Saturday, 29 August 2009

This is not Malaga with iguanas

My first ever sloth, climbing up a tree. Scary caiman, well you can see his eyes, I almost throw Glenn on him to see if it bites
Double click on pic to see a full view of beach 3 ( original name )
Masked frog, or something like that, I just thought it was really cute
I am not sure how I feel about Manuel Antonio and its National Park.Manuel Antonio NP is the second smallest National Park in Costa Rica, but also its second most visited.Even during the rainy season it felt crowded and we could not help but notice that its animals were not as scared of humans as they were in other parts of the country.The park has just around 500 square ha, but the number of visitors is so high that during high season they are limited to 600 at any point in time during the day.Manuel Antonio and another couple of parks pay for the upkeep of all the other parks in Costa Rica.Nonetheless it's a great park, with a beautiful forest teeming with wildlife, and a stunning beach, filled with palm trees bent in impossible angles.
Black iguanaThis is the place to come and see all those animals that you heard about, and tried to see in other parts of the country, but who are normally too rare or shy.In our three hours we managed to get close to sloths, a first for me, white faced monkeys, and an endless parade of iguanas, caimans, frogs and really loud howler monkeys.
White face monkey staring at meAre these animals paying for the upkeep of other wildlife? Do they suffer stress due do the excesses of a booming tourist industry?I don't know if the animals are stressed.Yes, there is a lot of noise, and the animals can't avoid it.However, this area has not suffered the excesses of other parts of the world. This is not Malaga with frogs and caimans.
It should make this country proud, and bring shame to my parent's country, that here they have maintained a level of protection and environmental standards that most of the Spanish or Italian coast could only wish for.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Flying above the canopy

Zipping above the canopy

Couple of hummng birds on a feeder
I have said before that the way to beat your fears is to face them, and before me some wise man said that brave is not the man with no fears but the one that beats them, I think it was Indiana Jones.
So today we decided to do some zipping and some canopy walking.
However, before we did all of that we went up to Santa Elena Natural Reserve very near Monteverde.
Santa Elena was set in 1977 to protect some cloud forest that was at risk of being chopped and to revert to nature parts of the forest that had already been cut. It seems that at that altitude cattle farming was not that successful and several schools were able to raise money to protect this unique environment.

Double click in the pic
The forest is at its highest point in the area and on one side faces the winds from the Pacific and on the other winds from the Caribbean. It is a great place to spend a few hours walking around, but in most cases all you will get to see are some birds and insects, but still very enjoyable.
So after our morning walk, we went for our adrenaline kick.
Zipping is, put simply, launching yourself from one platform to another by a cable, travelling at a fairly high speed, either above the forest canopy or through the trees.
When it got to the time that I had to throw myself from a 19 metres platform, panic struck and I desperately looked for excuses to get out. However, with two girls behind me, I eventually let the guide attach me to the cable and launch me into the abyss.

It is an amazing experience and, once you start to relax, you start to enjoy the view as it flies past.
This is not a wildlife watching experience, everything goes so fast that you could not see a pink elephant if it was flying by your side, but nonetheless it helps protect this area. Would you be willing to do it over Croydon?
I loved it.
The final one is over 1 Kilometre long and they send two people together to ensure there is enough weight to achieve the required speed, so with my legs strapped beside Glenn we travelled the distance 50 metres above the canopy.
To finish it off we had a little tarzan moment

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

More Eye-lash snakes and volcanos

Another eye-lash viper that we came across today, cançt believe I didnçt panic as they are highly poisonous

Iguanas resting on a tree, some size for the male one
Emmerald Bassilisk, he just looks odd

In the last couple of days we have been trekking around the Arenal Area. Actually we did spent one morning on a safari raft that gave us the chance to relax and see some of the wildlife that lives by the river side.
Although Costa Rica seems to be a country that has managed to protect part of its environment pressures on it are very present.
Rafting down the river our guide not only pointed out the wildlife we saw, but also several of the issues that were already apparent.
To avoid erosion and flash floods river sides need to be forested, or so says the law. It is a law that makes complete sense, strong trees bond together the soil avoiding it being wash away everytime the river rises.
However, farming has led to a lot of this trees been cut. Rivers have become wider as flash floods have made the river sides collapsed. Sadly, for what we heard, most of this has been led by the big corportations that have been established in Costa Rica for a while and have turned this country into the main producer of tropical fruits such as pineapple.
In this case not only the environment suffers, but all the small businesses that have made a living out of tourism.

Bat having a nap by the river
Costa Rica's tourism is not only about visiting the large national parks, but also a lot of smaller enterprises that will provide services like the safari raft we took, or the small farm where we stopped for a coffee.
Nonetheless we got to see lots of things, probably more than in the jungle, as birds and animals are less shy and live on the open.
Highlights of the day were the cocodrile, tucan and the emeral bassilisk.
We were also told that there was a snake by the side, so against my wishes we got closer. When we could not see it, we were told we were looking in the wrong place. It was not in the river side, but hanging on top of us on a tree...
On the afternoon we visited Arenal Volcano, one of the few active volcanos in Costa Rica.
Now, I don't want to be critical, but how did everyone missed that it was a volcano until it exploded in 1968 destroying several villages.
It had the perfect volcano cone shape, there were hot springs around it, that got hotter as the explossion got nearer, and somehow people thought it was a normal mountain, doh!!!!
Since then it has been converted into a major tourist attraction. Until 2000 you could get to the top, but several people got fried following another explosion, nothing strange as it explodes constantly, we saw a small one.

Arenal Volcano after a little lava explosion with the rocks coming down the side
We have now moved to another part of the country, Monteverde, the activity capital of the country, to come and do some trekking on cloud forest, and some canopy walking, and worse, some zipping!!!
May God protect us!!!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Rara Avis, spiders and other thrills

Ocati looking around for some lunch...

Rara Avis, Nun's Torments and other wildlife.....

Since I started this trip I have been looking forward to traveling to Costa Rica and especially to its National Parks and other protected areas. Everyone told me how much I was going to enjoy it, just the type of place where the environment and its wildlife were protected having become the main source of foreign currency.

However, I was also very aware of previous disappointments, places that friends and travel guides had described as awesome, teeming with wildlife. Places like North Laos that have been raised to the ground, where all forest has been supplanted by rubber trees.

So far Costa Rica is living up to all my expectations. From what I can see, and have learned, the 30% that is protected seems to be properly protected with just some minor problems in a few remote areas. Although deforestation and agriculture is expanding through the country large swathes are still havens for wildlife.

Vultures waiting for us to fall down some cliff

As soon as Glenn got here we left San Jose and headed to Rara Avis, a privately owned Natural Reserve on the border of Braulio Carrillo National Park. This is the second largest expanse of rainforest in Costa Rica, and the park has mostly been left untouched with no tourism to protect its wildlife.

Rara Avis sits on the side of the park at a high point and it is an adventure on its own to get there. The bus from San Jose is followed by a two and half hour tractor trip uphill on a track that goes from bad road, to dirt track, to a series of pot holes in which the tractor sank from time to time, followed by us in the trailer behind.

A cute spider

The last 3 kilometres had to be trekked as the path was so badly damaged by the rain that you get thrown around too much.

Rara Avis is one of those rare places where the environment and economics seem to have met, without becoming so expensive to become prohibitive to the normal person.

We have spent the last three days trekking around the reserve, mostly with guides. As always in the rainforest you don't get to see much. There are no jaguars waiting there for you, and most of the animals, birds and butterflies you see are so rude, never happy to wait for you to get the camera out and focus on them. Most don't even bother coming out during the day, just no manners. We did get to see several gorgeous butterflies, some poisonous frogs, red and bright, and pacas, a type of rodent that grows up to half a metre.

Waterfall by Rara Avis

I am proud to say that I saw a snake, a poisonous one, and didn't have a scooby doo moment, there was no screaming, no running, no throwing my friend in the way of the snake.

The staff that work or volunteer in the station are mostly locals who have been employed to ensure the wealth that tourism brings is spread to the community, bringing new allies to their cause. There are also a couple of Americans, one a volunteer to help with the English speaking customers.

Glenn losing badly

We will take with us the memories of cheap thrills, and cheap jokes. I love the Spanish nickname for the Black Palm, locally known as Nun's Torment, its roots looking like dildos...

And a Tarzan moment...

On leaving Rara Avis, we still had to walk the first three kilometres, and were then offered horses instead of the tractor. Horses, being more intelligent that people, refuse to go all the way up there.

Once we were a bit more comfortable on the horses we decided to trot, the slow walk was sending us to sleep and the rain was falling hard. We even managed to gallop for a bit. I have now decided that I am going to have to learn to do this horse upset me by always veering to the right, as if if it was a Tory....

I really enjoyed the horse ride. It must have been funny to see us trying to keep our cool, trying to look like Indiana Jones, while each time the horse sped up our eyes jumped out of their sockets with sheer fear. Nonetheless my stomach hurts from how much I laughed.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Is Viagra the new Aspirin

Not a great pic but I was just shocked to see this

I have been amazed to see in the last few months the reach of Viagra.
When I left Europe legal Viagra was something you got with a prescription for your GP ( Doctor )
Now I have seen everything, I have even seen pharmacies doing promotions on Viagra.
In Australia there were advertisments on the road for it. In the USA they had TV advertisments, even before watershed. For the non-brits that may read this, that means on hours that children may be watching telly. The add had an older man riding a huge motorbike. With him in the bike there was a younger woman with a satisfied, ever so dazziling smile.

Now, I got to Costa Rica, and I have found that they do offers, buy more and you get a discount, it is like buying chicken breast....

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Roberto is an idi*t!!!

Could not help myself and walked to get the pic
I hated LA, so ended up staying longer that I wanted.
This may have sounded odd. I went down to the airport, not an easy task on this 'public transport hating' city. As I was trying to check in they could not find me in their system, so I was starting to worried that the portal I had used,, of which I had never heard in my life could have been a dodgy one.
Anyway, as I presented the paperwork the lady on the counter started giggling, pointing out the fact that I was not due to catch my plane for another 24 hours. Ashamed I turned back and face the public transport again.
I dislike this city for several reasons, it is the opposite than San Fran or New York. It is so wide, just endless suburbs with shopping malls, people driving everywhere. There is little public transport, most of it empty, just a few old people and the ever present nutter.

And then you get to Hollywood, hackers selling tours to go and see the sights, ie the houses where celebrities live, or crimes have been committed. Obviously you go in big cars with open roofs.

Do they call this art and a famous sight...I just think is tat
In the other hand, I like Chinatown, found amusing that I had never had heard about Chiang Kia Sek, and in less than two weeks I see him seating in two opposite sides of the world.

I am hoping that tonight I will manage to get on a plane

Monday, 17 August 2009

Marines, Moonshine and other scary things

If I thought Barb and Bill in the Outback where from a different world, I don't know how I should describe the US Marines I have been hanging out with in the last few days.

Joanna and Rich live very near one of the biggest bases in the USA so several of their neighbours are in the Forces.

My first taste of what was to come was when we walked into a store that sold combat stuff, but could also be used for trekking, for example microfibre towels.

I was approached by a member of staff and asked if I needed any help. I told him that I was looking for a lock having lost mine.

His next question caught me completely unprepared, is that for your gun? I initially looked at him like he was taking the pi*s. Eventually I realised that I was standing in a store that was all about guns and their paraphernalia, for example infra red torches for $600.

On the same night I had my first encounter wtih Shaune, Jeff and Jeremy. Shaune and Jeremy are on the Forces, Jeff is a civilian.

They are all completely obsessed with their constitutional rights to bear arms. They are also completely convinced that almost everything wrong with their country is due to the government, and the rest is due to all of those 'frakking lazy inmigrants to come to this country to rob us'.

Christine, Shaune's girlfriend, provided some home made moonshine that loosened our tongues even more.

Shaune really freaked me out when he asked me to go with him to his flat to show me some pics of him in full combat gear, mask and huge automatic rifle...just his private gear at home.

They are not republicans, as they did not waste anytime in criticising the way Bush robbed Al Gore of his victory They are libertarians, but for me they are actually just a sign of how much America seems to be splitting apart.

It's not only them. The whole country seems to almost be at war with itself.

As Obama tries to pass his healthcare legislation the Republicans are in a campaign that will say just about anything against it. I know that except for a couple of freaks in the right wing press in the UK we never go this far.

The two nights I spent drinking with these guys were absolutely fascinating. It has been an eye opener just seeing how far away some people are from us.

Having spent a while away from Europe, I have come to appreciate more and more what we have.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

San Diego, Dik Dik and other animals

Hyacinth Macaw

Having a beer with Jo

It has been great to meet up with Joanna, as I had not seen her for over 6 years.

She is currently living in Oceanside, about 35 kilometres from San Diego.

One of the main attractions around here is the Wild Animal Park which has become quite famous for it's conservation work, having achieved a lot of success with the highly endangered condor.

The park is set on a dry valley inland and therefore a lot hotter than Oceanside. Driving there and everywhere else you are shocked by the amount of cars that seem to be constantly on the road. But there is very little you can do here without a car, to even go to the supermarket you need to drive. The high street seems to have died and is now just a few places to eat, a dry cleaners and a cinema.

Dik Dik, quite an amusing name

The park itself is quite large and you could easily spend the whole day walking from one part to the other, learning about these animals. Also about some of the damage we have done to the planet. The park has two of the eight Northern Rhinos left in the world, sadly their female is barren. Probably in the next few years this animal will become extinct.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Markets of Taipei

Chinese sausages in Taipei

This little stall cooks the food in front of you, maybe not the Ivy but delicious
I am starting to wonder how people in Taipei are not a lot fatter than they seem to be.
For what I gather people don't really go to restaurants or bars in the evenings, but walk around the tens of night markets they have here. And the food there is all fried, lots of great, 'heart attacks on the making' snacks.
These markets are not for tourists, as they hardly have any tourist, compare to other towns in Asia.
They normally mix food with other things. Mostly the other things are a tat galore, it is like QVC in the street...I actually saw several things that could have been QVC bestsellers, and as an old employee I know what I am talking about.
My first night market was the main one, Shiling. The food area is a near the MRT station, and it is all I was expecting. Lots of things I didn't know, all far too fattening and unhealthy, and all really tasty.
I had something that look like a big dumpling, that had been deep fat fried at a low temperature, it was kind of jelly with meat inside and left in the was fatty, oily, nonetheless tasty and delicious.
I also had some breaded 'thing' only because everyone was queueing to get one, so I decided I had to try it...long queue, worth the wait.
However, the non food market was a dissapointment. It was tat heaven, from Kalvin Clein underwear to 'I did it with Kylie' T Shirts, fake sunglasses, mixed with real Puma store.
It is true that is a market for locals, although I may have seen more tourist there than anywhere else, it was still less than 5 or 10%, there are so few tourist in this country.
My second market, Huaxi Night Market, was a strange discovery. A lot more local, smaller, and with a sleazy side to it...somehow I managed to discover the prostitues that work in a dark ally on one of the sides of the market. I know I have always have an ability to find the gutter, either the drunks in India or the brothel in Chang Mai where I went to upload my blog.

A dark ally in Taipei
As soon as they discover that I was not going to be a customer, and I just wanted to take a pic, they all run from me. Prositution is very frown upon in this country. There is shame on it as oppose to what you see in Thailand. I think this is probably good, sad for the people that work on it, but probably a deterrent for people to fall on it if they just see it as an easy exit.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Museums and Jade Cabagges in Taipei

Temple of Confucious

These are my last few days in Asia, and I could not have chosen a better country to finish with after having started in India.

Taiwan and India are absolute opposites in this world. If India is intrusive, invasive, in your face, almost abusive, Taiwan is gentle and friendly. Not only that, somehow their development seems to have been different. India seems to have developed despite their ability to organize themselves, the corruption. You can't build tall buildings in India because you are not sure they will have electricty to run their lifts. Taiwan on the other hand has Breast Feeding rooms in their Underground stations.

Women in India would not even dare to go in there, knowing men would run in to see their t*its out.

Today I visited the National Palace Museum. It is absolutely magnificent. 8000 years of Chinese history in one building. It was taken from the mainland, after the revolution, for 'safekeeping'. Nonetheless some may call it stealing. You get a sense of humbleness walking around the museum.

One of the most amazing pieces in the museum, at least from my point of view, it is this little piece of centuries old woodwork, in which an artist carved a boat with 8 people inside, and a poem written in the back, and it's only 3 centimetres long and 1 wide. Sometimes you do realize that in the Western world we're not ahead of everything at all times.

Nonetheless, and following what I mentioned before, I was surprised to see that the piece everyone else was mostly excited about was a little jade cabbage!!!!!

Although it was pretty, why there was a queue to see it was beyond me!!!!

I also visited Confucious' Temple. As he's meant to be one of the wisest men ever in Chinese culture, I decided to pop by to see if I could absorbe any of that knowledge.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Taiwan, Typhoons and Taste

I was glad to leave Australia.
I did like it, but God it's expensive, and they charge you for everything. It really killed my budget.
It was so nice to get to Kuala Lumpur where I had a great meal for less than a pound.
On my only night there, staying around Chinatown, I ended up drinking with some local Chinese. It was a great experience, though my head seriously hurt the day after as they drink some evil liquor, that I'm sure is nothing more than petrol.
Although Malaysia seems to be able to keep their three communities Malay, Chinese and Indian, together well, my drinking partners were very suspicious of the Indians, and told me to be very careful of them. Then again, I guess my parents would say the same about people that are different to them.
I have been very lucky and managed to miss Typhoon Morakot, that hit Taiwan just before I arrived yesterday. It has been the worse storm in 50 years.
However, can you imagine going up to the top of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, in the middle of that storm? It would have been awe inspiring.
View of Taipei 101 from below

Somehow Taiwan feels like the most foreign place I have been since I began this trip, or at least when you first arrive it feels like that. It is a bit like Moscow, as all the signs are in Chinese, so you can't even tell where you are, where is the hostel etc. The only concession to the Westerners is in the Underground where the names are in both Chinese and Western.
I was surprised to learn that a country so small as this is the 14th biggest economy in the world, but once you get here you can see why. The country is so modern and high tech. At the same time it still has it's charm, the little corner stalls where people come to eat their lunch etc, very similar to Thailand. However, they are so organized. They are what the English used to be. They queue for everything, and they do it properly. To get on the train, to get on the bus...

I also visited the Memorial to Chiang Kai Sek. Some people call it impressive. I don't know, it felt more like imposing and a bit OTT. Sometimes you do feel that for all the modernity that Asia has achieved, taste has been left behind.

Memorial to Chiang Kai Sek, the Father of the country
The Father himself

Not that I can really talk.

I can't wait till I get to the night markets and see a completely different side

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Queen Victoria Market

Barb, Bill and myself in Menindee station
I was sad to leave behind Barb and Bill, and the clean air and healthy living of the Outback. As soon as I got to Sydney I got hideously drunk with Damien's cousin and really regret it in the morning.After a week of health, health, health, I manage to ingest my body weight on alcohol and waste all my good work.One great thing of only having one train a week is that with a bit of luck you will catch the train with the same caracthers that have enterntain you on your way out.Most of my favourites were there, the stretching lesbians, the old couple with the strange hobby. However, someone really threw me out. A young woman in her late 20's travelled all the way down to Sydney, and at around 6PM when it was dark outside, open her bag and got her dressing gown out...and it was bright acid blue with pink flowers!!!!Anyway, did make it down to Melbourne to catch my flight to KL.One thing I had not done on my previous visits here was to go to Queen Victoria Market, the largest market in the Southern Hemisphere.I have to say, I was pleasantely surprised with it. It reminded me of the nice markets of Barcelona. As oppose to Borough Market in London this is not a posh market, or at least not just that.One thing I noticed is that while most customers looked like the typical Ozzy the people working there weren't. Lots of Asian people, and then quite a few Italian, Greek, Hispanic looking.

Well I am now off to Kuala for one day before making my up to is going to be so nice to put away my winter clothes, and back on the shorts