data Bisbocci Abroad
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Monday, May 18, 2015

The Most Biologically Intense Place on Earth

            Deemed by National Geographic as the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity, Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park is home to 2.5% of the species found on the planet. The park houses thirteen major ecosystems, including cloud forest, lowland rainforest, palm forest, mangrove swamps and coastal and underwater habitats. It is due to the park's diversity of habitats, that tourists visiting Corcovado can view animals ranging from playful monkeys and elusive tapirs, to deadly fer-de-lance snakes, radiant macaws and elegant angelfish. The 424 square kilometer park on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula is the largest in the country and everything I imagined it would be—raw, wild and teaming with life. 
          The pages of our Lonely Planet guide made Corcovado seem so remote and impenetrable, that it could only be reached by either the wealthiest or the most intrepid of travelers. It described that there were no roads leading into the interior of the park and that, to reach the ranger stations, one must either fly in on a bush plane or embark on a daunting and perilous trek into the park's wild interior.
       Reading about the park had us so intimidated, that we almost decided to forego visiting Corcovado altogether--until we spotted a flyer in our Manuel Antonio hostel that advertised a three day excursion with the Corcovado Adventure Tent Camp. 
           The $400 price tag of the tour was a bit steep for our budgets, but after some discussion and number crunching, we decided to splurge and booked the tour regardless. 

               Corcovado Adventure Tent Camp is paradise. It is remote, wild and completely uncontaminated by eyesore resorts and concrete hotel chains. 
             The camp sits on its own stretch of gold-sand beaches that are speckled with jet-black volcanic rocks and flanked on one side by lush green foliage and on the other by the blue waters of the mighty Pacific. 
                 The tent camp was our home base during the three days we spent in the Osa Peninsula and the price tag on the accommodation included boat transfers from Sierpe, accommodation, meals, a guided hike into the heart of Corcovado National Park, a snorkel trip to Cano Island and access to the kayaks, hammocks and wilderness trails from the camp. 
                   Though the tent camp we stayed at is not within the boundaries of Corcovado National Park, it may very well have been. The area around our fancy tents was rugged, wild and completely awe-inspiring. As with the luxury camps that I had often come across in Africa but never stayed at, nature was everywhere. 
                   During our first day at the camp, we spent the afternoon walking along the trails that led from our accommodation to Rio Claro. We traversed tawny crescents of beach and, along the way, stopped to admire groups of mischievous capuchins swinging in trees and dazzling scarlet macaws flying overhead. 
               I felt as though I had just entered the glossy pages of National Geographic's latest issue. 

Scarlet Macaws
              The next morning we woke up promptly at 6:00am and headed out for the jungle shortly after breakfast. The camp had organized a boat transfer to the national park and a guided hike for us that would bring us face to face with a variety of animals that inhabit the rainforest at Corcovado.
               We began our walk at the Sirena Ranger Station and headed into the jungle. Layers of green foliage were so dense that it was difficult to spot animals on our own, though all around us we could hear singing birds and howling monkeys. Along the way, our guide pointed out the animals we would have never spotted on our own--adorable spider monkeys, lethal fer-de-lance snakes, coatis, peccaries, lizards, spiders, anteaters and birds. We even had the privilege of sneaking upon the hidden lair of the elusive and nocturnal Baird's Tapir.

Tiny Squirrel Monkey
Coati Hiding in the Shrubbery
         Though I often had good views of the wildlife with my naked eye, the dense shrubbery and branches made it difficult to capture unobstructed photos of the animals. As a result, the photos I have of our hike do no justice to what we saw at Corcovado National Park. 

              The next day, I embarked on a snorkel tour to Cano Island and caught a glimpse of the underwater wonderland that contributes to the Osa Peninsula's vast biodiversity.
              Cano Island is a biological preserve located 10 miles off the coast of the Osa Peninsula. Its waters house a diverse array of marine life, including colorful tropical fish, rays, dolphins and whales.
              The visibility was excellent and I swam among schools of colorful parrotfish and angelfish, following them around outcrops of volcanic rock. 
              To cap off another excellent day of wildlife viewing, we witnessed a pod of dolphins darting playfully in our wake as we made our way back to the camp. 

                  What made our stay at the Corcovado Adventure Tent Camp truly special, is that our animal sightings were not limited to the hours we spent within the confines of Corcovado National Park. In fact, some of our best interactions with animals occurred within the boundaries of our tent camp itself. On numerous occasions, we saw the frisky capuchins swinging in the trees above our tents. We spotted hermit crabs scuttling along the beach and little leaf-cutter ants hard at work on the forest floor. We witnessed eagles and colorful macaws flying overhead. 

                I look back on the three days I spent days I spent in Corcovado as time spent in a raw, wild and untamed paradise. It is just how I imagine the world must have been like before humans set out to destroy many natural habitats by clear-cutting forests and transforming them into concrete jungles. 
               Some places--especially those that are remote and difficult to access--can come with a hefty price tag for visitors. But splurging is sometimes necessary, even when traveling on a budget. And I reckon there are not many places that merit a splurge as much as the Osa Peninsula--with its crescents of gold sand beaches and its pristine habitats. 
          I guess if I am going to empty my wallet anywhere, I may as well do it with a visit to the most biologically intense place on Earth. 
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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Manuel Antonio National Park

                     “Pura vida!”
                    We heard it as we stepped off the plane. And again when we entered the cab. And again at the bus stop and again at the hostel. And again when we ordered food. And again and again from strangers on the street. 
               Costa Rica's motto—pura vida—permeates every aspect of life in the country and is embedded into the very fabric of the small nation’s character. Translated into English as “pure life," pura vida is the law of the land in Costa Rica. It is at once a greeting, a welcome and a simple statement that we would come to hear countless times throughout our week in the country. Costa Ricans (Ticos) and tourists alike have used pura vida as their mottos to express living life 100% to the fullest.
                But looking around, it becomes apparent that pura vida is not only a lifestyle, but also a slogan highlighting the natural environment in the country--an environment so raw, that it has drawn tourists from around the globe to its wild interiors and pristine landscapes.
                  Costa Rica's expansive national parks system and abundant natural diversity is, in part, thanks to the aggressive stance the country has taken to ensure that its unique ecosystem can be enjoyed for future generations. Twenty-six percent of the land in Costa Rica is protected in an extensive patchwork of national parks.
                       We began our trip to Costa Rica at the smallest, yet most famous of Costa Rica's parks--Manuel Antonio. Manuel Antonio can be easily reached from the country's capital, San Jose, and is known for its pretty beaches and large concentration of monkeys and sloths.
                Since we were exhausted after having arrived in Costa Rica early in the morning on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, we decided to save a park visit for our second day and spend our first day in the country recovering in hammocks on our hostel balcony and sitting by the expansive public beach to watch the evening sunset display. 
Sunset in Manuel Antonio
Public Beach, Manuel Antonio
           The next day, we ventured down to Manuel Antonio National Park for a full day of beach bumming and wildlife viewing. 
               In contrast to the grey sands outside the park, the beaches of Manuel Antonio are rimmmed with crescents of white sand. We spent quite a bit of time lounging around on the beach, splashing in the water and interacting with the resident iguanas that dotted the rock outcrops 

                The national park has a string of pretty beaches lining the peninsula and we decided to plop down on the famous Playa Manuel Antonio for a bit, before heading out in search of monkeys and sloths. 

Jesus Christ Lizard

                  In contrast to the national parks in Southern Africa, where the wide open spaces and concentrated watering holes made independent animal viewing easy, we found it difficult to spot animals on our own in Manuel Antonio. It became immediately evident that a guide would be necessary in order to enjoy the park's offerings to the fullest.
                 Yet, since we had decided to visit Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park--the country's premier biodiversity hotspot--in a few days, we chose to scrimp on a guide at Manuel Antonio and do our best at detecting the shapes in the trees on our own.

White Faced Capuchin Monkey in Manuel Antonio
                 Manuel Antonio National Park is home to all four of Costa Rica's monkey species. By walking down the well-maintained paths and stopping wherever we saw tour groups gathered, we were able to see two of the species--the roaring howler monkeys and the frisky white-faced capuchins, in addition to an array of other birds and reptiles. 
                  The highlight of my day in Manuel Antonio, however, came just as we were about to exit the park and head back to the hostel. I was just reiterating my desire to see a sloth and expressing disappointment that I had never gotten a good look at one, when we walked by two people pointing into a trees near the park's exit. 
              I looked at where the two tourists were pointing, trying to differentiate between animals, leaves and clumps of dirt. At first, I didn't see anything. Then I let my eyes focus on the little brown lump in one of the trees and, there I saw it. A nearly motionless creature, turning its head slowly toward us as if stuck in molasses.
                 I was thrilled. I finally got to see the adorable animal that I had tried tirelessly to get a good glimpse of while in Panama.
A Sloth!
                     This is it, I thought as I watched the sloth slowly chew on a clump of leaves and turn toward us with its perpetual slothy grin. This is it what Costa Rica is all about. Pure life. Pura vida. 
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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Side Trip to Ayutthaya and Reunion with a Childhood Friend

          When I was seven years old, my parents decided to travel to Thailand for two weeks and gave me a choice: I had the option of staying at my grandma's house in Eugene with my cousin, or I could accompany them on a trip across the Pacific. 
                  The decision was a no-brainer to me at the time. As a seven-year-old, my grandma's little backyard was my world, and my cousin and I spent countless hours enjoying its every nook and cranny. It is where we climbed our favorite cherry tree, played makeshift baseball with with fallen apples and twigs and filled our desire for adventure by digging holes to China. 
              I saw no reason for accompanying my parents, aunt and uncle across the ocean to Southeast Asia because, to me, there was nothing that Thailand had to offer that my grandma's backyard could not give me. 
                    But as years went by and my worldview began to change, I dreamed of following my parents footsteps and visiting Thailand myself. 
                     Eighteen years later, I had my chance. 

                    My decision to visit Thailand last November was the result of a Facebook thread between myself and an my childhood friend, Camille. Camille had moved away from Eugene when we were in the fourth grade. Yet, throughout the years, we kept in touch--first as pen-pals and later by e-mail and Facebook.             
                  We had always talked about meeting up again somewhere, but—aside from a short visit in seventh grade—our paths never seemed to cross. 
               When I saw on Facebook that Camille had moved to Thailand after graduating college, I remember commenting on one of her photos. In my comment, I asked how long she would be in Thailand and expressed my own desire to visit the country.
                  "I''ll be here indefinitely. Come visit!" was her reply.
              And then I got to thinking. As an airline employee, traveling--even internationally--is essentially free and getting at least two weeks off work can be fairly easy to arrange. Plus, I'd long wanted to go to Thailand--a country that has often been proclaimed as one of the best solo backpacker destinations in the world due to its natural and architectural splendor, its plentiful street food and its unbeatable prices. 
                 There was nothing holding me back, so I replied with an unequivocal yes. 

              Within a few months, I listed myself on a flight to Southeast Asia and traveled alone across the Pacific. For two weeks, I lounged on picture-perfect beaches, visited dazzling temples and found myself at one of the world's great festivals. I ate delicious food, trekked through the mountains and made wonderful new friends.
             But the highlight of my trip was undoubtedly during my last few days in the country—when I reunited with Camille for the first time in thirteen years.     
             Camille teaches at the Panyotai Waldorf School in Bangkok and lives in the outskirts of the city. I stayed with her for a few days, met some of her friends and got a taste of what life must be like as a resident of Thailand’s capital. 

              I also used my return to Bangkok as a time to continue my exploration of the surrounding area and visit Thailand’s ancient capital of Ayutthaya. Since Camille is a full-time teacher and was required to work during my stay, I decided to take a day to visit the historic ruins of Ayutthaya—once a flourishing hub of commerce and trade and the historic capital of ancient Siam. 
Buddha Head Trapped in Tree Roots at a Temple in Ayutthaya
              Ayutthaya lies just to the North of Bangkok and is a popular day trip for visitors due to its accessibility and historical significance. 
              Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and flourished until the 18th century, when it was invaded and burned to the ground by the Burmese army. Inhabitants of Ayutthaya fled the ancient city for Bangkok and left an extensive and impressive patchwork of ruins in their wake. 
             Today, the ruins of Ayutthaya are incredibly well-preserved. Temples of worship can be found along nearly every street and down many alleyways. Crumbling stupas soar above the rooflines of the surrounding city, adorned with relics of Buddha statues.  

Reclining Buddha in Ayutthaya
Stuppas in Ayutthaya
              I decided to explore the ruins by renting a bike for the day. Though it was excruciatingly hot and I frequently found myself pedaling down roads that I had difficulty locating on the city map, I found biking to be a lovely and rewarding way of exploring the city’s temple-lined streets. 
               I must have visited at least ten temples throughout the day. Some were crowded with tourists and perfectly preserved, while others lay mysteriously secluded and overgrown with weeds.

Ruins of Ayutthaya
               In the evening I returned to Bangkok, where I spent the remainder of my trip. There are other things I would have liked to see in Thailand’s fascinating capital, but I decided to spend my last day in the country visiting Camille’s school. 
               As I stepped into the little courtyard of the Panyotai Waldorf School, I was at once  greeted with a rush of memories and transported back to my childhood. 
                  Camille and I had met at a Waldorf School in Eugene Oregon and, though Panyotai’s setting couldn’t have been more different from that of my little school in the Wilamette Valley, the similarities were striking. Watercolor paintings adorned the colorful classroom walls, recorder music filled the air of the courtyard and students busied themselves in the classroom with lessons ranging from English to painting and from handwork to Math. 
                During the day I spent at the school, I helped Camille’s boyfriend lay the framework for a compost structure near the school’s garden. I was immediately struck by the school’s commitment to holistic education, health and sustainability. 

              Visiting the Panyotai Waldorf School brought Camille and I’s friendship full circle to where it all began—to a Waldorf school where we first met, yet halfway around the world. 
                    It was both the perfect conclusion to my Thai adventures and the perfect rebirth of a friendship that I hope will continue to flourish. 

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Chaing Mai and the Loi Krathong Festival

          Chiang Mai has long been the heart of Thailand's backpacker culture--a sanctuary of sorts that captures the hearts of travelers with its rich cultural heritage and laid-back vibe. 
           Chiang Mai is northern Thailand's largest city, as well as its most culturally and architecturally significant. The sheer number of temples and shrines packed into a tiny radius is simply astounding and it became immediately apparent to me why so many people in my hostel had come to Chiang Mai for a few days and ended up staying weeks. The city sits nestled in the foothills of Thailand's rolling mountains and draws visitors, both for its surrounding natural beauty, as well as for the cultural gems that lay within its ancient walls. 
           Since I didn't have time to do everything I would have liked to do while in the Chiang Mai area, I selected to spend my time between hiking in the mountains with Pooh Eco-trekking, visiting the Ran Tong Elephant Sanctuary and meandering the city's charming streets.

Wat Chedi Luang
             I spent my first day in the city exploring the various crumbling temples and golden shrines that lay scattered about the city center. Wandering on my own, I visited numerous temples including Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and the famous gold-laden Wat Doi Suthep--a temple perched on a hill roughly half an hour from Chiang Mai. 

               Chiang Mai's beautiful temples and deep-rooted history have become a draw for tourists from around the world, but I quickly found that there is something else that keeps them coming back,. Something akin to a magnetic pull. I presume it is a combination of the city's low prices, its delicious and plentiful street food,  its vibrant night markets, its international vibe and its air of spirituality.
               Chiang Mai houses an eclectic mix of Thai university students, partying westerners, retiring expatriates and orange-clad monks. It is worldly, yet deeply traditional. And while enticing tourists with its new world amenities and old world charm, Chiang Mai has managed to dodge the congestion, traffic and pollution of Bangkok to the South.
              Chiang Mai is lovely. Yet, part of the reason that tourists so often find themselves extending their stays, is that adventure abounds outside the city's walls. Whether you are looking to tour traditional villages, partake in cooking classes, join meditation retreats, hike raft or bike, the Chiang Mai area offers something for just about anyone. 

Wat Doi Suthep
             My visit to Chiang Mai coincided with Thailand's yearly Loi Krathong festival--a celebration of lights and waters that has received international renown.
          On the eve of my last day in Chiang Mai, after an eventful morning at the Ran Tong elephant sanctuary and an hour-long Thai massage that cost a whopping six dollars, I met up with a few friends I had made at the hostel a few days prior and, together, we walked down to the river.                          Thousands of people had already gathered at the water's edge to launch their flower boats into the river and release their paper lanterns into the sky.

Woman Carrying a Floating Floral Decoration 
                 Every year, during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, thousands of Thais make a wish and release floating flower boats into the water.
             The ritual is rooted in the tradition of paying homage to water spirits and, during the festival, stalls lining the river banks sell ornate flower decorations to locals and tourists alike. The Loi Krathong festival often coincides with another festival called Yi Ping--in which thousands of paper lanterns are released at once, drifting sheepishly like jellyfish into the dark night sky.
               I missed the famous Yi Peng lantern release by about a week, but I was able to get a taste of what the spectacle must have been on the last day of Loi Krathong. Though Loi Krathong is a festival of water, it has lately become associated with the release of paper lanterns as well, due to its close overlap with Yi Peng. 

                  My friends and I mingled with the throngs of tourists and locals that poured into the streets. We peeked into temples to see young monks lighting lanterns, stopped by food stalls to buy one too many portions of mango sticky rice, witnessed a parade in which Thais showcased their elaborate floats and stopped every so often to enjoy street performances that ranged from girl scout songs to Hare Krishna chants. 
                The vibe was electric and festivities lasted till the wee hours of the morning. While I perused the stalls of the night markets and cast my gaze upwards at the illuminated night sky, I tried not to think about my early flight back to Bangkok the next day. Or about the closing chapter of my adventures in Thailand's North. 
                 I could have easily been one of those backpackers who planned on visiting Chiang Mai for a few days and, instead, ended up staying weeks. And had it not been for the fact that I had to return to work in a few days, I probably would have. 
              When I finally felt that I could not justify staying awake any longer, my friends and I headed back to the hostel to get some sleep.
              But first, we each bought a paper lantern, walked to the water's edge and, on the count of three, released the floating orbs of light into the sky. 

Lanterns Dotting the Night Sky

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ran Tong Elephant Sanctuary

                For most travelers to Thailand, riding an elephant is a top priority. There is something about the notion of lumbering through the rolling tropical hills atop a five ton gentle giant, that elicits imagery of exotic and faraway lands.
                    I'm not going to lie. Like many others, I've thought about it too. Riding elephants has been marketed as a uniquely "Thai" experience and, thus, has kept tourists flocking to the country in order to cross elephant rides off their bucket lists. 
                Having spent a year living in Namibia--in close proximity to some of the world's best wildlife reserves--I, too, became fascinated with the world's largest mammals. So, when planning my trip to Thailand, I made sure to pencil in a day at one of the country's many elephant refuges. 

Mahout and his Elephant
                 Elephants have been prominent in Thai culture and folklore for centuries. Yet, Thailand has seen a dramatic drop in the numbers of wild elephants in recent years. This drop can be attributed to loss and destruction of habitat, illegal poaching for ivory and the sale of animals to tour operators.
                     Until the ban of the logging industry in 1989, elephants were instrumental in assisting their owners with clear-cutting the country's forested areas. Ironically, by working in the logging industries, elephants were involved in the destruction of their own environments and, as a result, contributed to a rapid decline in the number of their kin throughout the country. 
               However, while generally a good thing, the logging-industry ban has acted as a double-edged sword for the well-being of the animals. On the positive side, the animals no longer have to toil laboriously at the hands of their owners to clearcut the very areas where they once roamed wild. Yet, on the other hand, lack of employment in the logging industries has left many elephants hungry and neglected at the hands of owners who no longer have the means to provide them food. Healthy male elephants eat nearly 350 pounds of food every day, which is no small amount for their owners to provide. 
                As a result, many elephant owners have entered the lucrative business of street-begging with their elephants. Today, though illegal, it is still common to see elephants roaming the streets of Bangkok--eating plastic bags, food scraps and any other odds and ends they can find--as their owners parade them through the streets to collect baht. 
              In order to rescue animals from street-begging and heavy labor, conservation centers have mushroomed around the country and taken the animals into their care. 

                     I had originally planned on visiting the Elephant Nature Park--a refuge for elephants that have been abused and neglected in the logging and tourism industries. The park has stellar reviews online and is incredibly popular with tourists to the region. However, since my visit to Chiang Mai coincided with Thailand's yearly lantern festival, the Elephant Nature Park was completely booked when I planned on visiting. 
                 Knowing that I still wanted to spend a day with elephants, I leafed through countless brochures in the hostel lobby to try to find an alternative to the Nature Park. Yet, it seemed that all the other tours functioned more for the entertainment and curiosity of the tourists, than for the well-being of the animals. 
                 After a bit of online searching and consulting with the hostel staff, I found the Ran Tong Elephant Sanctuary. 
                 Like the Elephant Nature Park, Ran Tong is a refuge for elephants that have been neglected, orphaned and physically abused. The center purchases the animals from private owners and seeks to rehabilitate them by providing medical care and nursing them back to health. 

This Baby Elephant Orphan Has Been Virtually Adopted by the Elephants at Ran Tong
             While elephants today do not engage in warfare and are not employed in the logging industry, they have, in addition to street-begging, been recruited in droves for tourism-related jobs. 
                Ran Tong, too, relies on tourists to generate income for elephant rehabilitation and even offers limited elephant rides. I was initially disappointed that Ran Tong makes elephant rides available to tourists, but pleased that the sanctuary at least abides by a series of strict guidelines. 
                  Mahouts (elephant trainers) do not chain the animals. They do not beat, kick or slap them. They do not force them to draw pictures or stand on their hind legs in order to entertain visitors. Instead, they ensure that the animals in their care (most of which have suffered from owner abuse and neglect) are provided with adequate food and given ample opportunity to interact with one another and roam about the center's grounds. 
                   Though the sanctuary offers rides to paying visitors, it only pairs tourists with the healthiest elephants, ensures visitors sit on the napes of their necks rather than their fragile backs and prohibits the use of large platforms for riding. The platforms used by many tour companies are especially dangerous to the animals because they weigh nearly 300 pounds. Many of the elephants I interacted with at Ran Tong had permanent spinal damage due to years and years of hauling tourists around on platform-mounted thrones.

                   Despite the romantic notion of riding atop a three meter gentle giant, I opted to participate in Ran Tong's no riding program--a program designed especially for those who were wary about the negative impacts of elephant riding, yet nonetheless wanted to spend the day interacting with the animals. As a participant in the program, I spent the day feeding, walking with and bathing the majestic gentle giants. 

Elephants Playing in the Water
                 We started the tour with elephant feeding. Our guides provided us with buckets full of bananas so that we could feed the animals out of our hands and begin gaining their trust. The animals devoured the bananas so quickly that I merely had time to pluck another banana off its stem, before I would feel a leathery trunk prodding me for another piece of fruit.  
                 When our buckets were empty and the mahouts felt that the elephants had gained sufficient trust, I paired up with an old female elephant and led her through the muddy fields to drink and play in the water.
              I walked with her barefoot across green fields, my feet squishing in the puddles of slimy mud, until we reached a small river. At the river, I let go of the rope I had used to guide her and watched as my elephant splashed around in the water and rolled in the mud with her friends. 
            I'm sure that sloshing around in the mud, dodging heaps of elephant dung and bathing the large mammals in brown poopy waters is not the romantic image that most people envision when traveling to Thailand. I, too, had thought that riding atop an elephant would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 
              But I am so happy that I did my research and chose to participate in the no-riding program at Ran Tong. Some things are not worth doing merely so that they can be checked off a list. In fact, after learning about the abuse that elephants throughout Thailand endure on a daily basis due to curious tourists, I decided to remove elephant riding from my bucket list completely. 
Elephant Bathing

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