Moai on Easter Island

Moai on Easter Island

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Northern Nicaragua, Part 1: Leon, Telica & Cerro Negro


In the middle of September—sandwiched in between a drive across the US and flying to Antarctica—I headed down to Nicaragua on a photography trip.  The trip was through MatadorU where I am taking a travel photography and travel writing course and Green Pathways sponsored the trip to help promote tourism in the northern section of the country.  I've never been on a press trip like this before and it was an absolutely amazing experience.  The days were long and I shot an exhausting average of a thousand photos a day. I didn’t know much about the country so I did quite a bit of research before I left.  Most people travel to the southern section of the country and Green Pathways is hoping to expand tourism in the northern potion of the country.  They are also focusing efforts on promoting tourism to families to come to Nicaragua and spend a few days integrating themselves in the daily lives of welcoming local families. There is less infrastructure and less of a tourist vibe there, which I really enjoyed.  Most of the places that I went I was the only non-local there.  The exception to that was my first day just outside of Leon, Nicaragua where I went volcano boarding and hiked up another volcano to check out the visible lava as the sun set.  This is the first of a short series of photo blog posts about my Nicaragua trip.
My first day in Nicaragua I piled in this truck with a dozen other people to headed toward Cerro Negro for volcano boarding.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this.  Most of the other people in the truck were excited, but there was a hint of apprehensiveness until everyone finished the ride down the volcano.
The left-hand skyline is the slope that you slide down on custom-made volcano boards.
Despite what this sign says I think the fastest way down is the other direction on your volcano board.  The speed record down Cerro Negro is 95 kph (57 mph). 
Cerro Negro last erupted in 1999 and the evidence of the lava flows is clearly marked as it made its way through the forest.
I ran halfway down so I could take photos of everyone else flying down on their volcano boards.  I then hopped on my own board and finished the run down topping out at a whopping 36 kph (22 mph).  It felt fast to me though!
A cold beer awaits everyone at the bottom.  But the rule was that everyone had to make it down the volcano before anyone could open their beer.  

After volcano boarding I headed back to Leon to wash off the volcanic grit and a quick tour through the city.

The Cathedral of Leon is a UNESCO World Heritage site and draws visitors to the central city.  It is within walking distance of great hotels and hostels and restaurants.  
The cathedral is the largest in Central America and has ornate details that are worth taking some time to absorb.  
Known as the intellectual capital of Nicaragua, Leon is known for its medical school and the streets around the school are full of text book vendors.  
That afternoon I got in another 4x4 vehicle and drove up the rocky road to the Telica Volcano.  At points the drive up the road felt like a roller coaster ride and we had to hold onto our seats to stay in place in the truck.  One of the passengers said that we really needed a fighter pilot's harness for the drive. Telica is one of the more active volcanos in Nicaragua.  But it is one of the only places to safely view lava.


The members of the Telica community at the base of the volcano help to update volcanologists and authorities about any volcanic activity.  Their animals are friendly to visitors and they cooked us a traditional dinner of rice, beans, eggs, cheese and tortillas.  
The volcano was great, but these leaf cutter ants on the hike up might of been the highlight of my evening.  We followed the ant's path for more than 100 feet.

Telica Volcano.

Once we got to the crater rim we felt like we were racing against time.  A major thunderstorm was approaching from the east, but the gases hadn't cleared enough for use to see the lava.  We said we'd give it 5 more minutes and then we'd have to head back down to the village.  Just then the gases cleared and we could see lava at the bottom of the crater.
A minute later we started to race down the mountain.  I stopped because I heard the sound of a waterfall in the dark, but I knew we hadn't passed one on the way up.  Then the rain hit...like a waterfall.  I've never felt it rain so hard and I was drenched in a matter of seconds.
Part II of the Northern Nicaragua series will be out next week featuring Canyon Somoto and Paddle boarding in the Pacific Ocean. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Peaceful Spot In The Black Hills



I’d always heard of the Black Hills, but didn’t know much about them.  What made them black?  What was in them ?  I knew they were in South Dakota and they held numerous caves, Mount Rushmore and the highest point in the state.  I guess they only look black from a distance because they are the only forested area in the region.  So I decided to ask a former coworker, who had worked in the area for a few years, about where to go.  Her reply was basically a detailed guidebook to a week’s worth of activities in the area.  Two things stuck out to us and fit our time frame in the area: 1. A burger place in Custer that apparently has one of the best burgers in the country and 2. The Poet’s Table. 


We had bison burgers in Custer; I thought it was good, but not one of the best in the country.  And then we followed Amanda’s directions to the Poet’s Table: “About five minutes up the trail you’ll see a leaning birch tree that points uphill.  Follow the gully uphill and stay to the right side of the highest peak.  When you get to the top climb over some rocks on the left and you’ll find the poets table tucked away in a little alcove in the rocks.”  We figured these directions were very vague, but led us right up to the bright green table tucked away in the rocks. 



The cabinet was full of notebooks and journals full of poetry, thoughts and random journal entries that apparently date back to the late 1960s.  I didn’t open many of them or read anything because I didn’t want to feel like I was searching for something that I wasn’t going to find in any of the notebooks. 


Instead I sat on the rocks as Lena read through some of the journal entries.  Besides a distant car, the rustling of the wind and the turning of pages it was silent.  It was the peaceful place that we both needed after days of driving.


After an hour or so it was time to get back on the road to we reluctantly left the table and headed back down the trail.  Not long after started down we passed an older couple on their way up.  They had cameras and water bottles around their necks and seemed to be carrying quite a bit in their packs, which might have been why they were sweating in the cool fall air and resting on their trekking poles every few steps.   We stepped aside to let them by as one of them said, between deep breaths, “Please tell me this place really exists.”  I gave them simple directions for their last few minutes of walking as the continued uphill saying, “thank god this wasn’t a cruel joke.”  I hope they found the same peace at the Poet’s Table as we did.



Friday, October 3, 2014

Mississippi to Montana Road Trip


My flat horizons of sea and sky on Easter Island gave way to the mountains in Montana for just a few hours and then were replaced again by over 2,000 miles of flat cornfields between Mississippi and Montana.


36 hours after I landed in Bozeman from Easter Island I took off again from the same airport to Memphis, TN, with a connection in Minneapolis--it'll make since in a moment why I mention that.  


Lena was starting the 5,000 mile journey to Alaska so I joined her on the first half back to Montana.  To continue the rushing around, she gave me a quick tour of the all-too-hot-and-humid Memphis and then a quick jaunt 30 minutes south to Hernando, Mississippi to pack the car, nap for a few hours and then we were on the road about 13 hours after I got there.  After a 14-hour drive we got to Minneapolis (a 1.5 hour flight from Memphis) to visit her sister.  With almost half our driving done we could breathe for a bit.   We had a wonderfully relaxing day playing corn hole in the yard and took a boat ride across Lake Minnetonka for dinner.   






As many of the best laid plans go the trip didn't go exactly as we had planned.  The slow laid-back trip with lots of stops for photos ended up much more rushed than we had hoped, but was still plenty of fun.  And the obligatory stops such as the world's only corn palace, Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore were made along I-90 in South Dakota.





 We did get to spend a little bit of extra time in the Badlands of South Dakota.  This area, along with the Black Hills, deserved more time than we were able to give it.  It was beautiful to spend time there nonetheless.






After some great sunsets and days exploring the Badlands and the poet's table (see next blog) in the Black Hills we headed to Devil's Tower, but with fog at ground level we continued on to Montana.



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Easter Island at Night

I used to put my camera away not long after the sun went down.  It was a sign that the visible light was gone and it was time to go home and sleep.  Some people come alive at night and for others the night signals an end to something.  And I think deep down inside everyone harbors a slight fear of the dark that is left over from childhood.  But the night also holds the mystery of the unseen.

Tongariki in the evening light.
After my first summer in Antarctica, when the sun didn't set, I missed the darkness.  I thought I missed the darkness a lot after a month or so in the Alaskan summer, but after four months of constant sunlight in Antarctica I almost forgot what the darkness was like.  Then the sun set for the last time and I began to forget what the sunlight felt like.  It was novel to walk outside in late June in Antarctica and look up at the stars at lunchtime.  But eventually that novelty wore off. I knew I had to learn how to take photos in the darkness or I wouldn't take photos at all.  I quickly learned what it took to capture the light of the night--the light that the naked eye cannot see--and deal with the cold temperatures at the same time.


During those dark months I all but perfected capturing that light and now I sometimes don't even think about taking my camera out until the sun has set.  My new desire to capture the night sky has led to many late nights and black circles underneath my eyes.  But what I can capture with my camera at night is worth it.


Long before the wheels of the LAN Flight 843 touched down on the remote runway on Easter Island Lena and I were talking about night photography there.  It took a few days to figure out how to make it happen, but finally our rental car full of camera gear, dinner and white wine was heading out to a group of moai called Tongariki.  This group of 15 moai was far away from the lights of town and situated perfected to catch the evening light and stars.


Along with a number of other tourists we photographed the moai as the sun set on the other side of the island.  Afterwards we waited for the darkness on the lava rock "beach" about a half a mile from the moai.  Once the darkness fully sunk in we decided to head back to Tongariki to get our fill of night shots.  The problem was the park rangers with spotlights making sure people didn't enter the site at night.  We certainly weren't going to vandalize anything, but that surly didn't matter to the rangers.



Without headlamps we headed down the road from where the car was parked and through the squeaky gate onto the grass and solidified lava that made up the viewing area.  We huddled behind chunks of lava every time a spotlight would sweep near us.  I really don't have a clue what would have happened if we were too slow to hide behind the rocks. Not to worry now, we got our shots and are safely back editing the final images.


Soon enough the rangers were satisfied that no one was in the area and drove back to Hanga Roa.  The freedom to walk around and take photos below the Milky Way was wonderful.  At one point I thought I heard growling, but Lena reassured me that it was just the herd of horses that had wondered up to us.


We returned to Hanga Roa for a few hours of sleep and woke at 5am to pick up Thea, our Danish friend, and head back out to Tongariki for sunrise photos.  We were the first people there for almost an hour.  The stars were still shining as the purples and blues had just begun to illuminate the sky. Vans of people began to show up for a delayed, but beautiful sunrise and then as quick as they had appeared everyone left and we were alone again as the sun popped above the hills to illuminate the island and unveil the mystery of the night.

Sunrise above Tongariki
The time-lapse below was the only one I had time to get on the island.  It is just outside of Hanga Roa and consists of 400 images taken over a few hours while trying to sleep on the grass and lava rock under a giant parka next to Lena and a small black stray dog that added quite a bit of warmth.  At 2 a.m. I awoke to a, thankfully, dead camera battery and walked back to a real bed.

video


Monday, September 8, 2014

Easter Island, Part II

One of the volcanic craters on the island.
Grass and water patterns in the crater.
The ticket I bought for Easter Island was actually the second one that I’ve purchased in the last three years.  I started this blog before I drove to Alaska in spring of 2012 and had big plans of spending a year in South America and that included a few days in Easter Island.  But those plans were thwarted by going to Antarctica.  So finally two years later I made it to Easter Island.

Moai just outside of the town of Hanga Roa
After exploring Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, during our first day there we decided to take a tour to get an idea of the layout of the island and to get some of the history.  Next time (if there is a next time) I go on a tour I’m going to make sure it is in English.  That should have been one of the first questions we asked when it was booked, but somehow the excitement of being in a few place allowed us to overlook that little detail.  Luckily, there was a Danish girl named Thea on the tour that day and she was more than happy to translate for us.  She’d studied in Chile so the Chilean Spanish was no problem for her.  Amusing that a Danish girl was translating from Spanish to English and neither of those were her first language.


Our tour guide for the day.
The tour was a good way to get out and see the island and plan places that we wanted to come back to on our own with time to photograph.  So the next day we rented a car to explore some evening, night and morning light on the other side of the island.  Photos from that will be in the next post.


The people on Easter Island were some of the friendlier people that I’ve met in South America.  I wasn’t sure what to expect in this because Easter Island seems to be caught in a struggle between maintaining its own cultural identity and governance while still being a part of Chile.  Infrastructure such as the modern-ish hospital and schools are only possible because of money from mainland Chile and tourism.  I might be wrong in assuming this, but I bet many of the native people view tourism and being a part of Chile as necessary evils in having the life that they currently live.  But they are also constantly fight to keep the traditional Rapa Nui traditions, language and remote island identity alive.


Like any other small island a sense of relaxation prevailed everywhere.  This was much needed after a long summer of constantly being on the road and many weeks of traveling before settling in Antarctica again for a few months.   We had a good balance of relaxation and making the most of our time to get some fun photos.  What is it about an island that breeds relaxation?

One of the original kneeling moai, before they started making the giant heads. 
Unfinished moai in the quarry. 
I wrote this a few days ago on a flight back to Bozeman.  Flight 42 of 55 this year.   I was sitting next to a nice German lady, who is visiting Yellowstone and the Tetons for the first time.  There happened to be a lot of Germans on that flight and she didn’t know why.  We started talking about travel as I pointed out the Grand Teton and Yellowstone Lake through the plane window.  I explained my recent travels and next few plans she asked if I worked for an airlines or something and how I traveled so much.  I paused for a second and never really came up with a good answer for her.  It made me think of our new Danish friend, Thea, who translated for us in Easter Island.  Lena and I had talked to her a lot about travel.  She was 22 and was just starting college because she said she had “different priorities than many other people in Denmark.”  I guess my answer to this German woman should have been something along the lines of that.  I don’t have excuses and I don’t have major bills and I have a job that allows me a bit more freedom than most which is why most of my horizons lately have been cloudy skies from a small rectangular window.