Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Clouds + Sky Tell a Story in the Amazon

Traveling along the Amazon River in Peru is a transformative experience. The haiku below reveals what I felt while cruising for a week on La Estrella Amazonica and in one of their two 18-person skiffs used to navigate the narrow tributaries.

Strong coffee in hand
Early morning sky wakes up
Clouds compete above. 

Puffy marshmallows
Hover above green tangles
Monkeys grasp the air.

Sun streaks dark blankets
Coating an azure canvas
The sky cries again.

Scarlet fires blaze
A final sign of daylight
Night creatures beckon.

One last chardonnay
A perch above the wildness
Thin wisps covered in night shrouds. 

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Curious Plants + Animals While Cruising Along the Amazon

Since I'm a biologist by training and a supreme tree hugger, my idea of an ideal cruise may be a little different from most. Sure, I look for creative cuisine; comfy cabins; fine wines; a friendly and experienced staff; and small ports where I'll meet villagers in their homes or schools.  But an eco component is key, where I'll have close encounters with an abundance of creatures, plant and animal alike, in their natural habitats. My recent journey up the Amazon River (along the Ucayali and Maranon rivers in Peru) with International Expeditions fulfilled that desire with an abundance of encounters.

But this wasn't simply about gaping at the flora and fauna. Luckily, aboard their brand new, gem of a riverboat, La Estrella Amazonica, I was able to interact daily with native-Peruvian Johnny, who is the embodiment of a Renaissance guide. He's a unique combination of naturalist, teacher, comedian, entertainer, musician, and cultural interpreter for all things in the Amazon. With all that in mind, we learned not just how to identify each plant, bird, fish, reptile, amphibian and mammal, but also its adaptations, properties and the impact on the villagers. Given that Johnny's generosity with his time and knowledge and empathy to the needs of others is so palpable, and his knowledge and love of the Amazon so strong, we all came away falling in love with the inhabitants of the Amazon River Basin and understanding why it's vital to protect it at all costs.

This is just a small sampling of my close encounters:

The Amazon is not chock full of these carnivorous fish. Rather, we pulled up in our skiff along a section that's shaded and coated with a lot of floating debris and vegetation. This is where we pulled in and baited each line with a chunk of raw beef. Churn up the water a bit with the tip of the rod, drop the line three inches down and wait. Except you don't have to wait that long. Within a few seconds, I felt a tug, set the hook and pulled it by yanking the rod up. The biggest we caught that morning was 10 inches.

The crew expertly held the fish behind the gills and carefully pulled off the hook. That night we feasted on grilled piranha. The sweet, white meat is found just under the dorsal fin. Yum.

The armored or walking catfish has elongated pectoral fins allowing them to walk up and along the muddy shore. There, the male catfish digs holes with its sucker-like mouth so that the female can deposit her eggs. It's given the name armored because its body is covered by a bony layer. This is another good tasting fish.

We didn't catch this fish but, rather, pulled up to a fisherman in a dug-out canoe. He was gracious enough to allow us to touch and photograph his catch. (He had a boat full of fish that he was bringing home to his family in a nearby village.)

Related to a tarantula, this is a bird-eating spider which first kills a lizard and takes over its burrow. Then the spider sits in wait at the entrance until a small bird prances by. They use venom to paralyze the victim.

This small anaconda didn't stray far from a creek, the environment it much prefers.  A mere five inches long, this juvenile -- it's just two years old -- could reach 36 inches in length. Anacondas tackle their prey not with venom but by constricting them under water. They're so aggressive that they can consume a caimon, a large reptile in the same family as the alligator, or a capybara, a large rodent that can weigh up to 145 pounds.

These giant water lilies can only be found in still, shallow water. Here, we walked along a plank beside a small pond. Notice how the edge of each plant curves up to prevent water from entering the surface, where organisms would end up decomposing it. Interestingly, the under surface of each leaf is covered by long spines to prevent fish from eating it. Those lovely pink blossoms produce a noxious odor that attracts beetles that are part of the pollination process.

How sturdy are these giant leaves?  They can hold the weight of a three-month-old baby. Who knew?

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Gear Review: Pick-Pocket Proof Pants For Women

I must admit that I was plenty skeptical about the new women's Pick-Pocket Proof Pants (manufactured by Clothing Arts) that I anticipated reviewing. It's not that I was worried the pants wouldn't thwart thieves. I'm sure they would. After all, my friend tried the men's version last year and he had difficulty getting into the pockets himself. (There's definitely a learning curve.) But he loved the pants and wears them constantly. You can read my review here.

But I'm all about form and function. So, great that thieves won't be able to nab my passport, money, credit cards and cell phone. But aesthetics can't be sacrificed. And the idea of a pants with a multitude of pockets, including the cargo kind, just didn't seem to fit in with a pleasing aesthetic. Would my butt look droopy, my thighs bulgy and my hips like I'm carrying an extra 10 pounds? I'm pretty petite (5'2" and 104 pounds) so anything that detracted from my slim appearance would be a no go, even if it was pick-pocket proof.

Was I pleasantly surprised! These pants look great and perform well. The pockets -- there are six of them: two rear, two side and two cargo -- are all low profile.. The cargo pockets don't hang in a floppy way. Two of these pockets contain double security features: a zipper and a button flap. I defy a thief to get past that. The two side pockets are zippered and contain an inner pocket, perfect for my cell phone. Like with the men's pants, it does take awhile to get accustomed to all the buttons and zippers. But that's the trade off if you want to keep other hands out of your pockets.

The pants are lightweight and soft as cotton, but constructed of a nylon that's wicks away moisture, doesn't wrinkle, and dries quickly. Oftentimes, I have found that pants never fit me perfectly around the waist, often requiring a belt. No belt is needed with these, thanks to additional buttons to cinch in the waist, making for a perfect fit.

I was surprised to find that the pants convert to capris, my favorite pants style. So that's how I intend on wearing them on most of my trips to warm climes.

The fit is relaxed, without a hint of bagginess, and the comfort factor is high, including when I'm curled up for an hour on my commuter bus. The pants arrived four days ago and I've been wearing them every day since. In a few days, I'm heading out of the country on assignment to a tropical country and my Pick-Pocket Proof Pants are coming along with me, whether I expect pickpockets or not. And now you can get a 20% discount on these or the men's pants if you purchase my travel first-aid kit organizer.
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