Singapore’s Supertrees and Sentosa Island

There are some places on earth that are so naturally beautiful or imaginatively designed that they send you straight back to childhood when discoveries still had the power to blow your mind. Well, Singapore’s Supertree Grove at night, where 18 towering, otherworldly supertrees glittered and flared to the thunderous refrain of O Fortuna, was one of those places. Photos only hint at the magic.

The trees are about as tall as a 16-storey building and are covered with 200 species of orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers. Some harvest solar energy and others serve as air exhaust receptacles. Elise and I took the elevator up to the walkway between the trees that is 22 meters high and 128 long. The dazzling, slightly ominous-looking Marina Bay Sands Hotel (Espheni base in Falling Skies?) glowed in the distance. When we walked into the hotel, Elise, who enjoys watching the antics (and luxury purchases) of famous Youtube stars, gleefully pointed out a Lamborghini in the valet parking.

Also somewhat mind-blowing, though in a more dreamy Oh man, what a lifestyle! kind of way, was our wonderful friends Barbara and Christian’s waterfront condo on Sentosa Island on Singapore’s southern shore. Centuries ago, the island was called Pulau Belakang Mati, which meant ‘Island of Death from Behind’, likely due to attacks by pirates. Its current name, which means ‘peace’ and ‘tranquility’, reflects today’s luxury lifestyle on the island.  Barbara, a fabulous cook who literally saved our Thanksgiving dinner in Prague by coming to my rescue with her cooking savvy and calming disposition, serves up delicious dishes on her terrace overlooking the Straits of Singapore. Many floors below is a sprawling pool where she swims every morning and then soaks in the jacuzzi, where blossoms drop from the trees and swirl in the soothing water.

She took us on a bike tour of the marina, where we saw a yoga studio for humans and their dogs.

We also saw a strip of stunning waterfront homes which have pools integrated into the design of the home. Simply awesome.

Singapore has some of the lowest crime rates in the world thanks to strict laws and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Taxi drivers carefully adhere to the speed limit, there is no spitting or smoking in public places, and women leave their purses hanging from their chairs behind them. A very welcome thing for this traveling mom! However, one drawback is that one doesn’t dare take photos of private property, so the pix above I borrowed from this website.

In the meantime, Elise and I explored some of Singapore’s international culinary delights at hawker centers with dozens of stalls, including steamed buns and gyoza. We also had custom-made bowls of Chinese soup where you fill a bowl with all of the raw ingredients you want and then the cook parboils them in broth for you, and you top them off with seasonings.

Salt Flats of Bolivia – surreal island and train cemetery

On Day One in Salar de Uyuni, we experienced a major shift in perception as we sped deep into the vast salt flats. There was white as far as the eye could see. The surface, formed of dried-up prehistoric lakes, was etched with hexagonal cells, much like honeycombs and the columns of Giant’s Causeway, evidence of nature’s fixed rules on order and economy. Elise had fun hopping up onto salt mounds that were ready for harvesting. Everything was dry – our hands, lips, the air, and the salt itself.

We stopped at a train cemetery where trains were abandoned in the 1940’s after the mining industry collapsed. As would not have been the case in the US, we were allowed to clamber all over the rusting structures.

For lunch, our guide brought us to a restaurant formed of blocks of salt. Even the chairs and tables were made of salt. Needless to say, there was no lack of table salt, lol.

Outside the restaurant, a sea of international flags were flapping madly in the strong wind. After traveling for so long in foreign lands, Elise found comfort in the familiar and ran to the American flag and hugged it.

Most astonishing was Isla Incahuasi, a cacti-covered island rising out of the salt flats, which played games with our sense of sea and land. Elise and I hiked its trails through caves and across scorched terrain.

The sky deepened into shades of gold and violet as night fell, a fitting end to a surreal day.

The donkeys of Isla del Sol

When we arrived in Copacabana (no, not the famous one), the place we wanted to stay was fully booked, so we bopped over to Isla del Sol, a 70-sq-km island with no vehicles on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, to spend the night. I’d planned to do a walking tour of the ruins and little villages up and over the steep hills, but altitude sickness made breathing difficult and I even felt irregular heartbeats when climbing the steep stairs, so that was out. 🙁

As soon as we stepped off the ferry, Elise spotted a drove of donkeys and immediately went over to them to pet them. Soon afterwards, she saw a train of them carrying heavy sacks up a very steep set of stone steps and became distraught that they were in pain. I reassured her that donkeys are able to carry heavy loads. Still, she looked over each one carefully and pet them whenever she could. They seemed to enjoy her affection.

The next morning she woke up fantastically happy because we were heading back to Copacabana where a very cool and unusual suite was awaiting us (more on that in my next post).

From the terrace where we had breakfast, Elise spotted a few donkeys tied to posts or rocks below.

One broke free, but instead of bolting off, he sniffed around for food near a fellow donkey and then rolled around in the sand to scratch his back, and then just stayed put. We considered what that meant. Was he actually content with his donkey life, in spite of having to lug heavy loads up the hill? Or did he not understand that escape was even a possibility? Whatever the case, Elise took one last opportunity to bring them a little joy by giving them a snack before we boarded the ferry back to Copacabana.

 

Homestay on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca

Elise and I did a homestay on Uros Khantati, one of about 50 floating islands on Lake Titicaca. Centuries ago, the Uros people first fashioned the islands out of totora reeds in an effort to isolate themselves from the aggressive Collas and the Incas. Now they keep the government at bay, since they pay no property taxes – only taxes on tourist services.

When I booked the homestay, I had no idea what would await us. Would it mean that we would would be staying in a guest room in the home of an Uros family? What kind of food would they eat? How long would we have to travel to reach the islands? Would there be running water, electricity or proper toilets? Elise was particularly worried about the latter. She needn’t have been.

We traveled by boat only about 20 minutes from Puno, Peru on Lake Titicaca. Soon we spotted our first island!

It really was a floating island made of reeds! As a neat freak, I couldn’t help noticing that there was rubbish strewn on the island, however. Would ours look the same? Soon we started to see many other islands, each with its own personality. Some had a reed lookout tower in the shape of a giant fish, others a giant bird. Many had dramatic-looking reed boats.

Soon, we arrived at our island, Uros Khantati – home sweet home for two days and a night.

It turned out to be a ship shape island with about a dozen cabins, a restaurant, lots of cheerful reed umbrellas and archways, a tall lookout station, and even a bridge and a pond. Walking on the springy reeds was a trip – almost like walking on a waterbed.

Our host, Chistina, greeted us and brought us to our cabin. Surprise! We had the cabin all to ourselves. It had lakeside views, a big bed, colorful wall hangings, and – to Elise’s great relief – a shiny, modern bathroom. As she would discover, the potty was also eco-friendly: the front part had a drain for Number One and the back part a pit for Number Two. Instead of flushing, one poured a scoop of what looked like kitty litter into the pit (we called it humany litter). Elise can be very particular about the hygienic standards of restrooms, but (to my relief) she gave this one a thumbs up. The lights were powered by solar energy.

There was a fun patio just outside our cabin with chairs and hammocks.

After we settled in, Christina’s husband Victor gave us a tour in a traditional reed boat with a puma face, the symbol of Lake Titicaca.

He showed us how they used nets to catch fish. He extracted two small fish from the net and put them in a bowl of water, noting that they were great for soup. Elise, of course, saw that the fish were suffering and asked if she could throw them back into the lake. Victor laughed and said yes. He then demonstrated how they gather fresh reeds using a surprisingly primitive-looking eucalyptus stalk with a blade attached at one end with wire. After he’d harvested a bundle of reeds, he peeled back the skin on one and nibbled on the white center. (He warned us not to do the same, however, since our systems were not adapted to the lake water.) Since the reeds on the island rot away from the bottom, he said that they must be replenished from the top three times a month during rainy season and twice during dry season. Placing the reeds on the ground is straightforward, but placing them beneath the cabins requires 25 people to lift the structures (logs stick out at the base of the cabins for that purpose) in order to pile up the reeds below. While he was explaining this, we saw a man on a small motorboat with an enormous stack of reeds returning to a neighboring island.

Victor told us that there were three families living on Uros Khantati. Since there are no schools in Uros, all the children leave by boat every morning around 6am to attend school in Puno, and return around 4pm. They move to the shore when it is time to attend college. Christina and Victor’s two children returned to island after college to help with the family business.

The islands are all anchored to each other and to the reeds by strong rope. I was fascinated to learn that the islands used to be in the center of Lake Titicaca, but that they were pulled by motorboat to their current location close to Puno three years ago in order to shorten transportation times to the lakeshore.

After the instructional part of our tour was over, we blissed out on the boat as we slowly made our way back to the island. Turns out, given the constant need to research our next destination/transportation/lodging/activities etc, and to write blog posts/select and edit photos, do our bookkeeping, and homeschool Elise – and to experience travel itself! – I rarely relax. But I was deeply relaxed in the warm sunshine and fresh air on the incredibly tranquil waters of the lake.

Christina served us a fabulous meal of grilled salmon, quinoa salad and potatoes, with beautifully arranged fresh fruit for dessert. In the late afternoon we put on traditional Uros costumes. Christina even wove pompoms into Elise’s braids.

It was very touristy, but I photographed our new German friends, Sinem and Fabi, paddling a reed boat dressed in Uros costumes. Fabi, by the way, proposed to Sinem after hiking the Inca Trail just as they reached Machu Picchu. She said yes! He was nervous that the ring would be discovered during security checks at the airport, but Sinem never suspected a thing. Well done, Fabi.

Afterwards, Christina showed us the handicrafts she and her daughter made, which included embroidered tapestries and pillowcases and figurines and mobiles woven from the reeds. There were many things I wanted to buy, but we have to stretch our budget for a full year and also don’t dare add any more weight to our packs.

Very satisfied with the day, Elise and I retreated to our cabin as the sun went down and had a very restful sleep.

The next morning, we relaxed in the sunshine as we waited for Victor to bring the boat to take us back to Puno.

Christina and her sister, who lives on the neighboring island, joined us for the ride back.

Our experience on Uros Khantati was excellent – one of the highlights of our travels thus far. If you are interested in doing a homestay on Uros, Christina can be reached at uroskhantati@hotmail.com.

Farewell Galapagos

Returning to Santa Cruz from slightly remote Isabela Island felt strangely familiar – a bit like we were coming ‘home’. It was similar to the feeling I had back in 1990-92 when returning from travel in South East Asia to my home in Kyoto and Nishinomiya, Japan, where I could read the signs and easily navigate the trains. It made me think about where home is for us now. We’ve officially unregistered from Berlin, and the last time we lived in the US was four years ago. So, in a way, the address I entered somewhat tongue-in-cheek in my new Leuchturm journal was accurate: “The World” .

And where will home be in the future? We both love Berlin and the friends we’ve made there, and I think the international schools there are terrific. Germany is also on the side of the angels in its approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. Raw documentary footage I’ve seen of Syrian children who’ve lost parents in the war is shattering – their need for help far outweighs our perceived need to keep ‘others’ out.

But Elise and I have also talked about spending a year in Paris. Or maybe we’ve yet to discover our future home? a village in New Zealand or in Vietnam? or perhaps a palm-fringed harbor in the South Pacific? I have a running joke with my niece, Rach (who happens to be both gorgeous and fiercely intelligent). Any time I come up with an idea such as ‘move to Germany’ or ‘travel the world for a year’, she announces that she doesn’t believe that it’ll happen. Even after we’d moved to Berlin, and I asked “Do you believe me now?”, she wrote: “Nope”. Oh the joy of looking forward to many more exotic locations and Nopes from Rach!

In any case, back on Santa Cruz, we fell into ‘old’ habits – we had breakfast at our favorite cafe, popped into the same shops, had an $8 lobster lunch at our favorite restaurant, took a water taxi to a beach we’d visited before and then explored a nearby salt marsh (Elise’s science lesson for the day).

We followed the trail through Opuntia cacti to Las Grietas, a swimming nook in a deep rock crevice. Fearless locals are known to climb the nearly vertical rock walls to plunge into the water below. During our visit, however, we saw only normal folks who were yelping at the chilly water and slipping on the rocks at ground level. My camera gave me a welcome excuse to stay on the platform, but Elise carefully made her way over the rocks and was rewarded with an invigorating swim.

For dinner, we returned to our favorite restaurant for the last time. Our waiter recognized us immediately and, smiling from ear to ear, offered us a great deal on a soup and grilled fish dinner.

The Galapagos are a very special place, and one day I hope we’ll return to explore Floreana and the other smaller islands.

Elise’s drawing of Isabella Island

Elise drew her (part-wolf) alter ego, Sunny, and her sister Ashlyn on Isabela Island, where they mountain biked along the coast, touched a giant tortoise, went body boarding and snorkeling with colorful fish and tortoises, and saw the Wall of Tears (gray volcanic rocks in the upper right). Also depicted are sea lions, volcanic rocks, and Opuntia cacti on the beach, a water taxi in the harbor, and the tiny bird with whom Elise shared an apple.

Isabela Island, Galapagos

This place feels much more remote than Santa Cruz – even slightly abandoned, which is a welcome thing.

With its squarish, concrete structures (many half-finished) and radio towers, however, Puerto Villamol is not especially charming at first glance. The roads around the town square are dirt while the park is paved. Go figure. Just a block or two away there are barren lots strewn with cinderblocks and plastic tubs, which reminded me of deep West VA, except instead of dirt, the ground is covered in black volcanic gravel like a rustic parking lot. Opposite a flamingo pond is what appears to be a 1950’s style power plant.

But the island holds many lovely surprises, such as Concha de Perla, a wooden walkway where sea lions snooze (you have to step over them!) through a mangrove swamp to a bay which is home to marine iguanas and giant tortoises.

There is also a long stretch of beach with turquoise green water, the softest sand ever, and pleasant beach cafes.

The restaurants that looked run-of-the-mill by day light up at night from the glow of lanterns. The seafood is also excellent. We took advantage of ubiquitous $8 set menu options and sampled the grilled fish, lobster, and fish soup and (apart from a mushy seafood spaghetti) enjoyed every bite.

Elise adores pools, and I wanted to give her a special experience during our final days in the Galapagos, so I booked a stay at The Wooden House (3x our normal budget) based on the photos of its big pool. But while the rooms were lovely and Zen-like, the pool ended up being teensy tiny (trick photography).

After one night we switched to another hotel with spacious rooms, gleaming floors, and hammocks on a breezy top-floor terrace. Having essentially won back some of our budget, I looked into guided tours. The options depicted in faded photos at the travel agencies, however, left a lot to be desired. There were tours of the Tuneles, Volcanes, and Tintoreras, but travelers we met said the volcano tour was not worth it, and it was much better to see the other sites yourself. So we rented snorkels ($6 for 2 of us for the afternoon) and swam in the bay with marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and many colorful fish (my favorite was a black fish with electric blue eyes and a yellow mouth), and then rode mountain bikes to see flamingos and tortoises at a conservation center where Elise was allowed by an enthusiastic guide to touch a highly interactive tortoise! It was amazing looking into this 100+ year old creature’s eyes, who shrunk back into his/her shell any time we gestured too wildly.

We then rode a 5k path along gorgeous coastline which eventually turned inland.

There were various scenic lookout points marked with large signs for “Green Ponds”, “Round Pool”, “Hidden Pool” etc (was like shopping for sights at a supermarket), as well as a high platform with 360 degree views of the island.

Elise decided to forego the climb in favor of having a snack, which she shared with two little birds. As a gearhead, I was absurdly pleased to be able to offer her one of our tiny, ultralight camping chairs for the first time.

From the lookout platform, there was sea as far as the eye could see in one direction, and uninhabited, scrub-covered land in the other that disappeared into a wall of fog. I felt the desolation of the place and had a flicker of melancholy.

The path ended at the towering 100m long Wall of Tears, which was built by convicts under abusive conditions at the time of the island’s penal colony (1946-59). The wall appeared to be made entirely of volcanic rocks and was in the middle of nowhere, separating nothing. It provided us with the opportunity to discuss human rights and capital punishment. Without prompting, Elise told me that she believes that even convicts should not be abused since they are already paying for their crimes by being locked up, and that we do not have the right to kill other human beings – even murderers. (Brava Elise! I am less certain about how society should punish child molesters/murderers).

But our visit to the island wasn’t all about heavy discussion. The next day, Elise tried body boarding for the first time. The surf was great and she managed to ride a few waves all the way to the shore. Since this is the precursor to surfing, her surfboarding cousin Nele will be proud!

As we sped away from Isabella, the shape of the island revealed itself. The day we’d arrived, there was heavy fog obscuring the coastline. Elise thought she’d caught a glimpse of mountains behind the clouds, but wasn’t sure. Indeed, we saw a giant, gently sloping volcano as we sped away, one of six that form Isabela’s seahorse shape. There were also smaller islands that came into view – strange, unfamiliar shapes that formed no pattern in my mind. How do the children growing up on Isabela view those same shapes? What stories do they have to describe them?

During the two-hour ride, I held Elise tightly on my lap because she felt a bit of seasickness. I was unable to write or listen to my university courses or read my Kindle as I usually do during commutes, so I spent the time thinking about what we’d experienced. I was pleased that Elise had had a number of firsts – snorkeling, body boarding, mountain biking – and that the island had offered a few terrific science lessons – tortoise breeding and conservation, the function of mangroves and coral, how life can take root on a barren volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, daily rhythms of sea lions and iguanas, and how heritable traits may give offspring an advantage in a particular ecological niche (eg tortoises on the Galapagos developed especially long necks to be able to eat cacti). Elise had also learned a bit about history (European colonization), ethics, sociology (none of the merchants on the islands undercut the competition, and they refused to let newcomers invest in the island without first living there for two years), and even economics (given scarcity and the cost of transporting goods, prices were higher on the island). All good stuff.

I also reflected on the fact that I felt completely comfortable being tossed about by the waves – even though it sometimes felt like a roller coaster ride. I suffer from claustrophobia (made worse when confined spaces are crowded) and misophonia (eating noises, inane TV, etc), but not at all from motion sickness or aquaphobia, acrophobia, aviophobia (alektorophobia, consecotaleophobia, or arachibutyrophobia, lol), or anything else really, so with a wide view of the silvery sea and the roar of the waves drowning out any other sound, I found that I was extremely content and relaxed right up through our arrival back in Santa Cruz.

But now…my imagination is all fired up by the prospect of visiting the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru!