a touching story to David and JR (yes, they have names too) which the owners, Edgar and Marivic will share with anyone who wants to know.  

David and JR are not  house pets but the owner's little babies.  The wired cage is their daytime playpen when not gallivanting in the humongous garden with Marivic, whose passion is her 32 varieties of hibiscus.  David, the older of the two, was newly born when the park office in Mt. Guiting-Guiting brought it to the couple to look after.  Poachers killed the mother and left the baby orphaned in the rainforest.

A year and a half later, the park rangers came again to ask them to look after another baby macaque.  Yes, poachers had killed the mother, and the month old macaque fell from the mother's arm, permanently damaging his right eye.  This is JR.

Like all devoted parents, Edgar and Marivic, doted on the two, nursed them on infant formula, taking them regularly to the vet, fed them with healthy stuff like cereals, fruits, berries.  Every night, David and JR go through same ritual that kids can relate to.  They are bathed, their teeth brushed, and they are diapered before going home.  They watch Animal Planet before bedtime, sleeping with their adoptive parents.

David and JR have only been around humans all their life.  The macaques would no longer survive in the rainforest of Mt. Guiting-Guiting nor could reclaim their place in the world of macaques in the wild. Raising David & JR has become a lifetime commitment for Edgar and Marivic, who have the certificate of custody for them.

After a few days at the resort, David and JR became part of my daily routine.  Every morning on my way down to the restaurant, I would see David and JR. frolicking in the play pen.  They are very friendly, engaging, and in many ways very much like us, people. They displayed a lot of the characteristics, feelings, mannerisms, affection and disaffection of their more sophisticated cousins up the the ladder of evolution.

They made me feel that getting to know them for that brief period made my being there totally worth it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sad Week in Munich

Outdoor Market

Residence Complex of the Wittelsbach

Deutsche Museum

Impromptu Shrine

Munich Town Hall

9/11 Memorial Service

In 1972, from late August to early September, Munich was the host of the 10th Summer Olympics. Unfortunately, the "Happy Games" as the organizers wanted it to be known, did not turn out to be happy.

On September 5th, the Black September, a Palestinian group took Israeli athletes and coaches in the Olympic village as hostages. Eleven athletes and coaches eventually died in that incident.

Nineteen years later, a week in September 2001, Munich was in a sombre mood once again. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11 must have brought painful memories to the city.

The day I got into Munich, there was a noon time memorial service at the Munich town hall (Rathaus) on Marienplatz for the victims of the New York attack . On stage in front of the town hall, a few prayers were said and a band played a different tune from beer fest favourites.

Children relighting candles on church steps and arranging flowers strewn around makeshift memorials are usually not on any tourist's must see. For that time though, there was something that gave Munich a little something. Maybe not the "happy" it wanted in the games two decades ago but something a little uplifting.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Butterflies are Free

The Butterflies Aren't Free

Restaurant with a View

Accommodation at the Mariposario Resort

Orchid Displays

Swimming Pools
Pyramid at the Park Entrance

"I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies."
from Bleak House by Charles Dickens

The butterflies at Biocentro Güembe Mariposario Resort in Santa Cruz, Bolivia aren't free, literally. They are either pinned to the display board in the museum or fluttering about in a butterfly dome.

The Mariposario, as the locals call the place, is a nature park located 25 minutes out of Santa Cruz. The road to the park starts on paved road, turning off to a dirt and gravel (like a rural concession) road. The park is comprised of the butterfly museum and sanctuary, bird observatory, orchid exhibition, swimming pools, nature trails, bungalows and cottages, restaurants - a gentrified nature paradise.

According to the staff at the Camino Real Hotel, the park is the best attraction in Santa Cruz. I have to agree, and may I add, probably one of the best nature parks I've come across anywhere in my travels.

At the park entrance, I was greeted by a collection of small concrete and wood buildings housing the butterfly museum. Walking on the nature trails with my tour to the butterfly dome and the bird observatory, I started to feel a little "jungle" in the air. From the 60 m observation deck of the butterfly dome and aviary, one can see thick jungle stretching to the wide Rio Pirai and beyond.

Santa Cruz is in the Amazon savannah, not quite but a few hundred kilometres from the Amazon jungle. However, the hot, humid air, the jungle, the wide river gave me a foretaste of what could be out there.

Further on the trail, our little group came to the orchidarium, the monkey island, and thick forest growth of exotic trees and plants. It was like the garden of Eden tended by expert horticulturists, botanists, naturalists and gardeners.

The most awesome sight was the series of nature inspired swimming pools. They were not your ordinary backyard or olympic style swimming pools. I think they were carved out of sandstone with smooth rocks, boulders, and a waterfall feeding the pools - a chlorinated version of a jungle watering hole.

Biocentro Güembe is one place I wish I had more time. Perhaps, a few nights in one of the bungalows at the Mariposario Resort could complete an amazing experience, next time.

A link to the nature paradise: Biocentro Güembe Mariposario Resort

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Little Norway

There's a patch of Norway in Toronto. Tucked away on the western edge of the water front is a square block of park now called Little Norway. Very few people in Toronto would know about it, but I'm sure many have stumbled through jogging or cycling, or passed by on the way to the Island airport. This is where I happen to live now.

Little Norway once housed the barracks of the Royal Norwegian Air Force between 1941-45. In 1987, King Olav donated a piece of very old glacial rock to serve as a simple memorial. It is so Norwegian for its starkness.

On Monday, July 25th, I heard on the news that a small group of people had gathered on Sunday evening in Little Norway for a vigil in honor of the victims of the Norwegian Massacre on Friday, July 22nd. Later that day, I came by to visit this unpretentious shrine and laid a bunch of flowers.

Sunflowers I thought might be fitting for the young people, as young as 14, whose time to bloom hasn't even began in a summer nipped in the bud by a lunatic obsessed with hate. The devastating Oslo car bombing turned out to be merely a prelude to his cowardly mission - shoot helpless civilians like sitting ducks on Utoya Island.

I had been to Sunvolden on the shore of Tyrifjorden, where Utoya Island sits. It was a Sunday in January 1997 with a friend, out to meet a friend whose family live a few hundred metres from Sunvolden. It is classic, Norwegian postcard scenery - deep blue glacial lake, snow on the mountains around, tall evergreens, the clean smell and oh, the tranquility.

I remember having a late lunch at the Sunvolden Hotel, apparently one of the oldest hotels in Norway. Then we went on a leisurely drive across the bridge to the other side of Tyrifjorden to Honefoss.

Almost 15 years later, that memory of tranquility and peace would be shattered by the very sad news. The genteel Sunvolden Hotel would be on the news, not for its fine traditional service but as the refuge for the survivors from Utoya island huddled and gathered with their families.

I find the thought eery that where I live now and where I had once visited would converge in a flash of tragic news. Add to that, the memory of those kids whose only guilt was plain innocence - for believing in getting involved and trying to make a difference.

From Toronto Star, a tribute by Rosie di Mano: Weep for the Flower of Norway's Youth.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Theatre of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

The Backdrop of Machu Picchu

Huayna Picchu

Inside a compound

Rio Urubamba

Aguas Calientes

On board entertainment on Vistadome

A German tourist sitting across from me on the train remarked in his best English, "Machu Pichu is small. I think of it as a theatre, the ruins as the stage, and the mountains around it is the audience." His remark summed up everything about Machu Picchu. Concise and poetic.

Last April before Easter, I caught a taxi to Wanchaq station at 6:45 am to be at the peak at a reasonable time and have enough hours in the day to admire and absorb the place. The trip went from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo by bus, then a transfer on Peru Rail to Aguas Calientes, and from there a 20 minute bus ride to the peak.

The trip in itself was well worth the 3 hours each way. The spectacular scenery in the valley of Urubamba, deep in the Andes contributed to a rather full memory card.

The UNESCO world heritage is just like the picture - very picturesque, impressive, preserved ruins with a spectacular backdrop of steep mountain sides. If it had been on a plain, the effect would not have been as dramatic.

In terms of age, Machu Pichu is fairly "modern" and short lived. The Inca Empire flourished only between 1450 to 1572, and Machu Picchu abandoned right after the Spanish conquest. The site was unknown to the Spaniards and the world, until Hiram Bingham brought international attention to the place in 1911.

On the return, a nurse from Winnipeg and I compared notes. Other than the usual, did you see this and that, we noticed the number of senior tourists that day. We wondered how some managed at 2,600 metres with no water, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses; no toilet nor store to buy water at the peak; and a few displaying physical limitations, even one suffering from vertigo.

All in all though, from the time I got to Wanchaq station to Aguas Calientes to the peak, it was pure excitement. Machu Picchu was indeed the stage, the Andes the audience.

On top of that Peru Rail rocked. At a chug chugging pace of 30 km per hour, the organization, the ticket agents, the service on Vistadome and the ever pleasant train attendants were simply superb.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Unique Blend: Qosqo

Qoricancha & St. Dominic's Convent

Archaelogical site near Qoricancha

Merchants' parade at Plaza Mayor

Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor)

History of the Incas mural by Juan Bravo

Plaza Sto. Domingo/Merchants Parade

Cuzco side street

Plaza San Francisco food stall

On Tuesday morning during Semana Santa, the week before Easter, Cuzco came alive with a parade of the merchants. Merchant associations from the altiplano to the pacific coast, from Peru to Argentina, brought their finest costumes, music and dance steps, trooped from Plaza Sto. Domingo to Plaza Mayor (de Armas) and onto Avenida El Sol.

For about 3 hours, onlookers were treated to a show by clam diggers to shoe makers, vegetable growers to fishermen, and so on. In the holiest of weeks, an Inca tradition prevailed.

The city of Cuzco (or Qosqo) is a UNESCO World Heritage. It is a blend of two equally dramatic cultures of empire builders, the Inca and the Spanish. Although the Inca Empire (1400 to early 1500) is fairly recent and short lived, it left an impression on Cuzco, literally. Many of the Spanish colonial structures are simply built on the foundations of Inca structures. One can't escape the other walking through the streets, the churches, numerous museums of the city.

The people, predominantly Quechuas or Ingas, and the city live up to the stature and billing as a heritage site. They contribute to the feeling that one has actually traveled far distance, in time and to a unique destination.

Please click the link for the Mural of Juan Bravo, Cuzco

Monday, May 23, 2011

Birds of Santa Cruz

Around 4 pm everyday, birds flocked to my hotel Camino Real in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The result was avian cacophony. The birds fly in from the jungle across Rio Pirai, congregate under the huge wooden canopy over the driveway or on tall, leafy trees in front of the hotel, and create their afternoon symphony.

My local tour guide, Mercedes, remarked that the birds (mainly parrots) finally returned "home." According to her, the return of the birds to their original roost tells the story of Santa Cruz.

Thirty years ago, Santa Cruz was an agricultural city in an oil rich department, overshadowed in wealth and importance by the capital, La Paz. With agriculture, oil and government economic restructuring in the mid '80s, Santa Cruz boomed. What was once jungle along the ring roads became urban sprawl. The jungle birds were displaced. Their presence meant they finally reclaimed their home.

Santa Cruz is now Bolivia's richest and biggest city. The airport, Viru-viru is the gateway to Bolivia. The small downtown has a colonial, tropical frontier town look, but outside the centre, a much bigger modern city thrives, more business-like than touristy.

By far, Biocentro Güembé & Mariposario Resort is the best attraction in the city. The park has a butterfly sanctuary, an aviary, a gentrified rainforest, and a fantastic aquatic area. The collection of swimming pools are beautifully designed in sandstone and rock blending in with the park's theme.

Rio Pirai on the outskirt of the city feeds into the Amazon. On the bank of the river is a place called, Las Cabañas del Rio Pirai. The area is a gathering of typical Cruceña restaurants in small huts with humongous clay ovens. During the day on weekends, the place is packed with locals out for a meal. And after 6 pm, the drunks takeover, according to a Santa Cruz lady.

Fuerte de Samaipata, a UNESCO World Heritage, is 2 1/2 to 3 hours from Santa Cruz over mostly gravel roads, about 1000 m up the mountains. The archaeological site belonged to a pre-Inca, Amazonian people called the Chané, providing proof of the existence of a jungle based civilization. The main feature of the Fuerte is the ceremonial rock platform, shaped out of red sandstone, about 200 m long, 50 m wide, maybe 20 m high, and carved with religious symbols. Inca and Spanish conquerors later constructed additional structures around and even on the rock itself.

Coming back from Samaipata, we were greeted by the raucous birds at the hotel. I will always associate them with Santa Cruz.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Driving on the Altiplano

Tortora Boat in Lake Titicaca

Llamas on the Shore of Lake Titicaca

Museum of the Limachi family

Statue in Tiwanaku

Puerta del Sol

The Altiplano (literally high plain in Spanish) is the vast plateau of the western Andes that occupies parts of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. It is second only to Tibet in altitude and size.

Lake Titicaca is the best known geographical feature of the altiplano, as well as the world's highest lake. Climbing out of a big hole in the plateau is the city of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, the largest city in the altiplano and the highest capital in the world.

Last March, we drove from La Paz to Lake Titicaca, starting from the bottom in Zona Sur up to the altiplano. Gonzalo, the hotel taxi driver, first had to negotiate his way out of La Paz's El Alto district. The district was preparing for a street party that Saturday evening, and traffic was moving slow as molasses.

Once out of La Paz, the view turned into a treeless, dusty plain dotted with potato, quinoa and onion fields. On the eastern side, the hills gradually rose toward the snow covered peaks of the Andes about 20 km away. Among these are Huayna Potosi (the mountain not the city) and Ilimani (closest to La Paz).

Lake Titicaca is 80 km away from La Paz, roughly 2 hours by car. The village of Huatajata sits on the eastern shore of the lake. Across is the island of Suriqui where Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki expedition boat was constructed patterned after ancient tortora (reed) boats. In 1970, Heyerdahl brought local Aymara boat builders, Paulino Esteban and 3 Limachi brothers to Morocco. They served as advisers in the construction of the papyrus boat for the Ra expedition.

Today, Huatajata has a number of small museums featuring its main attraction, the tortora boats and memorabilia from the Heyerdahl expeditions. One other attraction for Huatajata is also very much lake related - trout. Trout prepared in as many ways possible is the only item offered in restaurants in the village. At Inti Rayma, I skipped having a café con leche with my pan fried trout, on the server's advise that trout and and café con leche don't mix well in the stomach. Interesting.

Two-thirds of the way back to La Paz, we turned west on a dusty road toward Laja. Laja has the distinction of being the original site of La Paz before it was moved to the valley. It was also Gonzalo's point of reference, as it was the town closest to Tiwanaku.

Dark clouds rolled and opened up as we drove into Tiwanaku. There are 2 museums at the site but the real points of interest by far were outdoors. Although largely unknown, the site is a UNESCO World Heritage, a precursor to the great Inca Empire, 1000 years before Machu Pichu. The archaelogical excavations centre around the large platform (or pyramid?), the monoliths, Puerta del Sol which bears astronomical significance and statues, which look like something out of Easter Island.

While at the museum entrance in Tiwanaku, I met 3 young tourists (Brad, Gila and Tobias) who came on the chicken bus, all wearing flip flops. One (Brad from Vancouver) had shorts and t-shirt, while Gila from Israel had a summer halter top on. They were appropriately dressed for the beach but not for the cold rain and thick mud at Tiwanaku.

We gave the unsuitably attired youngsters a lift back to La Paz. As we started our descent from El Alto to downtown, the sun came out. We stopped at the mirador, a look out point on the way to downtown. We were just in time to see a spectacular view of the city basking in the late afternoon sun.

All in all, it was a very pleasant day driving on the altiplano and picking up fine company along the way.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Breathless in La Paz

View of La Paz

Palacio de Gobierno

Calle Jaen

Cathedral in Plaza Murillo

Cholitas in Bowler Hats

Street off Calle Commercio

Masks at the Ethnographic Museum

Cliff in Colocoto

A River in Zona Sur

Valle de la Luna

Calle Montenegro, San Miguel

The capital of Bolivia can leave one breathless. A few minutes after landing at El Alto airport I began to feel the effects of the altitude: headache and breathlessness as I walked past immigration.

I spent the first 15 minutes in Bolivia in oxygen therapy at Praxair Clinic a few steps from the baggage carousel. It took 3 days, a couple of sorojchi pills, and a diet of soup and salad to get me going albeit in slow motion.

The altitude of La Paz ranges from 4060 metres (13,320 feet) at El Alto down to 3,000 metres (9,842 feet) at its lowest. Downtown is halfway down (or up) while the south end, Zona Sur, is the lowest. The highest part, El Alto is on a very flat plain, the rest of the city sits in an oval bowl shaped valley, like a huge geological rift in the vast Andean plateau, the Altiplano.

The scenery in La Paz is dominated by hills, cliffs, pinnacles, canyons in dusty brown or rust red hue. Flowing through the city are over 100 rivers, but the city does not sport a lush and verdant look. On the contrary, water can be in short supply. The result is something out of science fiction, a city of 2 million people in a lunar landscape.

La Paz is actually quite modern with pockets of the colonial city in centro historico in downtown. Plaza Murillo is the main plaza (plaza mayor) where the Cathedral, the Presidential and Legislative palaces are located. Quaint streets with quaint buildings from the colonial days, radiate from Plaza Murillo. Between Calle Comercio and Calle Jaen, I found a few old villas with unpretentious but interesting museums: Etnografia, Costumbres, Casa Murillo, Musical Instruments and Art Gallery.

Further down from plaza mayor, are Calle de las Brujas, (an indigenous Aymara market of "alternative" healing), Obelisk, Church of San Francisco, and the modern downtown.

The districts in Zona Sur are modern, affluent and less hilly. About 10 minutes from San Miguel district is a park called Valle de la Luna or valley of the moon. Not too difficult to understand why it is so named.

El Alto is the district on top of the city, leading to the altiplano. It is as flat, treeless and dusty as the North American prairie minus the wheat fields. The district seems to be undergoing a construction and population boom. Unfortunately, visitors are not exactly encouraged to be walking about in this neighborhood.

La Paz is not a walking city. Winding roadways connect one zone to the next bypassing hills, skirting rock formations and crossing rivers. Some districts even have "alto" (high) in part of the name to indicate its vertical direction.

The natural topography makes La Paz a fascinating city. Instead of skycrapers, one can be mesmerized by cliffs, canyons, rivers, steep hills, and rock formations while catching one's breath.

My Trip Advisor of La Paz: In the Valley of the Moon