Thursday, December 18, 2008

Iguana vs. Iguana

Don't ever plan to visit the Galápagos islands if you're not a fan of creepy-crawly creatures.

Lizards and iguanas are everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. In a future post I'll include some pictures that illustrate that point, but for now I thought I'd explain the two types of iguanas that we saw over the course of our trip, both of which can only be found in the Galápagos: the land iguana and the marine iguana.

You could always tell where a land iguana might be hiding out; his trail in the sand would betray him.

Yep, there he was, cooling down under a bush.

One of his brothers chose to soak up rays on the beach instead.

Aren't they fascinating? Look at that little smirk, I love it. The prehistoric vibe was in the air -- it was kind of eerie. I'm pretty sure all of the iguanas were thinking, "Yeah, keep taking your pictures, morons... Our kind will be here long after you suckers are gone."

Then there were the marine iguanas, who were extremely interesting to observe because they're the only type of iguana in the world that can both live and eat out in the sea. When they swim, they move their long tails side to side in the water -- they don't use their legs to paddle or anything, so the end result is a very unique type of motion that is hard to describe. They glide along with their heads peeking out above the surface, swaying back and forth. I got a kick out of watching them.

From island to island the marine iguanas looked slightly different (hello, evolution!), but my favorites were what our guides called the "Christmas iguanas." The origin of their nickname is obvious from the shots below.

I thought this picture was funny because it shows how big the marine iguana is compared to the little lava lizards that run all over the place (they're another species that is endemic to the islands). The iguana is like, "Watch out, fool!"

These guys spend most of their days lying in the sun, slowing crawling around the beaches, spitting at each other and fighting. I was lucky enough to catch two males in a showdown on Española island (fifty-three second video below -- none of the voices in it are mine). The head-bobbing move never ceased to crack me up. That's supposed to be threatening?

I saw a lot of iguanas with blood on their heads; fights are pretty common. What else are they going to do? They bite each other and don't let go for a long time -- they are straight-up gangsta! Perhaps that's why many of them were heading down the trail to our zodiac drop-off... they hoped to stow away on our ship and get a break from all of the violence.

Sorry, guys -- humans only.

- e

Monday, December 15, 2008

Welcome to the Galapagos

A few moments ago, I returned from taking my dog on his daily walk, and then proceeded to strip off a fleece hat/face mask, earmuffs, a knee-length down coat, a windproof hooded jacket underneath the down coat, gloves, and the hard-core snow boots I wore in Antarctica. It is a mere ten degrees outside. Needless to say, my trip to the Galápagos already feels like a distant memory.

But it was actually only about 2.5 weeks ago that we touched down in Baltra, took zodiacs out to our ship, the National Geographic Polaris, and made an afternoon landing at North Seymour island. Like typical tourists, we took ten million pictures of sea lions, lizards, iguanas and unique birds... only to see countless more of them over the next seven days. So rest assured that I will post more shots in the future -- especially of the infamous Blue-footed Boobies and other strange creatures that can only be found on the storied archipelago. For now, however, here's a twelve-second video of our first moments in the Land of Darwin.

How's that for a welcome?

The thing about the Galápagos is that it's one of the only places left on the planet where wildlife has no fear of humans. So don't worry, we weren't doing anything to that sea lion to provoke its ire, she and her kind just tend to waddle around honking every once in a while. No one is allowed to touch any of the animals, and generally you're advised to stay several feet away from them -- but if they come up to you then you're just supposed to remain still and most likely they will carry on about their business eventually. No When Sea Lions Attack! here. Also, on each island there are clearly marked paths and naturalists to guide everyone so that the effects of tourism are kept to a minimum (more on that in another post).

For now, I'll leave you with a few shots of the peculiar Magnificent Frigatebird. Here's one who isn't trying to catch a girlfriend...

And here's one who is.

The ol' red balloon trick... works every time for these guys. (A better shot is here on Wikipedia.)

More on the Frigates soon, too. For now I need to work on getting the circulation back to my extremities. And I need to keep reminding myself that while it is kind of depressing to be surrounded by ice and snow once again... it might be better than constantly walking through, um, well... you get the idea.

- e

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Joys of Traveling

When I graduated from college back in the day, I was so looking forward to living the glamorous lifestyle of a consultant. How cool was it going to be to jet off every week, earn a ton of frequent flier miles, have all of my meals paid for and live in nice hotels?

Let's just say that I was more than a little naïve. After sixteen weeks straight of being stuck for hours in the airport during the dead of winter (my top score on "Area 51" in the airport's video arcade lives on...), I finally learned that constantly being on the road wasn't all that I had dreamed it would be. Especially when you live in Chicago and your client is in Minneapolis -- two cities not exactly known for good weather. I might have felt differently had I landed a spot on the Hawaii-based team (as did one of my extremely lucky friends), but alas, that was not my fate.

Now that I haven't had to travel for work for quite some time, I had forgotten about all of the fun that comes with attempting to fly anywhere in the colder months. But I was smacked in the face with those memories when returning from my vacation to the Galápagos this past weekend.

Here's a summary of what happened:
1) On Saturday morning, we waited around for a few hours for our flight from the island of Baltra to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We were told that things ran on "Galápagos Time" and that no one ever really knew when our plane would arrive. But we were fresh off of a fabulous week of communing with sea lions, turtles, iguanas and a ton of other cool animals and birds, so no one was too upset by that. We eventually made it to Guayaquil and had a wonderful time exploring the city that evening, so our spirits were still high.

2) On Sunday afternoon we flew from Guayaquil to Miami. Shortly after going through the customs and immigration checkpoints, my husband continued on to Chicago, whereas I had a few more hours in the Miami airport until my flight to Detroit (had to retrieve my doggy from my parents!) departed. I found a chair in the food court near an electrical outlet, paid $7.95 for Internet access and braced myself for the influx of emails that had accumulated since November 28th.

3) The time whizzed by and I realized that I had to better get myself in the absolutely ridiculous line to go through security. I checked the Departure Board to see which gate I'd be leaving from... and saw the Dreaded Word in Red next to my flight number: "Canceled." There were no other flights to Detroit departing that night. Various obscenities flew from my mouth and even more followed when I realized that since my cell phone charger had been fried due to my misuse of the plug adapter I had purchased and used while on our ship, I was essentially without a cell phone (there was hardly any battery power left by the time I realized my crappy Nokia wasn't charging).

4) After talking to four American Airlines employees who all directed me to different lines, I finally found my way to a rebooking agent who told me that I had already been put on a flight out of Miami in the early morning... that went to DALLAS... and then got into Detroit at 7 PM. Since connections are usually the bane of my existence when traveling, I asked if there was any way that I could just go to Chicago instead. Unbelievably, the agent complied and I was put on a direct flight to Chicago, departing at 2:30 the next afternoon. I was given a voucher for the Wyndham Miami and a total of $25 in food vouchers to use between now (7:45 PM Sunday night) and then (when my flight left on Monday). Rest assured that I used them.

5) An extremely nice American Airlines employee who was working one of the check-in lines let me use his iPhone to call my parents and tell them that they would not need to pick me up from the Detroit airport at midnight that night. They decided that they would drive my dog to Chicago the next day, and hopefully we'd all arrive in the Windy City around the same time. I then spent $20 on toiletries at the airport drug store (no vouchers for that!) and waited for the shuttle bus to the Wyndham.

6) I spent the first half of Monday camped out in a restaurant in the Wyndham which had free Internet access and a gorgeous view of a sunny golf course and swaying palm trees. There are certainly worse places to be stranded than Miami! Though it was really bizarre to hear "Frosty the Snowman" and "Let it Snow" over the restaurant's sound system when looking at such a tropical scene.

7) Finally I headed to the airport, made it through security and to my gate, where I randomly saw the actor Josh Brolin. Yes, "Brand" from one of my favorite movies, The Goonies, and current winner of all sorts of awards for his performance in Milk. But I didn't say anything to him, and eventually a woman came out of the restroom and he walked off with her. I couldn't tell if it was his wife, actress Diane Lane, or not... she was wearing a big floppy straw hat that covered most of her face.

8) After the excitement of an unexpected celebrity sighting, there came more excitement -- of a very different kind. The gate agent announced that our plane was essentially "broken," and they needed to find another one for us. I'll spare you the details of the chaos that erupted once that information made the rounds in the waiting area, but needless to say, we were delayed 2.5 hours until a substitute aircraft was located and we trudged to the new gate that was a full twenty-minute walk from where we were originally supposed to board.

9) Any seasoned traveler reading this can already guess what happened next. Since our flight was so delayed, when it finally touched down in Chicago they couldn't find a place for us to disembark -- all gates were full. I felt horrible for the dozens of passengers who had literally minutes to make connections to not only U.S. cities but also international locales. We waited a full forty-five minutes for a gate assignment, and everyone missed their connections. To say that there were a lot of tears, red faces and looks of exhaustion would be an understatement. One little girl sitting behind me summed it up perfectly: "WE'VE BEEN ON THIS PLANE FOR HOURS!!!!!"

10) I finally stepped through my doorway at 9 PM Monday night and had a nice reunion with my dog, parents and husband.

The next morning, an email from American Airlines showed up in my inbox. It was from a Customer Relations representative, who informed me that they added 3,000 bonus miles to my AAdvantage account to "restore my confidence" in the airline.

What do you think? Was 3,000 miles enough?

All I know is that I'm happy I'm not flying anywhere over the Christmas holiday.

Uh oh... did I just jinx our rental car for our drive to Michigan?

- e