Thursday, December 18, 2008

Koh Tao, South Thailand

We are still in S. Thailand on the islands-- at least we made our new year's reservations today for a guesthouse in Pai in North Thailand so we have a destination and deadline. This is our third day in Koh Tao and we are leaving for Bangkok tomorrow. We came here to try the diving in Thailand. It was a fairly good experience for me since we went with a very professional company and I did a refresher course to regain my confidence with diving. The diving itself wasn't so great, since the visibility wasn't so good. The roads here have proved to be very challenging. We rented an off-road motorcycle, and Mario has gotten pretty good at driving on the worst roads that I have ever seen (using his feet to help our poor 125cc bike through the rough patches) and I've gotten good at hanging on tight and jumping off when the bike has had enough of carrying 2 people up a particularly steep and loose part.

Our little motorbike

Mario and Cao the dog - who was totally awesome and would sneak away like a mile down the mountain to the beach to terrorize the sunbathing girls

The beauty of Koh Tao

Since I left Bangkok we've been to Koh Yao Noi, Krabi city, Ton Sai beach (close to Railey), Ranong to do a visa run, and then here to Koh Tao. Ton Sai has been our favorite so far. We were there about 5 days and went hiking, cave exploring, kayaking, and rock climbing. The vibe there is very chill and the people very nice. Mario told me that its the best place that he has been to during his trip around the world. I was there about 5 years ago, and it hasn't changed all that much. This is also a good sign. Still quaint, friendly, and very cool.

Ranong was a bit of a nightmare. We crossed the border to Myanmar so that I could do a visa run. Can you believe that Brazilians get 3 month visas in Thailand and Americans get only 15 days (after a one month visa first)? I was very disappointed to find this out, since I have to do yet another one before leaving Thailand. Visa runs are like a blackhole for money. We took a tour around the border town of Myanmar and saw.... just about nothing. A couple of run down temples and a beach. Our guide was a very young Myanmar man (18 YO). He was a terrible motorcycle driver and a show-off: a very bad combination. Probably the most interesting thing that we saw was this LONG wooden makeshift bridge. It connected the mainland to a small island. It must have been quite old because it had clearly been patched up quite a bit. The original bridge had been built upon so that two new wheel-sized tracks were made to accommodate 4-wheel vehicles. Since we were crossing with a motorcycle with three people on it (oh I forgot to mention that our guide probably weighed about 90 pounds and it was his first time driving across the bridge) it would be a a sure disaster if we fell off these two tracks: falling into a hole and busting on the bridge or going through the bridge completely into the ocean--both options seemed realistic. Mario and I discussed suggesting to our guide that Mario drive across the bridge for the return trip : "Can I try to drive the bike? It looks like fun." -- we proposed was the best way to approach him. But in the end we decided that the guide's ego (and potential future guide business) would probably not survive if the tourists commandeered his vehicle so we decided to hang on for dear life. Clearly we survived in the end. But not without an unforgettable (and hopefully not repeated) return trip across this bridge-- and alot of cheering at the end of it. ("Can you take us back to the boat dock please? We're ready to go back to Thailand, thanks.")

Mario and some friendly burmese kids

The infamous bridge

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Leaving for my Thai adventure

So I'm heading down to Phuket to meet Mario (finally!). There is some kind of storm brewing down there. Not to mention that the tsunami came during this time of the year. I'll keep an eye on the dogs-- when they start running, we'll go too. I've become a bit spoiled here in BKK, and maybe I'll have trouble adjusting back to backpacker world. But I'll try! This time I'm with a rolling suitcase, heels and my computer. Ha! Different types of traveling for different ages.

There is a huge protest in Bangkok today. They are trying to oust the present prime minister who is the brother-in-law to the last one. There has been some bomb throwing lately at the government houses (by the current government supporters to the protesters). My aunt finally explained to me that the middle educated class are the supporters of the change in government; the poor people and the rich like the current government. Well, as long as they don't go near the airport...

Yesterday I went to a 5 year-olds party at the movie cinema. Complete with hor d'oerves, a huge chocolate cake, servers, and party favors for the kids-- hats with stuffed animals on them, balloons, junk food snack packs. Then we got a sneak preview to the Madagascar movie in this cushy theatre with sofas and blankets and popcorn. There were about 30 kids there (Thai and non-Thai) and their parents, and everyone spoke English to each other. I'm describing this to demonstrate the hi-so decadence of Thai and international people in Bangkok. It will be interesting to see what the next generation turns out like...

Well, its about time for that double espresso. The next time I write, I'll hopefully be back to my senses and exploring a national park somewhere.

PS. I have to gloat (since I am not doing enough of it yet but this is important) -- my Thai is better than ever. I was worried since I could hardly spit out complete sentences before the plane landed. I mean, how can you blame me when Hengjia and Mr. Jingles are my main conversation partners in Florida? "Sit!""Come here!" "What are you doing? Don't be bad!"

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

back in BKK

So I've been in Bangkok for two days. Completely in the lap of luxury at my cousins' gigantic house in the middle of the city. Its like a little paradise, and I have little desire or need to leave the house. My closest family members live here in this complex of three houses (3 nephews, 6 cousins, 4 aunts and uncles and my grandparents) so I just hang out with whoever happens by and have nice conversations. There's a cooks, housekeepers, drivers etc. Last night they had a couple of people come by to give everyone pedicures and manicures. Every morning I have an espresso, fruit and a Thai breakfast in front of the pool and the garden with the cool winter breeze flowing and birds chirping. Yesterday I got a 2 hour traditional Thai massage at a sheiky spa. And I'm back to Thai food. Really the best food in the world. No other type of food can pull off a completely different dish every day that is totally delicious. To top it off, there is this little tiny housekeeper here who sings traditional Thai songs while she works in the house wearing a straw hat. So lovely...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Saindo do Brasil

I'm back in Rio again. I have to say that the week that I spent in Tanguro (research field station outside of Canarana) was the best week that I had in Brazil this summer. There are a number of reasons for this. I love to be out on the field. Everyday I went to help a different researcher (all ecologists) to learn about their work and their methods. I was exposed to some of the best researchers around today - from Woods Hole Research Center. And, I had a fabulous time with a great group of young researchers. There was a great vibe there at the field station, and I finally felt like myself again after 2 months in Brazil. I also feel renewed and inspired again. I came here to Brazil with a list of objectives and I accomplished almost all of them: 1. Become proficient and functional in Portuguese, 2. Meet with research partners and identify collaborators, 3. Develop the basis for my research and research proposal. Its a great feeling to know that I still have it in me to do this.

Soy plantations outside of the Amazon Forest. Note dense forest to the left. More forest photos below. This day we were taking hemispheric photos during sunrise, before the sun was too high to disturb the quality of the photos. Later these photos would be analyzed to determine the area of forest canopy.

Michela and Paulo collecting soil samples to analyze for nitrogen content and thus, ability to sustain plants. This area is a test plot to determine the effect of fire on the forest. Michela was leading this study. She is a PhD student from Pará, Brazil who's Master's research (on the nutrient availability in forests) was outstanding enough to be published in Nature. Also, bands on the trees are used to measure the growth of the trees over time.

Shelby and Paulo. Paulo was my wonderful host here in Tanguro and colleague at UF. He works for IPAM and is studying the effect of fire on trees. In the photo we went out at 5.30 am to take readings of the LAI (Leaf Area Index-- more or less how much light is available to the leaves based on the density of the leaf canopy) in the forest. Shelby is studying the differences between water quality of soy plantations and forests. Paulo was training her how to use the equipment and program for LAI measurements.

Another day I went out with Frank-- a PhD students from Germany-- and his assistant Marcus. Frank's study is to measure if there is a difference in water quantity between soy plantations and forests. This day they were finishing measurement for the volume of a reservoir. The coordinator of the field station-- Oswaldo-- built them this little boat to use for their measurements, but the entire staff of the field station was waiting for them to finish so that they could use the boat to go fishing.

Here's Oswaldo (left) and Darison, both who have probably been featured numerous times in various articles and other such venues, since there is a lot of high profile research coming out of this field station.

Some photos from the field station. This is Paulo's house. Mike is in the chair-- director of IPAM who was visiting the projects for a month before heading back to Wood's Hole Research Center. The house is well shaded by mango trees and probably in the best condition of all of the houses at the center of the field station.

Me and Erika (undergrad from the Veterinary School doing a small project) in our first little house. We got moved out to the farther house, and we were happy to go since the farther house was also known as the "fun house". I was also very glad to leave the giant cockroach that was living in the bathroom.

The "fun house" where we... had lots of fun! Barbeques, dancing and such.

Erica, Marcus and I in our room.

Breakfast: (starting left) Michela, Frank, Erika, Me, Franca (Frank's visiting girlfriend), and Marcus.

Ema (rhea) with 16 babies. They lived around the field station.

Another popular species around the field station-- burrowing owl. Other animals spotted by the researchers in the past month include lots of armadillas and antas (tapir), a few anteaters and monkeys, and one jaguar and sloth.

This day we went to a reservoir to help Frank carry out some rain collecting equipment that had been left there a previous year by a previous researcher. Frank intended to use this equipment again after refurbishing them.

Erika and I with our snake guards-- I never saw a single snake BTW.

Part of my despertido crew at the bus station. I arrived at an empty bus station, but I left with a going away party of 12 people. (Left to right: Marcus, Frank, Franca, Erika)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Santa Catarina and Mato Grosso

I´ve travelled quite alot in the past week. I flew from Rio to Curitiba. There I spent a few hours waiting for the bus to São Bento. This was not lost time, because right outside of the bus station was a lovely old inside fresh market, also with restuarants and gourmet cheeses, wines, and oils.

Two hours to São Bento brought me to a tiny little town of about 6o,000 people, where most of the people are of German descent. A very charming little town that has hills, a chiming bell tower, no crime, and about 3 major roads. Vivi was here staying with her family. So I stayed with her at her mother´s apartment but also spent good time with her very nice sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew. One night they had a lovely dinner party with friends. The last day there in São Bento we all went together to see some of the neighboring towns. On the fouth day we drove to the coast to Florianopolis.

First we stopped in a little town to visit the relatives of Vivi´s father. They lived close to a big lake. Wonderful lunch!

In Florianopolis, we stayed with Vivi´s brother. He has a wonderful rented house above the lake! Que linda! We drove to the South of the island and visited some nice areas. Lots of great sea food here! I ate enough oysters to fill me for the next year... I need to come back here another time to enjoy the beaches and trails more. Somewhere along this 1 week with Vivi´s family and friends, the Portuguese clicked and conversations became understandable. This was good because after Florianopolis I was on my own...

I flew to Brasilia where I stayed one night to meet with someone, then took the 14 hour bus to Canarana. When I stepped off the bus in Canarana at 10 am in the morning, I questioned my decision to travel so far into the center of Brazil. The bus station emptied quickly, and I could literally hear the leaves rolling down the empty streets in this city center. The heat was so heavy that the enormously wide paved roads shimmered, and little tornados brewed across the street medians. All of the 4 people in the bus station stared at me as I went to a bus ticket window to get a return ticket (already I was thinking about returning). Three indigenous people had arrived and were negotiating their ticket with the vender, giggling and making jokes that the vender (and I) didn't understand. I held my head up high as I left the station, trying to look confident that I knew what I was doing. I immediately went to an internet shop, hoping for an email from my colleague at UF with instructions about what to do next, and finding nothing, lingered-- writing in my face book "Arika is in Canarana and is wondering a bit, what in the world I am doing here in the middle of no where."

So I asked the woman at the counter if she knew where the IPAM office was-- the organization that my friend works for. She said sure! And she knew my friend! So she called him, got his friend, and his friend came to pick me up to bring me to a hotel and help me find lunch. Then immediately we ran into Paulo at the hotel where he was looking for another friend. Then, suddenly I had lots of friends. His group of researchers and students had come into town for the weekend to get a break from the isolation of the field station. A mix of Americans, Germans, and Brazilians. Great people! I guess in a town of 7000 people its not too hard to find who you are looking for.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pão do Açucar

Pão do Açucar is that famous rock that you always see in those striking Rio de Janeiro photos of Corcovado and the bay. Wow! What a view from the top! Well worth the investment into those bondinhos. First we stayed on the beach and enjoyed beers, sun, and barbeque sausage. Then we climbed up 15 minutes up to the first rock and viewpoint. And later, took the bondinho up to the next rock to see the sunset. My second to last day in Rio.

View from the beach. Very beautiful photo day, even though the water was a bit too green for swimming.

View of Copacobana, where I have spent the majority of my stay in Rio. I've been complaining of the noise and air pollution, but I am going to miss it when I leave. I've spent two months here! Where did the time go!

On the way out

I am finally leaving Rio. I'm pretty happy about this, since big cities definitely get old after a bit. But I've been spending alot of quality time alone and its been good for me to get to know another type of Rio. This is a good city and I like it. Nice people, interesting street life, good restaurants, beautiful beaches, and great music! There is always alot to do if you have the motivation for it. I'm heading out for Pão do Açucar in just a moment. Going to go see what this famous view at the top is all about.

Here's the plan: Santa Catarina Aug 21-28. Brasilia 28-30. Canarana: 30 Aug-7 Sept. Then I leave from Rio for Florida on 8 Sept.

Here's a photo of me on the beach in Ipanema, catching the last vestiges of sun before it dropped behind the mountains:

Thursday, August 7, 2008


This is my last week in the language program. Last night I had another good night at Lapa, dancing samba (trying) and listening to a great samba band. I came home earlier than the other students, simply because after 2 am it starts to become like work for me. The next day, I had plans with a couple of the girls to go to Prainha. They didn’t show up, since they were shot from dancing all night. I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t want to go to Prainha by myself. But then suddenly, I got tired of having to wait for other people to do things with me. And I decide from then on to stop waiting for people. So I went to Copacabana Beach alone, and I met two Brazilians here-- because I was alone. This is important because I’ve found it difficult to cross the cultural (language!) boundaries. The first was a guy who asked me to watch his things while he went swimming. We chatted for about 10 minutes until he decided to continue his walk down the beach to look for friends. Later, I wanted to go swimming so I asked an older woman to watch my things. When I came back she pulled me into a lengthy conversation. She was really patient with me and spoke slowly and carefully, saying that she respected me for trying to learn Portuguese. She is retired and comes to the beach frequently. One really nice thing that she said: “I always come to the beach alone to sit here in front of the ocean. And I don’t do anything. I don’t even think. I only look at the ocean. The ocean has the power to wash your mind of worries and stress.”

It’s interesting that I used to always travel alone because I wanted to meet people and have adventures. Then somewhere along the way I got lazy and lost my independence. Maybe I’ll find it again here…

In any case, the course ends tomorrow and then I will be on my own here in Brazil. Plans are to go to Santa Catarina with Vivian to visit her family and then to Mato Grosso (Canarana) to get on the field for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

breakdancing, forest, and more beach

Another fabulous night at Lapa (last Thursday). Breakdancing showcase. Great crowd. The cultural events in Brazil are always top class.

Saturday we went to climb to the top of a peak in Floresta da Tijuca. Big group walk. No chances in seeing any animals in a group like that. Anyway, at least I got out into the forest.

Sunday, the surf bus didn´t come :( I missed my weekly dose of Prainha, so I may go crazy by the end of the week. Instead we went to a local beach next to Pão do Azucar. It was still nice, since it was local and we could interact (a little bit more with Brazilians). I have to stop being afraid that they don´t want to talk with me-- with my horrible Portuguese. I also finally found a nice crew to hang out with in my program: Jack, Melissa, and Abby are all really chill and we move at about the same pace.

Abby and I

I had my first real conversation in Portuguese with a random Brazilian today! I´ve been going to these lectures at the Museu do Indio. One guy I´ve been noticing because he didn´t look Brazilian-- I thought that he was European. So I went to ask him if he was Brazilian, and he was. I would have never had the courage to talk to him if I thought that he was Brazilian. We talked about research, travel in Brazil, field work, and indigenous people of Brazil. If there is one topic that I want to be good at talking about, its my research work.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Rio night life

Last night we went to Lapa-- the party part of town. I've been there twice before, but it always astonishing to see it. Its like a massive street party that is happening almost every night. With tons of bars and live music. Dancing in the street, drums, food etc. Mixture of black consciousness, hippies and tourists. Its remarkably tame though. No hassles from people. Men just say Hi and then leave. Every now and then there is a bad fight-- but I haven't seen one yet. Brazil appears to be either good or bad. No middle ground. People are either super nice, or super shady. Last night I am pretty sure that I saw some thieves fleeing the scene. You can tell bc they are running as fast as they can, dodging cars. The Brazilian way is to keep an eye out for trouble and leave as quickly as you can at the first hint. Anyway, we went there to see some African drumming. Great music and lots of people dancing. Today we are going to Prainha (beach) for fun in the sun again.

Yesterday we went to Corcovado. You know that big Christ statue that overlooks the city? Its a great view from up there.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lapa and botanical garden

I’ve survived one more week in the big city. Highlights of the past week were a night out in Lapa at Scenarium and today’s trip to the Botanical Garden. Somehow I manage to spend way too much time wandering about in the streets—that’s pretty much how I use up most of my time here in Rio outside of classes.

I went to Lapa the week before but we just wandered around in circles for 2 hours. This time we went with a few Brazilians to hear the band of one woman’s husband. Outstanding! The leading musician played the violin and the band ranged from samba to forro. The venue itself was beautiful. Like a restored old hotel lobby/saloon. It was filled with antiques and I was told that these antiques get changed frequently—either because they are rented or they get sold. The area is an antique district during the day.

Today I missed my program’s bus to Petropolis—a historic city in the mountains—like an idiot. So I stuck around town again and me and Patricia went to the Botanical Gardens. Its really a lovely place and maybe one of the nicest botanical gardens that I have been to—not because it has more diversity or infrastructure or anything. It just had a really good feeling and maybe I was really relieved to finally get away from all of the cars and the traffic. We even saw some wildlife (toucans, monkeys) which reminded me how close Rio is to some beautiful and rich forest.

View of the mountains and favela (?) outside of the gardens.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Rio de Janeiro

I am in a homestay about 4 blocks from the famous beach of Copacabana. Really amazing to be here in Rio and again, standing in a place with so much history and famous reputation. I went to Ipanema on the first day here— I have to admit that like many other extranheiros, I’ve romanticized it based on “The Girl from Ipanema”. The family that I am staying with is wonderful. Marisa and her daughter Jennifer (23 YO); Patricia is another student from Boulder, CO; and until recently, Kendra was here as a tourist as well. It is a lively, friendly and comfortable house to stay in. I was pretty nervous about it before arriving since it’s a bit weird committing to stay in a family’s house for 6 weeks, but Marisa loves to chatter and treats us all like her children so I felt comfortable immediately.

Marisa and I.

A typical day for me: Breakfast at 8am with coffee and ham and cheese sandwich and fruit. Arrive for class at 8.45am and study Portuguese in my class of about 10 students. Then home for lunch—big lunch! Then sometimes back again to the school for lectures—the cultural component of the course. If I am free for the afternoon, then I explore the wonders of Rio de Janeiro with one or two girls from my house.

Yesterday Kendra took me to Santa Theresa—a small bohemian and artistic community surrounded by favelas. We rode the Bonde there, which was the most sketchy form of transportation that I am ever encountered. Maybe it was because when we arrived it was full, so we rode on the outside of it. The concrete along the sides of the tracks was brushing my pant legs as we went over the overpasses of the highway. All I could imagine as a pant leg getting stuck on an outcropping and me tumbling down to the favelas below. Besides that it creaked along like an old rollercoaster and often seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown. The kids were killing me as well, because they liked running along the bonde- jumping on and off and dragging their feet along the road as we moved along. Santa Theresa was quaint, charming, beautiful and a breath of fresh air for me- since the busy-ness of Copacabana has been a bit difficult for me to get used to. We had a lovely caiparinha at a hillside restaurant with some small food before leaving on the rickety bonde back into the downtown of Rio.

Kendra at the house.

Santa Theresa


Friday, May 30, 2008


We were in Kauai (the garden island) for about 10 days. We went west first. Punihale beach. Off road. Stuck in the sand. Amazing beach. Hawaiian monk seals on the beach.
Hawaiian monk seal (actually Hengjia looks like that when he's sleeping...) 

We look happy here, but we were actually quite lost on the Naulolo Valley trail. Didn't even get back to our car until past dark. 

Then up to Kole'e State park for 2 nights. 10 mile hike to see the south side of the Na Pail coast line. Then, we met my friend from Gainesville-- Elisha. He was in a really nice bohemian town called Kapa'a. He took us to a nice campsite in pine groves, and we had a great BBQ. Then Mario and I went to a 3 day ethnobotany field course in Kauai. We camped outside by the small clean (!!) river. About 500 meters from the beach. Then we hiked the Na Pali trail. 22 miles round trip. Amazing trail!! Completely along the ocean cliffs, and stunning!! We walked the first leg (11 miles) in one day easy, and were hardly prepared for it. No water filter, so we drank out of waterfalls.
Lobster - Mario traded an apple and a couple of granola bars to a hippie for a few lobsters. 

Hands down most beautiful mountains I'd ever seen

Mario is like me, so we had a great adventure doing everything that we wanted to do in Hawaii: forests, waterfalls, waves, beach, hiking, camping, eating great food, exploring... Every day here was a great day for us. Mario left today for New Zealand. We will meet again in another country this year. Indonesia? Thailand? Malaysia? We will see...

I must admit that one month of transient living in a tent is quite enough for me, and I am ready to be back in my house with my dogs, garden, kitchen and hot shower. I'm leaving tonight for North Carolina for an Society for Economic Botany conference...