Archive for January, 2008

The Astounding Atacama

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Atacama 153 With some reservations, we headed from Machu Picchu for the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.  After the magic of Machu Picchu, we were braced for a letdown.  And I had been to San Pedro de la Atacama seventeen years ago and found it interesting, but not a “must visit.”  Our travel strategist highly encouraged us to go there, though, and we followed her suggest — thankfully!  This place was a clear trip highlight.  Any family that enjoys the outdoors will have a blast in Atacama, especially if they stay at the Awasi.

Atacama 195 The Atacama is the world’s driest desert, and places there have never recorded a drop of rainfall.  Not surprisingly, sand is in abundance, and plant and animal life are unusual, although far from scarce.  At times, we felt like our worldwide trip had been extended to include another planet, since the geological structures in the Atacama are so surreal.  Much of the region stands between two mountain ranges and, over time, a lake bed there evaporated, leaving a bizarre residue of crystallized residue.

Atacama 212 Our days (and one of our nights) were filled with unusual and astounding activities.  Our first night we went for a hike in the Valley of the Moon just before sunset.  We walked high up on some cliffs and watched a gorgeous sunset.  It’s one of the few places where the best view of the sunset is facing in the opposite direction, and we saw magnificent colors reflecting off the Andes, which were to our east.   

Atacama 519 Our first full day included a hefty hike along a mountain ridge, followed by a couple of hours of “sand-boarding.”  Our sand-boarding instructor was one of the sports pioneers, and it was a blast to ‘surf” on a board down a huge sand dune.  [In fair disclosure, I was the photojournalist, leaving the surfing to Elizabeth and the kids].  I think we could have stayed there for several months and our kids wouldn’t have tired of it, despite the lack of a “sand lift.”  After every trip down the dune, the surfer had to walk their way through deep sand back up to the top of the hill.  You may want to check out a couple of our videos of sandboarding in motion.

Atacama 696 That afternoon, we drove to a local national park, where we saw some great wildlife, including birds and lizards.  And we got another great sunset there.  The birds included two species of flamingos (Chilean and Andean), a Puna Plover, and some fascinating Andean Avocets.  The combination of a great view of the Andes, a surface that looked like the moon, and some beautiful animals made this a great visiting spot for us.

Gibson Atacama 234 The next day brought more once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  That morning we dirt-biked about an hour from our hotel to a very salty and beautiful lagoon.  The salt concentration at this lagoon is 7x normal ocean saltwater, making it impossible to sink.  We swam in the lagoon at length, and also saw some great animals.  It’s hard to describe how much fun it was to swim in this lagoon, but the experience probably resembles how an astronaut feels when he or she is weightless.

Atacama 731 After lunch and homework, we then headed off for our second desert water experience of the day.  After a short drive, we hiked a challenging hour through a ravine.  Our path was often blocked by boulders or a native plant with leaves as sharp as razor blades (not a good thing, in case you’re wondering).  At the end of the hike, though, we came to a series of hot water pools made by the stream, and were able to soak in delicious hot springs for an hour or so.  The hike seemed well worth it once we got to our destination.

Atacama 339 That night, we got an astronomy lesson from a local French astronomer, who had a very useful set-up with about six different high-power telescopes set up to explore different areas of our Southern Hemisphere sky.  Since the previous three weeks were cloudy with rain (!!) at times, we were quite fortunate to have crystal clear skies for our stay in Atacama, and for our astronomy night.  We learned all about the Southern Cross, Orion, Mars, Alpha Centauri, the Seven Sisters, overhead satellites that were perfectly visible to the naked eye, and the history of astronomy.  It was a late night for our kids, but a great night for all.

Atacama 653 On our way to the airport the next day, we stopped at the world’s biggest mine, a copper mine operated by the state-owned Cordecal.  We saw some gigantic trucks (able to hold up to 400 tons), and an enormous open pit mind.  We also saw, and felt, and breathed, lots and lots of dust and dirt, so the visit didn’t rocket to the top of our highlight list. 

Picture 312 Our time in Atacama contained another highlight some 4,000 miles away.  In South Carolina, where we lived until June, the Democratic Party held its primary, and Barack Obama won resoundingly.  We were very involved in Barack’s campaign while we lived in South Carolina, including meeting him at his first rally in Columbia (see photo above of Barack with Sterling’s favorite stuffed animal, Little Bear), and then hosting and helping organize his first fund-raiser in Charleston.  We followed the primary quite closely, both from news sources and friends in Charleston.  I think Barack was put in a very challenging position by some of his competition, and did a great job of balancing “push back” with running a dignified positive campaign.  So we were thrilled with the outcome.  Fired up, ready to go!! 

All in all, Atacama is just a fabulous spot to visit.  It’s not the easiest place to get to, but we had a blast there and will go back again down the road!  For now, though, feel free to check out our photos.

Marvelous Machu Picchu!!

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

Machu Picchu 198 On a trip like ours, it’s easy to get occasional surprises.  Sometimes, we develop high expectations for a location, and things just don’t seem to click there.  And other times, we kind of roll into a country or location with no clear expectations, and are blown away.  That’s what happened to us at Machu Picchu, a place whose name I couldn’t spell a week ago!

Machu Picchu 165 Machu Picchu is a six hundred year old Incan temple and village, built in the Andes for the Incan rulers.  It took sixty years or so to build, but was only occasionally used by the Incan leaders, probably because it’s so isolated.  Like Siem Reap (link!!), it fell into disuse, and was largely overgrown, until Hiram Bingham stumbled across it in 1911.  The grounds are still being renovated almost a century later, but it’s easy to get an clear idea of what Machu Picchu (which means old peak in Incan) was like centuries ago.

Machu Picchu 117 Machu Picchu isn’t easy to get to.  It’s a three hour train trip from Cusco, or 90 minutes from the Sacred Valley.  We wussed out and took the train directly to the site.  Other options are a four day backpacking trip up the Incan Trail, or a train drop-off spot where you hike the the last six hours.  We felt that the direct route was best for the four of us, and gave us almost two full days to explore in and around Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu 053 We had a range of weather conditions while we were there.  Our first morning was misty and occasionally rainy.  The afternoon wasn’t as wet, but was overcast with some spectacular cloud formations (often below the level where we were standing).  And the second day was brilliantly sunny, which gave this spiritual place a totally different feel.

Machu Picchu 171 We saw some great animal life around Machu Picchu as well, including this great shot of an Andean Guan.  We saw a bunch of great birds, including six species of hummingbird.  We saw something called a Vizcacha, which is sort of a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel.  And there were a bunch of llamas on the grounds at Machu Picchu.  On the Inca Trail, weMachu Picchu 264 ran into many lizards, which is always a highlight for us.  Gibson stalked a Tiger Lizard and managed to snag it.  And we were fortunate to have a great guide during our time at Machu Picchu, who was familiar with all aspects of the location — culture, history, geology, and wildlife.  So it was fabulous all around.

Machu Picchu 153 As usual, our visit here had its close calls.  On our train trip back to Cusco, there was a rockslide that shut down the train for a couple of hours.  They had to use dynamite to get the rock broken up enough to be moved, and we were glad they didn’t overshoot and destroy the tracks.  And, on one of the steeper trail faces, our kids slipped and were hanging precariously, with a 750 foot drop awaiting them if their grip failed.  Fortunately, we sent four llamas to pull them back, and they managed to survive another wild experience.

Machu Picchu 072 The New Open World Corporation recently conducted a poll to identify the new seven wonders of the world.   Their list contains three we won’t see on this trip (Mexico’s Chichen Itza, Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer, and Rome’s Colisseum) and four we will (Machu Picchu, the Great Wall, Jordan’s Petra, and the Taj Mahal), with the Great Pyramid of Egypt getting the mysterious “honorary status.”  I have no idea who the New Open World Corporation is, but I wouldn’t dispute their including Machu Picchu on any list of wonders.

Machu Picchu 075 When it comes to Machu Picchu, the old proverb “A picture is worth a thousand words” couldn’t be more accurate.  The lush green and towering mountains, the beautiful Incan structures, and clouds and sky made for great photographs.  But the main thing about Machu Picchu was the spiritual impact.  We’re not a particularly religious family, but being at Machu Picchu is magical, and it really does feel like you’re at heaven’s doorstep.

It will take a while to look at all of our Machu Picchu photos, but it’s worth it.

Surprising Peru

Friday, January 25th, 2008

We arrived in Lima, Peru, with a ten day exploration planned of this country.  None of us had been in Peru before, and had only a hazy idea of what we’d encounter.  Our trip included Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu.  I’ll save Machu Picchu for a subsequent blog posting, and cover the first part of our Peru adventure.

Lima 026 Lima is a surprisingly pleasant city right on the Pacific Ocean.  It’s noteworthy for its almost total lack of rainfall (about three inches per year), its size, and its role as capital of Peru.  Gibson and I played baseball with a great group of young boys here, while Elizabeth and Sterling explored old Lima.  We had a long (way too long!!) lunch at a restaurant with a great view of the ocean and all the Lima surfers.  And we hiked around an ancient burial site in downtown Lima. 

Sacred Valley 047 The next day we headed to Cusco, which was a short flight from Lima.  But the altitude transition was a big challenge.  Lima is at sea level and Cusco is at 11,000 feet.  All of us felt the impact, but none more than Elizabeth!  After just a few hours in Cusco, she was feeling all of the negative effects of altitude sickness, and it got serious enough that she went to an emergency clinic.  The doctors there were terrific, as were the Abercrombie and Kent people in Peru who helped us with the trip.  After an hour in the pressure chamber, and five hours at the clinic, we got our first Cusco day out of the way.  Ouch!

Sacred Valley 037 The next day we explored Cusco, a city of about 900,000 people with a beautiful downtown city square.  After the day before’s adventures, we took it easy in Cusco, and didn’t see a whole heck of a lot.  And I have the impression we didn’t miss much, either.  It’s a pleasant enough city, but I wouldn’t rate it as a “must” on any trip to Peru, other than its role as the gateway to Machu Picchu.  Our biggest disappointment about Cusco was missing out on meeting Barbara Perrins there.  We had planned to meet her on Saturday night, but ended up at the emergency room.  Even though we had never met her (she’s the mother of Nicholas Perrins, who works closely with the next Senator of Virginia, Mark Warner), she was incredibly kind in offering to help us.  It sounds like she’s doing some amazing things in Peru, so that will be yet another reason for us to return.

Sacred Valley 339 Following Cusco, we dropped down a couple thousand feet (thankfully) to explore the Sacred Valley of Peru, which we found fabulous.  It gave us a real view of rural Peru, with gorgeous countryside and some great hiking and exploring.  One afternoon, Gibson and I explored a fascinating set of salt mines.  A small stream, full of salt, runs through  a terraced area which is partitioned into hundreds of small staging areas.  Interestingly, each area is owned by a local family.  Our guide Sacred Valley 350indicated that the families make about $10 per month on the salt they collect from a salt plot.  And there’s no transportation to the salt flats other than by foot, so the locals end up walking 45 minutes each way on the days they work the land.  It gives you an idea of this area’s economy.

Sacred Valley 367 We also saw some great birds, including the Giant Hummingbird, at the place we stayed (Sol y Luna) in the Sacred Valley.  We loved our accommodations, and felt like we could watch this very large hummingbird for hours on end.  We had bushes right outside our hotel room, with a little deck and chair where we could sit, read, and watch these hummers.  I have to admit, hummingbirds are one of my favorites, but everyone in our family was fascinated by these fast-moving birds.

Sacred Valley 358 We were sorry to be leaving the Sacred Valley, but were excited to be moving on to Machu Picchu.  But feel free to check out our photographs of the first phase of our stay in Peru.

Baseball In Lima!

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Baseball in Lima 154 Under crystal clear blue skies in dry Lima, Peru, we played baseball today with a great group of kids and coaches.  Baseball isn’t a popular sport in Peru, at least not yet, but these coaches were enthusiastic, and doing a great job with some really terrific kids from Callao, Peru.  Their program includes kids from 9 through 15, and they have a couple of respectable fields to play on.  During their summer, they practice six times a week, but during the school year they are only able to practice once a week.

Baseball in Lima 159 Callao is a town located about 15 kilometers (or 9 miles) from the practice fields.  That may not sound like that big an issue, but for these kids, it’s a huge challenge.  Callao is a very poor suburb of Lima, and these kids often don’t have the money to cover bus tickets to/from practice, or even enough for lunch money.  The coaches help out, and they’ve gotten some donated equipment, but this was the perfect baseball program for us to be helping.

Baseball in Lima 175 We were able to set up the visit through the National Federation of Baseball in Peru, led by Karel Asseff.  They have a small office and an initiative that now has several thousand kids in Peru playing baseball.  We played on a Friday morning, but January is the “summer vacation” for the Peru schools, and during their summer these kids practice regularly.

Baseball in Lima 171 We started the practice by playing an exhibition game of about four innings.  For 12 and under kids, they use a hard rubber ball instead of a standard baseball, which took some getting used to.  The coaches would pitch to the players, and they exercised some judgment as to how many outs to allow each side.  The kids got in a ton of baseball in the time they were playing, and everyone had a blast.

Baseball in Lima 039 We then stopped for a soft drink and a sandwich, and got a chance to talk to the players and coaches.  I speak a bit of Spanish, so I could talk directly to these kids, and they were so nice and polite.  It was very exciting to see their enthusiasm for baseball.  They gave Gibson and me their Peru team baseball hats and shirts, which we will always treasure.  Gibson got uniform #1, and we suspect that one of the kids volunteered to give up that number for someone visiting from the U.S.  And all of the coaches (including head coach Jose Herrera, in the center of the picture up to the left)autographed a ball for us as well, which will have a prime spot on our shelf of great autographed baseballs back in the states.

Baseball in Lima 043 We talked to the group a little bit about our trip, and gave them all Red Sox hats.  We also talked about the Red Sox commitment to players from Latin America.  Most of the kids seemed very aware of the Red Sox and their recent World Series win (!!!!).  We had no problem getting the one boy with a Yankees hat to switch over!  And they all asked Gibson and me to autograph the hats, which made me feel a bit like a baseball rock star (well, that’s probably stretching it a bit, but . . .)

Baseball in Lima 056 We then went back on the field and did about 45 minutes of drills, mainly fielding drills.  The boys seemed like they could easily play for the entire day, and were obviously having a great time among themselves, helped by a very informative and enthusiastic coach.  Toward the end, I took over and hit them some long fly balls, which I think gave me more of a workout than it did the kids!

Baseball in Lima 048 As a follow up, we’ll be providing this team with a complete set of baseball gloves, bats, balls, bases, and catcher’s gear.  Given how appreciative they were of the hats (and they look terrific in them!), I’m sure they’ll make excellent use of this equipment.  Right now, they get most of their equipment from hand-me-downs from a local Japanese team, and the coach said none of the players or their families could even afford shoes.  It was just exciting to see these kids developing a real love of baseball, helped by good coaches, and we were thrilled to be a part of it, even for just a morning!

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Feel free to check out our photos from this excellent baseball morning!

Not Quite Amazing, Not Quite Amazon

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Sacha Lodge 042 We followed our visit to the Galapagos with an exploration of another great nature area of Ecuador — its rain forest in the eastern part of the country.  We flew from Quito to Coca, took a two hour boat ride to a dock, hiked a half hour, took a five minute canoe ride, and then . . . we arrived at our destination, the Sacha Lodge.   (Remind anyone of the movie “Planes, Canoes, and Automobiles”?)  And while we wouldn’t recommend Sacha to anyone other than hard-core birders, it did teach us a lot about the jungle, and made us interested in exploring the Amazon sometime down the road.

Sacha Lodge 084 The Sacha Lodge is in a large jungle area purchased by a Swiss family years ago.  They created a small eco-lodge of four rooms fifteen years ago, and it’s now grown to about thirty rooms and a staff of 70.  It’s located on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon running through eastern Ecuador.  The rooms were basic, the food was basic, the bathrooms were basic, well, . . . you get the picture.    But the flora and fauna were far from basic.

Sacha Lodge 077 The area around Sacha is remarkably diverse.  There are more species of trees in a hectare there (400) than there are in all of North America.  It is home to a huge number of bird species (600 distinct species seen on the property), and various other exotic mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects. 

Our “quest” animal on this trip was a snake, in particular an Anaconda.  But we were willing to settle for any old snake.  We figured the Amazon would have more snakes than an Indiana Jones movie, so we were surprised that two full days (including night hikes) resulted in 0.00 snake sightings.  I can’t imagine turning over more leaves, branches, or clumps of stuff on the trail in two days, and not finding much beyond a millipede.  

Sacha - GIbson 179 We met some incredibly nice people staying at Sacha.  Many were expert birders, but a highlight was talking to a couple from England, Ruth Miller  and Alan Davies, who are spending the entire year of 2008 birding around the world.  They sold their house in England to help fund the trip.  And they are going for the world’s record, which currently stands at 3,662 birds seen by someone from the U.S. in a year.   After what we observed, I’d bet that this great couple will break the existing record.

Sacha - GIbson 193 Ruth and Alan started their year in Arizona, then went to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and are now in Ecuador.  Next stop — Ethiopia!  And how are they doing?  Well, when they arrived in Ecuador, they had seen 500 bird species in two weeks.  At Sacha, they saw 170 species in just two days, including the gray-bellied hawk above right!  I’d bet heavily they exit January with 1,000 species (they have 708 as of January 18th), which would be amazing in and of itself! 

Sacha Lodge 005We met Ruth and Alan in an observation deck at the top of a canopy walk (41 meters above the ground), where we were all waiting out a rainstorm.  Even though they were shooting for a record, Ruth and Alan spent a lot of time with our children, explaining to them interesting things about animal behavior, answering questions, and helping them see fascinating birds through their telescope.  They couldn’t have been nicer.  You can follow their trip at www.thebiggesttwitch.com.  And, in a year when the U.S. screenwriters are on strike, someone out there ought to figure out a way to turn their adventure into a television reality series!

Sacha Lodge 113 We had numerous highlights while at Sacha.  The Lodge has lots of expert naturalists.  Our family of four, for example, spent each day exploring with two naturalists, one from Quito and one whose father is a shaman in a nearby village.  They knew every animal cold (not at all easy, given the area’s diversity), and knew tons about the plant life.  And Benji, who could become his village’s shaman (a leader with wisdom and expertise in all sorts of areas, including the use of plants to treat illnesses) in the future, taught us an enormous amount about the jungle. 

Sacha - GIbson 312 While in Sacha, we saw a bunch of fabulous birds, and got great views of a three-toed sloth (left), four types of monkeys, two types of caiman (South America’s version of a crocodile), a poison dart frog, a dwarf iguana, and piranhas.  People went fishing for piranha in the lodge’s lake, which also served as a great swimming lake.  Apparently, not all piranha attack humans (or the lodge would have lost a fair number of its guests!).

Sacha Lodge 035 Among many fun things we did at Sacha, our night-time canoe outing stands out.  We went out on the lake, and also explored many of the streams feeding the tributary.  We were on the look-out for the Brown Caiman, which we found.  But the sounds at night of the jungle as we glided silently along in our canoe were unforgettable.

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We visited Sacha in the “dry” season, which can only make me imagine what the rainy season is like.  We got heavy rain each day we were there, although it made for great nap weather.  Hearing the rain on the dense jungle canopy only amplified the sound, and even a light rain shower sounded like a downpour.  We were able to work around the rain to do our nature exploring, but there’s definitely a reason why they call this a “rain forest.”

Sacha - GIbson 216 I’d definitely recommend exploring the Amazon River basin and jungle if you’re remotely interested in exotic plants and animals.  It’s unique in its diversity (including the dwarf iguana on the left, photographed by Gibson), and many of the species are just astounding.  We missed seeing some of the giant snakes (Anacondas as long as 11 meters have been seen at the lodge), anteaters, jaguars,  and other rarities.  One of our challenges, though, was our short stay at Sacha (just two days), and the “overhead” of spending two full days to get there put a damper on the experience.  And, as much as we love nature, our overall recollection of this place will be hiking through mud in the rain, scrutinizing trees until our eyes got tired, and not quite seeing what we really hoped to see.   That said, as soon as we get internet access, we’ll be looking for another destination (one on the actual Amazon) for a future, longer visit.

Feel free to check out our photos and videos of our time at Sacha.

Darwin’s Inspiring Galapagos

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Galapagos 521 If you love nature, a visit to the Galapagos is an absolute must! It’s really an astounding archipelago, consisting of some 130 wildlife-packed islands. After a while, you get used to hiking on narrow paths and having to step around sea lions, marine iguanas, and blue-footed boobies. It’s that kind of place.

Galapagos 066 As Gibson pointed out, we actually visited more islands in the Galapagos than Charles Darwin, who played a big part in making the Galapagos famous. Darwin, in his famous five-year voyage, spent a month here, and set foot on a total of just four of the islands. But his observations about each island’s distinct species helped catalyze his theories on evolution. And things haven’t changed since Darwin’s time — islands often have their own distinct set of species, including finches, mockingbirds, and lizards.

Quito 049 We flew from Seattle (although I came via Iowa City) to Atlanta, and on to Quito. The Atlanta to Quito flight is less than five hours and very manageable. Better yet, there are direct flights from JFK Airport to Guiyacil, which is the departure point for the flight to the Galapagos. You also miss entering Ecuador through the Quito airport, where they have about three customs people on staff to process hundreds of passengers; we waited over an hour to get through Quito’s customers.

Quito 070 We had a brief stay in Quito, but did manage to tour around a bit. We went to the old section of the city, which has a certain charm. And we went to a spot right, smack dab on the Equator. Gibson managed to throw a baseball all the way from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere there! They have a big tower, topped by a globe with the equator shown prominently, in Quito at the equator. And there’s a nice little museum inside the tower, so we had a great time straddling the hemispheres.

After our day in Quito, we then flew to the Galapagos, first stopping at another city in Ecuador (Guayacil). We boarded a ship operated by Lindblad, and were on it for seven days and nights. Each day, we’d take a zodiac from the ship to an island to explore, generally a couple of times each day. The ship was staffed by three naturalists (two were quite good, and one had a bit of trouble differentiating a bird from a turtle :-( ), who led each day’s hike or snorkle adventure.

Galapagos 073 Right away, we knew we were in for a treat. On our first day, we saw sea lions, frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies, small ground finches, and marine iguanas. The wonder of it was in part the exotic species that were everywhere, but also how easy it was to be close to them. The area is so unspoiled, and the animals would let you get within a foot or two of them. At left is a male frigatebird, with its ballooned wattle, hoping to attract a mate. The male can be out in the sun all day like this for weeks, and as the wattle weathers and fades, so does his chances of attracting a mate.

Galapagos 451 We had snorkled in August at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we snorkled this trip in the Galapagos. All of us agreed that Galapagos snorkling is better. There were a great variety of stunning tropical fish and fabulous coral in both places. But in the Galapagos, we encountered many sea lions (often swimming right by us), Pacific Green Sea Turtles (quite large), giant manta rays (very large, and got us all thinking about Steve Irwin), white-tipped sharks (not harmful), Galapagos Penguins, and Brown Pelicans. At one point, I ended up in the middle of a fight between sea lion and pelican, but escaped unharmed!

About the only negative with snorkling in the Galapagos is the water temperature, which is pretty chilly. One might think ocean water at the Equator would be warm, but it’s fed by the Humboldt Current, coming up straight from Antartica. So if you come here, be forewarned — even with a wetsuit, it’s still a cold water experience.

Galapagos 465 When we weren’t snorkling, we were hiking in our mornings or afternoons. The hikes were generally 2-3 miles long, but over challenging terrain. Interestingly, the islands are quite close to each other (tens of miles at most), but are quite varied. We hiked on one where its surface resembled a different planet, due to relatively recent lava flows. On others, we scrambled over boulders. And we would occasionally find nice, sandy paths.

Galapagos 167 But while the hiking was challenging, it was quite doable for almost all of the group. And, boy, was it worth it! Pictures will be far better at communicating the range and beauty of what you see in the Galapagos, and the animals are not spooked by nearby humans. So you really get to see them. We saw countless iguanas (marine and land) and lizards, so our kids were in seventh heaven! And the birds in the Galapagos are extraordinary, and fairly easy to identify.

Canon to be sorted again 110 One extraordinary sighting was a pair of Pacific Green Sea Turtles mating in the surf (picture courtesy of Gibson). We had hiked up over a hill and down to a secluded beach, only to discover a rather intimate interlude on the beach. The turtles didn’t seem to mind our presence, though, and we got some good photographs. Not sure if it’s National Enquirer material, but it was amazing to watch.

Galapagos 368 As we were cruising around the Pacific Ocean, we ran into pods of Common Dolphins and Bottlenosed Dolphins. They would swim around the ship for quite some time (half hour or so), and there were so many of them. The Common Dolphins really leapt out of the water, and it was worth getting to the deck at 6:15 a.m. to see them. And the Bottlenosed are really beautiful animals, that we could watch for hours.Galapagos 372

We cruised on Lindblad’s Islander, a boat holding up to 48 passengers, with a crew of 32. After a week on the boat, we felt like we got to know many of the other passengers well. We were fortunate that we shared the trip with some incredibly interesting and nice people, which made the entire experience that much more fun. And the staff was very capable, with a real eye for making the experience safe and fun. That said, we did run into our unusual cases, which can become an issue on a small ship over a week-long period.

Galapagos 119 So, we’re back in the swing of things on our trip. The biggest downer for the week here was the New Hampshire primary, where I was hoping Barack Obama would lead the field. But, I’m encouraged with his win in Iowa and a very close second in New Hampshire, so I am looking forward to following the Nevada and South Carolina results. Now, back to Quito, and then on to the Amazon!

Feel free to check out our (way too many!!) photos and some great videos of the Galapagos wildlife. And I’ve included some of our better wildlife pictures below.

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Here Sterling walks by a giant Galapagos Tortoise. These animals must weight close to 500 pounds, and are fascinating to watch as they plod along.

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Not all of the creatures in the Galapagos are big, exotic birds. This beautiful bird, the Galapagos Dove, could be found on a couple of the islands that we visited. Its markings are so striking that we often found ourselves looking at it for minutes at a time.

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We got a number of great looks at the Galapagos Penguin. It’s a great warm-up for us prior to Antarctica. We may also see more penguins further south in South America.

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With as many ready targets on the different islands, raptors are scarce. We got great views of the Galapagos Hawk, but there are almost no other hawks, falcons, or eagles on the islands.

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This Yellow Warbler can be found in North America, so isn’t quite as exotic as most of the animals we saw in the Galapagos. But its color stands out so gorgeously against the lava rocks that it’s worth including.

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Sea lions were everywhere. On our last morning, we went to a beach and it was literally packed with sea lions. They were beautiful to watch, and would often swim right around us when we were snorkling. Also, one night, we watched them off the side of the ship chasing fish and got to see just how fast they are.

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Canon to be sorted again 131

The Sally Lightfoot Crabs were everywhere. Their coloring is spectacular, and they are fun to watch as they scurry along the rocks.

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Galapagos-2 191Here a Hood Mockingbird plops down on a log next to Gibson for a little afternoon chat. They talked mostly about lava lizards, and Gibson wondered what they taste like. The Mockingbird just laughed.

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Feel free to check out our photos and videos of this special place.

Caucus Day: Day 8

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

By Caucus Day, I was not feeling 100%, but today was the day, and everyone was going for the final push.  The question I faced, though, was what to do on this Thursday.   Caucus Day (a Thursday) was a tough day for canvassing — few would be home on a weekday, and phone messages would probably not be picked up until after the caucus.  And the Obama staff told all of us that we shouldn’t attend the actual caucuses, since Iowans resent the intrusion of outsiders into their process.  So for a while, I thought I’d be fired up, ready to go, and sitting in my hotel room :-( .

Caucus Day

I decided to do a couple of things on Caucus Day.  I had the campaign run off a couple of hundred copies of Barack’s October, 2002, speech on the pending Iraq War.  This speech is profound, both in its eloquence and insight.  Then, at 8:00 a.m., I started walking around downtown, just looking for people, or spots with lots of people passing by.  I’d ask all passersby if they were planning to go to the caucus and, if yes, could take two minutes to read his speech.  I’d say something like, “A candidate’s 2002 view on Iraq was the single most important test of judgment that he or she has faced in the past decade.  Read what Barack Obama had to say about it, and ask yourself if that’s the judgment and leadership you want in the White House.” 

So how did this approach go?  Well, people would take a copy of the speech from me, and then later would come back and ask for more copies.  I ran through 200 copies, and made another 200 copies.  And another 200.  Wow!  The thoughtful people of Iowa take their responsibility seriously here, and welcomed interesting new material. 

I got more good news that day!  My boss Tony Rediger needed me to be the one Obama outsider volunteer in the Precinct 14 caucus.  So I would have a chance to observe live what a caucus is all about.  It’s always great to get an upside surprise!  

I admit that after my first few days in Iowa City, I was concerned about Barack’s prospects.  I talked to a lot of undecideds, but many were leaning toward another candidate.  As the week wore on, it seemed things were starting to really go our way.  On that last day, I talked to several hundred people.  A surprising number were planning to go to the caucus (about half), many committed to Barack.  So I went to the caucus that night optimistic about Barack’s chances, and expecting a blow-out crowd.

Caucus Night

Before going further, a word about the Iowa caucus procedure.  The caucuses are managed by the two political parties in Iowa (each with its own set of rules), not the state or Federal government.  Democrats come to their caucus, stand with their chosen candidate’s group, and an initial count is made.  If a candidate isn’t viable (supporters number less than 15% of total attendees), those supporters can either leave or align with another candidate.  Then, a final count is made, the pro ratas of each candidate are used to allocate the precinct’s delegates, and delegate counts (not votes) are reported to the Iowa Democratic party.  Also, in the past, apparently, people would comment on why they supported a candidate, and there was lots of informal interaction around the re-alignment process.  Sounds simple, right??

Iowa 074 This process would probably work well with a small group.  But the huge turn-out caused huge problems.  Our caucus location was the local elementary school gym, which had a few picnic tables inside for attendees.  The gym could hold maybe 200 comfortably, but  400+ came.  People were jammed in, many were out in the hall, and the indoor temperature started to climb. 

As people filed in, they would take stickers for their candidate of chioce.  I could tell from the takers that this was going to be a great night.  It was exciting to see so many people I had already met standing for Barack.  The Obama supporters alone could fill the gym, and the little picnic table assigned to us was woefully inadequate.

Imagine trying to count supporters for each candidate.  The precinct head had those in favor of each candidate raise their hand.  Well, when you get up to 200 hands raised, spread out over a big room and a spillover hall, with people shuffling around and raising/dropping their hands, it’s impossible to get an accurate count.  They spent time discussing alternatives, and finally opted to have each candidate’s supporters leave the gym and go to separate classrooms.  When our supporters filled up first one classroom, then a second, and then a third, it was electrifying.  But separating the groups eliminated the interaction aspect of a caucus, a real concern to long-time participants.

One thing I noted was the make-up of the different groups.  Both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards had union endorsements in Iowa, and many of their caucusers wore a union shirt.  Obama had no official union endorsement, but his supporters were wonderfully diverse.  We had older people, and teenagers.  We had an African-American woman in a wheelchair.  We had young families with children in tow.  We had multiple ethnicities.  The Obama group was America.

We got an initial count at about 7:45 p.m.  Remember, the participants arrived around 6:15 p.m., and had absolutely nothing to do while they were there.  Many came from work without eating dinner.  One of my tasks was to play hockey goalie and keep any of our supporters from leaving.  That job was a breeze, since no one — and I mean no one – wanted to leave (and if you leave a caucus early, even if you’ve been there 2 1/2 hours, your vote doesn’t count).    

We then went into the rather mysterious re-alignment process.  In our caucus, Barack was way above the 15% threshold, and Edwards and Clinton were also above 15%, although a few defectors would push Clinton below.  All other candidates (Richardson, Kucinich, Dodd, Biden, and Gravel) were short of 15%.  So the groups then went into a round of “horse trading” that lasted for about 45 minutes.  One candidates’ block, short of the viability level, wanted to recruit others to it, creating a bit of grid-lock.  Precinct captains were talking to precinct captains, influential participants approached others, and — finally — these below-threshold supporter groups decided to join one of the three leading candidates.  At around 8:30, we began the final count.  The way we ended up counting was to have all supporters in a class rooms, file out slowly and be counted, file back in, file out again slowly for a second count, and then return.  Sounds speedy, doesn’t it??

For our precinct, the final count was Obama 217, Edwards 101, and Clinton 88.  We got five delegates, and Edwards and Clinton each got two.  As people headed home at 9:00 p.m. after almost three hours sitting or standing around, they seemed to have enjoyed the meeting and excited about the turn-out.  By then the news had broken that Huckabee had won the Republican caucus and Barack had won the Democratic caucus by comfortable margins.

One thing I found remarkable was how good-natured everyone was (with one exception, more later).  The gym was stifling, and the organizers had to reinvent rules in light of the huge crowd.  “Efficiency” would not be the word springing to mind to describe the process.   Obama’s staff, though, had given me great advice about how best to approach this caucus — be helpful, observe, but respect Iowa’s process and don’t inject yourself into it.   An observer for one of the other campaigns was constantly objecting to things, interrupting the precinct head, and insisting that things be done his way.  That didn’t go over too well, and probably cost his candidate supporters in the re-alignment.

I was impressed with our Precinct Captain and several others who helped him.  A woman named Tina, whose young son (about 18 months old) is named Barack, was on top of everything.  While she was focused on the process, I spent time with little Barack, who seemed to be fascinated with going into the Boys’ Room and exploring — not a good idea!  So little Barack and I found an empty classroom, where he played with toys.  [By the way, the girls' name Madison went from never being used before the movie "Splash" to becoming third most popular girl's name in 2006. I suspect we'll see a growing number of little boys named Barack and Tina's "Barack" is almost certainly the first boy in America named after Barack Obama.]

Iowa 077 I went back to the campaign office after the caucus, where it was bedlam.  Obama won a whopping 52% of the delegates in Johnson County, the team’s territory.  After some celebrating in the office, we all went to a local bar, which was packed with Obama staff and volunteers.  The night had the joy of the night in Boston in October, 2004, when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, but with an element of awe for the potential historical repercussions of the outcome. 

The room quieted when Barack Obama came on the televisions to deliver his speech about the result.  Everyone was moved by his remarks, some even in tears.  If you didn’t hear this speech, go listen it.  Barack Obama isn’t the typical politician.  

Further Thoughts

This campaign accomplished remarkable things in Iowa.  A year ago, Barack Obama had no name recognition here, no rolodex of contacts or donors, no long-term relationships, no organization, and no endoresements from influential Iowa officials or party veterans.  One leading candidate is married to a former U.S. President and they have long, deep ties to Iowa, translating into high name recognition, instant organization, and the the endorsement of many senior officials.  Another has spent a considerable portion of each year, for the past seven or eight years, in Iowa, developing personal relationships with a large number of Iowans.  The state is 95% white, with an older demographic — not exactly Barack’s sweet spot.  If Las Vegas had posted odds a year ago on Barack Obama winning the Iowa caucus, you could have gotten 100,000 to one odds against him. 

I came back to the hotel room after Barack’s speech, packed for my early morning departure, watched pundit commentary and candidate interviews.  There were two winners in this caucus (Barack and Huckabee), and the rest were hurt, many seriously.  Huckabee’s win merits an asterisk,  since Iowa’s Republican Party has a high concentration of evangelicals (remember Pat Buchanan?), and McCain and Giuliani didn’t compete here.  On the Democratic side, Obama’s win has depth to it, since the other candidates competed full stop with far stronger initial positions, and Iowans evaluated all candidates thoroughly.  The demographics Iowa’s Republican voting base gave a real lift to Huckabee, an evangelical, while the demographics of Iowa’s Democratic voting base (95% white, older) made an Obama win even more impressive.

One issue that loomed large in Iowa resulted from a gaping loophole in campaign finance law.  Today, there are very tight restrictions on how a candidate can raise money — only U.S. citizens can contribute to a candidate, the maximum you can contribute during the primary period is $2,300, and all donors are promptly disclosed.  In theory, these regulations ensure that special interest groups can’t exert undue influence over a candidate.   However, because we believe (appropriately) in the right to free speech, “independent” groups are free to broadcast their views on an election, and they can raise money from anyone, without caps, and without disclosure.  Even worse, their ads are often attributed to some official-sounding group, taking on the appearance of an important third-party endorsement.  Or they can be vicious and unsubstantiated attack ads (remember the Swift Boat ads), with little or no accountability.

In Iowa, I heard several ads for Hillary Clinton from a union, and many, many ads for John Edwards from an “independent” organization called The Alliance for a New America (see this Overlawyered blog for context on this group).  This Alliance was formed recently by Edwards’ former campaign manager.  This group can and does raise large amounts of undisclosed and uncapped money from special interest groups and spends it on behalf of Edwards.   After the caucus, reporters interviewed Edwards, who talked about how he’s the candidate taking on special interest groups and reforming campaign finance laws.  He went on to say that a major factor in his loss was being outspent by others.  These assertions went unchallenged by several reporters.  The press, I believe, has an obligation to do its homework and push back on a candidate, making sure that people know who just “talks the talk,” and who actually “walks the walk.” 

Barack Obama is the only leading candidate who refuses money from lobbyists or PACs and won’t condone “independent” organizations raising money and running ads on his behalf.  The distinct impression I get is that, while Obama is intent on winning, he won’t compromise his integrity, and he won’t sell his soul to special interests.  He’s serious about not saying negative things about other candidates, and won’t tolerate or prompt surrogates to do so.  He’s serious about not taking money from special interest groups and jeopardizing his objectivity.  And he’s serious about running a dignified, respectful, honorable campaign.

This week in Iowa was incredible.  While the caucus process has its flaws, and may need serious revamping if participation continues to grow, I have enormous respect for Iowans and their approach to this process.  They really study the candidates and their positions.  It’s intense face-to-face politics, and useful in our process of vetting the candidates.  At times, though, I was reminded of a very old Saturday Night Live skit, where seven of the candidates are all shown doing household chores for one family in Iowa.   This is pretty intense one-on-one campaigning. 

While it wasn’t always fun, it was satisfying to have made some personal sacrifice to participate.  I missed my wife and children for the week (longest time I’ve ever been away from them!), but truly believe that helping to get Barack Obama is the best possible thing I can do for my children’s future.  I’m sure my contributions were largely irrelevant.  But over sixty fellow National Finance Committee members came to Iowa for Obama, all braving the frigid conditions to try to advance Barack’s cause.  And at least one other senior venture capitalist (John Thornton of Austin Ventures) and two CEO’s of operating companies (Dave Alberga of Active.com and Steve Spinner of Sports Potential) also came to Iowa. 

After traveling this fall in places like Tibet, where people would do almost anything to have an open election, I have a new perspective on the importance of getting involved in our electoral process.   Over the past forty years, just 50% of eligible voters in the United States have voted in major elections.  On that metric, we rank 35th of industrialized nations — 35th!  Much of our future is determined by the officials elected to office, yet half of the eligible voters in the U.S. can’t be troubled to go to the polls. 

So if you’re reading this, think about how disastrous the current administration has been.  And think of how much, or little, you did in the 2000 and 2004 primary season and election to get a different outcome.  If you’re like me, the answer is “not much.”  I’m here to tell you, though, that you can do quite a bit.  Evaluate the candidates, donate some money, encourage friends and relatives to take this seriously, vote in primaries, walk door-to-door, and vote in the general election.  The world and this country can’t afford another mistake of the magnitude of the Bush Administration!

The Iowa Caucus: Days 1 through 7

Friday, January 4th, 2008

After the fall of traveling in Asia and Australia/New Zealand, we had a three-week interlude in North America.  Elizabeth and the kids spent three weeks in Seattle with my fabulous in-laws Caroline and Jim Goedhart.  I was there for two weeks, but spent my last eight days in North America in Iowa.  I’ve been involved in Barack Obama’s campaign from very early on, and wanted to help in a pivotal state.  This blog will report on the experience of being a foot soldier in the caucus process in Iowa.  I’ll cover the ramp up time in Iowa in this blog, Caucus Day in the next blog, and a third blog on my perspective Barack Obama.

The Obama team had a two-hour training session for volunteers on December 27th.  My first surprise was the age of the volunteers.  Of some sixty volunteers at this session (just for the Iowa City area, and a small portion of Obama’s volunteer force), participants ranged in age from the mid 20′s to the 60′s, with pretty much an equal distribution across all age brackets.  I expected the volunteer force to be much younger, especially since our assignments were physically demanding.

The Obama staff in Iowa was young, but impressive.  The organization had a core of about ten young men and women, all in their 20′s, and all extremely smart and dedicated.  My “boss” was Tony Rediger, who gave me my daily marching orders.  Now, it’s been 20 years since I’ve had a boss, but I couldn’t ask for a better re-introduction into that experience.  Tony was professional, capable, committed to the cause, and always cheeerful and positive.  His colleagues were quite similar.  I never once saw any sign of tension, disagreement, or lack mutual respect in the office, despite the work pace.  And these staffers worked pretty much from 8:30/9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. or later, seven days a week, for three to six months! 

The first surprise I got in the training was a very serious guideline.  All volunteers could never, ever say anything negative about another candidate.  And the staffers meant it.  We could talk to people about what we liked about Barack, about policy initiatives where we had expertise, or why we were volunteering, but it would be a cardinal sin to speak negatively against any other candidate.  They said they had spent months here in Iowa trying to establish a culture of respect for all parties, and didn’t want a volunteer to erode that effort.

Our daily assignments depended on the day of the week.  On weekdays, we’d start with phone calls around 10:00 a.m., and make calls until about 3:30 p.m.  Then, we’d go knocking door to door from about 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.  On weekends and New Years Day, we were focused just on door-to-door visits.  The campaign would give us daily contact sheets, with the names and addresses (targeted by a voter prioritization algorithm), but we were free to approach others not on the list.

Iowa 009 I had a specific precinct I focused on (Iowa Precinct 14), but covered other areas.  After a few days, believe it or not, I began to know some of the people I’d see in these neighborhoods.  The neighborhoods ranged from apartment units, to townhouses, to duplexes, to single family homes.  These residences represented a suprisingly full cross-section of life in the Midwest.

Iowa 001 I wasn’t at all sure what kind of place Iowa City would be, but I really enjoyed my time there.  It’s home of the main campus of the University of Iowa, so it’s got a college town feel (even though students were gone for winter break).  I stayed right downtown (see left), and had a great time exploring the city by foot. 

Iowa 051 As soon as I hit the ground in Iowa, I heard almost non-stop ads (more later) for the candidates.  Almost all available radio and television spots were taken by politicians.  And almost all discussions with people I met in Iowa City revolved around the caucus, so there was clear buzz in the air over the January 3rd event.

Iowa 070 I was a little nervous and concerned when I started my first set of phone calls.  I hate getting calls at home, and braced myself for some pretty unfriendly reactions.  But I’d estimate just 5% or so of the people I called were ticked off at getting a call.  Another 5% had a Caller-ID block (smart move), and well over half (say 60%) weren’t home, so I’d just leave a message.  I made about 500 calls during the week, and reached about 30% of the people.  Most were polite, and many asked questions and seemed genuinely interested in my thoughts about Barack.  That surprised me!  An example was a very nice woman named Megge I called who said, “I’m leaning toward John Edwards, but don’t feel I know enough about Barack.  Do you have time to answer some of my questions?”  This woman was smart, thorough, and committed to making an informed choice.  Over the course of the week, we traded several e-mails, and talked again by phone a couple of times.  I never met her in person, but she really gave me faith in the way Iowans go about this process.

Iowa 007 The door-to-door duty was darn hard.  As you can see from the pictures, Iowa City didn’t lack for snow.  The sidewalks and driveways were often icy or not fully shoveled/plowed.  And it was cold.  Quite cold.  Several of the days I was out had air temperatures in the single digits, and wind-chill adjusted temperatures below zero.  Some people would ask me inside, which was a nice relief.  I could only go to 4-5 houses before my hands got too numb to continue, and I’d retreat to my car. 

This process focused onIowa 004  priority addresses, but if I walked by a house where it looked like someone was home, I’d knock.  Again, my stats for door-to-door weren’t terribly different from the phone calls.  About 2/3rds weren’t home, about 5% just wanted me out of there, and the rest seemed genuinely interested in what I wanted to talk to them about.  And these people were not only very nice, but they felt they had an obligation to evaluate all of the candidates.  Many of the people I talked to had gone to hear almost all of the candidates in person, and were quite careful in making up their minds.

Iowa 075 I called on one home where the Mom I talked to (Tina, more in my Caucus Day blog) had a very young boy, named . . . Barack!  As you’ll see, Barack and I got to be real buddies during our caucus!  And, with a son named Barack, I was pretty confident that she’d be an Obama supporter.  At another house, there was a moving van out front, and I ended up talking to the movers (an older man and two younger guys).  We had a fabulous discussion, and they were all going to caucus for Barack.  At the end of our discussion, the head guy gave me an orange, which was one of the nicest presents I’ve ever gotten!

Iowa 076 I would check in at Obama’s Iowa City headquarters many times a day.  It was helpful to them to get my results as frequently as practical I’d indicate which people I’d talk to, how they expected to vote, and what follow-up steps made sense — and they’d enter the data.  The energy in those three rooms was something I’ve never seen in twenty years of backing start-ups.  It almost didn’t matter what time of day I’d dropped by, the rooms were packed with staffers and volunteers — making outbound calls, briefing a volunteer, entering data, or assembling hand-out packages.

Iowa 015 On January 2nd,  Barack came to Iowa City for a rally.  I’ve heard Barack speak several times, so I was tempted to just keep going door to door, but my boss Tony said it was important to be there.  And, boy, am I glad I went.  I knew things were going well when the main convention center room at the Marriot was packed, and late arrivers turned away.  At 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, some 1,700 turned out to hear Barack.  And, Barack really has hit his stride on the campaign stump.  I got goosebumps listening to his 45 minute talk, and the crowd just bubbled with energy and excitement.  How he does this rally after rally, day after day, week after week, is beyond me.

Internal to the campaign there’s an oft-cited refrain of “Fired Up!!  Ready to Go!!”  You’ll hear that at times at his rallies from the crowd.  It all stems from a visit he made in the spring to a tiny town in South Carolina.  Barack tells the story about driving three hours to get to this place (Greenwood, a small SC town in the middle of nowhere) to talk to a tiny group of 20.  But one attendee was an older African-American woman who had just come from church.  And as Barack finished his talk (undoubtedly wondering why he had driven so far for such a small crowd), she started chanting, “Fired Up!  . . .   Ready to Go!!”  That’s become the battlefield march for all Obama campaign workers.

Iowa 017 Well, after the rally, I was fired up and ready to go.  It didn’t hurt that after the rally, one of the staff members tracked me down to tell me that Barack would be spending a few minutes saying thanks to the volunteer force, and having some group pictures taken.  I’m met him a few times, but it was a big crowd and he has a million things on his mind, so I hardly expected that he would recognize me.  But as he was walking along, he noticed me, came over, said hello, gave me a hug, and said thanks for all the work.  Boy, was I “FIRED UP AND READY TO GO!!!!!”

On to Day 8.