Monday, May 20, 2013

Galapagos Islands, Day 6 & 7 (& 8)

Towards the end of our trip, we visited several smaller islands which had amazing density and diversity of wildlife.

The sixth day was spent at "Las Bachas", named for the remains of some barges that are still present on the beaches. In the morning most people went snorkelling off the beach, but I was intrigued by the herons and egrets and spent the time taking photos instead. I'm particularly proud of these action shots below.

egret:


great blue heron:


pelican:


On the beach, there were also many many "ghost crabs", so named because they disappeared as soon as they were approached or spooked at all.


We also ran across this dead sea turtle hatchling which hadn't made it to the water. Our guide told us that only 10% do, and of those, many are eaten by ocean predators anyway.


In the early afternoon, we did deep water snorkelling around Bartolom├ę Island. I was most excited when we came across penguins! Like the sea lions, they were much, much faster in the water, but they were a bit shyer. We also saw a huge number of sea stars, and several little rays.


sea stars:

small ray:


Galapagos penguin on land:


In the late afternoon we went hiking on the island itself. It was about 350+ steps to the top but there were lots of gorgeous views up there:



After dinner, Captain Peter and the rest of the crew pulled out some musical instruments and provided evening entertainment for us!

On the last full day, we started at South Plaza. We were greeted by crabs and swallowtail gulls upon landing.

crabs:


swallowtail gulls:


Further inland were many many land iguanas, large and small. Here's a photo of one of the largest that we encountered:


We spent the afternoon at North Seymour, which was arguably the best part of the entire trip. First we went snorkelling, where we saw schools of thousands (maybe millions?) of tiny fish.

In the afternoon we went hiking on the islanad. Blue-footed boobies where everywhere, doing their dances and exhibiting their "sky pointing" behavior:



North Seymour was also the only place we saw the male frigates with their inflated gular pouches, as well as baby and juvenile frigates.

frigates nesting:


male frigate in flight:


fighting over nesting material:


There were also swallowtail gulls, sea lions, and more land iguanas.

On the last day we arrived back in San Cristobal, and after packing up and disembarking the ship, we spent an hour or so at the Interpretation Center, which was not too interesting. We then said goodbye to our guides and fellow travellers, and boarded our flights back to the mainland.

D and I had booked our flights so that we had a 9 hour layover in Guayaquil, and then a 11pm flight to Miami. Around 9pm we decided to go through security to hang out near the gate. Half an hour later we heard an announcement summoning "American Airlines passengers" to a gate. There, we were told that our flight was delayed 15 hours, and that we'd have to spend the night. To make a long story short, we stayed extra one night in Guayaquil and one extra night in Miami on American's dime, before getting home. To make the story even better, on our MIA->SFO flight, the airplane was so old that it had analog volume controls and no personal air vents. Before takeoff, the flight attendants informed us that although the toilets themselves were working, the faucets were not, and in addition there was no hot water onboard, so no coffee or tea either. Methinks we're done flying American for awhile, maybe forever.

Overall it was a fantastic and memorable trip, during which we saw tons of amazing wildlife and were pleasantly surprised to meet so many fun and interesting people along the way.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Galapagos Islands, Day 4 & 5

On the fourth day we visited the island of Floreana, historically one of the more inhabited islands in the Galapagos.

We first landed at Punta Cormorant, where we saw some flamingos in a brackish lagoon:


Nearby was a beach with sea turtle nests. Unfortunately all we could see were giant depressions in the sand and some trails left by the turtles as they entered and exited the sea:


After lunch, we went snorkelling around Champion and Devil's Crown. The most exciting part was that we swam with sea lions! They were super fast, playful, and not afraid of us at all. In fact, I was a little afraid of them since our guide had told us sometimes the babies would nip people's hands, not knowing that they could hurt us, so I kept my hands up on my back when they were nearby:


There were also sea turtles, but I didn't get as close as in this photo (this is from one of the other passengers on our boat):


Our last excursion of the day was to Post Office Bay. The name of the bay comes from the fact that there is a barrel that dates from 1793, that whalers used to use exchange letters. Nowadays it's used by tourists to send postcards, which are left without postage and are expected to be hand delivered by other tourists. We put some of our own postcards in the barrel and managed to find one addressed to Google HQ which I did end up delivering by hand when we got back.

Most of our group went snorkelling off the beach, but D and I, along with two others, decided to stay on land and explored a small lava tunnel nearby.

That night D and I, along with four other guests, were chosen to dine with our Captain, Peter. He was engaging, funny, and told us some crazy stories about his days in the Ecuadorian Navy and subsequently the Coast Guard. Apparently they used to encounter Colombian pirates, and one time he actually helped rescue another ship's captain and crew, who had been tied up and hijacked.

The next day we landed on the biggest island in the Galapagos, Santa Cruz. We first went to the Charles Darwin Research Station to see tortoises in captivity, including more baby tortoises:


Afterwards we took a bus up to the highlands, where we saw two giant sinkholes (nicknamed "The Twins") and a giant lava tube:


Finally, the highlight of the day was spotting giant tortoises in the wild! We spotted probably ten or more giant tortoises of varying sizes, the largest of which our guides estimated at over six hundred pounds. One walked right down a path towards our group and then calmly proceeded to saunter past us amid all the cameras:



That afternoon we were given a few hours to shop in the town of Puerto Ayora, where we picked up some souvenirs for our friends and family. That night most of us stayed on board, but a few ventured back to shore to check out the local nightlife. They must have had a good time, because they were late for breakfast the next morning.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Galapagos Islands, Day 2 & 3

Our guides told us before we went to bed that when we heard the wake-up call the next morning, we should run up to the sun deck to see nice views of Leon Dormido) aka Kicker Rock, and lots of seabirds. We were not disappointed. The sunrise was gorgeous and there were a ton of seabirds on and around the rock.


We continued sailing up the coast of San Cristobal to a gorgeous beach called Cerro Brujo. There we saw pelicans, oystercatchers, marine iguanas, sea lions, and many, many crabs.



The last stop of the day was at Punta Pitt. After landing we changed into hiking boots to scale a small hill, on top of which were several colonies of boobies and frigates. This was where we found the largest concentration of red-footed boobies during our trip.


That night we had a rather choppy passage from San Cristobal to Espa├▒ola, the oldest of the Galapagos Islands. When we arrived in the morning, we first landed at Punta Suarez, where we saw "Christmas iguanas" (with red and green colorings), waved albatrosses, lots more boobies, and of course, the omnipresent sea lions and crabs.

"Christmas" iguanas:


a pair of mating waved albatrosses:


a Nazca booby feeding its hatchling:


We had lunch back on board, and around this time D started to feel really seasick. Luckily, we were eating lunch with an older Canadian couple who happened to be retired pharmacists. They had brought scopolamine patches along (prescription-only the US, but over-the-counter in Canada) and generously offered one to D since he looked so sick.

A little after lunch, we had our first deep water snorkelling experience at Gardner Bay. There, we saw sea turtles, reef sharks, and lots of fish:


After rinsing off, the dinghies took us to a small beach off of Gardner Bay, where we hung out and played with sea lions:


When we got back on board for dinner, it became clear that the patch was working quite well for D, which was a relief. We were able to both enjoy our meal and get a good night's sleep.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Galapagos Islands, Day 0 & 1

D and I allow ourselves to take one vacation a year without R. Last year we went to Maui. This year we decided to think bigger, and booked ourselves on a REI cruise to the Galapagos Islands.

The cruise, although arranged by REI, was run by Ecoventura, a local Ecuadorean company, and they did a fantastic job on both logistics and service. In fact, the only negative parts of our trip were the flights to/from Guayaquil, and D getting seasick on day 2, but luckily that was quickly resolved with scopolamine patches.

More on the flights: when researching itineraries, I quickly realized there was only one option if we wanted to fly one-stop to Guayaquil, and it was American Airlines. Given our past experience with AA (extensive delays flying back from Lima and Buenos Aires) I really didn't want to book with them, but they were the cheapest by several hundred dollars per person, and I hate additional stops, so in the end we did buy AA tickets, but decided to schedule our arrival in Guayaquil one day early "just in case".

On departure day, we got up at 4am and got to the airport in time to check in for our 6:15am flight. Boarding went smoothly and we were about third in line for takeoff when suddenly the plane turned around and returned to the gate. The pilot came on the PA and said that maintenance had forgotten an item on the checklist and we'd have to deplane while they completed it. He estimated our delay at an hour. Of course, an hour later, the news was that a part needed to be replaced, and we'd have to wait another hour. I started to worry about our connection despite having scheduled a four-hour layover. Sure enough, an hour later, we were told that the part wouldn't arrive for another two hours. We lined up to talk to the gate agent about rebooking our connection, but I'm impatient so I got on the phone with AA customer service as well. After 10-15 minutes, I was finally on the line with a real person when the flight was cancelled entirely. I quickly got her to put us on the next flight to Miami (9pm) and she rebooked our connection flight for the next day. We were told that we could ask the agents in Miami for hotel/meal vouchers when we arrived.

That evening we returned to SFO to board our 9pm flight, which actually took off this time. Upon arrival in Miami at 5am we tried to get our hotel/meal vouchers and were rebuffed by two different gate agents who said we needed "authorization" or needed to talk to customer service who opened at 8am. We finally got ahold of an operational supervisor who seemed quite angry that we'd been given the runaround and promptly issued us our vouchers. She wanted names but unfortunately we'd been too tired to note them down. We went to our hotel and slept for about five or six hours, before connecting to Guayaquil without incident.

The next morning we went back to the airport to join our tour on the local flight to San Cristobal. We found the Ecoventura rep quickly, but something went wrong with D's ticket and we had to wait twenty minutes to get his boarding pass, which was a little stressful, but at least it would have been the tour company's problem as well as ours.

Upon arrival in San Cristobal we were greeted by our guides, both named "Jose Luis" and both nicknamed "Pepe". Twenty of us boarded our ship, the "Eric", and after settling into our rooms we were given a safety briefing, followed by crew introductions and a welcome cocktail they called the "red-footed booby". It was quite sweet and tasty.

Our room:


In the afternoon, we only had time for one outing; to the La Galapagugra Cerro Colorado Tortoise Preserve in the highlands of San Cristobal. There we saw our first giant tortoises, and also saw some baby tortoises which were being kept in captivity for their protection for 2-5 years. Once tortoises are over 2 years old, they have no natural predators.

Tortoise!


Back on board we were served a very nice three-course seated dinner and then we retired to our cabins for the night.

Monday, December 10, 2012

saltine toffee

For future reference, this is Erica's patented saltine toffee recipe!

Saltine Toffee

1. Pre-heat oven to 400F. 2. Lay saltine crackers side-by-side on a 9x13 baking sheet.
3. Heat 1 cup unsalted butter and 1 cup raw sugar over medium heat, stirring until candy thermometer reads 290F.
4. Pour mixture onto crackers and spread with spatula.
5. Bake in oven 5 minutes.
6. Remove and scatter semi-sweet chocolate chips on top.
7. After they are melted (about 3 minutes) spread with spatula.
8. Sprinkle slivered/sliced almonds on top.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Grandpa

I got an email from my mom yesterday afternoon telling me that my grandfather had died. (Apparently my repeated admonitions about not calling during work hours have been effective.) It wasn’t really a big surprise, as Grandpa’s health had been declining for a few years, but it was still a bit of a shock. He’s the first of my grandparents to go, and somehow knowing it can and will happen doesn’t quite prepare you for it actually happening.

Grandpa was born in 1921 in Japanese-era Taiwan, so he was fluent in Taiwanese and Japanese from a young age. After WWII the KMT occupied Taiwan and he was forced to learn Chinese, and then when he immigrated to the US in 1972 he learned English as well. Once when I was about seven or eight years old I walked into his room and asked him what he was doing, and he said “studying German”. He was a huge fan of German opera and wanted to understand the music in its original form.

Grandpa loved classical music; his collection of CDs probably numbers close to a thousand. My family lived with Grandpa and Grandma from before I was born, until my great-grandfather died when I was eleven. Grandpa had the stereo system in his walk-in closet wired up to speakers all over the house, so we would often hear symphonies and operas being blasted throughout the house. As he grew increasingly deaf, the music got louder. Sadly in his last years he could no longer hear the music clearly enough to enjoy it, so he was deprived of one of his most cherished pastimes. He left most of his (meticulously catalogued) collection at our house when he moved back to Taiwan for good, and I hope someone will take good care of it.

About twenty years ago, Grandpa was diagnosed with colon cancer. He loved rich food and as a result had suffered from gout for some time, but after his cancer treatment (surgery and chemotherapy), he reduced his meat intake drastically, and the cancer never returned. He was extremely strong-willed and would generally accomplish whatever he set out to do; he similarly quit smoking cold turkey about five years prior to his bout with cancer.

About ten years ago, Grandpa started to lose his vision. He was diagnosed with macular degeneration and started to fly regularly back to the US for treatment. Unfortunately the doctors were unable to improve his vision, but after awhile they were able to slow the deterioration. For a time he was able to read using a special machine which magnified and backlight text, but eventually he could not read at all since he could see only light and dark blurry objects. This was a huge blow to him as he was such an avid reader; he would still have people read newspapers to him daily, but I imagine it was immensely frustrating to him not to able to read quickly and independently.

Despite the loss of his vision and much of his hearing, Grandpa continued to do his best to preserve his health. Up to about five years ago, he would walk an hour on a treadmill every day. He was extremely disciplined and had an almost military preciseness about him. I’ve been told he actually was drafted into the Japanese Army during WWII, but the Japanese didn’t trust their Taiwanese conscripts to serve overseas, so he never left Japan. Unfortunately he fell off the treadmill one day due to his vision problems, and it was deemed too dangerous for him to continue any longer. After that his legs started to weaken as well.

Grandpa could be stern and controlling at times. As children we were often afraid that “Grandpa would find out” that we’d been jumping on his bed or messing with the papers on his desk. He would sometimes forbid something for what seemed like poor (or at least inconsistent) reason. For example, he made my brother quit Little League, because as a boy he had a friend who hurt his leg so badly sliding into a base that he was forever crippled. However, he thought it perfectly fine to go skiing. In fact, when I was ten he decided I was ready for intermediate slopes, so he took me up and started teaching me to make parallel turns. At that time he must have been nearly seventy, but he’d learned to ski as a college student at Waseda University in Tokyo, and he was still quite good. Amusingly, later on when I told him I was going to Hawaii, he told me to avoid surfing as it was “too dangerous”.

Earlier this year, D and I took our then-three-month-old daughter R back to Taiwan to visit all of my grandparents (as well as D's grandfather, who also passed away this year). She is the first great-grandchild on both sides of the family, and all four of them were ecstatic about meeting her. Grandpa couldn’t really see her, but he patted her head, and felt her legs, and you could see his eyes watering. At one point R cried, and I was afraid Grandpa would be annoyed, but he just beamed and said “jia yong!” (“very strong” in Taiwanese). I joked to my sister then that it was the first time Grandpa had said anything good about a crying baby.

I will miss Grandpa, but I’m not that sad that he died. He would have been 91 next month, so most of his friends had already passed away, and with the loss of his vision, hearing, and ability to walk easily, he was increasingly bored and depressed over the last couple of years. His health was no longer good and he struggled to walk during the day and to breathe at night. My sister said she was talking with him one day last year and he suddenly said he was tired (of living).

Grandpa was intelligent, well-educated, cultured, successful, and forward-thinking for his time. He had a long and happy life, and in the end he just went to sleep and never woke up, which I bet is exactly what he wanted.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day at La Folie

I had been to La Folie several times before, but the last time was about ten years ago, so I only had vague recollections of our meals there. I do remember that my mom liked the place a lot, so when a coworker went and posted gorgeous photos from his meal, I was inspired to call them up and make a reservation for a pre-Mother's Day dinner. (I hate Mother's Day brunches, and my mom doesn't seem to mind.)

We had a fabulous time; Mom had the tasting menu, and the rest of us ordered a la carte, so we got to see/taste a wide variety of dishes. As the lighting got dimmer throughout the evening, my photos got noticeably worse, but luckily my favorite dish (the quail and squab) came out okay. Also, D ordered the 5-course menu, and he nearly ate himself sick, so I would say the portions are very generous, especially with the seared foie gras.

summer truffles (we didn't order any):


amuse bouche #1 - shortrib w/ hummus, parsley, pickled ramp (a little bit bland):


slow poached egg w/ potato crisp & chive:


lobster, mushroom, & English pea risotto (really good, with tender peas and very fresh mushrooms):


seared foie gras, foie gras soup (part of Mom's tasting menu; her favorite dish all night was the soup):


sauteed snails served in veal bone (didn't try, Dad said they were good):


tempura poached egg w/ sweetbread pancake, walnut & apple compote, shaved black truffle:


seared foie gras w/ cherries, star anise, & bourbon maple syrup (the giant foie gras that defeated D that night):


seared scallop w/ fennel & artichoke:


seared foie gras w/ potato & scallop, rosemary & asparagus:


butter poached Maine lobster on butternut squash ravioli>:


rack of lamb, lamb loin wrapped in spicy lamb sausage, butter beans & lamb tongue (sausage was a bit salty, rack was the best as usual):


beef tenderloin w/ croquette, potatoes & mushrooms (good but uninteresting):


duck breast w/ peach, cherries, & crispy rice:


quail & squab stuffed w/ mushrooms, wrapped in crispy potato strings, & natural jus w/ truffles, egg in a basket (didn't order this, but liked it so much I stole a bunch from D):


carabina cheese (fine, not remarkable):


tomme de savoie, sofia, & birberousse cheeses (I chose the cheeses myself, and I did like them):


bergamot mint pudding w/ cocoa powder:


cheese souffle w/ lemon cheese ice cream (the cheese flavor was perhaps too subtle):


baked Alaska w/ basil & huckleberry ice cream & pear & huckleberry gelee:


chocolate bread pudding w/ strawberry ice cream & white chocolate creme anglaise & green tea sauce (really tasty!):


chocolate mousse, canele, madeleines, huckleberry gelee (okay...the canele were a bit disappointing):

 

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