Tag Archives: Travel

The Journey To Africa

December 9

IMG_2752I’m sitting awake on the second of three flights to South Africa. I should be sleeping now to get my body adjusted to the new time zone, but alas the Tylenol PM has worn off. Back-up plan activated: melatonin, red wine, and writing until the next wave of sleep kicks in. We’ve got 15 hours on this flight, so there’s time for it all.

It’s worth mentioning that my soundtrack at the moment is Tom McRae‘s album, Lowlands. It goes well with the red wine and dimmed lights of the aircraft cabin.

There’s something else: a Twix candy bar has never tasted so good as it did 5 minutes ago. We’ve been traveling since Saturday night. The journey began following 2 weeks of prep and packing. The task was made all that more challenging by the luggage weight restrictions. Due to the fact that we’ll be traveling to safari on smaller aircraft, there are strict baggage considerations. “44 pounds” has never been so meaningful. With the taxi waiting outside, I left a pair of pants and a raincoat behind. It seems trivial – how much could that really weigh? 1.2 pounds to be exact. So, some clothing gets sacrificed on behalf of my camera equipment, which I’m not sacrificing, despite its 17 pounds.

In all the packing and getting things set up at work, time was compressed leading up to this journey. There were some friends I just didn’t have time to see before I left town. I’m looking forward to sharing stories when we reunite.

One of my favorite things about life is how we can feel the presence of those we love, even when we’re 35,000 feet above ground, half a world away. My current sipping of red wine straight from the bottle brought laughter at the memory of the wine shortage on a recent train ride to visit the polar bears in Churchill. My friends Jeremy and Heather conspired to get off the train during the next “stop” and find wine. This was a two day journey and stops were infrequent, in the middle of nowhere, and brief. It’s up to the passengers to get themselves back on board before the train leaves. The train won’t wait for you and the crew won’t turn back. So, unless you’d like to be left behind in sub-zero degree weather, you may step off the train for some fresh air, but that’s about all you have time for.

Jeremy and Heather set their minds to acquiring wine. They were gone far too long, but much to everyone’s surprise, the train didn’t budge in their absence. Resourceful as ever, these two encouraged a couple of the crew to help facilitate their mission. Turns out, the crew was stopping at a market to pick up some supplies, so Jeremy and Heather hitched a ride with them. The smiles on their faces and the sigh of relief when they returned to the train is as funny as a memory now as it was at the time it occurred.

So yes, I’m drinking red wine from a bottle on a 15 hour flight from JFK to Johannesburg, sandwiched between a red eye flight from Los Angeles to New York and a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. This, in combination with a hefty dose of melatonin, is a concoction worthy of inducing sleep.

Going to Africa has long been a dream of mine. Earlier this year I had a talk with myself. “What are you waiting for??” More time? More money? The “right” person to travel with? Yes, those seem like logical considerations… But upon further analysis, it turns out those are merely perceived obstacles I was allowing to stop me from fulfilling a dream.

If I had more time, it’s possible I’d be working less and not have the money to do a trip like this. If I had more money, I’d probably be working so much, I wouldn’t have time to embark on his journey. Such factors are unknown and can always stop us if we allow them to. I’m alive now – that’s truth. The only way to realize our dreams is to take steps to do so. So, in June, I made a commitment to myself to travel to Africa before year’s end.

A funny thing happens when you commit to something – it begins to come to fruition. The following day one of my close girlfriends called me, “I just filed for divorce, want to go on a big trip?” she asked. Then came an irresistable deal from Lion World Tours, advertised at Travelzoo. Within 48 hours, our trip to Africa was booked.

I don’t know what’s going to happen while we’re there. We have a loose itinerary and amazing things “to do”, but we’re both looking forward to the expanded perspective and unforeseen adventures that ensue.

In other news, this is my first time on South African Airlines and I’m exceptionally impressed. The service in Coach is equivalent to that which I’ve previously experienced in Business Class on other airlines. They should win an award, if they haven’t already.  Thankfully, no wine shortage here. One of the things South Africa is known for is its wine.

Well, the magical cocktail of melatonin, red wine and sleep deprivation is taking effect. Soundtrack: The Alternative Best Of Radiohead.

More soon. Or later.

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Filling In The Blanks – More Arctic Adventures

 

November 16, 2008

We’ve just begun the long journey home.  We’re currently on hour 8 of our 29-hour train ride.  There are so many details and stories that didn’t get covered in the previous blog entries. 

Dr. Charles Jonkel and Me, Missoula Montana Nov 18

Dr. Charles Jonkel and Me, Missoula Montana Nov 18

 

One thing that’s clear is that we’ve all become family. It was evident when we joined another group of individual travelers on a tour the other day. Our group entered and immediately the woman from Polar Bears International said, “you guys have really been traveling together. You’re yelling at each other (in a fun way), teasing, laughing, and so comfortable together.” And when we boarded the train late last night I looked around at the few of us who have become a micro-family and said, “we’re gonna miss each other. “ Brandon replied, “Yeah, I didn’t think it would be possible.” And everybody laughed. He went on to explain that when he met everyone initially he thought, “ok, cool. They’re all right.”  But as we spent the week together, in crazy travel circumstances, and experiencing the world of polar bears, we truly became family.  That, of course, includes the whacky aunt and occasional person yu wish hadn’t married into the family. But everybody’s unique personality is what made the group dynamic work. 

The other thing that’s unique about this trip and supports that “family” dynamic is that we ate every meal together. I’m not sure how many families do that anymore, but it’s a powerful reminder of how important that time is.  We ate in a dining room, no TVs, no computers, no cell phones (they wouldn’t have worked anyway) – just people sharing their experiences, making each other laugh, and racing each other to the best desserts. 

Looking for tundra berries in the snow

Looking for tundra berries in the snow

 

Anyway, more about our adventures in Churchill: There was one day when the weather wasn’t conducive to seeing polar bears.  It was snowing, with 30 mph winds and near white out conditions.  When the weather gets like this, the bears hunker down and sleep, conserving energy and hoping that the cold front is enough to bring on the sea ice. Now, if the polar bears think it’s a good idea to curl up and sleep all day, you’d think the people may follow their cue.  But no, we’re a little bit nuts and Chuck took us out for a walk in the forest.  We dug down through about 2 feet of snow to find tundra berries and other vegetation.  It was 9 degrees below zero and pretty damn cold.  But Chuck wanted us to learn about the vegetation, what the Arctic critters eat and how they gather their food through the snow. This past year saw a plentiful production of berries and a lot of snow.  So, instead of being buried under the permafrost, where the animals couldn’t reach them, there are plenty of berries accessible this season. That’s good news for the terrestrial animals of the Arctic.

Kelly playing in the snow

Kelly playing in the snow

 

It seemed like we were the only people crazy enough to be outside in this weather. The roads were empty. There was a moment when I’m sure everybody was re-considering why we were outside instead of sipping hot chocolate back at the research center.  But before you can even verbalize that thought, you remember that you traveled to the Arctic – you didn’t come here for hot chocolate and warm weather. And at that moment, everybody started falling backwards into the snow.  It’s an amazing feeling to know you can fall safely backwards and not get hurt. In fact, you didn’t even feel the impact of the fall.  It was just poof and then outbursts of giggling all around. 

 

More to come soon, including: Ian Stirling lecture, video of a polar bear at play, and some simple things we can all do to help the polar bears.  In the meantime, here are a couple more pictures

 

Roads were empty except for our crazy group

Roads were empty except for our crazy group

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arctic puppies play with snow balls!

Arctic puppies play with snow balls!

 

 

 

Packed up for the return home

Packed up for the return home

 

Bears, Bears, Bears!!

(note: you can see full-size images, by clicking the thumbnails below)

Once again, the best stuff seems to happen when most people have gone to sleep.  Last night a group of us gathered in the dining room for some late-night story telling and creative inspiration (aka whisky).  We sat with Rupert Pilkington, another bear researcher at the Center, and he told us some bear stories and personal adventures.  

After 4 hours sleep, we woke up at 5:30 this morning to go on an early morning bear watch with Chuck.  We were looking for polar bear tracks so which would help determine our afternoon bear-watching route with the larger group (only 8 of us went out this morning).  We did see some tracks, but they were quickly buried by the falling snow.  Chuck speculated that we may not see many bears today, with the possibility of a white out.  Before we headed back to the Center for breakfast we saw 2 Arctic foxes (cute white fox that always look happy) running across the snow.

Polar bears crossing the Tundra, on their way to play with sled dogs

Polar bears crossing the Tundra

Thankfully, the weather cleared up and we saw bears today.  This was our first “official” bear outing and it was amazing. As long as I’ve dreamed of this trip (literally) I never could have imagined the feeling that overcame me when I saw the first bears.  They are absolutely phenomenal.  They’re playful, smart, curious, and strong.  It’s still hard to believe we shared the ice with them today.  We watched a mom and cub traverse across the tundra for a while and then jumped back in our bus and headed in the direction they were heading.  

 

 

Polar bear looking at right at me

Polar bear looking at right at me

When we arrived at our second stop, we immediately saw 2 bears resting under trees.  One of them looked at right at me.  Another got up, checked us out, turned around, and went back to his nap.  Then, at a distance, we saw the original 2 bears heading our way.  We now had our eyes on 4 bears – 2 napping and 2 moving swiftly in our direction. 

The other thing I should mention is that there are a bunch of sled dogs tied up in the area. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the photo of the polar bear playing with a dog that circulated a while back, but I witnessed it today! Initially the dogs howled when they saw the bears.  The larger bear (Chuck thinks it was the mom) literally pounced on and pinned one of the dogs to the ground.  And then, she let him up – unharmed. They chased each other in circles, stood side-by-side, and played for about 10 minutes.  If they wanted to, the bears could have easily killed the dogs.  But after they were finished playing, the bears continued on their way.  

More tomorrow… there are some people waiting for me in the dining hall 😉 

Resting Bear

Resting Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Polar bears playing with dogs

Polar bears with dogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good friends. Polar bears and dog at play

Polar bears and dog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MORE PICTURES POSTED HERE: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=44024&l=f9ece&id=508093336

She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain…

November 10, 2008

From Winnepeg to Churchill via Train… 

 

Reflection of Brandon and Me on the Train

Reflection of Brandon and Me on the Train

We’ve been on a train all day.  If you didn’t know Chuck is a brilliant professor and revered bear expert, you may think he’s a madman. He has the look in his eyes when he speaks and sometimes it’s hard to tell if he loves you or if he’s disappointed you didn’t eat his homemade snacks.  But he loves us and is an amazing host.  He’s always passing out snacks, telling stories and answering questions about the bears.

 

We are in the middle of nowhere. Literally. For 500 miles we see the same view – trees with frost and frozen lakes.  The train is comfortable and the rocking lulls us into sleep – well, that and the sleep deprivation from 2 days prior.   So we sleep, eat, read, sleep, eat, and finally… we discovered the bar.  It almost seems like this is what we do now and I need to keep reminding myself that finally, tomorrow, we’ll be on the ice with bears and snow fox.

No internet, no cell service, no text messages or status updates.  How did we ever survive prior to all this technology?! Well, you get to know people, have real conversations, hear all the details. I’m also the only city-person on this trip, surrounded by mountain people.  They’re great, but they’ve literally never seen a Blackberry, some have confused my iPod for a cell phone, and every time I get the laptop out they ask, “are you gettin’ on the internet?”  It’s refreshing (albeit foreign) to be surrounded by people who are not dependent on technology, and in fact, many of them despise it!

Well, back to reading, sleeping, reading, sleeping.  We have another 14 hours on the train.  

 

The train we called "home" for 30 hours

The train we called *home* for 30 hours

 

Putting “Adventure” in Adventure Travel

November 9 – 10, 2008 

Yesterday we drove ALL day.  We met each other at the Great Bear center in Missoula, Montana at 7am, and carpooled for an hour to a college where we boarded a bus. The thing about “adventure travel” is the word “adventure.”

So the journey to Churchill (where the bears are) began with a day of flying, and is followed by 2 long days (12+ hours each day) of travel by bus. After which, we’ll board a train for a 24-hr ride up to Churchill.  We spent most of our time yesterday getting to know each other.  I am traveling with some serious ADVENTURE travelers. One couple goes kayaking in Alaska every year, to get close to the whales.  Another couple has been in a campground with 30 bears literally sharing their space.  I’ve heard too many stories to remember, but it’s a good thing everybody here is used to adventure because TODAY….

I’m writing this from the side of the highway, somewhere in Canada.  We slept for about 4 hours last night before getting back on the road at 7am this morning.  We made it about 15 minutes and then we saw the first accident – an overturned truck in the center divider, surrounded by emergency vehicles.  A short distance further we were met by taillights of about 2 dozen vehicles pulled off the side of the road. Ice!!!

Stranded on the side of the icy highway

Stranded on the side of the icy highway

Our bus *slid* into its place on the side of the road. And now we wait.  Word is there are 4 accidents up the hill ahead of us and the highway is closed for 20 miles due to ice.  Our best bet is that the salt trucks come shortly and it’s safe for us to journey on.  Our scheduled drive time today was 11 hours, but with this delay, who knows… And unfortunately for all of us, we began our day with extra large cups of coffee, and there are no bathrooms in sight.  We’ve watched several drivers try to plow over the ice, only to slide sideways and fall in line on the side of the road.

This could throw a lot of people into a bad mood, but not this group.  They’re sharing adventure stories galore: “Oh this is NOTHING… one time….” At one point or another we’ve each gotten out and practiced dance moves on the ice.  I grew up in the mountains, with snow and ice every winter, but short of an ice skating rink, I’ve never been on ice like this!

Thankfully, I have a new adventure friend, Brandon.  He’s also joining this trip solo and we found each other day 1. He’s my seatmate on the bus, the friend I share all my meals (and iPod charger) with, and when we get to Churchill, we have grand plans to go off the beaten path and get as close to the bears as possible.  Brandon just got his Masters in environmental studies and is now traveling the world, crossing things off his “list.” He has a girlfriend back home who’s studying massage therapy.  We could all probably use a massage now.

Well, I’m going to put the laptop away for now, to save battery… we could be here for a while.

18 hours later November 10, 2008….

We had a 5-hr delay on the side of the highway.  There was a Greyhound Bus driver who let us use the restroom on his bus – phew! We napped on and off, I finished a book I was reading, Brandon and I made each other laugh. At one point, several people got off the bus and shoveled dirt in the road so we’d have some traction when it was time to leave again.  

Dr. Charles Jonkel teaching about Polar Bears during our long delay

Dr. Charles Jonkel teaching about Polar Bears during our long delay

Chuck Jonkel who’s been studying bears for more than 40 years and leading this trip for 25 years spoke about the bears and climate change.  He said he once tagged a 1,500 pound bear and a friend of his tagged a 2,200 pound bear (possibly the largest on record). But due to lack of food supply, bears are smaller now and less able to fight the elements and food shortage for survival.  He said it’s true that bears can swim, but not the great distances now required to get to the ice where the seals are and that they’re strong enough to fight the currents so they often drowned.  Chuck spoke about some friends who live in the area: last January they were awoken by a sound they hadn’t heard – rain.  By January everything should be frozen, and rain was a sure sign of warmer climate. 

Chuck said that some bears are adapting, eating berries and other fruit off trees – but it takes a lot of berries to feed a bear! “When you talk about bears, people listen!” Chuck exclaimed. “So we should talk about the bears, because they’re dying and we need to do something about it.  The problem is more extensive than the bears, but if we use the bears to get people’s attention, to make a change, then it will help change everything.”  He explained that bears are at the top of the Arctic food chain and are a rare species of terrestrial animal that relies on its food supply from another source (the sea).  

And then the wheels turned and we heard the crunch of ice below as we slowly made our way up the hill after our long delay. 

Everything was going well and we were on our way.  A few impatient semis sped by in the left lane, clearly going too fast for the elements.  So it should be no surprise that just 15 minutes after we began moving, the road was closed again.  This time due to an overturned semi that was carrying cyanide.  We weighed our options – wait for a hazmat clean-up or double-back and take a longer route. 

We ended up taking the long way and at 5:00am we just pulled into the ski chalet where we had planned to spend the night.  Instead, it’s a quick stop for breakfast and then off to catch the train. On the drive up we saw some antelope on the side of the road.  Chuck said it’s the furthest north he’s ever seen the antelope. Usually it’s too cold for antelope up here and they head down to Montana.  But again, warmer temperatures everywhere are changing things.  There’s no more “usually.”  It’s “What now?”

We’ve heard reports that it’s 20 degrees in Churchill (also warm for this time of year) and there are a lot of bears milling about, waiting for the ice to form.  In fact, the other night a bear dented in the back door of the research center where we’ll be staying beginning Tuesday. 

I haven’t had internet or cell service for two days and I’m not sure when I’ll actually get to post this.  But during the 5-hour travel delay, notes from friends and Facebook status updates kept me going! (So thank you!)

‘Ologists

View from my room on the river

View from my room on the river

 

I arrived in Missoula, Montana last night.  Monica, who works at the Bear foundation, picked me up at the airport and introduced me to Montana by taking me to the local dive bar.  I met a bunch of great people at the bar – some of the nicest people in the world (and not just because they had a few drinks in them).  

When people heard I was going on this trip they asked, “what kind of ‘Ologist are you?!” expecting a response such as, “Biologist,” “ecologist,” or “geologist.” Instead, I responded, “I’m a fun-ologist!” I’m here to live, have fun, and meet people (and polar bears). To share these experiences and hopefully inspire others to embark on their own adventures, raise consciousness, affect positive change. 

In the time that’s passed since the dream, I’ve changed. Not who I am of course, but how I live. It wasn’t a fully conscious decision or something born out of guilt or obligation.  It just started happening.  I was taking shorter showers, recycling everything that could be recycled, trading in plastic bottles for Nalgene, and replacing household cleaners with non-toxic, biodegradable alternatives. 

It’s not that I had ignored all the information until now.  I made several shifts to help the environment prior to the polar bear dream: walking to work every day, replacing light bulbs, using all appliances in energy-efficient mode, never using the air conditioning or heat (living in Santa Monica makes that one easy), maintaining air pressure in my tires for the rare occasions I actually drove somewhere, recycling the obvious things (but not everything).  I had seen An Inconvenient Truth, March of The Penguins, An Arctic Tale, the news…

But after the dream came a true awakening. I don’t need to think about it anymore.  It’s no longer a decision I’m making.  It’s just the way I live.  It feels effortless. As I learn about additional alternatives, I adopt them.  Seventh Generation products are everywhere in my home (shouldn’t ALL toilet paper be made from recycled paper?!? Do we really need to be using new trees to wipe our a$$?!). 

Different thoughts cross my mind now:

  • What if every hotel, gym, office building, and restaurant used toilet paper made from recycled materials? What if every household did the same?
  • I’ve showered, shampooed, and conditioned using a 5-gallon Sun Shower when camping
    •  low-flow shower heads (which most of us have now) still flow approximately 2.5 gallons of water per minute.
    • My 5-gallon sun showers have lasted as long as 5 – 10 minutes and was all that was needed to be thoroughly showered.
  • Why is everything over-packaged? A small gift ordered online arrives in a huge box, sometimes only to be found lying in yet a smaller box, among Styrofoam or plastic “filler.”

I now turn off the water while shampooing, conditioning, and shaving.  I recycle everything that can be recycled. All “paper” products are made of recycled or alternative materials. I see things differently – I now prefer those air-blowing hand dryers in public restrooms (when I see paper towels, I see trees). While at Club Med 2 weeks ago I noticed they were using styrofoam cups in the cafeteria.  There were nearly 600 people there that week – if only a third of them took a cup, during the 3 meals per day, that’s 600 cups per day, times 7 days… there has to be a better way. But sitting in Turks & Caicos, surrounded by water (although the ocean is receding there by 10″ per year as well), it can be easier for people to not see the impact our daily choices (like styrofoam cups) have on the environment.  It’s likely also more difficult to find responsible alternatives on an island. But we should try…

The shift was natural.  It doesn’t feel extreme. And I know there are more changes I can make that would have a positive impact on the environment. It’s all connected – the dream, the polar bears, the way I live.  What I do here, today, affects the polar bears I’m going to see in a few days. 

 

Lesson 1: Getting There

When you’re going on a big trip:

  • Don’t wait until midnight the night before to pack
  • Especially if you’re leaving at 5am
  • And when you finally crawl into bed at 2:30am, don’t set your alarm for 30 minutes later than you should wake up, in an attempt to convince yourself it will only take you 15 minutes to shower, get dressed, get all your stuff together, and get out the door

Traveling as often as 4-5 times/month has allowed me to become really lax about the details.  Packing always seems to happen, I’ve got the system down.  In fact, usually the suitcase hasn’t been entirely unpacked from the last trip. Actually, that WAS the case last night — my suitcase, full of swimwear and tank tops from my recent trip to Turks & Caicos, was still packed.  Realizing that wouldn’t get me very far in the Arctic, I began packing at midnight. Most of my stuff had been laid out the night before, but I didn’t factor in the possibility that it may not all fit in my suitcase.

 

My guest room became a mini REI. Enough stuff to cover a queen bed - no wonder it didn't fit in my suitcase!

My guest room became a mini REI. It covers a queen bed - no wonder it didn't fit in my suitcase

I don’t know if one can actually be “prepared” for an adventure like this, but certainly there are some steps that can be taken.  For example, WARM clothes. The cold in the Arctic is not like anything I’ve faced previously and a stark contrast to our typically 75-degree days in LA. I didn’t realize how bulky warm clothes actually are until I tried to shove them all into my suitcase last night.

 

I needed to get a new camera – a digital SLR to better manage the lack of contrast between white bear and white snow, the distance between us (which will likely be slightly more than a dozen feet this time around), the ability to shoot pictures in rapid succession in order to capture action shots, special lens and settings that will also allow me to take pictures of the Northern Lights. And a video camera, a more compact laptop (the only thing that actually fit easily in my luggage), extra batteries for all electronics (batteries only last about 1/3 of their typical life when in freezing temperatures), snow boots. . . 

I’ve been watching polar bear documentaries and stories on National Geographic.  I’ve been reading about the bears and the impact of global warming.  The more I learn about polar bears, the more mesmerized I become.  Instinctually they know to use the force of their weight, pounding through their front paws, to break through ice to reach their next meal.  They look cute and cuddly, but they can be 6 to 10 feet tall and weigh as much as 1,500 pounds (or more). Bear numbers are declining, cub mortality is higher, and bears are generally skinnier and smaller than they were just a couple decades ago. Scientists estimate there are only 20,000 – 25,000 polar bears remaining.  

I read and re-read the materials and safety information I’ve received from the leaders of the trip.  This is not a luxury safari, nor 4-star hotel vacation. This is an adventure trip – sometimes sleeping on the floor of research centers in sleeping bags, traveling in crowded busses, volunteering in the towns we travel through.  The travel guide they sent reads: First and foremost, we go as travelers, not tourists. Our goals are learning about North America and continentalism; glimpsing the past; doing hands-on things; meeting new friends; helping other people; being local; and of course, seeing polar bears in their habitat.

The “bear safety instructions” make me smile.  Not that I don’t take them seriously, I absolutely do! But merely a smile of satisfaction knowing that in a few short days I will be face to face with these magnificent animals – not in a cage at the zoo, but on the ice in the Arctic.

I’m also excited about the people I’ll meet on this trip. As the night grew later and my ADD kicked into high-gear, I started day-dreaming (or maybe I actually fell asleep for a moment) about who I’d be sharing this adventure with. What are their names? How old are they? What do they do when they’re not exploring the world? Where do they live? 

Needless to say, the taxi driver was actually yelling at me this morning because I was late. Meanwhile, he was parked 3 blocks down the street from my house, but I wasn’t in a position to say anything about that. Thankfully, I made it to the airport 5 minutes before the bag-check deadline and zipped through security. Now I’m on a layover in Denver where it’s currently 45 degrees – guess I better get used to the temperatures dropping!

My cat, Gulliver, in the box my new camera came in. Photo taken with my old point & shoot because I haven't learned how to use the new camera yet.

My cat, Gulliver, in the box my new camera came in. Photo taken with my old point & shoot