Yesterday

I spent yesterday on a boat.

I saw the frigate birds and Nazca boobies soar and wheel over Kicker Rock, and a blue-footed booby perch precariously on a nest halfway up its nearly sheer cliff-face.

I saw the maelstrom churning through the honeycomb of rocks at its base.

I saw sea lions: sleek and elegant in the water, not the clumsy clowns they are on land.

I rode over dark navy waves, the color of the Pacific near my home.

I snorkeled and swam in waters as turquoise as those of the Caribbean at Key West, and saw parrot fish and damsel fish dart and scatter below me.

I saw a sea turtle pop its head out of the water a dozen feet away from me, take a look around, and slide back under the waves.

I dozed on a bed of ice-plant, and sand soft as fine sugar and pale gold as morning sunshine.

I saw dolphins cavorting in the boat’s wake, and shearwaters forming an avian honor guard as their flocks escorted us.

I swam in the ocean for the first time in far too long — I had forgotten the feel of the silky water on my skin, and the briny aromas on my nose. (I had forgotten too, if I ever knew, the unforgiving nature of lava rocks.)

I grew up a creature of the ocean, of wind and wave. I live now in cities of metal and glass, not even visiting the sea that lies ninety minutes from me. Yesterday was coming home.

Yesterday was a very good day.

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If it was good enough for Darwin…

Notes from San Cristobal, Galapagos:

San Cristobal was the first island Darwin landed on in the archipelago. That almost makes up for not being able to see more penguins, since the penguins live on other islands that are at least a two-hour ride over generally very choppy seas. According to the Rocket Scientist, who has seen the penguins, they’re pretty much like Magellanic penguins. Therefore, I shall not pout.

Because I have seen giant tortoises! We visited the center that is working to preserve them and saw tortoises from huge monsters that a person could ride and that were over a century old down to one-year-old babies the size of a box turtle at the pet store. Birds may be modern day dinosaurs, but giant tortoises look like dinosaurs.

Which brings me to the question… if you are somewhat mobility impaired, is it worth forcing yourself up a steep hillside along a path of lava boulders, so slick that your guide held your arm most of the way so you wouldn’t fall, through two miles of pain, to see baby Galapagos turtles? Damn straight it’s worth it. (We tipped the guide well.)

And the first night we were here I saw frigate birds flying, and a striated heron walked past so close I could have stepped on it. There were also sea lions, who are nature’s equivalent of spoiled teenagers.

We were sitting on a bench looking at the rocks when we noticed a sea lion had hauled itself onto the sidewalk. A man with a camera started taking pictures and that animal posed. There is no other words for it. Head straight ahead, body still? Check. Head up, showing length of neck? Check. Lying on side with one flipper over face? Check.

The photographer didn’t feed it, or reward it with anything other than attention, and this animal stayed put for a good ten minutes until the photographer left. Until he did, it was a bit like watching a sea lion at Sea World.

Speaking of photos, I haven’t yet gotten mine loaded from my phone, so there will not be any wildlife pictures in this post.

In preparation for going around the island, I have been reading up on Galapagos bird life. I have seen a finch already, although Darwin’s finches are not in fact true finches. It was a pretty nondescript bird with a large beak for its size.

I have never been a passerine fancier: my heart belong to seabirds and wading and shorebirds and especially to raptors. So every time someone mentioned the finches I would smile and shrug. But turns out the Galapagos finches include the bad-ass Vampire Finch. When other food supplies get low they peck on boobies (get your mind out of the gutter, people) and drink their blood. (At the other end of the scale is the rather prosaically named Vegetarian Finch. It would be great if the Vampire Finch preyed on the Vegetarian Finch, but alas, life does not always follow a movie script. On the other hand, the Vampire Finches exist on only two islands, which coincidentally do not have Vegetarian Finches. Hmmm…) I am not going to be seeing Vampire Finches; they live on Darwin and Wolf Island, while I am on San Cristobal.

The one thing about San Cristobal finches: they are fearless. At one stop on our “highlands” tour, our taxi driver/tour guide Ricardo ignored the carefully placed sign that explained exactly why it was bad to feed the birds and put out his hand with bread crumbs. He literally had the birds eating out of his hand. And once one had food, a flock came and settled expectantly around his feet. It was like a scene from The Birds except less frightening, since finches don’t look like they’ll peck your eyes out, unlike seagulls or ravens.

Ans then there are the mocking birds. The Galapagos Mockingbird drinks blood from iguanas; the Espanola Mockingbird drinks the blood of sea lions. The San Cristobal Mockingbird is less impressive — it’s diet only includes eggs and carrion. Compared to that, the mockingbirds back home seem pretty boring. I’ve seen several mockingbirds here and… they’re mockingbirds.

On a non-bird note….

I don’t generally post food pictures, but I’ll make an exception for this morning’s coffee:

Yes I know, they probably use a stencil. Whatever. It’s still adorable.

And the pastries were pretty good, too. And the bananas on this island are very small, and very sweet. And the pineapple we bought tasted fantastic.

Tomorrow? A boat tour around the islands, so I won’t be posting. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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It's rough out there, right now. Would a couple of penguin pictures help?

Although I have a bunch of pictures taken by the ship’s photographer (which I am having trouble loading), the Rocket Scientist took these.

Or just maybe scenery?

There is a glacier up there, but you can’t see it because it is the same color as the clouds. Stupid clouds.

At any rate, hang in there. As the Doctor said in the second show of this season, “Darkness never sustains, even though sometimes seems it will.”

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Wildness.

I can go home now. I saw penguins yesterday.

Penguins swimming. Penguins waddling. Penguins doing what penguins do, all where penguins normally do things.

And geese! and cormorants! and albatrosses! and petrels and terns!

Even skuas, those mobsters of the ocean, of whom the guide said “They’re really aggressive.” The Rocket Scientist, who encountered them in Antarctica, calls them “seagulls on steroids.”

Three types of penguins, too. Magellanic, the most numerous; Gentoo penguins; and King penguins, which look sort of like the Emperor penguins’ smaller brother.

And sea lions too, but they looked a lot like the sea lions that hang out on the pier in San Francisco.

And drumlins, too, but those are geographic features, not birds.

Wildness.

There are mountains beautiful beyond belief, with snow and glaciers. You can tell that you are at “fin del mundo,” as they have on their tourist trinkets, because it is high summer and to snowed in the mountains last night. (We’re closer to sea level, so it only got down to 41F for us.)

Reading my Birds of Patagonia book, I see over and over that climate change is a threat to some of these birds existence. It is only going to get worse — the guide yesterday mentioned how much the glaciers had eroded. (The other major threats appear to be animals such as cats and rats, and for a lot of marine species, longline fishing.)

This special place will disappear, as the earth warms and the glacier melt away. The species vulnerable to climate change may go extinct.

I’m glad I got to see all of this before that happens.

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Poem for today while I cruised through the Beagle Channel

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

John Masefield

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Money money money money

I have mentioned the $30 steak dinner for two. And the eight dollar doctor visit. And I just dropped off what felt like 25 pounds of laundry for 400 pesos, or about $7.50. And last night’s dinner…

A king crab for two; seafood appetizer with shrimp, squid, crab and mussels; rice; salad; and a nice Argentinian white wine, and gratuity, for about $55. The crab was very fresh, and like all very fresh seafood did not taste at all “fishy,” but sweet and deep and briny like the ocean. The appetizer was wonderful, too, and the wine is one I might try to find when I get home. It was the best meal I have had in years.

One the one hand, it’s wonderful having a dinner to savor over two hours without thinking twice about the cost. I would never have ordered king crab in a restaurant because it would be more expensive than I would feel comfortable with. And talk about eating local: the crab had been pulled from the fish tank at the front of the store before being cooked. (I called him Bertie. He was delicious.) The owner of the restaurant runs a crab fishing boat (they really need to do a “Deadliest Catch: Southern Hemisphere) and supplies all the local restaurants. The waiter patiently showed us how to crack open and eat the crab.

On the other hand…

The prices are so low in the dollar equivalents because the Argentinian economy is in free-fall. And the day after the people elected a left-leaning populist, the peso dropped twenty-five percent in a single day. According to the news sources I read, that was the market response to fears about Argentinian solvency.

I worry about what the markets in the U.S. will do if a Democrat is elected. While I understand that financial decisions need to be made in advance of what happens, I also realize the markets exist for the sole benefit of investors and companies and let the devil take the rest. Unfortunately, those market drops affect everybody (Main Street as well as Wall Street, as the saying goes). And while I realize Wall Street is composed of many disparate elements, they all seem to work in lockstep sometime. (Admission: I have never quite grasped how the U.S economy works, The Big Short notwithstanding.) What if the markets instigate an economic crash, helping to make Elizabeth Warren (to take the candidate they are most scared about) a one-term President?

And the immediate question for me: by being here, am I helping or hurting? I am going to be here anyway, but am I pumping money into the local economy or taking advantage of an economic crisis? Or both?

I care enough about people to think about these things. I started to say “I’m enough of a lefty” but really, I do know conservatives who consider these issues, although I suspect they would frame it differently.

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Notes from our foreign correspondent*

This year: South America. One advantage that having a scientist spouse who goes to conferences in interesting places is that sometimes I get to tag along, which is why I am on Tierra del Fuego.

Ushuaia, the small town I am currently in, strikes me as surreal: everyone speaking Spanish, and the architecture is alpine. Lots of half-timber buildings and so forth. Maybe not exactly Germanic: it reminds me of some ski towns I have been, which makes sense since this place is a winter sports heaven a good part of the year. Not right now — it’s high summer which means that it’s fifty-one degrees and drizzly.

It is also breathtakingly beautiful. The town is ringed by mountains dotted with glaciers. I look at the scenery and find myself in tears. The weather is my weather — mists and softness to the air. I have problems in the summer back home because the sun beats down on me like a hammer. Here, the sun only shows itself occasionally (or at least that is what is forecast for our visit), and soft breezes caress my skin. I can cope with long days (that’s what sleep masks are for), but I have trouble coping with bright direct sunlight.

Foreign emergency rooms I have known: this was my second in three years. Fortunately we caught the cellulitis before it got really bad. During the flight from Houston to Buenos Aires, I felt something bite my leg in several places. That evening the welts were massively swollen. Thinking it was simply an allergic reaction, I took Benadryl cream. Two days later, one of the spots was red and the size of a half-dollar surrounded by a much larger and lighter pink area. The other two are smaller — quarter sized. (It wasn’t completely surprising: years ago I had cellulitis from a spider bite.) So off to the regional medical center. It appeared to be, like many regional centers in remote areas, kind of run down. On the other hand, I saw a very nice doctor (VND) and was in and out in about ninety minutes, which is just about the amount of time it takes to get through triage back home. We didn’t have insurance, so we had to pay out of pocket, which came to a whopping 480 Argentinian pesos or… eight dollars. That’s less than what I pay for generic drugs back home.

I complain about Google all the time. How they are collecting all our data to control the world, how the only company worse than they are is Facebook. That said, Google Translate made this visit possible. Both the Rocket Scientist and the VND used it to communicate about my leg. (My tremors were very bad, due to stress and too much caffeine, so RS did the typing for me.) I had used the same app to communicate with nurses when I was in the hospital in Madrid.

Poor VND. Although he was very nice, at times he did have this stressed, “You have got to be kidding me” look. My hunch is he may go home tonight and say “I had one of those Americans who don’t speak Spanish in today.”

Speaking of Buenos Aires, we had twenty-four hours, and got to do some cool stuff which was great even through the jet-lag. We had a dinner of the best beef tenderloin I have ever eaten (for each of us), appetizers, sides, and a half-bottle of a very lovely Malbec. In my neck of the woods, that meal would have cost over a hundred. Here, it was the equivalent of thirty-two.

If you are ever in Buenos Aires, you must go to Recoleta cemetery. Yes, it’s touristy (how often can you say that about a cemetery?) but it is well worth a visit. The tombs show a fascinating mist-mash of architectural styles (my favorite tomb was Egyptian Revival with Victorian floral accents), some of them have stained glass windows, and many of them have ornate statuary. Many famous Argentinians are interred there, most notably (at least to me) Eva Peron. (Cue: “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”)

We also went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, because God forbid I should be in some major city and not go to an art museum. This brings my art museum total to thirty-three over the past twenty years, not including the British Museum, which I go back and forth on as to whether it’s art or anthropology. This number also does not include other places filled with art, such as churches or palaces or, in the case of Recoleta, cemeteries. (Westminster Abbey is not included, nor are the churches in Toledo, Spain that have amazing El Grecos. The Vatican is, because it is considered an art museum by the less than devout, and has significant (and varied) art.)

So that’s everything from this end. I’ll try and post more as things go along.

*I hope someone got the Little Women reference.

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